The 150th year of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth in 2011 generated a lot of renewed interest in the writer’s works and the fruit of that is discernible in various new volumes available in the market. Each book comes out with fresh perspectives in reading the multifaceted genius that Tagore was and assessing his contribution as a poet, writer, painter, musician, educationist, and Nobel laureate—no mean task. Also several new translated volumes of his oeuvre, which had never been done earlier, have made the poet more accessible to a panIndian as well as a global readership. Several of them focus on areas that have been marginalized because of the more dominant and compelling desire to establish Tagore primarily as a mystical poet and philosopher.
The volume under review brings together the translation of selected discourses, addresses and letters of Rabindranath Tagore regarding religion and has treated it as a comprehensive but separate genre of study. Though the spiritual life force as inculcated in the Upanishads has been reiterated in many of his songs, especially in the series under ‘Puja’, and even in many of his poems, the lay reader is often confused by the different facets of Tagore’s thought pattern regarding religion. Beginning from childhood when he accompanied his father Debendranath in his sojourns to the Himalayas, and who being a Brahmo, inculcated the spirit of the Upanishads in his son, Tagore’s religious beliefs are not only deeprooted but operate at many levels. He was deeply influenced by the nirguni sants of North India, inspired by the Vaishnava poets’ belief in divine love, spoke about Christ, admired Kabir’s spirit of radical social protest, critiqued several practices of the contemporary Hindu faith, propagated ethical activism, and found solace in the Baul singers who used songs as their medium of expression. Generally speaking, Tagore’s religious ideas have been eclipsed by his fame as a poet. Reading the prose pieces therefore not only supplements the poetic expressions but is at the same time instructive and useful.
This anthology is divided into three sections. The first section entitled ‘Essays and Other Miscellaneous Writings’ contains excerpts from fourteen selected pieces. Beginning with the song of the Baul in ‘The Power of Universal Love’, the different discourses focus on dharma (‘all paths lead to the same destination, the only difference being that some of them are more circuitous than others’), Mukti (‘the path to extend our consciousness is through love’), Vedanta, the value of suffering, the worship of Shakti, etc. In an essay called ‘The Simple Ways of Religion’, Tagore expresses his regret that religion itself now stands affected by great social complexities. Having been subject to endless ritualism, meaningless acts, abstract conceptions, and quaint imagination, it has become so obscure and unnatural that each day one man or another is able to create new and mutually conflicting sects out of this selfbegotten fantasy. Rather than mould our lives in the light of religion, we are often driven to do the opposite. Since religion is capable of transcending the categories of time and space, Tagore believes that it is immutable and remains invaluable to human needs. It is because religion is larger than us that it offers itself a safe refuge in an everchanging world.
In another essay entitled ‘Religious Education and the Idea of an Ashram’ Tagore is quite self-introspective in speaking of the problems that have been plaguing the Brahmo Samaj. He believes that in India there is a general feeling that religion is a desirable thing but hard to experience in our lives. Hence, it is something we keep seeking and hope to procure cheaply but only after we have met all our other needs. The Brahmo Samaj lacks the method by which a child’s mind may be adequately trained, an ideal that will hold things together. Tagore is also aware that some non-Brahmos take Brahmoism as a philosophy and not a religion and wants to justly claim that like other universal religions, Brahmoism too has developed out of the devotional outpourings of the human heart.
The fifteen essays selected from his discourses, public addresses and informal talk comprise the second section. Here Tagore talks about issues like the primacy of the soul, the solitary path to spirituality, harmony, the omnipresent God, self-surrender, the relevance of the Brahmo Samaj, etc. In a polemical piece entitled ‘Do Hindu-Brahmos Qualify to be called Hindus?’, Tagore acknowledges his birth as a Hindu when he states, ‘The religion that we Brahmos have accepted is truly universal, and yet it is the religion of the Hindus. This universal religion we have conceived and developed through the mind of the Hindu.’ He further mentions that Brahmo dharma may be his own religion but tomorrow he ‘may turn a Protestant, the day after, a Roman Catholic, and the following day, a Vaishnav.’ Such identities are only temporary identities that he acquired but as a member of a certain nation or race, his identity has been ‘fixed by history’, and this truth which has a long history he does not have the power to change.
About the difference between the idea of the Jeebondebata (the Lord of my life) and God, Tagore found no difference. ‘There is a certain space where God is entirely mine; in that space, there is just Him and me’, he states. However, there was another point at which his personality merged with the universal. ‘Jeebondebata resides within me but also goes beyond me, towards that indivisible, infinite, inexpressible joy represented by Visvadebata (the Lord of the Universe).’ The two well-known essays, ‘The Religion of Man’ (where Tagore proclaims that ‘Man’s God is He who resides in his own heart’) and ‘The Truth of Man’ (where he states that one should try to experience God within oneself and He is the Universal Soul) conclude this section of the anthology. Though this man-centered discourse did not originate with Tagore, in both he attempts to make man the measure of things. But for man, he feels creation itself would have no value.
The third and last section contains twenty-four selections from the poet’s correspondence with different people. They express unfeigned indignation at certain Hindu beliefs and practices and what he expressed through philosophical arguments quite subtly in his essays or sermons become quite direct here. ‘My religion is natural religion and the method of worship I employ is worship of nature,’ he wrote to his niece Indira Devi Chaudhurani. To Mohit Chandra Sen he stated, ‘Deep inside me there lies a gigantic and an old “I”, He especially is the Lord of my life (Jeebondevata). It is His solemn and stealthy appearance that makes my soul approach the Divine.’ Tagore’s letters to Hemantabala Devi and her daughter reveal how Hindu superstitions upset him. It pained him that God who represented Truth and beatitude should remain trapped in dark and dirty dungeons that went by the name of temples, that a countless number of hapless animals should be regularly sacrificed before deities, or that people should seek to gratify lifeless icons and greedy gurus rather than honour the living god who went about unfed and unclothed on the streets. Religious dogmatism and self-righteousness were equally unacceptable to him. He also found it unreasonable and disturbing when people tried to convert from one religion to another. He disliked astrology but interestingly enough, found science to be consistent with faith. ‘To accept science and history in their own domains is a part of accepting Him,’ he stated and believed that ‘Anti-science is atheism because God’s own creation is founded on science.’
Jawaharlal Nehru had once declared that ‘contrary to the usual course of development as he (Tagore) grew older he became more and more radical in his outlook and views.’ Though it was mentioned in a different context, reading the essays and other prose pieces on religion in the present volume, it becomes clear that Amiya P. Sen has done yeoman service in giving us samples of Tagore’s prose writings on religious and philosophical subjects as it originally evolved from the 1880s, grew and changed till the time of his death. In the introduction the editor/translator has very humbly mentioned that this volume comes nowhere close to a monograph on the religious life and thought of Tagore. He had essentially devised it 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. Since these entries are ‘equally instructive and useful’, he hopes they will inspire further scholarly interrogation. In spite of his apparent humility, Sen’s detailed introduction is not only scholarly, but places Tagore in the religious life and thought of modern Bengal beginning from Rammohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, and also the RamakrishnaVivekananda movement. Needless to add, it also makes the book something of a collector’s item.
Somdatta Mandal is Professor of English at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan.