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Poet and the Sage

Rabindranath was at last able to do away with all his preconceived ideas and reservations about Sri Ramakrishna. ‘Great souls, like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, have a comprehensive vision of Truth, they have the power to grasp the significance of each different form of the Reality that is one in all….‘ he remarked. Earlier, Rabindranath’s impression about Sri Ramakrishna was often skewed. Subsequently, the poet was decidedly reverential.

Swami Sandarshanananda | Kolkata |

Sri Ramakrishna (1836- 1886) visited Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) in 1866. Rabindranath (1861-1941) was then a boy of five. He had admittedly said he was at home, but actually he wasn’t present. Sri Ramakrishna once described the meeting before his visitors at Dakshineswar. Mahendranath Gupta published it in his Kathamrita. Rabindranath learnt about it later. However, it no impact on him. Sri Ramakrishna once said: “I found that Debendra had combined both yoga and bhoga in his life. Though he was a jnani, yet he was preoccupied with worldly life.

I said to him, ‘You are the King Janaka of this Kaliyuga.’” They had a good rapport among themselves as both were sincerely inclined to God. Comparing Debendranath with Rajarshi Janaka of ancient India, Sri Ramakrishna showed profound high respect. Debendranath was pleased and invited him to a festival of the Brahmo Samaj with a proviso, as it were, that he should come properly dressed. Sri Ramakrisna remarked he couldn’t “promise”. “The very next day” he received a message through “a letter”, “forbidding” him “to go to the festival”.

Sri Ramakrishna said with a touch of humour: “He wrote that it would be ungentlemanly of me not to cover my body with a shawl.” There wasn’t any talk about it in public for a long time. In 1929 a chapter of Romain Rolland’s biography of Sri Ramakrishna was published in the Prabuddha Bharata, Describing Devendranth’s withdrawal of invitation, Rolland wrote: “But early the next morning a very polite note came from the great aristocrat, begging him (Sri Ramakrishna) not to put himself to any trouble. And that was the end. With one caressing stroke of the paw, aristocracy remained aloof, secure in its paradise of idealism.”

This oblique comment of Rolland provoked consternation within the gentry of Calcutta, in which Rabindranath was about to get entangled willy-nilly because of the entreaty of Ramananda Chattopadhaya, the editor of Prabashi and Modern Review. However, he ultimately avoided it conscientiously. Ramananda requested him that he should write the other “version” of it and establish the truth since he suspected Ramakrishna’s disciples were behind it. In reply whatever Rabindranath had written on 21 November 1929 clearly indicated his ignorance regarding the matter.

Ambivalently he said that maybe his father did not show Sri Ramakrishna respect as he wouldn’t brook idol worship at all. Contrarily, Debendranath wasn’t a whit disrespectful to him. Mathurbabu, a class mate of Debendranath at Hindu College, escorted and introduced Sri Ramakrishna to Debendranath and said Ramakrishna was “mad after God” but never said he worshipped any idol. Hence, the question of Debendranath disliking Sri Ramakrishna because the latter was an idol worshipper was gratuitous. Rabindranath wrote to Ramananda that he expressed his opinion only to apprise him, not for publication. After almost twelve years, Ramananda wrote to him in 1941, seeking his permission once again to publish the letter which, he believed, contained nothing objectionable against Sri Ramakrishna.

Rabindranath replied on 26 April 1941 to say that it could be printed some other time, and it would be better if printed after his death. It would be utterly untimely to do so now when his countrymen were celebrating his 80th birthday. He wanted to leave it to future historians to decide and bring out the truth. Rabindranath had only once met Sri Ramakrishna at Nandanbagan in 1883 at Kashiswar Mitra’s house where Sri Ramakrishna came to attend a Brahmo celebration. He was then 22. He remembered the memory till he was sufficiently old, although its impact on him was equally insignificant. A vivid description of the occasion is available in Kathamrita, in which Rabindranath was stated to have led the concert.

In 1931 when he was seventy he wrote to a certain Tristup Mukhopadhaya on 11 September in reply to a few questions that Tristup had asked. Specifically, whether he had met Sri Ramakrishna, and if he did, then what was his impression; and whether he had read Kathamrita. Rabindranath wrote to him: “One day I saw Paramahamsadev for ten minutes from a distance. I used to know Vivekananda and Nivedita far better. Some portions of conversations of Paramahamsadev were collected from the sadhakas abroad. I don’t have any doubt in my mind regarding the depth of his spiritual sadhana. Amidst the powerful bhakti that he has generated all over the country exist his greatness with proof and his contribution established forever.”

Tristup wrote another letter requesting him to write more about Sri Ramakrishna. So, Rabindranath wrote his second letter to Tristup on 1 February 1933. He said: “You want I write about Paramahamsadev elaborately. It is difficult for me to keep your request now. Its fundamental reason is: it won’t be correct for me to discuss about him with the kind of education and training, thought process, nature, habit I have. For whatever reason, it’s impossible for one to be able to know a person and judge him with whom one’s mental correspondence hasn’t happened. I have come to know his power was exceptional, but my path is independent, because of which if I attempt to say anything about his real identity (swarup) it would sound out of tune”.

“The conversations of Paramahamsadev have been recorded. It seemed to me there were fabrications within them. Due to the difference in power as well as nature between one who tells and another who records, happen many intentional or unintentional distortions. The importance of that great person diminishes because of such distortions. The people of our country have no honesty in their sense of history, yet worship is being done to him who is worthy of worship with that dishonesty. I have read Dakshineswar Tirthayatra written by you and enjoyed it.” It is clear from his words above that Rabindranath based his ideas on Kathamrita from a casual reading of a distant past, of which he had a faint memory.

He gave his observations on the basis of assumptions. He was never present at Dakshineswar during Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations. Nor is there any record that he had any discussion with anyone who visited Sri Ramakrishna and listened to him attentively though there were many Brahmos among them who were closely known to him. Had he gone there and heard Sri Ramakrishna talking, he could have had an altogether different conception. Rabindranath’s master stroke of admiration came when he spoke on 3 March 1937 in the University Institute Hall at the Parliament of Religions organized by the Mission. Proving the organisers wrong, he remained seated on the stage till the end of the session after presenting a long written speech himself in spite of his poor health.

Swami Sambuddhananda, the convener of the celebration committee went to enquire about his health the next day, accompanied by Ramananda Chattopadhaya, Rabindranath said he was perfectly all right and was highly impressed by the perfection with which the Mission had conducted the programme. Rabindranath was at last able to do away with all his preconceived ideas and reservations about Sri Ramakrishna. “Great souls, like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, have a comprehensive vision of Truth, they have the power to grasp the significance of each different form of the Reality that is one in all….” he remarked. Earlier, Rabindranath’s impression about Sri Ramakrishna was often skewed. Subsequently, the poet was decidedly reverential.

(The writer is with Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)