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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

What Ethical Imperatives?

Leela Gandhi has posed the question, ‘what ethical imperatives ... rendered some Europeans immune to the ubiquitous temptations of... empire.... to betray the claims of possessive nationalism in favor of solidarity with foreigners, outsiders, alleged inferiors?’4 For Polak, the source of these imperatives lay in his youth in late nineteenth-century London. Born into a commercial family in London’s Jewish community and without the benefit of a university education, Polak might seem a most unlikely figure to develop a broad understanding of comparative religions, to devote himself to colonised peoples oppressed by his own nation and to choose to stand with them against his own fellow citizens.

Paul Gilroy’s comment that the ‘methodical cultivation of a degree of estrangement from one’s own culture and history... might qualify as essential to a cosmopolitan commitment’,5 appears crucial to Polak’s cosmopolitanism. Polak details a number of influences contributing to ‘a degree of estrangement’ from his own background, which made it possible for him to relate to others on a more equal basis. As a young person, rather than acquiring a fixed and unchanging notion of British-ness and any conviction of British uniqueness, he was acutely aware of the variety and diversity among its peoples. He credits a teacher’s emphasis upon the diverse origins of the British people, including

Celtic, (possibly) Phoenician, Roman... Angle, Saxon, Jute, Norman, Scandinavian, Iberian, Dutch, French (Huguenot, Jewish, German, Polish, Italian, and even African, Indian and Chinese elements had all helped to enrich the national (not to speak of the imperial) inheritance and upon their absorption, had made up the British people as we know them to-day.6

His own family history spoke to this, as his Jewish forebears had come from Holland about a hundred years before his birth, while earlier generations of the family came from Poland and Germany.7 Proud of both his ‘English and foreign descent’, he seemed to comfortably embrace people across their world and was able to enter into their concerns and interests (Fig. 3.1).

Insularity was to me never very comprehensible. I was as much ‘at home’, so to speak, ‘abroad’, as I was in the land of my birth.8

He grew to adulthood at the height of empire, in an era swamped by imperial ideology. As Schneer notes, ‘The Imperial drumbeat was steady and all-enveloping in turn-of-the-century London’.9 Yet Polak managed to develop a critical stance towards this drumbeat, influenced by his father’s work as an advertising agent for a pro-Boer newspaper along with his experience of reading continental newspapers that shocked him initially with their ‘anti British tone’, but which made him understand the political nature of accounts of current events.10

Robert Gregory attributes Polak’s ability to commit himself to the Indian cause to ‘his awareness of the persecution suffered by minority groups’, including Jews.11 This is only partly true. In fact, Polak was not deeply engaged with Judaism, and could be quite critical ofJewish people, having a ‘degree of estrangement’ from the faith of his ancestors. On his death, the London Jewish Chronicle noted that he played ‘little part in Jewish activities’.12 Polak’s complicated relationship with Judaism, both in the London of his youth and in South Africa in early adulthood helped to foster his cosmopolitanism and anti-racism. In his formative years, he knew of the persecution that Jews had experienced throughout history and contemporaneously in the pogroms of Eastern and Central Europe, as

Portrait of H. S. L. Polak

Fig. 3.1 Portrait of H. S. L. Polak

Source: Golden number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the passive resistance movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie well as discrimination in London’s East End.13 He credits his ‘youthful agnosticism’ to his ‘dislike of the ceremonial’. His parents were moving away from orthodoxy and he did not learn a lot about Jewish religion. He felt ‘drawn outwards towards a larger life of spiritual experience’.14 He was also aware of the hierarchy and prejudice which Sephardic families like his felt towards the Ashkenazy Jews.15

Even as a child, I was made aware of two main currents of human experience - the tendency to segregation, separateness, and differentiation, upon a basis of relative superiority and inferiority on one hand; and that towards interdependence, intermingling, and unification, upon a basis of mutual compatibility, on the other.16

His South African sojourn also made him aware how oppressed and marginalised groups could also attempt to improve their own situation by supporting discrimination against other groups. He critiqued South African Jews, who joined in discrimination against Indians. Commenting in 1911 upon Durban’s Jewish mayor’s banning of Indians from the city’s coronation celebrations he wrote,

Unfortunately, many of our co-religionists in South Africa appear never to have learnt this fore-most lesson of the age long persecution of the Jewish people, for in spite of the complete freedom and liberty with which they are vested, so soon as they set foot upon South African soil, they do not hesitate to join in the hue and cry against the disinherited residents of the sub-



Polak gained a studentship at the London School of Economics, but was there only briefly, as his father could not afford to keep him there. He did spend a year in Switzerland at a commercial college, but back in London, working as an insurance clerk, he sought out educational opportunities as an evening student and at public lectures. He studied commerce and languages at Queen’s Road commercial evening school, where he met Millie Graham Downs, his future wife. She was ‘an ardent social reformer’ introducing him to the ‘wide lecture program at Southgate Road Brotherhood Church under the Reverend Bruce Wallace’. The politics of this congregation was ‘Christian socialist and pacifist... there was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current’ and a number of Quakers were mem- bers.18 Reading and discussing Tolstoy influenced his social habits; he gave up alcohol and tobacco and became a vegetarian.19 He heard the Theosophist Annie Besant lecture and although impressed, did not embrace Theosophy at that stage.

Millie and Polak also attended lectures and concerts at the South Place Ethical Society, an important and long-standing Freethinking community, where Collet, at an earlier incarnation of this congregation, had heard Roy speak. Polak took to heart the motto on its lecture platform - ‘to thine own self be true’. Millie’s gift of a ring inscribed with this motto, when he departed for South Africa, is expressive of the intertwining of the bond between them and their ethical commitment to humanity. His understanding of his ‘own self’ as ‘a spark from an emanation of the Universal self’ gives a clue to his respect for others, and to his religious cosmopolitanism.20

Clearly, even before he went to South Africa, he was seeking new ideas and reading widely, including the anarchist Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops; Tolstoy, initially for his ‘social and political teaching’ but ‘later for his spiritual guidance’ which ‘drew [me] out of my superficial agnosticism’; and more widely, religious classics from outside Europe: Romesh Chandrasekhar Dutt’s verse summaries of the great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as Edwin Arnold’s verse rendering of the Bhagavad Gita21 and Buddhist scripture such as Dhammapada and Edwin Arnold’s interpretation Light of Asia.22 Polak commented:

These books helped me to sense that there was a whole world of philosophy and religious experience beyond my ken.23

In South Africa, he became a life-long Theosophist, a belief system, which rejected ‘social barriers based upon race, sex or creed’24 and held that all faiths contributed to humanity. This contrasted with imperial Christianity’s shibboleth that the only road to salvation was via conversion to Christianity. His commitment to the brotherhood and, indeed, the sisterhood of humanity rested on what he saw as timeless truths drawn from many religious traditions, which guided his actions. These beliefs combined with his legal training and what he termed a sense of British fair play: this last rather curious, given his long opposition to British imperialism. Even when he was arrested in 1913, for supporting the Indian Passive Resistance, he later recalled:

In view of the fact that I, as an outsider, had so often counselled Indian passive resisters to challenge arrest, I felt that it would be highly dishonourable for me - an Englishman - to draw back before such a risk, and I did not hesitate to join them.25

He held to these beliefs of equality and brotherhood all his life, although the challenge of Nazism led him to reconsider his pacifism. When writing to Gandhi late in 1939 about Gandhi’s opposition to Indian participation in World War Two, he drew upon Hinduism, invoking ‘the deepest and holiest sense of duty such as Sri Krishna spoke of to Arjuna’ to destroy the Nazi ‘locust regime’.26 He referred to Krishna’s teaching of the morality of a ‘lawful war’.27

The basis of his anti-racism and cosmopolitanism was derived from his views about religion,

All the great religious teachers and spiritual guides have taught from time immemorial that mankind is one and indivisible, that all men, of whatever race and colour are the embodiment of a fragment of the one Divine life and are therefore brothers.28

Deeply interested in inter-religionist movements, in ‘world fellowship and the world citizenship movement’, he attended the World Congress of Religions in 1937 in Geneva.29

His decades of struggle against racial hierarchies saw his participation in a conference of Non-Government Organisations to consider the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Geneva in 1948. In 1953 he gave evidence to the United Nations Commission on Racial Discrimination in South Africa.30 Addressing the Theosophical Society at its headquarters in Adyar, India, in 1956, he made a direct connection between Theosophy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting that the first object of Theosophy to proceed ‘without distinction ofrace, creed, sex, caste or colour’ had been substantially incorporated into the UN Declaration.31

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