Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Source of book: I own a beautiful hardback edition of this book. See below.

Rabindranath Tagore lived from 1861 to 1941, and is best described as a Bengali Renaissance Man. He had a breathtaking range of knowledge, and wrote well in many genres, and in multiple languages. It would not be exaggeration to say that he brought the romance of India to the Western world more than any other figure, perhaps even Ghandi himself. (Thy Hand, Great Anarch, which I previously reviewed, has a fascinating chapter on this remarkable man.)

Tagore received the Nobel Prize in literature for Gitanjali, the first Indian national to do so. He later repudiated the prize after the British opened fire on a crowd, an event which probably was decisive in triggering the Indian Independence movement. (Tagore may or may not have appreciated that the Nobel Prize committee is awarded by a Swedish, not English, committee.)

Gitanjali means “song offerings,” a title which captures its essence fairly well. The work is a series of 103 poems which are largely devotional in nature, and which combine and synthesize the divine with both nature and romantic love. This is not exactly a new idea, of course, nor one limited to any particular religious tradition. (The Old Testament, for example, contains numerous beautiful examples of both. I might use both Song of Solomon and Psalms as a comparison.) Rather, this work exemplifies a universal, eternal, longing of the human spirit: that of unity and fellowship with the Creator.

At the outset, I would like to offer two observations: first, poetry is not the ideal medium for the exposition of clear theological thought and argument. Poetry at its best does convey truth, and often truth that cannot be thought, but rather felt. However, one should not try to parse every word of the poet and build a systematic school of thought from it. I would thus urge the reader to read this collection, not with the goal of agreeing or disagreeing with the details of the theology or worldview, but with the goal of finding common ground in the “groanings that cannot be uttered.”

Second, this is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most beautiful collections of introspective poetry ever written. I am not a scholar, so I can merely guess that Tagore, with his wide range of knowledge and experience, intentionally made use of language that his English speaking (and largely Christian) audience would find familiar. Thus, there are references that those familiar with the Bible (and the Greek philosophers) would recognize. If anything, this renders the sentiments more universal and resonant.

I can only quote a few excerpts, but will note that there are few weak poems in this collection. Tagore arranges them in a rough arc from youth to death, and each poem builds and follows on the last.

Gitanjali opens as follows:

Thou hast 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. 

The poet responds to this inspiration from the deity with a wish for simplicity of worship.

My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.
My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music. 

Or this:


Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song---the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still with its tears on the open red lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word.

I love how the poet focuses on worship expressed as Joy and Love.

What divine drink wouldst thou have, my God, from this overflowing cup of my life?
My poet, is it thy delight to see thy creation through my eyes and to stand at the portals of my ears silently to listen to thine own eternal harmony?
Thy world is weaving words in my mind and thy joy is adding music to them. Thou givest thyself to me in love and then feelest thine own entire sweetness in me. 

Tagore also writes a number of beautiful lyrics about nature and its relationship to life and the divine. There are many good examples, but I am partial to this one:

I must launch out my boat. The languid hours pass by on the shore---Alas for me!
The spring has done its flowering and taken leave. And now with the burden of faded futile flowers I wait and linger.
The waves have become clamorous, and upon the bank in the shady lane the yellow leaves flutter and fall.
What emptiness do you gaze upon! Do you not feel a thrill passing through the air with the notes of the far-away song floating from the other shore? 

I also liked this musing on separation:

It is the pang of separation that spreads throughout the world and gives birth to shapes innumerable in the infinite sky.
It is this sorrow of separation that gazes in silence all nights from star to star and becomes lyric among rustling leaves in rainy darkness of July.
It is this overspreading pain that deepens into loves and desires, into sufferings and joy in human homes; and this it is that ever melts and flows in songs through my poet's heart. 

It was interesting, too, to contrast Tagore’s worldview with that of New Testament theology. To me, Tagore is always expressing a longing for a knowledge he will never have, at least until death. He wants to call the unnamed deity a friend, but feels a sense of distance. He is always longing, but never finding fulfillment. He is ever reaching toward his desire, but that desire only comes to him while asleep, and he ends up missing the connection he longs to have. This lack of a two-way relationship lends a bittersweet feeling to many of the poems.

It is only in death that the poet expects to find fulfillment.
I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.
Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains.
When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks and I see by the light of death thy world with its careless treasures. Rare is its lowliest seat, rare is its meanest of lives.
Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got---let them pass. Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked. 

Tagore comes closer to the Apostle Paul’s view of grace in several other poems. He notes the universal tendency of humans to attempt to reduce the divine to a set of rules and regulations. He resists the attempts at bondage, but looks to the love of the Divine as the higher calling.

By all means they try to hold me secure who love me in this world. But it is otherwise with thy love which is greater than theirs, and thou keepest me free.
Lest I forget them they never venture to leave me alone. But day passes by after day and thou art not seen.
If I call not thee in my prayers, if I keep not thee in my heart, thy love for me still waits for my love. 

This freedom he longs for is not just personal, but national. Indeed, if any country has suffered as a result of its blind traditions (the Caste system, widespread corruption), it is India. Tagore’s vision remains unfulfilled, but it is still a most noble vision, shared by luminaries such as Milton. This is my personal hope for myself and those I love: that our world may not be continually narrowed, but that it may be ever expanded into the infinite goodness and truth of the divine. Simply one of the best of the collection.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. 

One more poem spoke to me in a personal way. In I Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul speaks of the three truly eternal things that will remain after all else passes away: Faith, Hope, and Love. Of these, of course, the greatest is love. Everything else will pass away, and we will be left with Love, as personified in the Divine. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” This is the ultimate hope and longing. This is the true meaning of fulfillment.

Tagore expresses this in a way that encompasses both the aspiration and the knowledge that, in this life at least, we fail. In the end, I will give myself up, through love, into His hands.

I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands. That is why it is so late and why I have been guilty of such omissions.
They come with their laws and their codes to bind me fast; but I evade them ever, for I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.
People blame me and call me heedless; I doubt not they are right in their blame.
The market day is over and work is all done for the busy. Those who came to call me in vain have gone back in anger. I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.

Note on the edition: My brother, who is also a book junkie, has always had a knack for finding outstanding gifts for me. He located this hardback edition of Gitanjali, published by Floating World Editions, a small, artsy publisher of Asian works. This book is a pure pleasure to hold, to feel, and to read. It is a perfect size (8 x 5) for a poetic work, the materials are high quality, and the layout is beautiful. The illustrations by Mark W. McGinnis are interesting and apropos without being overwhelming or distracting from the text. 
 Mark W. McGinnis' illustration for VII, quoted above.

My only quibble is that there are a couple of obvious typographical errors. (For example, at one point, “now” is printed where “know” is the obviously correct word.) Regardless of this, the book is a joy to own and read.

Note on the translation: This is Tagore’s own translation of his work. Interestingly, it is not a direct translation from the original Bengali work. Tagore edited, omitted, and combined the poems to make a new work. Many Bengalis consider William Radice’s later translation to be more accurate to the original. I would be interested in reading that version. However, Tagore’s own translation is excellent for what it is, whether it is “authentic” or not. The English version can be simply regarded as a separate work in its own right, equally representing Tagore’s artistry.

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