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Tagore and The Sikh Gurus: A good read

Simran Sodhi |

Title: Tagore and The Sikh Gurus: A Search for an Indigenous Modernity
Author: Chhanda Chatterjee 
Publishers: Manohar Publishers

The book is essentially a good read on how Tagore intellectually tried to conceive and understand nation-building in the context of an independent India from the British. The many influences on Tagore, among them Kabir and Guru Nanak, are examined at some great length… A review by simran sodhi

THE title of the book is an interesting one since not too many people are today aware of the fact that Rabindranath Tagore was influenced by Sikhism and the lives and writings of the Sikh Gurus.  But in some ways this title also proves to be problematic since a reading of the book lays bare the fact that the title is actually only one of the many strands running through the book. The book is essentially a good read on how Tagore intellectually tried to conceive and understand nation-building in the context of an independent India from the British.
 The many influences on Tagore, among them Kabir and Guru Nanak, are examined at some great length in this book. As Tagore pondered over the concept of a free India, he was constantly troubled by two twin problems. One was the dilemma of caste and the other of communal differences. "Tagore was probably dreaming an impractical dream when he visualised Guru Gobind Singh as having succeeded in abolishing all caste discrimination in the Khalsa when he administered  ***amrit*** (the holy water for baptism) to all who were prepared to walk the difficult road ahead with him irrespective of the differences in their caste affiliations."  This is one of the thoughts that the author has dwelt with at some length.
Tagore seems to have been greatly influenced by both the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind as also by the stories of great bravery displayed by men like  Banda Bahadur. Tagore sought inspiration and guidance from the teachings of the saints of medieval India like Nanak and Kabir who he regarded highly since they were "great because in their life and teaching they made organic union of the Hindu and Mohammedan cultures."
In the chapter titled,  "Guru Gobind as a Nationalist Icon", the author makes the argument that Tagore probably looked at the life and teachings of Guru Gobind as the way forward in the lessons one needed to learn for building a nation. Tagore had problems with many of the methods being adopted by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle and he had serious intellectual differences with the Indian National Congress.
It would be fair to say that for Tagore, the teachings of the Sikh Gurus was most appealing when it came to the idea of the formation of the Khalsa because it was in this one gesture that Guru Gobind was able to do away with the problem of caste discrimination in India. Tagore also studied the rise of the Marathas in India and their eventual downfall and his discomfort with the Muslim invasions and the problems that Islam had existing in a parallel dimension with Hinduism.
Some of the problems that Tagore pondered on are still very much a part of our society. The problems of caste still exist and are in fact quite strong, even today. Then the problem of communalism has well, sadly, never left this country where the minority communities, especially Muslims have more or less failed to find an equal footing in the national scheme of things. Hence this reading becomes valuable, it helps one understand India better and how our own ancient wisdoms like the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the poetry of Kabir and Nanak and the valour of Guru Gobind can help India achieve an idea of modernity which is not copied from the West but springs from India’s own philosophies.
The only area where the author could have written more was on Tagore’s view that "Guru Gobind tied up the Sikhs for a particular mission and he stamped that purpose in their name, their dress, their behaviour and in every conceivable manner on their mind so that they would never forget that mission. He thus diverted their flow of their humanity from every other direction so that it would run only towards one particular goal. The Sikhs were thus set into a rigid mould of necessity.
"The outcome of Sikh history seems to be very pathetic to me. No one can feel any pride or joy to find the clean and pure flow of strength, which had emanated from the heart of the devotees to make the world creative and sacred, evaporated in the blood red mud of army barracks. It is like a river, which having emerged from the commanding heights of a sacred mountain to reach the sea, loses its direction and gets choked in heaps of sand on its way. "
 Maybe Tagore was disappointed that the message of Nanak which embraced one and all was narrowed by Guru Gobind into the creation of a single community of Sikhs. Maybe it was Tagore’s inability to understand the practical implications behind the decision for the formation of the Khalsa. The debate can go on but sadly the book doesn’t debate the point. It could have debated this and some other conflicting ideas, making it then into a far more interesting read.

The reviewer is Special Representative, The Statesman, Delhi