Rabindranath Tagore was deeply influenced by the nirguni sants of north India, inspired by the Vaishnav poets' belief in divine love, and found solace in the Baul singers who used songs as their medium of self-expression. His poetry and songs reflect these varied influences.
While Tagore has been studied from the biographical, literary, social, and political perspectives, his religious and philosophical side has not often been examined, owing to the unavailability of the bulk of his Bengali writings in translation. This volume includes selections from Tagore's essays, public addresses, and letters. The lucid translation makes accessible the hitherto relatively neglected area of his prose writings and speeches. With a focus on the critique of contemporary Hinduism, conceptions of God and religion, and ethical activism, this book identifies the various stages in the evolution of Tagore's religious thought beginning from the 1880s.
In his comprehensive introduction, Amiya P. Sen identifies the originality of Tagore's religious and philosophic conceptions. Sen also situates Tagore's religious life and thought in his time and, importantly, places him within trends in contemporary Hindu religious and philosophical thought.
Amiya P. Sen is a faculty member at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. In 2013, he was nominated for the Heinrich Zimmer Chair at Heidelberg, a position he hopes to accept in 2014. He took his graduate and postgraduate degrees in history from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi, followed by a PhD degree from the same university. After a brief career in the Civil Services, he settled down to a life of teaching and research with which he has been engaged for the last 30 years. He has been Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi.
He has published extensively and to date has authored 11book, mostly published by Oxford University Press, Penguin Viking, Permanent Black, and Primus Books. His most recent publication is Rammohun Roy: A Critical Biography (2012).
The idea and inspiration behind this work goes back to the year 2007, when I had the good fortune of being appointed Tagore Professor at Rabindra Bhavan, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. I consider this fortunate and something of an exception given the fact that at that time I had no claim whatsoever of being a Tagore scholar, even though the intellectual and cultural history of modern Bengal inspired and excited me very much. However, by the time I contemplated moving to Visva-Bharati, there had grown in me a keen interest in the religious life and thought of Rabindranath Tagore. I distinctly recall having startled the Selection Committee (in which were seated professors Rajat Kanta Ray, Sukanta Chaudhuri, Amiya Deb, and Nabaneeta Dev Sen) with my professed intentions of translating and commenting upon Tagore's Santiniketan Lectures (1908-15). Given my antecedents as a historian with an inadequate knowledge or training in philosophy, religion, and, above all, of the Bengali language, this must have sounded quite audacious. After all these years, it occurs to me that while my peers had every reason to doubt my competence, they did come to appreciate the sincerity of my intentions. I am happy to have now justified their trust, however ineptly.
Extenuating circumstances compelled me to quit Visva-Bharati even before this project could take off. All the same, during the time that I spent at Rabindra Bhavan and Santiniketan, I did come to feel more intensely the exceptional presence of Tagore and acquired a greater familiarity with his work. What also encouraged me and deepened my interest was my periodically running into several eminent Tagore scholars, all of whom were compulsively drawn to the Rabindra Bhavan Archives and Library. Among these were Sukanta Chaudhuri, Uma Das Gupta (Uma-di to me), Martin Kampchen, the O' Connells (the late Joe O'Connell and Kathy), Swapan Majumdar, then director of Rabindra Bhavan, and several others. I recall with fondness the post-lunch gossip that I regularly had with Supriya Roy (Supriya-di), Samiran Nandi, and Lachmi Gupta (all on the staff at Rabindra Bhavan), which, in an informal but endearing way, brought me closer to Rabindranath and the world that he had created around him.
Back in Delhi, the project had to be shelved for some time, primarily on account of difficulties in procuring source material. A formal proposal for this book was submitted to the Oxford University Press (OUP) only by the closing months of 2012 and was accepted, I am happy to say, quite promptly. I thank the editors at OUP who have helped create and sustain some enthusiasm on this project.
Even though it carries a substantive editorial introduction, this book comes nowhere close to a monograph on the religious life and thought of Tagore. It was essentially devised for those who felt disadvantaged at not being able to access important prose writings of Tagore, especially on religious and philosophical subjects, the bulk of which still remains untranslated. Needless to say, my engagement with the intellectual and cultural contexts in which Tagore's religious thought or writings may be understood carries the intent and concerns of a historian of ideas.
Without a doubt, the religious or philosophical thought of Rabindranath Tagore is more evocatively expressed in his poetry and songs. But these are also better known and more frequently translated, whether by Tagore himself or else later-day scholars. Shifting one's attention to prose writings, on the other hand, helps bring out the more polemical side to Tagore: now battling the Hindu orthodox, now expressing impatience at pretentious truth-claims, or chiding one of his several correspondents on misapprehending God and religion. While Rabindranath's poetry and songs are no doubt important and have been copiously used in the course of producing this work, for a cultural historian of modern Bengal such as I, his prose writings have proved to be no less instructive and useful.
A word on the translation. Critics have been known to complain about the difficulties with Tagore's prose. About 50 years ago, V.S. Naravane noted the problem with Tagore's recurring use of 'parentheses' which, allegedly, 'smothered the main idea as a creeper smothers the tree on which it thrives'.' While that may or may not be true with Tagore's English prose, handling the Bengali has been no easy task. Tagore's Bengali prose does not often carry the lucid directness of Bankimchandra and particularly in his religious or philosophical essays, there is indeed an over-abundant use of metaphor and what one might somewhat imaginatively call 'literary froth'. The Santiniketan Lectures are themselves a case in point. At most times, therefore, a purely literary translation that was doggedly faithful to the original would have been hard to come by, and my endeavour really has been to present to the reader the essential purport of an idea or argument.
This work was put together with the hope that it would elicit greater public interest in a relatively neglected area within Tagore studies but, more importantly, to inspire further scholarly interrogation. It is not very often that literary critics have been drawn to a study of Tagore's religious life and thought. With me, however, a gathering interest in historical religion has led to a greater appreciation of the enduring literary and cultural legacy of Rabindranath Tagore.
Rather than translate an entire lecture or piece of writing in full, I have chosen to translate only suitable excerpts that reveal the main drift of an idea or argument. Finally, let me add a word on the transliteration. In most instances, I have tried to be phonetically faithful to the Bengali original. Hence my preference for Jeebondebata over Jiban Debata that has been hitherto more frequently used.
The religious thought of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) has only occasionally been a matter of scholarly interest, possibly for three reasons. First, both in his time and in ours Tagore has been essentially taken to be a prodigious and prolific literary figure: poet, dramatist, essayist, and song-writer. Apparently, such an understanding has distracted from a serious examination of his religious speeches or writings as a separate genre. In recent times, a literary critic commenting upon the religious life and thought of Tagore has somewhat grudgingly admitted how religious thought or reflections form only one of the several constitutive elements of his life. A similar reading, I find, has also occurred with one of Tagore's near contemporaries, the novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838- 1894). In modern Bengal, Bankim's popularity has rested primarily on his novels, apparently to the exclusion of his many significant prose writings without a proper study of which no true assessment of this significant Hindu thinker of colonial India would be possible. Nonetheless, the early biographers of Bankim neglected to study his religious and philosophical treatises. His first biographer, Sachis Chattopadhyay, did not engage with Bankim's religious thought until the work went into a second edition in 1915.
Second, with Bankim, as with Rabindranath, contemporary writers and critics may have also been discouraged by the fact that their understanding of Hinduism was often at odds with contemporary Hindu religious thought and practices. More recently, it has even been suggested that Bankim's accommodating the idea of God and religion within his moral and philosophical discourse was a practical concession that he reluctantly made to public sentiment. In his magnum opus, the Krishnacharitra (1886, 1892), Bankim depicts a sanitized God (Krishna) who was not known to either Hindu-Bengali folk life or high textual culture. In another essay dating back to these years, he even has a Vaishnav mendicant feast on mutton curry only to prove that religion did not rest on any scrupulous regard for food or drink! In his reminiscences, (Jeebonsmriti, 1912) Rabindranath has confessed that he had little or no empathy with the religion that his own family so actively propagated. In the view of his biographer, Prashanta Kumar Pal, Tagore carried out his duties as songwriter and minister for the Adi Brahmo Samaj more out of deference to his father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), and that this weakened after the latter's death. Even in the 1880 and 1890s, when barely 3o, Rabindranath sharply differed with the ways in which a new pride of race and cultural revivalism was trying to bring back into Hinduism irrational practices, superstition, and specious cultural theories. In the closing years of the nineteenth century and for some years thereafter, the religious thought or writings of neither Bankim nor Rabindranath could excite Hindu public imagination, whether of the liberal-reformist camp or the orthodox. In the case of Bankim, the first major study of his religious and philosophical thought by Hirendranath Dutta arrived only in the 1940s and the first serious reflections into the religious life and thought of Rabindranath had really to wait until after the publication of his Gitanjali.
Possibly a third reason that might explain the scholarly reluctance to engage with the religious thought of Rabindranath Tagore is its highly personalized and idiosyncratic nature. Occasionally, this may have enthused literary critics but not the historian. In a recent study, Rajat Kanta Ray notes how Tagore's greatly enigmatic concept of 'Jeebondebata' has failed to draw any serious historical scholarship. Also, the religion that Tagore spoke of, more so in his advanced years, is also palpably removed from the concerns that came to pass in the years immediately preceding. It is not often that Tagore applied the tools of history or anthropology to understand religion, which men like Bankim and Ramendrasundar Trivedi (1864-1919) had used quite interrogatively. Here it is worth contrasting the very different positions that Bankim and Rabindranath take on the purport of the Gayatri Mantra. This mantra remained extremely important for Tagore and in the Jeebonsmriti, he recalls having undergone certain inexplicable mystic experiences upon repeatedly chanting it. Tagore found the mantra uniting him with the cosmos; Bankim's approach, on the other hand, strongly historicist as it was, remains quite firm in arguing that the mantra invoked the sun and not the cosmic Creator, and that the Gayatri itself was not some divinity but the name of a metre found in Vedic literature. Unlike Bankim or some other like-minded thinkers of the time, Rabindranath does not engage with the origin or functions of religion. Also, by his own admission, he was not a sadhaka (spiritual practitioner) or a man sufficiently familiar with formal Hindu philosophy. This at once separates him from some well-known contemporaries who contributed significantly to the religious life and thought of modern Bengal and were progressively enshrined in public memory, as, for instance, the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886), the Hindu missionary Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who created a global interest in reformed Hinduism, the Brahmo theologian Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884) who attempted to synthetically fuse various religious ideas and symbols, or Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) who represented a constructive combination of the sadhaka and the philosopher. Religion for Rabindranath increasingly became a matter of aspiration, combining a deep- seated spiritual quest with an intense love for aesthetic experience, struggling to find creative expression in the world. What we often find in him is not tangible religious thought but inchoate intuitive feeling, not concrete expressions of god or divinity but subtle and extremely artistic formulations of the good and sublime that could be intensely personal.
What also makes it especially difficult to relate to Tagore is that his approach to religion resembles neither the conformism of the exegete, who, when engaging with a tradition, situates himself within it, nor the hermeneutic freedom of the critic who prefers to examine matter from the outside. This makes Rabindranath's relationship with established Hindu religious and philosophical traditions quite tenuous and problematic. On closer scrutiny, it seems somewhat oversimplified to project him as a Vedantin a Radhakrishnan attempted to do in 1918. In 1941, Hirendranath Dutta extended this line of argument calling Rabindranath a 'Vedantist by inheritance' quite oblivious of the difficulties that the Maharshi had with 'Vedanta', especially when taken to be synonymous with the non-dualist philosophy of Acharya Sankara, which it often is. Tagore, however, has often claimed that his religion reflected the spontaneous instincts of the poet and not the structured, argumentative discourse of the philosopher. Often in his speeches and writings he has tended to sink what otherwise appear to be pressing philosophical debates within the deeper and more intractable domain of spontaneous feeling and to reconcile seemingly opposed viewpoints within an underlying harmony. Not surprisingly, scholars attempting to locate the philosophical foundations of Tagore's Vedanta with any degree of precision have ended up in supporting palpably different view-points. Thus, the philosopher PT. Raju found Tagore's Vedanta to be close to the school of Vallabhacharya, Edward Dimock to the bhedabheda school, and Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta with the work Parijata Sourabha of Nimbarka. Even when he admitted the Upanishads to have been one of the major textual sources for his religious and philosophical thought, Tagore's reading of these texts was both selective and idiosyncratic. For a person deeply rooted in a cosmic view of man and god, Rabindranath rarely, if ever, creatively comments upon, say, the Chandogya Upanishad, principally on account of it supporting the idea of a metaphysical identity between the human soul and the divine (tat tvam asi) or even on account of pantheistic suggestions (sarvam khalwidam Brahman). Even as late as 1935, he was anxious that the Brahmo Samaj did not commit the error of mistaking the presence of the Infinite Brahman in all living beings with taking the world itself to be Brahman. Rabindranath, to cite another example, used the Vaishnav tradition in a manner that no Vaishnav poet or theologian might have. Prima facie, it might seem that his poetic sensibility or imagination put him more on the side of the Vaishnav poets than Vaishnav metaphysicians and yet this may not be an apt reading of Tagore since, unlike the padavali poet of late medieval Bengal, he speak of his theo-aesthetic experience, a creative combination of religiosity and rasa, not vicariously as the poets themselves had done but in a directly personal mode. Bengali Vaishnav poets never fancied themselves as the separated female lover (Radha), pining for union with the beloved as did Tagore. His Vaishnavism also rejected public displays of ecstatic emotion as had been popularized by the Vaishnav saint Sri Krishna Chaitanya (1486-1533) and closer to his time by fellow Brahmos like Keshab Chandra who resorted to the use of public religious processions (nagar sankirtans). Tagore did not claim to know the Bhagavad Gita very well but his familiarity with or interest in the Bhagavad Purana, a text considered supremely holy within the world of Gaudiya (Bengal) Vaishnavism, was practically non-existent.
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