Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
by René Wadlow
“The darkness of egoism which will have to be destroyed is the egoism of the Nation. The ideal of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts. There my prayer is ‘let India stand for the co-operation of all the people of the world. “ ~Rabindranath Tagore
In a period of rapid change as we face today, it is often difficult to find the right balance between the cultural contributions and needs of the local, the national, and the universal. One way of finding this balance is to look at the life and work of others, who earlier confronted the same challenges. One such person was the poet, writer and cultural reformer Rabindranath Tagore. As Amiya Chakravarty, a literary secretary of Tagore wrote “Each individual must strike the ‘universal concrete’ in terms of his own creative effort, in the milieu of his own cultural heritage. Only by proceeding from wherever we are, geographically, spiritually or vocationally, can we make the integral effort for peace. The peace-workers belong to the entire human family, using the language or religious associations to which he has been born, and which he transforms, not necessarily by revolt but by inner transcendence.” (1)
Rabindranath Tagore was the Renaissance man of modern India — the bridge from an Indian culture dominated on the one hand by a traditionalism that had long ceased to be creative and on the other by English colonial practice whose reforms were self-interested. He was known worldwide as a poet having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. His aim was to combine a renewal of local thought, in particular that of his native Bengal, with an appreciation of the cultures of the world. The motto of the educational center he founded, Visva-Bharati, was “Where the world makes its home in a single nest.”
He hoped to be able to create such a synthesis at the local level and in 1922 created a rural reconstruction program combining education and agricultural reform at Santiniketan. As he wrote of villages “Villages are like women. In their keeping is the cradle of the race. They are nearer to nature than towns are, therefore, in closer touch with the function of life. They have the atmosphere which possesses a natural power of healing. It is the function of the village, like that of a woman, to provide people with their elemental needs, with food and joy, with the simple poetry of life, and with those ceremonies of beauty which the village spontaneously produces and in which she finds delight. But when constant strain is put upon her through the extortionate claim of ambition, when her resources are exploited through the excessive stimulus of temptation, then she becomes poor in her life and her mind becomes dull and uncreative.”
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I conclude this series of posts about Rabindranath Tagore on his 150th birth anniversary with the essay of the philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the first Vice President of the Indian Republic. It is in the same volume from which Jawaharlal Nehru's essay is taken:
namely, the Centenary collection of essays published in 1961 on the occasion of the poet's 100th birth anniversary by the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi.
Radhakrishnan observes that Tradition is not only concord with the past but also freedom from the past. Tagore, says Radhakrishnan, perceived relationships hitherto unnoticed and gave humanity his vision of one world. “His great gifts of imagination and art were used for fostering faith in the unity of man and forging bonds of kinship with others.”
He quotes Tagore about The Spirit India: ‘I love India, not because I cultivate the idolatry of geography, ... but because she has saved through tumultuous ages the living words that have issued from the illuminated consciousness of her great sons.'
On Rabindranath's philosophy Radhakrishnan says the poet “did not claim to produce an original philosophy. His aim was not to analyse or speculate about the Indian tradition. He expressed it in his own vivid phrases and homely metaphors and showed its relevance to modern life.”
In a previous post dealing with Tagore's religious attitude,
his own statements show that Tagore claims no original insight, but merely confirms what the best minds have thought centuries before. Yet, each in his own time must attain that realisation herself/himself. Tagore's words affirming a poet's receptiveness to God in the delight of the world and its creatures is recorded in these words:
if ever I have somehow come to realise God, or if the vision of God has ever been granted to me, I must have received the vision through this world, through men, through trees and birds and beasts, the dust and the soil.
In conclusion, Radhakrishnan quotes a letter to Gandhi the poet wrote on 12 April 1919, with the following invocation:
Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer, the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone. . .
Read Radhakrishnan's entire essay by clicking below.
‘Most Dear to all the Muses’
At a special convocation at Santiniketan in August 1940 when the late Sir Maurice Gwyer and myself were deputed by the University of Oxford to confer the degree of Doctor of Literature on Rabindranath Tagore, the citation said that the poet was ‘most dear to all the muses.’ Tagore was born in a home teeming with creative activity. ‘We wrote, we sang, we acted, we poured ourselves out on every side.' The poet‘s acute sensibility and genius expressed itself through every form of literature, through music, through dance, through painting. The most renowned of all the poets that Asia has produced in recent times, his works have been translated in many languages and have inspired writers and scholars, lovers of art and literature in many countries. An artist of genius, he broke with previous tradition in poetry, music and painting. Tradition is not only concord with the past but also freedom from the past. He perceived relationships hitherto unnoticed and gave humanity his vision of one world. His great gifts of imagination and art were used for fostering faith in the unity of man and forging bonds of kinship with others.
The poet had a vital and radiant personality. Tall, stately, serene with flowing beard and curling hair, he made a deep impression on all those who met him. Ernest Rhys in his book Everyman Remembers writes: ‘One afternoon a knock announced a caller who proved to he one of the most strangely impressive of them all. When I went into the hall as the maid opened the door, there paused on the threshold, a tal1, grey bearded figure attired in a close grey robe that fell to the feet. For a moment I was abashed. It was as if the prophet Isaiah had come to one's door.’
It is often said that the judgements we pass on our contemporaries are somewhat distorted. Sometimes we are under obligations to friendship. We lack the necessary perspective and to our mood and taste disparage or eulogise those whose work is close to us. Some who appear important today may lose their significance later; others who seem to be unimportant today may acquire significance later. It may well he that Tagore’s vision may he prophetic of the future of India and of the world.
Tagore’s message for us in India is another illustration of a recurring phenomenon that India, weighed down by history, prostrated by invasions, endlessly vacillating from greatness to decline, recovers her spirit century after century by her own power of self-renewal. When times are out of joint, wise men arise and warn us about our lapses. The seers of the Upanishads, the Buddha and Mahavira, Asoka and Akbar, Kabir and Nanak in their own periods recalled us to the fundamental spiritual truths and castigated us for our deviations from them. We are fortunate in having had a few men and women in our own lifetime who stood out for their wisdom and courage, who refined man’s spirit and altered his outlook.
Tagore writes of The Spirit India: ‘I love India, not because I cultivate the idolatry of geography, not because I have had the chance to be born in her soil, but because she has saved through tumultuous ages the living words that have issued from the illuminated consciousness of her great sons.' Many of us do wrong things in our lives but we do not wish to say anything wrong in our writings. With great modesty, Tagore says: ‘Consciously or unconsciously I may have done many things that were untrue, but I have never uttered anything false in my poetry—that is the sanctuary where the deepest truths of my life emerge.'1 He always aimed higher and higher. ‘The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.'
Tagore had not so much a message to deliver as a vision to set forth. This is the rarer and greater task, to lift man out of the stale air of common life to regions where the great verities are seen undimmed by self or sophistry and man’s ordinary existence becomes a life, a passion and a power.
The divine image is given to man. It is the inescapable foundation of his own existence. It is natural for him to strive to elevate himself above earthly things, to go out from the world of sense, to free his soul from the burdens of selfish existence and gross materialism, to break through from the outer darkness to the enlightening world of spirit.
Human nature contains a need for truth that will not allow it to rest permanently in error or falsehood, a thirst for righteousness which will never allow it to tolerate for long unrighteousness.
Rabindranath. did not claim to produce an original philosophy. His aim was not to analyse or speculate about the Indian tradition. He expressed it in his own vivid phrases and homely metaphors and showed its relevance to modern life. A fresh interpretation of religious idealism which has been the central feature of India’s life and history is itself a mode of creation. Rabindranath as a dreamer and an artist was an exponent of it. The Timer Literary Supplement observed about him: ‘Perhaps no living poet was more religions and no man of religion was more poetical than this great Indian.’ At a time when many intellectuals were satisfied with personal happiness, cosmic despair, stoic detachment, mild, if not militant, atheism, Rabindranath felt convinced about the value and validity of the spiritual ideals set forth in the ancient classics of India. ‘To me,’ he says, ‘the verses of the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha have ever been things of the spirit, and therefore endowed with boundless vital growth; and I have used them, both in my own life and in my preaching, as being instinct with individual meaning for me, as for others, and awaiting for their confirmation, my own special testimony, which must have its value because of its individuality.'3 He was aware that the true religion taught by them, calm and strong, with no intolerance or vanity, appealed to peoples beyond India.
'To know my country one has to travel to that age, when she realised her soul and thus transcended her physical boundary, when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the Eastern horizon.’ We are torch-bearers to the East of this message of love. Rabindranath revived hidden national memories and gave the people pride and dignity.
The religious quest starts with a conflict in human nature. None lives for ever: nothing lasts for long. How are we to gain security in this fragile world? This very yearning for security suggests that there is something in us which is superior to nature. Man is a bridge between two worlds. ‘At one pole of my being I am one with stocks and stones . . . but at the other pole of my being I am separate from all.’2 There is this tension and to overcome it requires toil and suffering.
Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them . . . The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death; I hate it, yet hug it in love.’4
The passages affirm the reality of an Eternal behind the world. Rabindranath describes God as sivam, santam, advaitam—perfection, peace and nonduality. God is both personal and superpersonal. He is immanent and transcendent. ‘To me religion is too concrete a thing, though I have no right to speak about it. But if ever I have somehow come to realise God, or if the vision of God has ever been granted to me, I must have received the vision through this world, through men, through trees and birds and beasts, the dust and the soil.’5
In the spirit of the Upanishads, Rabindranath makes out that the Supreme dwells in each man. Ideas take shape by a hidden alchemy at work within the artist. ‘Whatever I truly think, truly feel, truly realize—its natural destiny is to find true expression. There is some force in me which continually works towards that end, but is not mine
alone – it permeates the universe. When this universal force is manifested within an individual, it is beyond his control and acts according to its own nature: and in surrendering our lives to in power is our greatest joy.'6
‘It may seem to be egoistic. But this life-impulse I speak of belongs to a personality which is beyond my ego...I must be true to itself even at the cost of what men call happiness, at the risk of being misunderstood, forsaken and hated.'7
It is because the Divine is incarnate in all existence that we are able to reach truth and attain purity. We have to look for our true wealth and power in the inner soul. It is the inward culture that 'gives self-possession in the face of loss and danger, self-sacrifice without counting the cost or hoping for gain, defiance of death, acceptance of countless social obligations that we owe to men as social beings.'8 Each one of us should have a. little space when he is alone with himself when he is face to face with the deepest in him. In a letter to Mr. Elmhirst he writes: ‘I carry an infinite space of loneliness around my soul through which the voice of my personal life very often does not reach my friends; for which I suffer more than they do. I have my yearning: for the personal world as much as any other mortal; perhaps more.'
The poet had deep faith in the power and purifying processes of Silence and Meditation. Not a single day in his long span of life did he miss his tryst with Truth, the Eternal. Hence his unending prayer and petition for Light, more Light.
Most of us are, alas! indeed blind to the Eternal verities and values. And so poets like Rabindranath Tagore proclaim to us that the Light of the Eternal exists, and through their songs invite us to open ourselves to its impact and influence and operation. Their call assumes the aspect of a prayer for blind and benighted humanity. To quote one of his own songs:
They stand with uplifted eyes,
thirsty after light,
Lead them to light, My Lord !
They cannot see the paths
in the twilight dark
while the night of despair
gathers before them.
Those that are lost to themselves,
seeking for the lodestar
hidden in the depth of night,
bring back their sight
to the world of forms,
to the paths of the celestial light,
Rabindranath stood for the fullness of life, the development of the different sides of life. Moksha is not renunciation of the world. It is the proportioned development of body, mind and spirit. The Upanishad says: pranaramam mana anandam santi samrddham amritam.
The self-possessed soul cannot be inactive. ‘Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.’10 So long as there is suffering in the world the religious man’s work is in the world.
Asceticism is a frame of mind, a spirit of detachment. Nivratta-ragasya grham tapovanam. For the man of detachment, his home is a hermitage. It is not essential to give up home life.
No, my friends, I shall never leave my hearth and home, and retire into the forest solitude, if rings no merry laughter in its echoing shade and if the end of no saffron mantle flutters in the wind; if its silence is not deepened by soft whispers. I shall never be an ascetic.11
Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.. .
No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delight of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight.12
Millions of living make up the vast fair of this world, and you ignore it all as a child’s play.
To be one with God is to be one with the universe. Gitanjali has this:
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soi113
The simple religion of spiritual vision, purity of heart and harmony with the universe got choked in the course of centuries and led to the decline of the country. Rabindranath rebelled against the orthodoxies surrounding him and traced India's fall to the clash of castes and creeds, to indifference to the disinherited of the earth. The truly religious men have intense love for the oppressed and the persecuted, for the misfits,
for the non-conformists, for the homeless and the rejected. We have suffered on account of our meek submission to social restrictions and lazy reliance on traditional authorities which are incongruous anachronisms in our age. The greatest enemies of a nation are not their foreign foes but the enemies who dwell within them. We have to be saved from ourselves.
O my unfortunate country, those whom you have debased,
they shall drag you down to their own level
till their shame is yours ;
those whom you have deprived of their human right,
who stand before you but find no room in your lap,
they shall drag you down to their own level
till their shame is yours.
There is nothing untouchable in the great body of God, the world of men. Our love should go to every creature, the naked and the hungry, the sick and the stranger.
Here is thy footstool and there rest thy feet where live the poorest, and lowliest, and lost.14
When they had struck thee and thou were pierced it pained me to the quick.
Rabindranath asks his people to get back to the original doctrine, guard against automatism and keep life free and creative:
The wakeful ageless God of India calls to-day on our sou1—the soul that is measureless, the soul that is undefeated, the soul that is destined to immortality, and yet the soul which lies to-day in the dust, humbled by external authority, in the fetters of blind observances. With blow upon blow, pang upon pang, does he call upon it, atmanam viddhi, know thyself.15
At Santiniketan or the Abode of Peace which his father Debendranath Tagore established as a centre for meditation, Rabindranath formed a school which reminds us of forest hermitages where teachers and pupils sought after and attained human fulfilment by wise thinking, righteous living and earnest faith. There no life should be taken, no idol worshipped, and no irreverent word spoken against any people’s worship or deity. Though Hinduism is the background of all the activities in the school, the birthdays of the great prophets, the Buddha, the Christ, Muhammad, Nanak, are celebrated.
Rabindranath loved India because of her ideals. He says: ‘I love India. but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore I am not a patriot. I shall seek my compatriots all over the world.' Though Indian in inspiration, Tagore's work had a universal appeal. India has been known all these centuries for her dignity of soul, valour and piety, tolerance and hospitality. There were occasions when she was not loyal to them.
Rabindranath Tagore asks us to preserve the old attitude of keeping our own framework and receiving and adapting outer influences. ‘It is idle mendicancy to discard our own and beg for the foreign,' while at the same time ‘it is the abjectness of poverty to dwarf ourselves by rejecting the foreign.' Rabindranath condemned India’s imitation of the West. He called that India ‘the eternal rag-picker at other peoples’ dust-bins.’ Imitation, he says, is ‘like dressing our skeleton with another man's skin, giving rise to eternal feuds between the skin and the bones at every movement.’ India should cease to be in bondage to others but feel free to accomplish her own important mission of getting the peoples of the world together. Unity is truth and division is evil. ‘Remember how India has ever kept alive her power of binding together. She has ever established some sort of harmony amidst all kinds of difficulties and conflicts and hence she has survived till now. I have full faith in that India. Even now that India is slowly building up a marvellous reconciliation of the old order with the new. May each of us consciously join in that work, may we be never misled by dullness or revolt into resisting it.’
Rabindranath worked for one supreme cause, the union of all sections of humanity in sympathy and understanding, in truth and love. His Visva-Bharati is an international university where the whole world has become a single nest: yatra visam bhavati ekanidam. In this institution he tried to impart the background of internationalism and help the students to realize ‘the true character of our inter-linked humanity and deeper unities of our civilization in the West and the East.' Thomas Hardy said: 'The exchange of international thought is the only possible solution of the world.' Our ancient seers never allowed their vision of humanity to be darkened by narrow considerations of race or religion. The eternal personality of man can spring into being only from the harmony of all peoples. Yet in his own lifetime Rabindranath saw the world wade through seas of blood, oceans of tears bitterer often than death due to man’s blindness and folly. Whenever civilization decays and dies it is due to causes which produce insensitivity to human values. It goes down when our souls are deadened by greed and materialism.
In 1941, a few weeks before his death, on his eightieth birthday, he wrote an essay on the Crisis in Civilisation in which he said: ‘I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization would issue out of the heart of Europe. But to-·day, when I am about to quit the world, that faith has gone bankrupt altogether . . . As I look around, I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility.' Yet he did not lose faith in the future of man. He continued: ‘And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history, after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice.' Earth worn by the ages, wracked by rain and storm, exhausted yet is ever ready to produce that life may go on. Human nature is tough. It may survive even a nuclear war, though it may be at a frightful cost of suffering and degradation. It is in the hope, however uncertain, of averting this, that Tagore calls for a profound revolution in our modes of thought and behaviour. We are not the victims of fate. 'To all things else you give, from me you ask.’16 It is neither accident nor fate but it is our insufficiency that has got us to where we are. We have to take the responsibility for the future, build a new society, rational, civilized, and human by destroying the springs of human action which lie deep in ignorance, hatred and selfishness.
In a poem written on the new year’s day of the Bengali era 1348, corresponding to 14 April 1941, Rabindranath maintained that it was his humanism, his love for the suffering, exploited and humiliated, that had raised him high above the wreck and ruin of a dying civilization.
Lo, there he looms—almighty man,
There is a tremor of expectation
in every shoot of grass
in the dust of the earth.
The conch she1l blows in the land of the gods
and the trumpet of victory in the land of men.
Lo, there comes the hour of the great birth.
Today, all the ramparts of the dark night
are crushed under the dust.
To the call of the new life
come reassuring echoes
from the peaks of the sunrise
‘Fear not, fear not!
Victory, victory, victory, to resurrected man,’
echoes the cry across the mighty heavens.
Rabindranath's abiding faith and serenity of spirit were not shaken by the storms which raged in India and the world. He writes: ‘The facts that cause despondence and gloom are mist, and when through the mist beauty breaks out in momentary gleams, we realise that peace is true and not conflict, love is true and not hatred; and truth is the one and not the disjointed multitude.'
The poet ends a letter to Gandhi written on 12 April 1919, with the following invocation:
Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer, the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone. . .
Give me the supreme faith of love, this is my prayer, the faith of life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailness of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt, but disdains to return it.
What the world needs to-day is universal charity.
In Hungary, near the Balaton Lake where he recouped from his illness, he planted a tree on 8 November 1926, and wrote in the Guest Book the following lines:
When I am no longer on this earth, my tree,
Let the ever renewed leaves of thy spring
murmur to the wayfarers,
‘The poet did love while he lived.’
In all his writings of great diversity and depth, he expressed the quality of the individual spirit, the spirit that is indestructible. In his best poems there are things which move the heart and fill the mind and which will live for long. As for each man’s work, ‘everything will pass away' said Tolstoy, 'money, great possessions, even kingdoms, all are doomed. But if in our work there remains one grain of true art, it will live for ever.'
jayanti te sukrtino rasasiddhah kavisvarah
nasti yesam yasah kaye jaramaranajam bhayam.
from an introductory essay in the volume Rabindranath Tagore: A Centenary Volume 1861-1961. Published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1961.
1. Glimpses of Bengal, Letter dated 8 May 1895.
2. Sadhana p.viii
3. Ibid, p. 69
4. Gitanjali, 28.
5. Visva-Bharati Quarterly, August-October 1949, p. 88.
6. Glimpses of Bengal, Letter dated 13 August 1894
7. Letters to a Friend, dated 18 December 1914
8. Nationalism (1917), p. 52.
9. Visva-Bharati News (Santiniketan) June 1960, Vol XXXI, NO. 8, p. 340.
10. Gitanjali, 11.
11. Gardener, 43.
12. Gitanjali, 73.
13. Gitanjali, 11
14. Gitanjali, 10.
15. The Modern Review, September 1917, p. 339.
16. Fruit-Gathering, lxxviii.