Charting the Ethical Landscape: Tagore's Vision of Nation in 'Where the Mind Is Without Fear'

Tagore reveals the possibility of a nation that essentially emerges from the thoughts and actions of individuals who respond to the truth within their inner being.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action–
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. 

~ Gitanjali, Poem, 35

In ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’, his prayer-invocation to God, Rabindranath Tagore envisions a future nation emanating from an inner being of personal morality and ethical probity. Tagore believed in the existence of the sacred godhead within us all, and was convinced that it is this fount of wisdom that makes possible the creation of a sphere within which the humane in us can thrive and prosper, and therefore considered it to be also the origin of all human nations.

Though originally titled Prarthona, when published in Tagore’s 1901 poetry collection Naibedya (Offerings), ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ was included as ‘Chitto Jetha Bhaiyashunyo’ in the selection of his Bangla poems Gitanjali (Song Offerings), which was published in 1910. Two years later in 1912, Tagore’s own translation of Gitanjali into English was brought out by the Indian Society, London, retaining its Bangla title. The version of ‘Chitto Jetha Bhaiyashunyo’ in English – ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ – is, therefore, Tagore’s own rendering, though essentially expository and prosaic — in stark contrast to its version in Bangla that is composed in regular, rhyming verses with melodious and sombre cadences.

Reading Gitanjali even in English is an unforgettable experience, especially for those who have mystical inclinations, as is testified by W.B. Yeats’s following words in the Introduction to Gitanjali:

“I have carried the manuscript of these translations with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.”

Tagore’s inspiration for Gitanjali came from many sources. His father considered Rammohun Roy as his Guru, and was associated with the reformist religious movement the Brahmo Samaj. Tagore imbibed the movement’s ideas and philosophy as well as that of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the songs of the Bauls — the Bhakti itinerant singers of Bengal— about whom he included Kshiti Mohun Sen’s seminal essay in his very personal book The Religion of Man, as a way of paying his tribute to them.

Also read: Tagore’s Prophetic Vision in ‘Letters From Russia’

Throughout Gitanjali, therefore, we feel the poet’s intense spiritual wistfulness as he constantly yearns to come face to face with God, whose presence he senses in the physical manifestations around him as well as within him. In Gitanjali’s words and cadences, images and symbols, we find embodied throughout Tagore’s relentless longing to be in touch with the mystical and the metaphysical.

However, among all the one hundred and three poems of Gitanjali, ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ stands out as unique not only because the mystical yearning of the other poems is absent from it, but because in the poem, even though it is addressed to God, the metaphysical recedes into the background.

As we read ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ we hear the poetry of exalting wisdom since many profound ideas are interfused into a harmonious whole. Quite evident too is a continuous organic development of the poem, as it seamlessly moves between the delineation of the qualities that Tagore believes are essential for an ideal state and an internal domain of values and norms which are born out of an individual’s ethical questing.

The poetry that we find in ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ could only have been written by a person whose experiences of life were that of a sage and whose intellect was suffused with historical perspicacity. Consider the opening of the poem:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

In these lines, Tagore envisages in the future the widening of the personal, social, and political spaces, something which was quite natural as the poet was writing in the year 1901 when India was reeling under the yoke of British imperialism.  For over a century by then, the colonial masters had been openly employing repressive measures, demeaning the natives through deprivation and exploitation, and constantly instilling in them a sense of their own inferiority — something that always happens in a colonial situation. As Indians had begun to assert their independence and to reclaim their dignity, it was acutely sensed by them that their inalienable freedoms and rights were being cruelly and unjustly curtailed. The reference to fear therefore suggests a complex of feelings that includes anxiety, despair, disillusionment, and, above all, a sense of despair.

The line — Where knowledge is free; — needs close scrutiny. When Tagore nurtures a dream for knowledge to be accessible to all, he is, in fact, reminding us of a great injustice that has been perpetrated on most of the humankind since the beginning of civilisation.  Throughout history, we find that knowledge was always considered as the preserve of a privileged few, and more ominously it was used not only to dominate and control but to enslave and maim others. In human societies most of their members were deliberately deprived of knowledge resulting in deleterious effects on them – something we find so distinctly documented by Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure, a novel that was published just six years before Tagore wrote his poem.

Also read: Tagore’s Critique of the Modern Condition

However, it is not unreasonable to imagine that in this line Tagore is expressing the aspirations of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. The cherished dream of the French philosophes of the eighteenth century – Voltaire (1694–1778) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) Denis Diderot (1713–1784) – was to make knowledge available to all so that everyone could participate not only in civilisation’s progress, but use it for self-actualisation. Its direct consequence was the Encyclopédie that gathered the entire knowledge of humankind within covers of a book that could be read by anybody.

Voltaire. Photo: Workshop of Nicolas de Largillière/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In the third line, Tagore warns against selfishness and mutual dissensions. Both divisiveness and selfishness emanate from narrow mindedness and pettiness of heart. It can only be avoided with the opening of the human mind that will follow when knowledge is free. Tagore opposed throughout his life all kinds of boundaries —regional, religious, sectarian, and intellectual, convinced that only knowledge —knowledge rooted in truth and wisdom — can help us free ourselves from bigotry and meanness of spirit.

In the fourth line, an inflection occurs in the intellectual drift of ‘Where the Mind is without Fear’. While the earlier lines speak of qualities that belong to the external world — the public sphere in the Habermasian sense — there is now a turning towards the internal realm of the individual. Consider now:

Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

These lines envisage a programme that would take an individual his entire life to achieve — but, more crucially, the lines provide the framework for the development of nations and human civilisation. To unravel the constellation of ideas inhering in these lines, and to understand the meditativeness behind them, we require to look deeply.

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Words are mundane as long as they remain mere acts of communication and are meant to serve only commerce, but they become sacred and divine when they transcend these contingencies to embody the truth of mind and soul. As the tenor of the poem goes there is no mystical element involved here— the phrase ‘the depth of truth’ pertains to the ethical dimensions of our inner being. Only when words are shaped by this inner morality and spiritual goodness that truth is born. For Tagore, truth always arises after engagement with one’s moral being. As ethical probity takes root in an individual’s heart and mind, the individual creates and recovers truth from within impelled by the reason’s search for what the Greeks called arête or moral virtue.

Also read: ‘Knockings At My Heart’ Rediscovers Tagore’s Unpublished Autograph Poems

Words forged in this crucible of inner moral being issue forth to form the vision of a just nation, the ideal state— that Tagore believed India would be. Truth is therefore for Tagore a constant and relentless effort of self-formation by each individual as an ethical being and to project that out in the physical reality without — to body forth the nation.

This is no easy task. That’s why Tagore prays in the next line for a metaphorical space

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

The ‘tireless striving’ is, of course, moral, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual,  since the notion of human perfection is like the ever-present but never reached horizon, a fact that motivates each individual and each nation to dream and to recreate it anew. The tireless striving has a complement in the public space an individual lives in — the social, the economic, and the political are significant too, so that the individuals live in pristine conditions that lead them towards self-realisation and self-discovery.

These are not idealistic terms, for Tagore clearly sees that when knowledge is free not only opportunities become equal, but we become equal, living with dignity a life of openness and transparency in which treachery, deceit and intrigue have no place, The idea is reinforced in the next two lines:

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Though throughout Gitanjali, Tagore is mystically inclined, the greatest surprise he springs in this poem is that along with truth he emphasises the central role of reason in life. Certainly, Tagore sees reason as essential to dispel the darkness of superstition, tradition, customs, uncritical and unthinking subservience to ideas and beliefs. From the second line, with the emphasis on ‘knowledge’, we already know that all dogmatism and bigotry, narrow-mindedness and pettiness of heart, are anathema to Tagore.

Credit: Facebook/Rabindranath TagoreCredit: Facebook/Rabindranath Tagore

Photo: Facebook/Rabindranath Tagore

If we pay attention to the privileging of reason — no doubt the cause of and the closest kin to knowledge—we can sense the deep thinking that has gone into the writing of these lines. Reason is in fact an idea that Tagore derives from the European Enlightenment, and must not come as a surprise here — though he mostly writes as an Eastern sage and mystic—as he has already used the concept of secular knowledge in the second line as an essential condition that would finally deliver us the ‘heaven of freedom’. He always considered reason as central to human being and existence, insisting in that great essay of his, Satyer Ahovan, written in  1921 and entitled in English as The Call of Truth, that:

Our mind must acknowledge the Truth of the intellect, just as our heart does the Truth of love. That is exactly why I am so anxious to reinstate reason on its throne.

Also read: Why It Is Important to Preserve Tagore’s ‘Gurudev’ Image

The supplication that follows is the logical corollary to what has gone before:

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

Undoubtedly, the poem hinges on this line, as it sums up its essence and wisdom. Thought and action are seen as complementing each other —thoughtless action and actionless thought have no place in Tagore’s emerging nation—a deeply felt vision that he found embodied in Mahatma Gandhi when he appeared on the political scene in India just about a decade later.

Only words and thought born of truth and firmly rooted in it can lead us—an individual and a nation— toward the action that is ethical and aspiring to be closer to the sacredness in life. But for Tagore neither truth, nor thought, nor action ever reaches stasis as he believes that their vitality derives from the fact that they aspire to new phases of perfection, an idea he shares with W.B. Yeats.

This is to be understood from another perspective too—if an individual has to strive towards perfection — discovering ethical truth within and then combining thought and action in an ever-widening realm — the individual’s responsibilities and personal involvement become too compelling. Tagore’s emphasis on this aspect is crucial as only this can enable individuals and nations to escape ossified dogmas and institutions, unthinking habits and conventions  — and inertia that brings certain death, both intellectual and spiritual.

This firm belief makes Tagore write in Gitanjali:

But I find that thy will knows no end in me. And when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders. (Poem, 37)

When Mahatma Gandhi appeared on the scene in India in 1914 Tagore’s dream came true. He found him as an individual whose inner self was suffused in truth and ethical thought, and whose actions always arose from this inner being. We all know how Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts and actions shaped the India of the future. We can thus assert without fear of exaggerating that not only does Mahatma Gandhi’s spirit pervade the Indian constitution, but we can find enshrined in it also the essence and spirit of Tagore’s ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’.

We should not – repeat should not – ignore the fact that there is a conspicuous silence about many things in Tagore’s poem—revealed truth, scriptural morality, the sanctity of customs and traditions, appeal to authority, and infallibility of ancient wisdom. It was reason that was supreme for Tagore as it was only this human faculty, he felt, that led humans sift truth from untruth, an idea that finds expression in these very intense, personal, and passionate words very early in Gitanjali itself:

I shall ever try to keep all untruths out from my thoughts, knowing that thou art that truth which has kindled the light of reason in my mind. (Poem,4)

Also read: The Relevance of Rabindranath Tagore’s Politics on His 158th Birth Anniversary

In his essay The Call of Truth, Tagore sums up his belief about the relationship between an individual and his country in the following words: “It (our country) is dear to us, because it is the expression of our own soul.”

In ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ therefore Tagore reveals the possibility of a nation that essentially emerges from the thoughts and actions of individuals who respond to the truth within their inner being. In the poem, this enactment of his vision is absolute as for Tagore the political sphere is a reflection of the religious and the spiritual.

He believed, as Mahatma Gandhi also did, that the political sphere could not be segregated from the spiritual and the ethical—if anything, the political realm of a nation must mirror the spiritual dimensions of its inherited culture and civilization, even more essentially when it comes to an ancient country like India. ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ thus distinctively and uniquely delineates and embodies Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of the future nation-state — the nation-state that is ethical, spiritual, and both celestial and eternal.

Shikoh Mohsin Mirza teaches English at the University of Lucknow, Lucknow.