There were various stages in the development of Rabindranath’s humanism. His deepening experience in relating to man and nature gave him his two most persistent drives in life: to bring joy and creativity and alternative values for a sustainable future to urban education, and to bring scientific education and self-reliance to the rural people. It was in Santiniketan in rural southern Bengal that he first began to integrate those strands.
Santiniketan was discovered by his father as a serene spot during the Maharshi’s travels in that region. In c. 1861 Maharshi Debendranath bought some land from his friend the Sinhas of Raipur and built a garden house on it in c. 1863. He named the house ‘Santiniketan’, an abode of peace. In c.1887 he established a Trust Deed for Santiniketan which provided for a hall of prayer, an annual village fair and a school.
This was the school Rabindranath founded in 1901. His Santiniketan school was to be a dynamic experiment to build up a living connection between city and village. The students who came to the Santiniketan school were from urban families while the school itself was surrounded by villages.
The early angst Rabindranath felt for an ignorant and helpless humanity in rural East Bengal became an inspiration and a spiritual force in serving his country by creating a holistic education at the most basic level.
He was greatly concerned with the cultural domination that was increasingly becoming a divisive force between city and village in early modern India. The newly emerging professional middle class of Indian society were taking their leave of their village homes and settling in the city. Caste hierarchy was being strengthened by the hegemony of a colonial English education.
To Rabindranath that was a more urgent problem than the lack of political freedom. He railed against the injustice of the common man’s subservience to the prevailing social system and the indifference of the Indian National Congress in this regard. He wrote,
“Whenever I realize the hypnotic hold which this gigantic system of cold-blooded repression has taken on the minds of our people whose social body it has so completely entwined in its endless coils that the free expression of manhood even under the direst necessity has become almost an impossibility. The only remedy that suggests itself to me and which even at the risk of uttering a truism I cannot but repeat, is – to educate them out of their trance.”
Rabindranath did not take the route of accusing foreign rule for our social malaise even though he blamed the colonial English education for enhancing the malaise. He argued that foreign rule was a symptom and not a cause. He even hoped that the new ideas of humanism from the West would rejuvenate us to look inwards and reverse the process by examining the radical and reform movements in our own history.
At Santiniketan the anniversaries of great men of thought and action, who belonged to India’s multiple cultures, and to the world, were celebrated through prayer and discourses. Anniversaries of the Buddha, the Christ, of Prophet Mohammad, of Chaitanya and Rammohun Roy were built into the school calendar. He believed that such an education would enable us to find ‘our own true place in the world’. 
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.