Conscious of the right to be alive, Tagore ensured that his ashram-school allowed a life far removed from the pentagon of power or what Heidegger calls “the technological way of revealing”. However, Tagore, like Heidegger, did not harbour any hardened prejudice towards technology’s non-aggressive benevolence. He accepted machines and yet urged men to understand the life that machines cannot deliver; our thoughts and imagination need not cease to function after we had spoken our last words with the machines.

Tagore observed that the “glorious march of cement-concrete” civilisation in India did not begin in the city but grew out of the forest. Humans have not jostled and lumped themselves together to help create this growth. It happened because of the ways by which humans decided to conjoin with nature around them – not in fearful and perspiring congestion but through spaces that were both open and crowded.

This openness, this decongestion, he argued, kindled the consciousness of India and prevented her soul from being a congealed immobile entity.

Tagore found an “energy” in the forest – the cult of tapovan – which was dominantly independent and internal in its inception and dissemination. This was the energy that had not grown through extrinsic forces born out of necessity, contesting contingencies and overpowering centripetal material persuasions. This immense, immanent, immutable energy was a “quiet power” that infused the spirit of the world; it was a power in solitude that, on most occasions, emerged in meditation.

Tagore writes: “The thin shrill cry of the high-flying kite in the blazing sun of a dazed Indian midday sent to a solitary boy the signal of a dumb distant kinship. The few coconut palms growing by the boundary wall of our house, like some war captives from an older army of invaders of this earth, spoke to me of the eternal companionship which the great brotherhood of trees have ever offered to man.”

This vital “kinship” with nature determined the temper of the ashram and its enviable communitarian space. The interdependence and unconstrained relationship between the teacher and the taught, spoke of the core of ashram education where man, nature and the greater spirit were threaded together in “joy” (Tagore writes, “The gifts of nature, unconsciously, build the human race”). Education in the ashram was “education for life at its fullest”.

Tagore made children realise that education was “a permanent part of the adventure of life” and not “like a painful hospital treatment for curing them of the congenital malady of their ignorance”; it was “a function of health, the natural expression of their mind’s vitality”.

Endowed by a “curiosity” to establish “contact with their immediate environment”, students and teachers sought for worlds beyond the textbooks and desired to find “joy” in direct experiences – a “joy” that was creative.

Tagore pointed out the importance of the child growing in soul and body through freedom and joy because going against nature would surely have its indisputable fall outs. Suffering must come from “freedom” – it was the new politics under the spell of which the ashram had incepted and flourished – and never from imprisonment conducted under the sign of education. The ashram-school grew an “atmosphere” (a significant word in Tagore’s philosophical vocabulary) which was responsive to “colour, perfume, music and movement”.

Tagore complained that “in his society man has about himself a diffuse atmosphere of culture. It keeps his mind sensitive to his racial inheritance, to the current of influences that come from tradition; it enables him to imbibe unconsciously the concentrated wisdom of ages. But in our educational organisations we behave like miners, digging only for things and not like the tillers of the earth whose work is a perfect collaboration with nature.”

The “green space” of the ashram fostered a “teaching relationship” that kept the dynamics of human condition and its collaterality with nature firmly in place. It thrived in a dialectic of communication and conformity. The teacher, the taught and nature were caught in non-hierarchical gestaltic games of “mutual domination” and “interchangeable supremacy”.

What did Tagore mean when he pointed out the “signal of a dumb distant kinship” that a solitary boy in a “dazed Indian midday” grows with the thin shrill cry of the high-flying kite in the blazing sun?

Is experience in pedagogy strictly subservient to textual meaning or do experiences outside the domain of ceaseless meaning effects contribute to experiential richness? Willie Pearson recorded an incident during one of his class lectures conducted under a tree (this practice continues to this day) when a boy drew his attention to the song of a bird. “I am quite sure,” he commented, “that my class learnt more from that bird than it had ever done from my teaching and something that they would never forget in life. For myself, my ears were opened, and for several days I was conscious of the songs of the birds as I had never seen before”.

What did the class learn from the bird’s song? How could learning go beyond formal teaching? Thinking non-dualistically through the body and the mind is always an achievement – a mode of being that involves embodied meditation of the world and its consequent intellection. This is about psychophysically knowing a truth of education where, for instance, the act of knowing by the ear (song of the bird) is connected with refigurations of mentalisation (achieved through a distinct experience of learning).

The education for life at its fullest cannot be experienced simply within a system because without the surplus – in cogitation, in acts, in cognition – the “fullest” can never be a realistic telos to achieve. Not disharmonious with each other, this ensemble of the body-mind generated the “play drive” (in the words of Schiller) that challenged the dualist infrastructure of thought and feeling.

Education in the ashram encouraged this difficult “art” where the self of a student became an aesthetic subject, subjected to a variety of forces at once somatic and psychic. The psychophysical mode of reading – learning being transgressive in its directness of somatic experiences and dialectical ways of intellection – is about, as Hans Ulrich Gumbretch argues, reading books and reading the world and not simply meaning attribution.

Gumbretch observes that “it is the never-ending movement, the both joyful and painful movement between losing and regaining intellectual control and orientation, that can occur in the confrontation with (almost?) any cultural object as long as it occurs under conditions of low time pressure, that is, with no “solution” or “answer” immediately expected.

This is exactly the movement that we are referring to when we say that a class or a seminar “broadened” our minds. Tagore, who believed that “imprisonment” was the “best way of making children confirmed criminals” wanted all education to be peripatetic – an engagement with the physicality of learning by releasing children from the confinement of “same benches, chairs, walls, buildings, globes and kinds of games.”

Tagore advocated that “let them know other games”. Gumbretch argues further that “rather than having to think, always and endlessly, what else there could be, we sometimes seem to connect with a layer in our existence that simply wants the things of the world close to our skin”. The closeness of the experience of the world to our skin helps us to avoid our compelling status as “intercourse beings”.

The nakedness of skin is textured with deep social insertions that forget the psychophysical experiential directness of things under the influence of social encrustations and habitus of being and performing; these are much opposed to the vitality of connection with the world around.

The consequent disability leaves one close to being a discursive being and not an embodied individual for whom “broadening the mind” is not about gathering knowledge but surely about a fullness of experience. In trying then to grow an intense “connect” with nature and objects, Tagore looked into the possibilities of “intense joy” generated through efforts to discover a layer of existence beyond the mere cultural and material values of things.

Excerpted with the author’s permission from Aesthetics, Politics, Pedagogy, Tagore: Towards a Transcultural Philosophy of Education, Palgrave.