Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 15, No. 10, October 2019
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The 'Spirit' of Sustainability: Insights from Rabindranath Tagore

Sanjoy Mukherjee

October 2019

View of the Valley of Flowers, Uttaranchal, India ~ Wikimedia Commons

Ecological sustainability cannot be a movement without sensitivity towards the Spirit as in Espirit de corps. The Latin root Spiritus means breath. There is a breath of life eternal in the glow of the sun, the flow of the water, the blowing of the wind and dancing of the leaves and birds. Are we ready to perceive these movements of Nature that also keep us alive?

Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet and philosopher from India, could fathom these vibrations as evident from all his creative masterpieces. Mukktadhara (The Free Flow) is a play by Tagore where one finds the human protest bold and clear against mindless dam construction that arrests the natural flow of the river for power and control on others, including nature. Abhijit, the protagonist of alternative voice finally did lay down his body and life in the gushing waters of the dam to protest against this inhuman act of exploitation of nature and human spirit of free flowing natural life.

We have lent silent ears to the wisdom of the poet. And what are the consequences?

In the hills of Uttarakhand in India are many places of pilgrimage including Kedarnath and Badrinath. Devotees from all over the country and elsewhere flock these age-old shrines for spiritual solace and sublimation for thousands of years. For centuries pilgrims would sustain all hardships to reach these places mostly on foot. They would chant hymns in glory of Lord Shiva on the way up the hills. It is indeed an awesome sight.

And then one day it happened just a few years back. One still has horrid memories of that catastrophe. It was peak time for visitors to reach these shrines. And then the calamity came. Never before in the recent history of this land did clouds burst and floods hit all over this region. Official figures said that the death toll was 6000 while media reported that the figure crossed 10000. Untold misery befell the families afflicted. Many corpses were to be recovered months later. But the question is: Why did it all happen after all?

Mindless construction of buildings and dams had been going go in this region for long in the name of progress and development. The lure of the lucre and power prompted the business and political elite flout all basic norms of ecological sustainability to grab fast bucks taking undue advantage of the common Indian quest for religion and spirituality. Conscientious experts and critics strongly suggested that this disaster was man-made! The self-sustaining resources of Nature were being ravaged to cater to the greed of man to such an extreme that finally the blow came back. Where then are we heading in the name of progress and development?

In our mind’s eye we can visualize another scene. This time it was in Germany on the bank of the river Rhine. The entire village folks had assembled to watch the installation of a hydro-electric plant. All around there was the mood of celebration. The power generated from the plant will not only be an example of a technological marvel but also be of great economic and civic utility to the entire village community. On the bank of river a little away from the scene of merriment was sitting the philosopher Martin Heidegger. His mood was one of remorse. One could see the worry in his eyebrows and wrinkled all over his forehead. A passer-by asked why he was not participating in the grand celebration ceremony. Heidegger was silent. His eyes were painfully watching the turbine blades striking and churning the waters. One could then hear his murmur of lament that was powerful and poignant – “Can’t you see the river is getting hurt?”

In his famous play Roktokorobi, Tagore portrays an atrocious king, the owner of a mine, as an engine of exploitation and mechanization as reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times. Then the child of nature, Nandini makes her glorious and lively advent into that kingdom with her love, freedom and spontaneity. People could feel and sense their fetters as in the machine and learnt to sing and dance in celebration of life – Nandini’s worship (Puja). The symbol of power and authority, the royal flag (Dhwoja) was still standing in the way. The grand finale was reached when the King himself broke down his flag to join the celebration of Nandini. The crux of sustainable self and life is in this ability to challenge and demolish one’s archaic beliefs and values that devours the life natural!

Any teacher and learner of substance and eminence will ever be willing to challenge the self. The roots of sustainability lie in our Self. It depends on whether we are bold enough to raise the deeper and critical questions about the way we think and live. Otherwise the system of learning becomes ossified and fossilized with heat and dust around but no Light! Sadly enough, The Little Prince (the master creation of Antoine de Saint Exupery) had lamented: “Grown -ups are like that!”

Tagore was admitted to six schools but could not ‘sustain’ any of them even for a few days as the education was structured, monotonous and lifeless! Finally at the age of 40, he created a university at Santiniketan (Abode of Peace) in the heart of nature far from the humdrum of city life of Calcutta. He christened it Vishwa Bharati meaning Global India. The poet could listen to the call of the wilderness for sustainability and spiritual transformation. In his play Achalayatan (The Stagnant Chamber) the poet portrays the worst possible predicament as we witness in modern education. But he also gave the clarion call to freedom: “In which dawn did you give that call? / No one will ever know.”

In order to respond to the call of nature, we need to create space for silence and solitude amidst the blast and speed of modern life. Spirit can be awakened, sensitivity can be revived only in the heart of silence when we learn to see and listen properly, feel nobly and love abundantly. In his touching masterpiece Dakghar (The Post office) we find the young Amol, a terminal patient observing and listening to Nature from his death bed in a way that the ordinary mortal cannot as we take things for granted and do not care to look at them deeply and differently. Amol’s realization comes as a death knell to all experts, icons of lifeless scholarship and champions of structured and mechanized modern education: “I don’t want to become a pundit...” Amol perceived life from the throes of death in his moments of poignant silence! Before his death, Amol recorded his alternative voice as letters to the king of the land that never received any response for which he waited till his last.

The drama of life and the dance of death! Imagine, this play would be enacted by the Jews in the translated version on the eve of their ‘Day of judgment’ in the fire and furnace of Auschwitz! They would perform the play before they would face their inhuman ordeal to gather mental strength to face the stark brutal reality! When human suffering surpasses all our wildest imagination culture in its all-pervading and universal form comes as our soulmate crossing all borders of space and time. The agony of one Amol merges with the oceanic inferno of the sufferings of an entire race.

Six million Jews were killed in the worst ever human massacre. The philosopher Theodore Adorno wrote: “After Auschwitz it is pointless to write poetry.”

But still we write poetry!

Note: Most of this write-up has already been published in parts within my article ‘Creative Spirit in Management Education: Insights from Rabindranath Tagore’ in the book titled Caring Entrepreneurship in the New economy: Socially Responsible Behaviour through Spirituality edited by Ora Setter and Laszlo Zsolnai, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.


Sanjoy Mukherjee is Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Shillong, with domain specialization in Human Values and Indian Ethos in Management; Business Ethics; Corporate Social Responsibility; Wisdom Leadership – East-West Perspectives; Management – Past, Present and Future; and Management and Liberal Arts. Previously he was a Faculty at the Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, and the Editor-in Chief of Journal of Human Values (a SAGE Journal) for more than a decade. He has several international publications (Edited Books, Book Chapters, and peer-reviewed Journal Articles) to his credit.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."

— Samuel Johnson (1709-1794)


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