Monday, 30th October 2017

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Where the rivers met the sea

Sushanta Dattagupta has an unusual gift for insight into events happening around him. He excels in that insight when the past is involved. A Random Walk In Santiniketan Ashram is almost a perfect example of this. His analysis of the Tagorian concept of an unusual form of education at Visva Bharati is quite original.

By Bikash Sinha
  • Published 18.11.16

A RANDOM WALK IN SANTINIKETAN ASHRAM By Sushanta Dattagupta, Niyogi, Rs 450

Sushanta Dattagupta has an unusual gift for insight into events happening around him. He excels in that insight when the past is involved. A Random Walk In Santiniketan Ashram is almost a perfect example of this. His analysis of the Tagorian concept of an unusual form of education at Visva Bharati is quite original. The proximity of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose to Rabindranath Tagore and others in the 'ashramic' atmosphere makes me feel that India was born in 1947 out of this interaction. A product of the gigantic melting pot of cultures, languages and that fantastic concept of Tagore, expressed in Bharat Tirtha, about how all kinds of cultures and religions can co-exist in this land of ours. Panditji called this tirtha of Bharat "unity in diversity". Dattagupta tries to explain this through the dialogues of Tagore and Nehru.

The holistic university of Tagore's teachings, although utopian as an idea, is indeed a grand and glorious place of learning. To learn is not the same as to memorize facts - Tagore repeatedly emphasized this. Dattagupta's brief analysis of the meaning of Visva Bharati is insightful. He writes "it is a place where the East meets West to unravel the beauty of the universe". Dattagupta carried with him the essential philosophy of Tagore: universality in education - the opening of all doors to the cultures of the world. The author points out that the university today is diverging from the original concept of Tagore. It is now provincial and fearfully parochial - the exact antithesis of Tagore's world view.

'Einstein-Tagore: A Discourse', is a fascinating chapter. What is captivating is the description of the impact that the discovery of the wave-particle duality had on the contemporary science of that time and how Tagore, poet and a Nobel laureate, reacted to it. In spite of a weak health, Tagore travelled afar and met Albert Einstein - once in 1926 and four times in 1930. What made him do so?

It seems that in the afternoon of Tagore's life he desired to explore the relevance of his philosophy of thought to the just-discovered facts in Western science, quantum mechanics in particular. This was certainly the driving force for his creative and physical energy. It is hence not surprising that he embarked on the "new science" with full vigour in the late-1937 and wrote Visva Parichay, a fairly lesser-known book even today. After interacting with Einstein and our own Satyendra Nath Bose, Tagore wondered, "The pandits seem to sit down to tabulate with great effort the beginning of the stars, like the sun or the earth. But from infinity where is the question of the beginning? Extreme end and extreme beginning, this crazy dialogue ends once one realize in reality there always remain the beginning to the end of slumber, the beginning of it and the end again".

This is clearly profound thinking. For readers, I might add that time and space still remain emerging areas in science. We really do not know what time and space are.

My distinguished friend, Roger Penrose, has tried to explain the concept of space and time in a recently published book, Cycles of Time, where the central theme is that creation comes out of destruction and anything that is created must be destroyed.

Scientists are familiar with wave-particle duality. Dattagupta quotes from Visva Parichay in 1934, four years after meeting Einstein, "How does one reconcile these two apparently contradicting picture of light? What is more incomprehensible is that while the external manifestation of light is either a wave or a particle what happens is the microscopic world it is neither - we call it radiation". Curiously enough, Tagore did not have a problem with wave-particle duality because he was soaked in Upanishadic culture that was practised at his home in Jorasanko, especially Isha Upanishad.

Duality and measurements are two fundamental themes of Eastern philosophy. Beauty and truth have to be perceived by man. Beauty, in particular, has no meaning - Einstein thought it does - without man. Atman (self) and Bramha (the creator) are manifestly a part of each other. The manifestation of that is the source of conflict between singularity and plurality. The West insists on plurality and the East on singularity, and there lies the conflict between the Eastern and Western outlook.

Tagore describes Nehru as "a majestic character with indomitable courage. His lofty ideal of truth is his greatest contributions in his fight for freedom."

Gandhiji, it is well known, visited Santiniketan a number of times. The names, Gurudev and Mahatma, in a sense were born of this interaction. They differed on the concept of nationalism. Tagore was for opening up the doors that would allow the winds of different cultures to blow in from all over the world. Bharat Tirtha was just the beginning of this grand concept. Gandhiji, however, was for nationalistic spirit. Gandhiji and Gurudev, I think, were two different personalities, but they complemented and contradicted each other at times, especially on the topic of freedom. Gandhiji was a political leader with a deep understanding of India and its inhabitants, whereas Tagore was a philosopher and a poet, a genius of a figure, an aristocrat, somewhat distant from the people of the time. Tagore personally made arrangements for Gandhiji's stay at Santiniketan in his characteristic way. Gandhiji politely refused and slept on the bare rooftop. This highlighted the conflict between personal friendship and public relation of politics. Tagore was never evicted from a railway compartment; Gandhiji was in South Africa where he experienced this bitter reality.

The thought processes of these two personalities were markedly different. Gandhiji was more single-minded about swaraj, whereas Tagore was too grand a man to commit himself to swaraj alone. For Tagore, India was a part of the world. Nehru was caught between these two giants.

As per the author's own confession, his walk is random. But that is the fun of it. A large number of random walks create a whole - a 'holistic' viewpoint emerges if the number is large enough. A scientist par excellence, a superb teacher, an excellent researcher, an institution builder, a nomad by nature, the author is a home builder as well. Dattagupta, the scientist, has a new identity: that of a writer with an attraction for the waterfalls and the joy of its music, but he remains an original teacher. In his own words, "Like the solar system in which the sun is the centre of gravity, my intellectual space in Santiniketan was naturally centred on 'Robi' or 'Rabindranath'".

At Santiniketan 'Robi' is everywhere, he is its heart and soul, follow him and you will rise high; deviate, for narrow reasons or personal gain, and you will be damned. Santiniketan is built on high moral grounds on whose foundations Tagore built this wonderful institution.