“There is a price for greatness; if you are not ready for the price, know that you
are not ready to be great.”
. Kingsley Vincent
Some time ago, one of my readers, wrote about the corrupting influence of some books. The question raised was how to recognise those books in order to avoid them. This gave me an idea about writing about ‘The Great Books of the World’ series. As a philologist (a graduate in Literature), I will do my very best to convey the universal beauty of books that will expand your mind, lift your spirit, and inspire you to greater things in life.
7th May 1861 – 7th August 1941
Rabindranath Tagore is considered the most important poet of modern-day India. He was also a distinguished author, educator, social reformer, and philosopher. Today, Tagore is remembered as one of the foremost intellectual and spiritual advocates of India’s liberation from imperial rule.
Rabindranath Tagore was born into one of the foremost families of Bengal. He was the fourteenth child of Debendranath Tagore, who headed the Brahmo Samaj (a Hindu reform movement). The family house at Jorasanko in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was a hive of cultural and intellectual activity. Tagore was educated by private tutors and in 1873 went with his father on a tour of the Western Himalayas.
In 1875 his mother died. He first visited Europe in 1878. At that time he started to publish regularly in his family’s monthly journal, Bharati. His book Sandhya Sangit (Evening Song) was acclaimed by many.
“The buried memories of my early life seemed to come alive, to surround me again with their inexpressible sounds and scents.” This was written while Tagore was managing his family’s estate in the river-lands of Bengal in the 1890s. The thirty stories in his Selected Short Stories book represent a wonderfully fruitful period in the life of this great writer. The stories abound in exquisite descriptions of rural Bengali ways of life and landscapes – the rivers, skies, fields, and changing seasons – conveying Tagore’s profound sense of harmony with the universe even as he depicts the complexities of a society in transit.
The Tagore family estate, Jorasanko
Images of Calcutta (now Kolkata)
He started writing at an early age, and his talent was recognised by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894). He was a leading writer of the day, an Indian novelist, poet, and journalist. He composed the famous Vande Mataram, originally in Sanskrit stotra personifying India as a mother goddess and inspiring activists during the Indian Independence Movement.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
In the 1890s Tagore lived mainly in rural East Bengal, managing family estates. In the early 1900s, he was involved in the svadesi campaign against the British, but withdrew when the movement turned violent. In 1912 he came to England with Gitanjali, an English translation of some of his religious lyrics. It was published by Macmillan, leading directly to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
In the 1920s and 1930s, he made an extensive lecture tour of America, Europe, and the Far East. Proceeds from the tours, and from his Western publications, went to Visva-Bharati, the school and international university he created at Santiniketan, a hundred miles north-west of Calcutta.
Tagore was a controversial figure at home and abroad: at home because of his ceaseless innovation in poetry, prose, drama, and music; abroad because of the stand he took against militarism and nationalism.
A depiction of the Amritsar Massacre
In 1919 he protested against the Amritsar Massacre by returning the knighthood that the British had given him in 1915. He was close to Mahatma Gandhi, who called him “Great Sentinel” of modern India; but he generally held himself aloof from politics.
His works sustained the worldwide reputation he enjoyed in his lifetime and as a Bengali writer, his eminence is unchallenged. His works run to thirty-two large volumes. They contain some sixty collections of verse; novels such as Gora and The Home and the World; experimental plays such as The Post Office and Red Oleander; and essays on a host of religious, social, and literary topics.
Tagore also wrote over 2,000 songs, which have become the national music of Bengal, and include the national anthem of India. Later in life, he took up painting, exhibiting in Moscow, Berlin, London, Paris, and New York.
Animals and Landscape compositions by Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941, aged 80.
I would like to print here a few of his poems to demonstrate his greatness; built on clarity, poetic vision, and beauty of his unique, original verses. Tagore’s poetry represents his ‘simple prayers of common life’. Each of the poems/prayers is an eloquent affirmation of the divine in the face of both joy and sorrow. They transcend time and speak directly to the human heart. The spirit of his poems/prayers may be best symbolised by a single sentence by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the renowned philosopher, and statesman who served as president of India.
“Rabindranath Tagore was one of the few representatives of the universal person to whom the future of the world belongs.”
. Your Love
Let Your love play upon my voice and rest on
Let it pass through my heart into my
Let Your love, like stars, shine in the darkness
of my sleep and dawn in my awakening.
Let it burn in the flame of my desires and flow
in all currents of my own love.
Let me carry Your love in my life as a harp
does its music, and give it back to You at last with
. Nothing But Your Love
Yes, I know, this is nothing but Your love,
O Beloved of my heart – this golden light that
dances upon the leaves, these idle clouds sailing.
across the sky, this passing breeze leaving its
coolness upon my forehead.
The morning light has flooded my eyes – this
is Your message to my heart. Your face is bent
from above, Your eyes look down on my eyes, and
my heart has touched Your feet.
. Now In The Evening
You have given me a seat at Your window from
the early hour.
I have spoken to Your silent servants of the
road running on Your errands and have sung with
Your choir of the sky.
I have seen the sea in calm, bearing its
immeasurable silence, and in storm, struggling to
break open its own mystery of depth.
I have watched the earth in its prodigal feast of
youth and in its slow hours of brooding shadows.
Those who went to sow seeds have heard my
greetings, and those who brought their harvest
home, or their empty baskets, have passed by my
Thus at last my day has ended, and now in the
evening, I sing my last song to say that I have
loved Your world.
Kalidasa, Gupta Empire 4th-5th century CE
I have to also write here about India’s greatest ancient Sanskrit dramatist, and poet, Kalidasa, who lived during the Gupta Empire, 4th -5th century, CE. His most famous poem ‘Mghaduta’, (The Cloud), is divided into two parts – Purva-Megha and Uttara-Megha. It depicts the exiled yaksa persuading a passing cloud to take a message to his wife Alaka on mountain Kailasa in the Himalaya mountains.
The great scholar of Sanskrit literature, Arthur Berriedale Keith, wrote of his poem:
“It is difficult to praise too highly either the brilliance of the description of the cloud’s progress or the pathos of the picture of the wife, soulful and alone.”
This poem is ranked the highest among Kalidasa’s poems, for the brevity of expression, the richness of content, and the power to elicit sentiment. Quite a few composers have written music based on and titled The Cloud Messenger.
Here is an extract:
Eight long months passed there on the mountain,
and weak from longing,
For his distant lover, his golden bracelet slipped
from his naked forearm.
But then, on the first day of the month of Ashadha
he saw a cloud embracing
The mountaintop, like an elephant bent down low,
playfully butting his brow.
Lost deep in thought, Lord Kubera’s loyal servant
locked his tears within
And struggled to stand before the looming source
of his mounting desire.
The mere sight of a cloud can stir a man’s heart
even when he’s content.
What then for one so desperate to caress the neck
of his distant beloved?
I leave the last word to Albert Schweitzer* –
“Modern India makes a noble attempt to get really clear about itself in Rabindranath Tagore, a thinker, poet, writer, and musician. He has himself translated his important works into English. The attention of Europe was directed to him by his becoming the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. For many years he lived at Santiniketan, in Bengal, where he built up a school and college on modern educational lines. With Tagore, the ethical world and life of affirmation have completely triumphed. Joy in life and joy in creation belong, according to Tagore, to our human nature. He is as little able as the others who had attempted it before him to really found the worldview of ethical affirmation on knowledge of the universe. The great poet of India gives expression to his personal experience that this is the truth in a manner more profound and more powerful and more charming than anyone had ever done before. This noble and harmonious thinker belongs not only to his own people but to humanity.”
*Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), polymath, physician, philosopher, musicologist, humanitarian, and a missionary in Africa. He was known especially for founding the Schweitzer Hospital, which provided unprecedented medical care for the natives of Lambarene in Gabon. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Albert Schweitzer and his hospital in Gabon