I thought that today I would say a few more words about Rabindranath Tagore. I don’t remember how I came to be aware of Tagore. It was probably from some reading on Gandhi, as they were friends, and Tagore was somewhat of a mentor to the Mahatma, even though they had their disagreements. First, I was bowled over by his poetry. Those of you who read last Thursday’s post can understand why. Then I read about his life in Rabindranath Tagore The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. His multifaceted mind and personality were the products of his intelligence and a certain amount of restlessness. Tagore wore many hats: family man, teacher, poet, playwright, novelist, painter, singer, musician, art and literary critic, businessman, fundraiser, composer of dance and opera, philosopher, political thinker, religious and social reformer.
He first drew the world’s attention as a poet, then as an essayist. In 1913 he published Sadhana – The Realisation of Life, a collection of essays drawn from lectures he gave at Harvard University that same year. The title explains much about Tagore’s philosophy of life. The word sadhana means “realization,” but it also refers to “spiritual practice.” My feeling is that Tagore’s spiritual practice of choice was prayer and the ways he prayed were as myriad as his mind.
In one of his poems, he wrote, “We live in this world when we love it.” Love is a prayer, song is a prayer, life is a prayer. Tagore revered the Upanishads, the collection of texts that form the basis for Indian religion, even as he felt they did not “sufficiently explore the approach to Reality through love and devotion.” Nonetheless, they left a deep impression and helped form the basis of his unique approach to reality. In Sadhana, he wrote,
The attitude of the God-conscious man of the Upanishad towards the universe is one of a deep feeling of adoration. His object of worship is present everywhere. It is the one living truth that makes all realities true. This truth is not only of knowledge but of devotion. ‘Namonamah,’—we bow to him everywhere, and over and over again.
I do not share his faith in a higher being, a “Him” (or “Her”), yet I am envious of Tagore’s sense of devotion, his reverence for life, his awe of nature, and his appreciation for the wondrous beauty to be found in the world. It comes through in nearly every word he wrote, be it poetry or prose. It makes my own feeling for the same seem puny by comparison.
I first read the following in the biography mentioned above. It’s from Sadhana, and is a simple story, beautifully told, that relates a great and profound realization:
One day I was out in a boat on the Ganges. It was a beautiful evening in autumn. The sun had just set; the silence of the sky was full to the brim with ineffable peace and beauty. The vast expanse of water was without a ripple, mirroring all the changing shades of the sunset glow. Miles and miles of a desolate sandbank lay like a huge amphibious reptile of some antediluvian age, with its scales glistening in shining colours. As our boat was silently gliding by the precipitous river-bank, riddled with the nest-holes of a colony of birds, suddenly a big fish leapt up to the surface of the water and then disappeared, displaying on its vanishing figure all the colours of the evening sky. It drew aside for a moment the many-coloured screen behind which there was a silent world full of the joy of life. It came up from the depths of its mysterious dwelling with a beautiful dancing motion and added its own music to the silent symphony of the dying day. I felt as if I had a friendly greeting from an alien world in its own language, and it touched my heart with a flash of gladness. Then suddenly the man at the helm exclaimed with a distinct note of regret, “Ah, what a big fish!” It at once brought before his vision the picture of the fish caught and made ready for his supper. He could only look at the fish through his desire, and thus missed the whole truth of its existence.