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  • Published 7.11.14

Religion and Rabindranath Tagore: Select discourses, addresses, and letters in translation Translated with an introduction by Amiya P. Sen, Oxford, Rs 495

In a letter to Hemantabala Devi in 1931, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “My God, however, is made up of the best in man.” The translation is Amiya P. Sen’s, who has included an extract from this letter among others written chiefly to Hemantabala Devi, Kadambini Dutta and Indira Devi selected for the third section of the book, Religion and Rabindranath Tagore. The apparent clarity of the quoted statement is deceptive, for behind it lie years of self-questioning, of tussles between the perceptions of poetic intuition and intellectual inquiry. That Sen is able to convey a powerful sense of the development, the layering, the many-sidedness and, ultimately, the uniqueness of Tagore’s religious thought must be put down to the wisdom of the careful selection of texts he has translated and his principle of using excerpts to point up specific issues.

There is one problem here that Sen himself mentions: the word dharma cannot be translated either exactly or even in the same way in different contexts. In that case, Sen’s title may be a little distracting. The book is divided into three sections, the first containing extracts from essays and miscellaneous writings, such as “Dharma”, “Bauler gaan”, “Dukkha”, “Dharmashiksha”, “Hindu Brahmo” and others. The second section has discourses, public addresses and informal talks, and draws heavily on the collection, Santiniketan, while the third section contains letters. This is a convenient arrangement within a limited space for a writer and speaker as voluminous as Tagore, and a thinker who was deeply engaged in the questions about religion that were repeatedly raised in those times of hard-hitting debate and criticism. In his introduction, however, Sen hints at a development in phases, while carefully documenting the learned controversies, around such arrangements of Tagore’s religious thought. The division of the selected texts into genres leaves the reader to find his way through a possible progress by checking the dates provided in Sen’s detailed footnotes.

This venture is far from simple, as Sen shows in his introduction. Although Tagore went out of his way not to wear his erudition on his sleeve, preferring to keep alive the image of the truant schoolboy, his mastery and absorption of Sanskrit texts and commentaries, Vaishnavism, the work of medieval poets and mystics, of Bauls and singer-composer sects he called maramiyas, create a fused pattern of intellectual strands that merge, part and keep flowing on, especially in his poetry and songs. Out of these many sources emerge intuitions and images — ananda from one and leela from another, for example — that mould themselves into Tagore’s sense of religion that ultimately draws in nature, beauty and the human being in a spontaneous, causeless flow of love. In 1906, he writes: “In our daily lives we are constantly brought face to face with the power of this Love which is also the Truth. If there be anything on this earth that can fully overcome fear, brush aside all potential danger, remain unaffected by loss or ignore something as inevitable as death, it is this Love.”

This is a poet’s religion. He wrote to Kadambini Dutta in 1910, “Though born into a Brahmo family, my mind was never entrapped in some particular method of worship. One reason for that is that even as a child I developed strong poetic instincts.” These instincts included a limitless yearning, which Tagore expressed in different ways. As early as 1892, while deeply engaged in the affairs of the Brahmo Samaj, he is writing: “The path to extend our consciousness is through love… freedom and liberation obtained through love is very different in character. Love never forsakes the world which God Himself has not forsaken. True liberation comes only when one makes this Universe one’s own and oneself a part of the Universe…” God is the Lord of the Universe, he writes in the tribute to his father in 1907, but “it is His wish that he relate to us only individually… it is within this pure and pristine solitude that he has determined the spot where the two of us will meet…” But that quest can only be fulfilled through suffering: “Humanity itself derives its meaning from the fact that whatever Truth man obtains he obtains through suffering.”

Sen has selected Tagore’s prose because it is less known from the point of view of his religious thought. Only because it is prose Tagore can make statements, on his own poetry for example, as when he discusses whether the core of his poetry leans more towards the Upanishads or towards Vaishnavism, about his own values, as when he writes to Indira Devi in 1899, “My religion is natural religion and the method of worship I employ is worship of nature”, or when, after an acute discussion of Vedanta philosophy in the context of Paul Deussen’s work, he says, “Perhaps in the very depths of spiritual life there is a strange synthesis of dualism and non-dualism that remains shrouded in what is an impenetrable mystery for our little minds”, or when he explains his unique sense of the deeper, mysterious consciousness that keeps him aware of the journey his own consciousness must take, his “eternal companion’, his “Jeebondebata” , who will bring him closer to the “Vishwadebata”.

It is ultimately this uniqueness that shines through the many strands, for the quest, the ceaseless becoming, moves always towards the full, the whole, human being: “…the nature (dharma) [sic] of man is being human (manushatva).” Sen has traced much of this bewildering journey, and has, in his detailed and analytical introduction, attempted to capture the intensely subjective quality of the poet’s religious sense. In the preface, the editor and translator has explained his decision not to be “doggedly faithful” to the original because of Tagore’s proclivity for “literary froth”. This is understandable. But that raises the problem of purely editorial decisions about what may be “the main purport” of an argument, more so because Tagore is a very tricky writer. Excisions and reductions may be occasionally questioned, as perhaps in “The simple ways of religion”. And when Tagore is not frothy but simple, pithy, as in the same extract, the translation can become wordy, convoluted. But this is an excellent and truly useful book, some small infelicities apart, it is also easy reading.