Clash or confluence? Huntington or Tagore?
What would Tagore have made — had he been alive — of Samuel P. Huntington’s best-selling clash-of-civilizations case? Would he have panned it as preposterous? Or refuted it?
Rabindranath Tagore would proudly describe his Bengali Hindu family as a “confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British”. [The Religion of Man; London: Allen and Unwin, 1930].
In The Religion of Man, originally delivered as Hibbert Lectures in Oxford’s Manchester College, we see where Tagore’s heart was. In the commingling of cultures.
And though his family was one of landed gentry, his writings were non-communitarian, non-sectarian and even fostered an understanding between western and eastern philosophies.
My own not-the-least preposterous hunch is that Tagore possibly would have, in retort to Huntington, come up with a “confluence-of-civilizations” case instead.
When our own cultural contradictions now seem like a cul-de-sac and Huntington seems so spot on, today there comes back to mind Tagore.
Sixty-two years since 1931, Huntington does us a great favour. He discovers for us that diversity of cultures is actually an irritant and a “dominating” source of all conflicts. Click here.
Huntington’s postulation flies in the face of what could be evidence of growing, global cultural convergence, spurred by enmeshed world markets.
However, a Kumar in Delhi munching through McDonalds’ fries brings him no closer to the US, than one hour of yoga brings a Kenneth in Detroit nearer to Indian culture. This is Huntington’s world vision; the global village as seen through Huntington’s wide eyes. Cultures aren’t actually closing in; rather, they are cutting us apart.
“This belief (of a unipolar culture) is arrogant, false, and dangerous,” he says. Click here
Given our increasing assertion of narrow identities, this belief may indeed seem false, but why should the idea of cultural convergence be so “dangerous”?
Huntington to the contrary, Tagore’s confluence will need to be the catchphrase and will be the catchphrase, if it is not already.
We are coming together in ways good and bad. When the so-called swine flu sets off in Mexico, it claims lives in Pune. When a great pop icon like Michael Jackson dies in his LA home, viewership of Indian news channels goes up. When Indian elections unfold, the world watches keenly. As they ride out a recession, Western countries scan Chinese and Indian economies as closely as they do their own.
Unfortunately, our coasting towards co-existence and cooperation goes unnoticed because hectoring news anchors accentuate conflict and clashes more. But business and need for employment and of employers will ultimately break barriers.
If Muslims were so hooked to their cultural moorings, they would not have migrated to Europe. They are there because many European countries, including the UK, opened their doors in the first place, to have enough professionals. Yet, we have a Western civilization, a Hindu civilization and a Muslim civilization, each looking one another with a disdainful eye.
Huntington made his case with clear-eyed realism, it seems, but Tagore with his formidable intellect and multi-cultural orientation would have shred him to flinders.
Tagore was presently taking a team to a nearby forest and the carriage passed by the post office in Shantiniketan, when the postman stopped to hand him a cablegram from his London publisher.
It stated he had won the prize. Slowly, as the news sank, and day rolled into night, Tagore slipped into a profound thought. “…and I asked myself the question what the reason could be of my poems being accepted and honoured by the West – in spite of my belonging to a different race, parted and separated by seas and mountains from the children of the West. And I can assure you it was not with a feeling of exultation but with a searching of the heart that I questioned myself, and I felt humble at that moment.” [From his speech in Stockholm in 1921, regarded as the Nobel acceptance speech since Tagore could not attend the prize ceremony in 1913.]
Tagore resisted cultural divisiveness and it was his unflinching belief that cultures converge to benefit humans. Tagore and his school wanted an end to “race egotism”.
Now our language has been patented by the stupid economy. Inclusiveness is mostly about a farmer in Bihar’s Motihari being able to have the same amenities as someone in Mumbai, without feeling a thing for each other.
The poor villager must now be prepared to face a life as lived in a big city along with its nasty concomitants — traffic snarls, three-day-old brinjals kept alive in supermarket cold chains, day-long power cuts and night-long work shifts. And yes, do not forget the oppressive humidity.
Cultural inclusiveness is now so much wastage of time. You see, language becomes heartless when Free Market is the grammarian. I am not against Free Market; I am against burdening Free Markets beyond, well, the markets.
For Tagore, no culture was threatening, no custom superior and no traditions inferior. This, from a letter Tagore wrote to a friend:
“Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine. Therefore it hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the West in my country with the clamour that Western education can only injure us.”
Tagore’s India was to be shaped by every culture drawn from every land. There was not to be a Hindu culture looking at Muslim culture with suspicion and vice-versa, or a Western culture being reduced to a much-despised Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, greed, political and economic, has caused our communities to emphasize their narrow identities.
In contrast, when one culture soaks another, it weeds threat out with the force of a winnowing wind. That’s what happened when Bangladesh was formed.
A predominantly Muslim country did not hesitate in adopting Tagore’s ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ as its national anthem. That’s the power of cultural communion. Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, was proficient in Arabic and Persian and Rabindranath himself had a great understanding of Islam, aside from Sanskrit and holy Hindu texts.
So, clash or convergence, you tell me?
In present-day Bangladesh, obsessing Muslim identity has become the legitimizing political discourse for that country’s Jamaat-e-Islami. ‘Talk-religion, legitimize-yourself’ is a good way to cut corners in politics. You become instantly attractive.
In India, Hindu-ising nationalists and communally assertive Muslims have been no different. One is fighting a war to win back hearts and minds “sold out” to alien culture; the other always on guard against what it sees as a threat to its existence. But, the hardliners, Hindus and Muslims, hardly differ. They are two sides of a coin. They have a great deal in common. Above all, they both have a hard, Hard Line. They have the common ideology of isolationism.
Worse, the task of cooling matters must now be best left to Free Market. That is what happens when there are many more RSS shakhas and madrassahs than there are Shantiniketans. That is what happens. A Jain-only housing complex only produces a Muslim-only dwelling ghetto.
Inclusiveness? The word has been shorn of all values that its predecessor had. It now also means the same education for a Motihari’ite and Mumbaikar. As we drank from Free Market, our senses numbed, and we became like patients etherized on the table.
We did not even realize when the sacred duty of imparting knowledge turned into a money-spinning business.
Travelling through central Bihar recently, on an assignment to cover the drought, I came across, just ahead of Magadh University near Bodh Gaya, the Takshila School. Not an offshoot of the ancient centre of learning but of the Delhi Public School chain. When inclusive education means franchise schools, we must suspect a marked deviation in quality.
In his Stockholm speech, Tagore said he would put the prize money into his university. “You know the traditions of our country are never to accept any material fees from students in return to the teaching, because we consider in India that he who has the knowledge has the responsibility to impart it to the students.” This is now a version of inclusive education past its sell-by date.
Tagore, in that speech, thanked God for giving him the opportunity to be the “instrument to bring together, to unite the hearts of the East and West”. Huntington, on other hand, has no such noble desires. His hard-nose prescription: “With alien civilizations the West must be accommodating if possible, but confrontational if necessary.”
So Huntington or Tagore, you tell me?
India is there to unite all human races, Tagore said. He was aware that differences are to be buried sooner than later. “I do not think it is in the spirit of India to reject anything, reject any race, reject any culture.”
Tagore, Aldous Huxley had said, “was at once a great idealist and a practical man of actions”. So, Tagore had every inkling of where India’s problem lay.
“Our problem is the race problem which is the problem of all Humanity.” We have Dravidians, we have Muslims and Hindus, he said. Therefore, he argued no “superficial bond” of “political unity” would work. India’s sons had to go deeper into the “spirit of man” and see “all beings as himself”. “We are not like fighting beasts,” Tagore exclaimed.
In that prescient speech, he diagnosed the disease. It is the “self” that is causing seclusion, sufferings and political and commercial rivalry. But why Tagore when we have Huntington? The latter is more attractive because he is a nativist nationalist. Huntington may eschew meaningless, slick politically correct talk to give us the best platform to study the post-Cold War world, but why get sold out on his hysteria when we have our own noble models?
Not just Tagore, even less iconic figures like Kshiti Mohan Sen would have demolished Huntington’s clash-of-civilisations. Sen, in Bharate Hindu Mushalmaner Jukto Sadhana (The Common Cause of India’s Hindus and Muslims), dwelled conclusively on the cultural associations between the two communities.
Cultures divide when they don’t come together. When they do, they bring the “distant near” and “make a stranger a brother”. Not my words, but Tagore’s. Accepting the Nobel, Tagore’s message to the Nobel Banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm, December 10, 1913, was read out by Mr. Clive, British Chargé d’Affaires:
“I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother.”
So you tell me, should we be aliens or brothers?