Tagore’s God is always an enigma for the practicing philosopher. He is impersonally personal, finitely necessary and contingently infinite. He, the formless, continually yearns for forms while the counterpoint, in the other direction, is fiddled in and through the perennial human quest for Him, the Formless. And it is in the felt union of these two mutually complementary perspectives that Tagore’s Man-in-God-or-God-in-Man emerges as the Universal Creative Soul that is Man in essence. No wonder, the unity in question defies ontological reification in terms of standard philosophical practices, on pain of being misconstrued as a piece of abstract universal, as something that possesses an intrinsic form from the very beginning. To a professional mind, Tagore’s God is epistemologically suspect too. For, He is not to be apprehended through what we characterize as knowledge. The life of the Tagorean infinite is to be lived and if anything is to count as its perception, it is the everlasting joy of freedom that this kind of living necessarily entail.
In the following pages Jose Chunkapura has not attempted to achieve the impossible. He did not tiny to categorize Tagore’s God in terms of one philosophical doctrine or the other. Instead, he has made a commendable effort to sketch the principal features of the different phases of Tagore’s development of his idea of God. The work comprises six main chapters, the first five chronologically covering the evolution of Tagore’s idea of God during the eighty years of his life and the final chapter providing the author’s own assessment of Tagore’s position in the light of some of the received theological positions. Of particular interest is the attempt to locate Tagore’s idea of God in the precincts of Catholic Theology.
This book is like one more candle, to be placed alongside many others in and around our MwuIir at Santiniketan during that holy winter night when the Baithlik sings to the galaxy for the resurrection of our Privarama— the dearest one inside— from the confinement o1 our mortal souls.
Rahindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is no stranger to the world of literature. His extraordinary quality and versatility as a poet, amorist. And story-teller, has been acclaimed the world over. The award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Rabindranath Tagore in 9l3 (he was the first Asian to be so honoured), is one sign of that recognition. Without exaggeration, he secured for himself a place of honour in the world of letters that has been rarely equaled and in all probability never surpassed. However, though to the world at large he is known first and foremost as a poet and writer he was much more than that. He had many facets to his genius. He combined in himself the minds of a poet, a scientist, a philosopher, and a seer.
He moved beyond literature and made outstanding contributions also as an educationist, a social reformer and a religious thinker. Tagore l has had a tremendous influence on the religious thought not only of his own people in Bengal and in the rest of India, hut also in many other countries. It is this last-mentioned contribution of Tagore as a religious thinker that we intend to examine in this study. More specifically, as the title of the thesis indicates, our focus will be on the evolution of his notion of God. Even a casual reading of his man> writings during the course of the eighty years of his life reveals such an evolution. Our aim is to identify the major moments of that process of growth.
Rabindranath Tagore has said. “I have not come to my own religion through the portals of passive acceptance of a particular creed owing to some accident of birth.”2 Thus, in his own understanding, his religion, and therefore, his notion of God, was not that which he was born into. The above quotation implies that he actively searched for a concept of God that would satisfy his spiritual needs. His God-concept. was the result of a process of growth: the fruit of long years of conscientious seeking.. What then was Tagore’s concept of God in the mature years of his life, and how did he arrive at that? This is what we propose to examine in this study. In the course of our reading what different authors have written about the life and work of Rabindranath Tagore, we were really intrigued to find that followers of several religions consider him their co-religionist. Many consider him a Hindu, with opinions divided as to the school of Hinduism to which he belongs. ‘Christians have claimed him as their own. Several of his songs and hymns are used in churches by Christians of various denominations in their converse with God as genuinely voicing their deepest sentiments of faith, love and devotion. Furthermore, he has been called a Brahmo, a Vaisnavite, a pantheist, a humanist and even a theist-turned-atheist due to his frustration with God.
His search for the divine led Tagore to study different faith traditions. Evidently, he has had contacts and healthy interaction with ‘followers of different religions. But what was that special quality of Rabindranath Tagor’s life and faith that made believers in different religions see their own’ lithe reflected in his— to the extent of considering him their co-religionist? While tracing the evolution of his understanding of God, we hope to find the answer also to that question. We want to study the major influences on Rabindranath Tagore’s God-concept with particular attention to how much of a Christian influence there has been on him. He has written a considerableainount of arterial on Jesus Christ and has made numerous references in his speeches and writings to Christ and Christianity. In the course of a conversation with his friend Leonard Elmhirst in Argentina in 1924, Tagore said, “I believe in this New Testament idea ‘of God.”’ What is this New Testament idea of God that forms a part of Tagore’s Mature thought about God? This is one of the questions we are addressing in this thesis.
Scope and Originality of the Work
There are several reasons that motivated us to embark on this adventure of studying the evolution of Rahindranath Tagore’s concept of God. The first is a historical one. Though Tagore’s fame and popularity grew by leaps and bounds after being awarded the Nobel Prize, the world war dampened this enthusiasm and it seemed that he suffered a career burn-out. In a few small circles of his admirers he continued to be loved, but the world at large, to a great extent paid little or no attention to him. After the centenary celebrations of his birth in 1961 there has been a revival of interest in Tagore and in the last decade the enthusiasm for him has reached a new high. More than his poetic or artistic abilities, it is his image as a thinker and a seer that has appealed to most people. His understanding. of God and man as well as his unshakable faith in both, his message of creative unity and his life-long endeavour to reduce conflicts, break down barriers and reconcile peoples of different races, religions and nations, has drawn many to him. Tagore Study Centers and Tagore Associations have been revived and several studies are being done on the life and work of this literary giant.
The second reason for our study of Tagore’s concept of God is both theological and pastoral. In the last couple of years, India has witnessed a new spurt of communal violence and inter-religious conflicts. With politicians and sonic religious leaders exploiting the people through strong emotional articulation, the situation continues to be explosive. This underscores the need for greater inter-religious understanding and co-operation. In this context, we believe, Tagore has an even new and ever relevant message for the Indian people. All through his life, he Bought against the harnessing of religion to petty selfish goals detrimental to unity and comrnqgood, and made untiring extorts to reconcile peoples of different races and religions.
Catholic theology, in recent years, has manifested a more explicit openness to the saving faith of the followers of other religions. In this context, we feel, that Rahindranath Tagore’s notion of God, formed through a creative interaction with different religious traditions, could have a useful message for the Church in India in her encounter with other religions and contribute much to enhance understanding and promote mutually beneficial co-operation.
A further pastoral reason for this study of Tagore is that the author’s field of apostolate is Bengal and, for Bengalis, Tagore has a very special importance. Not only did he make outstanding contributions in every field of Bengali literature, he brought Bengal to the world, and the world to Bengal. This great son of Bengal, through his many creative undertakings, gave Bengal a place of prominence on the literary and cultural map of the world. Therefore, Tagore is the highway to the heart of Bengali life and culture as well as the key to a better understanding old the Bengali people.
It has been the experience of some that they sometimes encountered strong opposition from a couple of well-placed Bengali church leaders to the use of Tagore’s hymns or prayers in Catholic worship. They consider Tagore a Hindu and consequently judge the use of his hymns or prayers by Christians as irresponsible and a compromise of the Christian faith. At the same time, there are other Bengali church leaders who not only themselves use Tagore’s hymns and prayers, but, finding great inspiration in them, actively encourage their use in Catholic prayer and worship. This has understandably created great confusion in the minds and hearts of the faithful and so for pastoral reasons it is important that Tagore’s notion of God is properly understood and not misunderstood. A final object in tracing the development of Rabindranath Tagore’s concept of God is to make an attempt to understand how Tagore, born and brought up in a family rooted in the ancient Hindu faith, could have arrived, at the end of his life, to propagate what he called ‘the Religion of Man’.
Though studies have been made and some books and articles published in both English and Bengali about Rabindranath’s understanding of God, no serious research has been undertaken until now on the evolution of his understanding o1 God, using all the available primary sources. The originality of our study consists primarily in this. In addition, even the few books and articles about Tagore’s notion of God that have been published do not give serious consideration to the numerous references he makes to God in the many hundreds of letters that he wrote in his life-time, that throw light on his understanding of God.
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