Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wisdom of Tagore

by Satish Kumar is Editor-in-Chief at Resurgence

Tagore’s many songs and stories inspired courage and commitment to act and transform human consciousness and can do the same today. He practised art not for art’s sake, not even as a way of self-expression, least of all just for entertainment. His art was an offering to elucidate the deep meaning of life and to heal the soul. As a master of his craft, Tagore combined the purity of poetry with a purpose for living. He not only healed the sorrow and suffering which he had experienced due to death, depression and disappointment in his own life but he worked too to heal the wounds of injustice and inequality within Indian society.

For Tagore there was no point in writing if it did not lift the human spirit and restore human dignity. Like an alchemist, he turned his base emotions of anger, irritation and rage into the gold of poetry, and through his inspiring songs he transformed social inertia into hope and action. He urged us to rise above our petty identity of race, colour, religion and nation and to identify with our common humanity. He travelled tirelessly from America to Russia, from China to Argentina, proclaiming the oneness of humanity and the paramount importance of freedom, justice and peace. He inspired millions of his countrymen and women to renounce their narrow self-interest and throw away their caste prejudices in order to embrace equality, solidarity and morality. He shunned self-indulgence and worked tirelessly as a healer of social divisions. In particular he tried to heal the split between science and spirituality.

Tagore articulated perennial wisdom and timeless values in word and in action, while seeking truth through science and reason. One of his greatest insights was to affirm that there really is no rift or conflict between reason and religion. He questioned the wisdom of restricting ourselves to one discipline or another – either to reason or religion – when we can enjoy the benefits of both. That is why he was in dialogue with the physicists Heisenberg and Einstein, whilst continuing to study the Upanishads. For Tagore science and spirituality were two sides of the same coin.

He worked for the outer development of human communities through improved agriculture, good schools, comfortable economic conditions, and a better standard of life, but at the same time he emphasised inner development through the renewal of the spirit, caring for the soul, nourishing the heart and nurturing the imagination.

In Tagore’s vision, growth in science, technology and material wellbeing should go hand in hand with spiritual growth. One without the other is like walking on one leg. This balanced and holistic worldview is needed now more than ever, as it is a prerequisite for a sustainable and resilient future for us and for coming generations. Pure reason and pure materialism are as doomed as the pursuit of purely personal salvation. The worldview of Tagore is seeing the unity of reason and religion, spirit and matter and letting them dance together. This is the big vision where science complements spirituality, art complements ecology and freedom complements equality.

We are all related

by Rabindranath Tagore

The ‘Unity of Life’ underpins the diversity of all existence, wrote Rabindranath Tagore.

The thoughts and sentiments I express in my writings have their philosophical foundation, but I lack the training of the professional philosopher. In India, philosophy infects the very atmosphere we breathe.

Quite unconsciously, I shape all my thoughts and my life on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. I can therefore only discuss with you what I consider to be the central idea in our own religion.

The idea is that truth implies unity, a unity expressed through many and varied manifestations, a unity which, when we are able to realise it, gives us freedom. To a man ignorant of a foreign language, the literature contained in it appears to be a stupendous jumble of words, and the speech mere sounds that confuse the mind. When he learns and understands the language, he is freed from the bondage of his ignorance.

Likewise, a path is a meaningless division on a farm unless we understand that, although at first glance it divides, in reality it connects the farm with our neighbour.

When we regard our self as the sole and final end, we separate the self from the great life of the world. As soon as we admit that the self must establish a harmonious relationship with the all, then for the first time, we realise what the word ‘freedom’ means.

Until a poem reveals to us that unity of perfection that permeates the words and the grammar and transcends them, we find no joy in it. The world is like that poem: it is constituted of facts that may themselves constitute new discoveries to the explorer and illustrate new laws to the scientist, but never their significance – a significance which can only be comprehended through our spiritual vision.

Because this truth of perfect interrelation goes far beyond mere facts or the contents of the poem, it carries us instantly across them, making us free, like the beauty of a rose that takes no time in leading our minds beyond the innumerable physical facts of that flower to its ineffable harmony.

We have, in the Upanishads, the great saying

Only he knows the truth

who realises himself in all beings

and all other beings in himself

Let us try to understand this saying, for in understanding it we shall come to a truth which, as I said, lies at the basis of all we call civilisation. An individual who succeeds in dissociating himself from his fellows may imagine that thereby he attains real freedom. But we know from our experience in history that this is not a fact, and that where people live under the compulsion of fear of their neighbours, they cannot attain their full humanity.

Only those who can cultivate a feeling of sympathy with others, of understanding and of cooperation, achieve that relationship which is a great deal more than the numerical fact of their all being on this Earth together. Civilisation, itself the fruit of inter-communication, and of escape from the dungeons of obscurity, is producer of the arts, of literature, of religion and of ethics, all of which can embody external values.

They will never emerge from that kind of crowd which only represents an unrelated or imperfectly related number of people. The best and highest type of society is one that is forever active in trying to solve the problem of mutual relationship. Only thereby can wider areas of freedom for its members be acquired.

For humanity, the perfect relationship is one of love. This truth has itself been the foundation of the teaching of the Buddha. According to him, we can only reach our freedom through cultivating a mutual sympathy. To gain this freedom we need to liberate ourselves from the fetters of self and from all those passions that tend to be exclusive. It is this liberating principle that we must apply to an imprisoned world.

What we call ‘progress’ does not necessarily conform with this ideal. With a purely material progress the greed for things tends to become a passion, thereby promoting unbridled competition and conflict. A reign of ugliness spreads like a callus over the whole world.

A mere addition to the height of skyscrapers or to the velocity of speed can lead only to a savage orgy of boasting and exaggeration. Along this road, the human spirit will be vanquished by the demon of senseless accumulation, and will remain the perpetual victim of a moral slavery.

From a talk Tagore gave in Argentina in 1924.

Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, author and artist.