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Tagore’s tryst with destiny of India: Beyond secularism

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“Jana Gana Man” composed by Rabindranath Tagore was adopted by constituent assembly as India’s national anthem on 24th January 1948. Tagore’s beautifully crafted lyrics written in Sanskritized Bengali portrays pluralistic heritage of the Republic i.e., Unity in Diversity in geography, languages, and regions of the country. In a multilingual nation, the lyrics of the anthem are inclusive of all major regional languages. The lyrics of the anthem were adopted from Tagore’s poem Bharoto Bhagya Bidhata written in 1911, first sung during annual session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta.  

National anthems have been an important component of identity in the era of Westphalian sovereignty. British national anthem “God Save the King” is oldest in the world with attribution dated to 1618. The lyrics addressing God focuses upon Monarch as the personification of divine’s rule on Earth. It is the monarch who embodies ideals of victory, prosperity, and good governance.

However, it is not the oldest song to become a national anthem as “Filips van Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde,” written in honor of Willem van Oranje-Nassau, the founder of the Netherlands was composed in 1572. The precedent for other European monarchies was set with description of ruler as embodiment of the nation.

Prussian national anthem, which later became anthem of German Empire was set in tune with “God Save the Queen” but omitted use of God instead hailing the monarch Heil dir im Siegerkranz, Herrscher des Vaterlands, Heil Kaiser dir “Hail thee in victor’s laurels, ruler of the fatherland, hail to thee, emperor.” France having procured strong tradition of secular thought has used La Marseillaise, troops marching song from the days of revolution as national anthem for all the five republics.  

National anthems have evolved to be vital to define national character, manifesting state ideals. They are played during diplomatic meetings, state conferences, national celebrations, sporting events and other functions. It would not be wrong to say national anthems form part of nation building. After WW2, Germany (erstwhile West Germany) omitted use of first stanza “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der welt” Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world.

During fractured provincialism of Holy Roman Empire and post-Napoleonic inter-warring among German states, the lyrics originally denoted ideal of a unified Germany. The lyrics became popular during the Nazi rule and as part of Entnazifizierung (Denazification), only third stanza has been in use as the official anthem since then. 

Orientation of Indian National Anthem 

National Anthems are ruler oriented, nation oriented and god oriented. Most of the modern secular states and republics avoid the reference to God and even heads of the states, as they are one of the nation that is already being revered. India’s national anthem opens up by adressing, the rulers of minds of people, the one who is Dispenser of India’s destiny and in whose name the victory is pronounced. Only the first stanza of Bharoto Bhagya Vidhata was adopted as national anthem and interpretations around the Dispenser of India’s destiny have been many.  

When Bharoto Bhagya Vidhata was first performed, King Geroge V was the Emperor of India and was set to visit India during the annual session of Indian National Congress in 1911, where the anthem was sung publicly for the first time. In 1913 Tagore became the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature for his work Geetanjali published in London a year prior.

After Bharoto Bhagaya Vdhata was perfromed, Tagore was hailed by the British controlled press as a loyalist of the Empire. The interpretaiton was drawn around the 2nd stanza where gracious call of the dispenser is answered by multiple faiths of Indian people and they weave the garland of love, coming to the side of his throne. The stanza goes like:

Your call is announced continuously, we heed Your gracious call
The Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims and Christians,
The East and the West come together, to the side of Your throne
And weave the garland of love.
Oh! You who bring in the unity of the people! Victory be to You, dispenser of the destiny of India!
Victory, victory, victory to You!

The lyrics made it seem very likely how Tagore is hailing George V as Dispenser of nation’s destiny with a secular shroud around it. This version of events has been a popular belief and is accepted by many as the actual meaning of these lyrics. In 2015 ex-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Kalayan Singh demanded removal of “Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya he and it to be replaced by Jana gana mana mangala jaya he in the national anthem. Kalyan Singh, then governor of Rajasthan found line to be offensive because he believed adhinayaka refers to King George V of England.

Tagore was haunted by the premise of the controversy to his deathbed when senior journalist, Nanda Dulal Sengupta asked him if the adhinayaka in the poem was King George V. Tagore responded by expressing his wish to slash down one of the songs he had written- — Sarthok janam amar jonmechi ei deshe (I have achieved salvation by being born in this country).”

In a letter to Bengali revolutionary Pulin Behari Sen, Tagore shed light on the matter That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.” The letter was later published in Brahmo Samaj’s magazine Bichatra.

Prominent Indologist Dr. Koenrad Elst holds that other than the glorification of nation, India’s National Anthem is a veneration of the divine guru. As one moves to 3rd stanza of Bharoto Bhagya Vidhata it becomes clear to the learned mind, who is the dispenser of India’s destiny. India’s national anthem is not ruler-oriented, god-oriented or nation oriented. It is distinctly nation and god-oriented, the god here identified as Shri Krishna of the Bhagwat Geeta.

The way of life is somber as it moves through ups and downs, but we, the pilgrims, have followed it through ages.
Oh! Eternal Charioteer, the wheels of yourchariot echo day and night in the path
In the midst of fierce revolution, your conch shell sounds.
You save us from fear and misery.
Oh! You who guide the people through torturous path, victory be to You, dispenser of the destiny of India!
Victory, victory, victory to You!

The use of words like Eternal Charioteer (अनन्त सारथि), conch shell(शंख) and the famous expression (युगे युगे) makes it crystal clear what Tagore was referring to. The iconography around the lyrics portray Lord Krishna as the ruler of minds of people, charioting India’s destiny for millennials and millennials. Tagore as a Brahmo Samaji avoided direct mention to the divine incarnation but his message resounds unequivocally for the pilgrims(यात्री).

Creation of Pluralistic Ideal

There are only 2 words in preamble of the Indian constitution that didn’t go through debate in Constituent Assembly, SECULAR SOCIALIST. During the constituent assembly debates, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar refuted a whole amendment for adding “SECULAR, FEDERAL SOCIALIST” introduced by K.T. Shah. According to him the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy bore testimony to principles of justice, equality and fair play. Besides there is no attempt in Indian Constitution to make Republic a theocratic state and idea of Secularism i.e. state’s neutrality on religion is embedded thoroughly in the living document.          

For Tagore the contours of majoritarian nationalism delimit the scope of pluralism. His advocacy of religious pluralism is well circulated and 2nd stanza of Bharoto Bhagaya Vidhata also champions the same cause. Despite his Universalist fervor and skepticism around nationalist temper, the spirit of national anthem is not secular rather it is thoroughly Hindu. The pluralistic thread of Indian Civilization is accommodating of all faiths stemming from the ideals of universality enshrined in “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” The World is one family.

Tagore as a Brahmo Samaji paid reverence to an incarnation of Vishnu yet Kalayan Singh, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh whose government was toppled for standing at the ruins of Babri Mosque lambasted Tagore. Such is the cloak of colonialism on a nation that requires arena of Secularism in vast field of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” and where a leader of Hindu Nationalist Party berates hymn of his divine as a gospel of the despot.  

For Tagore civilization matters, nation-states do not. Despite his commitment to Indian Nationalist cause, he frequently criticized dogmatic form it might take and complete denigration of Western influence. Tagore ideology had always been with non-conviction of nation states, which according to him limited the scope of individualistic expression.  

Even the official Indian National anthem evades the ground reality of fractured provincialism in today’s South Asia. The name on whom the victory is pronounced even echoes in PUNJAB (land of five Indus tributaries), SINDH (land of Indus), HIMACHAL (Himalayas), BANG (land of Bengali people) and UCCHALA-JALADHI-TARANG (is chanted by the waves of Indian Ocean). The mark of colonial enterprise might divide the people over borders but mark of a civilization reverberates with every layer that is removed. 

Other than Tagore, two of his contemporaries Mohammed Iqbal and Banikam Chand Chatterjee also composed honors for the nation. Iqbal, who later spearheaded creation of Pakistan wrote two beautiful hymns celebrating the land. Sare Jahan se Acha Hindustan Humara is a beautiful iteration of national unity, country’s landscapes, pluralism and revolution. His other work Mera Watan Wai Hai is another beautiful set of hymns laid in idea of nation, its history and myth around it.

The latter of his works evade temper of secular ideal and embraces the primacy of separatist cause of Indian Muslims. Bankim Chatterjee’s Vande Matram is a direct veneration of India in the form of Bharat Mata, a Hindu deity. From the pre-independence days many Hindu nationalist groups sought adoption of this song as anthem for India which was meet with fierce resistance from other religious groups, especially Muslims.

The idea of non-Hindus revering a Hindu deity was unacceptable to many nationalist leaders including Tagore, who pointed out in a letter to Subhash Chandra Bose, that this hymn is essentially dedicated to goddess Durga and people from other religions might have a problem with it.  

Tagore, in 2 letters written around same time pointed out someone’s worship of divine in one and in the other defended his subtle homage of the same. Perhaps this is what Universalist fervor of Tagore is really about. If doctrines of Islam and Christianity can’t work around idolatry of divine in a polytheistic society like India, his idea was to work around it. The adoption from a Hindu Scripture that not only speaks as a conclusion but also meets with Abrahamic temper of monotheism.

Shree Krishna in his Vishwaroop speaks with a 1000 faces speaks as I, charioting the destiny of warrior prince Arjun. If non-Hindus can pay homage to a Hindu god in national anthem, then the ideal of pluralism is truly realized. The fabric of this pluralism is quoted in “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” from Sanskrit philosophy in Hinduism, an Indian religion.

Secularism is a western concept that can’t fully encapsulate vividness of a polytheistic society and reverence of divine ideal, as the dispenser of nation’s destiny. A nation where philosophers play a thousand variations based on one monistic theme, Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava “All faiths are possible”.

At the time when India’s destiny is to be marked by virtue of being the host of G-20 summit it is important take note of Tagore’s legacy which has been built around “the ideals of humanity” over nationalism. His ideals of a globalized society lay emphasis on principles of tolerance, unity and co-operation.

In a world rattled by aftershocks of COVID-19, the humanitarian crisis plunging Russian and Ukrainian citizens in disarray, multiple ethno-religious conflicts, climate change, inflation, energy crisis, mass layoffs and possibility of conflict escalation in Eastern Europe, the virtue of multi-layered cooperation espoused by Tagore should be at forefront of close examination and thought. The time is set for India to manifest what it has always sought to project itself as “Vishwaguru.” From Pandit Nehru’s speech at the stroke of midnight hour to Narendra Modi’s pronouncement at Kartvya Path, the destiny of India has led to final steps of reclaiming the title from India’s own classical language.

Tagore’s tryst with destiny lays out the message of hope in bleakest of nights when the eternal charioteer’s blessing will carry pilgrims to the hills of eastern horizon where the sun has finally risen. The mark of India that is Bharat is national orientation through sacred manifestation, so believed Rabindranath Tagore and citizens singing the anthem.


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