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Rabindranath Tagore: Poet of Power at Age 150

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By Herbert F. Vetter


My introduction tells a tale, beginning with this poem:

All the black evils in the world have overflowed their banks,
Yet, oarsmen, take your places with the blessing of sorrow in your souls!
Whom do you blame, brother? Bow your heads down!
The sin has been yours and ours.
The heat growing in the heart of God for ages – the cowardice of the weak, the arrogance of the strong, the greed of fat prosperity, the rancor of the wronged, pride of race, and insult to man –
Has burst God’s peace, raging in storm.

I first found these lines during World War II – and have never forgotten them. After the war, when I sought more of Tagore’s work, I first encountered his prayers of power. With what other literature of my acquaintance might they be compared? I saw kinship with the enduring majesty and inner depths of the Hebrew Psalms, yet happily they avoided the latter’s recurring vindictiveness. I felt Tagore’s passionate, profoundly personal I-Thou experience akin to that expressed in the Confessions of Augustine, yet he was no ally of St. Augustine’s intense negation of both life and the world. The prayers of the modern Poet of India did and do celebrate life in spite of its abundance of tragedy, and they affirm our world of ever enduring, ever changing harmonies of color and sound.

When I met Amiya Chakravarty, an Indian and American scholar who once was Tagore’s literary secretary, he encouraged my quest to know more about this rare living legacy of prayer. I was clearly not alone in my appreciation of Tagore’s contribution. Indeed, it was precisely such work as the prayers in this small book that led to Rabindranath’s becoming the first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The Nobel Committee considered and passed over Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strindberg, Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw. The award symbolized the uncommon strength of Tagore’s simple prayers of common life. Indeed, in his introduction to Rabindranath Tagore’s first English writings, Gitanjali (Song Offerings), W. B. Yeats tells us that when he was carrying the manuscript with him as he traveled on trains and buses, he often had to close it lest some stranger see how much it moved him.

Tagore’s poem-prayers are moving affirmations of power that are not divorced from the tragedies of life. His mother died when he was thirteen. He lost his wife when she was only thirty. Soon thereafter, he experienced the death of a daughter as well as that of his father and his youngest son. Even before this devastating series of events came the disturbing death of his beloved sister-in-law, Kadambari, who took her own life. Rabindranath himself years later experienced a period of such depression and despair that he, too, considered ending his own life.

Nevertheless, like the fabled Phoenix bird arising from the ashes, Rabindranath emerged as a world-renowned person of power. Consider the astounding range of the work of this poet who was born in the mansion of a culturally distinguished Calcutta family on May 7, 1861. He was an educator who as a child so intensely hated going to school that he refused to continue to go, but he later established a liberating school for children at his family estate 100 miles from Calcutta in a place named by his father, the Abode of Peace. He later also founded there, in Santiniketan, an international university, Visva-Bharati, designed to foster an ongoing meeting of East and West to facilitate a creative synthesis of the arts and sciences, re-creating civilization. As if that were not enough, in Tagore’s lifelong labor to free his ailing country from domination by the British Empire, he helped establish lively centers of education for India’s overwhelmingly illiterate population then living in poverty and disease-struck rural villages all across the land. The poet believed that India, the birthplace of such historic world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, must meet the challenge of creative response to the Western civilization that was choking its development. He carried forward his father and grandfather’s leadership of the Hindu reform movement, know as the Brahmo Samaj, a major facilitator of the Indian Renaissance. He not only affirmed his Indian roots in the ancient Vedas, he affirmed that the Buddha was the greatest human being who ever lived; he extolled the Christian virtues of the Sermon on the Mount; and he translated the poems of Kabir, the daringly innovative mystic seer of Islam.

This exemplar of a new renaissance of Indian and world civilization lived an astonishingly adequate life. He was a poet and educator, a playwright and actor, a composer and singer, as well as a painter, essayist, novelist, and author of short stories. He was also both a social reformer who crated a center for rural reconstruction and a world traveler who spoke to citizens of many nations in both the East and the West: China, Japan, Russia, the United States, France, Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Bulgaria, Persia, Egypt and Greece. And he was an honored visitor to Southeast Asia, delighted to note the continuing impact of ancient India among these neighbors.

Shortly before Tagore’s death in 1941 in Calcutta at the agae of eighty, the chief justice of India presented this rebel ally of Mahatma Gandhi with an honorary doctorate awarded by Oxford University. The citation noted that the myriad-minded Dr. Tagore did not hold himself aloof from he dust and heat of the world; he did not fear to challenge the British Raj itself and the authority of the British Empire’s magistrates. Tagore appreciatively accepted this recognition of his life work as “a happy augury of an Age to come.”

I think humanity increasingly will honor the treasury of prayers breathed by this international exemplar of sacred power that is somewhere-nowhere-everywhere always. With this purpose in mind, I have prepared this deliberately small volume of durable literature presented in a form suitable for present-day use. Titles have been added to each selection. Whenever it was occasionally necessary to degenderize the text, I have done so in the spirit of Tagore. I have also edited the prayers in the language of contemporary daily speech, thereby avoiding such archaic obstacles as thee and thou.

Finally, the spirit of The Heart of God: Prayers of Rabindranath Tagore may be symbolized by a single sentence by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the distinguished philosopher and statesman who served as president of India: “Rabindrath Tagore was one of the few representatives of the universal person to whom the future of the world belongs.”

In the year 2011, the sesquicentennial of the birth of Tagore in 1861, includes the celebration of The Heart of God not only in English but in five foreign languages. Thanks to the Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc with offices at 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, Vermont, as well as in Tokyo, Japan.

-Herbert F. Vetter, HSL Founding Director, 2010

See also this collection of images from the life of Rabindranath Tagore — Rabindranath Tagore: Poet of Power