Rabindranath Tagore – a Poet between Renunciation and Delight (Nehru Centre, Mumbai)

[Nehru Centre, Mumbai-30. April 2011]

Rabindranath Tagore –

a Poet between Renunciation and Delight

Martin Kämpchen


In an essay on Rabindranath Tagore the Indian psycho-analyst Sudhir Kakar remarked that “unity” was the all-pervasive theme in the poet’s work. Kakar explained that Tagore’s yearning for unity made itself felt in two quite opposite moods typical of Rabindranath. One is rapture, enthusiasm, ecstasy – indeed a mood expressed in many of his poems, particularly in his religious poems. The second is melancholy. Both, rapture and melancholy, possess a quality of the infinite, of unity, viewed from opposite angles. The tension between these opposite moods produces the creative fervour Rabindranath needed to write a poem or a song.

Let me broaden this equation. Rabindranath’s yearning for the infinite, for unity is, to my mind, but one pole of his creative being. The second pole is his yearning for absorbing and enjoying the world with his senses. Rabindranath is torn between that yearning for the infinite – and the need for the contemplation of nature and the “world” through his senses. It is the mark of Tagore’s greatness that he did not relinquish himself to any one pull. He did not become an ascetic poet by denying the world. Nor did he choose to become a hedonistic writer who worships sensual pleasures. Both these extremes have their famous examples in the realm of literature.

Rather, Rabindranath opted to want God as much as he wanted the world, the Infinite as much as the Limited. Throughout his life, this tension gave him sufficient food for his creative urges to unfold. This complex tension between a life of world-affirmation and a life of ascetic world-abnegation is age-old, and yet it has the stamp of a modern dilemma.


I recount some defining moments in Rabindranath’s life which are variations of his life’s theme, the struggle between wanting God and wanting “the world”. They were, I imagine, defining moments to Rabindranath; but they are especially defining moments in the manner in which I understand Rabindranath’s view of life.

Rabindranath has not written an autobiography. But throughout his life he has authored autobiographical essays and written two books which cover certain periods of his life. One is chelebela, “Boyhood Days”, which the poet wrote in 1940, a year before his death, and covers the period until he went to England as an adolescent. The eighty-year-old Poet looks back on his childhood with such humour and generosity, with such magnanimous charm and detached wisdom that, to me, it easily becomes one of the loveliest books I read of Rabindranath. He examines the roots of his future flowering as a poet and philosopher without becoming analytical or terse.

If we read attentively, we already witness the struggle to open up the world and oppose others who try to limit his experience of the world. The young Rabi felt closed-in and lonely. Although the house at Jorasanko, in Kolkata, brimmed over with people – with family members, servants, tuition masters, and hangers-on –, Rabi felt lonely and fled into his own fantasy world. As he told in “Boyhood Days”:


“My chief holiday resort was the unfenced roof of the outer apartment. From my earliest childhood till I was grown up, many varied days were spent on that roof in many moods and thoughts. [...] When I went on to the roof my mind strode proudly over prostrate Calcutta to where the last blue of the sky mingled with the last green of the earth; my eye fell on the roofs of countless houses, of all shapes and sizes, high and low, with the shaggy tops of trees in between.”[1]


Let me add two brief quotations from the poet’s early life, this time from Rabindranath’s second autobiographical book, jibansmriti, (“Reminiscences”), published in 1912 when the poet was 51 years old. He wrote that


“it was forbidden to us to leave the house. Even inside the house we could not wander anywhere we wanted. Therefore I saw the unbound nature only from my hiding place. There was a Something which stretched out endlessly, that was called the outer world which was denied to me, although its forms and sounds and scents touched me through various cracks of doors and windows unexpectedly. [...] The world was unbound, I was captive – nothing could unite us. Therefore its attraction was all the stronger.”[2]


And the second quotation from “Reminiscences” is:


“Looking back on my childhood, I above all realize that the world and life were filled with mystery. Daily I expected step after step something fantastic to happen which would reveal itself in who-knows-which ways.  [...] I remember how deeply related the earth was to me in those days. The earth, water, trees, the sky – everything spoke to me, and I could not remain indifferent.”[3]


When describing his boyhood, Rabindranath had recourse to a typical thought process which he followed until the poems of his last year. We see a peculiar play or interaction between the Limited and the Limitless. Rabindranath feels captive within a limited space, be it in the house from which he cannot escape from or on the roof which again provides no path on which he could move beyond it. Yet, this limited space is not all closed up, it allows sensual contact with the Limitless which Rabindranath calls the “outer world” or “the Unbound”. The boy Rabi can hear and above all see the Limitless from his house or from the roof. This sensual contact allows him to have a clue, an indication of the nature of the Limitless which then gives him an opportunity to imagine and to fantasize. Hence, both in the physical world, as well as in the realm of imagination the Limited and the Limitless touch each other and interact.

Rabindranath tells us how he used to sit in a ramshackle, unused palanquin under the staircase of his family house and dream up various adventurous journeys into fairyland countries replete with giants and dangerous dragons. These trips of his youth were continued until he became of age, when they were substituted by real trips across India and across the oceans to real continents and countries.

Even when Rabindranath simply wanted to praise nature, its beauty and grandeur, he is quite unable to do so without seeking recourse to the language of Transcendence, that is, the Limitless. Two sentences which he wrote in a letter in 1891 have inspired me ever since I read them first. I have quoted them often. They are:


“I love the earth which lies quietly at my feet so much that I wish to embrace its whole immensity, with its trees and leaves, its rivers and fields, its noises and silences, its mornings and evenings, with these my arms. I ask myself whether we will ever receive from heaven the treasures with which the earth entrusts us.”[4]


In other words, the richness and fullness of nature in all its materiality is compared to – heaven! This seems to be the only comparison worthy of the greatness of nature.

When the twelve-year old boy Rabi first visited Santiniketan together with his father Debendranath, he already expressed the sentiments of a true poet. They reached the train station Bolpur near Santiniketan in the evening while the daylight was already fading. Rabi did not want to have his first experience of rural Bengal in dimming light. So – as he writes in his “Reminiscences” –


“when I climbed to the palanquin, I closed my eyes tight. I wanted that only on the following morning the entire landscape of Bolpur would unfold in front of my wide awake eyes. Had I recognized this or that detail imperfectly in the evening dusk, it would have destroyed the full joy of the experience on the next day.”[5]


Here we see the impulse to maximise joy (ānanda) by creating the appropriate environment for it. Nature is first fashioned in its materiality like an orchid which is groomed and cultivated until it reveals its perfect beauty. Then this experience is being evoked in memoirs, travelogues and especially in poetry. There is indeed an element of artificiality in this method. One is never quite sure where the plain description of nature ends and when the work of the poet begins conjuring up images and emotions. But that is exactly what Rabindranath’s genius is all about: He creates a new world of experience which is all his own. Here the work of the Supreme Creator and of the poet-creator mingle and mix inextricably. He lets us into his own world like a magician. Once inside, it is difficult, almost impossible, to view the world again as we did before. It is impossible to forget or discard the world Rabindranath has evoked in front of our inner eye.

So far, we have witnessed the boy Rabi being inspired by nature; he discovered Transcendence by contemplating the material world. This movement from the material to the spiritual can also be reversed, although for a poet and artist, such a movement from the material to the spiritual, from the concrete to the abstract, will ever be the most natural. There has been one key experience in Rabindranath’s adolescence when he witnessed a sudden spiritual illumination first which then deeply affected the manner in which he saw the outer world. In his “Reminiscences”, Rabindranath tells us of this incidence which happened in Kolkata on the roof of his house when the poet was twenty-one years old. He wrote:


“At that moment, the sun was about to rise through the leaves of the trees. While I continued to observe this, it appeared to me as if in one moment a veil fell from my eyes. I saw the world bathed in a wonderful brilliance and waves of joy and beauty ascending on all sides. My heart was covered by thick layers of sadness which the universal light pierced in one moment und illuminated my whole inner being. [...]

While I was standing on the veranda, the gait, the shapes, the graceful countenance of each labourer, whoever passed by, seemed to be extraordinarily wonderful. It was as if they all moved like the playful waves on the ocean of the universe. From childhood onwards I had merely seen with my eyes. Now I began looking with my entire consciousness. [...] Never before had I observed the play of limbs and of facial features which accompanies even the most insignificant human actions. Now I was continuously enraptured by the musicality of the human body’s movements. None of these movements did I see in isolation, but as a whole. There were thousands of human beings all over the world who lived in different houses, executed different activities, and had different needs. I saw the physical movements of all men in the whole world as One und discovered among them the signs of a magnificently beautiful dance.”[6]


Here, the initial incident was a spiritual experience which filled Rabindranath’s mind. With this experience, he was able to view the outside world in a dramatically different manner than before. The spiritual vision flowed outside, so to speak, and filled the world. This mystical experience was to stay with Rabindranath for “seven or eight days”. “Everyone”, continued Rabindranath, “even those who bored me, seemed to lose their outer barrier of personality; and I was full of gladness, full of love, for every person and every tiniest thing.”[7]

After this, Rabindranath wrote one of his significant early poems, “Awakening of the Waterfall” (nirjharer swapnabangha) where he describes in rhythmical cadences how waterfall gushes down breaking the rocks that held it captive. Here, his spiritual experience receives its adequate expression in a forceful poetic vision.


We are aware of the deeply ingrained ascetic tradition of Hinduism in India. According to traditional philosophy, the monk, the sanyāsī, is the “ideal man” who alone fully meets the requirements of dharma. The respect, nay, veneration accorded to monks, to gurus and bābās shows us how strong this tradition continues to run in the general population. Vivekananda, Gandhi, and Aurobindo are upholders of that asceticism. Only Rabindranath is not! Although he had a seriously ascetical father, Debendranath Tagore, he himself broke with that tradition. Strangely, the image Rabindranath created of himself – the man with long hair and a flowing beard, wearing a Sufi cap and wide, flowing gowns – conforms to the image of a venerable ascetic. Also his beautiful, but unsmiling, face carries the severity and gravity of an ascetic. Quite befittingly, he was and is still called “Gurudev” in Santiniketan and Bengal.

But many of his poems speak a different language. There he makes light of asceticism. At the age of almost forty, already a mature writer and poet, he published the humorous poem pratijñā (“Decision”)[8] in which he lamented: I do not want to be an ascetic – a tāpas – unless I find a tāpasvinī – a lady ascetic – to keep me company. With this “unless”, he jokingly subverts the entire objective of asceticism.

Or let us take the poem bairāgja (“Renunciation”)[9] which is a narrative poem telling us the story of a family man who feels the urge to secretly leave his wife and child in order to “find God” in an ascetical life. Again and again he asks himself who and what keeps him bound to his family life. Where is God? – Again and again God answers “I” – “I keep you here”, “I am next to you”. But the man has no ears to hear God’s replies. At the end: “Sighing deeply God says, ‘He wants to leave me, where is he going?’”

Best-known among these anti-asceticism poems is gītāñjali 119. The Poet appeals us to leave bhajan, pūjan, sādhan – or in the Poet’s own translation:


Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil! [...][10]


In the poetry of Tagore’s later life, the rejection of asceticism and the promotion of a world-affirmative view becomes more subtle and intricate. There is no downright rejection or affirmation anymore. To show this, I quote from one more poem. The untitled poem is number 19 from the collection balākā. He wrote it in 1915.


“How deeply have I loved the world,

again and again with each new life.

With my whole life I keep the world in my embrace.

Mornings and evenings,

light and darkness

flow into unison in my mind.

At long last

my life and my earth have

become one.



But, I know, I must die one day.

No longer will my word be cast abroad

by the wind,

my eyes will no longer plunder this light,

my heart will not listen

to the fiery messages of the dawn.”



As my deepest desires

are true and genuine,

so is my deepest renunciation.

In the midst of both

there is, however, a secret unity.

How else could

the universe bear for so long

such terrible tension

with such equanimity.”


Here Rabindranath suggests that Renunciation and Desire of the world can be kept in a balance because there pre-exists a secret union of the two. Hence, tilting this balance of Renunciation and Desire would result in a terrible discord which the world would not be able to bear. So, the ascetical and the sensual depend on each other, one balancing the other, upholding and enforcing a secret unity.

We have reached one essential realization in our deliberation: the ultimate unity of these seemingly contrary forces: Desire and Renunciation.[11] A poet who is capable of holding these two forces bound to each other, both in his own experience and in his poetic creations, possesses a primeval, elementary genius. It is said that humankind knows just a few professions which are primeval. Without them, no society can exist sanely. These elementary professions are said to be the priest, the farmer, the physician and the poet (who may be identical with the priest). Rabindranath Tagore fulfilled the role of a primeval poet in his life-time and continues to fulfill it now. A primeval poet interprets Life to his people, he ushers them into both the beautiful as well as the terrifying mysteries of our existence. He consoles a sad spirit and infuses joy and enthusiasm and energy into those who are ready to receive it. In an exemplary manner he lives life and tells his readers and listeners about this experience.

The German philosopher Hermann Keyserling likened Rabindranath to the “old bards” who by their songs “sang the forests and stars into being”. In other words, those primeval poets like Rabindranath are regarded as co-creators of the universe besides the Creator God. As I have mentioned earlier, such poets create their unique world of experience which, once we have entered, is difficult to leave again.

Those who read and study Rabindranath in this country from their early youth, can directly draw their consolation and their joy, their moral rectitude and their value system from him. They should feel blessed. And those like me who as adults felt drawn towards Rabindranath from afar, do gladly spend a the rest of our life-time reading and studying him, and gradually we, too, feel his influence in our life and work.


In conclusion, let me turn to one practical concern. Rabindranath himself wrote that God is “there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones.” This love of the world and all its human beings was not a poet’s fancy. It was gained and sustained in the fire of a practical engagement for the preservation and growth of the world’s potential. Rabindranath called for an active involvement in the affairs of mankind, for an attitude of sevā.

I have always been interested in and fascinated by persons who had a strong dual focus – by those leading a contemplative as well as an active life, a creative and a socially beneficial life. My Christian faith demands from me an active and sustained love of fellowmen. I have grown up with this ethos, and it has always been my deep-rooted desire to make a difference to people’s life by serving them. Swami Vivekananda put the same idea into practice as a modern Hindu and went to the length of building up a large monastic organization to pursue this objective. He combined within him the contemplative life and the active life.

However, where can one find persons who were creative as artist-scholars and were able to combine this creativity fruitfully with an active life of constructive service? In Europe my uncontested hero is Albert Schweitzer. He was a musician and a theologian, a physician and a missionary all at once. As a boy, I was deeply influenced by his life’s example.

While Rabindranath’s life-example unfolded in the biographies I read, I realized that, in India, he was an inspiring model of this ideal of combining creative activity with an active involvement in people’s lives. I wanted to follow him: I hoped that my writing would give me a sustainable income and at the same time allow me the freedom, the flexibility and time to be a friend and a mentor for younger people in the villages around Santiniketan who were reaching out to me. My experiences in these villages, by return, would give me the material for some of my essays, short stories and my journalism. In this way, I wanted that writing and sharing my life with others form a complementary harmony.

Any constructive work with young people which takes up more than just a few weeks of spot-help inevitably leads to the question of education. Education is needed for the young to accept and properly use the help that was offered to them. Hence, quite naturally, Rabindranath became an educator, and, again, I followed his example. For any help to take root, education is essential. It had to be an education which makes a transformative impact on children so they no longer needed to depend on help, but could help themselves and then be of use to others.

Such transformative education Rabindranath offered at Santiniketan. Logically, my development efforts in the two Santal villages near Santiniketan, Ghosaldanga and Bishnubati, also soon entered the realm of education. We started an evening school, then a Santal non-formal day school. I am shocked by the mechanical method of teaching and learning in Indian government schools: taking dictations, memorizing facts and figures without an understanding of their context. I learnt of Rabindranath’s abhorrence of this system of education and his alternative of an artistic education which emphasized learning through play, through music, songs, dance, through the experience of nature and beauty. This rabindrik ideal of creative and joyful learning is my strongest motivating agent for guiding and accompanying the educational progress in these two villages and several Santal villages around.

First, I myself grew up similarly. Up to 14th grade (that is, Bachelor Degree level), we had classes in music and art, in sports and biology, in geography and two modern languages. I played the violin and sang in a choir, our teachers sent us to theatre plays and to concerts, and our biology teacher often took us out to teach us from nature.

Secondly, I felt that it would come natural to Santals to learn in the rabīndrik method as they are so gifted in music and dance, in the arts and in sports. This proved to be true. For the last 15 years, our day-school is being conducted on the lines of joyful and creative learning in a peaceful village environment. The school is run by Santals and also has non-Santal teachers. The problems and shortcomings are many. Often, our senior teachers tend to neglect such subjects because they themselves did not have the benefit of learning through music and art during their school days. The mainstream trend to run after getting “numbers”, good marks, is ingrained in both teachers and students, and it is such a struggle to convince both groups to find a balance.

I tell you these details of how Rabindranath affected my life for one particular reason: The primeval poet Rabindranath holds the two poles of Renunciation and Delight, of transcendence and the sensually experienced world in a balance by his creative powers. Within this balancing act, urged by renunciation, duty, compassion as much as by delight, the joy of communication, of interacting with young, mellow minds, Rabindranath created his school. If this is so, I believe, then we, the followers of the Poet, should not just read his poems, put on stage his plays, sing his songs, but also engage in a very concrete and very serious work within society. Only then, lead by the efforts of our hands and our mind, will we be able to experience these polar forces within us and bring them into a unity. Then only, Rabindranath will not just be a beautiful emotion, expressed in songs and in the tearful recitation of his poems. But Rabindranath will have dynamized us into a work among men which engages all our mental, intuitive, emotional and physical powers.


All translations from Bengali are by the author, unless otherwise indicated.

[1] Rabindranath Tagore: My Boyhood Days. Translated by Marjorie Sykes. Visva-Bharati, Calcutta 1986, p.52 f.

[2] Rabindranath Tagore: jibansmriti. In: rabindra racanabali vol.17, p.270.

[3] ibid. p.274f.

[4] chinnapatra no.18. Visva-Bharati, Kolkata 1319, p. 52 – letter from Kaligram, January 1891.

[5] jibansmriti. p. 311f.

[6] jibansmriti, p.396-398.

[7] Rabindranath Tagore: My life in my words. Selected and edited with an introduction by Uma Das Gupta. Penguin India, New Delhi 2006, p. 84 (“Rabindranath to C. F. Andrews, in conversation, September 1912”).

[8] from ksanikā (1900).

[9] from caitāli (1896).

[10] The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume one: Poems. Edited by Sisir Kumar Das. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 1994, p.46.

[11] This connects with Sudhir Kakar’s idea mentioned in the beginning of this essay.

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