Rabindranath Tagore on Ecology and Sustainable Development - by Dr R L Basu

Rabindranath Tagore is generally hailed as a versatile genius in the arena of fine arts (all branches of literature, music and painting) and many aspects of his thought pertaining to practical living have not yet been brought under thorough discussion and research. This article endeavors to bring to light two such aspects, viz. his thoughts related to i) Ecology and ii) Sustainable Development. 

Tagore on Environment and Ecology 

Rabindranath Tagore’s views pertaining to eco-ethical human living and sustainable development, as scattered in various works (a list is given under References at the end of the article), are based on ancient Indian philosophy, especially embedded in the Upanishads. Tagore considers Nature and human life as integral parts of the single entity, the omniscient, omnipresent, ubiquitous (sarbang khallidang), attribute-free (nirguna) Brahman. So Tagore emphasizes symbiosis and balance between man and all other aspects of the mundane world (plants, other living beings, the Earth, atmosphere and the rest of the universe), and between man and the world beyond (moksha).  

In ‘Aranya Devata’, (Forest Deity: R. R. Vol.14, P.373) Tagore opines that modern man indulges, too much in luxurious and profligate living. So long as he used to live in and around the forest, he had deep love and respect for the forest and therefore he used to live in perfect symbiosis with it and the plants and animals inhabiting it. As soon as he became city-dweller, he lost his love for forest which had been the source of his sustenance. Wanton destruction of forest, in order to supply timber for the city life, brought about curse on human race. Paucity of rainfall endangered human life and rapid spread of deserts started engulfing human habitations in various parts of India. So, Tagore emphasizes, we are to retrieve our love and respect for the forest and restore symbiosis with the forest in order to avert peril.  

Tagore’s views on ecological stability and symbiosis between man and Nature have been elaborated in the article ‘Tapavan’ (R. R. Vol. 7, PP. 690-704). The great philosopher-poet does not confine his analysis to the outward manifestations of ecological imbalance alone. He investigates the inner cause of this malady which springs from the ripus (the basic vices) like greed, jealousy, pride, lust etc., sheltered in the dark grooves of human mind. These ripus have their ugly manifestations in commercialism, consumerism and unbridled competition. In the article ‘Bilases Fans’ (the noose of luxurious living: R. R. Vol. 6, PP.526-530), Tagore opines that consumerism, which has been eating into the vitals of western societies, is now making inroads into Indian lifestyles vitiating all spheres of Indian life. The motive of insatiable personal consumption has made people in our country lose their social entity and philanthropic attitude and has made most of them mean and self-centered. Pomp and conspicuous consumption is not a new thing in India. At earlier times, however, it was associated with social activities, but now it is centered on purely personal consumption in isolation from the society. Consumerism is not only generating pressure on the purse of the rich but also causing unimaginable hardships to the poor who, being enticed by demonstration effect, are trying to spend beyond their means.  

Tagore opines (R. R. Vol. 6, P. 529) that revelation of dazzling riches in some parts of the country is making a false impression that this signifies economic prosperity. Unfortunately, this is not due to prosperity, but due to increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the cost of the majority.   

Tagore unravels the perverse impact of the unbridled competition in ‘Bharat Varsha’ (R. R. Vol. 2, P. 711): The motive of competition, which forces one into a mad race for outclassing all other persons around him., leads one to an endless struggle for supremacy and deviates him form the path of responsibility and ethical living. The demonic impulse for going farther and farther ahead knows no limit and makes one’s mind ever restless and bereft of stability and peace. Tagore expresses pity for those who consider this mad race as prosperity.  

In contrast, Indian society, Tagore holds, was based on universal welfare and symbiosis between man and man, and it had never encouraged this self-destructive competition leading to infighting within human society for individual supremacy.  

In ‘Samabaya Niti’ (cooperative policy: R. R., Vol. 14, PP. 311-332), Tagore expresses the view that European society is based on the system of exploitation of the majority by the minority, which is one of the major evil outcrop of unbridled competition and the motive of unabashed self-advancement. Tagore, however, admits that motive of self-advancement and competition, within some limit, are necessary for the material progress of human society, but they are perilous for human society if the limit is crossed.  

Thus, according to Tagore, eco-ethical human living should be based on symbiosis between man and Nature, and between man and man. But manifestations of ripus through limitless competition, consumerism and commercialism have undermined this symbiosis alarmingly in the modern era. Unless the trend is reversed and objective conditions for eco-ethical human living restored, the consequences would be disastrous. 

Tagore on Sustainable Development 

Tagore’s concept of sustainable development of India is rooted deep in rural regeneration as majority of the population of India reside in villages. It has two major planks:

i) Cooperatives and ii) Panchayats. 

In both the cases, Tagore calls for revival of the spirit of the rural masses so that they could be self-sufficient and free from dependence on outside assistance (‘to approach the authorities with begging bowls’ so to say) for their economic and social uplift and empowerment. Tagore lays greatest stress on instilling the spirit of self-confidence and unity in the minds of the rural folk (through proper education) so that they could, on their own, fight off the maladies afflicting rural India.   

If cooperatives and panchayats are thrust on the rural folk from without (say, by the government, political parties or vested interest groups), they would miserably fail to generate and support the process of sustainable development, which is possible, Tagore holds, only by inspiring the rural masses to form cooperatives and panchayats by their own efforts.   

In ‘Samabaya Niti’ (ibid.), Tagore attributes agricultural backwardness in India to subdivision and fragmentation of agricultural plots, problems of marketing, storing and mechanization of small farmers, lack of finance and exploitation by money lenders etc. Tagore thinks that all these problems could be solved through cooperatives. He further emphasizes that the root cause of rural destitute is the lack of self-confidence of the rural people, which makes them dependent on outside help, especially from the government. So, our primary task is to make the rural folk aware of their own strength, which lies in unity. Tagore stresses: “For this reason, the most urgent need in our country is not to place begging bowls at their hands, but to make them confident of their own power, to make them realize that a man united with others is a complete entity, whereas an alienated individual is but a powerless fragment.” (R. R. Vol. 14, P.313) 

Coming to panchayats, Tagore, in ‘Atmashakti’ (self-power: R. R. Vol. 2, P.644), opines that rural panchayat system imposed by the government would be a miserable failure. It would breed jealousy and in-fighting among rural masses for the coveted panchayat posts and would generate more problems than it would solve. The members of the panchayats would be interested in serving more the government officials (to gain favour) than their rural brethren. They would virtually become instruments at the hands of the government to repress rural people. Panchayat system, which was a real source of power of the rural people of India in earlier times, would now become a cause of disunity and weakness of the rural masses. They ought to form panchayats on their own.  

Tagore always encourages the application of modern technologies for rejuvenation of rural India, but all these should be within the framework of a regenerated rural society based on self-help and freedom from outside interference.  


Rabindra Rachanavali (রবীন্দ্র রচনাবলী) (R. R.), 125th Anniversary Edition, 1986, Visva-Bharati Publishers, Calcutta-17 

i) Vol. 2: Atmashakti (আত্মশক্তি), P. 617; Bharat Varsha (ভারতবর্ষ), P. 695 

ii) Vol. 6: Swadeshi (স্বদেশী), P. 497; Samaj (সমাজ), P. 517; Bilaser Fans (বিলাসের ফাঁস) , P. 526; Shiksha (শিক্ষা), P. 563 

iii) Vol. 7: Dharma (ধর্ম), P. 447; Shantiniketan (শান্তিনিকেতন), P. 521; Tapavan (তপোবন), P. 690 

iv) Vol. 14: Samabaya Niti (সমবায় নীতি), P. 309; Palli Prakriti (পল্লি প্রকৃতি), P. 351; Aranya Devata (অরণ্য দেবতা), P. 372

Dr.Ratan Lal BasuRatan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.

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Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.

Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.

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