Sunday, April 23, 2006

Objects of Meditation #1 - Rabindranath Tagore

This is the first of an occasional series of writers who have affected the way I view the universe at large.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Greatest writer in modern Indian literature, Bengali poet, novelist, educator, and an early advocate of Independence for India. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Two years later he was awarded the knighthood, but he surrendered it in 1919 as a protest against the Massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed some 400 Indian demonstrators. Tagore's influence over Gandhi and the founders of modern India was enormous, but his reputation in the West as a mystic has perhaps mislead his Western readers to ignore his role as a reformer and critic of colonialism.

"When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose touch of the one in the play of the many." (from Gitanjali)

Much of Tagore's ideology come from the teaching of the Upanishads and from his own beliefs that God can be found through personal purity and service to others. He stressed the need for new world order based on transnational values and ideas, the "unity consciousness." "The soil, in return for her service, keeps the tree tied to her; the sky asks nothing and leaves it free." Politically active in India, Tagore was a supporter of Gandhi, but warned of the dangers of nationalistic thought. Unable to gain ideological support to his views, he retired into relative solitude. Between the years 1916 and 1934 he travelled widely. From his journey to Japan in 1916 he produced articles and books. In 1927 he toured in South-east Asia. Letters from Java, which first was serialized in Vichitra, was issued as a book, JATRI, in 1929. His Majesty, Riza Shah Pahlavi, invited Tagore to Iran in 1932. On his journeys and lecture tours Tagore attempted to spread the ideal of uniting East and West. While in Japan he wrote: "The Japanese do not waste their energy in useless screaming and quarrelling, and because there is no waste of energy it is not found wanting when required. This calmness and fortitude of body and mind is part of their national self-realization."

Tagore wrote his most important works in Bengali, but he often translated his poems into English. At the age of 70 Tagore took up painting. He was also a composer, settings hundreds of poems to music. Many of his poems are actually songs, and inseparable from their music. Tagore's 'Our Golden Bengal' became the national anthem of Bangladesh. Only hours before he died on August 7, in 1941, Tagore dictated his last poem. His written production, still not completely collected, fills nearly 30 substantial volumes. Tagore remained a well-known and popular author in the West until the end of the 1920s, but nowadays he is not so much read [outside India. In India he occupies a niche similar to Neruda in Latin America].

I encountered Tagore through the work of Deepak Chopra, who has provided an modern vernacular version of his favourite verses from Gitanjali and Prayer Songs . "On the Shores of Eternity" is probably more accessible to the modern reader than the original translation by Tagore himself, with the assistance of W.B. Yeats.

If one hasn't encountered Tagore before, then one is in for a rare treat. I personally recommend Gitanjali and Songs of Kabîr. The text "Sadhana: The Realisation of Life", although often lyrical in cast, is actually more of a syncretist primer on Hindu thought than poetry. Having said that, I have walked away from the book with a lot more than I brought to it.


Tagore on Wiki

The Sacred Text Archive of Tagore's Poetry in the Public Domain


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