Why Tagore’s Gitanjali is more relevant today than ever before

Pranab Ghosh

“We write long books where no pages perhaps have any quality to make writing a pleasure, being confident in some general design, just as we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics – all dull things in the doing – while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian Civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.” This is what W. B. Yeats wrote about Tagore, along with many other things, in the foreword/introduction to Gitanjali (Song Offerings), signed September 1912.

Aren’t these lines written some 111 years ago amazingly apt even today, when read and realized in the perspective of today’s socio-economic and political situation prevailing in West Bengal, the Bard’s place of work and action? Not just our state, when we think in terms of our country too do you not think that these words were written yesterday only and not more than a century ago?

Here in lies the universality of Tagore, Gitanjali being a milestone that we must keep our focus on and shall we not carry this book of poems like the Bible or the Gita, as a revolutionary will – definitely Gita if not Bible – in the days of struggle against the Raj? Tagore is timeless. He has transcended time, more so Gitanjali, for which the Bard of Bengal and India has been awarded the Nobel Prize.

For a common reader it may not be possible to read all that Tagore has written more than 100 years ago. S/he may have time constraint or may simply lack the required tenacity to go through volumes and volumes of words – prose and poetry. However, Gitanjali [The Visva Bharati Edition November 2010…] is only 118 pages, containing 103 poems, all numbers as their titles. To read 118 pages ideally shall not be trouble for anyone, whatever their calling. More so because Tagore’s world of poetry, especially those that Gitanjali offers its readers, takes them to a world, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”. Fear seems to be the operative word today, the unholy foundation on which the power structure that runs the country stands. In our world today, knowledge may not be “free” and the world around us is definitely “broken up into fragments”, and words can be coming from anywhere and not the “depth of truth” and those tirelessly stretching their arms “towards perfection, may actually be denied their due, as “clear stream of reason” has got lost in a wilderness promoted by the state itself and “habits” that shall have to die are getting promoted and inculcated, saddeningly by men and women in ‘power’. Tagore and his poetry can indeed bring solace by leading us forward to the world of “ever-widening thought and action” and we all may finally awake – it seems we are all asleep – in the “heaven of freedom”.

Are we not a free country? Did we not attain freedom on August 15, 1947? You may ask. We all know the answers. We are free citizens of a free country.

But…but…but…!

We all know that we are going through a time when we need to rededicate ourselves to nation-building. We need not reinvent the wheel, but we must think whether or not to allow the free-wheeling ride that has the potential to derail the ‘Indian civilization’, which Tagore’s poems so amply and aptly manifest, to continue.

In Tagore’s poems love and religion blend effortlessly with Nature and more so in Gitanjali. We all know where his God can actually be found – among “the poorest, the lowliest and the lost”. Our task shall be to work for their cause, the cause of the poorest, and make them a part and perhaps the strongest part of our country.

“What kind of work?” You may ask. My answer to this is, all kinds that help you to earn a living and obviously without breaking the law of the land. Many philosophers as also spiritual gurus, including Swami Vivekananda have eulogized work and have given it a seat equal to worship. Tagore, through his work has indeed endorsed it, giving work a place above traditional “chanting and singing and telling of beads” and has urged the ‘bhakt’ to “Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!” He questions the ‘bhakt’, “Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?” We know Tagore’s reply too. Do we not? Yes, we do as he has already said that God was not in the temple.

Then where is ‘thy God’? Tagore’s answer is simple. “He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path maker is breaking stones.” Tagore has also made it clear that by just ‘chanting’ mantras and burning incense sticks one will not be able to reach one’s God. The poet urges us to “Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense!”, as to be with our God we will have to work and be a worker among other workers as, “He (God) is with them (farmers and path makers) in sun and in shower and his garment is covered with dust.” Therefore, the Bard of Bengal and India urges his readers to, “Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!”. He knows many among us will not like to mingle with the poor farmers and laborers! He, therefore writes, “What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained?” as we mingle with and work among the farmers and the laborers. “Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.”, urges Tagore.

Should not we all, every Indian and why just Indians, everybody living in this world, fight for the cause of the workers and the farmers, even though we as individuals are neither farmers nor laborers? Should we not rededicate our lives to uplift the lives and living conditions of “the poorest, the lowliest and the lost”?

The answers to these questions rest with you.

Author’s note: The poems of Song Offerings (Gitanjali) that have widely quoted in the article are: Poems 10, 11 and 35 [The Visva Bharati Edition, November 2010]


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