In 1920, Rabindranath Tagore received a brief but poignant letter from Susan Owen, mother of the English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen. The latter was killed in action in France in November 1918. In her letter his mother wrote that on the day of his final departure from home, Owen had recited one of Tagore’s poems.
Her account of that moment is worth quoting ~ “It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ~ we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea ~ looking towards France with breaking hearts when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours, beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’…” This letter from a grieving mother of a victim of World War I reveals how a poem written by an Indian poet touched the sensibility of a young English poet and soldier at a moment of crisis.
A part of the English Gitanjali (1912), this prose poem defines life as a beautiful spiritual experience. The voice speaking through it ecstatically declares that what he has seen “is unsurpassable”. This world is a “play house of infinite forms” where he has “caught sight of him that is formless”. Tagore’s songs, poems and prose offer a heavily nuanced perspective on the paradoxes and ambiguities of life. They celebrate the grandeur of life and, at the same time, acknowledge that suffering is a fundamental human reality.
In fact, his writings inspire us to have faith in the human capacity for resilience, resistance and transcendence. His insistence on the importance of faith and hope has acquired new relevance in today’s world where lives and livelihoods are being destroyed by a pandemic. Tagore’s idea of the power of hope and faith is prominently present in several of his songs. One of these is the song Nibira ghana andharey (1903) which focuses on a metaphorical journey.
The poet assures himself that even in deep darkness the guiding star is shining brightly. The lone traveller must not lose his way in the vast ocean or let his songs cease. Instead of giving in to fear or despair, he must hold on to hope and have faith in life and in love. He must gracefully walk through the joys and sorrows of life. Not surprisingly, for numerous individuals Tagore’s writings have been a source of emotional solace and strength.
A French translation of The Post Office,the English version of his play Dakghar (1912), was broadcast on the French radio in June 1940 on the eve of the German invasion of Paris. It was a bold attempt to defy fear at a critical moment in the nation’s history.
In July 1942 the Polish-Jewish educator Janusz Korczak staged the play at an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the process, Korczak, the founder of the orphanage, flouted Nazi orders forbidding Jews to perform literary works by Aryan authors. In the play, Dakghar the protagonist is Amal, an ailing boy confined to his room and desperately yearning for emancipation. In a letter the playwright explained that Amal’s eventual death “brings him awakening in the world of spiritual freedom”. It is wellknown that death plagued Tagore persistently throughout his life.
It was not easy for him to endure the loss of several members of his family, friends and close associates. He grieved but refused to be overpowered by the burden of grief. In Biswa-shok, a poem written after the death of his grandson Nitindranath in 1932, the poet says that being obsessed with personal grief is shameful. We transcend grief once we begin to see ourselves as a part of a world where suffering is pervasive. Tagore’s life spanned a socially and politically turbulent era that witnessed many calamities including two World Wars and the Holocaust.
It is true that the poet underwent spells of deep depression. Each time his spirituality and his faith in humanity sustained him and helped him recover. During one such bout of depression he described it in a series of letters to his English friend, C F Andrews. In May 1914, in a letter to Andrews he spoke of it through densely metaphorical language ~ “I am struggling on my way through the wilderness…Wearied, I lie down upon the dust and cry and call upon His name.”
In another letter he wrote that he was trying to discover his own soul through “the intense glow of the fire of suffering”.
The letters he wrote during this phase demonstrate a conscious effort to attain spiritual renewal. The idea that suffering can lead to creativity and spiritual renewal is encapsulated in the song Aguner Parashmani (1914).
Within the thematic framework of this song, fire becomes a powerfully evocative metaphor for suffering.
The voice articulating the song hopes that the fire will enlighten him, purify his life and give voice to his songs. In an age of uncertainties and doubts Rabindranath Tagore, struggled to retain his faith in spiritual ideals. In his essay My School (1917) he proclaims that faith ~ “I believe in a spiritual world ~ not as anything separate from this world ~ but as its innermost truth. With the breath we draw we must always feel this truth, that we are living in God. Born in this great world, full of the mystery of the infinite, we cannot accept our existence as a momentary outburst of chance, drifting on the current of matter towards an eternal nowhere.”
Tagore’s distinctive spirituality was grounded in his personal interpretation of the Upanishadic conception of the divine being that is immanent in the entire cosmos. Each being is a part of this eternal and all-encompassing entity.
What this spiritual vision offers is emancipation from the narrow self and from emotions such as fear, despair and grief. It formed the spiritual basis of Tagore’s strong faith in humanity and human potentialities.
The song Bipadey morey raksha karo e nahey mor prarthana (1906) rejects passive dependence on divine benevolence ~ “I do not pray that you shield me from danger”. This radically unconventional prayer emphasizes that the human individual must have the strength to face adversities on his own.
Tagore was a firm believer in ideals. A few years before his death, he urged the inmates of his ashram to reject cynicism ~ “We must build upon faith and not upon the quicksand of skepticism and the spirit of negation… Not to believe in things, to be cynical and to wag one’s head to a constant ‘no’ may seem up-to date and fashionable. But it cannot go on indefinitely.” Today, it has become necessary for us to rediscover Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of inner strength and hope.
The Covid-19 pandemic is transforming countless lives throughout the world. The psychological, social and economic ramifications of this cataclysmic phenomenon are no less significant than the death toll. Because of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown we have become lonelier and susceptible to an uncanny sense of uncertainty. In these bleak times Tagore’s writings remind us that no one is alone and that we are a collectivity. His writings can inspire us to believe that through hope and through faith in ourselves we can face and overcome this global calamity.
The writer is a Tagore Researcher and Assistant Professor of English, Gushkara College in West Bengal.