Tagore’s Nobel and the Notes of Forever

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan, is not the first lyricist to receive the award.  In 1913, it was given to Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-European awarded a Nobel.

Some of you may be aware that the title of this blog, The Endless Further, is borrowed from Tagore (see About).

rtagore3According to the Nobel website, Tagore received the prize “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

Wikipedia tells us that “the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.”

I’ve published a number of posts on Tagore so I won’t go into details on the man’s life.  For that, you can read the previous posts or visit the Wikipedia link above.

I will tell you that Tagore remains a towering figure in Indian literature, but today in the West he is largely forgotten and his poetry unknown.  Tagore’s poems are songs, chants.  In English, they become prose poems.  His work is lyrical, moving, graceful, and subtle in self-knowledge.  He composed hymns both sad and joyous, universal songs that touch on an experience ultimately personal.  With his meditative rhythm and evocative lyrics, Tagore gave the world something more than poetry or literature.  They touch our heart, inspirit our mind, cause us to cry or shudder or want to float up and dance among the stars.

The songs of Gitanjali (which literally means “an offering of songs”) are love songs; love for something divine, love between human beings, and love of life itself.  Like Whitman, Tagore did not shy away from the sensual.  He made the sensual beautiful.

In his introduction to the 1913 edition of Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”

Here, then, are two poems from Gitanjali:

C

I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.

No more sailing from harbour to harbour with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.

And now I am eager to die into the deathless.

Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.

I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.

CI

Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about me, searching and touching my world.

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.

They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey?

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Unarmed, Unconditional, Unlimited

Very near the end of his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama said that the America he knows is a country “Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Unarmed truth.  Think about it again: unarmed truth.

obama-martin-luther-king-jrThe President borrowed the line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance address said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

I suspect that to Dr. King, a student of Gandhian philosophy, “unarmed truth” meant the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), and satyagraha (“firmness in truth”) or nonviolent resistance, which for Gandhi, were eternal principles. The Mahatma once wrote,

Mere non-killing is not enough. The active part of Non-violence is love. The law of Love requires equal consideration for all life from the tiniest insect to the highest man.”

Gandhi equated the law of love with the law of gravitity and said it will work whether we accept it or not.

gandhi_tagore2We don’t use the word ‘love’ very much in Buddhism, rather we speak of loving-kindness (metta) or compassion (karuna), and yet as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (one of the first people to refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma”) said that the way of the Buddha is “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

In Buddhism, true compassion consists of two aspects: empathy, to understand and care about the sufferings of others, and action, to remove the cause for suffering, to give peace and happiness. There is an element of sacrifice with love. There are great benefits, too. The greatest benefit is when we can benefit others.

Some people tell us the idea of universal compassion is too lofty, unrealistic. But what is the alternative? Love is not the cause of the turmoil in the world. Hate is the cause.

For others, compassion is not only the path to truth, it is truth, unarmed, unconditional, unlimited.

In his Autobiography, Gandhi stated,

The instruments for the quest of truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child. The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Only then will he or she have a glimpse of love.

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Gandhi quote at beginning from The Essential Writings, Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown,Oxford University Press, 2008, 115

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Renunciation and Nirvana

Regular readers of this blog probably know by now that the title, The Endless Further, is borrowed from the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (see About). He was not a Buddhist. He was Hindu, and he believed in God. Nonetheless, he had great respect for the Buddha’s dharma, which does not include teachings about a supreme being. Tagore, also accepted many of the same concepts that Buddhism adheres to, although his understanding of them differed according to his religion and his own sense of things.

The way I use “Endless Further” is changed slightly from the way Tagore used it, and yet, I have not strayed too far from his intended meaning. For him, the spiritual work of an individual was to realize an oneness with God, or to awaken to the presence of God within. To have that realization was the same as becoming infinite.

“Infinite” was also Tagore’s understanding of the meaning of Nirvana. But, it was not, in his mind, a goal or the end of one’s effort.  Nor was it realized solely from the practice of austerities.  As Mohit Kumar Ray tells us in Studies on Rabindranath Tagore, he “never did set Nirvana as his goal. He has repeatedly and explicitly stated his faith in the great joy of release which can be attained within the innumerable bonds and ties of life instead of abdicating the earthly for the ethereal.”

Most religious philosophies concern themselves with a division between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Tagore did not see a division; instead, he beheld the two in a dynamic relationship. The sacred is manifested through the profane, and through the profane, it is possible to find the sacred. Renunciation is a state of mind. So, too, is Nirvana.

Each moment is new and ends in a new moment. We should not strive to attain Nirvana in some future moment. This is what Zen master Dogen meant when he declared that practice is not a means to Nirvana, it is Nirvana. Every activity no matter how mundane is Buddha activity (butsu-ji). Each moment is Nirvana, and infinite.

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”

Tagore, Gitanjali

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Walk Alone

This blog’s title, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase used by Rabindranath Tagore during a series of lectures at Manchester College, Oxford in 1930.  Tagore was a Bengali poet, philosopher, artist, playwright, composer and novelist. India’s first Nobel laureate.

On this date 101 years ago, November 18, 1913, he wrote a letter to a man named William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore.

Rothenstein and Tagore2bRothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore. The two had become close friends and Rothenstein was one of Tagore’s most ardent champions (Yeats first heard of Tagore through Rothenstein). The poet dedicated his poetry collection Gitanjali to the painter. In fact, Tagore wrote this letter to Rothenstein only four days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali.

In the letter, Tagore wrote, “The very first moment I received message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel Prize, my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude”.

As Michael Collins (University of Oxford, UK) points out in his article History and the Postcolonial Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London, 1912-1913: “Clearly, the extent to which his fame and fortune in the West was due to the assistance given to him by his Western, largely British, friends was an issue that was uppermost in his mind.” An issue, or rather a debt, he rightly felt he needed to acknowledge.

And now I must acknowledge that I have gone way around the mulberry tree and used this November 18 th historical connection merely as an excuse to present one of Tagore’s poems. It’s one of my favorite Tagore poems and it was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, only he used to sing it, so it was also his favorite song.

From Gitanjali, “Walk Alone”:

Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein
Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
open thy mind and speak out alone.

If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light
when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart
and let it burn alone.

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The Price

Today, I present another post for National Poetry Month. This celebration is intended to focus on American poetry or how poetry has contributed to American culture, but we live in a global community and poetry is a universal language, so I choose to ignore that guideline from time to time.

tagore-2014-1One of the world’s great poets, and philosophers, Rabindranath Tagore, inspired the title of this blog, The Endless Further. I have written about Tagore in some detail previously (see below), so I won’t add much to that today. As I’ve noted, he had a great respect for Buddhism and once called Buddha “the greatest man ever born on this earth.”

Here is one of the few poem in which he mentions Buddha. It comes from Fruit-Gathering, a collection published by Macmillan in 1916, and was translated from Bengali to English by Tagore himself.

The Price

Only one lotus braved the blast of winter and bloomed in the garden of Sudas the gardener. He took it to sell to the King.

A traveler said to him on the way, “I will buy this untimely flower, and take it to my master Buddha. Ask your price.”

The gardener asked one golden masha*, and the traveler readily agreed.  Just then the King came there.

“I must take that lotus to Lord Buddha,” he said to the gardener.  “What is your price?”

The gardener claimed two golden mashas.  The King was ready to buy it.  The traveler doubled the price and the King’s offer ran still higher.

The gardener thought in his greed he could get much more from the man for whom they were eagerly bidding.

He hastened with his flower to the grove where Buddha sat silent. Love shone in his eyes, on his lips was wisdom beyond words.

Sudas gazed at him, and stood still.  Suddenly he fell on his knees, placing the lotus at Buddha’s feet.

Buddha smiled and asked, “What is your prayer, my son?”

“Nothing, my lord,” Sudas answered, “only a speck of the dust off your feet.”

* A measurement of rice or wheat berry

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Previous posts on Rabindranath Tagore:

Rabindranath Tagore

Sadhana and the Big Fish

Love’s Gift is Shy

One Day in Spring

A Myriad Minded Man

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