THIS IS ONE OF THE INSPIRATIONAL PROFILES in the first volume of “Interfaith Heroes” by Daniel Buttry in 2008. Order a copy of “Interfaith Heroes, 1” from Amazon to enjoy all the stories.
Rabindranath Tagore was a literary giant in India. Born into a Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta, Tagore founded an ashram in West Bengal that included an experimental school. He believed that God was found through personal purity and service to others. Tagore was known primariy for his poetry which was deeply influenced by the mysticism of the Hindu Upanishads but at the same time was accessible to many Western readers. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature becoming Asia’s first Nobel laureate.
However, Tagore was prolific in many other artistic fields. Besides his poetry, Tagore produced many novels, short stories and dramas. He wrote non-fiction works on diverse topics: Indian history, linguistics, travelogues and science. He composed more than 2,000 songs, including many devotional hymns and the national anthems for both India and Bangladesh. When he was 60, he began to draw and paint, and his art was exhibited in Paris and London.
Tagore was a controversial figure in Indian politics. He supported the Indian independence movement and was a firend of Ghandhi, but he also disagreed with Gandhi over many issues. He was especially virulent in his attacks on nationalism. He denounced fascists, Japanese and American nationalists, and even the nationalism in the Indian independence movement.
He spoke out against India’s “abnormal caste consciousness,” decrying the evils of social systems in India that left millions in poverty and labeled entire groups of people as “untouchable.” He raised feminist concerns in his writings, calling for liberation of women from mahy of the customs in marriage. In his stories, he attacked those who still glorified the custom of self-immolation by women after their husbands’ deaths.
Tagore’s writings were influenced by many religious streams. The Muslim mystical poet Hafez was an inspiration to him. He used a Buddhist story of Ananda, one of Gautama Buddha’s disciples, who asked an untouchable girl for water, as an exemplary tale for his Hindu culture. During Tagore’s travels, he engaged with many people in discussions of a transcendent humanism. He addressed the annual Quaker gatherings in London, and became a friend and associate of Charles Andrews, the Christian missionary who was Gandhi’s protege. Tagore was deeply disturbed by the tensions and violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India. He explored these issues in his writings, confronting the religious zeal that leads to bigotry and violence, especially when wedded to nationalism.
Tagore and India’s National Anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”
Today, Tagore’s poetry is heard whenever India’s National Anthem is sung. In English, its opening lines can be translated: “Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people—Dispenser of India’s destiny.”
Wikipedia offers an extensive article on this world-famous hymn to India’s enduring national spirit. The Wiki article includes a summary of confusion that arose over Tagore’s intent in composing these lines. British journalists, in particular, first assumed these lyrics referenced the British monarch—an easy mistake to make because of the song’s debut during a visit of King George V. At the time, George V was called “Emperor of India.” However, those who knew Tagore’s background were horrified by these press reports!
Tagore himself clarified that he intended to invoke “that Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide … who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved.” Tagore wrote that anyone with “simple common sense” would know that he would never place such reverent faith in “George V, George VI, or any other George!” (This brief passage is quoted in the Wiki article, but the entire article about Tagore’s attitude toward the anthem is online as well.)
The government of India maintains a detailed Jana Gana Mana website explaining the anthem’s proper use. The Indian embassy in Washington D.C. offers sheet music for the anthem. Another Indian embassy offers a beautiful audio version of the anthem you can download and enjoy.
The Indian National Anthem continues to touch lives around the world. In June 2010, the www.FriendshipAndFaith.com website published a story about an American high school student’s first experience of this moving song by Tagore.
(Originally published in www.ReadTheSpirit.com)