Posts Tagged ‘Rabindranath Tagore’

(First of five parts)

Part I:  A Monument to Love and the Shenanigans of Yogi Adityanath


Rabindranath Tagore called it a “teardrop on the face of eternity”.  He was referring to the Taj Mahal, often described in more pedestrian if less maudlin English as perhaps the world’s greatest monument to love.  When one has a “monument to love”, one suspects that the narrative is no longer only about love—but let that pass, for the moment.  The Government of India’s own webpage on the Taj Mahal adverts to Tagore’s characterization of the Taj as a “teardrop on the cheek of time”.  If time and eternity were one and the same thing, we wouldn’t have any need for the hundreds of philosophical tomes that have been written on time and its interpretation.  (I would like to thank a friend in Amsterdam who has asked not to be named for drawing my attention to the original text:  the poem from where the phrase is taken is called “Shah Jahan”, not “Taj Mahal”, and the collection is named Balaka.)  Whatever else Tagore may have meant, I suspect that he would not have been disinclined to consider the Taj Mahal as a poem to love in stone.  My late friend, Teshome Gabriel, whose own piece on “stones” dazzles and sparkles more than most diamonds, had not taken the Taj into consideration when he was writing on the life of stones.

But we have come to a different pass.  Now some idiots, egged on by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, have called for the Taj’s removal if not destruction.  Some are moved by the thought that the Taj Mahal sits, so they think, on top of what was once a Hindu temple; others allege that it is not “Indian” enough, by which they mean of course that there is far too much in the Taj of foreign origins.  The Taj is associated, in their mind, with Muslims; and Muslims, in turn, call to their mind terror not love.  To describe Adityanath and others who share his view of the Taj Mahal as philistines is to given them more credit than they deserve:  their conduct partakes of the barbarous in various respects.  It should be recognized, however, that some Indians are alarmed by the wholly pragmatic (and, by the yardstick of the economy-obsessed modern world, not insignificant) consideration that the Taj Mahal is India’s largest foreign and domestic revenue earner among tourist sites.


Yogi Adityanath Addressing a Gathering in Uttar Pradesh.

Yogi Adityanath is, speaking in something like a neutral idiom, a “colorful” character.  Rascals may sometimes be colorful; the same may be said even of some rulers, otherwise alleged to be despots or even tyrants, such as Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ (Emperor of Hindustan, 1719-1748) and Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh.  Of Robin Hood, for instance, it may be said without much controversy that he was a colorful character.  Adityanath is only colorful because he is bizarre, a firebrand, and utterly shorn of ideas and yet capable of producing mirth—though not among his followers, most of them the kind of ruffians dressed in polyester who loiter about public thoroughfares while scratching their crotches and making a nuisance of themselves.  (This is not to say that there are no khadi-clad scoundrels.) Adityanath is among those “leaders” here and there who have expressed solidarity with Trump’s ban on the entry of Muslims from several nations into the US and called for India to emulate the leader of the free world, though I doubt very much that the White House has paid any attention to this militant Hindu youth leader turned into politician.

Adityanath, much like White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, thinks that “women are sacred”—women (alongside children) exclusively so, one assumes, as opposed of course to men, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, trees, and much else—and he has expressed himself as “bigly”—a little nod to Trump—concerned with women’s safety.  All this would be very commendable, were it not for the fact that, on the worldview of Adityanath and his followers, women can best be safe if they retreat from the workplace.  That apparently secures them from the ignominy of sexual harassment—never mind that domestic sexual abuse outweighs all other forms of sexual harassment and assault, and that across cultures women are much more likely to be face abuse and assault from men known to them, most often older male relatives, than from utter strangers.  Adityanath’s acolytes and fellow travelers in misogyny in India’s heartland have similarly suggested, apropos of female college students, that they need fear no one if they accept that a curfew commencing at dark is best calculated to preserve their moral integrity and purity.  A woman has no place out in the streets after sunset; nocturnal activities must be left to men and the devil. Women who display manly characteristics, Adityanath has noted, have a tendency to turn into demons.

But it is of course the figure of the Indian Muslim that more than anything else that animates Adityanath. The looted virginity of one Hindu woman, Adityanath told cheering crowds, can only be avenged by deflowering one hundred Muslim women, and he has called for a campaign against “Love Jihad”, or the idea that the wily Muslim in India has sought to wage jihad by seducing Hindu women and turning them into sexual slaves of the Muslim.  Adityanath has on more than one occasion also called for the installation of Hindu idols in every mosque.  So perhaps it is not altogether surprising that he should have turned his attention to the Taj Mahal, making it known in public comments in mid-June 2017 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had done the right thing in substituting copies of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita for miniature replicas of the Taj as gifts for visiting foreign dignitaries.  The Taj Mahal “and other minarets”, Adityanath is reported as having said, did “not reflect Indian culture” .

Taking a hint from their boss, the functionaries at the Tourism Department of the Uttar Pradesh State Government released a brochure in early October of principal tourist sites in the state which omitted any mention of the Taj Mahal.   In mid-October, another BJP politician, Sangeet Som, jumped into the fray with this observation as recorded by NDTV:  “Many people were worried that the Taj Mahal was removed from the list of historical places in the UP tourism booklet. What history are we talking about? The man who built Taj Mahal imprisoned his father. He wanted to massacre Hindus. If this is history, then it is very unfortunate and we will change this history, I guarantee you.”

The young Sangeet Som is one of the principal accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013; moreover, though he is among those who have been vociferous in calling for cow-protection as in integral part of Hindu dharma and instigating the forcible closure of Muslim-owned meat-processing and export companies, he himself has considerable investments in companies engaged in the export of halal meat and was on the board of directors of one such company, Al-Dua, for two years before being exposed by the Hindustan Times in October 2015.  Som is most likely no worse than most other politicians in all these respects, and dishonesty and rank hypocrisy are just par for the course.  The more germane questions for us, to which I shall turn in the next part of this article, are really these:  what do Adityanath, Som, and others with their worldview understand by history?  From where do they derive their history?  What is the epistemic status of ‘facts’?  Should we say, as liberals and those on the left would urge everyone to do so, that ‘myths’ are being substituted for history?

(To be continued)

For Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers


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The nation-state is the only game in town; and, since we only have a conception of finite games, this game has winners and losers.  (As an aside, it is not accidental that the United Stats, which embodies the idea of the nation-state as well as any other country, remains incapable of comprehending games that are not finite.  ‘Finite’ and ‘infinite’ games, as James Carse has deployed those terms, go well beyond games as those are ordinarily understood, but for our purposes the literal examples of games [as in sports] will suffice beautifully.  American games, among them basketball, football, and baseball, cannot countenance the possibility of a draw:  a draw is not an acceptable ‘result’, and if the score is tied at the end of regulation play, the games goes into over-time, and if necessary into double and triple over-time.  Cricket offers the greatest contrast:  Americans are among those who are gravely puzzled by a game that, in its ideal version, could last five days and end, as was more often the case than not, in a draw.  Cricket in its classic test match version has long seemed to be a game where the killer instinct could not be exercised.)  In this scenario of finite games, a nation-state advances at the cost of another nation-state.  These nation-states [or, in the awkward grammatical version, nations-state] exist in a highly hierarchical relationship to each other, an idea equally to be encountered in the very apotheosis of the nation-state, namely the United Nations (where, as is transparent, the General Assembly that in principle deems all nations to be equal is wholly subservient to the wholly undemocratic organ known as the Security Council).

Well-meaning people like to speak of win-win situations, and hope for such outcomes, but the relentless logic of the nation-state permits no easy consolations.  One modern narrative, about the renewed ascendancy of China and India, shows as clearly as anything else how modern political discourse has succumbed entirely to the zero-sum politics of our times.  A prolific literature, which we can see multiplying before our eyes, adverts to various aspects of the race between the two countries.  The only points of comparison seem to revolve around the number of new cell phone connections, the amount of foreign exchange reserves, the share of each country in world exports, the growth of domestic product, the growth of the automobile culture, rapidly expanding consumer markets, and the like.  To be sure, such discussions are leavened by apparently more sophisticated considerations, such as whether India is, in comparison with China, disadvantaged by restraints on growth placed by adherence, however nominal, to democratic freedoms, or whether China’s one-child policy will work to its detriment as its population ages at a much faster rate than is the case in India.  Those interested in geopolitical considerations have taken this narrative further, comparing and contrasting the growing reach of India and especially China throughout Africa.  If the Chinese are tapping the mineral wealth of Africa at an astronomical rate, Indian telecommunications giants such as Airtel have also made spectacular inroads.

In these comparisons between India and China, the illustration I have taken (and discussed as a particular kind of modernist discourse in an article published two year ago), any reference to the fact that India and China long enjoyed civilizational ties before they knew each other as nation-states is dismissed as nostalgia or soft-headed romanticism.  The hostility to civilizational discourses in Marxism is well known, but postcolonial scholars have held a similarly corrosive view of civilizational languages and have not permitted civilizational frameworks to shape their arguments.  Tagore’s views, expressed in his manifesto on nationalism in 1917, are instructive in this regard.  He was obviously not unaware of the oppression wrought in the name of civilization, and nearly everyone with a modicum of awareness of colonial histories recognizes that the idea of ‘civilizing mission’ served to keep some people in a state of submission.  Nevertheless, Tagore also understood that ‘civilization’ offered the only countervailing force to the nation-state. The ‘Nation of the West’ was Tagore’s quaint if brilliant term to convey the idea that every nation, not merely those in Western Europe, will be made in the image of the nation-state as it emerged in the West: civilizations vary immensely, but the nation-state demands homogeneity not only within but in its very form.  Modern civilization is a strange thing, Gandhi opined in ‘Hind Swaraj’, but stranger still was the nation-state.  Civilizations are less insistent on homogeneity and more accommodating, in various ways, to ideas of plurality, diversity, and difference.

The civilizational framework may be important as it furnishes cues on how to think about such notions as ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘citizenship’, and the ‘commons’.  The best of liberal discourse on citizenship seems positively anemic, operating, even after policy prescriptions are given full consideration, at a level of abstraction which says little about how, say, workers inhabit the condition of dwellers at home, in the workplace, and in the myriad pubic spheres of the nation.  The discourse of cosmopolitanism – “citizen of the earth”, to return to the term’s Greek roots – may be afflicted with similar problems, judging from the literature on ‘world cities’ that has been generated in recent years.  It may be argued that the idea of ‘world cities’ should be warmly embraced, if for no other reason that it shows a way out of the iron grip of the nation-state.  What new hierarchies, we may then ask, are established?  How does the present conception of world cities differ substantively from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century web of cities criss-crossed by imperialist and nationalist elites alike?  Do contemporary notions of citizenship offer a more expansive conception of hospitality and mode for thinking about, in Appiah’s phrase, ‘ethics in a world of strangers’?

See also related posts:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

*Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

*The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

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On 1 November 1755, a massive earthquake struck the city of Lisbon.  It is thought to have been 9.0 on the Richter scale:  whatever the precise measurement, its magnitude may be judged by the fact that the earthquake nearly leveled Lisbon, and caused widespread damage elsewhere in Portugal, and even in Spain and Morocco.  Together with the tsunami that came in its wake, the earthquake, by modern estimates, is thought to have wiped out about a fifth or sixth of Lisbon’s population of 200,000.  According to some sources, nearly every church of any consequence in Lisbon was destroyed.  That, in a country intensely Catholic, was alone calculated to leave an ineradicable impression on its inhabitants.

Though the destruction was extraordinarily widespread, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 has entered the annals of history for reasons other than as an illustration of nature’s furious unpredictability.  The earthquake would provoke a wide-ranging discussion among many of the greatest minds of the day; indeed, even into the twentieth century, the Lisbon earthquake would be summoned to point to both the inscrutability of God’s ways and the uses of seismology.  One of the regnant ideas of those days had been best adumbrated by the philosopher Leibniz, who adhered to the view that whatever happens happens for the best, or, in slightly more elegant language, God’s ways could be justified to men if one recognized that one lived in the best of all worlds.  Among the most eminent men of the day who felt the tremors of the quake in Paris was Voltaire.  In his novel Candide (1759), the eponymous hero, who at first vividly subscribes to the view that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, in time comes to reject this optimism.  The Lisbon earthquake is enough to cure him of this theodicy, just as it sufficed to make Voltaire reject the optimism of Leibniz.

One of the other supreme figures of the age who attempted to make some sense of the earthquake was Immanuel Kant, whose interest in this would be captured by Walter Benjamin in a radio talk prepared for school-children 150 years later:  “No one was more fascinated by these remarkable events than the great German philosopher Kant . . .  At the time of the earthquake he was a young man of twenty-four, who had never left his hometown of Konigsberg – and who would never do so in the future.  But he eagerly collected all the reports of the earthquake that he could find, and the slim book that he wrote about it probably represents the beginning of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”  In the typical fashion of the day, Kant’s slim volume bore the longish title, History and Natural Description of the most Remarkable Incidents of the Earthquake that Shook a Large Part of the Earth at the End of the Year 1755.

Kant’s avid interest in the earthquake was not confined to a scientific assessment of the natural circumstances that had led to the calamity.  “Whatever is, is right”, Alexander Pope had famously declared in his Essay on Man (1733), and his affirmation of Leibniz’s theodicy had many supporters who rather agreed with Leibniz’s reasoning that though the presence of evil could not be denied, evil itself existed for the sake of a greater good.  As Rousseau and Voltaire, whose repudiation of theodicy in Candide was prefigured in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (1756), tangled over the ‘meaning’ of the earthquake, Kant would step into the debate later with a distinct philosophical articulation of the idea of the sublime.  When the imagination reaches its limits, Kant argued, pain is experienced; but this pain may be compensated for with the pleasure produced by the mind.  The “beautiful” was not to be equated with the “sublime”:  if the former belongs to the realm of “Understanding”, the latter belongs to “Reason”.  A sublime event was not to be comprehended through the understanding, indeed the enormity of the sublime – “we call that sublime which is absolutely great”, he wrote in the Critique of Judgment – passed all understanding and demonstrated the inadequacy of one’s imagination.  And, yet, the supersensible powers, through which one comprehends an event as whole, and which inform both nature and thought, bring one to a realization of the sublime.

When we consider the philosophical level of public discourse that the Lisbon earthquake could engender, the depths to which public discourse has sunk in our times becomes all the more transparent.  Pat Robertson has been known over the years for his outrageous announcements, and one should not be utterly surprised that he should, on the present occasion of the earthquake that has devastated Haiti, have displayed the same dim-wittedness and callousness for which he has nearly an unsurpassed reputation (barring, perhaps, only the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck).  As he put it in a televangelical broadcast, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”  America deplored Haiti’s independence in 1804, refusing to recognize the country until 1862, and it appears that even today there are some Americans such as Robertson who evidently believe that some people are born to serve others.  Colonialism, we know, continues to have its defenders; but Robertson’s remarks disguise many more profound anxieties, none as acute as the fact that the only genuine revolution, gone astray for reasons that I shall attempt to comprehend in subsequent blogs, in the Western hemisphere took place in Haiti rather than in what would become the US.

Insanely stupid as Robertson’s remarks are, they nonetheless point the way to a debate that cannot be resolved under the sign of secularism.  In a very different time, equally removed from the energetic debates of the Enlightenment and the mental vacuity of a Robertson, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore would have a lively public exchange over the equally devastating Bihar Earthquake of 1934.  Gandhi described the earthquake as God’s chastisement of upper-caste Hindus for their oppression of Harijans; Tagore, revered almost as much as the Mahatma, expressed shock that Gandhi would adhere to a view which was openly dismissive of scientific reasoning and likely to encourage the Indian masses in their superstitious thinking.  The intricacies of that exchange aside, Gandhi was firmly persuaded that communication with the masses could not succeed in the language of secularism – even if he was, in his own fashion, resolutely wedded to the idea that the Indian state perforce had to be secular, scrupulously fair to the adherents of all religions.  Moreover, the secular imagination cannot, Gandhi would have argued, countenance the idea that natural events may have their counterpart in the life of the soul.  Perhaps, in howsoever unpleasant a way, Robertson’s remarks suggest that we do not live only under the sign of secularism.

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