Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali poet, writer, educator and composer who lived from 1861 until 1941. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 with his collection of poems, “Gitanjali”. One of his songs is still the national anthem of India. He exchanged letters and ideas with many other influential people of his time, including Gandhi and Einstein. I would like to offer one of his letters here, written from his school in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India on 26 October 1917, to his friend in England, artist William Rothenstein, for I believe it contains wisdom and relevance to today’s world.

My Dearest Friend,

It has given me a deep pleasure to know that my last three books you like. I had my fear that my American lectures, especially those about nationalism, might give offence to my readers in England. Possibly to some extent they have done so. But most of the reviews that I have seen in your papers are extremely mild. Some critics have taxed me with having misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘nation’. I suppose it is one of those words whose meaning is still in its process of formation. If you really mean by that word the peoples who have the consciousness of a common tradition and aspiration then why do you exclude us Bengalis from its category? For you are never tired of reminding us that we do not belong to a nation. When we try to understand you we find that our tradition and aspiration are of a different character from yours – it is more religious and social than political. Therefore it seems to me that the word nation in its meaning carries a special emphasis upon its political character. Politics becomes aggressively self-conscious when it sets itself in antagonism against other peoples, specially when it extends its dominion among alien races. This convulsive intensity of consciousness is productive of strength but not of health. The rapid growth of nationalism in Europe begins with her period of foreign exploration and exploitation. Its brilliance shines in contrast upon the dark background of the subjection of other peoples. Certainly it is based upon the idea of competition, conflict and conquest and not that of cooperation. The unselfish people have not completely lost their self, only the selfish ones put stronger emphasis upon it and thus have a special designation. And the people with an aggressively emphatic politics is a nation. The [professional man] has very often a special attitude of mind. There he feels an intense satisfaction if he can sell a lame horse at a price which is dear even for a sound one. Because in [his] profession [a] man has no other object before him but success. He may have an exalted standard of life in his private capacity and yet as a professional man his conduct may go entirely against that standard, without disturbing his appetite for dinner. Therefore it is not unusual to find rapacious landlords who are extravagant in their generosity. That grasping professional attitude of mind makes a nation of a people when it furiously pursues success and takes it to be a sign of sentimentalism to budge an inch from its reckless path of power at the dictates of humanity. What I have said in my lectures is that such an attitude of mind in a whole people of a country, such constant self-idolatry by all kinds of ritualism and human sacrifice must go against moral providence of the world ending at least in a catastrophe.

By some unexpected freak of fate I was caught in a dust storm of our politics. I have just come out of it nearly choked to death. I am more convinced than ever that a poet might do worse than write mere verses. Try to be true to yourself by all means but not to be truer which is a hollow temptation set in our path by moral teachers.

Give my love to [your] dear children and tell them not to grow too fast before I come to see them. Because that will be unfair to me who can only grow older without growing at all.

Ever yours

Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore on Christ and Buddha

I have been reading the letters of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali writer/poet most famous in the West for the Nobel Prize he won in 1913 for his collection of poems Gitanjali. In May, 1933, he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, “…In every important act of his life Buddha preached limitless love for all creatures. Christ said ‘Love thine enemies’ and that teaching of his found its final expression in the words of forgiveness he uttered for those who killed him…”

In 1937, E.J. Thompson was writing a book about Buddhism and commented to Tagore, “To me it is increasingly clear that what the world needs is to take both Buddha’s and Christ’s teaching – the pity and tenderness of Buddhism supplies what Christianity lacks, in a certain ‘hard-boiledness’ (perhaps the fault of Christian nations). The subtle and many-colored beauty of your own wonderful life interprets Buddhism as nothing else does, and I am glad that I have known you.”

Tagore replied in his letter of the same year, “….I agree with you that both Christ and Buddha embodied in their lives the only true principles that can work for men’s common good; Buddha’s insistence on the renunciation of greed creates the necessary condition of the mind in which the love of others ceases to conflict with one’s own good. Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

(from Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, Ed. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Cambridge University Press, 1997)

The Tao of Buddha

“Few cross over the river.

Most are stranded on this side.

On the riverbank they run up and down.

But the wise person, following the way,

Crosses over, beyond the reach of death…”

-Teachings of the Buddha (from the Dhammapada, trans. Thomas Byrom)

The Buddha was born a prince in ancient India, and raised in wealthy seclusion. He began to see the misery of much of the rest of the world as he grew older. He left home as a young man to seek the truth of what he found, hoping to find an end to the sorrows of human existence. He lived for awhile as an ascetic in the forests, but soon realized he had found no further wisdom in such a life. He one day realized that peace of mind and freedom of spirit could be found in a simple life of balance. He called his teachings the Dharma, or “Way”. (Remember that “Tao” is Chinese for “Way”.)

The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘one who is awake’. The Buddhist tradition attempts to teach the experience of ‘awakening to the truth of life’. They seek to liberate the body and the mind from the materialism of the world, offering instead a Middle Path of peace and balance.

Buddha’s words are in fact strikingly similar in spirit to those of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. Of course the religious practices that have developed down the ages took different angles. However, if we consider the original words passed down by these two sages, it begins to seem as if they were both talking about the same realizations – and indeed much the same Way to live.

Buddha said, “Live in joy, in love, even among those who hate.” (Dhammapada) Lao Tzu taught, “The master…is good to people who are good. She is also good to people who aren’t good. This is true goodness.” (Tao Te Ching)

Buddha taught, “Look within. Be still. Free from fear and attachment, Know the sweet joy of the way.” Lao Tzu may have had a different tone and spoke a completely different language, and yet the spirit of his words is familiar: “Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond ‘is’ and ‘is not’. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see…if you want to be given everything, give everything up.”

“The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao, that is what gives her her radiance…she doesn’t cling to ideas,” wrote Lao Tzu. “A mind unshaken when touched by the worldly states, sorrowless, stainless, and secure, this is the blessing supreme,” taught the Buddha.

Both also recognized the futility in the very act of trying to put the great truths into words. Lao Tzu commented, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” In turn Buddha lamented, “Words! The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.” (trans. Richard B. Clarke)

One cannot but help notice that the teachings are similar in tone to other great teachers of note, including some I have mentioned previously such as Ueshiba and Tagore. Once a student begins to truly internalize this higher awareness, they become aware of a ‘Way’ to live or to be, a simple, loving, unselfish and calm state of mind. They see the divine in the mundane, and allow the Way to spread before them, “If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go,” wrote Lao Tzu. Or, as Buddha put it so beautifully, “To live in the Great Way is neither easy not difficult…Just let things be in their own way.”

Rabindranath Tagore

I have heard in my being the voice of Eternal Silence…’ -Tagore

Not many westerners know that Rabindranath Tagore, a great writer, musician and philosopher from Bengal, India, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his collection of poems, “Gitanjali”. His extraordinary life began in 1861, and before it ended in 1941 he had been contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, written about by Jawaharlal Nehru, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound, and famously conversed with Albert Einstein about the nature of reality. He wrote over 2000 songs including India’s national anthem. He spoke often and loudly against the militant nationalism rising in his day, and in 1919 he repudiated his knighthood as a public gesture against violence.

Tagore was firmly for freedom – freedom of mind, freedom of education, freedom of belief, freedom of existence. Contrary to the educational establishment of his day, he founded a school, called the ‘Abode of Peace’, which eventually became an important center for culture, music, art, languages and even rural development. He was involved in what we now call ‘Third World Development,’ attempting to teach new farming techniques to his struggling nation. He resisted categorization based on race or economics, and believed in the unity of man and nature.

Though some of his work reflects the politics and struggles of his country, there is so much that relates purely to his spiritual being. His words reflect a deep wisdom and understanding of our reality, and man’s proper behavior within it. He rejected the common religious orthodoxy of his upbringing, instead creatively seeking the spirit behind it. His words bring to mind a startling awareness of this Tao, the compassion and openness necessary to perceive it, and the difficulty of explaining it to others.

“It is only the revelation of You as the Infinite that is endlessly new and eternally beautiful in us and that gives the only meaning to our self when we feel Your rhythmic throb as soul-life, the whole world in our own souls; then are we free. O Worker of the universe! Let the irresistible current of Your universal energy come like the impetuous south wind of spring; let it come rushing over the vast field of human life. Let our newly awakened powers cry out for unlimited fulfillment in leaf and flower and fruit.” -Tagore, from “The Heart of God”