Thoughts on the uses of his ideas on the eve of his 80th death anniversary
Shashi Tharoor | 30 Jul, 2021
Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk at the Government School of Art in Calcutta, 1932 (Photo: Alamy)
IN THINKING OF Rabindranath Tagore in the middle of a pandemic, I was reminded of the course of action followed by the two brothers Jagmohan and Harimohan in Gurudev’s timeless classic Chaturanga, published over a century ago in 1916, and yet of striking relevance in today’s difficult times. Set in a Calcutta in the thralls of the plague that struck the city in the late 19th century, their contrasting tales offer lessons worth reflecting on. On the one hand, the more humanitarian and empathetic sibling, Jagmohan, refuses to flee the plague-ravaged city with his brother, for that would have meant abandoning the tanners in their locality—all of whom belonged to a different community and subscribed to a different faith—who would have been forced to fend for themselves. The less altruistic brother Harimohan, perhaps wisely understanding the gravity of the situation, assesses the scenario differently and, in the interest of survival, vacates the city in time, even as it ultimately engulfs the life of Jagmohan.
So those we expected to act in the same compassionate spirit that Jagmohan channelled, those in our leadership who had the power and duty to act as a barrier between the virus and the people of this country, ultimately chose the same path of self-preservation that Harimohan adopted, leaving others to fend for themselves. And yet, if there is any silver lining amidst all the chaos that has ensued, it has come in the form of thousands of ordinary citizens, who had no duty or need to go beyond their immediate needs, rising up all across the country and, just as Jagmohan did, rallying together to ensure that calls for help from strangers were answered.
Novellas like Chaturanga and poems like Tagore’s famous ‘Puratan Bhritya’ (which poignantly captures the ultimate sacrifice made by Keshta as a result of his unwavering care for his master, who catches the dreaded smallpox virus) offer perhaps a more literal link between Gurudev’s evergreen lessons and contemporary times. And yet, while these offer timely resonances, it is important for us to remember that Tagore’s greatness is not restricted to the contemporary alone.
It is not an easy task to capture the scale of Tagore’s accomplishments. Some have made glib comparisons to Shakespeare and Goethe, but neither man, despite his undoubted greatness, excelled in as many fields as Gurudev, nor dominated his culture to the extent that Tagore did his.
Think of it: he was not merely an extraordinary poet, the only Indian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1913, for his Gitanjali—profoundly moving verses written in Bangla in 1910 after he had lost his father, wife, second daughter and youngest son). He was also a prose-writer and essayist of the first rank, whose articles, books and monographs commanded a wide readership around the world. As a philosopher, he was perhaps the first to develop a synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches, and he developed political ideas of great depth and humanity (of which more later). He was a great, if uneven, novelist and short-story writer who produced several masterpieces that continue to be read a century-and-a-half after his birth; his ‘Kabuliwallah’ is among the few short stories most Indians remember from their childhood. He was also a playwright of rare distinction: The Post Office, for instance, was one of the most popular plays in the world before World War II.
Tagore held fast to a soaring humanist vision at a time when borders were being flung up between men and nations and fetters placed on their imaginations and their tongues. Authoritarianism placed jackboots on the necks of dissidents everywhere. Tagore foresaw and predicted the dangers of the rising narrow-minded nationalism
But, added to all that, were his other remarkable talents. He was a painter of high quality and perceptiveness, an artist with a poet’s eye. He was a composer of over 2,000 immortal songs, of which he authored both the lyrics and the tunes, and through which he essentially founded his own discipline of Indian music, known as ‘Rabindra Sangeet’. He is the only person to have created the national anthems of two different countries (India’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and Bangladesh’s ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’), though both nations were born after his own death; and he inspired the composer of Sri Lanka’s anthem as well, who translated Tagore’s lyrics and set them to Tagore’s music in a tribute to his mentor.
As if this were not enough, he was an educator of great vision and courage, founding Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan to offer an authentically Indian experience of higher education, following systems and approaches of his own devising. It educated the likes of Satyajit Ray and Indira Gandhi (not to mention offering a cradle to Amartya Sen, whose first name, with its evocations of immortality, was given by Tagore—probably the only instance of a Nobel laureate baptising another!)
If all this were not more than extraordinary—representing a level of achievement so towering that it is difficult to imagine an individual in any other culture who comes close—there is also the remarkable fact of Tagore’s huge worldwide impact in his own time. Tagore was a global giant before the era of globalisation. When he was to speak at New York’s 4,000-seat Carnegie Hall in 1930 (itself a rare enough honour, since the hall is usually reserved for concerts, not orations), more than 20,000 people were turned away from the sold-out event, creating a mass of humanity on the streets outside that blocked traffic for miles. No living writer on the planet had ever had something comparable happen, and what’s more, Tagore was handsomely paid for his speeches. One American critic, not without a tinge of jealousy, wrote acerbically that the Indian “scolds Americans at $700 per scold”.
Tagore himself was modestly dismissive of his fame and the attention it got him. “The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it [the Nobel] has given rise to is frightful,” he wrote to his friend the artist William Rothenstein in 1913. “It is almost as bad as tying a tin can to a dog’s tail, making it impossible for him to move without creating noise and collecting crowds all along.” Eight years later, he confided to Edward Thompson: “What an immense amount of unreality there is in literary reputation, and I am longing—even while appreciating it like a buffalo the luxury of a mud bath—to come out of it as a sanyasi [a Hindu sage], naked and aloof.”
Like all fine writers, he had a rare gift of phrase. His description of the Taj Mahal as “a teardrop on the cheek of time” can scarcely be bettered, and which poet would not want to have authored his line “Who can strain the blue from the sky?” His descriptions of nature are startlingly original, and thought-provoking in their imagery. “The rose,” he wrote, “is a great deal more than a blushing apology for the thorn.” Dawn is “the departing night’s kiss on the closed eyes of morning”. A picture is “a memory of light treasured by the shadow”.
Tagore did not really believe in nationalism but in the values of the human spirit, transcending all national boundaries. ‘My religion,’ he told Albert Einstein, ‘is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being’
Sometimes the metaphor is explicitly metaphysical: “In the mountain, stillness surges up to explore its own height; in the lake, movement stands still to contemplate its own death.” He lent to spirituality a literary succinctness few others could master: “Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it.” Or the poignant “And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well.” His stories and letters overflow with literary gems each bearing an insight thoroughly steeped in Indian tradition. “While God waits for his temple to be built of love, man brings stones.” Or, “He who does good comes to the temple gate, he who loves reaches the shrine.” And “Darkness travels towards light, but blindness towards death.”
This was also true of his more social reflections. “Nowadays men have acquired what God did not choose to give them,” he wrote in a short story. Or, as he turned 50: “Elders have become cheap to modern children, too readily accessible; and so have all objects of desire.” And throughout, his awareness of the divinely created cosmos: “The world is an ever-changing foam that floats on the surface of a sea of silence.” Or “Man has in him the silence of the sea, the noise of the earth, and the music of the air.”
WB Yeats, in his famous introduction to Gitanjali, quoted an anonymous Bengali doctor as saying: “We have other poets, but none that are his equal; we call this the epoch of Rabindranath. No poet seems to me as famous in Europe as he is among us. He is as great in music as in poetry, and his songs are sung from the west of India into Burma wherever Bengali is spoken. He was already famous at nineteen when he wrote his first novel; and plays when he was but little older, are still played in Calcutta. I so much admire the completeness of his life; when he was very young he wrote much of natural objects, he would sit all day in his garden; from his twenty-fifth year or so to his thirty-fifth perhaps, when he had a great sorrow, he wrote the most beautiful love poetry in our language…After that his art grew deeper, it became religious and philosophical; all the inspiration of mankind are in his hymns. He is the first among our saints who has not refused to live, but has spoken out of Life itself, and that is why we give him our love.” (Tagore returned the compliment in elegant terms, writing of Yeats: “Like a cut diamond that needs the light of the sky to show itself, the human soul on its own cannot express its essence, and remains dark. Only when it reflects the light from something greater than itself, does it come into its own.”)
Yeats himself went on to observe: “These lyrics—which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.” For Yeats, their Indian spiritual content was their principal value: “we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics—all dull things in the doing—while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.” Again, Tagore himself would have disowned such grand claims: “Since it is impracticable to be uncivilized, I had better try to be thoroughly civil,” he wrote in 1892 to his niece Indira.
Tagore’s disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi are not so surprising. He objected to the Mahatma’s Non-cooperation Movement on philosophical grounds. Nor did he have much patience for the Mahatma’s method of fasting unto death
But admittedly, none of these distinctions, each rarer than the other, necessarily offers an adequate explanation for the question: Why should Tagore matter today? Yes, there was a time when Tagore was a global phenomenon, whose aura and impact were felt in places like Iran (where he was warmly received and celebrated by the Shah), South America (where he would go on to influence a young Pablo Neruda, the Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo and the Brazilian poet Cecília Meireles), China, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Poland and many more—at a point in history when networks between these countries were at a nascent stage and the idea of globalisation buried in the fiery sarcophagus of World War I. Yes, there was a time when Tagore’s reputation and international image were so greatly recognised that you even had a rather bizarre situation where dictators like Mussolini and Stalin vied with each other to have him visit their countries in the hope of securing a symbolic endorsement, from his presence, of their egregious regimes. But that was a considerable while ago—a moment in history that shouldn’t necessarily hold itself to special relevance for us in the 21st century. It is also true that Tagore was not always welcomed by Asian modernists. On a visit to Shanghai in 1924, his message that modern civilisation, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East, while Western ideas of modernity should be regarded with scepticism, led to him being heckled and booed by Chinese audiences. The communist poet Qu Qiubai wrote: “Thank you, Mr. Tagore, but we have already had too many Confuciuses and Menciuses in China.”
And yet, history has a way of repeating itself and unless we learn from the past, the future remains unclear and challenging. As I have often said myself, in another context, if you don’t know where you are coming from, then how can you appreciate where you are going?
Tagore himself was modestly dismissive of the attention the nobel got him. ‘The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise to is frightful,’ he wrote to his friend the artist William Rothenstein in 1913
TAGORE HELD FAST to a soaring humanist vision at a time when borders were being flung up between men and nations and fetters placed on their imaginations and their tongues. Authoritarianism and colonialism placed jackboots on the necks of dissidents everywhere. Tagore foresaw and predicted the dangers of the rising narrow-minded nationalism of that era and was a staunch critic of the phenomenon that he once described as a “cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality”. It is perhaps safe to assume that Tagore’s principled opposition to nationalism came from a perspective tempered by the experiences of World War I and the nationalistic fervour that had gripped much of Europe and led to violence of a magnitude the world had never seen before. In a three-part essay that forms his magisterial work Nationalism, Tagore, writing at a time when war was raging across Europe, offered a prescient warning of the dangers of nationalism and the nation state: “When this organization of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity. When a father becomes a gambler and his obligations to his family take the secondary place in his mind, then he is no longer a man, but an automaton led by the power of greed. Then he can do things which, in his normal state of mind, he would be ashamed to do. It is the same thing with society. When it allows itself to be turned into a perfect organization of power, then there are few crimes which it is unable to perpetrate.”
To Tagore, “[t]he idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion.” That moral perversion, he argued, was the immoral idea that one set of people, constituted as a nation in one place, were somehow more significant, more important, more powerful than, and therefore superior to, another set of people constituted as a separate nation somewhere else. Such ideas emerged from the very basic idea of a ‘national purpose’. The nationalist sees his own as the ultimate nation. Any who disagree, whether because of ideology, religion, ethnicity, or simply because they belong to another nation, are opposed and have to be put down. In Tagore’s words, “Whether through falsehood or error, we have to prove our own superiority to ourselves, and in the process, denigrate other nations.”
Ultimately, to Tagore, the moral imperative of humanity far outweighed the political and commercial impetus that came together to form the core of nationalism as he saw it. To him, nationalism was a distraction from the real problems of humanity, which he felt were social. To him, nationalistic fervour had come to a stage where “the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the political and the commercial man, the man of the limited purpose. This, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization.”
There was a time when Tagore was a global phenomenon, whose aura and impact were felt in places like Iran, South America, China, Japan, Vietnam, germany, Poland and many more—when the idea of globalisation was buried in the fiery sarcophagus of World War I
As was often the case with Tagore, he captures this warning best and most beautifully in his poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’, which he wrote on the last day of the 19th century:
The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West
and the whirlwind of hatred.
The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed,
is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses
The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury
from its own shameless feeding.
For it has made the world its food,
…The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace, my Motherland.
It is the glimmer of the funeral pyre burning to ashes the vast flesh,
—the self-love of the Nation,—dead under its own excess.
Thy morning waits behind the patient dark of the East,
Meek and silent.
It is almost as if he was thinking of today’s world when he wrote this poem with his clarion call to beware the dangers of jingoism and chauvinism cloaked under the garb of the love of one’s nation. But this is not to say Tagore wasn’t a patriot: he would eventually return his knighthood to the British in protest of the massacre of peaceful Indian protestors at Jallianwala Bagh by Reginald Dyer, an act that would lead Indians to regard Tagore as a great hero of the national struggle. Tagore wrote that he could not retain such an honour in the incongruous context of national humiliation. At the same time, in a letter to CF Andrews in 1920, Tagore would admit: “It is not that I do not feel anger in my heart for injustice and insult heaped upon my motherland. But this anger of mine should be turned into the fire of love for lighting the lamp of worship to be dedicated through my country to my God. It would be an insult to humanity, if I use the sacred energy of my moral indignation for the purpose of spreading a blind passion all over my country.”
So Tagore did not really believe in nationalism but in the values of the human spirit, transcending all national boundaries. “My religion,” he told Albert Einstein, “is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.” He had little patience with parochial forms of thinking: “Our mind has faculties which are universal,” he declared, “but its habits are insular.” In Nationalism, he expressed the view that “[t]here is only one history—the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one.” National pride does not feature in his thought, only the immutable goals of knowledge, learning, and the pursuit of truth.
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.
Typically, Tagore’s is an inspirational poem that could serve as the anthem for any nation seeking freedom—while giving no indulgence whatsoever to jingoism or chauvinism. For the chauvinist glee with which I, as an Indian writer, am celebrating Rabindranath Tagore, would not particularly have appealed to him. He dreamt of freedom for India, but it was not merely freedom from foreign rule that he sought for his countrymen. It was in a place “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free” and “where the mind is led forward…into ever-widening thought and action” that Tagore hoped his India would awake to freedom.
Indeed his idea of freedom was far more profoundly individual than national. “Freedom of movement is not the only vital liberty,” he said in 1916, “freedom of work is still more important. Nor is subjugation the greatest bondage, narrowness of opportunity is the worst cage of all.” One of his poems perfectly captures the paradox of the nature of personal freedom in an enslaved land:
The tame bird was in a cage, the free bird was in the forest;
They met when the time came; it was a decree of fate.
The free bird cries, “O my love, let us fly to the wood.”
The caged bird whispers, “Come hither, let us both live in the cage.”
Says the free bird, “Among bars, where is the room to spread one’s wings?”
“Alas,” cries the caged bird, “I should not know where to sit perched in the sky.”
His was a voice of freedom; but it was more important to him that every individual be free to pursue his destiny. “Give me the strength never to…bend my knees before insolent might,” he prayed in Gitanjali. As a result he was an iconoclast, dissenting not only from Empire but even from the political orthodoxies of his own country’s struggle for independence.
Perhaps, in this context, his disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi are not so surprising. He objected to the Mahatma’s non-cooperation movement on what one might term philosophical grounds. He considered it “political asceticism”, and asceticism was not something of which he approved. “‘No’ in its passive moral form is asceticism and in its active moral form is violence,” he argued in a letter to the Mahatma’s British associate CF Andrews. Nor did he have much patience for the Mahatma’s method of fasting unto death. “Fasting, which has no direct action upon the conduct of misdoers,” he wrote to Gandhiji in 1933, “and which may abruptly terminate one’s power further to serve those who need help…is all the more unacceptable for any individual who has the responsibility to represent humanity.” Gandhi was not convinced, but their exchanges are amongst the most stimulating intellectual pleasures of the freedom movement.
Tagore would return his Knighthood in protest of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, an act that would lead Indians to regard him as a great hero of the national struggle. Tagore wrote that he could not retain such an honour in the incongruous context of national humiliation
At the same time, Tagore was not exactly an internationalist in the classic sense beloved of UN aficionados like myself. He died before the United Nations (UN) was created, but he did not think highly of its forerunner organisation, the League of Nations. Tagore wrote of the League that it was well-conceived in theory but not in practice, because it was an institution in which the world was represented by national governments and nationalist political leaders. “It is,” he wrote, “like organising a band of robbers into a police department.” There is no reason to believe he would have felt any differently about today’s UN, which is also an organisation of states rather than peoples.
When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, his acceptance speech, read out at the grand official banquet by the British chargé d’affaires in Stockholm, consisted of one sentence: “I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother.”
But Tagore did propagate something much more powerful than internationalism—as defined in the sense of global governance, or even ‘globalisation’ as is understood and attacked today. What Tagore promoted was a moral synthesis between the West and the East, at a time when it seemed that the world was falling apart at its seams. This, at a time when the West, with its imperial ambitions and colonial legacy, was looked at with much resentment in the East, and for Tagore to try and establish a moral commonality between the two was no simple task.
But Tagore was quick to point out that even within the West, a distinction must be drawn between the ‘spirit’ of the West and the ‘nation’ of the West. To him, the ‘spirit’ represented the moral convictions of Western society, what he categorised as its best contributions to humanity—from internationalism, to the idea of rights-based democracy, to a focus on education and social development, and so on. These were universal values that would go a long way to furthering the overall development of humanity. In stark contrast to this was the “Nation” of the West—a structure motivated by greed and self-interest, which used the tools of imperialism and colonialism to promote its malicious interests in heartless fashion. Speaking on the Indian experience under the British, Tagore pointed out: “But this desire for a common bond of comradeship among the different races of India has been the work of the spirit of the West, not that of the Nation of the West. Wherever in Asia the people have received the true lesson of the West it is in spite of the Western Nation”.
When Wilfred Owen was to return to the front, he recited Tagore’s ‘Parting Words’ to his mother as his last goodbye. When Owen was killed, she found Tagore’s poem copied out in her son’s hand in his diary
WITH HIS LONG beard and his flowing white robe, Rabindranath Tagore epitomised for many the archetype of the Indian sage, the precursor of so many godmen and gurus who have followed his footsteps to the West. There is little doubt that his magisterial mind and his authoritative presence did a great deal to inspire admiration across the world, and to spark a revival of interest in India, in Hinduism and in the teachings of Hindu spirituality. Tagore’s Hinduism had little to do with the Hindu-ness sought to be promoted by today’s Hindutva brigades; it was a faith free of the restrictive dogma of holy writ, untrammelled in its yearning for the divine, and universalist in its conception and its appeal. This is what made his ideas so attractive to non-Indians. He had a great respect for Christianity, which he saw as emerging in many ways from Asia: “I think it has been the good fortune of the West,” he wrote, “to have the opportunity of absorbing the spirit of the East through the medium of the Bible.”
Tagore undoubtedly had a profound respect for the importance of syncretic relationships between peoples and placed the value of this far beyond the limitations of artificial barriers. He was the voice that coined the memorable phrase “unity in diversity” that would go on to form the bedrock of our democratic ethos, even if it has now become somewhat of a cliché. “The sole effort of India,” Tagore wrote, “has always been to establish unity in diversity, to direct many paths to the same end, and to perceive the one in the many, profoundly and unambiguously”—rested on the acknowledgement of a deep-rooted, underlying desire for harmony despite India’s vast heterogeneity, heterodoxy and plurality. This was true well before Independence, and crystallised in opposition to the foreign imperium.
As he memorably invoked in Gitanjali:
Here came Aryans, Non-Aryans,
Dravids, and Mongols
Tribes of Scythians and Huns
Pathans and Moghuls
In one body they merged
They came to take and will stay to give
But they will never leave
Bharat, the seashore of humanity.
In his Discovery of India, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru fittingly acknowledged Tagore’s contributions, noting that “More than any other Indian, he [Tagore] has helped to bring into harmony the ideals of the East and West, and broadened the bases of Indian nationalism. He has been India’s internationalist par excellence, believing and working for international co-operation, taking India’s message to other countries and bringing their messages to his own people”. As historian Ramachandra Guha points out, when Nehru became prime minister in 1947, the influence of Tagore was quite strong in the direction he chose to take the country. Tagore’s ideas of a synthesis between “tradition and modernity”, between the West and India, was a guiding philosophy for Nehru as well, as evident in his efforts to keep India non-aligned during the Cold War era and to promote pan-Asianism among India and its neighbours. Tagore was unusual in stretching his imagination to Africa, the title of one of his lesser-known poems, in which mystical imagery is married to a denunciation of colonialism:
Alas, O Veiled One
Underneath the obscurity of your dark facade lay unknown your human identity
Degraded by the collective gaze of derision.
And then they arrived, manacles in hand
Claws sharper by far than any on your wolves;
They arrived, human rustlers and traffickers all
By vanity and arrogance blinded, sightless by far
Than your darkest, sun-less forests.
If Tagore the man of sophisticated political, educational and spiritual ideas has dominated this essay, it would be wrong to omit the other Tagore, the author of some of the finest love poems and songs ever written in Bangla. My personal favourite is one I read to my late wife upon our engagement, and I will embarrass myself by repeating it here, for it is too good to omit:
I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times,
In life after life, in age after age forever.
My spell-bound heart has made and re-made the necklace of songs
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms
In life after life, in age after age forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together,
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge
Clad in the light of a star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played alongside millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell—
Old love, but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you,
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life,
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours—
And the songs of every poet past and forever.
When the great British poet Wilfred Owen (author of the greatest anti-war poem in the English language, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’) was to return to the front to give his life in the futile World War I, he recited Tagore’s ‘Parting Words’ to his mother as his last goodbye. When he was so tragically and pointlessly killed, Owen’s mother found Tagore’s poem copied out in her son’s hand in his diary:
When I go from hence
let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
that expands on the ocean of light,
and thus am I blessed
—let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms
I have had my play
and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs
have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch;
and if the end comes here, let it come
—let this be my parting word.
And yet this magnificent wielder of words spoke modestly of the value of poetry. “Words are barren, dismal and uninspiring by themselves,” he said in a 1922 lecture, “but when they are bound together by some bond of rhythm they attain their significance as a reality which can be described as creative.”
The universality of Tagore’s thoughts and ideas seem to me beyond cavil, and his fears for the direction of the modern world as prescient then, and as applicable today, as when he first expressed them. With his typical generosity, Tagore said of the artist William Rothenstein: “He had the vision to see truth and the heart to love it.” The same was true of himself.
Rabindranath Tagore would have won immortality in any of his chosen fields; instead, he remains immortal in all.