Now that I have started this blog and borrowed its title, The Endless Further, from a term coined by Rabindranath Tagore, I’ve been going back and re-reading parts of “The Religion of Man”, where we find the phrase I have appropriated.
I want to tell you a little about Tagore, but first I’d like to share one of his wonderful poems, from “Fruit-Gathering”, published in 1916:
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
Tagore believed in God, but not the same God that Abraham believed in. Tagore’s God was above all definitions and dualities, formless, a supreme reality that that transcends personality, and he did not believe in going to that God with a beggar’s prayer.
Tagore was born into a Hindu family from Kolkata, India in 1861. His early life was one of privilege and luxury, raised in a large mansion by servants as his father was often away from home and his mother died when he was 14.
A poet, playwright, musician, singer, novelist, religious thinker, essayist, and the founder of an experiential school, Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was perhaps the most important figure in Bengali literature, and he was famous outside of India as well. Between 1878 and 1932 he traveled the world, and engaged in conversations with many of the great figures of that time. I suppose that during those years he was regarded somewhat in the same way that the Dalai Lama is today, although more as a mystic guru than a holy teacher.
Tagore and Gandhi were great friends, although they did not always see eye to eye. It was Tagore who gave Gandhi the name Mahatma or Great Soul.
Tagore’s spiritual quest, guided first by the Upanishads, the traditional Hindu scriptures, took him to the plateau of what I would call humanistic universalism, for lack of a better term. Perhaps, that is redundant, yet “My religion,” he told Albert Einstein, “is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal spirit, in my own individual being.”
He had a deep appreciation of Buddhism. In his seventies, he would hail the Buddha as “the greatest man ever born on this earth.” He also admired the teachings of Christianity. In a letter to Gandhi, he wrote, “In every important act of his life Buddha preached limitless love for all creatures. Christ said ‘Love thine enemies’ and that teaching of his found its final expression in the words of forgiveness he uttered for those who killed him . . .”
To the writer, E.J. Thompson, he remarked, “Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ . . .”
Another concept Tagore developed was “Utsav”, a celebration of diversity. Tagore’s sense of society and religion was characterized by his feeling that both should be inclusive and harmonious. While, surely he believed that all religions were true, in the sense that they all point to the universal moral truth of love, I do not have the impression that he considered all religions as being the same or equal. More about that subject later.
One key to understanding Tagore is through his approach to music. He put everything he experienced into song; his joys, fears, sorrows, his sense of the divine permeating the world, his love for humanity . . . his songs were poetry and his poetry were the songs of boundless life.
He said, “Music is the purest form of art . . . therefore true poets, they who are seers, seek to express the universe in terms of music . . . The singer has everything within him. The notes come out from his very life. They are not materials gathered from outside.”