culture, history, literature

Rabindranath Tagore. The Nation is an anesthetic.

I read an essay by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali literary giant who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Tagore was the first non-Westerner to win the Nobel Prize. The British conferred a knighthood on its colonial subject, but Tagore later returned the title in protest at the actions of the British Empire.

The essay was ‘Nationalism’, published in 1917. It is a scathing denunciation of the war of Western nations who controlled empires that raged in Europe at that time. Tagore wrote:

“the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic program of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, – in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out.”

Tagore, Nationalism

This essay spoke to today’s situation in Ukraine where the new Nationalism of the West has been unleashed in the last American Crusade.

“The veil has been raised, and in this frightful War the West has stood face to face with her own creation, to which she had offered her soul. She must know what it truly is.

She had never let herself suspect what slow decay and decomposition were secretly going on in her moral nature, which often broke out in doctrines of skepticism, but still oftener and in still more dangerously subtle manner showed itself in her unconsciousness of the mutilation and insult that she had been inflicting upon a vast part of the world. Now she must know the truth nearer home.”


To evade the monster, the people of the world, Tagore thought would need to take refuge in individuality, culture and the wisdom traditions of the world. He spurned narrow patriotic nationalism, and found gratitude in all the expressions of human culture.

“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 otehr countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine. Therfore 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, quoted Sen, The Argumentative Indian, p. 119

It is a profound insight for today, when some in the declining West seek a true dignified life of the mind after Western democracy.

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