Portrait of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861 to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi in Calcutta, Bengal, India, the youngest of thirteen surviving children. A polymath who reshaped Bengali poetry, literature, music, art and theatre, Tagore was honoured with the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 for Gitanjali.
Tagore was a world traveler who set foot in more than thirty countries on five continents and was highly influential in introducing the best of Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and he is generally regarded as the outstanding creative artist of modern India.
Tagore conceived a new type of university, one that creates a connecting thread between India and the world, a world center for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography. He named this school Visva-Bharati; it is located in Shanti Niketan, West Bengal and is nowadays a Public Central University, divided into Institutes, Centres, Departments and Schools.
Tagore’s compositions were chosen by two nations as national anthems: India’s Jana Gana Mana and Bangladesh’s Amar Shonar Bangla.
Tagore left his body at age eighty on August 7, 1941 in Calcutta.
The following question was asked:
The other morning I came across this passage from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali which touched something deep inside me. “Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them. Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed. I am certain that priceless wealth is in thee, and that thou art my best friend. But I have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel that fills my room. The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death. I hate it, yet hug it in love. My debts are large, my failures great, my shame secret and heavy. Yet when I come to ask for my good, I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted.” Would you please comment?
Rabindranath Tagore is the very heart of this country. He is the most contemporary man, and yet the most ancient too. His words are a bridge between the modern mind and the ancient-most sages of the world. In particular, Gitanjali is his greatest contribution to human evolution, to human consciousness. It is one of the rarest books that has appeared in this century. Its rarity is that it belongs to the days of the Upanishads – nearabout five thousand years before Gitanjali came into existence.
It is a miracle in the sense that Rabindranath is not a religious person in the ordinary sense. He is one of the most progressive thinkers – untraditional, unorthodox – but his greatness consists in his childlike innocence. And because of that innocence, perhaps he was able to become the vehicle of the universal spirit, in the same way as the Upanishads of old are.
He is a poet of the highest category, and also a mystic. Such a combination has happened only once or twice before – in Kahlil Gibran, in Friedrich Nietzsche, and in Rabindranath Tagore. With these three persons, the whole category is finished. In the long history of man, it is extraordinary…. There have been great poets and there have been great mystics. There have been great poets with a little mysticism in them, and there have been great mystics who have expressed themselves in poetry – but their poetry is not great. Rabindranath is in a strange situation.
I have heard about a man who loved two beautiful women and was always in trouble, because even one woman is trouble enough. Both of the women wanted to know whom he loved the most. They took him for a ride on the lake in a motorboat, and just in the middle of the lake they stopped the boat and they told the man: “It has to be decided, because it is heavy on our hearts…. Once we know we will become slowly, slowly tolerant about it; we may accept it. But remaining in the dark and always thinking about it has become a wound.”
The man said, “What is the matter? Ask directly.”
Both the women said together: “Our question is, ‘Whom do you love the most?’”
The man fell into deep silence – it was such a strange situation in the middle of the lake – but he must have been a man of great humor. He said, “I love each of you more than the other.” And both women were satisfied. That’s what they wanted.
It is difficult to say about Rabindranath whether he is a greater poet or a greater mystic. He is both – greater than each – and to be in the twentieth century….
Rabindranath was not a man confined to this country. He was a world traveler, educated in the West, and he was continually moving around the world in different countries – he loved to be a wanderer. He was a citizen of the universe, yet his roots were deep in this country. He may have flown far away like an eagle across the sun, but he kept on coming back to his small nest. And he never lost track of the spiritual heritage, no matter how covered with dust it may have become. He was capable of cleaning it and making it a mirror in which you can see yourself.
His poems in Gitanjali are offerings of songs to God. That is the meaning of Gitanjali: offerings of songs. He used to say, “I have nothing else to offer. I am just as poor as a bird, or as rich as a bird. I can sing a song every morning fresh and new, in gratefulness. That is my prayer.”
He never went to any temple, he never prayed in the traditional ritual way. He was born a Hindu, but it would not be right to confine him to a certain section of humanity, he was so universal. He was told many times, “Your words are so fragrant with religion, so radiant with spirituality, so alive with the unknown that even those who do not believe in anything more than matter become affected, are touched. But you never go to the temple, you never read the scriptures.”
His answer is immensely important for you. He said, “I never read the scriptures; in fact I avoid them, because I have my own experience of the divine, and I don’t want others’ words to be mixed with my original, authentic, individual experience. I want to offer God exactly what is my heartbeat. Others may have known – certainly, others have known – but their knowledge cannot be my knowledge. Only my experience can satisfy me, can fulfill my search, can give me trust in existence. I don’t want to be a believer.”
These are the words to be remembered: “I don’t want to be a believer; I want to be a knower. I don’t want to be knowledgeable; I want to be innocent enough so that existence reveals its mysteries to me. I don’t want to be worshiped as a saint.” And the fact is, that in this whole century, there was nobody else more saintly than Rabindranath Tagore – but he refused to be recognized as a saint.
He said, “I have only one desire – to be remembered as a singer of songs, as a dancer, as a poet who has offered all his potential, all his flowers of being, to the unknown divineness of existence. I don’t want to be worshiped; I consider it a humiliation… ugly, inhuman, and removed from the world completely. Every man contains God; every cloud, every tree, every ocean is full of godliness, so who is to worship whom?”
It reminds me of another great mystic, Nanak, on whose songs Sikhism is founded. He was not the founder of it – it was not a deliberate act on his part. He simply went on singing his songs with his one disciple, Mardana, who was playing the sitar as he was singing.
Nanak is the only mystic of this country who went all over the country, and beyond the boundaries of the country, too. He reached Kaaba, the holy place of the Mohammedans. It was evening and he was tired and his disciple, Mardana, made a bed for him. But the priests of Kaaba were very angry. They had heard about Nanak because he had been singing in the nearby villages, and thousands of people were influenced by his songs. They were waiting for him to come one day. But they had never thought that he would do something so sacrilegious: he was sleeping, keeping his feet towards the holy stone of Kaaba. The priests came….
The story goes this way: They said to Nanak, “We have heard that you are a spiritual man, but what kind of spiritual man are you? You can’t even recognize a small thing: that your feet should not be towards the holy Kaaba.” Nanak laughed. The story is beautiful; whether it is true, whether it is historical or not, it does not matter – it is significant, immensely meaningful. Nanak said, “You turn my feet towards any place which is not holy. I am in a difficulty, I have to put my feet somewhere. Kaaba is holy, but the remaining universe is not unholy. You turn my feet.”
The priest turned his feet, and wherever they turned his feet, they found the Kaaba also moved in that direction. That may be fiction, but a fiction worth loving, significant; it may not be a fact, but it is a truth. The stone of Kaaba may not have moved, but the priests must have recognized that they were being stupid. The whole existence is holy… what is the point? They moved in a circle and finally they gave an apology and kept Nanak’s feet towards Kaaba.
Rabindranath never went to any temple, never worshiped any God, was never, in a traditional way, a saint, but to me he is one of the greatest saints the world has known. His saintliness is expressed in each of his words.
Prem Kendra, the lines that you have quoted are very pregnant: Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them. Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed.
He is saying something not only about himself, but about all human consciousness. Such people don’t speak about themselves; they speak about the very heart of all mankind.
Osho, The Golden Future, Ch 26, Q 1
Text by Naina