The Poet on the Past

Rabindranath’s Analysis of India’s History[1]


Uma Das Gupta

In Rabindranath’s interpretation of India’s history there were three main concerns: first, to emphasize the fact that the history of India we read in text books is not about how the people lived. It is about the kings, wars, invasions and conquests. Yet as Rabindranath saw it the history of India’s past is not to be found in politics, it is to be found in what the people of India were doing with their beliefs and values despite the invasions and the conquests.[2] Rabindranath was angry that even the educated among us could not ascertain where India’s stability lay, where her life was beyond all appearance. An answer to these questions had to become a part of our consciousness, a part of our imagination, something that would help us to reconsider the past in order to connect it with the present. All nations should not be alike in history. One who has read a biography of Rothschild should not expect the same milieu from a biography of Christ. The reader of the two biographies should not be asking how would Christ be great without a penny to his credit? Similarly with India’s history. If on reading India’s history one asks how can there be history where there is no politics then that would be like asking for egg plants where paddy grows, and if disappointed concluding that paddy was no food crop at all. Rabindranath went on to argue that those who find nothing in the pages of India’s history do so not because India had nothing to offer. It is because those who write of India’s history write of British conquests of India in trade and politics. This is the only history we come to know. We are told that our forefathers did not trade and did not fight but we are not told that what they did nor do we realize what we can do. The responsibility for this lies with our education and not with India’s history. We do not realize Rabindranath argued that everything we get in India, from education to justice to administration, has to be bought by us as if from a huge departmental store like the Whiteway Laidlaw. All that we get, Rabindranath said, may be of ‘good quality but there is little of India in it. India lies where our mothers light the evening lamp everyday bowing as the lamp is lit to the sacred tulsi plant. That is where we would find our history.

A second concern of Rabindranath in his interpreting India’s history lay in his idealization of the Indian village. We have in his essay City and Village or in other essays in the collection called Palliprakrit, Swadeshi Samaj, Swadesh[3] a very strong suggestion that the ideal Indian society had grown round the village. Within the village he laid great stress on the importance of human relationships, in other words on a neigbourly society, as he was convinced, had existed in the Indian tradition. To Rabindranath the expression “human family” actually meant a family, and he believed that Indian history had known this family. And it existed in rural India. The breakdown came with the establishment of the city and the migration of the educated middle class from the village to the city. Rabindranath did not place this in time but it is very plausible that he was referring to the modern period. It was not that he did not respect modernity; in fact he was a staunch advocate of the application of modern science in our lives. What made him angry was that in Indian society the village was left behind only to be sucked of what it could give without returns. That led to the denudation of the material wealth of the Indian village and created a basic imbalance in Indian society through this historical development.

Rabindranath drew such strands together in the two models of human development. To him human beings have either emphasized the importance of the political state as in Greece and Rome, or they have emphasized the importance of the civil society as in India and China. In the former political history naturally took precedence over all other histories of human beings and a collapse of the state meant calamity for the people. In India and China on the other hand the state though despotic remained limited in its effective power. Society in which human beings lived was far more important in this model than the political state, and it was in this society that neighbourliness grew. It was this society which taught human beings discipline and self-sacrifice because it had the duty to protect its members and help them grow. The decline of political authority in such a society therefore did not mean any significant disruption in social living.

Rabindranath’s other major concern was to see in India’s efforts towards unity the major force in Indian history. Rabindranath was an ideologue where the interpretation of India’s unity was concerned. In its entirety he saw India’s history as the evolution of an ideal, an ethical code to which Hinduism (including Buddhism) contributed and which was for centuries the most important factor in preserving the unity o India. To a large extent Rabindranath’s Indian hstory lay in the complex nature and intricate growth of Hinduism itself. Behind all of it was Rabindranath’s own fundamental approach to man and society. He was skeptical about history text books because they were concerned with the confrontation of races, not their unity. Rabindranath’s vision led him to concentrate on the one major force in India’s history, in the unity of the belief generated that the world has a deeper meaning than what is apparent and it is there that the human soul finds its ultimate harmony and peace. Rabindranth believed that in this wisdom the elite and the outcastes were one and the same. He wanted to show historically that India’s problem lay in a continuing endeavour towards unity within Indian society despite every dust storm of invasion and battle.

With this general background in mind we shall try to examine Rabindranath’s analysis of India’s history. His starting point was the Indus Valley Civilization, the earliest known Indian civilization with a fairly advanced level of achievement reached by about 2500 B.C. It decayed in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. because of the invasion of people who described themselves as Aryan, whose language as Sanskrit and whose religion was represented in the Rig Veda. As Rabindranath saw it, one of the important indications of the gradual unification of India is the way the Aryan and the non-Aryan mythologies merge and a common mythology develops. He was also interested to explore how from the point of view of Hindu philosophy their different outlooks upon life influenced each other and compromises emerged – such as the philosophies of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and so on. Rabindranath dated the Upanishads around 800 B.C. or after, but after the Buddha. He saw in this period the process of amalgamation between the Vedic and the non-Vedic elements of Indian culture. To Rabindranath one other extremely significant source for the understanding of a unified Indian culture lay in the epics, Ramayana-Mahabharata, and the Puranas. He believed that these epics constituted one of the main sources of our knowledge of popular religious practices. The specifically Ramayana-Mahabharata form of Hindu Philosophy is the doctrine of the avatara, the Divine incarnation in human form. The two Divine incarnations that appear in the epics are Rama, the hero of the Ramayana and one of Rabindranath’s own heroes, as well as Krishna, the exponent of the Bhagavad Gita. Moreover the epics contributed to the formation of a moral code of conduct which to Rabindranath was an important force for a larger synthesis.

Rabindranath’s vision of India’s unity was a based entirely on his idealization of the three Kshatriyas in the story of the Ramayana. They were Janaka, Visvamitra, and Rama. In Rabindranath’s scheme they cut across kinship, age, and time but were the key figures of that grand movement to embrace both Aryan and non-Aryan, Brahmin and Kshatriya, in a larger synthesis. This synthesis as Rabindranath saw it was the triumph of the religion in which, at a later date, Rama occupied a central place. This religion was a breakaway from the Brahmin orthodoxy. It was revolutionary because it relegated ceremonials for avenging injury or acquiring merit to a secondary place. This was Brahmin-vidya, the knowledge of Supreme Truth, the worship of love between God and man and their spiritual unity.

In Rabindranath’s analysis the fight between the Kshatriya Rama and the Brahmin Parasurama as represented in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana has deeper roots. This was a battle of ideals, one representing the principle of movement and the other representing the principle of stability. Just as those two forces depended upon each other for their truth they were also very prone to losing their balance in human affairs and erupt into fierce conflict. This was the conflict of the new and old within the Aryan community created out of the ideals represented by Krishna. Rabindranth called this the making of a ‘social revolution.’ Here again Rabindranath cuts across age and time to build on this hypothesis of the conflict between the new and the old within the Aryan community with Parasurama representing the long drawn out Brahmin movement that was anti-Kshatriya with Rama and Krishna emerging victorious and then striving to manifest and develop their common ideal. Rabindranath knew that the period of history covered by the main incidents related in the Ramayana and that of the Kurukshetra war were widely apart in time. But then Parasurama’s role in both the epics was to him sufficient proof that the incidents related to a mighty movement led by the great personalities of the age. It is important to note here that what Rabindranath saw as ‘social revolution’ was in his conviction that the spiritual religion which Krishna preached must have ignored the exclusiveness of the priestly creeds and extened its invitation to peoples of all classes, Aryans and non-Aryans alike. He believed that the religion of which Krishna was the centre came to be the great refuge of the lower castes and out-castes of the present Indian population. To quote from Rabindranath himself[4]

The most significant fact of Indian history is that all the human avatars of Vishnu had, by their life and teaching, broken the barriers of priestcraft by acknowledging the relation of fellowship between the privileged classes and those that were despised.

There came the day when Rama-chandra, the Kshatriya of royal descent, embraced as his friend and comrade the lowest of the low: the untouchable chandala, Guhaka – an incident in his career which to this day is cited as proof of the largeness of his soul. During the succeeding period of conservative reaction, an attempt was made to suppress this evidence of Rama-chandra’s liberality of heart in a supplemental canto of the epic, which is an evident interpolation; and in order to fit it with the later ideal, its votaries did not hesitate to insult his memory by having it in their rendering of the episode that Rama beheaded with his own hands an ambitious Sudra for presuming to claim equal status in the attainment of spiritual excellence. It is like the ministers of the Christian region, in the late war, taking Christ’s name for justifying the massacre of men.

However, that may be, India has never forgotten that Rama-chandra was the beloved comrade of chandala; that he appeared as divine to the primate tribes, some of whom had the totem of monkey, some that of bear. His name is remembered with reverence because he won over his antagonists as his allies and built the bridge of love between Aryan and npn-Aryan.

The is the picture we see of one swing of the pendulum in the Aryan times. We shall never know India truly unless we study the manner in which she reacted to the pull of the opposite principles, that of self-preservation represented by the Brahma and that of self-explanation represented by the Kshatriya.

Taking this historical analysis further Rabindranath held that his state of preservation and expansion referred to an age of continuous war between the worshippers of Siva and the worshippers of the Vedic Gods producing an extraordinary maze of religions and doctrines. This country appeared to have lost direction. It was against this background that the two great Kshatriya religious leaders emerged, Buddha and Mahavira., in the same eastern part of India where once Janaka had his seat of power. Buddha and Mahavira brought simplicity into all the confusion of so many doctrines by emphasizing that there was no inherent distincition between man and man and that, man could only be saved by realizing truth and not by social conformity or non-ethical practice. It was remarkable how they succeeded in overcoming all obstacles of tradition and custom, and swept all over the country. However they had created a problem too. With the spread of the Buddhist influence a major force of Indian history was weakened, thus destroying the regulated stream of unification. In the midst of all this the Brahmins were able to keep themselves intact because of their exclusiveness. But the Kshatriyas had merged with the rest of the people. So did the Sakas and the Hunas then pouring into India. The Aryan civilization felt threatened at last and launched on an endeavour to establish the question of race and individuality. This was how their empire came to be defined as Bharatvarsha, the empire of Bharata who was a legendary suzerain of the past. A new age of recording achievements and arranging historical material began and the Vedas were compiled as the oldest part of Aryan lore to serve as a fixed centre of reference where the distracted people could find their feet. A permanent record of this phenomenon is represented by the Mahabharata which embodied in Rabindranath’s words “the thread of unity” both historically and spiritually.

It was this unity that Rabindranath looked for and hence his commitment to the creative syntheses that was the message of the Mahabharata. The only thing that made him uncomfortable was the Mahabharata’s constant reiteration of the sacredness of the Brahminic lore. He explained why this was so. It was the Aryan answer to the undercurrent of race-mingling and religious compromise that prevailed in the Buddhist period. Yet Rabindranath knew that Hindu civilization was a product of the combination of the old Dravidian culture with the Aryan. In Rabindranath’s understanding the Aryans were spiritual and the Dravidians artistic. A marriage of the two had given birth to the Hindu. The attainment of Hindu civilization lay in its realization of the infinity of the Universal. Its essence lay in the reconciliation of the opposites. Wherever it has failed in its essence the result has been disastrous. Disaster lay at the roots for although the Aryan and the non-Aryan had crossed each others’ paths they did not merge completely. The result was a deposit of a huge medley of customs, ceremonials and creeds and a consequent shackling of the mind of the people. But Rabindranath shows how throughout India’s later history the message of the spiritual freedom and unity of man came from the obscurest of quarter. In the medieval age for example the cry of unity was raised by the Brahmin guru Ramananda; by even the lowliest of the lowly such as Kabir, a Mohammedan weaver, and Ruidas, an outcaste cobbler. Throughout the dark ages the message that he only knows Truth who knows the unity of all beings in the spirit—remained ever alive, Rabindranath believed that in the modern age India would rouse herself once more to search out her oneness not only among her own constituent elements but with the great world. We know that the creation of Visva-Bharati was his own contribution to this effort.

[1] This is essay is being reprinted by the permission of the author herself and the Visva Bharati Granthana Vibhaga.

[2]Rabindranath wrote only a few essays on India’s history. They can be listed as follows:

Bharatvarser Itihas, Bangadarśan, Bhādra, 1309 B.S. (1902)

Itihas Kathā, Bhander, Asād, 1312 B.S. (1905)

Śivājі O Mārāthā Jāti; Śivaji o Guru Govinda, Pravasi, Caitra, 1316 B.S. (1909)

Bhārat Itihas Carca, Santiniketan, Caitra, 1316 B.S. (1909)

Bhāratvarser Itihāser Dhārā, Pravāsī, Vaisakh, 1319 B.S. (1912)

All the above-mentioned essays were published in a collection: Rabindranath Tagore, Itihās, Visva-Bharati, Loksiksha Granthamala, 1386. B.S. (1979).


[3]The essays refer to in particular are:

 Pallīprakrti, Pallīprakrti, pp. 45-56,

Pallir Unnati, Pallīprakrti, pp. 23-35

Upeksita Pallī, Pallīprakrti, pp. 79-85.

Śiksār Vikiran, Pallīprakrti, pp. 155-61.

Marmakathā, Svadeshī Samāj, Visva-Bharati, 1369 B.S. (1962), pp. 1-3,

Svadeśī Samāj, Svadeśī Samāj, Visva-Bharati, 1369 B.S. (1962), pp. 5-34.

Jalakasta, Svadeśī Samāj, Visva-Bharati, 1369 B.S. (1962), pp. 68 -70.

4] Rabindranath Tagore, A Vision of India’s History, Visva-Bharati, 1962, pp. 31-32




Independent scholar  and Tagore biographer Uma Das Gupta was formerly Professor in the Social Sciences Division of the Indian Statistical Institute. With a B.A. and M.A. in History from Presidency College, Calcutta, and D.Phil. in History from the University of Oxford, she taught at Jadavpur University, Visva-Bharati and the Indian Statistical Institute.

She was Fulbright Post-doctoral Fellow at Columbia University, U.S.A., 1980-81, and Edith Haynes Scholar at Somerville College, University of Oxford, 1983. She is a delegate of Oxford University Press, India.


2013, An Illustrated Life of Rabindranath Tagore, Oxford University Press, India; 2010, Science and Modern India: An Institutional History, 1784-1947, Pearson Education, India;  2010,  Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words, Penguin Books, India; 2009, The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, Oxford University Press, India; 2004, Rabindranath Tagore:A Biography, Oxford University Press, India; 2003, A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore,1913-1940,Oxford University Press, India.

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