Rabindranath Tagore is certainly one of the fathers of modern Indian literature. His work is immense and fascinating. He is the author of more than a thousand poems, two thousand songs of which he also wrote the music, novels, short stories, plays. He has also written essays on all subjects that were dear to him, from philosophy to politics, from education to the arts, and left many sketches, drawings and paintings. But Tagore was first and foremost a poet, ‘The Poet’, as he is affectionately known in India, and it was through his poetry that he became known throughout the world.
He was born the last child of a Brahmin family from Calcutta, in 1861, and grew up in the shadow of a learned father and religious reformer. He took part in the intense intellectual and social emulation that Bengal experienced in the 19th century, when it struggled with modern Western influences. Educated in the three languages - Sanskrit, Bengali and English, he wrote poems very early, and translated some of his collections into English himself. The publication of ‘Gitanjali’ in Europe and North America made Tagore famous, and he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. His sudden renown allowed him to make numerous trips to various continents for conferences or visits of friendship, in which he tirelessly preached peace, non-violence and unity among men. A friend of Gandhi, Tagore participated in his own way to the emergence of India as a nation. He is the author of many poems and patriotic songs, two of which have become the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.
“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
and fillest it ever with fresh life.”
Gitanjali (1912) is a succession of dialogues, praises to God, filled with some accents of the most profound spirituality. Face to face with the Master, with the Friend, with the Lord, the poet is alternately filled with aspirations, confusions, caught in lamentations, or in luminous resolutions. These poems combine the finesse of language with philosophical reflection or contemplation, and they do so so harmoniously that we are invited to a double and indissociable meditation.
“And it shall be my endeavour to reveal thee in my actions,
knowing it is thy power gives me strength to act.”
Tagore shows us how in man, anxiety, doubts and uncertainties are a necessary evil, bearer of learning, but can be a very heavy burden if we respond to it by inaction, or by the too easy remedy that constitutes the refuge in received ideas, the desired objects of the world, or even the reading of the scriptures. He also makes us realize the importance of not building between us and the world a barrier of protection. The blossoming and fullness of being can only be achieved by rubbing one’s life and cultivating oneself at all its sources, happy or unhappy.
In these few excerpts, Tagore shows us the grace that is hidden in our suffering, in not obtaining from life the objects that we desire, and the gift that is encapsulated in our understanding and in seeing and realising our true nature:
“My desires are many and my cry is pitiful, but ever didst thou save me by hard refusals;
and this strong mercy has been wrought into my life through and through.”
“In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart,
and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.”
“The nearer I come to you on your path,
The livelier dances the sea.”
~ A Flight of Swans
Nature is omnipresent in Tagore’s poems. Many times, he marvels at nature’s exemplarity because it has been able to make coexist, outside, the incessant work and the necessary imperatives of survival, with inside, absolute beauty and tranquility. “In fact, where there is no restriction, where the madness of license reigns, the soul ceases to be free, that is where it suffers, where it is separated from the soul.”
From solitary paths to flights of wild swans, from tumultuous monsoons to blooming multicolored flowers, from starry skies to bunches of galaxies, the palette is wide, and the poet never fails to use all its nuances to paint his marvelous metaphors. But if Tagore is an absolute lover of nature, it is not only to describe her, but to praise through her the feelings and emotions she has communicated to him, in a rightful giving-back, and above all, to reveal through her, the presence and glory of pure consciousness, which is nothing else than our true nature:
“Yes, I know, this is nothing but thy love, O beloved of my heart
– this golden light that dances upon the leaves,
these idle clouds sailing across the sky,
this passing breeze leaving its coolness upon my forehead.”
“I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms,
hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.”
“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.”
Here, he expresses the prominence and veiling ability of our separate, limited self:
“He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.
I am ever busy building this wall all around;
and as this wall goes up into the sky day by day
I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.”
There is showed the pervading force of the Self and its inevitability, the promise hidden in its presence:
“Days come and ages pass, and it is ever he who moves my heart
in many a name, in many a guise, in many a rapture of joy and of sorrow.”
“He comes, comes, ever comes.”
He also expresses, through the most tender accents, how the world shines as the nature and expression of god’s presence, the tantric dance between Shiva and Shakti, between pure consciousness and the ten thousand things:
“Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.
Thou ever pourest for me the fresh draught of thy wine of various colours and fragrance, filling this earthen vessel to the brim.
My world will light its hundred different lamps with thy flame and place them before the altar of thy temple.
No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight.
Yes, all my illusions will burn into illumination of joy, and all my desires ripen into fruits of love.”
In ‘A Flight of Swans’, Tagore’s poetry is often expressed through wonderful bhakti accents, revealing the longing for the One, for God’s presence in his life, and seeing the Presence in the constant and varied expressions of the world:
“Yet I know, O Lord,
You are longing to meet me;
Otherwise all suns and stars
Were created in vain.”
~ A Flight of Swans
“When dew falls as tears from the morning sky,
When riverside trees sparkle in sunlight,
So close in my heart their shadows fall,
Then I know
The Universe is a floating lotus
In the holy lake of my mind.
Then I know
I am the voice within the Voice,
The song within the Song,
The life within the Life,
The light breaking through the heart of Darkness.”
~ A Flight of Swans
“Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day back to their mountain nests
let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home in one salutation to thee.”
~ A Flight of Swans
In 1901, he founded the Santiniketan school in Bolpur to overcome the bad educational system that prevailed then. In this school, Tagore was accustomed, during morning meetings, to sharing with teachers and students his spiritual and philosophical experience. Without ever departing from his poetic verve, he shared his views about life, God, and nature. These talks, of a great clarity, were gathered in the book ‘Sādhanā’.
In a simple and lively language, full of common sense, Tagore, on many problems of our society, poses the diagnoses and suggests the remedies, makes us see the fact and encourages us to the necessity. He punctuates his message with some prayers or precepts borrowed from sacred Hindu texts. Through anecdotes, he speaks of love, beauty, listening, action and inner liberation. He tells us the importance of feeling connected and not neglecting the spiritual in our life. In ‘Sādhanā’, Tagore shows us that this negligence is at the source of most of our problems and deprives us of a greater realization of ourselves.
The Indians themselves were not mistaken about the quality of Tagore’s philosophical message. In Bengal, the voluminous collection ‘Santiniketan’, in which is published all of his talks, is considered as one of the major works of the poet. His School was a great success and gave birth to the Vishva Bharati International University in 1921. This university, whose fame is still intact today, is dedicated to the emergence of a philosophy and an education that synthesize both Eastern and Western cultures.
Here are excerpts from Tagore’s book ‘Sādhanā’:
“The ideal that India tried to realise led her best men to the isolation of a contemplative life, and the treasures that she gained for mankind by penetrating into the mysteries of reality cost her dear in the sphere of worldly success. Yet, this also was a sublime achievement, – it was a supreme manifestation of that human aspiration which knows no limit, and which has for its object nothing less than the realisation of the Infinite.”
“These ancient seers felt in the serene depth of their mind that the same energy which vibrates and passes into the endless forms of the world manifests itself in our inner being as consciousness; and there is no break in unity. … They knew that mere appearance and disappearance are on the surface like waves on the sea, but life which is permanent knows no decay or diminution.”
“In the typical thought of India it is held that the true deliverance of man is the deliverance from avidyā, from ignorance. It is not in destroying anything that is positive and real, for that cannot be possible, but that which is negative, which obstructs our vision of truth. When this obstruction, which is ignorance, is removed, then only is the eyelid drawn up which is no loss to the eye.”
“It is only avidyā, our ignorance, that makes us believe that the separateness of our self like the paper of the banknote is precious in itself, and by acting on this belief our self is rendered valueless. It is only when the avidyā is removed that this very self comes to us with a wealth which is priceless.”
“The chick knows when it breaks through the self-centered isolation of its egg that the hard shell which covered it so long was not really a part of its life. That shell is a dead thing, it has no growth, it affords no glimpse whatever of the vast beyond that lies outside it. However pleasantly perfect and rounded it may be, it must be given a blow to, it must be burst through and thereby the freedom of light and air be won, and the complete purpose of bird life be achieved. In Sanskrit, the bird has been called the twice-born.”
“It is really courting death when we refuse to accept death; when we wish to give the form of the self some fixed changelessness; when the self feels no impulse which urges it to grow out of itself; when it treats its limits as final and acts accordingly. Then comes our teacher’s call to die to this death; not a call to annihilation but to eternal life. It is the extinction of the lamp in the morning light; not the abolition of the sun. It is really asking us consciously to give effect to the innermost wish that we have in the depths of our nature.”
“Therefore, it is the self of man which the great King of the universe has not shadowed with his throne – he has left it free. In his physical and mental organism, where man is related with nature, he has to acknowledge the rule of his King, but in his self he is free to disown him. There our God must win his entrance. There he comes as a guest, not as a king, and therefore he has to wait till he is invited. It is the man’s self from which God has withdrawn his commands, for there he comes to court our love.”
“Our self is māyā where it is merely individual and finite, where it considers its separateness as absolute; it is satyam where it recognises its essence in the universal and infinite, in the supreme self, in paramātman. This is what Christ means when he says, “Before Abraham was I am.” This is the eternal I am that speaks through the I am that is in me. The individual I am attains its perfect end when it realises its freedom of harmony in the infinite I am. Then is it mukti, its deliverance from the thraldom of māyā, of appearance, which springs from avidyā, from ignorance; its emancipation in çāntam çivam advaitam, in the perfect repose in truth, in the perfect activity in goodness, and in the perfect union in love.”
“This longing for the perfect expression of his self
is more deeply inherent in man
than his hunger and thirst for bodily sustenance,
his lust for wealth and distinction.”
“He whose spirit has been made one with God
stands before man as the supreme flower of humanity.”
“Love is the highest bliss that man can attain to,
for through it alone he truly knows that he is more than himself,
and that he is at one with the All.”
“To understand anything
is to find in it something which is our own,
and it is the discovery of ourselves outside us
which makes us glad.”
“It is a perilously losing game,
in which man stakes his all to gain a part.”
“I would say that the true striving
in the quest of truth, of dharma,
consists not in the neglect of action
but in the effort to attune it closer and closer
to the eternal harmony.”
“He who thinks to reach God
by running away from the world,
when and where does he expect to meet him?”
“This ‘I’ of mine toils hard, day and night,
for a home which it knows as its own.
Alas, there will be no end of its sufferings
so long as it is not able to call this home thine.”
We can see that Tagore’s life was nourished equally in understanding, love, and beauty. His art sprang from a deep love of truth, and was an expression, an emanation of his profound understanding. In his journey, Tagore was intimately bound to the world of forms, be it through his love of nature, his implication in politics and his country’s well-being, or in the future of mankind through his school and his constant sharing of the truth he himself dedicated his life to.
Just hours before his death on August 7, 1941, Tagore dictated his last poem.
Excerpts and paintings by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Text by Alain Joly
– ‘Gitanjali or Song Offerings’ – by Rabindranath Tagore – (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
– ‘Sādhanā’ – by Rabindranath Tagore – (Akasha Classics)
– ‘A Flight of Swans’ – by Rabindranath Tagore – (John Murray Pub.)