Thought for the Week: Progress and civilisation

Ian Kirk-Smith explores the words of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore

In early 1930, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian writer, was in Birmingham, staying at the Woodbrooke Settlement at Selly Oak, where he gave an address entitled ‘Civilisation and Progress’. At this event, he said: ‘We in India have for more than a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot, choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our own helplessness and overwhelmed by the speed. We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot ride was progress, and that progress is civilisation. If ever we ventured to ask: “Progress for what? Progress for whom?” it was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously Oriental.’

He went on to describe a report in The Nation on the bombing of villages in Afghanistan when one of the planes made a forced landing in the middle of a village. The airmen emerged ‘to face a committee of five or six old women brandishing dangerous looking knives’. A ‘delightful damsel’ took the airmen under her wing and led them to a cave close by: ‘a malik (chieftain) took up his position at the entrance, cutting off the crowd of forty who had gathered around, shouting and waving knives’.

‘Bombs were still being dropped from the air, so the crowd, envious of the security of the cave, pressed in stiflingly, and the airmen pushed their way out in the teeth of the hostile demonstration. They were fed and were visited by the neighbouring maliks, who were most friendly, and by a mullah (priest) who was equally pleasant. Women looked after the feeding arrangements. It is significant that the airmen’s defenders were first found in the younger generation of both sexes.’

Rabindranath Tagore said, with a penetrating sense of irony, that in the story ‘the fact comes out strongly that the West has made wonderful progress. She has opened her path across the ethereal life of the earth.’ The explosive force of the bomb had ‘developed its mechanical power of wholesale destruction’ to a degree that could be represented in the past only ‘by the personal valour of a large number of men’. He added that such ‘enormous progress’ has ‘made man diminutive’. The power that Western man now held and the mechanical perfection of the apparatus produced ‘hide from him the fact that the man in him has been smothered’.

He concluded his talk with a passionate declaration: ‘Our society, which should have music in its voice and beauty in its limbs, becomes under a prolific greed like an overladen market car, grinding and creaking on the road that leads from things to nothing, tearing ugly ruts across the green life until it breaks down with its own vulgarity, reaching nowhere.’

Rabindranath Tagore was preparing, when he stayed at Woodbrooke, the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford University and an address he gave to Friends at that year’s Yearly Meeting. It is interesting to note that Mohandas Ghandi, another Indian visionary, made his first public speech in Britain at Friends House the following year. Both men were given support from Friends and shared many of their values, particularly the Quaker respect for every individual. Rabinandrath Tagore once wrote: ‘Every person is worthy of an infinite wealth of love.’

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