Rediscovering Rabindranath Tagore

Given the torrent of books and tapes and classes that draw on Asian wisdom (real or spurious) to help us meditate or levitate or find our lost Western selves, it’s easy to forget that the coming together of East and West goes a lot deeper, and is a lot older, than the contemporary New Age.

Ever since greedy and energetic Europeans began to colonize, convert, and trade their way into Asia in the late Renaissance, Western values (from the sublime to the unspeakable) have been thrust into the faces of Asian people. Their responses have varied from angry rejection to ecstatic embrace to wary sifting. At the same time, the colonizers have interpreted Asia for the home market, in ways that have ranged from the starkest racism to the most conscientious scholarship.

While every Asian culture had its inspired leaders who faced the Western challenge in their own way, two figures were able to absorb the Western impact, find a living relationship to their own traditions, and then become world famous for bringing this mix to the West in the form of wisdom. They were the Indians M.K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

As Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson point out in the introduction to their splendid book, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (St. Martin’s), Gandhi is very much alive in the West today and Tagore is all but forgotten. That’s a major shift of taste. Between winning the Nobel Prize for his poetry in 1913 and his death in 1941, Tagore was simply one of the most famous men on the planet. His poetry and prose, deeply colored by his reformist, highly philosophical Hinduism, had a serene weightiness that appealed to Westerners who were being hurtled from one World War toward another. Both cosmopolitan and deeply Indian, he seemed like the perfect bearer of Eastern wisdom into the modern world. He was received by kings and presidents, discoursed publicly with Albert Einstein on the nature of the world, and mixed with the West’s literary elite: William Butler Yeats was a friend, and Ezra Pound not known for low self-esteem confessed that he felt inferior to Tagore.

Yet, by one of the ironic rules of our shrinking planet, the longevity of an Asian writer on the world scene depends on the quality of translations into English. Once the photogenic, prophet-bearded poet/philosopher was gone from the scene, his poetry in stiff English renderings from the Bengali made mostly by Tagore himself just couldn’t stand the test of time. Dutta and Robinson are helping revive interest in Tagore by downplaying the poetry (which, as they point out, still awaits a great translator) and making fresh translations from the many other literary genres that Tagore mastered: theater, the short story, the polemical essay, memoir, travel writing, and especially the familiar letter, which he handles as powerfully as Keats.

In the process, the editors also reveal the power of a personality that transcends his specifically literary achievements. Tagore, scion of one of the richest and best connected families of 19th-century Calcutta, never suffered feelings of inferiority before the “sahibs” the English masters of India. He was a leader of the pre-Gandhi Swadeshi (self-rule) movement in Bengal at the turn of the century, but turned away from nationalist politics in disgust at the violence and bitterness that came with it. His wary friendship with Gandhi never prevented him from expressing grave doubts about the wisdom of Gandhi’s advocacy of “nonparticipation” with British rule while the British still, in Tagore’s view, had modern lessons to teach India.

But Tagore was no political fence sitter. His 1919 letter to Lord Chelmsford, viceroy of India, protesting a British massacre in the Punjab region and handing back his knighthood, is a masterpiece of icily correct invective.

Tagore comes closest to us, though, when he calls on his Western friends to imagine a world in which East and West give each other spiritual gifts free of imperialistic coercion, a world in which science is honored but spiritual and humane values rule. “When our universe is in harmony with man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty,” Tagore told Einstein in 1930. Coming from a man with few illusions about either East or West, this noble sentiment sounds less like pure idealism than a hard-won way of living decently in a violent century. Tagore’s gift for us today, splendidly presented in this anthology, is his insistence on speaking for the highest human values and loftiest human aims. At a time when our public discourses have descended into the mud of marketspeak and realpolitik, we need Tagore’s courageous and undeceived conviction that we were born for something wildly and brilliantly better.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.