Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tagore on Life and Death

Thou Hast Made Me Endless- Part XIII

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941 AD) Nobel Laureate of 1913
(Some translated pieces from his Bengali works)

Translator:RAJAT DAS GUPTA: Calcutta: e-mail:

Tagore on ‘Death’ (2)
In the first chapter under this caption published on 2nd March 2008,. it has been mentioned that Tagore’s thoughts on ‘Death’ are mostly Upanishad (more than 4000 year old Indian scripture in Sanskrit language) based. We have Tagore’s interpretation of this Upanishada aplenty in his book ‘Santiniketan’ (in Bengali) an extract from which is translated below.
[…..From age to age Man is deriving wisdom through ignorance, he is gaining bliss by annihilation of sin and blight. Through strife he is getting Truth, there is no other means for it. Those who think that this ‘light’ is untruth, Utopia is a mere fiction, had they been right, Man would remain same as he was on the day of his advent on this earth, he would not grow any more. Because Amritam (Immortality) is inherent in him, man has made way through Death to radiate his Immortality;. Through the narrow outlet of Death, Amritam founts. Those who had visualized this, gave their call- “Be not afraid; this darkness is not true, neither Death is; you are successors of Amritam. Don’t accept serfdom to Death; if you surrender to your physical instincts, you’ll insult your inheritance to Immortality”. As insects nibble the flower, so does your physical instincts to your Immortality. He Himself had said –“Thou art the sons of Immortal; like Me.” Shall we belie his words every day?
…….’Whatever we piled up, we shall guard for ever’; what sort of piety is this? Just as our penchant for our torso to guard which our relentless frantic attempts go futile. However much we may pine for it, because our relation with it is for long, we cannot protect it, as to do so is to protect Death itself. We have to kill Death only by shunning our body……………….]
Thus, in Tagore’s dissertations on ‘Death’ we more hear about ‘’Life’ and his songs/poems on ‘Birth’ and ‘Death’ are hand in glove. A few examples follow.

1) A Tagore’s song on birthday:

He nutan dakha dik arbar
Janmero prathama subhakshan
[Note: There has been a boom of celebration of birthday parties of young and adults alike in the Western style even in our country with the trite song ‘Happy birthday to you …..etc.’ preceded by the ritual of cutting/eating of delicious birthday cakes to be followed by sumptuous dishes and, of course, the incumbents are flooded with costly gifts from their guests. Thus, the birthday parties do provide plenty of enjoyment. However, it may be interesting to compare this ethos with that which pervades the whole of Bengal during the Kabi Paksha (Poet’s fortnight) which starts on the 25th day of Baisakh (this month in the Bengali calendar synchronizes with the mid April to mid May period), the birthday of the Poet, when the entire clime here is inundated with Tagore’s songs/recitals etc. in various functions taking us deep into the perception of Creation’s mystery, which we badly miss in our said birthday rituals which, one may feel, are in utter mediocrity once one has experienced the ecstasy and philosophical height in Kabi Paksha. Out of many other recitals relevant to the profundity of ‘birthday’ the following song is sure to be heard on this occasion ]

O Ever New, may Thee reappear
Through Life’s holy primal hour;
With the mist torn
Like Sun be Thy manifestation.
From the midst of inane
Thy victory be over its bane.
Let be hailed by Thy glow
And my heart’s trumpet blow;
Music of Life’s marvel
Infinity’s eternal wonder to reveal;
The clarion call to the Ever New be sent
At the advent
Of Baisakh the twenty fifth
For its un-blighting gift.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Poem No: 39 of the book ‘Sesh Saptak’ written in 1933, about 8 years before his death in 1941 at the age of 80.

[Translator’s note: Tagore’s wonderful interpretation of Upanishada 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 more than 4000 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 a 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.”]

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,
I followed.
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 wakeless 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.”

* * * * * * * ** * ** * * ** ** * * ** ** ** * **

Poem” Punarabartan (Re-incarnation) from the book Geetali (Music) written in Buddha Gaya in 1914.

[Translator’s note: The Hindu belief in re-incarnation may conflict with the scientific mindset if we try to interpret it in a physical sense. But even scientists will never be able to explain the mystery behind the mortal life which apparently terminates while new life re-appears. Are these totally isolated phenomenon or linked up? The Poet is inclined to accept the latter. Incidentally, recital of this piece goes both as a poem as well as a song, the starting of which in Bengali is as follows –

Abar jadi ichcha karo abar ashi phire,
Dukkha sukhar dheu khelano ei sagarer tire….]

Here I revert to if you’ll wish so
This shore dashed by the waves of weal and woe.
Float my boat again,
On the dust play my game –
Run after the elusive golden deer
Only to flood in tear.
In the dark night, on the road thorny
Again I start my journey –
Either to succumb to my injury
Or survive its fury.
Again in disguise me to beguile
You play with me all in smile;
With my renewed mirth
Again I love this Earth.

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