Society and the Gunny Sack: Tagore on Freedom, Technology, and What It Means to Be Human

There is a point in Tagore’s essay An Eastern University, when he dwells on the shortcomings of the university ethos in Indian and Western Society.  “Universities,” argues Tagore, “should never be made into mechanical organisations for collecting and distributing knowledge.”  Yet it is in precisely that direction, he insists, that they have been developing.  While this is grounds for an interesting discussion on the conflicts between liberal education and vocational training, it is also the reflection of an argument which undergirds many of Tagore’s essays: that the increasing compartmentalization and mechanization of society and the world robs us of the unity of the interlocking parts which comprise it.

A theme of many of his writings, Tagore makes this point most clearly in his earlier essay, The Modern Age, in which he briefly reflects on what he perceives as the tragedy of the rise of Calcutta.  Specifically he refers to a recent journey on the Ganges, in which he observed “the ruthless intrusion of the factories for making gunny-bags on both banks of the Ganges.”  It is not that gunny bags are unimportant, he reasons, but that contrasted against the intrusion upon the harmony of the environment,  “the fact that [humanity] is a manufacturer of gunny-bags is too ridiculously small to claim the right of reducing his higher nature to insignificance.”   Yet humanity is ever-more defining itself and its ambitions on its ability to produce these bags.  And somewhere in the rush for production, a fuller and freer understanding of the river we have constructed the factories on is lost.

Of course, gunny bags are merely symbolic of the larger trend of the industrialization of society.  It seems that Tagore, here and elsewhere, is making a similar point to one that has come up in class; though the increased productivity and advantages that modern technology offers have ostensibly increased our freedom, for leisure or thought or other pursuits, it is unclear that this is actually the case.  Of his journeys to the West and their conception of ‘freedom,’ Tagore writes “the mentality is that of a slave-owning community, with a mutilated multitude of men tied to its commercial and political treadmill. It is the mentality of mutual distrust and fear.”  That is, the prominence of the western tendency to deconstruct and exploit the world we live in has both given way to a massive gains in global relevance, and an arguable loss of something essential.

I’m not sure I’m totally on-board with Tagore’s arguments about the deconstruction of reality robbing us of the beauty of its fullness.  I’m relatively unconvinced that a belief in a reality that offers personal companionship is necessarily preferable to one at which we are not the center.  But I do think that there is weight to his arguments about our ever-increasing focus on productivity and profit and the subsequent consequences for our society.  Is it true that our continuing need for growth and expansion have robbed us of some essential piece of ourselves?  How free are we, if we view even higher education as a merely a means to a well-paid career?

But I think there is perhaps a question more specific to “alternate views of technology”: in a world to Tagore’s liking, where higher education is a place of mutual learning, and an appreciation of the whole of existence takes priority over the exploitation of the parts, is there even a place for the gunny sack?  There is a belief, I think, at the heart of capitalism and generally in Western society that it is the very competition for resources and insatiable drive for increased productivity that fuels the development of new and efficient technologies.  Is the development of specialized technology possible in a world whose “motive force is not the greed of profit,” or is it antithetical to the world-view Tagore espouses?


1 thought on “Society and the Gunny Sack: Tagore on Freedom, Technology, and What It Means to Be Human

  1. I agree with you — it’s a little difficult, I think, to figure out what Tagore wants (or would accept) from technology and industry — be it the kerosene water cans he talks about at the start of “The Poet’s Religion” or the gunny sacks of “The Modern Age.”

    In both cases, he admits the utility of each item, but shuns their “curt” and “abrupt” natures. Should strictly utilitarian objects exist? If so, how are they best used? Given that gunny bags are “indispensable,” is a world in which their production doesn’t detract from human leisure, worship, etc acceptable to Tagore?

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