Tagore was a very prolific writer who enriched our literature with numerous poems, plays, short-stories, novels and other prose writings. While his Gilanjali won for him the Nobel Prize and international recognition and admiration, other great poetical works like The Gardener, and Fruit-Gathering, plays like chitra, The Post Office, Sacrifice and Other Plays, novels like The Home and the World, Gora and The Wreck and collections of short stories like Hungry Stones, not to speak of his autobiography Reminiscences and other philosophical works made a widespread impact all over the world through English translations.
Though Tagore never involved himself in active politics, he remained an ardent patriot and nationalist and a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Having founded and built up the great Shantiniketan University described as one of greatest focal centres of Indian culture, Tagore spent the latter part of his life almost like a rishi given to deep mystical contemplation, meditation and prayer through which his intellect and poetic genius rose to the greatest heights and came closer and closer to the Indian philosophical and spiritual traditions.
Gitanjali is a garland of prayer songs, poems of bhakti written originally in Bengali and published in 1912 and later on translated into English. These songs when read out by W.B. Yeats to a select gathering of such distinguished poets as Ezra Pound, C.F. Andrews and Alice Meynell who met at Rothernstein’s house in London in the presence of Tagore himself one evening, created a stir in the intellectual circles in England and led to George Macmillan taking up the work for publication. The work eventually won the Nobel Prize for literature.
The Gitanjali songs may be considered as a twentieth century manifestation of the great bhakti tradition in Indian poetry, a tradition in which the Vaishnava and Saiva poets of old sang, pouring forth their love of God expressing the joy and ecstasy they experienced in their communion with the Divine.
We can see in these songs a revival of the bhakti tradition, the kind of revival brought about by Ramananda in the North and Ramanuja in the South and again by Kabir under the influence of the former and in reaction to the dry intellectualism of the Vedanta philosophy. Like the Vaishnava lyrics of Jayadev and the devotional songs of Kabir, both of whom had influenced Tagore in a very profound way, Gitanjali songs are inspired by what may be called the mystical religion of love.
It is a poetry inspired by pure devotion and mystical communion with the divine, by a participation in the lila or the total joy of the cosmic play of which the phenomenal world is but a manifestation. In the words of Dr. K.R.S. Iyengar this is a kind of poetry which is “half a prayer from below, half a whisper from above: the prayer evoking the response or the whisper provoking the prayer, always prayer and whisper chiming into song.”
To quote Edward Thompson again, “It (Gitanjali) brings us very close to the religious experience which is universal and yet intensely individual …. His poems have led him to God. His sorrows and failures have shown him God”.
The three cantos selected for study, like all other songs in Gitanjali, reflect certain aspects of the man-god relationship, a relationship which has found diverse manifestations in all bhakti poetry with man now assuming the role of the nayaki in love with God, the nayaka, now making Him his beloved, now speaking to God as his friend. The poems have to be studied carefully against this background, not missing at the same time the subtle echoes and reverberations from the English Romantic and mystic poets which one finds in them especially in the treatment of Nature.
It is significant that Tagore took upon himself the task of translating the poems of Kabir which suited admirably well the genius that produced the Gitanjali songs. In fact , in theme and spirit as well as in the modes of expression Gitanjali, the Kabir poems and The Gardener are very similar to one another showing a mystical quality which is unmistakably Indian.
All these are very much in the bhakti tradition. They are religious but not in a narrow sense. They are inspired by a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which demand a poetic utterance bordering on the sublime. All these works have to be studied together and an attempt has been made here to initiate the student into a brief but profitable study of Gitanjali and the Kabir poems in juxtaposition.
Thou have made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.
When thou commandest me to sing it seems that my heart would break with pride; and I look to thy face, and tears come to my eyes.
All that is harsh and dissonant in my life melts into one sweet harmony — and my adoration spreads wings like a glad bird on its flight across the sea.
I know thou takest pleasure in my singing. I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.
I touch by the edge of the far spreading wing of my song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach.
Drunk with the joy of singing 1 forget myself and call thee friend who art my lord.
I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen in silent amazement.
The light of thy music illumines the world. The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky. The holy stream of thy music breaks through all stony obstacles and rushes on.
My heart longs to join in thy song, but vainly struggles for a voice. I would speak, but speech breaks not into song, and I cry out baffled. Ah, thou hast made my heart captive in the endless meshes of thy music, my master!
This is a song of thanksgiving in which the speaker expresses his gratitude to God for reviving his life endlessly, filling his frail being with infinite gifts.
Such is thy pleasure: There is a possible reference here to the great pleasure or ananda which God finds in the lila of creation. This ananda which according to Hindu belief is the ultimate secret of all creation also seems to be the secret behind the creative energy bursting out in all these songs.
This frail vessel, this little flute of a reed, my little heart, these very small hands of mine : All these expressions while emphasizing the spirit of humility and a passive surrender to the divine will which are characteristic of the bhakti tradition, bring home to us the idea of the Infinite, revealing itself through the infinitesimal reminding us of Blake’s,
To hold infinity in the palm of my hands.
And eternity in an hour.
(Note the images employed in these verses)
This is a song of pure praise which comes under Kirtana, one of the nine forms in which devotion or bhakti is articulated. The speaker seems to be intoxicated with the joy of praising God.
My heart would break with pride: The very privilege of singing the praise of God makes his heart swell with pride but soon humility and tender feelings of gratitude take over and tears come to his eyes.
I know thou takest pleasure… before thy presence: These lines are suggestive of the idea that pure devotion poured forth through songs of praise is one of the surest paths to self-realization.
I forget myself… call thee friend: Addressing God as a friend is one of the convendons followed in bhakti literature. But here it is more than a convention, for it is in a state of total surrender of the self or the shedding of the ego that the devotee finds in His Lord a friend, a lover or a beloved.
(Note all the images employed in this canto)
This song praises God as the supreme singer. The speaker almost bemoans his inability to imitate the divine melody of his master. Here it is a master-pupil relationship that seems to bind him to God.
The entire song is highly reminiscent of shelley’s “To a Skylark” which voices the rapture experienced by the poet in listening to the music of the skylark as it fills the entire world and which leads to the bird to teach the poet the secret of its joyous outpourings. Here it is not the skylark which is addressed but a far greater ubiquitous presence, an immanent God whose song of joy or anaruia alone can make one a real poet attuned to the greater music of creation.
The images used in this song emphasize the master-pupil relationship that the speaker has established with God.
From Kabir Poems:
Tagore’s English translation of Kabir’s poems interests us from many points of view. First of all the songs which are typical of Indian bhakti poetry with their emotional and lyrical character illustrate an important aspect of the mystical consciousness: “It mediates between two orders, going out in loving adoration towards God and coming home to tell the secrets of Eternity to other men” (Evelyn Underhill). God is conceived of in these songs not only as an Immanent Spirit, ‘the Mind.within the Mind’ or the Brahman of the Advaitic School but also as an omnipresent reality with a personal and human aspect which calls for adoration, love and worship.
Even the soul’s union with Him is not an abstract metaphysical absorption but a love union, a mutual inhabitation which involves a duality as against a monistic concept of the self not being different from the Self. God is apprehended in these songs as “the supreme object of love, the soul’s comrade, teacher and bridegroom”.
So the emphasis in these poems is on the lila or God’s eternal love game that the universe is and on God being the Divine Lover and the Beloved all at once. It is little wonder that Kabir’s poems have lent themselves to admirable rendering in English, for they are temperamentally in full tune with Tagore’s own natural genius for an emotional contemplation of and absorption with the Divine.
II. 61. grah candra tapan jot barat hai
The light of the sun, the moon, and the stars shines bright:
The melody of love swells forth, and the rhythm of love’s detachment beats the time.
Day and night, the chorus of music fills the heavens; and Kabir says,
‘My Beloved One gleams like the lightning flash in the sky.’
Do you know how the moments perform their adoration?
Waving its row of lamps, the universe sings in worship day and night,
There are the hidden banner and the secret canopy:
There the sound of the unseen bells is heard,
Kabir says: ‘There adoration never ceases; there the Lord of the Universe sitteth on His throne.’
The whole world does its works and commits its errors: but few are the lovers who know the Beloved.
The devout seeker is he who mingles in his heart the double currents of love and detachment, like the mingling of the streams of Ganges and Jumna;
In his heart the sacred water flows day and night; and thus the round of births and deaths is brought to an end.
Behold what wonderful rest is in the Supreme SpiritI and he enjoys it, who makes himself meet for it.
Held by the cords of love, the swing of the Ocean of Joy sways to and from; and a mighty sound breaks forth in song.
See what a lotus blooms there without water! and Kabir says,
‘My heart’s bee drinks its nectar.’
What a wonderful lotus it is, that blooms at the heart of the spinning wheel of the universe! Only a few pure souls know of its true delight.
Music is all around it, and there the heart partakes of the joy of the Infinite Sea.
Kabir says: ‘Dive thou into the Ocean of sweetness: thus let all errors of life and of death flee away.’ Behold how the thirst of the five senses is quenched there! and the three forms of misery are no more!
Kabir says: ‘It is the sport of the Unattainable One: look within, and behold how the moonbeams of that Hidden One shine in you.’
There falls the rhythmic beat of life and death: Rapture wells forth and all space is radiant with light. There the Unstruck Music is sounded; it is the music of the love of the three worlds.
There millions of lamps of sun and of moon are burning;
There the drum beats, and the lover swings in play. There love-songs resound, and light rains in showers; and the worshipper is entranced in the taste of the heavenly nectar.
Look upon life and death; there is no separation between them,
The right hand and the left hand are one and the same.
Kabir says: ‘There the wise man is speechless; for this truth may never be found in Vedas or in books.’
I have had my Seat on the Self-poised One,
I have drunk of the Cup of the Ineffable,
I have found the Key of the Mystery,
I have reached the Root of Union.
Travelling by no track, I have come to the Sorrowless Land: very easily has the mercy of the great Lord come upon me.
They have sung of Him as infinite and unattainable; but I in my meditations have seen Him without sight.
That is indeed the sorrowless land, and none know the path that leads there:
Only he who is on that path has surely transcended all sorrow.
Wonderful is that land of rest, to which no merit can win;
It is the wise who has seen it it is the wise who has sung of it.
This is the Ultimate Word: but can any express its marvellous savour? He who savoured it once, he knows what joy it can give.
Kabir says: ‘Knowing it, the ignorant man becomes wise, and the wise man becomes speechless and silent.
The worshipper is utterly inebriated.
His wisdom and his detachment are made perfect;
He drinks from the cup of the in-breathings and the out-breathings of love.’
There the whole sky is filled with sound, and there that music is made without fingers and without strings;
There the game of pleasure and pain does not cease.
Kabir says: ‘If you merge your life in the Ocean of Life, you will find your life in the Supreme Land of Bliss.’
What a frenzy of ecstasy there is in every hour! and the worshipper is pressing out and drinking the essence of the hours: he lives in the life of Brahma.
I speak truth, for I have accepted truth in life; I am now attached to truth, I have swept all tinsel away.
Kabir says: ‘Thus is the worshipper set free from fear: thus have all errors of life and of death left him.’
There the sky is filled with music:
There it rains nectar:
There the harp-strings jingle, and there the drums beat.
What a secret splendour is there, in the mansion of the sky!
There no mention is made of the rising and the setting of, the sun;
In the ocean of manifestation, which is the light of love, day and night are felt to be one.
Joy forever, no sorrow, no struggle!
There have I seen joy filled to the brim, perfection of joy;
No place for error is there.
Kabir says: “There have I witnessed the sport of One Bliss!’
I have known in my body the sport of the universe: I have escaped from the error of this world.
The inward and the outward are become as one sky, the Infinite and the finite are united: I am drunken with the sight of this All!
This light of Thine fulfils the universe; the lamp of love that burns on the salver of knowledge.
Kabir says: ‘There error cannot enter, and the conflict of life and death is felt no more’.
Stanza 1: These lines while drawing attention to God’s endless love game or lila manifested in the lights and sounds of nature picture God as a ‘Beloved One’, the object of love (1.5)
Stanza 2: Here God is an object of supreme adoration, of obeisance.
Stanza 3: The true seeker is one who is able to show at once both an emotional involvement and a philosophical detachment combining thereby both the advaitic and the bhakti traditions.
Stanza 4: Reference again to God’s lila which is inspired by divine bliss or ananda.
A lotus blooms there without water: refer to Aurobindo’s The Rose of God where the poet speaks of the Rose of Love, Rose of Beauty etc., blooming in the human heart, the efflorescence of the Divine here, here on earth.
Stanza 5: This stanza continues the idea of the blooming suggesting again that it is the human response to the lila of God, to the universal joy manifested in the created world.
Stanza 6: Again the idea of God’s lila felt and perceived through the senses and the realization of the Divine in one’s own self.
Stanza 7: The entire stanza is once again a description of the experience of God-realization which came not through intellectual inquiry but through sensual perception and emotional apprehension. A true seeker can realize through devotion and love many truths which will not reveal themselves to one who depends purely, on the intellect.
Stanza 8, 9 8c 10: A reiteration of the same idea. The speaker speaks, from experience and deep conviction, of the supremacy of the path of devotion, of bhakti over all other paths. It is made clear that pure devotion too ultimately leads to perfect realization of one’s own self and its place in the scheme of God.
Stanza 11: lives in the life of Brahma: Kabir has used the terms Brahma repeatedly in the sense of the Brahman or the supreme Spirit. The suggestion again is that the apprehension of the Brahman, the realization that the human soul is only part of the supreme spirit can be attained through devotion or bhakti which therefore becomes a supreme form of gnana.
Stanza 12 &: 13: A repetition and elaboration of the same idea.