tagore-rabindranath Towards a Vocabulary and an Aesthetic of Nationalism- III
Towards a Vocabulary and an Aesthetic of Nationalism- III

It can be easily observed that the more advanced in age and richer in experience a society, the more close-knit and well-defined its institutions are, the more the number of considerations that its individuals must take into account before making a choice, and the more ordered its life is.

A society can hope to function and thrive only if it succeeds in balancing two apparently conflicting elements within its body: freedom and order. Life is instilled into the society by the values it adheres to; eventually these values define its character and animate the same. Freedom and order are two values which are common to all civilized societies that are doing even remotely well. As such, these two cannot characterize a particular society – cannot help us distinguish one society from another. Some of the values that make societies from different parts of the world distinct are:

  • Goodness: What it considers to be good (and, consequently, what it considers to be bad)
  • Decency: What it considers to be moral, tolerable and proper; i.e. decent
  • Beauty: What it considers beautiful

We could go on adding some more values to this list, but it can be shown that those values would just be attendant upon either one of the three listed above or some combination of them. E.g. filial piety, i.e. the value attached to respecting one’s parents, elders and ancestors can essentially be reduced to the three values listed above: it is a decent thing to respect one’s parents, elders and ancestors, for it is good; and such conduct brings much good because it adds grace and beauty to one’s dealings with their relations – and indeed to one’s life. Likewise, most other values can be shown to be derivable from goodness, decency and beauty. Underlying all three, there is a common theme which makes them valuable things – makes virtues of them – and that common underlying theme is meaning. Societies differ since different societies disagree with each other in the details and the extents to which they consider conducts, manners and interactions to be good, decent and beautiful. Hence we can rely upon values like goodness, decency, and beauty to characterize a specific society.

What then can be said about freedom and order?

Freedom and order are overarching values that must precede every other value in order to prepare the ground for those other values to take root and, if possible, to thrive eventually. These are the two indispensable ingredients for creating any society; the cornerstones. Consequently, it would be more accurate to designate them as meta-values – the ‘mother values’ that spawn all the other values cherished in a society. This should not indicate that there aren’t any other higher order entities which could be the generator of these two, the very source of freedom and order. But our focus is currently on the complex relationship shared by freedom and order and what role nationalism can possibly play in defining the contours of such a relationship.

What is freedom?

Is it the ability to choose a course of action, without being conditioned by anything that could possibly influence such a choice? Such a definition, aiming for perfection, seems too idealistic and highly improbable – as long as we are dealing with questions of freedom in the context of the human society. Or is it merely the other side of the coin that is power – absolute power – to do whatever one wills? Is power contingent upon freedom, or is it the other way round – that it is freedom which is contingent upon power? Do they exist as separate entities in the conceptual and in the material planes, independent of each other, or are they one and the same?

To be free is to feel unburdened – that is another of the possible definitions of freedom. Conditioning of any kind, irrespective of who or what causes it, inevitably brings in an element of feeling on its heels. We feel burdened if there are conditions levied upon us; we feel challenged if we are aware of the limitations that are attached to the possibilities that our actions are capable of manifesting. Sometimes it depresses us, the knowledge of our limitedness and our conditioning. Sometimes the depression fully takes over, and as a result we end up devoid of hope. Feeling hopeful – note that this too is a feeling, a matter of the heart rather than of the brain – is almost invariably connected to our knowledge of the lack of limitations or to the lack of knowledge of existing limitations. This is the reason why simpler people are generally more hopeful in their outlook than are the intellectuals.

Feeling burdened, or challenged, or depressed – that is, somehow not at ease – is the symptom of conditioning. The human spirit pines for a state – however idealistically – which will make it feel unburdened. This is the root of all spiritual longing: the soul longs for freedom from any and all conditioning, so that it can take off from the ground of mundane and conditioned reality and soar higher and higher until it may reach that state which is free from those conditionings – in other words, a state which is divine. Indeed the conception of the divine is one of absolute power and absolute freedom, which brings us back to the question: are freedom and power two separate entities, or are they two sides of the same coin?

Freedom is weakness as long as freedom is granted to such an individual/society which is uninitiated into the spiritual discipline. Without any clue about the methods of subduing the individual or collective capacity for evil, freedom becomes a curse in the hands of such people. It turns into an instrument of destruction; destroying the balance between the human world and the natural world, destroying the environment as well as the mental capacity of humankind to perceive ever higher levels of reality. Hence, granting absolute freedom through all sorts of state-sanctioned rights – either to individuals or to a society lacking in a systematic exposure to spiritual disciplines like yoga – is counterproductive in the ultimate analysis.

The same freedom becomes an inexhaustible source of power – tremendous power – if it is granted to the individual who has conquered over herself, or to the society which has been organized optimally; which is to say that the organization of the social order is such that it is done “with a view to the attainment of the fruit of life [i.e. moksha or absolute liberation from all physical, mental and intellectual conditionings]; and this organization [is] designed, not for the advantage of a single class, but…to take from each according to his capacity, and to give to each according to his needs.” (Coomaraswamy 1915) But the attainment of such freedom is difficult; for two reasons:

One, because such freedom is earned by hard work and not granted from above by the state or any government or any church – that is, such freedom is attained not from any higher and more powerful agency positioned up above, its movement is not top-down, rather it rises from down below, in the bottom-up fashion, from the lowest material plane of consciousness in each individual and up to the highest Superconscious plane in which every individual realizes the connectedness of all things, “in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom” (Coomaraswamy 1915). And two, because attainment of such freedom requires both the individual and the society to go through rigorous, and sometimes gruelling, self-controlling discipline. If the essence of such discipline is to be captured in a single word, that would be sacrifice. It is through the exercise of such self-restraining, self-sacrificing discipline that the individual and society become harmoniously complimentary for each other, and attain swarāja, i.e. sovereignty over one’s own self – the power of controlling itself in all situations, the power of controlling its very destiny.

Human society is a complex entity. It has flourished, evolved and survived differently in different locations on the planet. Geography and the great cycles of history (human history as well as natural history) have been the two principal factors conditioning its shaping. It can be easily observed that the more advanced in age and richer in experience a society, the more close-knit and well-defined its institutions are, the more the number of considerations that its individuals must take into account before making a choice, and the more ordered its life is. But does that necessarily imply lesser freedom for the individual, and for the society as a whole? A comparison of the degree of freedom enjoyed by an individual in the Indian society, which is a very old society, with the same enjoyed by an individual in the American society, a rather young one at that, will perhaps shed some light on this. During his lecturing tour in the USA in 1917, Tagore had attempted such a comparison of these two societies, viz. the Indian and the American, as well as the civilizations which have fostered them, i.e. the Indic and the Western civilizations respectively. In one of his lectures, delivered mainly before the members of the American intelligentsia, Tagore had noted:

“This problem of race unity which we have been trying to solve for so many years has likewise to be faced by you here in America. Many people in this country ask me what is happening as to the caste distinctions in India. But when this question is asked me, it is usually done with a superior air. And I feel tempted to put the same question to our American critics with a slight modification, “What have you done with the Red Indian and the Negro?” For you have not got over your attitude of caste toward them. You have used violent methods to keep aloof from other races, but until you have solved the question here in America, you have no right to question India.” (Tagore 1918)

Here Tagore foregrounds the vast differences between the Indic and the American civilizations in terms of their age and the consequent lived experience that they have each gathered through the years of their (continued) existence. He acknowledges the common problem that these two civilizations and their societies have faced throughout their history; and he also points out the relatively bewildered, clueless state which the American society (of the early twentieth century, the backdrop against which these words were spoken) has found itself in. This cluelessness, Tagore implicitly posits, is highlighted by the question that the Americans he had the chance of interacting with had put to him rather bluntly, and, as he points out, “with a superior air”: “What is happening as to the caste distinctions in India?” Tagore forthrightly reminds the American, who is apparently very much concerned with the caste problem in India, that “violent methods” have been applied on the Native Americans and African Americans with an objective to subdue these races; and that, as a consequence, the fledgling American civilization with its rather inexperienced society had not yet devoted as much thought and effort as the Indic civilization had been doing, for many centuries now, to attain a carefully organized – optimally organized – society, which holds within itself the scope for individuals of all inclinations and of all degrees of ability to prosper and attain, as Coomaraswamy had put it, “the fruit of life”. Such an ordered society has since time immemorial provided each individual member of the Indic civilization the chance to own a path, a way of life – which is both sacred and secular – from among the many systematic methods, that best fits her character and her proclivities. This has in turn provided the individual a very valuable freedom from economic insecurity and from a lack of purpose and orientation – both of which add greatly to the meaning in one’s life. To that end, the Hindu nation had succeeded in achieving a functional balance between freedom and order.


Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1915): “What Has India Contributed to Human Welfare?”; Athenæum, London.

Tagore, Rabindranath (1918): “Nationalism in India”: Nationalism, Macmillan and co., London.

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