The National Catholic Review
Jon M. Sweeney
Learning from India's greatest poet
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Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was born in the British century and lived half his life in the American century. Since the 21st century may turn out to be the Chinese/Indian century or the century of the global south, we will likely hear more, not less, about Tagore.

Last year, during the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, the West learned much about the “Shakespeare of India.” He is one of the world’s best-known poets, and in the East, the term poet still means something greater than a writer of verse. A blend of Dr. Seuss, Socrates and Shakespeare would only begin to approach the reach of Tagore in the Indian imagination. His work is studied by every schoolchild from Gujarat, on the Arabian Sea, to Kolkata, Tagore’s birthplace, on the Bay of Bengal. In the United States, where there are more Indians than Episcopalians, and in Canada, where there are more Indians than Muslims, one can easily find millions schooled on Tagore’s ideas.

Primarily Tagore is remembered for his contributions to education, religion and politics.

As an educator, he created an alternative school that grew into a university. It was informed by what we now commonly refer to as the values of the “global village.” His pedagogy was multilingual, multi-ethnic and multicultural. He valued all religious traditions and taught that all people could and should realize the wonders of “the expansion of the human spirit.” This shocked the protectors of the caste system, in which he himself had been raised.

In religion also Tagore forged an original path. He built upon the broad possibilities in his native Hinduism, expanding the message of divine love and embrace to people of all faiths and backgrounds. He attempted to overcome barriers between people of faith. At Oxford University in 1930, he said, “The God of humanity has arrived at the gates of the ruined temple of tribe.”

Politically, Tagore was a defender of Indian nationalism. But he often spoke against any nationalism that leads to separatism because his first loyalty was to humankind. “Pride patriotism is not for me,” he once famously said. “I earnestly hope that I shall find my home anywhere in the world before I leave it.”

Personally, Tagore grew familiar with death; he lost his mother while still a boy and later grieved over the suicide of his sister-in-law. When he was 41, his beloved wife, Mrinalini, died, followed by the deaths of three of his children, all under 10. His poems are full of searching for love, dwelling in darkness and offerings of everyday moments to God.

More than a poet and educator, Tagore was also a novelist, a playwright, a musician, a social reformer, a visual artist, a philosopher and the author of hundreds of short stories and morality tales. His verses are sung as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. A polymath from a wealthy Brahmin family, he used much of his wealth to create Western-inspired educational systems for the children of India. He traveled in the West to learn how East and West might create a sustainable future together.

Tagore’s intellectual path was similar to that of his contemporary, Mohandas Gandhi. Both men traveled to England as teenagers. After taking classes at the University of London in English literature, Tagore said he felt East and West meeting in friendship inside of him. He spent the next decade in rural East Bengal managing his family’s estates. There he began to eschew his aristocratic lifestyle, becoming his country’s most innovative social reformer and educator. He did this by making art that was accessible to the average Indian and by writing novels, like Home and the World, and plays, like “The Immovable,” that revealed the corrupt influence the religious elite can have on politics.

Both Tagore and Gandhi were deeply religious men. But Tagore shared neither Gandhi’s asceticism nor his view that asceticism would somehow save the poor and oppressed in Indian society. The two men debated important issues, including the purpose of war and how India might best gain independence. Early on, Tagore criticized the spiritualizing of Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha, or passive resistance, writing: “Passive resistance is a force which is not, in itself, necessarily moral. It can be used against truth as well as for it.” The notion that the current generations of living Indians should sacrifice their educations, their families, their very lives for the cause of satyagraha was never acceptable to Tagore.

W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and others trumpeted Tagore’s writings; they had heard his public readings in London after the 1912 publication of Gitanjali: Song Offerings. Still, Tagore was rarely understood in the West. He lectured often in the United States, but Americans, seeing the poet’s flowing beard as he read his mystical verse, regarded him as one who had just stepped out of a Bengali forest. Gitanjali, still in print and widely read, sounds as if phrases were lifted directly from the King James Bible. “Here is thy footstool,” one verse begins. “Thou hast made me endless,” begins another. In translating his own work, Tagore retained constructions that were older, hence alluring. The book became a bestseller because the language was more, not less, florid and fantastic than the contemporary idiom. In 1913, to the surprise of the world’s literati, Tagore was named the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He lived to see his homeland on the cusp of independence, something Tagore had spent much of a century working for, but he was a citizen of more than India.

Though Tagore lived through World War I and witnessed some devastations of the next war, he could see beyond the violent destruction. In his final public lecture on April 14, 1941, Tagore said: “As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice.”

His values and worldview still resonate for those who seek to bring about the kingdom of God. For Tagore urged being conscious of the ways the natural, human and divine world commingle; developing a sense of wonder that lives beyond childhood; and holding within ourselves the kinship of all other human beings.

Today, one most easily finds Tagore’s books in New Age shops. But that is unfortunate, for he was a realist and a lover of truth. Embracing the world while standing with both feet firmly planted among his native people earned him the reputation of a prophet. More important, Tagore was a profoundly human being.

Browse the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

Jon M. Sweeney is an author of many books, including The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation (Image, 2012).

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