People from other cultures sometimes help us see the world more clearly, or at least differently. Robert D. Kaplan, in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, shares some of the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.
“Herein is the essential Tagore,” Kaplan writes. “War may be necessary but it is so pitiful that no monuments should be built to it. War, military glory, and the like are worse than wrong; they are, like nationalism, ‘unaesthetic.’ Beauty, that is to say, is moral and universal. And anything that is not moral and universal cannot be beautiful.”
Now that’s not normally how we talk about war in America–speaking of it in contrast to beauty. Here we tend to say war is a terrible thing that should be avoided at all costs but at times it is the right thing to do. And when one is fought for American interests then we honor the soldiers who are willing, if not always required, to offer up their lives in the cause. And we surely erect momuments to remember wars and the sacrifices made.
I’m not sure I agree with or disagree with Tagore. The beauty connection is just strange to my western way of thinking. I will say that I think we Americans too often take the position of “America right or wrong.” I’m not prepared to shelve my judgment at the altar of politicians in Washington. I definitely believe the war in Iraq was an unjust war in traditional Christian terms; as a result, I believe America was wrong to fight it. While saying that, I do commend and honor the soldiers who carried out their responsibility and served our nation. They did a noble and honorable thing in doing their duty.
Here are more of Kaplan’s words about the poet:
“Tagore was truly a visionary in the sense that his lifetime (1861-1941) corresponded with the age of nationalism, even as he went beyond it and saw a larger solidarity group above the state, that of humanity. He was not opposed to nationalism or patriotism, only to nationalism or patriotism as the highest good.”
Well said, if I may be so bold as to pass judgment on a Nobel laureate. Of course, it moves us to the important question: What is the highest good? Jesus said it is to love God and love others, and I’m confident he meant for us to love the people beyond our national borders, even those we adamently disagree with or who threaten us.
More from Kaplan:
“Tagore was the ultimate syncretist, a constant blender of cultures and peoples in his work and thoughts. There is no beautiful Bengali landscape in his view, only the glorious ‘Earth.’ As such, he was an inveterate traveler and pilgrim. …
“… There were no borders in Tagore’s worldview, only transition zones. …
“Nevertheless, Tagore was not a globalist, if that means giving up one’s national or ethnic identity. He grasped intuitively that to appreciate other cultures one had to be strongly rooted in one’s own. He understood that the ‘universal’ could be implanted only in many rich and vibrant localisms.”
I love that. It’s an elegant way of saying what I sometimes think when I see a “God Bless America” bumper sticker. I do share that prayer; I pray for God to bless America. But I also pray for God to bless all the peoples of the world. I’ve met too many of them not to love them and want God’s blessings for them, as well.
So here’s a tip of the hat to someone long dead of whom I had never heard before reading Kaplan’s book. Thank you, Rabindranath Tagore.
(Note all quotes above are from pp. 188-189 in Kaplan’s book.)