Tagore as a Religious Thinker
Rabindranath Tagore, as 'Baul' by Abanindranath Tagore
Tagore was not a religious thinker primarily, yet it is appropriate to delve into the question of what was his religious thinking, because he wrote books, if not on religion, then at least on the artist’s philosophy. I lay myself open to a rash opinion here or there in this piece, but bear with me a while. I shall base myself on Tagore’s copious writings, taking the liberty of quoting extensively from them.
“My religion,” Tagore says, “is a poet’s religion, not that of an orthodox man of piety, or that of a theologian.” He lacked any religious inclination in his boyhood, in spite of the fact the Tagore was born into a Brahmin family. His father was deeply involved in the Brahmo Samaj movement, the monotheistic religion based on the Upanishads, which sought to reform certain aspects of the received Hinduism, perhaps much as Sankaracharya did many hundred years before.
When Tagore underwent the rites of initiation at his coming of age as a Brahmin, the Upanayanam (thread ceremony), he got to reflecting on the Gayatri mantra which youngsters are first taught at that age. Appropriately enough, he dates the growth of his religious awareness from that time. Meditating on the mantra he awoke to the infinite consciousness that unites the external world with the person’s mind.
He experienced what one may call periods of other-worldly absorption, not a mystical visitation or anything of that sort, but dwelling continuously for several days in a heightened state of mind. He talks of a “sudden expansion of my consciousness in the supra-personal world of man.” This is a description that recurs in his writing. No matter how far he later traveled in the realms of religious experience, it was always to return to the idea of religion as the connection of personal mind to a Universal mind, the idea of the finite mind expanding into another infinite Being.
All this was triggered by watching a sunrise as the rays filtered through a tree’s leaves. For, Tagore remained as a man what he was as a boy, a person with extreme sensitivity to the beauty of every kind of natural phenomenon. His refined appreciation stemmed from deeply observing everyday things. When he describes scenes burned in his mind long years ago, I am reminded of a certain saying of Einstein, that you can either regard everything in the world as a miracle, or nothing in the world as a miracle. Clearly, Tagore lived his life as though everything in the world was a miracle.
Such experiences were not uncommon in his life. He would watch two men rhythmically drumming on a dholak by the river banks and experience a sudden stirring of the soul. “I felt”, he writes, “that some Being who comprehended me and the world was seeking his best expression in all my experiences.”
This is a cardinal element in his religious thinking. He puts forward the notion that the Brahman constantly seeks release through individual humans, if only we are attuned. Indeed, he claims that the Infinite needs the human’s love. And the human’s cooperation. He wrote of this in his poem Jivan Devata in these lines:
‘Apni baria loyechhile more, na jani kisher ashe
‘I know not why thou chose me for thy partner,
Lord of my life.’
The keen delight in sensuous experiences was always, it seems, the beginning of his inspiration, no less for his religious musings than for his poetry. Here is an example: “I would run to greet the first pink flush of dawn through the shivering branches of the palm trees which stood in line along the garden boundary while the grass glistened and the dew-drops caught the earliest tremor of the morning breeze.” This is a man of seventy recalling one particular scene from his boyhood memory!
That kind of openness to the pressing of the world upon his senses was the source of his conviction that there was a larger meaning for his own being, as when as he says, “the barrier vanished between me and what was beyond myself .”
Tagore says that his precocious introduction to the love poems of the Vaishnava poets of Bengal convinced him that the love they spoke of, regardless of its erotic trappings, was the love of the Supreme Being, and union of the person with the Divine.
Man, as a creation, represents the Creator, Tagore writes, and therefore it is possible for him to realise “a union with a Spirit that is everywhere.” This may sound like pantheism, but I believe Tagore is conceiving ultimate reality as more than the natural world. He is asserting clearly that the world of palpable nature has a divine Spirit who is its Creator and the source of the vitality of the world we see. Approvingly, he quotes the Upanishad:
“I bow to God over and over again, who is in fire and in water, who permeates the whole world”.
He quotes Buddha too:
“With everything, above or below, remote or near, visible or invisible, thou shalt preserve a relation of uninhibited love, without any animosity, and without a desire to kill.”
He calls this Brahma Vihara, living and moving and having your joy in the spirit of Brahma. This is the very same thought that St Paul expresses in a famous quotation from his preaching to people in Athens: “For, in Him we live and move and have our being.”
Tagore also recommends the essential teaching of the Gita, to work disinterestedly, abandoning all lust for the result – on a personal note, I must say this was perforce my approach when I used to write proposals for research grants from foundations! So far from leading to apathy, Tagore says: “The man who aims at his own aggrandisement underrates everything else. Compared to his ego, the world is unreal.” This is a magnificent put-down, which stands on its head the usual allegation that the apathy stemming from treating the world as something unreal, demoralises people.
As a religious thinker Tagore admits no special knowledge apart from his vision, and says he has no satisfactory answer for questions about evil, and what happens after death. Tagore’s approach to the problem of evil (namely, why does God allow it?) is to ask “Is this imperfection the final truth, is evil absolute and ultimate?” He draws an analogy. Take violin strings; if you just play them, the chances are you will hear discordant notes, for the probability of producing discord is far higher than that of producing harmony. But you can contend with that evil and surmount it. So too he says “our character has to attain perfection by continually overcoming evils, either inside or outside us, or both.”
The crowning argument he makes against evil is that one cannot be pessimistic. “Existence is not an absolute evil as some say because Existence itself is there to prove that it cannot be evil.” In summary, Tagore’s argument goes something like this: God allows evil; Man contends with evil; his striving creates goodness.
He is quick to say what goodness consists in. Goodness is rising above what is immediately advantageous to seize what is beyond, to sacrifice the present for the future, the less selfish, end. Goodness is satisfied when one desires an end bigger than oneself, which in no way hurts others. Ultimately, you merge into that universal goodness and throw off the heavy yoke of pain, the way Buddha claims pain can be overcome.
Though he is a poet, Tagore proclaims the virtue of praying, an idea I did not associate with so free a mind as his. But here he goes to the very source and cites “the deepest, most earnest prayer that has ever risen from the human heart” (these are his words):
“O Thou self-revealing one, reveal thyself to me”
Or in Sanskrit:
And Tagore quotes another famous incantation:
“From unreality lead me to the real, from darkness to the light, from death to immortality”
Asatoma sadgamaya, tamasoma jyotirgamaya, mrityorma mritangamaya.
Asatoma sadgamaya, tamasoma jyotirgamaya, mrityorma mritangamaya.
It is certain these prayers were never far from the poet’s lips, free thinker though he was.
Tagore’s religion proclaims no dogma, though it is clear from his citing of Buddha, the Upanishads, and Jesus Christ, that he regards much of the truth he gained for himself to have been realised already, long ago. But there still remains the duty to realise it in oneself, and that is never easy, for it is a constant strife within.
Tagore’s approach to religion has the same pre-condition as his approach to education. Freedom is the essential foundation of education; to be free to reject received practices, and think things out based on one’s own experience is a principle on which Tagore places a very high value. This parallels his development, in which, though he began unregenerate, and cast off all conventional rituals, he ultimately came to regard the ancient thinkers of India as his guide, nay ancient thinkers elsewhere too, Lao Tze and Jesus Christ, for instance, whom he quotes abundantly to substantiate the truth he arrived at in his own life.
So important is freedom in the attainment of the real unfettered unity of man with the Divine, that Tagore regards the Bauls as the ideal seekers after truth, for they care not for mosques, or temples, or rituals. They neither preach nor teach, but follow the sahaj way, creating for themselves with joy, and leaving no trace behind them.
Here is another quotation of Tagore’s:
“Man’s freedom is never in being saved troubles, but it is in the freedom to take trouble for his own good, to make trouble an element in his joy”. All husbands, take note, regarding their wives, and vice versa!
Tagore denies the need for Forgiveness. Man is not a fallen creature requiring salvation, in his thinking. Nor is Grace necessary, as a gift from on high, to be saved. This, he regards as a foolish idea, for it is like saying “the nature of the seed is to remain enfolded in its shell, and it is only by some special miracle that it can grow to be a tree.” On the contrary by yoga (raja yoga, that is) “man can transcend the bounds of his humanity and find himself in a pure state of consciousness of his undivided unity with the Para-brahman.”
Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man (being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930), The Macmillan Company, 1931.
Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana, The Realisation of Life, The Macmillan Company, 1913.
Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of an Artist (being a lecture given at the University of Dacca in 1936).
© Joe Cleetus