India’s attempt is to find a common civilisational articulation and approach that shall enable all stakeholders to move towards laying the foundational structure of a new global order, a fresh framework of cooperation, exchange and osmosis
It was deeply symbolic and significant that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over the “baton” of the G20 presidency for India in Bali. About 96 years ago, amidst monsoon in 1927, one of India’s most iconic poet-philosophers, to the world a rare exponent and embodiment of India’s civilisational wisdom, Rabindranath Tagore, had stopped-over at Bali, in his sojourn across Southeast Asia. Tagore was trying to connect, reconnect, to revivify and to reinvent India’s spiritual, cultural and civilisational linkages with this ancient and wise part of the world.
Of his urge to explore the world, of his yearning to make a civilisational connect, Tagore wrote in 1915, to CF Andrews, also an educationist and activist who had thrown his lot with India’s struggle for freedom, “My own mind… is athirst, longing to touch the skirt of the dim distance… I have had a pamphlet sent to me by a distinguished American artist who spent three years of his life in Bali, an island near Java. Some remnant of Old India remains stranded in that lonely place for centuries. Its voice comes to me across the sea mingled with the murmur of lovely palm groves. Why not pay a visit to that prisoner of time and see if it has a language that I dimly understand.” He had to wait a few more years, till 1927, to undertake that historic voyage.
At a civic farewell accorded to him before his departure to Southeast Asia, Tagore spoke of how “the real wealth of India was never kept hidden, like an old deed in an iron safe”, of how the “only true expression of India was in all that she gave openly and freely” and of how, through her capacity to give her real asset to others, she earned the “title to call the ‘outsider’ her own. “A planet shrinks and gets isolated”, he said, “the moment its light is quenched. The shrinking of spirit is the direct result of our being forced to get confined within ourselves.” To the distinguished gathering which had come to bid him “Godspeed”, Tagore spoke of the “grand message of Fraternity” which must “dawn within us.”
Tagore’s letters from Southeast Asia, “Java Jatrir Patra” — letters of a traveller to Java — are replete with images and descriptions that penetrate the essential realm of civilisational linkages, of cultural connect and philosophical synthesis. As he alighted in Bali with an array of young scholars and thinkers from India, Tagore saw the “Earth in all the freshness of its eternal youth.” He saw the old centuries having here “their ever new incarnation”, and lyrically wrote of how in this island, “modern time has spread itself over the past centuries and become one with them. It has no need to shorten time, for everything here belongs to all time, as much to the past as to the present.”
Symbolic isn’t it, in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s G20 vision of unity, that Tagore and the Chief of Karem Asem, Raja Karangasem, of Bali understood each other’s common thought through the thread of Sanskrit. “I did not know the Chief’s language, he did not know mine,” wrote Tagore, “nor was there any interpreter; so during the drive I kept looking out of the window in silence,” until “in one place, where we got the glimpse of the blue sea through the opening in the woods, the Chief suddenly came out with the word samudra (Sanskrit for sea). Finding me both surprised and pleased at this, he went on to repeat the synonyms: samudra, sagara, abdhi, jaladhya, following them up with sapta–samudra (the seven seas), sapta-parvata (the seven mountains), sapta-vana (the seven forests), sapta-akasa (the seven skies). Then pointing to a hill he first gave the Sanskrit word for it, adri, and then proceeded to repeat the names: Sumeru, Himalaya, Vindhya, Malaya, Rishyamukha. Then when we came to a river flowing along the foot of the hill, he went on: Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Kaveri, Saraswati…”
Laying the foundational structure of a new global order
India’s attempt in and through her leadership of the G20 is to find a common civilisational articulation and approach that shall enable all stakeholders to move towards laying the foundational structure of a new global order, a fresh framework of cooperation, exchange and osmosis.
Prime Minister Modi’s clarion call to the world, from the shores of Bali, arguing that for the “safe future of the planet, the sense of trusteeship is the solution” was an echo of a far off age, when the poet-laureate of India, himself the bearer of India’s liberating message, had anchored his ship on the shores of Bali. “Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not”, wrote the poet in his opus Gitanjali, “Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own. Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger”, radiating the essential aspirations of unity and collaboration that India always exuded.
The poet’s Gitanjali became India’s window to the world, an India, which aspired to be free, as Tagore, wrote again perhaps from Bali’s Munduk, “Free to accomplish her own important mission in the world, free to fill her own God-given place among the great nations.” India’s assumption of the G20 leadership as she completed the seventy-fifth anniversary of her Independence, is a remarkable vindication of that hope and aspiration.
From Swami Vivekananda to Sri Aurobindo, from Tagore to Gandhi, India’s many epochal and iconic philosophers and shapers spoke of India’s essentially uniting message. It was a message that spurted out of the bases of her civilisational vision of a fundamental unity. It was inspired and chiselled by the foundational mantra of the one in many and many in one or as Sri Aurobindo once described it, “diversity in oneness”.
“When one knows thee”, wrote Tagore in Gitanjali, “then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose the bliss of the touch of the one in the play of many.” That there is none who is alien, that no doors are shut, that the play of the one is manifested in the many drives India’s vision of G20. It radiated in PM Modi’s message of “One Earth, One Family, One Future.”
That India’s assumption of the leadership of G20, happened in Bali, is thus symbolic because Tagore, in a sense, represented and radiated the essence of the message of “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. In his age and time, Tagore was looked upon as one of the most articulate and prolific exponents of this core civilisational philosophy which was and has always been India’s. Tagore’s educational experiment institutionalized in Santiniketan, in Bengal, for instance, was called, “Visva-Bharati” – the world in India and India in the world! Tagore chose as its motto, the ancient Sanskrit verse, “Yatra visvam bhavati ekaniram”, which meant, “Where the whole world meets in one nest.”
Tagore’s biographer Krishna Kripalani wrote of how the poet declared “Visva-Bharati” as representing “India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati “acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best”, the poet wrote. It attracted some of the best minds of the East and the West — Sylvain Levy, Stella Kramrisch, Giuseppe Tucci, Tan Yun-Shan, Vicenc Lesny, Moriz Winternitz, LN Elmhirst — minds who found in its ambience and structure an unhampered scope to absorb and internalise India’s message of harmony, synergy, synthesis and collaboration. When Prime Minister Modi invited the world, through G20, to India, offering India’s wealth of mind and of the spirit, it was the echo of India’s ideal of the world being one nest that came in ripples of resonance from the past. It is unique and life-giving, exuding a fresh resolve in a challenging world.
In a historic address delivered to the Gujarat Sahitya Sabha in Ahmedabad, in 1923, Rabindranath Tagore had spoken of inviting the world “to share the best we can offer” and argued that “the learned men of the world still believe that India has a message of peace…” A hundred years after that expression of faith, it is that message which India shall renew and radiate through her leadership and vision of the G20.
The writer, an honorary director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi, is member, National Executive Committee, BJP. Views expressed are personal.