Blogs >> Tagore, Ecology and the Self - Stephan Harding

Tagore, Ecology and the Self - Stephan Harding

by Stephan Harding

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is nebulously remembered in the West as the first oriental winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 and as some sort of Indian sage, but beyond these two facts little remains of his memory in our culture.  To ignore him, however, is our great loss, since he has much to offer us today in our urgent search for our rightful place within the world of nature.

Tagore was the inspiration behind the creation of the Dartington Hall Trust in south west England by the American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst and her husband Leonard, an English vicar’s son who had worked closely for many years with Tagore in India. The Trust was established in the 1920’s.  Soon after, Tagore visited the Old Postern, now the home of Schumacher College, created twenty five years ago by the Dartington Hall Trust on its extensive rural estate.

So what does Tagore have to offer us today?  To explore this question, I find it helpful to use a concept of the Self (distinguished from our everyday self, or ego, by the capital S) inspired by the great Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung. For Jung, the Self is our contact with the infinite and eternal given to us when we realise and accept the uniqueness of our limited human personality. Even though Tagore did not refer to the Self he did often refer to the eternal, and how we can encounter it through our humanity.  After reading a great deal of his poetry, theatre pieces and prose, I am convinced that Tagore knew the Self, that he lived the Self, and that the Self lived through him. He saw it everywhere, even in the most seemingly mundane places and events. He knew how easy it is for us to forget it, and how hard it is to find.  The Self gives us many opportunities of catching its glimpse through Tagore’s poetry, such as these lines from his collection, Fruit Gathering:

"A handful of dust could hide your signal

When I did not know its meaning

Now that I am wiser I read it in all that hid it before

It is painted in the petals of flowers

Waves flash it from their foam

Hills hold it high on their summits.

I had my face turned from you,

Therefore I read the letters awry and knew not their meaning"

In these lines Tagore shows us that there is an innermost living aspect of things, a mysterious creative intelligence that communicates, speaks, transforms and evolves.  Its speech is always a comfort, because it tells us that at the heart of things everything participates in a grand purpose whose outcome is unknown, even as it creates itself in matter. Tagore felt that these creative impulses in nature can be perceived by our faculty of imagination, the image-making interface between us and the greater intelligence which enfolds us.

Jung made empirical discoveries about the Self that resonate with Tagore’s own deep insights and experiences.  Jung found that the Self communicates with our imagination using the language of symbols – images redolent with meaning which we cannot fully comprehend, but which nevertheless bring us healing if we learn to at least partially decode them.  The ultimate human symbol of wholeness is the mandala.  Mandala images are nearly always circular, with the theme of four (the number of wholeness) present and sometimes amplified within them.  The central point of the mandala represents the Self – that essence which for Jung, Tagore and many others is the spark of the infinite and eternal within everything that appears in time and space, but which is also timeless – the unknown ‘dark matter’ of consciousness beyond our everyday minds which is the healing source of life itself.

The Self emerges through Tagore in an inherently ecological way through his own rich cultural background.  In his essay Creative Unity he shows us how a deep sense of connection with nature was firmly established in Indian culture at least two thousand years ago by sages living frugally in communities known as tapovana deep in the extensive wild forests that once covered the Indian subcontinent.  It was here, in groves of wild trees, with luscious tropical flowers and fruits all around them, surrounded by great biodiversity and a welcoming climate, that these forest sages realised the fundamental unity of life which is a key aspect of the Self.  One can imagine them sitting almost naked under great shade spreading trees gazing out on sun-dappled labyrinths of leaf and branch, catching glimpses of chital and sambar deer, langur monkeys and perhaps the occasional tiger.  Here, the sages delved deeply into the inner nature of the great abundance of life, finding themselves in the Self of the forest, and in the great Self at the heart of all. It is this richly toned Indian manifestation the Self, so deeply marinated in the pungent, sweet scents of India’s forests and the soft beat of her drums, the tabla and the mridangam, that Tagore brings us today. He shows us the wild ecology of India melded with the sophisticated wisdom of thousands of years of India’s cultural exploration of the Self. Tagore was a living exponent of this ancient culture. He brought its wisdom to Western shores, creating unseen waves in the Western world that are now helping to germinate our own dormant seeds of ecological awareness.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that this Indian manifestation of the Self that appeared through Tagore indirectly influenced the life and work of the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.  A kind of modern forest sage, Naess spent many years studying Spinoza, Sanskrit and Gandhi in his isolated cabin high up on a remote Norwegian mountain. Exploring these deep veins of thought and experience led him to coin the concept of the ‘ecological self’ – the felt experience that our true identity, both physically and psychologically, is nothing other than the whole of nature – that our planet earth, in the words of American philosopher David Abram, is our wider body, our wider and wilder mind.  With the help of Tagore, Jung, Naess, Abram and many others, we at last come to realise that the Self is found not just in humans, but in every speck of matter – in every quark, atom and molecule, in air, water, rocks, in every living being. One comes to realise that the Self experiences and reflects upon itself through each different entity.  I use Arne Naess’ term ‘deep ecology’ for this realisation, in which we understand that all nature has intrinsic value, irrespective of its use for us humans. Clearly, we desperately need such an explicitly ecological concept of the Self if we are to avert the very worst of our contemporary global crisis, for we cannot destroy what we love. Today, in the light of Tagore, Jung, holistic science and deep ecology, we can confirm that the Self is intrinsically ecological, that it is deeply about relationship – that it brings itself forth and explores itself by means of relationship; that via relationship the Self makes itself real.

Tagore brought these insights of the Self into many different fields.  In his book, Our Universe, he saturates his account of contemporary discoveries of Western science with the poetic aura of his beloved ancient Indian forest sages.  He shows us how to redeem the seemingly cold-blooded ‘objective’ attitude of science with a deeply felt intuition of the cosmos as a great personality, as revealed by his own sacred culture. He gives us a taste of what a truly Gaian science might one day be, a science transformed into a great flowering tree of both outer and inner knowledge through the reconnection of its xylem and phloem with the rich, dark, teeming life of the psychological soil of the Self.

Tagore made considerable practical contributions to education.  Greatly influenced by the ancient forest sages of India, he sought to create a modern tapovana in his north Indian school, where the “hive world” of modern industrial society, with its “world-weariness and rebellion against nature” could be counteracted by discovering fulfilment through harmony with all things by means of shared work in gardens, kitchens and workshops, and through shared learning.  This sense of harmony, he says “has the effect of arousing in us a great desire to seek our freedom… in the depths of the universe, and makes us offer our reverence to the divinity in fire, water, trees, in everything moving and growing”.  Perfect freedom, for Tagore, lies in the perfect harmony of relationship through “the union of perfect sympathy”.  To allow us to realise our freedom, he says, education needs to let us be “vitally savage and mentally civilised.”  Education, should not be like “a painful hospital treatment for the curing… the painful malady of ignorance, but is a function of health, the natural expression of mind’s vitality” – more like a holiday for learning in which bodily movement and artistic expression are essential for the comprehension and integration of ideas into one’s innermost being.   There is at least one place of higher education in the West inspired by the Self’s great flowering in Tagore’s life and thought: Schumacher College – a modern tapovana on the Dartington Estate, the very place where, nestled amongst tranquil English fields and forests, Tagore planted the seeds of a truly ecological civilisation.


Dr Stephan Harding oversees the MSc in Holistic Science, teaching on the core models and as part of several of the short courses at the College

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