Rabindranath Tagore, or as was more fondly called, Gurudev in 1861 was master of many trades. Among other things, Tagore was a poet par excellence, a musician with several compositions to his credit, a philosopher who propounded and furthered eastern philosophy, a painter with many paintings still finding positions of importance in museums around the world, a social reformer, an educationist and a statesman who contributed to the momentum of the freedom struggle tremendously. In 1913 he became the first non-European to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Tagore’s thinking undoubtedly was way ahead of his time. His contribution to literature is incomparable- perhaps for the first time the rest of the world was exposed to Indian literature at an unprecedented scale- thanks to Tagore. His command of Bengali as well as ease in English were both truly remarkable. His views can be fathomed from a number of his stories. In the ever-green Chokher Bali, through the sensitivity of relationships, he explored the relationships between individuals, constantly touching on themes like adultery, widowhood, patriarchy and child marriage. In Maanbhajan, the deserted wife picks up the pieces and reinvents herself- shunning the idea that women need to depend on men financially and socially. In Aparichita, unreasonable demands of dowry are shunned, and the protagonist finds her own way in the world. One of the most complex characters also has to be the portrayal of women in Punishment- a woman blamed by men for a crime she did not commit. Her embracing of her fate and loss of trust in everyone (except her mother) provokes the reader to open up a whole new paradigm of thinking. Tagore’s vision and understanding of agency and independence marked his work throughout. His idea of the human- and of the nation-state both carried this.
Tagore constantly questioned the importance of caste in India’s discourse. In his poem, The Sacred Touch published in the Harijan, he writes ‘inspire us with love; overcoming pride of self, and let our devotion for thee banish all enmity.’ In his drama Chandalika, he shunned untouchability as being inhumane- a principle held by Gandhi too. Both Gandhi and Tagore in fact communicated extensively- discussing matters of importance, and disagreeing on key issues at times. After the massive earthquake in Bihar, Gandhi was known to have said that this was retribution for the prevalence of untouchability in the province. Tagore wrote to him- sharply criticising his ‘unscientific’ response to the tragedy.
As a philosopher, Tagore’s contribution was extraordinary. He propagated ideas of humanism, idealism and rather unusually, internationalism. One of the most remarkable institutions established by Tagore, as a bigger project of Santiniketan was the Visva Bharati University. This ushered in a new era where an India, reeling under the clasp of colonialism, was able to revisit ideas of Indian philosophy and find confidence in the deeply rooted philosophical treatise.
Einstein and Tagore too discussed many pressing issues. Einstein is known to have asked Tagore if the divine is isolated from the world. Tagore replied, ‘Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth.’
Tagore’s nationalism and ideas of the nation were unique. In his piece, Nationalism in India Tagore questions the ‘mechanical’ organisation of individuals. He states that the true purpose of humanity has to reach a higher moral idea- to reach a higher nature and attain the pinnacle of creativity and humanity.
Freedom was very dear to Tagore. His poem Heaven of Freedom has had an enduring audience. The poem asks for complete freedom- not just political- but in every sense. The mind is to be fear, head held high, knowledge free and unity in diversity. He further says that the clear stream of reason must not lose its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Tagore’s unique and extraordinary composition of the national anthem is commendable. Ever so beautifully, the short verses capture the physical beauty of the nation and bow to nature. In fact, Tagore is perhaps the only person credited with composing the national anthem of not one but two nations-India and Bangladesh. It is thus imperative on us to go to the lair of its true meaning.
Tagore stays relevant today, as he was almost a century ago. His ways of thinking (some belief- perhaps moulded by his brief stint as a law student in London) remain as useful today. In this era of globalisation, Tagore’s philosophy has a lot to offer. His views on equality similarly find many places in discourse today. In 1919, he refused to accept Knighthood in light of the Amritsar massacre. He never held any political office. In his last poem, he remarked, ‘Today my sack is empty. I have given completely whatever I had to give.’ Certainly, Tagore gave much to generations since- to think, to contemplate and to act. Debates around nationalism and humanism, internationalism and divinity stay as alive and relevant today. Tagore, through his writings, music compositions and art- still has a lot to give to the world.