Published:  01:38 AM, 11 May 2017

Tagore's message on Religion

Tagore in Oxford

I have been to this city many times, but only as a visitor, during my long 16 years' of stay in Britain. This is the first time I am here to do some research for a few months. The readers may be asking why this special note. Many of Tagore's fans normally celebrate his birthday, May 7; especially in places like Kolkata with readings of his poetry, singing his songs, staging plays he wrote. To me, however, the best way to celebrate Tagore is to reflect on his ideals which are so very universal in nature.

I was struck by this thought as I crossed the road from the Balliol College dorm where I stay and saw a building called Harris Manchester College. I had to go in, since I immediately remembered reading, a long time ago, Tagore's slim volume, The Religion of Man, which contains the Hibbert lectures, an annual event where leading scholars were invited to give "non-sectarian lectures on theological issue." Tagore gave these lectures at Manchester College (as it was known then), Oxford, way back in May, 1930.

What about Tagore's message? Although the book by itself is not too long, The Religion of Man had 14 chapters excluding the conclusions. The names of these chapters themselves suggest Tagore's deep thinking as to how he viewed religion. It starts with "Man's Universe," and ends with "The Four Stages of Life," with chapters in between such as, "The Vision," "The Music Maker," "Spiritual Freedom" etc. It is not my intention to elaborate on all this but, personally, I got the sense out of these chapters that the very essence of religion is its universal message which is deeply embedded in them, irrespective of any race and creed.

Tagore was emphasizing the fact that while there is nothing wrong in looking for materialism that is so prevalent in the West, and its immense progress in science, we must not lose sight of the divine. I could not agree more when he said, "the God of humanity has arrived at the gates of the ruined temple of tribe." For him there is no more inhibition and he has arrived at the truth.

The book encapsulates, he says, the gist of many lectures he has given throughout his life in many countries over a very long period and is not "merely as a philosophical subject." They are all "linked by a unity of inspiration." In one of the past issues of Parabaas, Kathleen O'Connell, while writing about the Utsav-Celebration, has discussed Tagore's approach to "cultivating the human spirit and the study of religion," a topic not so dissimilar to our current discussion.

In Chapter VII titled "The Man of My Heart," Tagore says, "At the outburst of an experience which is unusual, such as happened to me in the beginning of my youth, the puzzled mind seeks its explanation in some settled foundation of that which is usual, trying to adjust an unexpected inner message to an organized belief which goes by the general name of a religion." He goes on to say, "After a long struggle with the feeling that I was using a mask to hide the living face of truth, I gave up my connection with the church."

The church Tagore is referring to was a monotheistic church where his father was the leader and Tagore was asked to be the secretary by his father. I have often wondered, after reading this, how many of us in our youth have been asked by our parents to come to many 'pujas' which we did, many times rather reluctantly, but, now in retrospect, I know I never understood the real significance of religion.

Differentiating between science and religion, Tagore says, "As science is the liberation of our knowledge in the universal reason, which cannot be other than human reason, religion is the liberation of our individual personality in the universal Person who is human all the same." I remember writing an article (The changing face of biology, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1997, vol. 22, 29-36) before the human genome was sequenced, on a rather speculative topic, namely, where biology was going to go in the next 20 to 50 years. Under the subheading, "Message of Universality," I said: "I may have missed it, but I have not come across any in-depth discussion of one particular aspect of this discovery. I like to call it the 'Grand Unification' aspect.

 What I mean by this is the following: it was the first time that one could see instantly that the life process, irrespective of its source, has a single origin, in the long string of four letters, A, C, T, and G in an intertwined double helix. It is unbiased: race, color, creed, and religion independent. It transcends all kingdoms-animal, human, plant, and bacteria. One may sense here a philosophical undertone, but an abstraction it is not.

It is real; it can be seen and touched. It can be quantified." I think it is most appropriate that, reviewing the book, News Chronicle said, "Rich in profound thoughts and poetic speech ….. he has never written anything so penetrating and illuminating on the nature of things ……..Dr. Tagore has seen visions, and he can paint them for us with a compelling charm due to utter simplicity and fidelity."

This is not an isolated example of Tagore's writings but, analyzed properly, I found many of his ideas were far ahead of his time. If only we could get into the inner meanings that he was striving at, the world would be a much better place. It is time that we looked at Tagore's writings in a new perspective in relation to what is happening in the world. If we did that in an unbiased way, without pre-conceived ideas and prejudices, we would most probably come to a deeper understanding of the workings of the human mind, irrespective of which part of the world we come from, and provide the kind of leadership in all spheres of life that we so badly need. We need to go beyond the culture of "individualism" that is so paramount in the West and attempt a true unification of our inner values and virtues.

The author is a prominent India based researcher and essayist.

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