Where the Mind Is Without Fear (Gitanjali 35)

by Rabindranath Tagore
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Where the Mind Is Without Fear (Gitanjali 35) Summary

Where the Mind Is Without Fear” is a poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, first published in the 1910 collection Gītāñjali.
  • Written in India during the rule of the British Raj, the poem yearns for freedom and unity and finds the responsibility for deliverance in every citizen.
  • The poem is a lovingly made appeal, seeking to heal deep-seated national wounds through a spiritual and political journey to postcolonial liberty and ideological harmony.

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Last Updated on July 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140

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Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Where the Mind Is Without Fear,” first published in the 1910 collection Gītāñjali, faithfully reflects the Bengali poet’s tumultuous national context. Written in India during the rule of the British Raj, the poem yearns for freedom and unity and finds the responsibility for deliverance in every citizen. It is a lovingly made appeal, seeking to heal deep-seated national wounds through a spiritual and political journey to postcolonial liberty and ideological harmony.

Summary

The poem is composed of a single sentence fragmented across eight lines and linked by semicolons. In line 1, the speaker begins to flesh out their idea of freedom, beginning to build a hypothetical image of how it might look. In their vision, independence is not simply an abstract concept loosely applied to a nation as a whole; indeed, it exists at a smaller level, present in the minds and bodies of all citizens. To occupy such a nation would be to live “without fear” of violence or conflict. It would allow citizens to keep their heads “held high,” for their lives are dignified and just. In this vision, the nation would be at peace with itself and the world, and citizens would no longer bear the burden of colonial oppression or ideological division.

Line 2 continues to describe the world as the speaker imagines it. Not only are the nation and its inhabitants free from fear and imbued with a new dignity, but they also live in a place where “knowledge is free.” A mark of a truly free nation is the ability of its citizens to better themselves and their environment through education. Knowledge is empowerment; when arbitrary colonial restrictions or discriminatory boundaries restrict access to this essential tool, the possibility for national progress and individual self-actualization stalls completely.

Lines 1 and 2 focus on abstract, individually oriented ideals; in line 3, however, the speaker turns their attention to a broader scale. They mourn the current state of a world “broken up into fragments” and argue that this disjointed existence is the fault of “narrow domestic walls.” This criticism speaks to the rapid globalization of the time in which Tagore was writing, but it also points to the older colonial order that had long influenced India. The nation forcibly bore the yoke of British imperialism, a powerful force that exacerbated preexisting fractures and restricted the potential for national unification.

“Narrow domestic walls” also refers to India’s internal relations, drawing on the social burdens of strict caste boundaries, religious differences, and ethnolinguistic conflicts. Regardless of interpretation—calling on either global hierarchies or cracks within Indian identity—this line indicates yet another necessary feature of the desired world (and nation) the speaker imagines. Freedom stems from unity and connection across many forms of division and is incompatible with traditional boundaries and conventional structures. The first three lines build a black-and-white contrast between reality and desire. The speaker imagines these hypotheticals in the world they currently inhabit; they construct a world “without fear” and without “narrow domestic walls” precisely because they know how these structures currently affect them, their neighbors, their nation, and their world.

Line 4 transitions away from this criticism to identify the tools and methods which may herald this change. The speaker desires honest authenticity and searches for a world that speaks from “the depth of truth.” As a means of attaining change and progress, “truth” embodies the need for open communication in interactions between people and power structures. If interactions at the personal, national, and international levels were truthful and honest, perhaps they would result in more fruitful, positive conversations.

The speaker continues their instructions in line 5: “Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.” This line indicates the broader goal of this effort while also highlighting its difficulty. The “tireless striving” of each individual is the sole means of attaining this utopian world. It is an exhausting, unending process that necessitates willing, unyielding work; to surpass the confines of the speaker’s condemnable, oppressive reality requires every person to seek a fair, equal, and “perfect” India—and a “perfect” world.

Line 6 is as much a suggestion as it is a warning, recognizing the dangers of losing the “clear stream of reason” in the “dreary desert sand of dead habit.” Again, the speaker decries the “dead habit” that has evolved into the “dreary desert” of their circumstance. They juxtapose this tragic reality with the “clear stream” of progress, a fast-flowing, untainted natural marvel buoyed by rational thought and, as lines 4 and 5 indicate, “truth” and “tireless striving.” If this “stream” becomes bogged down in the “desert” and mired in the inequalities and divisions of the present, the ideal future can never be reached. Achieving national unity and Indian solidarity requires the “stream” to cut cleanly through the dry detritus of the past.

The seventh line acknowledges the specific audience to whom the poem—and its hopeful longing—is directed. Speaking to an as-yet-unnamed “thee,” line 7 addresses this figure with reverence and asks for guidance and leadership. Capable of directing the minds of human beings into “ever-widening thought and action,” the figure the speaker calls upon is spiritually coded, implying a powerful divinity with the ability to “le[a]d forward” minds and nations. The previous six lines retroactively take on a religious connotation, and the image of this “perfect” world becomes more than just an imagined what-if. Instead, the hypothetical framing of each line becomes a request that calls for divine assistance in bringing this vision to fruition. Too, line 7 frames change as innately tied to thinking and acting: only the shared labor of minds and bodies seeking progress can reconcile division.

The poem’s final line presents a new turn, as the speaker offers a desperate prayer: “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” Their plea is directed to “my Father” and links the poem’s image of freedom with “heaven.” Line 8 evokes divinity as a direct figure but also speaks to the divine nature of the individual. While the speaker asks that their “country awake” “into that heaven of freedom,” it is not an idle wish, nor is it a request made passively. The first seven lines make clear that this “heaven” cannot be easily attained; the country and its citizens cannot simply awake to a state of perfection. No, this requires every individual citizen to awaken and strive for the divinity and “perfection” that freedom would bring. The speaker seeks to loosen the bonds of division—in whichever interpretation or form it may appear—to free their nation. This futuristic vision is contingent on the awakening of their countrymen into, as line 7 indicates, “ever-widening thought and action.” Shedding the fetters of individual, national, and international division is the sole means by which this united paradise can be attained, a feat perhaps only God is capable of performing.

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Themes