Nababarsha (The New Year)

Rabindranath Tagore

 

This text was read at Santiniketana Asrama in Vaisakha 1309, Bengal Era (April 1903). It was translated from the Bengali by Sumita Bhattacharya & Sibesh Bhattacharya and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

 

Nowadays we put too much value on work. Near at hand or afar, during daytime or after sunset, work must go on. What more to do? What more to achieve? How to drive ourselves to death? Where can we immolate ourselves? These are what we are agitatedly seeking all the time. In the West dying in harness is considered a great honour. Fruitful or fruitless, or even wholly unnecessary, it matters not, but we must keep on rushing and pushing in whatever way till the very last breath. When the intoxicating spin of this merry-go-round of work seizes a people, no peace is left in the world. The woolly goats that had all along been leading a carefree life in the difficult Himalayan ranges begin dying shot by hunters. The good-natured seals and penguins had all along been enjoying the ease of keeping alive without fear in the snowy desert away from human habitat. Now, that spotlessly white mass of snow suddenly turns red splashed in the blood of these innocent creatures. Out of the blue the mercantile canons begin showering opium canon-balls down the throat of the ancient and artistic China and in Africa the darkness sheltered so long by its forest fastness gives up life in anguished cry crushed by the thunderbolt of civilization.

Here in this Asrama, when we sit still, the realization comes clearly to the mind that the real end of life is ‘to be’ and not ‘to do’. In the world of nature, there is no end to activities, but the nature keeps activities in the background and expresses herself through being. When we look at nature, she looks ever-fresh and without a trace of fatigue; she looks as if she is attending a party and has dressed herself up for the occasion and has just taken her seat at ease on the wide blue sky. Where does this cosmic homemaker have her kitchen? Where does she have her husking mill? Where in her pantry she has stacked on shelf after shelf her wonderful looking storage jars? The ladle and tong in her right hand looks as though these were her ornaments and the works she does appear as though these were only sports. Her steps look like dancing steps, her efforts effortless ease. The nature always manifests herself by keeping the rotating wheels hidden below and by placing stability over movement. She does not let the breathless rush of work to make herself indistinct and the heap of ever accumulating work to bury her.

This leisure surrounding the work, this ability to keep the motion enveloped in a steadfast calm, these are the secrets of the perpetual freshness of nature. And not just the freshness, these are also her strength.

From her copper-in-furnace sky, from her dry grey fields, from her spacious midday wearing the glowing web of matted hair, from her pitched dark silent night, Bharatavarsha has received an expansive sense of peace and a supreme tranquillity in her soul. Bharatavarsha is not a slave of work.

There is no need to feel disturbed at the fact that all people do not have the same ideal ingrained in their nature. Bharatavarsha did not pass by the man and made work larger than humanity. By giving importance to action emptied of desire for reward, she has in fact reined in work with restraint. When the desire for reward is abandoned, the work loses its venomous teeth. In this way man finds the space to keep him elevated above work. In our country to be is the real ideal and doing is only a means.

 
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The encounter with foreign lands has disturbed the age-old tranquillity of Bharatavarsha. I do not think it is causing any increase in our strength; in fact, it is actually sapping our energy. With every passing day our commitment is faltering, our character is disintegrating; our mind is becoming unruly and our efforts futile. Formerly, the pattern of life in Bharatavarsha was very simple and easy-paced and, yet, very firm. There was absence of ostentation of every kind and there was no unnecessary wastage of energy. The faithful wife could easily mount the funeral pyre of her husband; soldiers could go to war without ado with dry gram as their only diet. To bear with every inconvenience for not deviating from the code of conduct, to face utmost difficulties to protect the community, to sacrifice life in the cause of duty (Dharma) were easy things to do then. A reserve of the mighty power that calmness contains still exists in Bharatavarsha; we do not know it ourselves. With our love for pleasure, our lack of faith, our lack of conduct, our imitativeness, a handful of us, the education-excited youth, have not yet been able to drive away from Bharatavarsha the rugged strength of poverty, the stilled emotion of the silent, the sturdy calm of deep commitment, the magnanimous solemnity of detachment. Through restraint, through faith, through meditation, Bharatavarsha has obtained the self-sufficient power that does not suffer from the fear of death. And this has given tenderness to her countenance, toughness to the marrow in her bones, softness to her social dealings and resoluteness to the performance of social obligations. We have to feel this enormous strength residing in the heart of peace; we have to understand this rock-solidity lying at the base of tranquillity. Amidst many difficulties over centuries, it has been this unwavering inner strength of Bharatavarsha that has been guarding us. And when the occasion would arise again, it would be this power, firm in its commitment, this power emanating from the Bharatavarsha that is poor, that is ill-clad, without adornment, without words, that would rise again and extend its reassuring hand to Bharatavarsha. The English jackets, the furniture from English shops, the perfect imitation of the way of speaking of English teachers would not survive and would be of no use at all. Him that in total indifference we are not even looking at, whom we are not even trying to understand and know, and sitting by the window of the English school, even a glimpse of whose unadorned appearance is making our earlobes red with embarrassment and we are turning away our face in shame, it is he that represents the true eternal Bharatavarsha. He does not keep on dancing to the Western tune and beats set by our orators in conference rooms. Clad in loincloth he is waiting alone and silently, seated on his grass mat in the dusty boundless riverside fields radiating fiery sun. He is dreadfully strong, he is frightfully painstaking, and he observes fasting as a vow. Within his thin skeletal frame he still keeps aflame the deathless, sorrowless, reassuring oblation fire of the ancient hermitage. And, all our trappings of today, our boastings, our applause, our falsehood, all that is our own creation, all that we now consider as the only reality in Bharatavarsha, as the single Great Truth, that which is flippant, which is restless, which is only a mass of foam surging from the Western Ocean, in the event of a storm arising all these would vanish into the thin air. Only the eyes of the unassailably strong ascetic would be found shining in the storm and the tawny locks of his matted hair flowing in the wind. When in the roar of the storm the fine speeches in English with impeccable accents would not be audible any longer, only the clanking of the iron bangle with the iron rod held firmly in the right hand of the ascetic would reverberate above the sound of the thundering clouds all around. Let us know the Bharatavarsha that lives alone and in seclusion. Let us not ignore him who is quiet; let us not disbelieve him who is reticent. He, who disdainfully spurns the abundance of foreign luxurious goods, let us not ignore him as poor. Rather, let us with folded hands quietly sit before him and silently pay our obeisance by putting the dust of his feet on our head and return back to our homes for quiet contemplation.

 
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Today on the occasion of the New Year with the vast open fields around us, let us imbibe another aspect of the spirit that characterized Bharatavarsha. This is Bharatavarsha’s solitude. This right to solitude is a precious right; it has to be earned. It is difficult to attain it. Our ancestors have bequeathed this solitude to Bharatavarsha. Like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata this is our national heritage.

Whenever an alien traveller in outlandish clothing appears in a country, the curiosity of the local people reaches a feverish pitch. They surround him, question him, hurt him, and mistrust him till he is flustered and unsettled. The Indian on the other hand looks at him with ease and is not offended by the stranger and does not in turn hurt him. The way the Chinese visitors Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang, for example, could travel through India with the ease of a kin could never have been possible in Europe. The unity that Dharma gives does not manifest itself externally. Where language, appearance, dress and clothing are all distinctively uniform, it becomes impossible to avoid the heartless assault of curiosity at every step. In contrast, the Indian in his self-absorption maintains a kind of aloofness. He carries a permanent solitude around him, so nobody can crowd into his person. The unknown alien gets sufficient space to pass by his side. Those who always gang up, crowd and occupy the entire road, it is not possible for a newcomer to pass them by without hurting them or being hurt by them. Before he can move a step forward, he has to answer all the questions; he has to clear every test. But the people of Bharatavarsha do not raise any barrier where they live, they do not suffer from any scarcity of space, nobody can snatch away from them the space for solitude. Whether it is Greek or Arab or Chinese, the Indian, unlike a thick jungle, does not impede anybody. Rather, he is like a large leafy tree that leaves ample free space under the branches; if one takes shelter it provides shade and does not complain when one leaves.

One whose heart does not respond to the value of this solitude would not be able to understand Bharatavarsha properly. For successive centuries a mighty foreign power had been tearing down Bharatavarsha like a ferocious boar from one end to the other with its teeth. Even then Bharatavarsha was secure in its expansive solitude; nobody was able to inflict injury to its soul. Even without resorting to arms Bharatavarsha has an innate ability to stay free within its own self. Because of this there has not been any need for an armed guard till now. Just as Karna took birth with inborn armour, the Indian nature is sheltered in an innate covering. An impenetrable peace steadfastly accompanies it amidst all conflicts and turbulence. This is why it does not break down, does not dissolve, nobody can swallow it up; even in raging crowd it stands out alone.

 
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In Europe enjoyment belongs to the private domain, the work to the public. In Bharatavarsha, it is just the other way round. In Bharatavarsha enjoyment is shared with others, while the work is the concern of the individuals. In Europe wealth and leisure and pleasure are the possessions of the individuals, but all the charities and donations, all the educational institutions, all the religious activities, all the trade and commerce are collective enterprises. Our wealth and happiness are not our personal preserves, our spiritual obligations, our obligations to give and teach, all our duties are our individual responsibilities.

It does not make sense to take an oath to destroy this quality with conscious efforts. Anyway such efforts have not yielded much result till now, and it would not do so in future either. Even in trade and commerce, I do not consider it desirable to raise an enormous capital on a gigantic scale at one place and then make all the smaller initiatives under its sway forcibly sterile. That the Indian weavers have been ruined is not because of their failure to unite, but because of their failure to improve their tools. If his loom is efficient and every weaver works and earns his living and leads a contented life, then the poison of genuine poverty and envy would not accumulate in the society and then Manchester laden with all its complex machinery and factories would not able to destroy this weaver. A learned Japanese says, “Do not try to set up a large-scale organization by importing highly expensive foreign machines. We got a very sophisticated machine from Germany and within a short period we made a simplified and economical version of it using inexpensive wood. And then we introduced these machines to every house of our craftsmen community. This has led to an improvement in work and everybody is getting food.” The rendering of tools and machines simple and easy and work accessible to everybody and food available to all in this manner is the ideal of the East. We must keep this in mind.

Whether entertainment or education or welfare, when everything is turned extremely complicated and difficult, it only leads to surrender to groups. It makes the organization and excitements of work grow larger and larger till the man is completely overpowered. Driven by ruthless competition, the workers become worse than machines. When from outside we look at the enormous organizational set-up of Civilization, we are struck with wonder. But the brutal human sacrifice that goes on uninterrupted day and night beneath it remains hidden from our view. But it does not remain hidden from the Providence; the occasional social upheavals relay the news of its terrible consequences. In Europe, the bigger group grinds to a pulp the smaller ones; the big money gradually emaciates the little one through starving it and finally gulps it down without any qualm like a small tablet.

Let me not dwell here on the poison of discord and discontent that swirls up from an excessive expansion of efforts of work, from making the work assume gigantic proportions and from making one set of work clash with another. I am only thinking about the way people inside or around these monstrous factories breathing black smoke have to stay squeezed like packed sardines so that they lose the natural right to solitude and the cover of privacy. It leaves no space or time or scope for quiet contemplation. In this manner one’s own company becomes supremely unfamiliar. And thus, whenever there is a break from work, one has to make an attempt to forcibly escape from one’s own self through indulgence in drink or pleasure. Staying quiet, remaining silent or keeping happy becomes impossible.

This is the state of indigent wage earners. And, those who are given to the enjoyment of life are debilitated by the excitement of newer and newer means of pleasure. Like dry leaves caught up in a storm they move day and night in a crazy round of parties, sports, dancing, racing, hunting and travelling. From within this whirling movement one cannot see either oneself or the world clearly; everything looks intensely blurred. If this cycle of entertainment stops even for a moment, then the momentary encounter with one’s own self or the contact with the larger world become wholly unbearable.

 
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Bharatavarsha has lightened the density of enjoyment by spreading it over kin and relatives and neighbours. It has also simplified the complex tangle of work by dividing work among different people. This has allowed sufficient space to everybody for cultivating human qualities in all spheres of life — in consumption, in work, in contemplation. The businessman: he also listens with interest the religious discourse and performs rituals; the craftsman: he too rhythmically recites the Ramayana in leisured peace. This commodiousness of leisure keeps the home, the mind and the society to a large extent purged of the smog of impurity; it does not shut the polluted air in and does not allow the piling up of the garbage of uncleanness right on your person. The mighty conflagration of sensuous hunger that gets ignited by the mutual competitiveness and the crowding of one upon another remain subdued in Bharatavarsha.

If everyone of us accepts this Indian ideal of working in solitude, then this New Year will bestow an abundance of blissful shower and auspicious harvest. Instead of waiting for ever for forming a party, for collecting resources, for making the resolution for work ever so bloated, if we, wherever we may be stationed, in our villages or engaged in cultivating our fields, in our localities or in our homes, with quiet peaceful mind, with patience, with contentment, begin doing the work that is good and beneficial, without feeling disgruntled at the absence of pomp, without feeling embarrassed at the frugal arrangement, without feeling ashamed of the indigenous way, and if, sitting on the bare floor in our little huts, clad in our indigenous Uttariya, we set out doing our duties without fuss, and if we keep duty entwined with work and work with peace, and if we do not keep looking upward like the soliciting Chataka bird for applause from foreigners, then with the genuine inner strength of Bharatavarsha we will be strong. You can get blows from outside, but not strength. There is no other strength than one’s own. If we can discover the area where Bharatavarsha is strong in its native strength and occupy it, all our humiliations will disappear in a moment.

Bharatavarsha has given dignity to everybody, great or small, man or woman. And this dignity has not been rendered as something achievable through overweening ambition. The foreigners are not able to see it from outside. A person who is born in the midst of a hereditary work, a work that is most easily available to him, for him it is only honourable to pursue it. In fact, to deviate from it is unseemly. It is this sense of dignity, which is the only means of holding on to the human qualities. In this world, inequality of status would always remain; only a microscopic few would have the luck of higher station. If the rest of the people comparing their lot with the fortune of the privileged suffer from a sense of shame, then their lack of self-esteem makes them in fact base. In this way ninety percent of people in Europe, suffering from a sense of deprivation, envy and futility are always disturbed. European visitors view the poorer and lower sections of our society in the same light as the poorer and lower sections of their own society and think that the misery and the humiliations of their people must be present in our people also. But the fact of the matter is that these are not present at all. Since in Bharatavarsha the social and occupational divisions are clearly laid down, the people in the higher echelons for the sake of preserving their identity do not drive away the lower people with disgrace. A Brahmana boy too has a Bagdi dada.1 Since the boundaries are maintained without dispute, mutual communications and human relations between man and man can flow without hindrance. The weight of intimacy with the higher does not crush the lower ones into pieces. If in this world the inequality between the high and low is inevitable, and if everywhere the lower ones far outnumber the higher, then for protecting the vast majority from the shame of indignity, the means that Bharatavarsha devised ought to be accepted as superior to others.

 
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In Europe this feeling of indignity has spread its influence to such an extent that a group of modern women there feel ashamed at the very fact that they are women. They consider it humiliating to conceive and care for the husband and children. Man is important, work is not particularly so; whatever work one does keeping one’s human quality intact there is no shame in it. That poverty is not degrading, serving others is not degrading, working with one’s own hand is not degrading, that one can keep one’s head erect irrespective of the work one does and in all situations, such attitudes do not find place in Europe. Thus everybody, whether able or not, striving to reach the top create an abundance of barren efforts, and an unending stream of useless works and self-destructive enterprises in the society. Cleaning the house, drawing water, grinding spice, taking one’s own meals last of all after serving all the guests and relatives, these in the eyes of Europe are insults and oppressions, but in our eyes these are the exalted rights of the homemaker. She draws merit and honour from these. In Europe, I understand, those who are daily engaged in doing these works develop coarseness and lose their natural grace. The reason: when one looks upon a work as low and yet has to do it under a sense of compulsion, it makes one low indeed. Our women, the gentle souls that they are, the more they commit themselves to serve, to do the domestic chores as if these were sacred tasks, to show utter devotion to a really ordinary husband as if he were a veritable God, the more graceful, serene and pure they become — overwhelmed by their virtuous radiance coarseness runs away from their surroundings.

In the opinion of Europe the human dignity really lies in the belief that anybody can become anything. But, in reality, everybody cannot become everything. It is better to accept this simple truth with humility right at the beginning. When this is accepted with humility, no stigma remains any longer. Shyam (Dick) has no say in the house of Ram (Tom). As this is indisputable, it is not a matter of shame for Shyam not to be able to wield authority over the house of Ram. But if Shyam takes into his head the absurd idea that he ought to rule over the house of Ram and is humiliated time and again in his vain pursuit, then there is no end to his insult and suffering everyday. In our country as everyone has the sanction of undisputed right and security within one’s own earmarked domain, the people of the lower echelons do not chase away the higher ones at every opportunity, nor do the higher ones assiduously strive for ever to keep the lower ones at bay.

Europe asserts that this contentment, this lack of zeal for triumph, these are the causes of the death of a nation. These may be the cause of the death of European Civilization. But these are the very bases of our Civilization. The rules which apply to the people aboard a ship, do not apply to the people living in their homes. If Europe says that every civilization is same and the ideal of that uniform Civilization exists only in Europe, it does not make sense to discard with disdain all our treasures in haste the moment we hear this insolent remark.

Just because contentment has its distortions so there is no distortion of excessive ambition, who will accept this argument? If it is true that complacency caused by contentment brings about lethargy in work, how can we ignore the fact that when excessive ambitions gain momentum, it generates an overabundance of unnecessary and grievously injurious works? If one causes death through disease, the other causes death through violence. It ought to be kept in mind that an excess of either contentment or ambition brings disaster.

Therefore instead of continuing with this discussion, it ought to be readily admitted that contentment, restraint, tranquillity, forgiveness, all these are the features of higher civilization. Here, of course, the flints of competition do not strike each other to produce sounds of clash or shower of sparks. Instead there is the gentle and silent radiance of the diamond. To regard that sound and that spark as more valuable than the steady radiance is sheer barbarism. Even if that barbarism is bred in the schools of European Civilization, it, nonetheless, is barbarism.

 
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Today, on the occasion of the New Year, I visited the immortal Bharatavarsha that resides resplendent in the deepest chamber of our nature and I bowed my head and touched his feet. I found him sitting splendid and calm on his meditation-seat free from the endless spurring of works lusting for reward, sitting immersed in his own solitude free from the incessant grinding of the inert crowd, sitting secure in his own unwavering dignity free from the dense conflict of competition and defiling darkness of envy. It is the liberation from the passion for work, from the hustle of the mob, from the excitement of aggression that have set the whole of Bharatavarsha on to the path of Brahma, the path of ultimate liberation free from fear, free from sorrow, free from death. The liberation that Europe calls ‘freedom’ is hopelessly thin compared to it. This freedom is restless, is weak, is timid; it is arrogant, it is cruel, it is blind to others’ welfare, it does not even consider Dharma to be its equal; it even wants to enslave truth and disfigure it. It constantly hurts others and because of this it stays tense day and night with arms and weapons, armour and shield, in fear of being hurt by others. For self-defence, it keeps the majority of its own people in chains of slavery. Its countless soldiers are in reality only frightful machines bereft of human character. This monstrous freedom was never the ultimate objective of the quest of Bharatavarsha because our common people were in real terms freer than those of other countries. Even now, despite the disparagement from the modern age, this freedom will not be the supreme goal of the endeavours of our general public. And it matters not, for, if we can invoke and bring back in the midst of our society and realize in our hearts the greatness that is higher and larger than this freedom — the emancipation that has been the precious possession of Bharatavarsha and what has been gained through intense spiritual pursuit — then the dust of the bare feet of Bharatavarsha would sanctify the mightiest crowns of the world.

Here I close my musings on the New Year. Today I entered the past, because the past is the inexhaustible repository of the everlasting freshness. All the finery of fresh saplings that the forest-goddess has decked herself in for the festival today, this garment is not a brand new one. The sage-poets who sang the glory of the Maiden Dawn in the Trishtubh metre, they too had seen the goddess dressing herself up in this same soft green finery. This very garment quivering in the gentle breeze and wafting the fragrance of flowers and caught in the morning sunrays had glistened before the enchanted eyes of Kalidasa in the city garden of Ujjayini. When we are able to feel the ever-enduring old in the new, only then our worn-out life can take a dip in the ocean of eternal youth. If, today, in this New Year, we are able to feel the yesteryears of Bharatavarsha, the yesteryears that are thousands of years old, only then our doubts will disappear. If a tree is decorated with borrowed flowers and foliage, the decoration lasts only for a day. Nobody can prevent the swift premature aging and withering away of this novelty. If we seek to embellish ourselves with fresh energy and elegance borrowed from elsewhere, then in no time this attempt will become an object of ridicule like a wilted ugly garland. Soon the flowers and the foliage will fall off, only the fastening string will remain. The foreign costume, the foreign mannerisms soon turn dirty and unbecoming on us; the foreign education, the foreign custom soon turn inert and sterile in our mind. The reason is: there is no long-term history behind them. They are incompatible, inappropriate and cut off from roots. In the New Year today we will draw our modernity from the perennial past of Bharatavarsha. When the evening bell will ring ushering the hour of rest, even then our garland will not droop. We will then tie that unwithering garland on the forehead of our children with blessings and with fearless mind and undaunted spirit and will send them on to the path of victory. It is Bharatavarsha that will finally triumph; there is no shadow of doubt in it. The Bharata that is ancient, that which is veiled, that which is vast, that which is magnanimous, that which is silent, that is what will triumph. And we who are speaking English, who are given to cynical lack of faith, who are mouthing falsehood, we who are boasting, as the years roll by, would “collapse and dissolve like waves upon waves of the ocean.” That, however, will not cause any harm to the calm and eternal Bharatavarsha. Coated with the ash from the sacred fire and observing the vow of silence, that Bharata is waiting seated on his outspread deerskin Asana at the crossings of our roads. When we will be through with all our frivolous activities and will depart after dressing our sons and daughters in coats and frocks, even then he will keep waiting patiently for our grandchildren. That waiting will not be in vain. They will come to the ascetic with folded hands. They will say: “Grandsire, instruct us.”

 

He will say: “Om iti Brahma

He will say: “Bhumaivasukham nalpe sukhamasti

He will say: “Ananda Brahmano vidvan na vibheti kadacana.”

 
 
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Note

1. A Brahmana boy often has such close human bond with an elder Bagdi as to call him an elder brother even though the Bagdi is an outcaste. (Tr.) (Back to text)

 
       
 
 
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