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Indian Savants' Obsrvations on China

Gurudeva Rabindranath Tagore


1. TALKS IN CHINA, 1924 (Excerpts)

·        "have been given to understand that China never felt the need of religion This I find hard to believe. People very often judge their religion from their own narrow sectarian, definition. I am sure that if it had been my good fortune to stay longer I should have been able to realise those deeper chords in the heart of China, whence to music of the spirit comes.”

·        "You have a temple near by where there is a picture, carved upon the rock, of an Indian monk or sage who came to this country centuries ago. What is most interesting about him is the fact that when he came here he felt that these hills were just like the hills with which he was familiar in his own motherland. It is said that this hill came flying from India to this place. But the real fact is that the hill which he had known in his own country had a Sanskrit name meaning the Vulture Peak. When he saw a hill here so like the one he had loved in India, he felt a great delight and gave it the same name.

When I came, I too saw your beautiful lake and the hills around. They did not seem at all strange, for your hills speak the same language as ours, your lake has the same smile as our lakes, your trees the same physiognomy, with only a slight difference, as our Indian trees. Therefore, when I find myself in the heart of nature here, I realise the unity of different countries in their outer aspect.”

·        "I know that many of you do not understand me, but something has drawn you to come and look at me. It is not because you expect any message from me, but, as I believe, because of some memory of that glorious time when India did send her messengers of love to this land, - not her merchants nor her soldiers, but the beet of her children, - and they came bearing her gifts across deserts and seas.”

·        "In Asia we must seek our strength in union, in an unwavering faith in righteousness, and never in the egotistic spirit of separateness and self-assertion. It is from the heart of the East that the utterance has sprung forth: "The meek shall inherit the earth." For the meek never waste energy in the display of insolence, but are firmly established in true prosperity through harmony with the All.

In Asia we must unite, not through some mechanical method of organisation, but through a spirit of true sympathy. The organised power of the machine is ready to smite and devour us, from which we must be rescued by the living power of spirit which grows into strength, not through mere addition, but through organic assimilation. That we should borrow science from the West is right. We have a great thing to accept from the people of West, -their treasure of intellect, which is immense and whose superiority we must acknowledge. But it would be degradation on our part, and an insult to our ancestors, If we forgot our own moral wealth of wisdom, which is of far greater value than a system that produces endless materials and a physical power that is always on the warpath.”

There was a time when Asia saved the world from barbarism. Then came the night, I do not know how. And when we were aroused from our stupor by the knocking at our gate, we were not prepared to receive Europe who came to us in her pride of strength and intellect. The West came, not to give of its best, or to seek for our best, but to exploit us for the sake of material gain. It even came into our homes robbing us of our own. That is how Europe overcame Asia.

We did Europe injustice because we did not meet her on equal terms. The result was the relation of superior to inferior; of insult on the one side and humiliation on the other. We have been accepting things like beggars. We have been imagining that we have nothing of our own. We are still suffering from want of confidence in ourselves. We are not aware of our own treasures.

We must rise from our stupor, and prove that we are not beggars. This is our responsibility. Search in your own homes for things are of undying worth. Then you will be saved and will be able to save all humanity. Some of us, of the East, think that we should copy and imitate the West. I do not believe in it. What the West has produced is for the West, being native to it. But we of the East cannot borrow the Western mind nor the Western temperament. We want to find our own birthright."

·        "But many will point to the weakness of China and India and tell you that thrown, as we are, among these strong and progressive people, it is necessary to emphasize power and progress in order to avoid destruction. And I would not have you deceived by the Sunday-school talk that no advantage is to be won by unrighteousness. In the words of the great ones of my people:

            With the help of unrighteousness men do prosper.

            With the help of unrighteousness men do gain victories over their enemies.

            With the help of unrighteousness men do attain what they desire.

            But they perish at the root.'

·        "We should know this, that Truth,-any truth that man acquires,-is for all. Money and property belong to individuals, to each of you, but you must never exploit truth for your personal aggrandisement-that would be selling God's blessing to make profit. Science also is truth. It has its own place, in the healing of the sick, and in the giving of more food, more leisure for life. But when it helps the strong to crush the weaker, to rob those who are asleep, that is using truth for impious ends and those who are so sacrilegeous will suffer and be published, for their own weapons will be turned against them.

            But a new time has come, the time to discover another great power, the power that gives us strength to suffer and not merely to cause suffering, the immense power of sacrifice. This will help us to defeat the malevolent intellect of brute greed and egotism, as in the pre-historic age intelligence overcame the power of mere muscle.

            Let the morning of this new age dawn in the East, from which great streams of idealism have sprung in the past, making the fields of life fertile with their influence. I appeal to you to make trial of this moral power through martyrdom. Prove how, through the heroism of suffering and sacrifice,-not weak submission,-we can demonstrate our best wealth and strength. Know that no organization however big can help you, no league o prudence or of power, but only the individual with faith in the infinite, the invisible, the incorruptible, the fearless."

·        "Now I am in China, I ask myself, what have you got, what out of your own house can you offer in homage to this new age? You must answer this question. Do you know your own mind? What is best and most permanent in your own history? You must know at least that, if you are to save yourselves from the greatest of insults, the insult, the insult of obscurity, of rejection. Bring out your light and add it to this great festival of lamps of world culture."

·        "Materialism is exclusive, and those who are materialistic claim their individual rights of enjoyment, of storing and possessing. You are not individualists in China. Your society is itself the creation of your communal soul. It is not the outcome o a materialistic, of an egoistic mind, - a medley of unrestricted competition, which refuses to recognise its obligations to others."

·        I see that you in China have not developed the prevailing malady of the world, the lunacy of an unmeaning multiplication of millions, the production of those strange creatures called multi-millionaires. I have heard that, unlike others, you do not give great value to the brute power of militarism. All this could not be possible if you were really materialists.

It is true that you love this wold and the material things about you with an intensity of attachment, but not by enclosing your possessions within the walls of exclusiveness. You share your wealth, you make of your distant relatives your guests, and you are not inordinately rich. This is only possible because you are not materialistic.

I have travelled through our country and I have seen with what immense care you have made the earth fruitful, with what a wonderous perfection you have endowed the things of every day use. How could this have been possible through a greedy attachment to material things?"

·        "Our ancestors had a great ideal of the spiritual relationship between peoples, but there were no end of difficulties in their way; they could not carry their message in a comfortable manner. Nevertheless, a thousand years ago, they could speak in your language. Why? Because they realised the importance of the work in hand, - how invaluable was this bond of unity between nations, which could surmount the difference of languages. It is the one bond that can save humanity from the utter destruction with which it is threatened today, through the selfishness which is torturing mankind and causing misery in the world.

Is it not marvellous how these men at all arrived, and having come, translated their metaphysical ideas into Chinese, a language so utterly different from Sanskrit that the difficulties thereby encountered were far more insurmountable than the mountains they climbed, the deserts they traversed, the seas they navigated?"

·        "If I could live among you, I could speak to you and you to me, and our thoughts would live through our close contact. They would bear fruit, not immediately, but in the process of time. Obstacles would vanish, misunderstandings would not be possible. Our relation would no longer be one-sided. We would work and produce together from the mutual contact of our hearts and minds. But our professors and schoolmasters demand lectures, from which no deep impression remains but only some faint outlines upon the memory, - merely events, which find their paragraphs in the newspapers, but do not leave their mark on the hearts of men.

The truths that we received when your pilgrims came to us in India, and ours to you, - that is not lost even now. We may feel that those ideas have to be adapted to the present changed conditions, and we cannot accept in their totality the thoughts and teachings of thousands of years ago. We may even grow angry over them, considering them mischievous, but we can never forget them completely because they were mutually assimilated to our lives. They are there for good or for evil, the result of a real meeting for which our ancestors paid.

            What a great pilgrimage was that! Those wonderful heroes, for the sake of their faith, risked life and accepted banishment from home for long, long years. Many perished and left no trace behind them. A few were spared to tell us their story, but most had no opportunity to leave a record behind. For such relics of theirs as have been spared to us, we should be thankful, as well as for something in them which we may call primitive because their primitive conditions of life had one great advantage,-the coverings were less."

·        "I built my China on a basis of the great works of your great artists of the olden days. I used to say to myself: The Chinese are a great people. They have created a world of beauty. And I remember feeling angry with others who had scant respect for you, who could come to exploit and modest you, and who ignored the debt they owned you for your civilisation, for the great works which you had produced.

            Of course we know that, such vision, created from the best products of your history, and your past, does not represent the actual life of your people, Yet I firmly believe that it is from the ideal that we get to know the best aspects of the real, and that the complete life is given by these two seen together. I must admit it is difficult for a stranger to discover this innermost truth, but i believe I have cought glimpses of it.

            One thing I have felt, and it has often been spoken of by foreigners whom I have met in your land. You are very human. I too have felt the touch of the human in your, and I have come, or at least I hope I have come, close to your heart. I myself am, filled, not with a feeling of mere admiration and wonder, but with a feeling of love, especially for those persons with whom I have come into close touch. This personal touch is not an easy thing to obtain.

Some people say that you have the gift of accepting things as they are, that you can take your joy in a naked presentation of reality, which you value, not because it has any association with some ting outside itself, but simply because it is before you attracting your attention. May be it is because of this gift that you have been willing to accept me as I am, not as a poet, not, as some foolish people thinks, as a philosopher or, as still more foolish people imagine, as a prophet, but as very much of an individual."

·        You have asked me to offer some frank criticisms on this day of my departure. I absolutely refuse to accede to your request. You have critics innumerable, and I do not want to be added to their ranks. Being human myself I can make allowances for your shortcomings, and I love you in spite of them. Who am I to criticising? We people of the Orient possess all kinds of qualities of which others do not approve, -then why not let us be friends.

You shall have no criticisms from me, and please refrain from criticising me in return. I hope my friends in China will not have the heart to probe into my failings. I never posed as a philosopher, and so I think I can claim to be let alone. Had I been accustomed to living on a pedestal, you could have pulled me down and damaged my spine, but since I have been living on the same level, I trust I am safe."  

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The most memorable fact of human history is that of a path-opening, not for the clearing of a passage for machines or machine guns, but for helping the realisation by races of their affinity of minds, their mutual obligation of a common humanity. Such a rare event did happen and the path was built between our people and the Chinese in an age when physical obstruction needed heroic personality to overcome it and the mental barrier a moral power of uncommon magnitude. The two leading races of that age met, not as rivals on the battle-field, each claiming the right to be the sole tyrant on earth, but as noble friends, glorying in their exchange of gifts. Then came a slow relapse into isolation, covering up, the path with its accumulated dust of indifference. Today our old friends have beckoned to us again, generously helping us to retrace that ancient path obliterated by the inertia of forgetful centuries, and we rejoice.

This is, indeed, a great day for me, a day long looked for, when I should be able to redeem, on behalf of our people, an ancient pledge implicit in our past, the pledge to maintain the intercourse of culture and friendship between our people and the people of China, an intercourse whose foundations were laid eighteen hundred years back by our ancestors with infinite patience and sacrifice. When I went to China several years ago I felt a touch of that great stream of life that sprang from the heart of India and overflowed across mountain and desert into that distant land, fertilising the heart of its people. I thought of that great pilgrimage, of those noble heroes, who, for the sake of their faith, their ideal of the liberation of self that leads to the perfect love which unites all beings, risked life and accepted banishment from home and all that was familiar to them. Many perished and left no trace behind. A few were spared to tell their story, a story not of adventurers and trespassers whose heroism has proved a mere romantic excuse for careers of unchecked brigandage, but a story of pilgrims who came to offer their gifts of love and wisdom, a story indelibly recorded in the cultural memory of their hosts. I read it when I was received there as a  representative of a revered race and felt proud as I traced the deep marks our ancestors had left behind on their achievements. But I also felt the humiliation of our long lasting evil fate that has obscured for us in an atmosphere of insanity the great human value of a noble endeavour, one of the most precious in the history of man.

I told my Chinese hosts on that occasion: “My friends, I have come to ask you to re-open the channel of communication which I hope is still there; for though overgrown with weeds of oblivion, its lines can still be traced. I have not the same voice that my ancestors had. I have not the wisdom they possessed. My life has not attained that consciousness of fulfilment needed to make this message fruitful. We in India are a defeated race: we have no power, political, military or commercial; we do not know how to help you or injure you materially. But, fortunately, we can still meet you as your guests, your brothers and your friends. Let that happen. I invite you to us as you have invited me. I do not know whether you have heard of the institution I have established in my land. Its one object is to let India welcome the world to its heart. Let what seems a barrier become a path, and let us unite, not in spite of our differences, but through them. For differences can never be wiped away, and life would be so much the poorer without them. 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,”  

That has happened and friends are here from China with their gift of friendship and co-operation. The Hall which is to be opened today will serve both as the nucleus and as a symbol of that larger understanding that is to grow with time. Here students and scholars will come from China and live as part of ourselves, sharing our life and letting us share theirs, and by offering their labours in a common cause, help in slowly re-building that great course of fruitful contact between our peoples, that has been interrupted for ten centuries. For this Visva-Bharati is, and will, I hope, remain a meeting place for individuals from all countries, east or west, who believe in the unity of mankind and are prepared to suffer for their faith. I believe in such individuals even though their efforts may appear to be too insignificant to be recorded in history.

It might be supposed that in a world so closely knit by railways, steamships and air lines, where almost every big city is cosmopolitan, such special invitations for contact are superfluous. But, unfortunately, the contacts that are being made today have done more to estrange and alienate peoples from one another than physical inaccessibility ever did. We are discovering for ourselves the painful truth that nothing divides so much as the wrong kind of nearness. People seem to be coming in each other's way, dodging and trapping one another, without ever coming together. We meet others, either as tourists when we merely slide against the surface of their life, entering hotels only to disappear from their land, or as exploiters in one disguise or another. We are living in a world where nations are divided into two main groups those who trample on others’ freedom, and those who are unable to guard their own: so that while we have too much of intrusion on others’ rights, we have hardly any intercourse with their culture. It is a terrorised world, dark with fear and suspicion, where peaceful races in dread of predatory hordes are retreating into isolation for security.

I am reminded of my experience as we were travelling up from Shanghai to Nanking along the great river, Yang Tse. All through the night I kept on coming out of my cabin to watch the beautiful scene on the banks, the sleeping cottages with their solitary lamps, the silence spread over the hills, dim with mist. When morning broke and brought into view fleets of boats coming down the river, their sails stretching high into the air, a picture of life’s activity with its perfect grace of freedom, I ,was deeply moved and felt that my own sail had caught the wind and was carrying me from captivity, from the sleeping past, out into the great world of man. It brought to my mind different stages of the history of man’s progress.

In the night each village was self-centred, each cottage stood bound by the chain of unconsciousness. I knew, as I gazed on the scene, that vague dreams were floating about in this atmosphere of sleeping souls, but what struck my mind more forcibly was the fact that when men are asleep they are shut up within the very narrow limits of their own individual lives. The lamps exclusively belonged to the cottages, which in their darkness were in perfect isolation. Perhaps, though I could not see them, some prowling bands of thieves were the only persons awake, ready to exploit the weakness of those who were asleep.

When daylight breaks we are free from the enclosure and the exclusiveness of our individual life. It is then that we see the light which is for all men and for all times. It is then that we come to know each other and come to’ cooperate in the field of life. This was the message that was brought in the morning by the swiftly moving boats. It was the freedom of life in their outspread sails that spoke to me; and I felt glad. I hoped and prayed that morning had truly come in the human world and that the light had broken forth.

This age to which we belong, does it not still represent night in the human world, a world asleep, whilst individual races are shut up within their own limits, calling themselves nations, which barricade themselves, as these sleeping cottages were barricaded with shut doors, with bolts and bars, with prohibitions of all kinds? Does not all this represent the dark age of civilization, and have we not begun to realize that it is the robbers who are out and awake?

But I do not despair. As the early bird, even while the dawn is yet dark, sings out and proclaims the rising of the sun, so my heart sings to proclaim the coming of a great future which is already close upon us. We must be ready to welcome this new age, There are some people, who are proud and wise and practical, who say that it is not in human nature to be generous, that men will always fight one another, that the strong will conquer the weak and that there can be no real moral foundation for man’s civilization. We cannot deny the facts of their assertion that the strong have their rule in the human world: but I refuse to accept this as a revelation of truth.

It is co-operation and love, mutual trust and mutual aid which make for strength and real merit of civilization. New spiritual and moral power must continually be developed to enable men to assimilate their scientific gains, to control their weapons and machines, or these will dominate and enslave them. I know that many will point to the weakness of China and India and tell us that thrown as we are among other ruthlessly strong and aggressive world peoples, it is necessary to emphasize power and progress in order to avoid destruction. It is indeed true that we are weak and disorganised, at the mercy of every barbaric force, but that is not because of our love of peace but because we no longer pay the price of our faith by dying for it. We must learn to defend our humanity against the insolence of the strong, only taking care that we do not imitate their ways and, by turning ourselves brutal, destroy those very values which alone make our humanity worth defending. For danger is not only of the enemy without but of the treason within us. We had, for over a century, been so successfully hypnotised and dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot that, though choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our helplessness, overwhelmed by speed, we yet agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilization. If we ever ventured to ask, however humbly: Progress towards what, and progress for whom? - it was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such doubts about the absoluteness of progress. It is only of late that a voice has been heeded by us, bidding us take account not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot, but of the depth of ditches lying across its path. Today we are emboldened to ask: what is the value of progress if it make a desert of this beautiful world of man? And though we speak as members of a nation that is humiliated and oppressed and lies bleeding in the dust, we must never acknowledge the defeat, the last insult, the utter ruin of our spirit being conquered, of our faith being sold, We need to hear again and again, and never more than in this modem world of head-hunting and cannibalism in disguise that: - By the help of unrighteousness men do prosper, men do gain victories over their enemies, men do attain what they desire; but they perish at the root.

It is to this privilege of preserving, not the mere body of our customs and conventions, but the moral force which has given quality to our civilization and made it worthy of being honoured, that I invite the co-operation of the people of China, recalling the profound words of their sage, Lao-tze [Laozi]: Those who have virtue attend to their obligations; those who have no virtue attend to their claims. Progress which is not related to an inner ideal, but to an attraction which is external, seeks to satisfy endless claims. But civilization, which is an ideal, gives us power and joy to fulfil our obligations.

Let us therefore abide by our obligation to maintain and nourish the distinctive merit of our respective cultures and not be misled into believing that what is ancient is necessarily outworn and what is modern is indispensable. When we class things as modem or old we make a great mistake in following our calendar of dates. We know that the flowers of Spring are old, that they represent the dawn of life on earth, -but are they therefore symbols of the dead and discarded? Would we rather replace them with artificial lowers made of rags, because they were made yesterday”? It is not what is old or what is modern that we should love and cherish but what has truly a permanent human value. And can anything be more worthy of being cherished than the beautiful spirit of the Chinese culture that has made the people love material things without the strain of greed, that has made them love the things of this earth, clothe them with lender grace without turning them materialistic? They have instinctively grasped the secret of the rhythm of things, - not the secret of power that is in science, but the secret of expression. This is a great gift, for God atone knows this secret. I envy them this gift and wish our people could share it with them.

I do not know what distinctive merit we have which our Chinese friends and others may wish to share. Once indeed our sages dedicated themselves to the ideal of perfect sympathy and intellect, in order to win absolute freedom through wisdom and absolute love through pity. Today we cannot boast of either such wisdom or such magnanimity of heart. But I hope we are not yet reduced to such absolute penury of both as not to be able to offer at least a genuine atmosphere of hospitality, of an earnestness to cross over our limitations and move nearer to the hearts of other peoples and understand somewhat of the significance of the endless variety of man’s creative effort.

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