The essay ‘Voice of Humanity’ is originally a lecture delivered at Milan during Rabindranath Tagore’s first visit to Italy under Mussolini, which was published in Lectures and Addresses in 1928. Tagore loved every moment of his stay, bathing himself in the literary, architectural and scientific heritage of his host country and Europe in general.
This essay is a transcript of his lecture before on audience of elite intellectuals. He felt both humbled and honoured to address such a gathering. He begins with an informal note, expressing his eagerness to ‘live’ the moment. He told his listeners that he stood there, not as a speaker who would be prepared with a speech over a topic, but rather was a poet, more spontaneous than prepared and refined. Tagore knew that English was neither his nor the Italians’ mother tongue. However, he half-heartedly acknowledged English being the only common language in which he could communicate with the audience. He, thus, expresses his sorrow and regret putting his listeners to such inconvenience.
Continuing with the address, Tagore tells his listeners about what he would be speaking to them; he wanted to explain to them his urge to have travelled thousands of miles to have come to their country. Tagore was a deeply spiritual and contemplative man. He saw God everywhere, his vision of the Divine transcended, religious or national barrier. Thus, he explained to the audience that he had come on a pilgrimage to explore the place where the landscape bristles with Divine creativity and love. Numerous layers of sublime manifestation of Divinity had enriched Italy. In the true Eastern tradition, he has come to discover the Divine hand there.
Quite clearly, Europe’s astounding progress in all facets of culture and civilization seems to have greatly impressed the young author. With the blossoming of the human spirit in this distant continent which he considered to be a holy land, Tagore felt it worthy to be called a shrine. In 1921, Tagore was driven by the world because the inquisitive minds of its people were always active and restless. The frenzied intellectual activity that ensued led to some spectacular advances in literature, art, science, philosophy and technology. In contrast, around that time, Asia seemed to be asleep, losing its initiative, verve and drive. Such indolence led to lethargy, backwardness and poverty. Barring just a handful of bright minds engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and skill, the whole continent seemed to be asleep.
Tagore then left his own work at Shantiniketan and came to Europe on a pilgrimage, in order to experience its electrifying energy and creativity.
Tagore continues to tell the audience that it was however not his maiden visit to Europe. In the year 1878, when he was a young boy of 17 years, he had set foot on the shores of Italy along with his elder brother. He explains that during those times, people in the East held Europe in awe and wonder. Although his knowledge of English was far from being exemplary, the author had read the works of the literary icons of Europe and was aware of the literary resurgence that was sweeping the continent.
Narrating his first encounter with the beauty of Italy, Tagore says that, in the moonlit shores of Brindisi in Italy, the steamer in which he was travelling with his brother, landed. The breathtaking beauty of this alien land manifested in the blue waters of the ocean, the bewitching landscape, virtually swept Tagore off his feet. Never had he seen such a sight earlier.
Tagore was happy and relieved to find that Brindisi was a small town, without any daunting façade of the cities. The place was unusually quiet, but at the same time, very welcoming. Tagore already savoured the romance of literature and had begun to dream. The two brothers stayed in an ordinary hotel with the most basic facilities. But, being in Europe had set his heart aflutter. The next day Tagore, along with his brother and an Indian friend, ventured out to a nearby orchard. The place was unguarded and no one accosted them. The sun shone liberally over the orchard, setting the garden lit with a golden glow. There, Tagore saw a youthful damsel plucking the grapes. She had a coloured scarf around her head. Tagore, who was seventeen then; a youth was spellbound by her charm which was accentuated by sunlight. Tagore though got reminded that he was a guest in a foreign land, hence, must conduct himself with dignity. Tagore was the only one with triggered emotions of love, though it didn’t rekindle any romantic instincts in his brother or their companion. The three left the place soon.
Tagore was a truant by nature and a difficult pupil in his traditional skill. The four walls of the schoolroom felt like confinement to him. He refused to be schooled in the traditional way, hence his guardians sent him to England so that he could learn good English – the language which was the key to respectability and accomplishment.
Tagore then finally landed in England. As it was winter there, the harsh chill made life quite unpleasant for him. The trees stood bare with all the leaves gone, with hardly any crowd on the road, in contrast to the bustle of Indian cities. This contrast rattled the author, leaving him disconcerted and lonely. The place seemed so distant and unwelcoming. From the lodging’s window, he fixed his gaze at the Regent’s Park, wondering what a bewildering land he had come to. Perhaps, Tagore felt too young to have understood the spirit of England at that time. He felt lost pinning for his homeland.
After a stint of rigorous education, Tagore returned home and felt more disinclined to pursue formal education that would give him a degree. He spent time in laziness doing little but soon started writing stories, novels and poems. He wrote profusely, sitting on the banks of the Ganges. His restive mind found fulfilment in Literature. He was oblivious of the tumultuous political changes that were happening around the world then.
Tagore’s mind underwent a sea of changes. He no longer liked to work in seclusion, instead, wanted to be among the crowd. He loved children and loved to guide them as they grew up. He knew that the system of classroom education stifled and caged many young bright minds. Tagore wanted these young minds to savour the taste of education in a free environment. He chose a secluded place, away from the maddening crowd, where he could school the students in the lap of Nature.
During all this, Tagore seemed to hear a distant call; a summon from the land where human endeavour and spirit had reached its pinnacle. He wanted to go on a pilgrimage again in order to explore, learn and feast his senses with the best of human civilization. He knew that it was Europe that stood at the forefront of humankind’s progress, hence, that was where he wanted to go.
By then, Tagore had grown up and was a well-read man. He had studied History, Literature and all such subjects. He had read the works of some eminent writers like Wordsworth. The hatred, oppression, exploitation, revenge and wars that had ravaged the human race made him sorrowful. Tagore concluded that man was the worst enemy of man. Despite such gloomy thoughts, Tagore remained an optimist, believing that the noble wisdom of mankind will eventually dispel the dark forces one day, bringing in an age of harmony, peace and progress.
Sadly, though, when he reached England, the land of his quest, entire Europe was gripped with strife, discord, upheavals and war. There were whirlwinds of suspicion, jealousy and greed. The passion to create had ceded place to a passion for destruction. This was a depressing sight for Tagore.
While travelling from Calais to England, Tagore saw the bush green farms through which the train track ran. The bounty of the fields filled his heart with joy. He marvelled at the hardworking nature of the farmers who had grown the crops. These great sons of the soil had done extremely valuable service to their motherland. Their dedication deserved the highest praise because through their sweat and sacrifice, they had brought security and sufficiency to their countries and to mankind at large. On the land where such worthy toiling men lived, misery couldn’t set foot. But Tagore wondered as to why was Europe so riven with the ugly and the unbearable.
Tagore continues by saying that, Europe’s children did fairly well till their endeavours were restricted to solving their own land’s problems. Through the application of their intelligence, ingenuity and their penchant for perfection, they did quite well. They brought prosperity and abundance to themselves. However, with the advent of science and technology, new challenges had emerged. Europe began to look far beyond its shores. Such adventure unleashed huge political, military and economic challenges. Harmony was replaced by discord and shaken by tempestuous events. A holistic and enduring solution to the new challenges was yet to be found. One wrong solution may lead to unintended consequences.
A great truth was laid bare before Europe and its people. How one dealt with the situation, decided one’s destiny. Denial of the fact could rapidly degenerate humanity. The virtues like the love of justice, freedom and beauty, that once characterized Europe would become the things of the past.
In the relentless pursuit of profit, production, trade, etc. Europe would lose the nobler virtues of art, creativity, and the softer side of the human civilization, tragically disempowering Europe of her tender core. Deprivation, misery and suffering would eventually follow.
Tagore proceeds to analyse how Europe could build her huge repository for the best of human achievements. According to him, it all came through the patient pursuit of perfection. The patience was borne out of love. Tagore says that the legendary artists of Europe worked endlessly to reach perfection on the time-set of things. Such passionate efforts and perseverance are a must for profit-oriented commerce-driven society greed and creativity, are an absolute contrast. A greedy man can never be passionate about perfection and the sad part is that greed has unfortunately overtaken Europe. The shift towards profit and gain has dispelled creativity and beauty from the human mind. The voices of sanity, restraint and the sublime have become too feeble to be heard. Man’s inner voice is lost in the din of factories.
Despite all this, Tagore applauds the march of science. In this domain, Europe has led the world. Nature’s secrets have been gradually decoded and the benefits have been passed on to the future generations of mankind. Europe has made a stellar contribution in pushing the limits of the infinite, but so much more needs to be done. True happiness lies in relentlessly continuing the quest to unravel Nature.
Here, Tagore tries to clear the air, stating that the material world is not all bad. He likens it to the nurse and cradle that nurture life and the human spirit. Europe has taken to the material world and has brought goods and conveniences to human living. However, Tagore cites a note of caution here. He thinks that Europeans must not be too possessive about whatever they have gained in science and wealth generation through industrialization. They must assume that the gains belong to the whole of mankind. Through such generosity can they lay their claim to real greatness.
Continuing with the same thought Tagore says that keeping the new-found knowledge of science close to themselves will do the Europeans no good. They must willingly share the scientific gains with the rest of the world, for by doing so, its best brains would redeem themselves. There are some truths that do not come under the domain of science. Such truths must be allowed to fuse with the ones unravelled by science. Though sadly, the truths of the non-scientific domain are disregarded, leading to the evil plaguing Europe.
Tagore feels that the mightier the weapon one has, the stronger should be the restraint in using them. He laments that though Europe pioneered in science, it failed to circumscribe its devilish power. As a result, Europe faces immense danger now. While crying out for peace, they have invented more formidable weapons, leading to more violence. The craving for peace must come from within for it to be enduring. Peace imposed from outside by force has only limited effect. In the matters of ensuring lasting peace and tranquillity, the virtues of sympathy and self–sacrifice are more potent than the efficacy of mass mobilization.
Tagore has always been an optimist. He believed that ultimately, the goodness of the human spirit would prevail. The manner in which the sun gets temporarily covered by clouds, the human spirit too has got besmirched by the evil instincts, but only temporarily, and would regain its radiance sooner or later. Some naive Europeans cite their scientific prowess to justify their instincts to subjugate others. However, like the earthquake unleashes great ferocity to shake the earth temporarily, similarly, the bombast of the colonizers would fall flat in the times to come. Some of these powers, who thought who would be eternally supreme, are beginning to crumble and are fading into the past. Only those nations who can think and act beyond their borders, transcending narrow nationalism, can ultimately survive and prosper. Hence, for everlasting gain, the benefits of one’s progress must be shared with others.
For mankind to be closely knit into one entity, the whole human race needs to think and work like one, ignoring their claims of supremacy. That would signal the triumph of Truth.
In his concluding note, Tagore humbly tells his listeners that he has come to Europe in search of ‘Voice of Humanity,’ which has been dampened by the clamour to amass wealth and power by the most brutal means. Fortunately, this dormant voice is beginning to be heard more clearly and loudly. With time, this would assume the level of thunder which no one can ignore.