It is perhaps quite well known that Rabindranath Tagore never visited Korea. What may not be so well known is that in 1929, he composed a poem titled “The Lamp of the East”, which today appears in many of South Korea’s high school textbooks, and is regularly quoted by the politicians and newspaper columnists of the country. It may also not be so well known that in the same year i.e., 1929, he met a Korean youth in Tokyo who challenged him to consider whether class-struggle can serve as a means to eliminate differences between the oppressor and the oppressed. The youth had made such a strong impression on Rabindranath that his words were still ‘ringing in his ears’ the following year when he decided to accept an invitation extended to him to visit the Soviet Union (Tagore 1960: 14). Rabindranath was overwhelmed with what he saw in the Soviet Union – so much so that in the very last essay he wrote in his life, “The Crisis of Civilization,” he applied the appellation of ‘civilization’ only to that country, while he declared that his ‘faith in the claims of the European nations to civilization’ (Tagore 1941: 86) had ‘gone bankrupt altogether’ (88).
This essay takes off from these two not-so-well-known Korean off-shoots in Rabindranath’s oeuvre; in order to present a linear narrative of his life-long quest of defining ‘civilization’ in his non-fiction prose writings consisting of travelogues, lectures, letters, and essays. It proceeds in two parts. In the first, the essay examines Rabindranath’s encounter with Korea in Japan where he met a group of Koreans, and the consequences of the encounter; and in the second, it extricates his conceptualization of ‘civilization’ that betrays fissures and fault-lines when subjected to a close reading. The essay ends by arguing that Rabindranath may have failed to define the nebulous notion of civilization within a clearly-articulated parameter, but in this globalized wasteland lacerated by intense intolerance to the different, his quest explicates an unequivocal ethical stance which requires that one should not lose faith in mankind.
Rabindranath’s Tangential Encounter with Korea and Its Aftermath
In 1929, during his last visit to Japan, Rabindranath met a group of expatriate Koreans in Tokyo who made such a strong impression on him regarding Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula that he composed a poem titled “The Lamp of the East” given below:
“In the golden age of Asia,
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers,
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again,
For the illumination of the East.” (cited in Miller 2007)
First published in the Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo in 1929, the poem has, in South Korea today, “taken on a life of its own, spawning hundreds of different versions with stronger words and longer passages to boost nationalistic sentiment” (Miller 2007). What is perhaps most amazing, is that the version of “The Lamp of the East” that the Koreans believe to be the original is actually a remixed edition that conjoins the poem to Song 35 of the Gitanjali given below:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” (Tagore 1912: 27-28)
Indeed, as Miller (2007) observes, “in the South Korean nationalist imagination, this [remixed version of the] poem has a remarkably important position as a sort of “external legitimator” for Korean independence.”
Now consider the following poem, which also features the metaphor of the lamp, and which Rabindranath recited at the end of the address he delivered in a meeting in Baghdad on May 25, 1932.
“The night has ended
Put out the light of the lamp
of thine own narrow dark corner
smudged with smoke.
The great morning which is for all
appears in the East” (Tagore 1932: image 96).
At this point, a juxtaposed reading of these two poems, featuring the image of the lamp, would be interesting. For, if Rabindranath’s prophecy in the Korean poem, that the ‘lamp is waiting to be lighted once again, for the illumination of the East’ is juxtaposed to the Baghdad poem that calls for ‘putting out the light of the lamp […] smudged with smoke’, perhaps one will not fail to miss the hint of an unspoken irony. If the smudged lamp of Baghdad is to be extinguished in the ‘great morning which […] appears in the East’, surely there is no necessity to light anymore lamps – Korean or otherwise!
But the irony may appear to be an anarchism in our time. For, today South Korea wields a market economy, which ranks 15th in the world by nominal GDP and 12th by purchasing power parity (PPP). The economy is driven by countless national and multi-national conglomerates such as Hyundai, Samsung and LG, operating from literally thousands of skyscrapers in Seoul, to weave an ever-expanding world of globalizing electronics, telecommunications, consumer products, construction, ship-building, aerospace, and several other industries (Long 2012). Hence it may very well be that Rabindranath’s prophecy has indeed been fulfilled in South Korea. Aren’t the economies of Iran and Iraq infinitesimal by comparison – expectantly so by their ‘rogue’ status in the Standard American Book of Faith, otherwise known as the neo-liberal democratic order?
Acknowledging that today ‘class-struggle’ is quaint, provincial, even laughable, for no one speaks of the inevitable revolution anymore – worse still, that the ‘revolutionaries’ are the ‘terrorists’ of the ultra right, I would like to revert to the second consequence of Rabindranath’s tangential encounter with Korea in 1929: a brief tract of about 1,200 words titled “A Korean Youth’s Political Views”, compiled in Rabindranath’s Letters from Russia. The tract describes an anonymous Korean youth he had met in Tokyo (Tagore 1960: 12) as ‘taller than the average Japanese’, who ‘spoke English easily and with no difficulty in pronunciation’ (127). Rabindranath began by posing a question point-blank: “don’t you like Japanese rule in Korea?” (127) After a firm and crisp denial by the youth, the two engaged in a dialogue on the status of servitude of the Koreans and how the dismal state, also prevalent in other Asian countries such as China, could be overcome. Against Rabindranath’s argument that education is the key to the prevailing bleak circumstances in Asia, the youth asserted that “Korea’s strength lies in her suffering” (12), and articulated what amounts to a brief thesis of class-struggle. He argued, “even among the so-called free people, the realm of power and wealth are divided in two parts”, such that a handful of exploiters ‘enjoy the wealth’, while the exploited majority ‘bears its burden’ (131). But it was time, he asserted, for an epoch-making struggle between the exploiter and the exploited. ‘Here, Koreans and Japanese, East and West unite on the same plane. Our suffering, our penury is our strength. This it is which unites us all over the world’ (132). By means of their penury, which constitutes their greatest strength, argued the youth, the exploited will claim a future free of exploitation.
The dialogue ends here, and the anonymous Korean youth and Rabindranath never met again. Later, when Rabindranath reminisced about the meeting and actually got down to writing the piece, he asked himself, “will the root of division, the special form it has assumed today into strong and weak, disappear from human nature by simply washing it with blood?” (132) It is claimed, he observed, that all the highlands of the world will one day be eroded by wind and storm into the sea, and so he asked, will that day also not be the end of the world? ‘Uniformity and death: are they not the same thing? The truth of human society is destroyed by destroying diversity. The finding of harmony in difference is its eternal task: its eternal battle is with injustice amid difference. Man [sic.] grows in stature through this task and battle’ (133).
Rabindranath’s disagreement with the Marxist views of the Korean youth – it hardly needs to be stressed – is not a disavowal of the struggle of the colonized against imperialist designs. Not only does the poem “Lamp of the East”, composed ten years after the historic March First Movement against Japanese occupation of Korea, imply the contrary, but also his lectures delivered in Japan indicate quite the opposite. If an example needs to be drawn, then the lecture titled “On Oriental Culture and Japan’s Mission”, delivered in Tokyo on May 15, 1929, should serve adequately. In it, he spoke against ‘instances of ill-treatment to Koreans’ (23), and advised his Japanese audience that it is necessary to ‘win their love whom you have been foolish enough to bully into sullen subjection’ (Tagore 1929: 28), for ‘you must know that the day comes when the defeated have their chance for revenge; that people have long memories and wrongs rankle deep in their heart’ (27). Furthermore, what the Korean youth had said to him in 1929 had made such a strong impression that it ‘was [still] ringing in his ears’ the following year, and it was one of the reasons for him to accept the invitation to visit the Soviet Union in 1930 (Tagore 1960: 14).
In order to fathom the significance of this visit, and also to gauge how much of the prophecy articulated in “The Lamp of the East” has indeed been fulfilled in South Korea by the conceptual framework of the poet himself, it is necessary to examine Rabindranath’s conceptualization of ‘civilization’.
Grappling with ‘Civilization’
Perhaps it would not be an overstatement to claim that Rabindranath spent almost his entire life – grappling with the nebulous notion of ‘civilization’. In his early years, before the beginning of the 20th century, he along with his illustrious family, had rejected the indigenous concept of sadachar or “proper conduct” to embrace wholeheartedly the Enlightenment notion of civilization (Tagore 1941: 84). In those early years of his life, he had earnestly ‘believed that the springs of civilization would issue from the heart of Europe’ (88). But fired by the nationalist zeal in early 20th century, he began to articulate a reverse-Orientalist discourse that conceptualized the ideal of civilization as a relentless endeavour that perceives unity in multiplicity and difference. As he argued in a seminal yet little known post-colonial critique of the historiography of India, titled “Bharatavarsher Itihas” (written in 1903), ‘a single objective which has always been motivating Bharatavarsha’ has been ‘to establish unity among diversity […] to experience the One-in-many as the innermost reality, to pursue with total certitude that supreme principle of inner unity which runs through the differences’ (Tagore 2013). Again, in the oft-quoted essay titled “Swadeshi Samaj”, first delivered as a lecture in Kolkata in 1904, Rabindranath observed that ‘Bharatavarsha does not recognize difference as antagonism; she does not imagine the other as the enemy. Hence, instead of abandoning, or destroying, she wishes to accommodate all in a capacious system’ (550, my translation). Here, the notion of Enlightenment is not forgotten but is posited as the ‘other’ of Bharatavarshiya civilization. As he asserted, ‘the kind of unity that Bharatavarshiya civilization has opted for is concord-centred’, whereas ‘the kind of unity that the European civilization has opted for is discord-centred’ (Tagore 2013).
The reverse-Orientalist discourse gathered strength in 1913, when Rabindranath gained star-status overnight as the first Asian Nobel laureate, and literally turned into ‘a wayfarer of an endless road’ (Tagore 1994: 241),who addressed world communities instead of his readers at home. His travels as ‘pilgrimages’, as he was fond of calling them (Tagore, 1319: 53), acquired a new meaning when he mobilized in earnest a stringent post-colonial critique of the ‘West’, as one ‘who is of Asia’, and even more, one who ‘represents Asia’ (Tagore 1924: 43). He chose to ‘speak bitterly of the Western civilization’ in his Nationalism lectures (Tagore 1921: 110), to argue that it ‘is the civilization of power’; hence ‘it is exclusive, it is naturally unwilling to open the sources of power to those whom it has selected for its purpose of exploitation’ (21-22). In another instance in the same lectures, he observed that ‘the political civilization which has sprung up from the soil of Europe’ (59) ‘is scientific, not human’ (60). In contrast, he asserted, ‘Eastern Asia has been pursuing its own path, evolving its own civilization, which was not political but social, not predatory and mechanically efficient but spiritual and based upon all the varied and deeper relations of humanity’ (67).
In 1924, during his talks in China, Rabindranath sharpened his reverse-Orientalist discourse by challenging the very notion of ‘civilization’ as a Western ‘gift horse’, whose ‘teeth’ the colonized recipients never ‘cared to count’ (Tagore 1924: 159). Instead, he argued that ‘the Sanskrit word dharma is the nearest synonym in our own language’ (159), and asserted that as a creative ideal, dharma ‘binds its members in a rhythm of relationship […] which is beautiful and not merely utilitarian’ (170). Further, he delinked the notion of ‘civilization which is an ideal, [and which] gives us power and joy to fulfill our obligations’, from that of ‘progress’, ‘which is not related to an inner ideal, but to an attraction which is external’ (178). Hence he observed that those who seek civilization in ‘the wilderness of sky-scrapers, in the shrieking headlines of news-journals, and the shouting vociferation of the demagogues’, merely ‘roam in the dusk begging the load of light from some glow-worm’ (177). Rabindranath reaffirmed his faith in the ‘single objective’ of Indian civilization in his talks in China, by observing that ‘differences can never be wiped away’, for, ‘life would be so much poorer without them’ (25). However, he moved out of the narrow confines of India to the immensity of the entire world to urge that ‘let all human races keep their own personalities, and yet come together, not in a uniformity that is dead, but in a unity that is living’ (25).
From such a position of immensity, one is startled to find a Rabindranath four years later, who vouchsafed his ‘pride as an Asian’ (Tagore 1929: 16) but differentiated European civilization from Oriental culture. In a lecture delivered in Tokyo on May 15, 1929 he observed: ‘When we talk of European civilization, we use a term which is real in its meaning, it is an undoubted fact. But when they glibly talk of the Oriental mind and culture, they do not realize that we have not yet been able to develop a universal mind, a great background of Oriental cultures’ (14-15). Further, he observed, Oriental cultures ‘are too scattered’, and do not as yet have ‘any possibility of interconnection’; consequently, they are marked and marred by ‘their provincialism […] that generally has the character of stammering in them’ (15). Although Rabindranath betrayed a strong undercurrent of doubts if not a total renunciation of Oriental civilization, he nevertheless reverted to the vision of immensity of the entire world by extending the ‘single objective’ of Bharatavarshiya civilization to the innate quality of ‘great geniuses […] born in all parts of the world’, and acknowledged that they too can ‘realize the fundamental unity in all differences around them’ (18, emphasis added).
By 1941, immediately prior to his death, one encounters a withered and battered Rabindranath attempting his utmost to stand tall and continue seeking his ideal in a landscape of ‘crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility’ (Tagore 1941: 87). For the last time, he grappled with the notion of ‘civilization’, but in this instance, he completely erased his life-long vision of unity in multiplicity and difference. Instead, he asserted, ‘it is the mission of civilization to bring unity among people and accomplish peace and harmony’ (86). In this regard, he saw success only in the Soviet Union, which asserted its existence ‘at the very threshold of the rich invincible Western civilization’ (14), and ‘raised the seat of power for the dispossessed’ by ‘completely ignoring the angry scowl of the West’ (15).’Her civilization’, Rabindranath argued in “Crisis of Civilization”, ‘is free from all invidious distinction between one class and another, between one sect and another’, and ‘impartially serves the common interests of the people’ (84-85). At this instance, the anonymous Korean youth must have reincarnated himself and asserted in all facticity (socially constructed self-interpretations) the validity of his claim that, the oppressed ‘shall claim the future’ (Tagore 1960: 132).
No historical record would perhaps bear me out in the following assumption, but I would like to take a leap from research as logical argument to a simple act of faith to assert that it was because of the Korean youth and the Soviet Union that Rabindranath could cling desperately to his act of faith at the end of his life, to exclaim: ‘And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man [sic.]’, and could hope, for the last time, that ‘perhaps the dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises’ (1942: 87).
Where does this problematic deliberation lead us to arrive at a customary conclusion? There are quite a few options from which one could pick and choose, because, luckily for all, Rabindranath’s ideational terrain in which he grappled with the nebulous notion of civilization was constantly undergoing transformation, always in flux, always defying its previously achieved conceptual limits by progression even as it occasionally regressed. Hence, one could easily assert that the prophesied lamp is yet to be lit in Korea, if the country is seen as seeking civilization in ‘the wilderness of sky-scrapers’ and ‘begging the load of light from some glow-worm’; one could also assert that in Rabindranath’s ideational terrain, civilization is best understood as a reverse-Orientalist discourse that attempts to reconcile difference by a vision of unity, which faltered at the end of his life; or that, it is best articulated by ‘great geniuses […] born in all parts of the world’ who, with ‘their feet in the soil of their land and their mind in the sky – the universal realm of visions’, can ‘realize the fundamental unity in all differences around them’ (Tagore 1929: 18); or even that, if the last statement of life can be accredited as the closest one gets to the fabled notion of ‘truth’,the nebulous notion of civilization was best articulated in the Soviet Union, as he is on record making the following statement: ‘While other imperialist powers sacrifice the welfare of the subject races to their own national greed, in the USSR I found a genuine attempt being made to harmonize the interests of various nationalities that are scattered over its vast area’ (Tagore 1941: 85).
Having provided these concluding options, it is conceded that the Korean youth is a hindrance, if not an outright embarrassment in our neatly ‘normalized’ equations of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in this neo-liberal globalizing world. It is also conceded that one could easily dismiss Rabindranath’s observations cited in this deliberation as substantially flawed assessments that can be easily rebuffed by historical factuality. Not wishing to enter into a debate on truth – claims regarding factuality – Barrack Obama’s Panopticon of electronic surveillance in the guise of National Security Agency being a case to prove the point – suffice it to say that so far as Rabindranath is concerned, ‘each country is imagined or constructed in a context that highlights tolerance, exchange and an ethical response to modernity’ (Sen 2013: 104-105). Prioritizing facticity over factuality, this deliberation accepts his observations as that of a poet, who had the courage to situate himself ‘at the moment of surrender of vision over visibility’ (U2 2009: track 3).
Admittedly, as Rabindranath himself acknowledged, his ‘voice is too feeble to raise itself above the uproar of this bustling time’ (Tagore 1916: 35). Be that as it may, his discourse on civilization remains a trajectory in pursuit of an ideal ideational space, which, in this globalizing wasteland lacerated by intense intolerance to difference, demands an unequivocal ethical stance, so that even when faith goes bankrupt, it is a grievous ‘sin’ to lose faith – not in the fabled notion of an omnipotent creator, but in mankind.
Long, Stephen. 2012, May 29. Korea: “The Lamp of the East”, The Asia Tribune. Retrieved 20 August 2013 from http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2012/05/29/korea-%E2%80%9C-lamp-east%E2%80%9D
Miller, Owen. 2007. Remixing Tagore [blog post], Frog in the Well (Korea History Group Blog site). Retrieved 12 August 2013 from http://www.froginawell.net/korea/2007/03/remixing-tagore/#more-131
Samaddar, Ranabir. 2013. The Power of Aesthetics. In, Contemporarising Tagore and the World, edited by Imtiaz Ahmed, Muchkund Dubey and Veena Sikri, 321-342. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.
Sen, Amrit. 2013. ‘In a Land Where I have no Readers’ : Rabindranath and the Voyage to Iran. In, Contemporarising Tagore and the World, edited by Imtiaz Ahmed, Muchkund Dubey and Veena Sikri, 103-114. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1319 [Bengali Era]. JatrarPurbapatra, TattwabodhiniPatrika, 18.2 : 52-61.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1912. Gitanjali. London: Macmillan.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1916. The Spirit of Japan: A Lecture. Tokyo: The Indo-Japanese Association.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1921. Nationalism. London: Macmillan and Company Ltd.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1924. Talks in China. Calcutta: Visva-Bharati.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1929. On Oriental Culture and Japan’s Mission. Tokyo: Indo-Japanese Association.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1932. Manuscript no. 9 [an untitled manuscript of an address delivered by Rabindranath Tagore in Baghdad in 25 May 1932], manuscript file of Japane-Parasye, images 92-96. Retrieved 11 August 2013 from http://bichitra.jdvu.ac.in/manuscript/manuscript_viewer.php?manid=587&mname=BMSF_034
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1941. Crisis of Civilization, Visva-Bharati News, 9.2: 83-87.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 1960. Letters from Russia (translated by Sasadar Sinha). Calcutta: Visva-Bharati.
Tagore, Rabindranath.2007. Notes and Comments (originally published in Atlantic Monthly, reprinted in Visva-Bharati Quarterly, April, 1927). In, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume Seven: Lectures and Addresses (with an introduction by Mohit K. Ray), pp. 658-666. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd.
Tagore, Rabindranath. 2013. The History of Bharatavarsha (translated into from the original essay in Bengali titled Bharatavarsher Itihas by Sumita Bhattacharya & Sibesh Bhattacharya). Retrieved 29 July 2013 from http://www.ifih.org/TheHistoryofBharatavarsha.htm
U2. 2009. Moment of Surrender. On No Line on the Horizon [CD album]. Santa Monica CA: Interscope Records.