By Larry Spears
Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty eds., The Essential Tagore: Rabindranath Tagore (Belknap Press, 2011)
Rabindranath Tagore was not an incomparable genius as the editors of this collection of some 800 pages suggest, but he was a uniquely prolific and thoughtful writer in all modes of literature and songs. He is a continuing presence in the Indian culture and was a rage in Europe in the 20th century. During this period, he was considered close to sainthood in the mode of the eastern wisdom as a cure and rescue for the Western malaise. He is of interest to the Quaker Universalist Fellowship primarily because of his commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity in the struggle for Indian independence, and, following his father, his advocacy the universalist mode of Hinduism known as Bahmoism.
Following the guru Brahmo Samaj and Tagore’s own father, Brahmoism preached the singularity of God (contrasting with the multitude in the Hindu pantheon), reform of the Brahmin caste system and middle class self-help (made known by Gandhi through swaraj). Tagore advocated for a combination of engagement and reflection in this world, with confident trust in the next world.
Tagore was a literary cornacopia. His collected life work in the Bengali language reaches to 20,000 pages. He was a poet, playwright, musician, novelist, essayist, biographer, correspondent, painter, editor, humorist, polemicist, travel writer and storyteller. This book is divided into ten sections, reflecting the many literary forms in Tagore’s work. Prolific is an understatement in characterizing Tagore. What is disappointing in this essential compilation of the writings of Tagore is the absence of an index.
As an attraction for Europeans of early 20th century, Tagore was a mystic with biblical resonances. He talked like a prophet in modern English. He translated his poetry in the tone of the English Bible. His 1913 Nobel Prize for literature encouraged the attraction of Europeans for salvation through the Eastern vision.
Regarding death particularly, Tagore delighted in intuitive, ecstatic affirmation of being in the present. He denied any reality to nothingness in the view that nothingness is untrue and what is untrue does not exist. What comes after death is only another mode of being, reflecting comfort with the reincarnation of the Hindu tradition. In his affirmation of full, daily being in this life, he tends to avoid death instead of overcoming death. The best he could do was to argue for death as the liberation of persons into the free field of being. In Tagore’s view, out of the Hindu tradition, this liberation is open to all persons.
The Tagore mysticism is sad and quietist in feel. In this tone, the mysticism resonates with themes in some Quaker leaders. His writing can sound Buddhist in the call for self annihilation, but he shows more interest in engagement than detachment and in the world as a place for striving and celebration rather than suffering. The rebuttal of negation is essential to embrace optimism and appreciation of faith and grace in the present mode of existence, but it also has a tendency toward the antinomian in the assertion of freedom form established moral laws. Tagore’s is an articulate, religious struggle with universalism issues current today.
Tagore struggled in reflection and in politics with the polarity of inside and outside, freedom and imprisonment, self and other and life and death. He was always on the side of freedom, political, social and personal, that fused into a metaphysical freedom. Or, more accurately, his sense of metaphysical freedom was expressed in his life and writings in all the political, social and personal parts of life.
Tagore’s life and literary work struggles with the application of universalism. How do we embrace the other in our lives, as persons, as families, and as nations? Tagore drew upon the Hindu tradition in his reflection and advocacy, which, despite its age, reflects the struggles we face today in relating to the other in our lives.
Tagore was deeply rooted in the Hinduism of Bengal. But, his universalist understanding in his very personal concept of religion, as outlined in his poem, “The Lord of Life” created controversy when it was written. His continuing influence in Hindu India holds this dimension within the Hindu tradition today. Tagore loved the marvel of living fully in the flesh of this life in reflection on lives past and conditions to come. This book is essential for understanding Tagore in English and for entering the world of a flexible and universalist understanding of Hinduism for the future.