Where the Mind Is Without Fear (Gitanjali 35)

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

The three main themes in “Where the Mind Is Without Fear” (Gitanjali 35) are nationalism and colonialism, the consequences of convention, and religion and rationalism.

  • Nationalism and colonialism: The poem was written during the era of British colonialism and refers to the Indian nationalist movement.
  • The consequences of convention: The speaker advocates for progress and change, warning against the dangers of the “dreary desert of dead habit.”
  • Religion and rationalism: The speaker mentions both “the clear stream of reason” and a divine “Father” whom he prays will help his nation “awake.”

Themes

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Last Updated on July 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106

Nationalism and Colonialism

“Where the Mind Is Without Fear” was published in 1910, over thirty years before the post–World War II decolonization boom and the 1947 achievement of Indian independence. Unfortunately, Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941—just six years shy of seeing his dreams come to fruition. By 1757, the British East India Company ruled India, an era that would last until 1858, when the British crown instated the British Raj. Directly ruled by the British monarch, the Raj period tried to integrate Indian voices into the imperial government, a method intended to invite unity through collaboration but that only resulted in heightened tensions between the imperial government and its unwilling subjects. Tagore’s life and work speak to this context, steeped in a long legacy of revolt and unrest. Authorial context and the poem’s ambiguous subtext lead to a natural conclusion, finding the speaker’s calls for their country to “awake” as an overt reference to Indian nationalism.

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The indignities of colonial rule are implied from the start. As the speaker outlines their view of an ideal, free world, the traits and features they focus on are placed in stark contrast with their reality. The first line dreams of minds “without fear” and heads “held high,” a desire which implies that such a world does not yet exist for them. Such traits are seemingly simple requests, but within a system of governance structured around strictly racialized assessments of worth and value, these simple dignities are inaccessible. Knowledge is not “free,” so self-actualization and growth are essentially impossible.

The poet’s undefined personhood and nationality embody colonial trends, depicting a restrictive life in which simple human dignities are neither permitted nor possible. Too, the sense of nationalism the speaker creates is simple, rooted in the desire for reason and righteousness. Indeed, the speaker builds an independence movement that references neither colonialism nor any other specific division (caste, race, religion, ethnicity, or language) but that instead draws on an obscured sense of all divisions, healing the nation by healing the individual and, therefore, the world.

The Consequences of Convention

Given the unspecified coding of the speaker’s context, the poem’s call for freedom and unity is easily extended beyond the specific context of its author. Demanding “truth” and “perfection” untainted by “fragmentation,” the worldview espoused is one of progress and change, developing a world free of conflict, division, and violence. However, the speaker notes that the realization of such a world is inhibited by a singular factor: “the dreary desert of dead habit.”

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The speaker’s view of a better world is posed in direct contrast to their contemporary life and the divisive “habits” that stifle progress and perpetuate suffering. Division and “fragmentation”—be it along colonial, national, demographic, or interpersonal lines—are caused by consistency. The preservation of convention feels comfortable and familiar. It builds a wall of hesitancy and unwillingness, born of fear of the unknown, which inhibits the progress that can bring about a kinder, more peaceful world. The speaker condemns the dry, choking “desert” of contemporary life and the “dead habits” that kill progress and stall change in its tracks.

Religion and Rationalism

The speaker’s desire for unity and freedom is dualistically constructed—at first, they call for “tireless striving” and “ever-widening thought and action” from the individual and the nation, a shared effort that must inevitably lead to their imagined end. The poem’s first six lines describe the speaker’s vision and necessary methodology. This imagined “life that could be” and the actions it would take to bring it about are seemingly mundane pursuits, asking citizens to think intentionally and take action in the political realm. It appears that earnest effort is the sole tool to achieve sociocultural change.

Line 7’s call to “thee” evokes a divine designer capable of untold influence and disrupts the directive of the first six lines. Asking “my Father” to lead their nation and their countrymen to a “heaven of freedom,” the speaker shifts the realm of action from the mundane to the spiritual. In doing so, the imagined world is no longer the result of concerted, shared effort but instead the result of divine interference.

The “clear stream of reason” and the heavenly “Father” create a divide between the action the speaker demands. While the speaker asks their countrymen to “tirelessly strive” and frames change as an active effort requiring the involved hearts and minds of all, the speaker also prays to a divine being, pleading: “let my country awake.” The phrasing is telling—the construction of “let” implies passivity and dependency. It is as if “awakening” is contingent on a divine allowance, and this imagined national ideal is not possible without higher influence.

Dividing the realms of rational action and religious performance adds tension to the poem. It implies that such heights of freedom cannot be attained without the influence of both reason and spirituality. The speaker’s plea to God softens the decisive vision of the previous lines. In doing so, the speaker loses agency, and the excitement for change shifts, no longer something attained through organized action but something hoped for and prayed over. Ending with this call for divine assistance tempers the driving potential of the poem and acknowledges the difficulty of realizing this dream of unity and peace among human beings in the bleak reality of the mortal realm.

Spirituality and Embodiment

“Where the Mind Is Without Fear” extends the concept of “awakening”—the speaker’s nation and countrymen becoming aware of disunity and striving for change—to the body. It ties spiritual enlightenment to the thoughts and actions of individuals. In the speaker’s terms, it is as if the nation is directly connected to the human forms which compose it. Progress results from a united set of arms straining for “perfection,” a community of souls oriented around “ever-widening thought and action.”

The speaker envisions a world devoid of conflict, and the power to achieve this vision is housed inside individual bodies. Labor—physical, emotional, spiritual, and analytical—is the key to shaping the world as the speaker sees fit. “Striving” for a national sensibility that fights against colonial oppression and demographically driven discrimination, the speaker demands that their countrymen “awake” into a state of enlightened knowledge that permits them to pursue the world the poem imagines. It is an exhausting prospect that necessitates collective action across all realms of being. The physicality of “tireless” arms, the spiritual call to “my Father,” the awareness to reject “dead habit”—these laborious performances span the scope of human performance, housing the landscape of the nation within the human bodies that direct it.

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