An Invitation to Infinity: Tagore

by Kenneth Champeon, Feb 3, 2004 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

In India every morning, millions of schoolchildren unwittingly sing a song composed by a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The song is India's national anthem; its author is Rabindranath Tagore; and it goes a little something like this:

"Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people, Dispenser of India's destiny. Thy name rouses the heart of Punjab, Sind, Gujrat, and Maratha Of Dravida and Orissa and Bengal It echoes in the hills of Vindhyas and Himalayas, Mingles in the music of Jamuna and Ganga and Is chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea. They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise. The saving of all people waits in thy hand. Thou dispenser of India's destiny. Victory, victory, victory to thee." Ironically, Tagore wrote the national anthem and died before there was a nation: India was granted formal independence and given its still controversial borders in 1947, six years after Tagore's death. As a further irony, Tagore was a native of Bengal, which was severed by the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. West Bengal became a state of India; East Bengal became East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh, whose national anthem is also a Tagore creation.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is a kind of lifetime achievement award, given for a masterpiece crowning an already extensive oeuvre. According to William Radice, one of the translators of The One and the Many, Tagore's oeuvre includes twenty-nine (!) collected volumes of writing and two thousand songs. Tagore also "painted three thousand paintings, founded and managed a school and university, travelled the world..." Tagore was a Renaissance Man if ever there was. He was also, alas, one of the last.

In a famous parable, a number of blind men probe various parts of an elephant and then each boldly declares that he knows the whole. The man feeling only the trunk decides that the elephant is like a snake, and so on. Much the same folly faces a writer describing the work of Tagore based on such a miniscule sampling of his writings, especially given the additional complications presented by translation. But then, one must begin somewhere.

The One and the Many consists primarily of poems, but has a few epistles as well. It is a coffee-table book in the sense that alongside Tagore's verbal evocations of the subcontinent are poignant photographs of same. They range from Calcutta traffic snarls to dusk on the Ganges to bullocks in paddy fields, and not a one is incongruous.

The very first lines of the collection's first poem "Unending Love" are unmistakably Indian in subject and tone. "I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times / In life after life, in age after age forever." Tagore risks sentimentality (one of the worst epithets you can hurl at a Western writer, who is not permitted to feel), and he immediately drops us into the complex Indian cosmology, in which gods assume forms over eons of time, and reincarnation is an axiom.

A similar awareness of time's vast expanse informs the poem "An Ordinary Person." After describing one such, Tagore considers the person's life from the perspective of "a hundred centuries" hence. What was ordinary then "will, in those days, seem charged with poetry." Tagore's faith that humanity will exist so long is touching, but then he did not live to see India become a nuclear power. Nor did he see Bhopal.

But he did see mankind's capacity for self-destruction in the name of greed. In "The Ferry" is this marvelous image: "Foaming upon cascades of spilt blood / crowns of gold like bubbles swell and burst." In the poem "Question," he ponders whether the love and clemency God shows mankind is actually deserved. "Those who have poisoned your air, those who have extinguished your light, / Can it be that you have forgiven them? Can it be that you love them?"

One has to wonder what events of 1932, the poem's date of composition, brought Tagore to such despair. In general, hope not despair is Tagore's metier. In "Stray Birds 77," he takes comfort in the continuity of human life. "Every child," he writes, "comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man." Below the poem is a photo of a round-eyed baby, a charmingly gaudy bow on her head and an ambiguous smile on her lips.

Like any poet, Tagore finds more joy in natural than in artificial things. In a letter to a niece, he offers advice to all urbanites: "If you stay in Calcutta you forget how extraordinary beautiful the world really is." But he also echoes Thoreau's skepticism of the value of travel. In "Sphulinga 164," he writes, "Too long I've wandered from place to place, / Seen mountains and seas at vast expanse / Why haven't I stepped two yards from my house / Opened my eyes and gazed very close / At a drop of dew on a stalk of rice?" One smiles at the thought of the old white-haired Tagore bolting out of his house to poke his nose among the stalks. Auden was wrong when he said that poetry makes nothing happen.

Speaking of making things happen, Tagore dabbled in politics. He exchanged letters with Gandhi concerning India and Indian independence. Gandhi always called the British his friends, but when asked about Western civilization he said wryly that he thought it would be a good idea. Tagore was less averse to the West, and sought a literary East-West synthesis. And by the British he did not seem particularly alarmed. In the poem "Recovery (Arogya) - 10," he writes,

"The Pathans came, greedy for empire; And the Moghuls.... No sign of them now today:.... Then others came.... The mighty British.... I know that their merchandise-bearing soldiers Will not make the slightest impression On planetary paths."

This is subversive in its own way, I suppose, although by 1941 the British Empire had begun its precipitous decline. Despite the rise and fall of empires "the people work" and the world still turns.

The benefit and goal of this seeming aloofness, of course, is peace of mind. Politics is divisive and sows unrest; Tagore sought unity and calm. True to the Karma Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, Tagore asserted that "Only in truthful work / Is peace attained." If this small portion of his life's superhuman work is any indication, there never was a man more at peace.

- The End -

Review of The One and the Many: Readings from the Work of Rabindranath Tagore, Bayeux, 1997.