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Rabindranath Tagore: A mystic figure?

In this series on the life and times of Rabindranath Tagore and exploring his enduring influence on Asian culture on his 150th birth anniversary, in this essay, we explore the perception of his towering personality particularly as seen in his time in the eyes of the West. It is well known that the West regarded him as a mystic figure, combining his colossal personality with the Orientalist idea of the East. However, it is pertinent to explore whether the intellectuals in the West at the time would comprehend the philosopher and his vision for India in general and Asia in particular. Before examining his masterpiece Gitanjali, it is interesting to note that the Western intellectuals had not misunderstood Tagore and his humanist philosophy as opposed to the widely held belief that Tagore had remained a mystic figure. An interesting archival material that sheds light on this important aspect of the Bengali poet and perhaps, the most celebrated Indian cultural icon of our times is the Germanys reaction to Gitanjali. In Germany Gitanjali was greeted with controversy. Primarily the controversy sprang out of inability to assess the true spirit of Tagores work in the West; The reactionary right wing regarded him as a Bolshevik agent and propagandist. Others, with the narrow-mindedness which comes from a total fixation of ones own culture, were of the opinion that Tagores liberal religious understanding was inconceivable without the Christian missionary influence in India and held him up triumphantly as a tangible proof of the vitality of the Christian philosophy. It is stated regarding the overwhelming influence of religious poetry on Tagores work and that vitality of the term religion cannot be realised in European context; Tagores religious ideas and the religio-philosophical content of many of his works are the reason for the many misunderstandings surrounding his work and his person. What earned him praise as well as censure in Europe-the religious style of his poems-is exactly the basis of the popularity of his works in India. Religious songs and ballads are an essential part of Indian literature and have always had a wide circulation in their verbal form among the public, many of whom were uninitiated into reading. Division Because the division between religious and secular poetry had not yet been fully defined, the metaphors used by Tagore are drawn from religious principles as well as worldly phenomena. The religious vein of his poetry is not the expression of a mystics renunciation of the world something Tagore never was in his life. Heinz Mode writes in his biography of Tagore that the connotation of the term religion as applied to Tagores work are much broader and cannot be fully covered by the association of the world and its content in the European context. In this religiosity there is barely a trace of mysticism that the Western perspective and wishful thinking so often mistakenly presumes in oriental literature. The religious element in Tagores writing is a kind of visionary idealism, which arises from minute observation of the world.

What is interesting to note is that the same passage describes in no uncertain terms that Tagores vision is not merely appreciating nature but uses that knowledge to define the purpose of man in life; while looking at the world, it turns its gaze inward to the potential of man within society and nature and uses the knowledge thus gained to define mans purpose in life. Tagores idealism was revolutionary even in his time; The highest ideal which Tagore envisages for human being is to find fulfilment in creativity and in the dedication of ones life to the service of others, to be loved by God who does not distinguish between his children and not to be chained to a particular caste and its accompanying discrimination- these postulates were courageous and much ahead of Tagores time. When he gave his own son his approval to marry a widow, he sent a clear signal how he himself put into practice his newly acquired social and religious awareness and understanding. Philosophy In describing the difficulties that a European reader may find in understanding Tagores philosophy encapsulated in Gitanjali, his vision should be understood against the socio-economic backdrop in which Tagore lived.Without doubt, understanding of Gitanjali, which is Tagores vision of a harmonious society, is not free from problems and difficulties for the European reader. In our efforts to understand Tagores personality and his work, we have to try to imagine what exactly been progressive meant in a society where feudal structures dominated and colonial exploitation hindered its growth and development. Tagore watched the destruction of the traditional Indian society and realised that industrialisation according to Western formula, was not the solution for India. The historical contradictions during the time of Tagore came in rapid succession. In Europe there was a gap of a few hundred years between the Renaissance and the freeing of the country from capitalism. In the case of India, Bengali Renaissance had begun only around 30 years before the birth of Tagore and within a few years of his death the country threw off the shackles of colonial rule. Tagore was a witness to all the contradictions of his epoch and gave them permanent literary expression in his books. After 150 years from Tagores birth, one could clearly see how profoundly his philosophy and literary works influenced the formation of the cultural backbone of India and its modern outlook. Though it is unfair to state that Tagores literary work and vision alone contributed to the modern character of Indian and its organic nature of modernity, as opposed to European modernity, it is suffice to say that India has devised its own modernity and industrialisation as envisioned by Tagore. It is the vibrant Indian modernity which readily assimilated Indian literature, music, philosophies and culture into its fold and has made an effective and sustainable formula of its own industrialisation and modernisation.