Tagore, Rabindranath (1861–1941)

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Rabindranath Tagore was an Indian writer and philosopher. Romain Rolland, referring to the Orient and the Occident, said that Tagore contributed more than anyone else toward "the union of these two hemispheres of spirit." Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan called Tagore "the greatest figure of the Indian renaissance."

Tagore was born in Calcutta, studied in London, returned to India, and was married in 1883. He founded Visvabharati, a university at Santiniketan (near Bolpur), became India's most popular poet, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and was knighted in 1915. He visited and lectured in Canada, the United States, South America, England and several countries of Europe, the Soviet Union, Turkey, Iran, Ceylon, China, and Japan. He was in personal contact with Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and other leading intellectual figures of his period.

Tagore wrote about fifteen books of philosophical lectures and essays, about one hundred books of verse (mostly in Bengali, and partly translated by himself from his own Bengali version into English), about fifty plays (in some of which he acted the main role), and about forty works of fiction. His main writings of philosophical interest are Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (1913), Personality (1917), Creative Unity (1922), The Religion of Man (1931), all published in London and New York, and Man (1937), published in Madras. His best-known poems appear in Gitanjali (Song offerings), translated by the author from the original Bengali, with an introduction by W. B. Yeats (1913); The Crescent Moon, likewise translated by the author from the original Bengali (1913); and Fruit-Gathering (1916), all published in London and New York. He produced some drawings and paintings, beginning about his seventieth year, and planned and produced ballets.

Tagore's basic philosophical position is one that recognizes the useful insights of the main opposing views on a given question. For example, concerning the transcendence or immanence of God, Tagore accepted, on the one hand, the value of the doctrine of Brahman as "the absolute Truth, the impersonal It, in which there can be no distinction of this and that, the good and the evil, the beautiful and its opposite, having no other quality except its ineffable blissfulness in the eternal solitude of its consciousness"; but he also felt, on the other hand, that "whatever name may have been given to the divine Reality it has found its highest place in the history of our religion owing to its human character, giving meaning to the idea of sin and sanctity, and offering an eternal background to all the ideals of perfection which have their harmony with man's own nature" (The Religion of Man ).

Similarly, he combined the best insights of humanists, who exalt man, and of otherworldly seekers of the World Force, who belittle man; of naturalists, who deny spirit, and of extreme partisans of spirit, who cut man off from nature; of individualists and universalists; of determinists and defenders of free will; of hedonists and ascetics; and of romanticists and realists.

In his social philosophy, as well as in his metaphysics, Tagore attempted to synthesize polar opposites. Neither wholly conservative nor wholly liberal, he favored gradual reform. This evolutionary note is reflected in his views on the economic order, public health, education, the social structure, national politics, and international affairs.

Tagore's emphasis on the mediating unity that embraces variety appears, for example, in Sadhana, where he wrote: "Facts are many, but the truth is one. Man must clearly realise some central truth which will give him an outlook over the widest possible field. And that is the object which the Upanishad has in view when it says, Know thine own Soul. Or, in other words, realise the one great principle of unity that there is in every man."

In May 1930 Tagore delivered the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford. In the following year, the lectures were published in expanded form as a book, The Religion of Man. Tagore's mediationism appears in the book in such passages as the following: "The final freedom which India aspires after is beyond all limits of personality, divested of all moral or aesthetic distinctions; it is the pure consciousness of Being, the ultimate reality." The yogi has claimed that through intensive concentration and quietude we do reach "that infinity where knowledge ceases to be knowledge, subject and object become onea state of existence that cannot be defined. India attunes man to the grand harmony of the universal, leaving no room for untrained desires of a rampant individualism to pursue their destructive career unchecked, but leading them on to their ultimate modulation in the Supreme."

See also Bergson, Henri; Brahman; Croce, Benedetto; Einstein, Albert; Humanism; Indian Philosophy; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William.


The philosophical works by Tagore that are mentioned above, as well as others, have been published in various editions, in English and in translation into European languages.

Works on Tagore's philosophy include the following (arranged in chronological order): Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (London: Macmillan, 1918; reissued Baroda: Good Companions, 1961); Sachin Sen, The Political Thought of Tagore (Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers, 1947); B. G. Ray, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (Bombay: Hind Kitabs, 1949); V. S. Naravane, Rabindranath Tagore, A Philosophical Study (Allahabad: Central Book Depot, n.d.); and Sasadhar Sinha, Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1962).

Of the many biographies of Tagore, mention may be made of Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

William Gerber (1967)