Rabindranath Tagore: Poet, Activist and Educator
When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was virtually unknown in the West.
His Gitanjali (“Song Offerings”), a collection of poems championed by William Butler Yeats, secured for him the highest prize in literature over contenders like Thomas Hardy and Anatole France. Tagore went on to create a body of work greater in scope and power than Gitanjali. His true genius bloomed after the Nobel Prize, a fact unique in the history of literature.
A significant amount of Tagore’s work is infused with a vision of the greatness he saw possible in his native land, a confluence of civilizations due to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians, Moguls, Dravidians, and Aryans. India, as he saw it, was greater than the sum of its parts. Through poems and plays, speeches and songs, he strove for this possibility to the end of his day.
Britain in Tagore’s time ruled India with an iron hand. But the rulers were becoming nervous. A young activist named Mohandas Gandhi had returned from South Africa in 1915 to lead the nationalist movement, becoming a proponent of Satyagraha (literally, “eagerness for truth” but more commonly interpreted as passive or non-violent resistance) to British rule. Although Tagore and Gandhi differed on ways to achieve independence, both believed in regenerating their people through the curbing of communal instincts. The challenge of this possibility continues to this day.
Politics did not interest Tagore but that did not keep him from boldly opposing British tyranny. When government troops led by English officers opened fire on a political gathering in Amritsar in 1919, killing 379 Indians and wounding scores of others, Tagore renounced the knighthood that England had bestowed on him four years earlier. As a poet, he felt it was the strongest statement he could make to draw world attention to the crime.
It cost him friendship and popularity in the literary circles of Europe and even in America, but he considered this act one of the high points of his life. It was also during this time that he composed some of his most powerful poems against oppression and injustice. When Gandhi was imprisoned without trial in 1932, he condemned it. In a letter to England’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, he warned that the British were closing the door on peaceful negotiations with Indian leaders.
Tagore was self-taught. Attempts by his parents to educate him in schools had failed. Young Rabindranath found conventional classrooms suffocating. In 1901, he founded an experimental school at Shantiniketan (“Abode of Peace”) near Calcutta, free from traditional restrictions. Classes were held in open air and joy in learning was given the highest importance.
By 1921, the school had evolved into Vishwa-Bharati University (World University) where students from all over India came to study. It is a testimony to Tagore’s ideal that funding for the University came from both Hindus and Muslims.
Tagore did not live long enough to see the end of the British Raj and the partition of the sub-continent along religious lines in 1947. He died six years earlier, still nurturing a harmonious vision of India, as riots were flaring.
In “The Religion of Men,” a set of lectures delivered at Oxford in 1930, Tagore said: “Freedom in the mere sense of independence has no content, and therefore no meaning. Perfect freedom lies in a harmony of relationship.” In an earlier poem, he had written of the perfect union of knowledge and freedom that he came to embody in his own supremely creative and protean life:
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 arm toward perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert 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.