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Rabindranath and the World: The Influence of the Brahmo Samaj

By Arup Kumar Das

Rabindranath Tagore was born in the ancestral house of the Tagores at Jorasanko Thakur Bari, a centre of the 19th century Bengali renaissance. His father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, was an ardent follower of Raja Rammohun Roy, the maker of modern India, who founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828. Debendranath abjured idolatry, accepted initiation into Brahma Dharma, gave it a shape and became the leader of a re-oriented faith founded on the pure monotheism of the ancient Upanishads. Every morning, his sons had to recite the correct pronunciation and accent of the verses culled from the Vedas and the Upanishads. The daily recital of these beautiful as well as morally uplifting verses and the simple prayer introduced by Maharshi influenced young Rabindranath; and this made a lasting impression on his mental make-up.

Steeped in the Vedic and Upanishad teachings received from his father, the Maharshi, Rabindranath had his initiation in Brahmoism quite early in life, served as the Samaj Acharya in his youth, and wrote numerous songs (Which have enriched the Brahma Sangeet) as oblation to the Supreme Brahma. As a member of the Tagore family, in 1884 at the age of twenty three. Tagore took charge as the Secretary of Adi Brahmo Samaj. During this time, Brahmo Samaj was the target of adverse Hindu criticism. Hindu revivalists like Pt. Sasadhar Tarkachuramani (1851-1928) and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote articles in papers supporting Hinduism. The young secretary of the Brahmo Samaj, Rabindranath, took up the challenge of the Hindus and replied to the articles of Bankim Chandra. The wordy duel of these two famous litterateurs continued for some time thereafter.

As a Brahmo, Rabindranath was against the practice of idolatry in Hinduism. He was against the ‘Incarnation-Theory’ or abatar Veda of Hinduism. He did not spare any opportunity to protest vehemently against orthodox Hinduism be that through his literary works or through his letters to Hemanta Bala Devi (1894-1976) or Kadambani Devi (1878-1943). But Rabindranath had an unprejudiced mind and did not subscribe to the views of any particular conventional religion. We have an idea of his belief and principles that endorse his view on religion and world through the following statement-“I have been asked to let you know something about my own view of religion. One of the reasons why I always feel reluctant to speak about this is that I have not come to my own religion through the portals of passive acceptance of a particular creed owing to some accident of birth. I was born in a family who were pioneers in the revival in our country of a great religion, based upon the utterance of Indian sages in the Upanishad. But owing to my idiosyncrasy of temperament, it was impossible for me to accept any religious teaching on the only ground that people in my surroundings believed it to be true. Thus my mind was brought up in an atmosphere of freedom, freedom from the dominance of any creed that had its sanction in the definite authority of some scripture or in the teaching of some organized worshippers”. (Lectures and addresses, Rabindranath Tagore, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London, II).

 The Brahmo Samaj movement was the most remarkable aspect of the nineteenth century Indian Renaissance. This movement began with Rammohun Roy, whom Tagore called the “Bharat Pathik” – the path finder for India. He attempted to bring about a radical transformation in socio-religious thinking. His advocacy of modern education based on science and reason, his life-long propagation of monotheism, and his concept of brotherhood of man were the remarkable features of his illustrious life and teaching. A similarly striking resemblance is also observed in Tagore through his illustrious works of story, music and dance. We see in them a great world personality working for One World – Basudhaiva Kutumbakam – many years before the establishment of the League of Nation. Jawaharlal Nehru commented on Tagore’s humanism and cosmopolitanism through the following lines “More than any other Indian, Tagore helped to bring into harmony the ideals of the east and the west, and broadened the bases of Indian nationalism. He has been India’s internationalist par excellence ——And yet —His feet have always been planted firmly on India’s soil and mind has been saturated with the wisdom of the Upanishad.

This concept of a unified world has been the topic of discussion in many international congregations. We have seen the formation of a strong European Union in the late twentieth century, paving the way for a common market and business place in today’s fragmented society. In other words, Tagore perceived long that for Indian people to grow and succeed in this world, our thoughts and belief need to be liberal and rational. His liberal thoughts and expressions show in his books in the form of freedom of thoughts and beliefs. In 1910, Tagore published a book of poems in Bengali, titled Gitanjali, for which he received Noble Prize in 1913. Gitanjali and Nobel Prize set Tagore on the world stage raising him to the status of Visva Kabi, the World Poet. Geographical boundaries have lost their significance in the modern world. People of the world have come closer. This closeness is founded on love, as Tagore visioned-the East and West join hands in the pursuit of truth. Tagore, who made this observation, had his intellectual realm encompassing Sanskrit civilization, English culture, and Bengali folklore in addition to family affinities with Islamic traditions and Persian literature. Inspired by the Vedic mantra ”yatra Visvam bhavati ekanidam” (where the whole world meets in one nest), Tagore named the institution he founded at Santiniketan in 1912 “Visva Bharati”.

The unprecedented reformist efforts in the socio-religious sphere and the irresistible upsurge of educational and intellectual activities that characterized the nineteenth and early twentieth century Indian history, and which have been termed as “the Indian Renaissance”, or more recently, as the “Age of Reform and Awakening” or the “period of Indian Regeneration” proved to be tremendously inspiring to the people of India. It also left an indelible impression in the mind of Tagore, which is clearly evident in his thoughts and writings. The rise of reformism and intellectualism in Bengal in this period began with Rammohun Roy and climaxed with Rabindranath Tagore. It may be prudent to call period of Indian Renaissance, which later Jawaharlal Nehru termed it is Cultural Renaissance to indicate the nineteenth century intellectual and cultural efflorescence. In this period, India witnessed the advent of rationalist and scientific spirit, the endless endeavour for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, the tireless struggle for the emancipation of women and continuous battle against orthodoxy, backwardness and superstition. The spirit of the new age and new learning was reflected in the setting up of numerous schools for spreading modern education, which in current times have grown onto world schools, colleges and universities.

The glorious past of these great men serve as perfect example for our next generation to emulate and follow in today’s world. We talk about unity in diversity, religious freedom; rational thinking; globalization of knowledge; common market place for trade & commerce – all of which were part of the great Indian Renaissance. The influence of Brahmo Samaj and its movement in the nineteenth century had deep rooted impact on Rabindranath and his thinking on the world – a perspective worth a debate. Irrespective of whether it impacted Tagore’s thinking or not, it is certain that we owe a tribute to these great men for their stupendous contribution in starting the socio-economic development of India and transforming into a global market place.

Endnotes

Majumdar, J. K. (1970). Rammohun Roy and the World. Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, Kolkata.

Niyogi Sumanta. (2010). Essays on Modern History. Janaki Prakashan, Patna New Delhi.  Sen Sabujkoli. (2010). Tagore’s Religion. India perspectives, 24(2). 60-65. 

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