The 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore today provides an opportunity to claim the man for the world at large. Tagore has been iconised by Bengalis and feted by foreigners. But somehow, he has eluded being appreciated by non-Bengali Indians. One way of 'introducing' his genius to the world at large is to look beyond his 'literary quotient' and discover in his poems and essays the startlingly modern way in which he thought about the challenges that continue to face the world today.
In his 1909 essay 'Tapovan' (Forest), Tagore wrote: "[The] culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life." In the conflict between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, nature alone could "impart peace of the eternal to human emotions". Tagore was not against technology - unlike Gandhi. He wanted us to use machines not for the conquest of nature but for ecological conservation. He abhorred the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and recommended traditional institutions of cooperatives and panchayats to work to restore the human-nature balance.
But it wasn't the sustenance of nature alone that Tagore was deeply interested in. The humanist in him wanted amity among men. In the poem, 'The Sunset of the Century', written on the last day of the 19th century, Tagore wrote: "The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred." In today's context of a post-26/11 and post-9/11 world, Tagore's message of pacifism takes on great significance.
Tagore described his family as a product of a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Muslim and British. It is not so much that he tried to produce a synthesis of the three different cultures either in his life or in his writings as much as this natural mix going on to make his personality.
Tagore worked for one supreme cause: the brotherhood of man. He was opposed to every kind of religious fundamentalism and cultural separatism. He wanted Indians to learn about how other people lived and what they believed in, while remaining interested and involved in their own culture and heritage.
True democracy and freedom, Tagore believed, would lead to the realisation of the full potential of humans. It was in this context that he emphasised the 'freedom of the mind'. And in this education played a big role for him. It is in this context and much more that Rabindranath Tagore is a guide of our times to all people.
Balmiki Pratap Singh is Governor of Sikkim.
The views expressed by the author are personal.