A Tribute to TAGORE.
This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore. Several programmes and activities have been held to mark the event. The postal department issued a set of stamps on the occasion. In another significant event, the President of India unveiled the statue of Tagore and inaugurated the Rabindranath Tagore Chair on Indian Studies in the University of Laausanne in Switzerland two weeks ago. Speaking on the occasion, President Pratibha Patil said that Gurudev saw education and learning as vehicles for appreciating rich aspects of other cultures while respecting one's own culture.
Tagore was a man of outstanding talent and his contribution to the making of a modern India cannot be underestimated. He was a poet, philosopher, musician, writer and educationist. He brought in a new breath of creative energy, secular and liberal values and a reawakening of nationalism and universalism. Tagore was an icon of Indian culture. His songs are popularly known as Rabindra sangeet. Two of his songs became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh: the Jana Gana Mana and the Amar Shonar Bangla.
Born on May 7, 1861 in a wealthy Brahmin family in Calcutta, Tagore was the ninth son of Debendranath and Sarada Devi. His grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore was a rich landlord and social reformer. Except for his initial education in Oriental Seminary School and a brief period in St Xavier's College, Kolkata, he did most of his education at home under several teachers. In 1913, he became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for his collection of poems, Gitanjali. He was awarded knighthood by the British King George V. Tagore established the renowned Viswabharati University.
But more than the awards, recognitions or institutions he founded, what was outstanding in Tagore was the universal vision and patriotism that characterized his entire life. Some scholars accuse him of being too western, influenced by the liberal thinking of Europe and America. But he had a profound patriotism and global vision for a pluralistic, liberal India. It is important for us today to study these values and principles and the pursuit of truth that Tagore embodied. They assume urgency at a time when communal forces are trying to tear the mosaic of unity in diversity that India has built and preserved for centuries. It is not enough that we commemorate his 150th birth anniversary, but his idea of universalism, secularism, love for truth and non-violence should percolate into our bloodstream.
Tagore admired Mahatma Gandhi, but on the whole despised politicians, many of whom were slothful and lacking in a spirit of work and sacrifice. Tagore wrote: "The standard of conduct followed by the class called politicians is not one of high ideals. They think nothing of uttering falsehoods; they have no compunction in vitally hurting others for their own aggrandizement. Such people plume themselves on being practical and do not hesitate to ally themselves with the forces of evil if they think that evil will accomplish their end. But tactics of this kind will not pass the audit of the Dispenser of our fortunes; so while we may admire their cleverness, we cannot revere them. Our reverence goes out to the Mahatma whose striving has ever been for truth; who, to the great good fortune of our country at this time of its entry into the new age, has never, for the sake of immediate results, advised or condoned any departure from the standard of universal morality." Such an assessment of the political class is not far off the mark even today.
Speaking on Gandhi, Tagore further said: "He has shown the way how, without wholesale massacre, freedom may be won. There are doubtless but few amongst us who can rid our minds of a reliance on violence, who can really believe that victory may be ours without recourse to it. In the course of unrighteous battle death means extinction; in the non-violent battle of righteousness something remains; after defeat victory, after death immortality. The Mahatma has realized this in his own life, and compels our belief in this truth." Today when people take to violence to set things right or to assuage aggrieved feelings, these words of Tagore hold particular importance.
Tagore admired Christianity. His Nobel Prize winning work Gitanjali and other literary works are replete with values of the Bible. Several of the songs from Gitanjali have been set to music and are sung in the Christian devotional services. On Christianity Tagore wrote: "There is in Christianity the great doctrine that God became man in order to save humanity by taking the burden of its sin and suffering on himself here in this very world, not waiting for the next. That the starving must be fed, the ragged clad, has been emphasised by Christianity as no other religion has done. Charity, benevolence, and the like, no doubt have an important place in the religions of our country as well, but there they are in practice circumscribed within much narrower limits, and are only partially inspired by love of man. And to our great good fortune, Gandhiji was able to receive this teaching of Christ in a living way. For it was this great gift from Europe that our country had all along been awaiting."
Tagore was not afraid to affirm the contribution of Islam as well to India. "In the Middle Ages we also had received gifts from Muslim sources. Dadu, Kabir and other saints had proclaimed that purity and liberation are not for being hoarded up in any temple, but are wealth to which all humanity is entitled. "We should have no hesitation in admitting freely that this message was inspired by contact with Islam. The best of men always accept the best of teaching, whenever and wherever it may be found, in religion, moral culture, or in the lives of individuals."
When Tagore raised his voice in India on behalf of the "expanding soul of humanity," the language of universalism that underlined his appeal for "some spiritual design of life" earned him brickbats from some of his compatriots. They mocked his views as hopelessly romantic and beguiled. To extreme nationalists, internationalism was a complete anathema, a more refined term to prolong the evils of colonialism indefinitely under the guise of a universal humanism. However, to those who still considered themselves nationalists but believed they had a responsibility that extended far beyond the immediate goal of liberation from colonial rule internationalism was the only solution to a world totally sundered by ethnic fratricide. Tagore recognised the frightening reality of states at war with each other threatening to engulf with equal devastation those states aspiring to newfound independence.
There was no aspect of human existence which did not exercise some fascination for Tagore. He let his mind and fertile imagination to play around a profound sense of humanity. He once admitted that as a young man he was brought up in a world in which the secular and religious were separate. But he later discovered that in poetry, music, art and life were one, and that there should be no dividing line. "The highest education" he wrote, "is that which does not merely give us information but makes our lives in harmony with all existence." His profound love for nature and his ability to harmonise learning, religiosity and love for nature, his patriotism with a sense of universalism made Tagore truly outstanding.
Tagore's call to Indians and other oppressed subjects to break out of the "forced seclusion of our racial tradition" astounded those who were trying to recover all that had been suppressed by colonial rule. Tagore's isolation, especially in India, was all the more pronounced because his stance on internationalism as the political philosophy of the future appeared to converge with that of Europeans then residing in India. Many identified internationalism as a cultural priority of Europeans. There were also many Europeans who did not wish the colonizers to continue the British rule in India, nor wanted to see violence in a bid to establish freedom. There was the desire for a more spiritual movement with a global reach such as Theosophy, which gained many followers from among both educated and elite Indians and Europeans. But it was by no means easy for average Indians to appreciate or evaluate these movements since everything was viewed in the light of a strong anti-British sentiment that prevailed across the country. Hence, the ideals of people like Tagore who advocated internationalism was not easily understood or accepted.
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 British colonial practice. The motto of the educational centre he founded, Visva Bharati, was "Where the world makes its home in a single nest." His aim was to combine a renewal of local thought, in particular that of his native Bengal. He hoped to create such a synthesis at the local level. In 1922 he created a rural reconstruction programme combining education and agricultural reform at Shantiniketan.
Besides this synthesis of universalism and nationalism, Tagore had his roots deeply embedded in the culture of his native Bengal as is evident from his writings, poetry, music and educational enterprises. These reflect the spirit of nationalism and the native air of Bengal. He considered the lyrics of the Bauls, the mystic minstrels of Bengal, to be one of the glories of Indian civilisation. The Bauls practice a syncretic religion and forms of worship which reconcile disparate and sometimes contrary beliefs. He was fascinated by syncretism. Theosophy itself was a syncretic religion. He was greatly attracted by the synthesis of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It is unfortunate that today religious ideologies are often pitted against each other and even misused to propagate hatred, division and even justify violence. Tagore's vision on harmony has some salutary lessons for those who want to set things right in a world of conflict and religious bigotry. Tagore was equally committed to the cause of the enlightenment of Bengal as well as the wider national issue of independence. He was also concerned with the role a multicultural India would play in the world, with a universal consciousness, of the relation between the human and the divine, a relationship which concerns all people everywhere.
There were particularly three important currents that influenced Tagore. The first was religion. He was brought up in the Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, but his universal outlook enabled him to draw from the rich sources of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. It is said that the young Rabindranath could sit motionless for hours in his garden and meditate in deep devotion. Squirrels scampered over his shoulders and the morning birds sat on his head and knees. In his home he was surrounded by literature and music and he loved the Upanishads and other ancient holy Indian scriptures.
The second current was the literary culture of the day. It was an effort by Tagore and other poets and writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-1894) to awaken the Bengali language from its stereotyped style and limitations of language. From his childhood he had an intimate contact with village life in Bengal as his family owned estates in many villages. His literary works reflect the pulsating life of rural Bengal, its land and people, customs and manners. His observations of Bengal came to be expressed in more than 2000 songs and hundreds of stories and other literary compositions he bequeathed to the world.
The third current was nationalism. It was a voice of indignation at the humiliation constantly heaped upon by people. Tagore wrote: "The national was not fully political, but it began to give voice to the mind of the people, trying to assert their own personality." Like Gandhi, whom he admired greatly, Tagore had little interest in party politics or power. He was more interested in the national issues and the philosophical questions that concern the country and its people. Tagore was the first to make popular the term 'Mahatma' for Gandhi. In a tribute to Gandhi he wrote: "So disintegrated and demoralized were our people that many wondered if India could ever rise again by the genius of her own people, until there came on the scene a truly great soul, a great leader of men, in line with the tradition of the greatest sages of old Mahatma Gandhi. Today no one needs despair of the future of the country, for the unconquerable spirit that creates it has already been released. Mahatma Gandhi has shown us a way which, if we follow, shall not only save ourselves but may also help other peoples to save themselves."
For Tagore, the national was always linked to the universal. There was confluence of these currents that helped shape his worldview and vision. This vision and synthesis is well summed up in his well known poem, "Where the Mind is Without Fear", which I feel is the apt way to end this tribute to one of the greatest patriots of our nation as we celebrate his 150th birth anniversary:
"Where the mind is without fear,
And the head is held high.
Where the world has not been broken up
Into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where the clear stream of reason has not yet
lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."
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