Tagore And The Concept Of Walled & Forest Civilisations

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This essay explores Tagore’s notion of walled and forest civilisations, their contrasting implications for human psychology, culture, man-nature relations and the direction of human development.

In his path breaking lectures on Integral Humanism, Sri Deendayal Upadhyaya touched on the question of integrating man divided by several polarities that afflict modern thought – man vs. nature, individual vs. society, individual vs. the universal, and ancients vs. the modern. The reflections of Tagore on the nature of walled and forest civilisations, about fifty years before him, have some connect with the problems explored by Deendayalji.

Tagore seems to give overarching importance to the man vs. nature polarity in his approach. His first discourse in the book ‘Sadhana’ analyses the umbilical link between man and nature, contrasting the western and eastern approach to nature, and tracing the differences to walls and forests.i

Walls and civilisation

Civilisation has two distinct meanings. The first relates to excellence in thought, manners and taste. The second, favoured by social scientists, refers to the degree of complexity of social organisation.

Social scientists after Gordon Childe, usually consider urban settlements or cities to be among the primary characteristics of any civilisaton. Thus, walls whether of cities or of castles, are closely allied to the western sense of history. Not so is the case with India.

Western walls vs. eastern forests

Long before Tagore, it was Swami Vivekananda who observed an amusing contrast. Whereas in the west, people draw pride of nobility and ancestry by tracing their descent to some robber-baron who lived in walled castles, the Hindus, even their kings try to trace their descent to some beggar-sage in the forest.iiThis comparison lays the foundation for the fundamental contrast between walled civilisations of the west and the forest civilisation of India.

Walled civilisation, mother nature and human problems

Civilisation that comes with walls is essentially problematic. Walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men, says Tagore. They are divisive. They divide man and nature, separating one from another. Over time, this separation has serious consequences for human nature.

All that man needs from nature, has to come from outside the walls – wrested from it as it were. And so develops the feeling “as if we are living in a hostile world where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things”. From this base, comes the “pride in thinking that [we are] ... subduing nature”.

This pride produces an orphaned humanity in the city, since here “the concentrated light of the mental vision” of man falls upon his own life and works. This results in “an artificial dissociation between himself and the universal nature within whose bosom he lies.” Within the walls of civilisation, man is bereaved first of mother nature, and then of father-spirit.

Thus, when “we violently detach ourselves from the inexhaustible life of nature ... we become merely man, not man-in-the-universe”.

This creates bewildering problems. Scientific and human progress is an unceasing effort to tackle these problems — each artificial solution bringing its own crop of “interminable difficulties”.

Since his life is no longer framed within the purpose of universal nature, but is self-defined, “man’s consciousness is restricted only to the immediate vicinity of his human self.” As a result, “the deeper roots of his nature do not find their permanent soil, his spirit is ever on the brink of starvation, and in the place of healthful strength he substitutes rounds of stimulation.”

Consumerism and runaway greed

An immediate consequence of the starvation-stimulation polarity that emerges is that poverty ceases to be a simple means, a facilitator, for integrating with the universal purpose. It now seems squalid and becomes shamefaced. Correspondingly, magnamity deserts wealth, and extravagance seizes it.

Káma and artha turn cancerous. Tagore says: “His appetites do not minister to his life, keeping to the limits of their purpose; they become an end in themselves.” An endless chase for acquisition is set in motion, in which human existence itself begins to burn. It is as if:

Human appetites “set fire to his life and play the fiddle in the lurid light of the conflagration”.

The corruption of arts and literature

Arts and behaviour are also engulfed by this psychological crisis.

Divested of the comforting embrace of the universal, in our manners, in behaviour, “in our self-expression we try to startle and not to attract”. In “art we strive for originality and lose sight of truth which is old and yet ever new”. Thus is born the jarring note in contemporary fashions, mannerisms and ‘modern art’.

“In literature we miss the complete view of man which is simple and yet great. Man appears instead as a psychological problem, or as the embodiment of a passion that is intense because abnormal, being exhibited in the glare of a fiercely emphatic artificial light.”

Quantitative growth and activity displaces quality and essence

The whole approach to life is distorted. Divested of his inner perspective, his being in nature, man “measures his greatness by its bulk ... judges his activity by its movement” ... Quality and essence are displaced from the human quest. In their stead, quantity, growth, and frenzied activity seize and engulf human life.

The psychological crisis

The sage warns:

When man leaves his resting-place in universal nature, when he walks on the single rope of humanity, it means either a dance or a fall for him, he has ceaselessly to strain every nerve and muscle to keep his balance at each step, and then, in the intervals of his weariness, he fulminates against Providence ...

The whole exercise of city civilisation takes a deep toll on human psychology.

In the final analysis, man “can never create his honey within the cells of his hive, for the perennial supply of his life food is outside their walls.” By cutting himself off from the source of his sustenance and healing, says Tagore, man

goads himself into madness, tears himself into shreds, and eats his own substance.”

Thus can the roots of most modern psychological ailments be traced to the walls that stifle civilisations.

Forest civilisation – contrasts with the west

In contrast to the west, in India developed a forest civilisation. Says Tagore:

... “it was in the forests that our civilization had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects.”

The first consequence of being in continual contact with the living growth of nature, with its overflow, was that the ancient Indian was freed “from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisitions”.

But it would be wrong to think that the support of external nature was the sole cause of the forest civilisation. There was also the innate nature of the ancient Indian himself.

Seeking to realise rather than acquire, to enlarge his consciousness, to grow into his surroundings, to establish the “great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world” by “interpenetration of ... being into all objects” was the “endeavour of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India". Even after great kingdoms emerged, even in the heydays of international commerce, the forest hermitages remained storehouses of wisdom and inspiration.

The harmony between man and nature lies at the foundation of the forest civilisaton. Unlike the west, the Indian “mind never has any hesitation in acknowledging its kinship with nature, its unbroken relation with all.” This is not an imaginary kinship. The poet argues that there could be “no communication ... with our surroundings if they were absolutely foreign to us.”

The everyday successes of man show that “there is a rational connection between him and nature, for we never can make anything our own except that which is truly related to us.”

Union as an alternative to imbalance between man and nature

The forest civilisation holds promise for a unique symbiosis with nature. When man seeks to “use the forces of nature for his own purpose ... in harmony with the power which is universal”, there comes the guarantee “that in the long run his purpose never can knock against the purpose which works through nature.”In other words, environmental well being is built into the approach of a forest civilisation,1 and there is no need for ‘after-the-fact-of-damage’ environmental protection that the western model of progress has produced.

Imbalance is built into the very foundations of the western model. With the light of human consciousness largely focussed on its artefacts and increasingly filtered through them, the western model of progress is inevitably man centred. Even its environmental concerns are anthropocentric in origin.

The spiritual traditions inherited by the west through its history are also more man-centred, breaking the continuum of nature “where human-nature begins”. Separating the bud from the blossom as it were, the ideal that they support is the dominion of man over nature.

In contrast, since it stresses the man-nature continuum, the forest civilisation locates the superiority of man in his power of union, and not in his power of possession. Instead of the dominion of man, the realisation of “our relationship with all, of entering into everything through union with God, was considered in India to be the ultimate end and fulfilment of humanity.”

Activity-efficiency vs. repose-harmony

The modern civilization of the west, is driven by the ideal of “physical, intellectual, and moral efficiency”, at every step “disciplining ... to fight nature and other races”. In its model of progress, "machines, ... appliances ... organisations ... multiplying at an amazing rate”. The purpose of the whole exercise is to manifest “man’s masterfulness, which ... has for its object the supremacy of himself over everything else”.

Tagore criticises this approach, arguing that when “man tries to raise himself to eminence by pushing and jostling all others, to achieve a distinction by which he prides himself to be more than everybody else, there he is alienated from” ... the “all-pervading Spirit, who is also the breath of his soul”.

Against the flurry of activity, the drive for efficiency and dominion of the western model, Tagore opposes the “repose which is in starry heavens” and the harmony “in the ever-flowing rythmic dance of creation” of the forest civilisation. The alternative that it proposes is sourced in the notion of union with nature - with all. Based upon soul consciousness, it produces comprehension rather than acquisition.

Advancing the fundamental need for soul consciousness and the comprehension in thought and feeling achieved through it, the poet says:

Man can destroy and plunder, earn and accumulate, invent and discover, but he is great because his soul comprehends all.”

The basic contrast, it seems clear, is between Śakti and Śiva. The challenge posed by the poet is to unite them in this world.

Integration by poetic assertion

Given the many and sharp contrasts between the walled and forest civilisations, it is reasonable to ask whether any reconciliation, whether any integration of the two is possible. It is here that the poet fails. He poses the problem, but fails to come up with a reasoned integration of the two diametrically opposed approaches.

Instead, he offers poetic assertion. Seeing complementarity in the opposing directions of human civilisation, he asserts with the confidence of the rustic ascetic to whom he once spoke:

'Whoever feels thirsty will of himself come to the river, ... They must come, one and all.'

And he sees the world coming to the forest civilisation for wisdom, harmony, repose, for soul consciousness, arguing:

Man's poverty is abysmal, his wants are endless till he becomes truly conscious of his soul. ... For a man who has realized his soul there is a determinate centre of the universe around which all else can find its proper place, and from thence only can he draw and enjoy the blessedness of a harmonious life.”

This is the noble heritage from our forefathers waiting to be claimed by us as our own, this ideal of the supreme freedom of consciousness. It is not merely intellectual or emotional, it has an ethical basis, and it must be translated into action. ... To be truly united in knowledge, love, and service with all beings, and thus to realize one's self in the all pervading God is the essence of goodness, and this is the keynote of the teachings of the Upanishads: Life is immense!”

The faith of the poet is inspiring. But the case is not closely argued. Thus, it seems that Tagore, while holding to light the sharp edges of the two contrasting approaches, left the task of integrating them, in thought and action, open to posterity.

This is the challenge before the philosophy and praxis of integral humanism.

About the Author

Dr. Rahul A. Shastri is the president of Samvit Kendra, Hyderabad, and Joint Director, National Akademi of Development, Hyderabad. He retired from the Faculty of Economics, Osmania University. He has published nearly three dozen research papers, and authored/coauthored three books in Economics. His recent online publications are “The Endless Agony of England’s Daughters” in Indiafacts.org, and “Manufacturing History Collusively” in Centre Right India.

References
1.All quotations of Tagore are from “Sadhana - a realisation of life”, published first in 1915, by Macmillan.
2. Collected Works of Swami Vivekananda, v. 4, p 71, also p 64, p 70 v. 3;