rabindranath-tagoreThough Rabindranath Tagore has been projected as a mystic poet, the true import and contemporary relevance of his words can only be found through the study and appreciation of his philosophy of life, says Devashish Chakraborty.

When the Indians sing their national anthem on Republic Day, they are reminiscent of its composer Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore for giving apt expression to their national aspirations. The song reflects India’s rich cultural heritage and its firm conviction in democratic ideals. In Bengal, Tagore is worshipped and his songs are sung religiously in every household. Besides poems, Tagore also wrote novels, short stories, and essays, which are widely read even today. But Tagore has failed to receive international acclaim as a poet. This is ironical given the fact that in 1920’s and 1930’s his writings generated great excitement internationally. Gitanjali, a collection of his poems, became so popular after its English translation was published in London that Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. But he is not much read now in Europe and America.

Tagore the Mystic

Though Tagore is regarded as a multi-faceted contemporary thinker in Bangladesh and India, his image, especially in Europe and America, is that of a remote spiritualist. In fact, Tagore’s admirers like poets W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound projected him as a mystic in a bid to ‘sell’ him and his poems to European audiences. This robbed much of Tagore’s appeal in Europe in the later years.

There is no denying the fact that most of Tagore’s poems have an undercurrent of mysticism. But Tagore’s mysticism can best be understood with an appreciation of his philosophy of life. Unlike other mystic poets, Tagore’s philosophy is entrenched in the reality of life. In one of his poems, he says: No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight. He does not believe in renunciation and escapism. To highlight his conviction, he says: “Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.” Yeats agrees: “He is the first amongst our saints who has not refused to live.”

Tagore the Humanist

That Tagore is not merely a mystic poet may be understood in the light of his convictions which reflect his innate humanity. In one of the poems in Gitanjali, he writes:

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?
Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
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.

When one decodes and interprets Tagore’s devotional poems in conjunction with his philosophy of life, one gets a better image of Tagore as a poet. Then it becomes clear that the ambiguity discernible in most of his poems is essential to appeal to readers irrespective of their beliefs. A true work of art carries an element of ambiguity for it to have a universal appeal. This becomes applicable particularly to his many poems which tie images of human love with those of pious devotion. He writes:

I have no sleep tonight. Ever and again I open my door and look out on the darkness, my friend!
I can see nothing before me. I wonder where lies thy path!
By what dim shore of the ink-black river, by what far edge of the frowning forest, through what mazy depth of gloom, art thou threading thy course to come to see me, my friend?

Lover of Freedom

Tagore values freedom of mind, body and soul. He believes that in the absence of freedom, human mind cannot think rationally. His attitude towards politics and culture, nationalism and internationalism, and tradition and modernity is best expressed as a poem in Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

His Relevance Today

In a world tormented by fear of death and destruction, Tagore’s poems bring a message of optimism and understanding. To the ignorant, his poems teach the power of knowledge; to the poor, he assures the strength of one’s will to succeed; to the decrepit, he brings the message of soul’s immortality; and to the oppressed, he asks to move on even if one is all alone. A lover will find in Tagore’s poems sublime words to share with his beloved. A nature worshipper can experience empyreal delights in Tagore’s poetry. The love of God finds expression through his poems. His poems are an inexhaustible reservoir of love and music transcending all barriers of space and time to quench the thirst of human spirit.