India: A Democracy’s Near Collapse into Religious Terror, Part V
One way of understanding the choices before India today is to think of the nation’s choice of national anthems. At the time of Independence, and ever since, two different poems have been competing for this coveted spot. The losing candidate in 1947, now vociferously championed, once again, by the Hindu Right, is a song known as “Bande Mataram,” “Hail Motherland,” written by the Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chatterjee. Chatterjee himself was a complex figure, and he may or may not be endorsing the sentiments of his song, which occurred in one of his novels. But the song, quickly taken up by the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century, portrays Indian identity in a manner strongly influenced by Western romantic European patriotism, as a matter of adoring the motherland, and being prepared to shed one’s blood in her cause:
Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving, Mother of might,
Glory of moonlight dreams
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming tress,
Mother, giver of ease.
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother, I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I bow.
Who hath said thou are weak in thy lands,
When the swords flash out in twice seventy million hands
And seventy millions voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who are mighty and stored,
To thee I call, Mother and Lord!
Thou who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foemen drave
Back from plain and sea
And shook herself free.
Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou our heart, our soul, our breath,
Thou the love divine, the awe
In our hearts that conquers death.
Thine the strength that nerves the arm
Thine the beauty, thine the charm.
Every image made divine
In our temples is but thine.
Thou are Durga, Lady and queen,
With her hands that strike and her swords of sheen,
Thou are Lakshmi Lotus-throned,
Pure and perfect without peer,
Mother, lend thine ear.
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Dark of hue, O candid-fair
In thy soul, with jeweled hair
And thy glorious smile divine,
Loveliest of all earthly lands,
Showering wealth from well-stored hand!
Mother, mother mine!
Mother sweet, I bow to thee,
Mother great and free.
(Translated from the Bengali by the philosopher Sri Aurobindo, and on file in the the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, available on-line.) Bande Mataram contains some beautiful imagery, and one can understand why it captivated readers, then and later. There are, however, some aspects of Chatterjee’s vision of the nation that disturbed early proponents of Indian independence and that still disturb its democratic citizens now: the song’s insistence that the motherland is an object of slavish and uncritical devotion, its extremely militaristic and potentially violent conception of that devotion, its idea of the unity of India and Indians as depending on a blood tie to a mother, an idea that seems at least potentially exclusionary. In Rabindranath Tagore’s 1914 novel The Home and the World (to be discussed in chapter 3), the young wife Bimala, excited by the fervor of the nationalists and their charismatic leader Sandip, criticizes her husband for his lack of enthusiasm for the Chatterjee song, and he responds to her. She recalls this conversation later, after her husband’s tragic death:
And yet it was not that my husband refused to support Swadeshi [the boycott of foreign goods], or was in any way against the Cause. Only he had not been able whole-heartedly to accept the spirit of Bande Mataram.
‘I am willing,’ he said, ‘to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.’
The husband’s discussions with Sandip make it clear that the spirit of Bande Mataram is indeed exclusionary: Muslims will not be equal citizens in Sandip’s projected nation. The husband prefers a more inclusive and universalistic conception of Indian unity. Similar sentiments are expressed by the song’s critics now, when the question of the national anthem is, as often, debated. The song’s supporters argue that the nation needs an image of military strength and aggression, and that a deep religious devotion to the motherland is the right way to cement the unity of a people.
The current national anthem of India, adopted on January 24, 1950, is a song whose words and music were both written by Tagore. As one of the earliest critics of Bande Mataram, he deliberately constructed an alternative vision of national unity and national devotion (although of course, writing long before Independence, he did not write the song as the future national anthem). Known as “Jana Gana Mana,” the song, in English translation, goes like this:
Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
Dispenser of India’s destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of the Punjab,
Sindhu, Gujarat, and Maratha.
Of the Dravid, and Orissa and Bengal.
It echoes in the hills of Vindhyas and Himalayas, mingles in the music of the
Jamuna and Ganga and is chanted by
The waves of the Indian sea.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise,
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India’s destiny.
Victory, victory, victory to thee.
The song was written in 1911, and was first sung at a meeting of the all-India Congress (the movement that later became the leader of the Independence movement and, eventually, the leading political party). Opponents of the song repeatedly charge that it was written for a visit by King George V, and that the addressee of the song is the British king. There is, however, no foundation at all for this supposition. Tagore made it clear that the address of the poem was the divine spirit of righteousness, understood in his own eclectic universalist way (in keeping with his humanist “religion of Man”). He actively denied that the song was written to honor the King, and his later actions, returning his knighthood after the British murdered innocent civilians at Amritsar in 1919, show that he was no uncritical admirer of the monarchy. More important, his contemporaneous critique of Chatterjee in his novel shows that he repudiated all adoration directed at the nation itself or its human representatives. Only the universal spirit of morality deserves our worship.
The song, then, is addressed to the divine, understood as a universal human spirit of morality and justice. This spirit rules “all people” everywhere in the world, and it is also “dispenser of India’s destiny.” Tagore makes it plain that this spirit animates the emotions of people in all of India’s diverse ethnic and geographical regions: all are equally animated by the love of rightness and justice, and parts of the nation are equally under this spirit’s care. (Some of these regions, at the time, were predominantly Muslim and some Hindu, some inhabited by Tamil/Dravidian people and some by speakers of languages descended from Sanskrit. Tagore pointedly includes them all.) There is no mention of military force or violence; instead, the “dispenser of India’s destiny” is the moral law, and it is the victory of justice for which Indians ask when they sing it.
It is rare that a nation has a national anthem that expresses the idea that humanity is above nationality, and righteousness above aggression. But the idea of a moral law that unswervingly guides our destiny is deeply rooted in Indian traditions, more deeply perhaps than it is in Euro-American traditions, where such ideas are associated with a critical and counter-traditional Enlightenment intelligentsia rather than with traditional religion. Indians connect these ideas to many sources, but prominently to the concept of dharma, or right, in ancient Hindu texts. Tagore’s take on the traditional concept is humanist and critical, but it also resonates with much that already animates India’s traditional sense of its unity; no doubt this is why has been able to win wide acceptance.
“Jana Gana Mana” is no pallid Kantian fantasy of what a rational national anthem should be. It is a beautiful song, beautiful in both its poetry and its music, and it is sung with great passion by Indians all over the nation (and abroad). They resonate not only to its invocation of the natural beauty of the nation and its rich regional and ethnic diversity, but also to the idea that there is a spirit of right that rises above wrong and injustice, a very important thought for a formerly colonized people. The hero in Tagore’s novel did not know how to use poetry to express his humanist vision; that was his great weakness. But Tagore himself, like Walt Whitman, did know how to create a public poetry of inclusiveness and moral commitment.
It is not surprising, however, that a certain type of nationalist would not be satisfied. Supporters of a more aggressive nationalism keep returning to Chatterjee for a more tough-mindedly “masculine” conception of the nation and its pride. We might say that the struggle to be depicted in these posts and my book is just this struggle: between two visions of patriotism, two visions of the nation, two visions of masculinity.