Today would encourage the church to remember one who, though not a Christian, helped shape a culture and nation: Rabindranath Tagore, Poet, Author, and Activist.
Before we do a brief little glimpse at Tagore, I think it’s worth noting why I think the church should remember those even outside their own flock. If we are to imagine that the stream of time includes many ripples, some of those ripples will be from rocks we’ve thrown in, and yet others will be from rocks on other banks that bump into our own ripples, creating new patterns.
Tagore is one such social ripple maker (and his poetry graces my bookshelf), and so like Gandhi and Gamaliel, he’s worth lifting up!
Born in the second half of the 19th Century, Tagore is Bengali by birth, and his legacy is held by both Bangladesh and India as culturally significant. He was born into a high class, and though his mother desired that he become a barrister (and, indeed, he was sent to England to study for it), his heart was that of a poet. From the age of eight he was writing poetry, and even published his first book of poems under a pseudonym at the age of sixteen.
As you can imagine when a poet is trying to study law, he didn’t stay long in school. He returned to Bengal without a degree, and began publishing poems, short stories, and novels. While in England he became enthralled with Shakespeare, and the complex characters he encountered there shaped his own writing.
In 1912 Tagore gained international fame, though it followed on personal tragedy. His wife, two of his children, and his father all died in a relatively short period of time in the years prior, and in the midst of this heartache he translated one of his famous poetry books, Gitanjali, into English. W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound took notice, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He was also offered Knighthood for his work, but renounced it in 1919 in reaction to the massacre of Bengali people at the hands of British forces.
Tagore saw that Indian independence was a moral movement, though he resisted any strong nationalism, seeing that as an inherently dangerous idea. In his view nationalism would cut India off from other countries, making them an island unto themselves, which would make them insular.
Those with ears to hear, hear.
Even though he stood with Gandhi in the movement for Indian independence, he and Gandhi disagreed on the tactics by which to achieve that independence, often feeling that Gandhi was too radical, and the poor locals on the ground felt the forceful fist of those actions.
Along with social activism, Tagore helped to create alternative schools, encouraging alternative ways of learning for the local children. He spoke out against the caste system, and lobbied that all castes get access to the temples and cultural gems that India offered.
As Tagore aged he became less and less enamored with religion as a system, and saw the divisions it caused as doing more harm than good. He also began to more intentionally explore science, and began to weave his stories into the scientific community through essays and fanciful scientific biographies in the 1930’s.
In 1937 Tagore fell comatose, and remained in that way for many years, briefly recovering some abilities, and then failing again in 1940. He died on this day in 1941.
Tagore had his fingers in all creative works: from drama, to poetry, to novels and stories, to hymn writing and paintings. Tagore felt like exploration was part of a human’s calling in life, and he dared to fulfill it.
Rabindranath Tagore is a reminder for me, and should be for everyone, that exploration is part of humanity’s calling in life.
So go create, by God!
-historical bits from publicly accessible sources
-icon is Tagore’s own self-portrait