In 1918 Rabindranath began preparations to add ‘A Centre of Indian Culture’ to the Santiniketan school for the coordinated study of the various religious cultures that flowed into India’s history: Vedic, Puranic, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, Sikh, Zoroastrian and Christian. Arrangements were made to study these contributions through the disciplines of philosophy, literature, art, music and dance.
The name Visva-Bharati dates from that time and also its Sanskrit motto, yatra visvam bhavati eka nidam, taken from a Vedic text meaning ‘the-world-in-one-nest’. Officially, Visva-Bharati international university was inaugurated at Santiniketan in 1921.
He kept the model simple even though an ‘international’ university is a complex idea. He explained that he used the word for the sake of convenience. He wrote what was uppermost in his mind in the following words,
“I have taken courage to invite Europe to the fields of Bolpur. There will be a meeting of truths here. I feel confident that they shall accept our invitation. What we have to ensure is that their hearts are not starved when they are with us.”
The idea of Visva-Bharati was to create a space for the meeting of the races through scholarly exchange and study of each other’s histories and cultures without opposing interests. It was to be a ‘pilgrimage’ to ‘behold the universe’ away from ‘narrow domestic walls’. It was hoped that these alternative values would help to build a new Indian personality free from the conflict of communities and capable of appreciating the many currents of the Indian cultural tradition along with the humanistic and liberal ideals of the West.
The new Indian personality would belong neither to the East nor to the West, but be a reconciler of both. Rabindranath argued that Indians must understand themselves in this connected way to realize the nation’s unity within its diversity. He wrote,
“The India of modern days comprised not only the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, whose common culture had its origin in India itself, but also the Mohammadan with his wonderful religious democracy of semitic origin and the Christian with his political democracy nurtured in Europe. There was also in India the Parsi from whom we had parted long ago outside the boundaries of India but who had come back to us again …
If Santiniketan was to become truly the guest house of India it had to be so comprehensive as to find room for each and all of these in its ripest scholarship …The treasures which these different religious cultures contained should be brought into practical use in relation to the modern world, not held apart and miserly hoarded.”
This article was written by Uma Das Gupta
Professor Uma Das Gupta is a historian and a renowned Tagore biographer. She is the author of many books and articles on Tagore. Some of the most recent are: Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2010; Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013.