Swamiji and Tagore 

The 1930s decade was a period in which Tagore perceived Swamiji and his Guru in a parlance that was altogether different from his perception about them before. In 1935, he gave a message in the form of a poem to Ramakrishna Mission, paying obeisance to Sri Ramakrishna on the occasion of his birth centenary celebration. On 3 March 1937 he famously participated in the concluding function of the celebration  

Swamiji and Tagore 

Swami Vivekanand and Rabindranath Tagore [Photo:SNS]

“So far as I can make out, Vivekananda’s idea was that we must accept the facts of life. We must rise higher in our spiritual experience in the domain where neither good nor evil exists. It was because Vivekananda tried to go beyond good and evil that he could tolerate many religious habits and customs which have nothing spiritual about them. My attitude towards truth is different. Truth cannot afford to be tolerant where it faces positive evil; it is like sunlight which makes the existence of evil germs impossible.”

Tagore said this to the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland in Geneva on 28 August 1930 in the course of a dialogue between them regarding the question of intolerance prevailing the world over. In the same year Rolland published his famous biography of Swamiji, entitled The Life of Swami Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel. The title itself tells us how Rolland was influenced by Swamiji’s works. Each word of this book reflects the tremendous inspiration its author had assiduously drawn from Swamiji. It simultaneously hints at the fact that the impact of Swamiji’s life and thought on many a renowned thinker abroad was already powerful like it was on numerous thinkers at home.

In order to mark his exceptional estimation of Swamiji, Rolland wrote in the Prelude “nobody ever came near him (Swamiji) either in India or America without paying homage to his majesty.” Similarly, he also wrote, “He was energy personified, and action was his message to men”, and “Battle and life for him were synonymous.”


Incidentally, he had brought out a biography of Swamiji’s Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, the previous year, that is in 1929. Therefore, it could be legitimately presumed that his mind being fully charged with Swamiji’s ideas at that moment, he must have had enough to say about him to Tagore. More so, it was because Tagore, too, by then, knew considerably well about Swamiji, after getting over his initial reticence about him.

Tagore was a follower of Romanticism. Accordingly, his love for Nature (Prakriti) was legendary which found expression through his innumerable poems. On the other hand, Swamiji was a Vedantic Transcendentalist who went above Nature and realised the Truth. Tagore never liked to go beyond Nature while Swamiji was bent upon breaking the bondage of Nature upon him. Swamiji said, “Religion is the science which learns the transcendental in nature through the transcendental in man.”

Tagore was talking about relative truth which, by its diverse character, is obviously different from the immutable Absolute Truth. Transcendental experience of the Absolute Truth, which is beyond all senses of opposites (Dwanda), couldn’t be identical with the relative truth of the empirical world fraught with dualities such as good and evil.

Swamiji was a realised soul of the highest order. In the consummation of his spiritual attainment, he experienced the Absolute Truth of Oneness, as a result of his rigorous non-dualistic sadhana. It was indeed his subjective spiritual accomplishment of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, in which annihilation of the senses of duality takes place. But then, in his normal state of mind he wasn’t at all defiant of the empirical phenomenon which was very real to his senses, comprising the feelings of pain and pleasure. He rather spent his whole life for the alleviation of the suffering of man caused by evil, empathising with the pains of all and sundry. An extraordinary spiritual depth alone helps to understand Swamiji in the right perspective.

Whether Tagore’s perception about Swamiji’s attitude towards tolerance was then right or not is beside the point, for he also had his spiritually elevated personal experience. The point is that, in order to be able to understand his thoughts and ideology, he was, evidently, sincerely studying Swamiji’s works at the time. Although he had passed away almost three decades earlier, Swamiji was nevertheless quite important to him which at least didn’t seem the case during Swamiji’s lifetime.

This implies that Tagore could not ultimately ignore and remain silent regarding Swamiji in spite of his differences on various accounts born of the Brahmo obduracy in him, like his stout reservation against Swamiji’s Kali, Guru and Incarnation worship. A few years before Swamiji’s demise, Sister Nivedita, who had a close friendship with Tagore, tried hard to bring them together to speak but her endeavour proved futile. They indeed participated at a tea party arranged by her for that purpose. However, ironically, there wasn’t a single word said between them. She could well observe that the silence among them was sedulous though they knew each other very well from their early boyhood. Besides, it was well known in the Tagore household that Swamiji was highly reverential to Tagore’s father who also used to love him dearly. There is a need here to remember the fact that Swamiji once had an intimate link with the Brahmo movement, of which Devendranath was a frontline leader and his son Rabindranath was now the torch bearer who had induced nuances in the movement. Swamiji severed his connection with it because he was disillusioned with its superficial spiritual culture, God-realization being his chief concern and he was then resolutely in search of God. Interestingly, in Tagore’s belief, Swamiji’s association with Brahmo Samaj wasn’t a problem in his subsequent spiritual life. In Tattwabodhini (Agrahayan, 1318) he wrote: “That Vivekananda was once an enthusiastic Brahmo wasn’t a hindrance to his subsequent transition to another path.” Perhaps in the year 1930, Tagore first, paradoxically, started saying things seriously about Swamiji in public and he was mostly in full praise of him. Maybe, he couldn’t stay quiet after witnessing the unprecedented excitement regarding Swamiji’s message amidst the youth of the country. He significantly wrote in Pravasi (Jaishtha, 1335) around this time: “In India of modern times, it was Vivekananda alone who preached the great message which is not tied to any dos and don’ts. Addressing one and all in the nation he said: in every one of you there is the power of Brahman; the God in the poor desires you to serve Him. This message has roused the hearts of the youths in a most pervasive way. That is why this message has borne fruits in the service of the nation in diverse ways and in diverse forms of sacrifice. This message has at one and the same time imparted dignity and respect to man along with energy and power. The strength that this message has imparted to man is not confined to a particular point; nor is it limited to repetitions of some physical movements. It has, indeed, invested his life with a wonderful dynamism in various spheres. There at the source of the adventurous activities of today’s youth of Bengal is the message of Vivekananda ~ which calls the soul of man…”

A few years later he wrote in Udbodhan (Ashwin, 1348): “Some time ago Vivekananda said that there was the power of Brahman in every man, that Narayana wanted to have our service through the poor. This is what I call real gospel. This gospel showed the path of infinite freedom from man’s tiny egocentric self beyond the limits of all selfishness. This was no sermon relating to a particular ritual, nor was it a narrow injunction to be imposed upon one’s external life. This naturally contained in it protest against untouchability ~ not because that would make for political freedom, but because that would do away with the humiliation of man – a curse which in fact puts to shame the self of us all.

“Vivekananda’s gospel marked the awakening of man in his fullness and that is why it inspired our youth to the diverse courses of liberation through work and sacrifice.”

Actually, the 1930s decade was a period in which Tagore perceived Swamiji and his Guru in a parlance that was altogether different from his perception about them before. In 1935 he gave a message in the form of a poem to Ramakrishna Mission, making obeisance to Sri Ramakrishna on the occasion of his birth centenary celebration.

On 3 March 1937 he famously participated in the concluding function of the celebration and read a carefully written paper, offering glowing tributes to Sri Ramakrishna, before a huge, pindrop silent, gathering at the University Institute Hall of Calcutta, remaining seated on the stage for the next three hours of the meeting notwithstanding his poor health. He was amazed to see such a well managed function with perfect discipline. On the following day when its convener Swami Sambudhananda accompanied by Ramananda Chattopadhaya (editor of Pravasi) went to enquire about his health he said: “I am quite well. Swamiji, many thanks to you. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced such a peaceful meeting in spite of the presence of such a large audience. Truly, I have exceptionally enjoyed this meeting. I am overwhelmed by seeing the organizing ability of Ramakrishna Mission. You are really doing a big work.”

That was not the only occasion that he praised the activity of the Mission established by Swamiji. In his perception Swamiji’s work was of a very high quality. He never shied away from appreciating it amply whenever opportunity came.

Above all, he was visibly influenced by its modus operandi to apply it in various ways in his work at Viswa Bharati. Beginning from the plan of establishing and accomplishing the “Brahmo Vidyalaya” of Bolpur, next by his instruction from it to “Brahmacharya Vidyalaya” for all students irrespective of race or religion, and then its transformation into “Viswa Bharati” with a clean and liberal environment of harmony (samanwaya) among different indigenous cultures is its clear implication.

(The writer is associated with Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)