Rabindranath Tagore

I still remember the very moment, one afternoon, when I .suddenly saw in the sky.. .an exuberance of deep, dark clouds lavishing rich, cool shadows on the atmosphere. The marvel of it.. .gave me a joy which was freedom, the freedom we feel in the love of our friend.1

Rabindranath Tagore was a great poet and profound thinker. He was born in Calcutta on 6 May 1861. He belonged to a family which is the most gifted in Bengal in the realm of religion, philosophy, literature, music and painting. Although he was not educated in any college or university, he was clearly a man of learning. He had his own original ideas about education which led him to establish an educational institution at Shantiniketan in December 1901 following the model of the forest hermitages of ancient India. He named it Viswa Bharati with the intention of re-opening the channel of communication between the East and the West. He was a versatile genius. There is no aspect of literature—poetry, short story, novel, drama—which he has not enriched. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1913 in recognition of his outstanding literary activities. Equally important are his innumerable essays and many books which reveal his deep socio-political as well as spiritual commitments. He was also a most original composer of music. He travelled extensively in different countries of the world, and was a successful mediator between Western and Eastern cultures. He died on 7 August 1941.

Crucially, Tagore's poems, short stories and novels, as well as books and essays, exhibit his love and concern for nature, for land, sea, air, plants and animals that constitute the 'environment' around us. His concern or thinking about the environment is not, however, activated by any pragmatic or utilitarian consideration. Rather it grows on a different— non-utilitarian—ground. And here we may profitably utilize his idea of 'surplus'. The surplus in man which, according to Tagore, constitutes his spiritual make up, overflows pragmatic need, the stage of pure utility, and 'extends beyond the reservation plots of our daily life'.2 This surplus indicates an aspect of human being, 'a fund of emotional energy' which is 'useless' or 'superfluous' in the sense that it is not regulated by self-interest, by any moral or other practical ends. Thus the point is that we no doubt have one side which is governed by pragmatic necessity, but parallel to it we have also another side—a spiritual one—which requires fulfilment of our creative urge, our capacity to appreciate and enjoy. And our life cannot be meaningful in the strict sense of the term by pragmatic fulfilment alone, without this spiritual fulfilment. This is what Tagore wants to convey by his notion of 'surplus'.

This insistence on surplus gives us the clue as to why the environment matters to Rabindranath; why he would want to see it defended against any unnecessary tampering . Nature is dear to him, since with all its enthralling beauty it can evoke our appreciation, and thus fulfil the demand of the surplus in us. To put it in a different way, he entertains nature in terms of the aesthetic appreciation or delight that it prompts. 'Would they not attract me from all sides—/These trees, creepers, rivers, mountains and woods/ The deep blue eternal sky?'3 This explains clearly why natural environment with its 'special harmony of lines, colours and life and movement' should be preserved.4 It should be preserved, for it gives us aesthetic joy, and thereby a bond of love is established between it and us.

But this defence of the environment on aesthetic ground will not enjoy the approval of all ecologists even in India. Some will condemn it as an anthropocentric denial of the intrinsic value of nature. Let us ponder how far it is fair to bring this charge against Rabindranath. Strictly speaking, the use of the words 'intrinsic' and 'anthropocentric' is infected by ambiguity: 'An object X has intrinsic value' may be understood in at least two senses:

1 'X has intrinsic value' may be understood to mean that 'X has noninstrumental value', i.e. the value of X does not consist in its being a means to some end. So 'X has intrinsic value' will denote that X is an end-in-itself. This is the sense in which many environmentalists consider the value of nature. Hence it will be wrong, in their opinion, to view nature only as instrument for serving some end of man. That would be anthropocentric imperialism. I call this anthropocentrism in the first sense.

2 'X has intrinsic value' refers to what may be designated as 'objective' value. An objective value is that which X possesses independently of any human evaluation. The denial of objective value in this sense will amount to what I call anthropocentrism in the second sense.

The view of Rabindranath indeed has an anthropocentric flavour at least in the second sense, since he thinks that no account of value can be isolated from all relations to human being. That is why he observes, 'What we call nature is what is revealed to man as nature.'5 Or, 'Reality is...[that] by which we are affected, that which we express.'6 Evidently Rabindranath wants to emphasize that even to say that nature has value must involve some reference to man, to his being affected by it. There is nothing wrong in highlighting this human reference. It does not mean that values are conferred on things by man. What it implies is the crucial truth that even if, like the ecologists, we grant values to nature on account of the qualities it has, this has no real sense or bearing unless we are able to understand 'why something with those qualities should matter to us, how it might fit into the orbit of our concerns'.7

But to hold that Rabindranath takes an anthropocentric attitude in the second sense to nature (which sounds quite reasonable) is not to hold that he is inclined towards anthropocentrism in the first sense, towards the stronger claim that nature is only a means for satisfying human purpose. Rabindranath's point that value presupposes human evaluation is only a 'formal' one about how value is to be understood; but from this does not follow the stronger claim, which is a 'substantial' one about what makes something valuable.8

That Tagore would not endorse any instrumentalism is strengthened by another consideration of his when, like Kant, he employs, as already suggested, the concept of 'disinterestedness'. He talks about aesthetic enjoyment—'the enjoyment which is disinterested'.9 The disinterestedness of aesthetic contemplation can be made explicit by the idea of an 'alternative world'.10 The same forest which is the source of one's livelihood can open a different horizon—an alternative world—which is unconnected with any question of livelihood, with any pragmatic concern or interest. Then the smell of grass, the graceful movement of boughs of trees, the sweet melody of birdsongs begin to move us in a new way. Thus emerges the aesthetic moment when the forest is imaginatively explored and when any thought of using it for our interest or personal benefit becomes completely redundant.

This comes out more clearly from Tagore's insistence, as indicated in the opening quotation, on the relation of love we enter into with nature in our aesthetic contemplation of it. Inspired by the teachings of the Upanishads, he holds that when I love anyone, I cannot think of seeing my beloved in the light of any usefulness. On the contrary, I find in my beloved an extension of my own being which gives me the feeling of real freedom. It is this relation of love or of heart that we have with nature in our aesthetic experience of it. Hence this relation must be 'superfluous', i.e. beyond the bounds of any interest or satisfaction of practical purpose. 'There is an element of [the] superfluous in our heart's relation with the world.'11

Incidentally, but very crucially, this disinterestedness will also enable Rabindranath to meet the challenge often made by ecologists that aesthetic appreciation, since it admits of variations, cannot be effectively utilized as the ground for environmental preservation. Even if we concede that aesthetic appreciation is variable, there is yet a very good sense of it that we can hopefully attend to in the context of environment protection. The concept of disinterestedness helps us extract this good sense. As Kant puts it: 'where anyone is conscious that his delight in an object is with him independent of interest, it is inevitable that he should look on the object as one containing a ground of delight for all men'.12 In other words, if aesthetic appreciation is based on disinterestedness, as Tagore thinks it is, we can very reasonably be assured that nature can give rise to the same appreciation or delight in others as it does in my case. And then it can well provide a formidable reason in favour of environment preservation.

I have tried to explain and defend Tagore's thinking about the environment on aesthetic and spiritual grounds. True, some environmental thinkers would not receive him well. Yet it is also true that his emphasis on the beauty of nature endeared him to many of his eminent contemporaries both in India and abroad. Note how D.R.Bhandarkar, a great Indian thinker, approves of and admires his sensitivity to nature: 'Everywhere in his poems and songs you see sunshine.still night and various aspects of nature.His is a mind most responsive to nature.'13 Similarly, another eminent writer, Lim Boon Keng from the University of Amoy, China, writes that 'His soul seems at once to vibrate in full harmony with the orchestra of melodies and echoes reflected from the sound of rushing waters, from the songs of birds, from the rustling of leaves.'14 And it cannot be denied that caring for nature on aesthetic grounds, as Tagore did, has now become one of the major environmental concerns in the developed countries of the world.


1 The Religion of an Artist, pp. 16-17.

3 Tagore, 'Vasundhara', trans. in Rabindranath Choudhury, Love Poems of Tagore, Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, p. 55, 1975.

5 Ibid., p. 72, original emphasis.

7 D.E.Cooper, 'Aestheticism and Environmentalism', in D.E.Cooper and J.A.Palmer (eds), Spirit of the Environment, London: Routledge, p. 103, 1998.

9 Lectures and Addresses, p. 79.

11 Lectures and Addresses, p. 93.

12 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. J.C.Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 50, 1928.

13 D.R.Bhandarkar, 'My Impressions about the Poet', in R.Chatterjee (ed.), The Golden Book of Tagore, p. 36.

14 Lim Boon Keng, 'The Beauty and Value of Tagore's Thoughts', in Chatterjee (ed.), op. cit., p. 125.

See also in this book


Tagore's major writings

Creative Unity, 1922, New Delhi: The Macmillan Company of India Limited, 1980.

The Religion of Man, 1970, paperback edn, London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.

The Religion of an Artist, 1936, Calcutta: Viswa-Bharati, 1988.

The standard edition of Tagore's writings is The Works of Tagore in 15 volumes,

Calcutta: West Bengal Government, 1961. A one-volume selection of Tagore's important lectures is Lectures and Addresses, ed. Anthony X. Soares, New Delhi:

Macmillan Pocket Tagore Edition, 1995.

Further reading

Chatterjee, Ramananda (ed.), The Golden Book of Tagore, Calcutta: The Golden Book of Tagore Committee, 1990.

May, Larry and Sharratt, Shari Collins (eds), Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

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  • Duenna Goold
    What was the viev of ravindra nath tagore about environment protection?
    9 years ago
  • Sanni Tervo
    How rabindranath express freedom in nature?
    8 years ago

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