Tagore's lamp to the mind

February 27, 1998

It is not often that one accepts an invitation to deliver an address and finds it a life-altering experience. But my visit to Visva-Bharati, an Indian university founded by the great Indian mystic and sage Tagore was such an occasion.

I shall leave (and indeed strongly recommend) my readers to discover for themselves the writings and music and painting of Tagore and confine myself to describing the university he founded in 1921 at Santiniketan near Calcutta.

To give an idea of the respect in which Tagore is held, by statute the prime minister is chancellor of the university. In his address at the graduation ceremony I attended, the present incumbent, Mr Gujral, declared that this was a greater honour than to be prime minister.

Tagore believed that "on each race is laid the duty to keep alight its own lamp of mind as its part in the illumination of the world. To break the lamp of any people is to deprive it of its rightful place in the world festival."

He sought to establish an Indian university first and extend to cover Asia so that people from the West could study the whole range of eastern cultures. But as C. F. Andrews was to write, "his comprehensive vision could not stop at any horizon that was less wide than humanity".

He selected for the university's motto an ancient Sanskrit verse which means "where the whole world meets in one nest". Visva-Bharati represents India, where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India's obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India's right to accept from others their best.

No academics could have demonstrated their hospitality more thoroughly than the staff of Visva-Bharati when I visited Santiniketan - academics who have embraced Tagore's mission and lived it out in their warm acceptance of this strange South African in their midst, who were so charmingly appreciative of my visit, so generous in their hospitality, and so modest of their scholarship and the treasures bequeathed to them by their founder. I was deeply impressed; indeed I fell in love!

I was reminded of a wonderful address by Enda McDonagh in which he talked about "the powerful intellectual virtue of hospitality" which "does not imply vacancy of mind any more than personal and home hospitality implies vacancy of heart or house. The developing and increasingly well-furnished mind provides the proper host for the intellectually new and different ... The reception of the different and the strange is at the heart of all human knowing and understanding."

Tagore echoed this when he wrote "the deepest source of all calamities in history is misunderstanding. For where we do not understand, we can never be just".

I am not persuaded that universities in general demonstrate such hospitality in their thoughts or actions. Professor McDonagh describes "warrior-like academics ... blasting away at one another's positions with little thought for openness to the worlds of others".

"Critiques" often reflect the negative rather than the positive and that too is something which hardly conveys hospitality. The very composition of the staff of most universities being in the main so male gives some clue to the absence of hospitality - a word which, in essence, suggests an openness free of discrimination. I was shamed to discover that whereas the University of Natal had at last established our school of rural community development, Tagore anticipated us by 70 years. He conceived of a university where, through participation and service, there was a "living communication" between the university, the students and the peasants rooted in the soil.

Today we talk, most of us very much in the abstract, about universities' contribution to development.

"The soil in which we are born," Tagore remind-ed his students again and again, "is the soil of our village, the mother-earth in whose lap we receive our nourishment ... our educated elite, abstracted from this primal basis, wander about in the high heaven of ideas like aimless clouds far removed from this our home. If this cloud does not dissolve into a shower of loving service ... if all our ethereal ideas float about in vaporous inanity, the seed time of the new age will have come in vain."

And here was a man who practised what he preached: he gave the money he received from his Nobel prize to the school and the agricultural cooperative bank he had set up to further the project.

Tagore also anticipated higher education as a global issue. Although scholars all over the world have communicated with each other and visited each other when they could it was only the fees that international students brought to the coffers of financially constrained universities that pushed internationalisation onto the agenda of most universities. Attracting foreign students has become in fact a business enterprise.

Foreign students are expected to adapt to the local culture and no doubt learn something in the process, but what do we learn from our foreign students? Do we seriously construct our programmes so that local students and staff learn of foreign cultures, practise the hospitality of the mind where the guest is made comfortable by his or her standards and received in a spirit of openness to their culture?

It was not always like this. Universities indeed had their conceptual origins in such fabled places as Alexandria with its great library, the Greece of the academy and the lyceum, in the Persia of the Sassanids and the Gondishapur, in the India of the Das Guptas and the Nalanda, in the golden ages of Confucian China, in the Muslim worlds of Harun al-Rashid and the House of Wisdom, in the late medieval Europe of Bologna, and many more.

All these remind us of the free spirit of intellectual curiosity which knew no national barriers, where scholars moved to where people like Socrates and Abelard taught and knowledge was valued for its own sake. Where did we go wrong? Was it the pull of nationalism? Was it the beast of materialism or was it simply that the true purpose of education got lost?

My visit forced me to reconsider my life. Here in India where so many people are so poor in material things, they are so rich in those of the spirit. The West, whose values the new South Africa seems so determined to embrace, by contrast, is spiritually bankrupt.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal.

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