Synthesizing the East and the West in Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and the
World and Aldous Huxley's Island
Various kinds of literary, religious,
historical, and socio-political encounters between the East and the West have led to a reckoning of the
different ways of defining and dealing with cultural 'otherness'. This paper, by analyzing
the two novels The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, and Island
by Aldous Huxley explores the impact of cross-cultural encounters on these two
writers evaluation of their own religious traditions and socio-political structures
in the light of the other's civilization. The focal point of the analysis of the two
novels is to enumerate the kinds of critical positions that Tagore and Huxley take with
respect to the East and the West and the possibilities of synthesizing the eastern and the
western ideologies to create postcolonial and utopian societies respectively.
In his novel The Home and the World (Ghare Baire 1919),
Tagore takes the position of the "authentic insiders' "who speak for their
culture but ... [are also] licensed to be critical" of their own cultures (Narayan
142). In his last novel Island (1962), Huxley, apart from using the East to
represent a practical utopia, positions it as a 'mirror' to reflect the West. It is
"a position that requires westerners to take an interest in other cultures without
engaging in negative portrayals or moral criticisms of that other culture. ... The
position of Mirror involves an injunction to sustain, encourage, and provide confirmation
for global predations and depredations of the "Big Bad West". ... The 'Other' in
such contexts seems only a "Mirror" that the West uses on its journey to
self-discovery" (Narayan 136-138).
The theme of a cultural synthesis of the spiritual East and the
scientific West was a powerful trend in the period spanned by Tagore's life (1861-1941).
Generally speaking, this East-West synthetic trend was perceived by the Indian
intelligentia as the foundation for a modern Indian renaissance. Tagore, like Aurobindo
Ghosh, Raja Rammohun Roy, and many other intellectuals of his time, understood this
synthesis as a reformative trend but was wary of the mindless emulation of the western
technology and its colonizing militant proclivities. In addition, these intellectuals also
felt that any kind of East-West synthesis should not stem from a negation of Indianness,
but from a need for a reappraisal of Indian traditions in a way that would lead to a
conscious rejection of their debilitating dimensions. It was through these two attitudes
that the Indian intelligentsia felt they could envision a strong and self-determinant
postcolonial Indian society.
In more concrete terms, the kind of East-West synthesis that was being
proposed in India in the late nineteenth century has been best explained by Partho
Chatterjee in his article "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question,"
where he argues that the struggle towards decolonization in colonial India encouraged the
preservation of Indian traditional values and structures as a way of negating
westernization. Yet, Indians also felt that Britain had been able to colonize them and so
many other countries, because of their superior scientific technology. Hence it was
thought necessary to master the superior powers of the West. But on the spiritual level,
they felt India/the East was far superior to the West and therefore should be preserved.
The domain of culture was, thus, dichotomized into the home and the
world and the rationale behind this division was explained as follows:
The world is the external domain of the material; the home represents
our inner spiritual self, our true identity. ... The home in its essence must remain
unaffected by the profane activities of the material world--and the woman is its
representation (Chatterjee 237, 239).
This model of synthesis created a binary split between the inside and
the outside, man and woman, private and public, and the home and the world. Therefore, it
is not a coincidence that Tagore titles his novel The Home and the World. He could
not subscribe to this model of the East-West synthesis and in his novel Tagore dramatizes
his own response to such a dialectical synthesis of the East and the West
Tagore came in direct contact with the West (apart from encountering
the British colonial rule in India), three times: in 1879, in 1890, and finally in 1912.
The first two times, he sailed to England and the last time, he came to the United States
to visit the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In each of these three visits,
two of the most important aspects of the West that caught Tagore's attention were (i) the
independence of women and (ii) the western education system which he found to be based on
the principles of free thought and action. Both of these issues become major themes in the
novel The Home and the World, which depicts the politically turbulent period of
Indian nationalism in the early twentieth century. Tagore dramatizes the conflicting
Indian attitudes toward the traditional Indian and modern western values through the three
characters of his novel. Nikhil, the central male character of the novel, is a humanistic
and spiritual synthesis of the eastern and western values and Sandip, his close friend, is
the progressive, materialistic synthesis of eastern and western ideals. Both fight for the
freedom of colonized India. Poised on the threshold, of these two choices, stands Bimala,
Nikhil's wife, who is adroitly portrayed, simultaneously, as the symbol of colonized
India, as well as the newly emerging independent Indian woman, weighing the merits of one
over the other.
By intertwining the issues of nationalistic awakening and feminist
liberation in the figure of Bimala, Tagore addresses the problems pertaining to the
'women's question' and Indian colonization. The colonizers had used the 'women's question'
as one of their critical tools to justify their colonial rule. By pointing to the native
practices of Sati, child-marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage, the British
colonizers were able to label the natives as barbaric, backward and therefore urgently in
need of being civilized by the superior western powers. As a way of overcoming this
colonial justification, many colonial reforms initiated by Indian men, educated in England
or locally in English, centered on the emancipation of women. The novel The Home and
the World, shows how Nikhil, an educated aristocrat, educates and liberates his wife
Bimala from a cloistered existence in the home and encourages her entry into the world
where she comes in contact with the materialistic dimensions of the West through her
relationship with Nikhil's friend Sandip.
Like all writers of decolonization, Tagore struggles to announce the
contours of "an imagined or ideal community, crystallized not only by its sense of
itself but also of its enemy" (Said 86). Despite portraying Sandip as selfish,
manipulative and aggressive, Tagore imbibes in him the admirable qualities of fearlessness
and enterprise. In other words, the western ideals of progress and materialistic success
are portrayed as alluring and exciting. When Bimala, newly emergent in the world outside
her home, meets Sandip, she comes under the spell of his fiery eloquence and this
admiration turns into an attraction for his vitality. But through her continued
interaction with Sandip, she finally understands him for what he 'really' is. When he
forces her to rob her husband's treasury to provide him the money to bribe the officials
and the landowners, Bimala perceives his hollowness, his distorted sense of success, and
his insatiable need to dominate. She sees him mimicking the colonizers and replicating the
colonial ideology in new nationalistic terms. Sandip clearly represents the nationalistic
bourgeoisie "that were partly formed and to some degree produced by the colonial
power; ... [and it is these neo-colonial forces that]
have often replaced the
colonial force with a new class-based and ultimately exploitative force" (Said 74).
This revelation, of seeing Sandip in his true light, allows Bimala to understand the
eminence and magnanimity of Nikhil's character who has freed her unconditionally. But this
realization, which is the focal point of the novel, comes to Bimala too late. The
reconciliation between Nikhil and Bimala is obviated and remains unsettled as Tagore
leaves the end intentionally ambiguous. The reader is informed that Nikhil has been
seriously wounded in his struggle to stop the uprising between the Hindu and the Muslim
members of his tenantry. His chances of survival are rendered precarious when the doctor
informs Bimala, "Can't say yet .... The wound in the head is serious" (280). His
life is threatened by the aggressive and militant modes of retaliations that nationalists
like Sandip have ingrained in the minds of the natives. Tagore sounds the ideal
nationalistic note through Bimala's recognition of Nikhil's grandeur and yet, we find
that, he "stands finally at the very threshold [that he] cannot actually ever
cross" (Said 89). Through Nikhil's impending death, Tagore points to the inviability
of maintaining clear cut demarcations between spiritualism and materialism, the home and
the world, and between the duties of man and that of woman, as proposed in the
nationalistic synthesis of eastern spirituality and western scientific advancement. Tagore
critiques this model of East-West synthesis by showing that the liberated, educated Indian
woman cannot be bound within the walls of the home and be represented as the
sole protector and perpetrator of Indian traditions, because the 'world'/West will
inevitably encroach upon the inner sanctum/'home'/East to the point of destroying it.
Although rejected by Bimala, Sandip, the undesirable synthesis of eastern fundamentalist
parochialism and western materialism remains safe, and his survival reveals Tagore's fears
of envisioning his country drift toward a dangerous cultural future where neo-colonialism
may thrive in the place of postcolonialism.
In contrast to Tagore, Aldous
Huxley's aim in synthesizing the East and the West is towards presenting a vision of a
practical utopia to a western audience. He achieves this goal by using the East to reflect
the plight of the modern western civilization. In Island, the Third World
functions as a mirror that allows the westerner, Will Farnaby, a British journalist to go
through a process of evaluating himself as a product of the western civilization. In other
words, in Island one sees the colonial process of defining the "self in
contrast to the other" turned in the reverse cycle (Narayan 165). Instead of the
westerner looking down upon and civilizing the 'barbaric' native, he finds himself being
civilized by the eastern 'native' and, thereby, looking down on his own civilization in
the light of his true understanding and appreciation of the 'others'. The colonial
rule which was justified as a civilizing mission of the barbaric native is shown to be
founded on a lack of comprehension of the eastern/native civilizations, a point which has
been made repeatedly by many postcolonial writers and critics like Chinua Achebe, James
Ngugi, Girish Karnad, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said.
The novel opens with a British journalist, Will Farnaby, finding
himself ship-wrecked on the island of Pala, a hypothetical island between Sumatra and Sri
Lanka, which on the thematic level is inhabited by a kind of Eurasian race who speak both
Sanskrit and English. The Scottish doctor, Andrew Macphail and the old Palanese king have
turned Pala into a combination of oriental and European, ancient and modern civilization.
The islanders on finding Will Farnaby 'wounded and lost' take him through a physical, as
well as a metaphysical journey of healing and growth by exposing him to their own culture.
The themes of happiness and the overall quality of human life dominate the voyage that
Will Farnaby takes, both inside and outside himself.
Yet, what is disturbing in Huxley's use of the East as a mirror to the
West, is that he puts the East "out of countenance, makes it lose face" (Narayan
141). East is treated as a remote and an isolated space, far away from the West, where the
author introduces one corrupt westerner and reforms him by pointing out to him the
negative aspects of the western civilization and by exposing him to a synthesis of eastern
and western values that Huxley hopes will be recuperative for the West. So the East in the
novel is not 'really' the East but the author's perception of what is desirable in the
East as far as the West is concerned.
Replicating this desire, we see that the Palanese/eastern characters in the novel are
constructed as missionaries, with the mission of rescuing westerners from their own
dehumanization. In describing modern Pala, Huxley, therefore, focuses only on those
aspects of their life-style that he finds are impaired in the West.
In political terms, Pala is defined as a democracy, "a federation
of self governing units". It owes its economic well being to remaining primarily an
agrarian civilization. Huxley attacks the extensive reliance of West on advanced
technology and industry by showing how the Palanese use scientific knowledge not for
making armaments or building heavy industries or generating other goals of life, but for
improving agricultural production. Similarly, in describing their formal education, Huxley
shows how major emphasis is placed on the sciences of life and mind which, he thinks, are
missing in the western education system. A child's education, therefore, in Pala, begins
at birth. Huxley illustrates this by showing how they are made to hear the word
"good" while being nourished and loved, with the belief that they will grow up
knowing only good and that in its turn will evoke only good. Children are also conditioned
against fear. To help them overcome depression and anxiety, children have access to a
mutual adoption club, based on the concept of the eastern extended or joint-family system,
which ends up giving every Palanese child about twenty different homes. The detection of
human variation and mutual acceptance of different human temperaments are some of the
other important premises of the Palanese education system. The Hitlers and the Stalins,
the Peter Pans and the musclemen belong to two dissimilar groups [the preponderance with
the West is revealed through these names that are part of western history and do not
belong to the eastern world]. They are initially segregated in Palanese schools and then
gradually introduced to one another in a way that teaches them to adjust to one another.
The weak and the strong are taught to know that they are of different temperament and
physique and not as inferior or superior beings. Another outstanding feature of Palanese
education is its non-verbal dimension, in which they have improvised exercises that can
transform the energy built up from negative emotions into specific kinds of physical
actions that take the power generated by fear or envy or anger and, instead of repressing
it or turning into violent actions, they redirect it along channels where it can be useful
or at least less harmful. Rock-climbing, wood chopping, deep breathing are some of the
exercises that serve this purpose. The underlying goal of these exercises is the Hindu and
Buddhist urge of defocusing and dispersing one's preoccupations with one's narrow self.
The importance of visual imagination is emphasized in alleviating one's mind from painful
memories and anxieties about the future. An example of this technique is illustrated early
in the novel when the young Mary Sarojini makes the injured Will repeat the story of his
climb up the snake-infested ridge until the sting of the experience is purged and he
laughs. In describing their work ethics, Huxley points out how the Palanese have preferred
to sacrifice mechanical efficiency for human satisfaction. They partake of their share of
all the available work and their rationale behind this sampling all kinds of work is that
it removes monotony and is an extension of their education. In analyzing their religious
beliefs, which is described as a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist teachings and labeled as
Tantric Mahayana Buddhism, Huxley blends his perceptions of various eastern philosophies.
The synthesis of the East and the West, in all these instances, can be seen as a process of incorporating the other into the
self but on the selfs terms (Narayan 165).
As readers, when we go through descriptions of the various
belief-systems of Palanese people through the eyes of Will Farnaby, we watch the West
returning to focus on itself again and again, each time "perhaps with more critical
self-awareness, but nevertheless with a self-awareness that remains devoted to only
understanding itself, even if refracted through the critical lens of its encounters with
its 'others'" (Narayan 138). It is, therefore, not surprising that the very moment
Will Farnaby comes face to face with the horror of his own mechanical existence and shows
signs of being transformed from a corrupt journalist into a compassionate human being, we
are informed of Pala's impending destruction. The devouring embrace
other in until there is nothing left of "them"[the East] but
"us"[the West] (Bammer 47). The novel concludes by showing the infiltration of
militant capitalism into Pala as its new king Murugan, the grandson of the old king, in
his desire to westernize this utopia, invites alliances with Colonel Dipa, the ruler of
Renga, the neighboring industrialized country. Once again, like Tagore in The Home and
the World, Huxley too questions the tenability of a humanistic synthesis of the East
and the West as it remains threatened by the western greed for domination and the Third
Worlds urge to mimic the powerful West. The 'mirror', in that sense, is shown to become
what it started to reflect. The East slowly vanishes at the end of the novel,
reminding one of the "cheshire cat's grin" in Alice in Wonderland.
In conclusion, the ambiguity and skepticism of both the eastern and
western writers in this analysis show how the process of encountering 'otherness', despite
having the potential of synthesizing utopias, actually ends up in potentially destroying
them. The cross-cultural responses of these writers, perhaps, remind us that today there
is only the West.
Eastern Illinois University
 In his book, Aldous Huxley and Eastern Wisdom,
B.L. Chakoo explains how Huxley seems to have performed the job of gathering up the
various aspects of the East and the West to create his vision of a realistic utopia.
Mahayana Buddhism and Tantricism are from the eastern philosophy. The cooperative
economics of the island exists in Israel and the Scandanavian countries. The systematic
improvement of agriculture is based on the Rothamstead agricultural station in England
 Both Uma Narayan and Nupur
Chaudhuri in their books, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World
Feminism (1997) and Western Women and Imperialism (1992) respectively, discuss
the western fabrication of the East as a process of incorporating the other
into the self. They use the example of the British/western
fabrication of the Indian curry powder to symbolize the western
fabrication of India as an entity that could be incorporated as a
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