The Religion of Man is in a sense the culmination of the journey of Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore in his quest for the real meaning of human life and man’s relationship with the Supreme Being as well as society. A journey that began seventy years earlier with his birth in an affluent family that was all the same embroiled in the religious controversies of the day. Grandfather Prince Dwarkanath Tagore was not only a successful businessman and entrepreneur but was also a leader of society and a close associate of Raja Ram Mohan Roy the founder of the Brahmo Samaj. Dwarkanath and his cousin Prasanna Kumar had joined the Calcutta Unitarian Society started by Ram Mohan Roy in 1821, against the wishes of their elders, and in 1828 co-founded the Brahmo Samaj. When Ram Mohan Roy left for England for the last time, he entrusted leadership of the Brahmo Samaj to Dwarkanath Tagore.
By the time Rabindranath was born in 1860, fourteen years after the death of his grandfather in England, Dwarkanath’s son Debendranath Tagore had become the leader of the Samaj and young Keshab Chandra Sen, who had become his disciple, was forced to seek refuge from his disapproving family in the Jorasanko home of the Tagores, where he was befriended by Rabindranath’s older brothers Satyendranath and Hemendranath. When Rabindranath was five years old a schism in the Samaj left the family taking a stand opposed to the faction led by Keshab Chandra Sen. All these events certainly impacted on Rabindranath’s young mind but, unlike his father and brothers, he stayed away from the activities of the Brahmo Samaj. His mind was preoccupied with the compelling beauties of Nature which his sensitive observation morphed into exquisite poetry. Travelling, writing, singing and dramatics became his sole occupations. In his own words,
“Somehow my mind at first remained coldly aloof, I refused to accept any religious teaching merely because people in my surroundings believed it to be true.”
But Rabindranath’s spiritual eye remained open until one day he had a vision when,
“The facts of my life suddenly appeared to me in a luminous unity of truth. All things that had seemed like vagrant waves were revealed to my mind in relation to a boundless sea.”
Seeking answers for his newfound revelation, Rabindranath accepted his father’s offer of a position in the Brahma Samaj, but he gave it up the work when he found that it did not fulfil his quest. Despite the fact that his brothers Jyotirindranath and Dwijendranath were its acknowledged leaders, Rabindranath returned to the Samaj only in 1908 and took over its leadership in 1911. Rabindranath felt that Brahmoism and reformed Hinduism were similar, that Hinduism needed to be altered in a way that it reflects the true “inner Hinduism”. By accepting Keshub Chandra Sen's idea of universality he put an end to the bitterness between the two factions of the Samaj. He condemned all forms of factionalism, sectarianism, communalism, and Brahmo nationalism.
In the series of Hibbert lectures delivered in 1930 that constitute Religion of Man Rabindranath, now in his seventies, gives us a glimpse of his spiritual evolution. He begins by delineating the biological evolution of man and makes the point that structurally the human body achieved freedom from the struggle for physical survival and, apart from the ability to adapt itself to different environments, could use its intelligence to develop edible foods as well as abodes for living comfortably. But unlike the physical body the mind is not limited by its size and allows man to develop relationship not only with other humans but also with his immortal Being.
“The Spirit of Love …. emancipates our consciousness from the illusory bond of the separateness of self; … invokes our Supreme Being for the only bond of unity that leads us to truth, namely, that of righteousness: his consciousness … gradually deepens and widens the realization of his immortal being, the perfect, the eternal … and must express Him in disinterested works, in science and philosophy, in literature and arts, in service and worship.”
Rabindranath traces the development of this consciousness in India through the concept of Purusham, Advaitam, Yoga and Buddha’s teaching.
Tam vedyam purusham vaah,
Yatha ma vo mrityug parivyathah
(Know him the Person who is to be realized,
So that death may not cause you sorrow)
Ekadhaivanudrashtavyam etas aprameyam dhruvam
(This infinite and eternal has to be known as One.)
For Advaitam is Anandam (The infinite One is infinite Love), and, as expressed by Gautama Buddha,
“keep on all the world thy sympathy and immeasurable loving thought which is without obstruction, without any wish to injure, without enmity...To be dwelling in such contemplation … is called living in Brahma"
Tagore finds a parallel in the teachings of the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathustra and those of Krishna in the Bhagwat Gita,
“Zarathustra spiritualized the meaning of sacrifice, which in former days consisted in external ritualism entailing bloodshed. The same thing we find in the Gita, in which the meaning of the word Yajna has been translated into a higher significance than it had in its crude form ...”
Rabindranath tells us that like ancient Indian Rishis, the Baul singers of Bengal shun places of worship preferring to seek for the divine presence within themselves.
“Temples and mosques obstruct the path…He … only believes in ….Love … the magic stone that transmutes by its touch greed into sacrifice….The sky and the earth are born of mine own eyes …. The sweet smell and the bad are of my own nostrils.”
Echoing the words of the Rishi,
“I have seen the vision, the vision of mine own revealing itself, coming out from within me.”
Rabindranath believes that it is for man to achieve this by a fusion of the right elements of his faculties much like creating music. Similarly, art according to Rabindranath is “the response of man's creative soul to the call of the Real”, citing the spread of art works that followed the advent of Buddha and of Kirtan music in Bengal, with the coming of Vishnavite saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Rabindranath postulates, reminding one of Krishna’s teaching in Bhagwat Gita, that to realise himself in the immortal Man and overcome the fear of death, man must balance his contradictory tendencies. Arts and literature arise out of this impulse. Speaking during the period of massive military build-up prior to the Second World War, Rabindranath emphasises the need of spiritual power. He cites the example of ancient India when agriculture had ushered in an era of unity and peaceful co-operation.
Following his spiritual awakening Rabindranath felt a strong urge to convert it into a tangible offering for the benefit of mankind, especially for the people of his native Bengal. He was inexorably drawn to the beauties of Nature he had enjoyed and converted to song and dance, and at the same time dreamed of a fusion between the cultures of the East and West.
“I had intently wished that the introspective vision of the universal soul, which an Eastern devotee realizes in the solitude of his mind, could be united with this (Western) spirit of its outward expression in service, the exercise of will in unfolding the wealth of beauty and well-being from its shy obscurity to the light.”
Rabindranath was convinced that, the twin spirits of the East and the West could be made to meet to make perfect the realization of truth. Thus, Shantiniketan was established, in the cradle of Nature,
“to develop in the children … the freshness of their feeling for Nature, a sensitiveness of soul in their relationship with their human surroundings, with the help of literature, festive ceremonials and also the religious teaching which enjoins us to come to the nearer presence of the world through the soul.”
Rabindranath observes that in India, poetry has served as the philosophical guide for men to the practical path of their life's fulfilment, freedom in truth, which has for its prayer,
Asato ma sat gamaya
(Lead us from the unreal to reality).
For satyam is anandam,
(The Real is Joy)
“The simple man of the village knows what freedom is—freedom from the isolation of self, from the isolation of things… not the mere negation of bondage…. but in some positive realization which gives pure joy to our being.”
But the goal cannot be reached in a hurry, says Rabindranath quoting the village poet,
“Do you not see that my Lord, the Supreme Teacher, takes ages to perfect the flower and never is in a fury of haste? .., Know that only he who follows the simple current and loses himself, can hear the voice."
Ancient Indian thinkers chalked out the path of discipline to develop humanity to perfection, dividing man's life into four parts, following the requirements of his nature. First came brahmacharya, the period of discipline in education, whereby both enjoyment and its renunciation would come with equal ease to the strengthened character; then garhasthya, that of the world's work, the life of the householder; then vanaprasthya, the retreat for the loosening of bonds, taking into account the decline of bodily powers; and finally pravrajya, the expectant awaiting of freedom across death, when the emancipated soul steps out of all bonds to face the Supreme Soul.
Rabindranath concludes that in India, there is a strong belief, based on direct experience that through the process of yoga man can transcend the utmost bounds of his humanity and find himself in a pure state of consciousness of his undivided unity with Parabrahma. There are others who believe that God is profound love, which is the intense feeling of union, for a Being who comprehends in himself all things that are human in knowledge, will and action.
We see that while Rabindranath’s spirituality is firmly grounded in the spiritual traditions of the country, his poetic attachment to Nature and the way it is expressed in the West also influence him profoundly as he seeks to link the two through the institution of Shantiniketan.
Rabindranath’s dream is beautifully captured in the poem that precedes the narrative.
The eternal Dream
Is borne on the wings of ageless Light
That rends the veil of the vague
And goes across Time
Weaving ceaseless patterns of Being.
The mystery remains dumb,
The meaning of this pilgrimage,
The endless adventure of existence—
Whose rush along the sky
Flames up into innumerable rings of paths,
Till at last knowledge gleams out from the dusk
In the infinity of human spirit,
And in that dim lighted dawn
She speechlessly gazes through the break in the mist
At the vision of Life and of Love
Rising from the tumult of profound pain and joy.
1. Kling, Blair B: Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and The Age Of Enterprise In Eastern India, 1976: University of California Press
2. Kopf, David: The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of Modern Indian Mind, 1979: Princeton University Press
3. Tagore, Rabindranath: The Religion of Man, 1931: The MacMillan Company
Published earlier in Souvenir of the 125th All India Brahmo Conference 2015