Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote Shikshar Milon (1920) in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for boycott of English education in course of the Non-Cooperation Movement. Questioning the sagacity of such a call, Tagore contended that in modern times, the West had progressed because of education.
To deny education would be to deceive oneself. Only those with knowledge can overcome difficulties and garner the largest share of benefits. Those bereft of this spirit were left empty-handed. Education encouraged the spirit of scientific explorations not to instil obedience but to make adversaries obedient. Those who perfected this, according to Tagore, ruled the world. He also argued that in the West the development of political freedom began when people realized that political order was not decided by the whims of an individual or a sect, but required consent of all.
Science eliminated the sense of fear. The misery and underdevelopment of Russia was a clear example of this denial as there, unlike the West, miseries were attributed to fortune and luck, like many in India, rather than thinking in terms of a scientific solution to the problem. In ancient India, the teachings of the Upanishad were similar to the modern Western attitude towards science. Instead of continuing with this tradition, India moved towards subservience.
Knowledge led to independent thinking. Ancient India achieved excellence because of knowledge while the rest of the world wallowed in ignorance. If modern India had to deal with the West it would have to acquire scientific knowledge. The basic problem in India was the lack of education. Tagore criticised the West for lack of moderation as their unending quest for more and more was their undoing. He found Japan to be moderate. He also found Western civilization to be mechanical and underlined the importance of societal bonds to bring out human fulfilment.
He stressed the need for railways, telegraphs and factories which would have to be linked with welfare of human kind. He argued that this incompleteness of Western civilization could be countered by the teachings of ancient Indian saints, including Gautam Buddha. Rather than posit the West versus the East, he underlined the need to discover the meeting points between the two and warned that the failure to comprehend this essentially complementary relationship would lead to the failure of both. Indeed, the search for truth called for this larger unity which had been negated by imperialism.
It was for this reason that the demand for self-determination became pronounced in Europe. The basis of truth could only be realized by achieving real unity which could only be achieved through education. He acknowledged that science had surmounted geographical distances. He accused the West of narrow nationalism and was dismayed that India too was imbibing the same. He insisted on India’s educational centres developing as facilitators for East and West. India’s spiritual quotient was high despite being materially poor.
The realization of freedom for humanity was the key objective. He was convinced that for heralding a new age, India would have to be emancipated. At another remove, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1876-1936), supporter of the Congress and the Non-Cooperation Movement, refuted Tagore’s arguments in an essay, Shikshar Birodh (1920). He replied to Tagore as he was dismayed by the negative implications of incorporating western education in India’s educational system. It was further complicated by the fact that Tagore’s views were praised by the Anglo-Indian press.
Sarat Chandra rejected the proposition that the West won because its educational system was based on certain elements of truth. Citing Greece, Rome, Afghanistan, Duryodhana, he asserted that victory, on the basis of looting was not truth. He argued that physics, chemistry and economics were important, but cautioned about its ill-effects as it led to annihilation and colonialism as demonstrated by the First World War. He contended that while proper scientific education was important for earning one’s self-respect, it could not be achieved by an education designed by colonial rule.
Colonial education provided skills for manning the administrative apparatus smoothly. He did not accept Tagore’s contention that India’s suffering and pain was due to its faults. Sarat Chandra attempted to provide a proper educational system to generate self-confidence with the help of realizing one’s past glories. He rejected any form of Westernization that distanced one from tradition. The destructive mechanical civilization that the West had created was not in consonance with India’s civilizational traits and culture.
The basic philosophy of the West revolved around prosperity and standard of living. Anyone who had elementary knowledge of Western civilization would know this basic truth. The colonial education ignored the teachings of the Indian saints as it was not considered as useful. He dismissed Western education as destructive and disharmonious, traits that were alien to the Indian civilization. Sarat Chandra’ reply, according to Kazi Abdul Wahud (1894-1970) ignored Tagore’s fundamental contention, specifically the need to develop a scientific temper to facilitate the search for truth.
His basic fallacy was that he concentrated too much on the past with little concern or understanding of the present and future. He ignored the fact that culture had nothing to fear from science. His contention that the West would conceal important aspects of scientific education was incorrect. He missed Tagore’s emphasis on the liberating aspect of science. Moreover, Tagore dissected the Western pursuit of science dialectically, examining both its constructive and destructive aspects and he emphasized on the former as it would solve India’s major problems.
His Shikshar Birodh in reality was Ashikshar Milan. Sarat Chandra, according to Pramatha Chaudhuri, was superficial in his critique of Tagore as he missed the latter’s most important assertion on the need to cultivate scientific reasoning. His understanding of culture was parochial. It was also interesting to note that he could not comprehend like Gandhi who too had idealized a glorious Indian past but realized that there was no going back, most particularly the need to move beyond superstition and error.
Tagore’s critique was advanced when the Non-Cooperation Movement tried to widen the gulf between the East and the West which he wanted to avoid as he was alarmed by the lack of scientific reasoning and the attempt to straitjacket perceptions and responses. Shikshar Milon was followed by Satyer Ahovaan that gave a detailed critique of the Non-Cooperation Movement, namely the lack of response from the educated elite, the lack of a concerted effort to educate ordinary people to develop their capacity to think and take independent decisions.
In its inability to answer these important questions, Sarat Chandra’s reply was dated. Both Shikshar Milon and Satyer Ahovaan, according to Pramatha Chaudhuri were two of Tagore’s finest pieces.