Translation from Bengali works of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate of 1913.
Read Translator’s Note at the end of the poem.
They came to me to say –
“O Poet, tell us about Death, pray”.
Said I, “Death is my very intimate,
Its rhythms my heart vibrate;
Entangled in my vein
Joy of its flow in my blood lain.
Says He – ‘Go ahead
With your burdens shed;
Go on dying every second,
At my pull, on my moment.”
Says, “if you sit static
Everything to grip –
In your world flowers will harsh
Rivers will marsh,
The stars will fade –
Stop not” – so He said;
“Don’t look back –
Get across the old, ruins, weary that slack.
I’m the Death shepherd
Driving Creation’s herd
From age to age
Pasture to pasture to graze.
When Life’s stream flowed,
Allowed it not to ditch,
Lured it past the guard of its beach;
Led it to the vast sea,
That is none but me.
The Present aims permanence,
Imposes on you hence
All its load; all your virtues
To this glutton you lose.
On its surfeit, this monster
Craves a stall in wake less slumber.
The Creation to rescue from the grip
Of this hibernate Present, is my severe sweep;
That eternal stumbling block
To smash with my disastrous shock,
To pave the way for the pageant perennial
Of the yet to appear, those newcomers to hail.”
This is the Poem No: 39 of the book ‘Sesh Saptak’ written in 1933, about 8 years before the Poet’s death in 1941 at the age of 80.
Tagore’s wonderful interpretation of Upanishad is found in a large number of his essays which helps us understand this oldest scripture of mankind in Sanskrit which founted from the profound spiritual inspiration of the sages of ancient India about 5000 years back. The following quote from Tagore’s essay ‘Dukkha’ (=Woe) is a sample of such interpretation which also appears to me very relevant to this poem on Death, the extreme form of woe according to the limited perceptions of lesser mortals like us. Only a saintly frame of mind, as the poet had, can perceive Death in the vast canvas of Creation where Death’s severity is so diluted.
“Those who lack in spiritual and devotional power, want to perceive as total truth the manifestation of God only amidst happiness, pleasure and wealth. They say, wealth and fame are gift of God, beauty evinces Him and that worldly success is His blessing and reward for our virtuosity. Benevolence of God, to them, is tender and piteous. These infirm with their euphoric reveries take the mercy of God as an aid to their greed, delusion and cowardice with their fragmented fads. But O Awful, where do I confine Your mercy and joy? Only in my happiness, wealth and a panicles life? Shall I have to split woes, hazards, fear and death to juxtapose against You for my knowledge about You? Not so. O Lord, You are sorrow, hazard, fear and death. The blazing flames of Your face are gutting out the mortals, Your vigour is warming up the whole world. O Terrible, we can get rid of the illusion of grief and death only by sighting Your awful form. Else, in Your world we have to go around with a coward’s inhibition, failing to surrender totally to Truth. Then I address You as Benevolent and implore Your mercy and, on its denial, complain against You and lament for my protection from You. But O Terrible, I beg of You that strength which will enable me to deem Your mercy not for my self-comfort and narrow utilities to deprive myself with Your incomplete perception. Let me not deceive myself by approaching You with a trembling heart and moistened eyes to earn Your compassion. From age to age You are rescuing Man from untruth to Truth, from darkness to illumination, from death to immortality, the journey for which is not one of comfort, but of the severest ordeal.”