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Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (Rabindranath Thakur, where Tagore is an anglicization of Thakur, meaning God) (May 6, 1861 - August 7, 1941) also called Robi Thakur or Gurudev was an Indian poet, Hindu philosopher and nationalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 becoming the first Asian to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Tagore was born into a Hindu family in Calcutta (later renamed to Kolkata), the son of Debendranath Tagore, leader of one of two Brahmo Samaj splinter groups. His last name, in Bengali, is Thakur, literally meaning The Lord. 'Tagore' is an Anglicized corruption of his proper name. 'Thakur' is Brahmin, and his family was indeed of an educated and intellectually diverse lineage. Tagore is known to Westerners as a poet rather than as a formal philosopher, but these two arts are seldom differentiated in traditional Indian culture. An implicit philosophy can be seen in Tagore's poetry. The main literary device by means of which Tagore communicated his religio-philosophical views was that of bridal mysticism . This entails seeing oneself as the bride of God, with a complete submission to and adoration of the divine bridegroom. A powerful thinker, his Upanishadic notions (expressed in his book Sadhana) permeate his works and he has been elevated in the minds of Indians to a sort of poet-sage.

Among his literary oeuvre is included, though poetry takes the centre stage, novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, drama, and no less notably, over 2000 songs (belonging to a genre known as Rabindrasangeet) which are cultural treasures of Bengal in both West Bengal (India) and the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. The Rabindrasangeets, which most frequently deal with transcendental love and spirituality are immensely popular with speakers of the language and form a foundation for the Bengali ethos that is comparable to, perhaps even greater than, that which Shakespeare had on the English-speaking world.

While his prose often dealt with social questions, political ideas, educational ideals, and his vision of the universal brotherhood of man, Tagore's poetry and songs, apart from its deep religious, spiritual and devotional streak, often expressed simply a celebration of nature and life. Life's multifarious variety was ever a source of Ohoituki Ananda, pleasure without outward reason, for him. No less noteworthy are his outputs on love, which recurs as a major motif throughout his literature, and on patriotism.

The importance of Tagore as a figure in literary history is perhaps aptly illustrated by the fact that two countries, (India and Bangladesh), adopted as national anthems songs authored by him. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, the first non-westerner to receive this honour, for his English translation of his powerful work Gitanjali. W.B.Yeats, and Wilfred Owen, two of the greatest poets of the 20th century, were greatly moved by this work, and it is said that it was under Yeats's encouragement that he agreed for its translation to English, which he did himself. The Spanish translations of his work (from English) were done by Zenobia Camprubí and are remarkable in that they follow a non-standard spelling reform proposed by Camprubí's husband Juan Ramón Jiménez. Thus we find frájil instead of frágil ("fragile") and Rabindranaz.

Tagore was also instrumental in the early stages of the nationalistic movement in India, though he dissociated himself from some of what he observed as "the later ungainly manifestations". He was the first to reject the knighthood given by the British crown, in protest against the Jallianwala Massacre in Punjab where an unarmed gathering of civilians was fired upon on the orders of the British officer, killing 350 men, women and children in 1919.

Prominent among the other contributions of Tagore is the university Visva-Bharati , incorporating the vidyalaya (school) instituted by him enshrining his educational ideals. The rigid discipline and claustrophobic environments in various schools he attended in his boyhood left a bitter taste in his mouth. He saw the educational system introduced by the British as "artificial", with total emphasis on unquestioning obedience, mechanical book-learning, little interaction with nature and usually in subjects with little touch with the life of the country around him, and consequently he felt this was stifling to the sensitiveness of the Indian youth. He sometimes referred to himself in slightly mock-serious tones to his lack of formal education. He does appear to have spent a couple of years intermittently at various schools, mainly following his guardians' wishes, but his education was overwhelmingly seen in his family library of books, which was varied and deep, in accordance with the nature of his intellectually-imposing father.

This realization led him to establish his school, called a Brahmacharyashram(centre for Brahmacharya), at Santiniketan in the Birbhum district of West Bengal in 1901, where his father had left a landed estate in his possession. The word Brahmacharya, though commonly understood as a synonym for celibacy alone, was used in ancient Vedic India to name the first of four stages, also called ashramas, of life, usually spent in the pursuit of knowledge-gathering in a natural and pure setting under the tutelage of a spiritually realized person called the Guru or the Acharya. Celibacy was naturally assumed, since the child was learning and striving to be pure for the reception of knowledge, which is considered sacred to Hindus, to encompass a detachment from the avenues of life that involved sex or career pursuit.

Tagore tried to recapture to the extent possible in modern times this Vedic system of learning among idyllic surroundings. Over time, the school grew into a university with over 30 departments today. Since 1951, the university is administered by the Government of India as a Central University. Illustrious almuni of Santiniketan include the late Satyajit Ray , winner of the special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992 , Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel and Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India.

Tagore was keenly sensitive to the world movements of his time and expressed his pain and despair over wars eloquently. His yearning for world peace was however not of a political nature; he desired it to be based on a true realization of the universal identity of mankind and indeed, of the whole of the entire sentient world.

His international travels in the quest of funds for his university led him to many countries and sharpened his understanding of various national and civilizational characteristics. He also visited Hungary and stayed in Balatonfüred for health reasons. He was received with adoration and respect, and he became known and very popular with the Hungarians. His bust is found in a promenade named after him on the shore of Lake Balaton where contemporary Indians would pay a visit while in Hungary to boost his memory. His comparative treatment of the East and the West ranks among the finest examples this genre of world literature, perhaps pioneering it. His essays contributed to repudiate racially coloured views such as those of Rudyard Kipling without overtly attempting to do so.

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Rabindranath Tagore

Last updated: 11-10-2004 23:58:23