Something Rich and Strange: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950)– Murali Sivaramakrishnan

            There is something naturally rich and strange[1] about the extremely intelligent creatures on earth—they never tread the trodden path.  Earthly Paths are definitely for the common mortals, for the uncommon there is the sky, water, fire and ether!

At the very outset we may recognize the epical dimensions of these two giants in Indian literary and aesthetic spheres—and their unique positions in contributing to the process of Indian Renaissance–however, this shouldn’t deter us from taking a closer look at each and also together. They lived with their ideals as we would live with our everyday realities. They lived at a time of great change, historically, temporally and culturally. They are products of their history and they have wrought great changes in history after them. Perhaps it may not be easy for us in the postcolonial, post-industrial present to comprehend the profundity of their thought, the largesse of their vision, and the depth of their historical anguish. Both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo aestheticised their political and ideological wills and their work endures as open invitations for any sensitive reader to experience their travails and traumas on their own.  They have passed on the legacy of a struggle: for difference and meaning, for resistance and understanding. What follows is a exploration of these issues in terms of poetry and thought of Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was a poet and painter who early in life dropped out of regular school only later to found a near-perfect alternative school of his own; Sri Aurobindo was a firebrand patriot, groomed up in alien surroundings and foreign customs, who dropped out of political action to withdraw into himself and spend forty years of his mature life in isolation in Pondicherry, refusing to step out ever after! Tagore’s vision of a school was without restraints and grounded on his philosophy of creative freedom; Sri Aurobindo’s practice of Yoga was aimed at total liberation and complete transformation.  No two people could be so alike and yet be as completely different as these two extraordinarily brilliant and creative Indian minds of the last century.  Indians to the core in their insightful thinking and yet profoundly universal and cosmic in their critical outlook, there is so much paradox in the life, thought, and creative output of these kindred souls.

Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo

This essay is an attempt to reflect on the uniqueness and similarity in the life and thought of these two Indian poets—it will examine, for the most, their ideas and ideals of education, the politics of difference and nationalism that each upheld, their notions of nationalism and internationalism, individual effort, experience and their characteristically cosmic and oceanic experience, and, finally of course their poetry and poetics. All these might appear such large issues which cannot be normally contained within the apparent word and spatial limit of a short essay, however, as I shall argue, these issues constitute a sort of organic whole of these two visionary giants.

Both Rabindranath and Sri Aurobindo were brought up in an atmosphere of colonial opulence, although the former on account of his family lineage had the privilege of home tuition and the creative environment of a sprawling family villa, while the latter, on account of his Anglophile paternal legacy was tutored by Irish nuns during early childhood and schooled later in Cambridge in the European classical heritage( perhaps a little less in terms of opulence but well-made up for by the colonial aura). Each were unique intellectuals revealing their poetic identities much early in life. Perhaps it was the oppressive burden of a westernized education which deprived the young Aurobindo of his native connectivity which a little later in life would pave the way for his obsessive search for a national identity. This compulsive desire for an alternate identity was the lynch pin of both, albeit with necessary variations on account of their historical situations. The life histories of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo are so very well known to all readers for needless repetition here.  Although Sri Aurobindo’s life has been set forth by scholars into three clear-cut phases – the early Europeanized boyhood and youth, the return to Indian Nationalism, and the retreat into Yoga (for further details see Iyengar), Rabindranath was fortunate enough to have had a not so disruptive a cultural experience; nevertheless both had to undergo the traumatic experience of a colonial educational burden.  While Aurobindo’s transformation from Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose through Aurobindo Ghose into Sri Aurobindo, corresponding to the geographical, political and cultural changes in his historical life’s tempo are a little too obvious manifestations of his many avatars, Tagore’s changes are not too obvious but subtly revealed in his creative efforts and endeavours. It is in their ideas and attitudes to educational systems and methodologies that we start to see the emergence of a distinct cultural consciousness.

Rabindranath relates his own views and inspirations toward the setting up of a school thus:

I was brought up in an atmosphere of aspiration, aspiration for the expansion of the human spirit.  We in our home sought freedom of power in our language, freedom of imagination in our literature, freedom of soul in our religious creeds and that of mind in our social environment.  Such an opportunity has given me confidence in the power of education which is one with life and only which can give us real freedom, the highest that is claimed for man, his freedom of moral communion in the human world…. I try to assert in my words and works that education has its only meaning and object in freedom–freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communication with the human world.  In my institution I have attempted to create an atmosphere of naturalness in our relationship with strangers, and the spirit of hospitality which is the first virtue in men that made civilization possible.I invited thinkers and scholars from foreign lands to let our boys know how easy it is to realise our common fellowship, when we deal with those who are great, and that it is the puny who with their petty vanities set up barriers between man and man[2].

Tagore’s grandfather, Prince Dwarakanath, was a close associate of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and his father Maharshi Debendranath, was the power behind the Brahmo Samaj for some time. Hence with such lineage it is little surprise that Tagore thought in the lines he did on education. The point worth noting is the insistence on the soul’s aspiration and its urge toward human freedom and expansion that underlies the inspiration to rebuild existing educational systems. This is fairly close to what later Sri Aurobindo would envision as the ultimate possibilities of education. There is idealism here, a combination of the Platonic and European Renaissance models; however, more than anything this is grounded on the Upanishadic ideals as we shall see eventually.

            “We must recognize,” Tagore once declared, “that it is providential that the West has come to India, and yet someone must show the East to the West, and convince the West that the East has her contribution to make to the history of civilization.  India is no beggar to the West.  And yet even though the West may think she is, I am not for thrusting off Western civilization and becoming segregated in our independence.  Let us have a deep association.”[3]

Perhaps there is here a facile marking off of the West and the East, however, the point worth looking into is the insistence on not forcing a separatist attitude but a call for a unique integration and understanding that comes from a deeper profundity of purposive harmony. Here both Tagore and the later Aurobindo would see eye to eye.  Despite being a hard-core activist and an extremist involved in the Nationalist politics with Balgangadhar Tilak and others, Sri Aurobindo too was equally aware of a need toward a synthetic vision which could take all humanity a little forward step by tiny step. From Nationalism to internationalism; from patriotism to liberal humanism; from hard-core activism toward the ideal of human unity—such is the trace of the arc of both Tagore’s and Sri Aurobindo’s thinking. This constitutes also the ground of their thinking on education and human awakening toward greater possibilities. Sri Aurobindo the clearer thinker of the two marks it off like this:

Let us begin then with our initial statement, as to which 1 think there can be no great dispute that there are three things which have to be taken into account in a true and living education, the man, the individual in his commonness and in his uniqueness, the nation or people and universal humanity. It follows that that alone will be a true and living education which helps to bring out to full advantage, makes ready for the full purpose and scope of human life all that is in the individual man, and which at the same time helps him to enter, into his right relation with the life, mind and soul of the people to which he belongs and with that great total life, mind and soul of humanity of which he himself is a unit and his people or nation a living, a separate and yet inseparable member. It is by considering the whole question in the light of this large and entire principle that we can best arrive at a clear idea of what we would have our education to be and what we shall strive to accomplish by a national education. Most is this largeness of view and foundation needed here and now in India, the whole energy of whose life purpose must be at this critical turning of her destinies directed to her one great need, to find and rebuild her true self in individual and in people and to take again, thus repossessed of her inner greatness, her due and natural portion and station in the life of the human race[4].

Here in lies Sri Aurobindo’s universal vision. He talks about the three separate entities in the human being: the essential self, the self in relation to its own national self hood, and finally the cosmic being. It is only in consideration of this tripartite integration can one design a system of education. Not in the mere accumulation of information, not in the acculturation to what is the now of knowledge, but in the realization of the full potential of what it means to be human and the same time more-than-human. In Tagore’s words, while the child “hungers for the Epic we supply him with chronicles of facts and dates.”

In all, education was a desired framework required for the active seeker of the essential self that is cosmic and universal for both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.  They saw nationalist politics as just the tip of the submerged iceberg; the larger portion was the desire for the ideal selfhood that was transcendental. Hence both these poets could not bear to be trapped in their little political selves for long; they shook free and delved into a “beyonding.” Tagore noted for his wanderings returned more often to Santiniketan for regathering himself as a poet and recluse. Sri Aurobindo’s own trajectory is too very well known—from the timid Cambridge graduate, through the firebrand revolutionary, to the reclusive saint at Pondicherry: herein too one can discern the overarching desire to retrieve the self that is oceanic and boundless. This larger self as Sri Aurobindo saw it was the Spiritual, which was immanent and transcendent at the same time.

Amartya Sen[5] has pointed out that Tagore greatly admired Gandhi but he had many disagreements with him on a variety of subjects, including nationalism, patriotism, the importance of cultural exchange, the role of rationality and of science, and the nature of economic and social development. Even in his powerful indictment of British rule in India in 1941, in a lecture which he gave on his last birthday, and which was later published as a pamphlet under the title Crisis in Civilization, he strains hard to maintain the distinction between opposing Western imperialism and rejecting Western civilization. While he saw India as having been “smothered under the dead weight of British administration” (adding “another great and ancient civilization for whose recent tragic history the British cannot disclaim responsibility is China”), Tagore recalls what India has gained from “discussions centred upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all…the large-hearted liberalism of nineteenth-century English politics.”

In the case of Sri Aurobindo, there too is clear evidence that he sought to instill in the dying soul of India with the inspiring sparks of what he held to be Western enthusiasm for manifest action in the world. As he envisioned it, spirituality is an all-transforming dynamic not a stultifying wet-rag. There is a dire need for both to meet and integrate their essential dharma.

The two continents [Asia and Europe] are two sides of the integral orb of humanity and until they meet and fuse, each must move to whatever progress or culmination the spirit in humanity seeks, by the law of its being, its own proper Dharma[6].

But what is most intriguing is the characteristic prophetic eye that observes further:

A one-sided world would have been the poorer for its uniformity and the monotone of a single culture; there is a need of divergent lines of advance until we can raise our heads into that infinity of the spirit in which there is a light broad enough to draw together and reconcile all highest ways of thinking, feeling and living. That is a truth which the violent Indian assailant of a materialistic Europe or the contemptuous enemy or cold disparager of Asiatic or Indian culture agree to ignore. There is here no real question between barbarism and civilisation, for all masses of men are barbarians labouring to civilise themselves. There is only one of the dynamic differences necessary for the completeness of the growing orb of human culture.[7]

This is definitely an intriguing observation that argues for diversity and difference in world cultures and one which resists the homogenizing vision of a globalisng market economy that marks our post-capitalist present that intends to mask out all differences into a monoculture (read Americanisation or even Cocacolonisation!)

Now both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo were essentially poets and whatever their other preoccupations they kept up their poetic spirits. Perhaps in the final analysis they realized that only as a poetic experience could the diversities of the world be resolved. I have often felt that both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo held paradoxically their own other in themselves. This double voice becomes recognizable in many places, at the level of the treatment of themes, approaches to the narratives as well as even at the semantic and stylistic levels.

One characteristic that sets Tagore’s educational theory apart is his approach to education as a poet.  “At Santiniketan,” writes Kathleen M. O’Connell, “he stated, his goal was to create a poem ‘in a medium other than words.’  It was this poetic vision that enabled him to fashion a scheme of education which was all inclusive, and to devise a unique program for education in nature and creative self-expression in a learning climate congenial to global cultural exchange.”[8]

One hears the great echo of the early Romantic poet, William Blake here:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. [Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence”]

Perhaps Tagore was essentially a lyric poet never even attempting to rise on the great wings of the epic song, as, on the contrary, Sri Aurobindo was: his Savitri—the longest epic in the English language– was a legend and a symbol that almost grew up with him. Sri Aurobindo worked on this epic poem over a long period and has perhaps enshrined in it the struggles and traumas of an entire generation. As with the late nineteenth century here and elsewhere, the general concerns of both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo was with beauty, love, truth. Thematically this triad would encompass the entire oeuvre of both poets. While Tagore drew sustenance and inspiration from the folk and the rural, Sri Aurobindo hastened to the Vedic and the puranic, for myth, metaphor and substance. Tagore’s songs and poems address the instant and the here and now while reaching into the beyond in a transcendental gesture of word and idea. Sri Aurobindo traces the immanence of the eternal and the spiritual in the here and now. Transcendence does not mean the same for both poets alike: like the Dark God—Krishna– seemingly dancing with a million Gopis at the same time, Tagore’s transcendental spirit hovers and disappears at will, forever elusive, forever charming, forever enduring. While for Sri Aurobindo the dance of Siva is an ever present avastha, a state of being and becoming atonce. As he traces this emanation philosophically through matter, life, mind and psyche (see the Life Divine) he is like a graphic artist taking the elusive line out for a walk in the infinite reaches of human experience. There is a definite purpose behind and within all life as the Master Yogi visualizes it—and that is transcendence and transformation. There is no exclusivity as he envisions it—nothing– not even the lowly amoeba– is excluded from this divine Lila. All life has a purpose and the realization of this becomes their very purpose. In fact, in Sri Aurobindo’s vision all this spiritual evolution is essentially natural and will take place whether one wills it or not, however, as he himself notes, to hasten this long-drawn purpose of nature is the creative function of Integral Yoga. Yoga is thus the inspiration for the natural evolution or unfolding of the Divine Spirit in all and everything. Sri Aurobindo’s vision is thus a future-oriented vision, and one that recognizes the multiplicity and dynamics of all life. His world is thus a multiverse of happening not a universe of limiting. Towards this end he strove to build a contact and connection. This forms his major contributions The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.  However, it is my contention that it is through his poetry that Sri Aurobindo resolves the paradox of all life. As I have been arguing throughout the course of this essay, whatever other vocations Tagore and Sri Aurobindo went through they were poets, and their major vision is essentially poetic. Tagore explored song, short fiction, novel, drama and a variety of other forms, even resorting to visual arts toward the midpoint of his life, but his essential self revolves round the poetic.        


Kalpana Bardhan who has done extensive research in this field, has translated a number of songs under the headings: Love, Nature, and Devotion. Here’s one that is metapoetic:

                                    When through a song I see the world

Then I recognize it, then I understand.

Then its own language of light fills the sky with delight,

Then a sublime message wakes up in its dust.

Then it leaves the outside, in my soul it comes,

Then my heart trembles in the blades of its grass.

In streams of the song’s rasa, the lines of beauty lose own boundaries;

Then I find all with each other in close touch[9].

As Kalpana Bardhan notes in her Introduction: “In Rabindranath’s songs, unlike in vocal classical Hindustani and Carnatic music, words are not secondary to melody.  They are of equal or greater significance – the lyrics are no less than verbal, subtle dileneations of complex emotions, miniatures in metaphors and images. (p. x)” There is also a variant version of this original in Bengali that goes like this:

Poet, Singer

Through music the world as I see,

I know it, reveals its intimacy.

Language of its light

Fills sky in loving delight;

Its dust speaks the innate

Divine words ultimate;

Ceases to be external

In my soul melodies to spell;

On its grass

My heart’s throbs pass;

Beauty shapes up, flows the nectar

My own bounds to blur;

With all then I see

My camaraderie.[10]

Little wonder that that Tagore’s vision is unique: it is this uniqueness of what in Keats’s terms would be “negative capability” — the ability to extinguish one’s self and reappear in the other, a high modern “escape from personality!”  Tagore’s vision is universal, and in Sanskrit aesthetic terms this process could be seen as sadharanikarana—universalisation. Let’s now take up an early sonnet from Sri Aurobindo “My Life is Wasted” written in his late twenties.[11]

My life is wasted like a lamp ablaze

Within a solitary house unused,

My life is wasted and by Love men praise

For sweet and kind. How often have I mused

What lovely thing were love and much repined

At my cold bosom moved not by that flame.

’Tis kindled; lo, my dreadful being twined

Round one whom to myself I dare not name.

I cannot quench the fire I did not light

And he that lit it will not; I cannot even

Drive out the guest I never did invite;

Although the soul he dwells with loses heaven.

I burn and know not why; I sink to hell

Fruitlessly and am forbidden to rebel.  [Baroda, c. 1898 – 1902]

We sense herein a deep anguish—the times were terrible, the idea of a nation was in the process of becoming real and the pressures of a growing self-awareness and the touch of immortal spirit all invoking the poet who struggles within “ to quench the fire I did not light!” We can also sense a certain linguistic and semantic freedom in this early poem that slowly is releasing itself from the clutches of a burdened coloniality.  Until now the poet could freely resort to the nineteenth century English clichéd phrases, which are still visible in lines like: “What lovely thing were love and much repined/At my cold bosom moved not by that flame.” However toward the close the touch of the greater poet becomes largely evident:

I cannot quench the fire I did not light

And he that lit it will not; I cannot even

Drive out the guest I never did invite;

Although the soul he dwells with loses heaven.

I burn and know not why; I sink to hell

Fruitlessly and am forbidden to rebel.

Once the poet has commenced sensing the touch of the divine, or better still, once the poet has permitted the greater self awareness to emerge freely into play, the vision affords the greater craftsman to yoke together revelation and inspiration (two key terms in Sri Aurobindo’s poetics the coming together of which lead toward the rendering of what he considers as the most unique poetic: the mantra) Sri Aurobindo’s poetic corpus reveals the graph of an early Europeanised Romantic/Victorian decadent verse evolving self reflexively into an envisioned epic stature.  Of course all his lyric and narrative efforts lead naturally toward Savitri, nevertheless the shorter poems do really require greater attention as enfolding the bounty of his diverse moods and perceptions.  They may not be as visually imaginative as those of Tagore’s, nor would they be musical like those penned by Gurudev, but they are endeavours of a suffering soul that sees and senses and experiences the world in all its manifold sensibilities. Their honesty and sincerity cannot be challenged, nor can their ability to move the reader, given that the reader becomes a sahrdaya—of like-heart!  If in the case of Tagore it is the smaller aspects of life the simple things and ordinary joys and sorrows that undergo poetic manifestations into something rich and strange, in the case of Sri Aurobindo it is the profounder insight into the larger dimensions behind all simple being that poetically get transformed. It may be commonplace to state that both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo were essentially poets, for its their unique poetic sensibilities which afforded them the visionary eye when it came to philosophize. However, both never held themselves to be academic or systematic in their philosophizing; neither would accept the appellation of a philosopher too. Their vision is of the lineage of the Vedas and Upanishads—simple, sensitive, impassioned, natural, and non- intellectual far from ratiocinative. While Tagore has left his legacy integrated with the rural, the folk, the commonsensical and the imaginative, closely tied to life in all its innocence and freshness, Sri Aurobindo has envisioned an entire universe conceived in poetic meaning and imaginative aspiration—a way of transformation that calls for a heightened poetic sensibility.  In the final analysis it is poetry that answers to the vision of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. And only in poetry could their worlds be resolved.  A world of paradox and contradiction, a world of suffering and resistance, a world devoid of any sense while under the throes of a colonial burden—all this becomes beautiful and transformed into something rich and strange when the touch of rhythm and resonance announces the presence of the divine within and without. Any Spiritual Vision could appear amoral or even ridiculously romantic once taken out of context. But once seen in perspective everything falls into place.

The perspective that both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo afford is the simple truth of being: what was plain and apparent to the visionary eye of the poet– it is for us to shift and readjust our perspectives to catch a glimpse at least of their greater vision.   Tagore and Sri Aurobindo desired to build a world where harmony and understanding reigned over hatred and hostility. They were acutely sensitive to the dangerous ideologies of their own times which were leading the world in a trajectory of crisis and catastrophe; their anxiety is revealed in their thoughts and narratives—be it through songs, sonnets, poems,letters, fiction, drama, speeches or treatises. Of course their approach was certainly individual and different—while Tagore worked alongside people working and singing in their midst, Sri Aurobindo chose to work alone away from all in the isolation of an Ashram that came up around him (But we must remember he continued to publish his work so as to ensure it reached the public at large). It is in their single-mindedness that we perceive their unity. A commitment to humanity in the larger sense.

Rabindranath Tagore’s final lines dictated about a week before his passing are very well known.

The first day’s sun had asked

at the manifestation of new being– who are you?

No answer came.

Year after year went by

The last sun of the day the last question utters

on the western sea shores

in the silent evening –

Who are you?

He gets no answer.

This unquenchable desire to see into the heart of things is what marks off this redoubtable visionary poet. In a voice that counters the depressed voice of the early sonnet quoted a little while ago, Sri Aurobindo writes (again in his mid twenties, perhaps):[12]

I have a hundred lives before me yet

To grasp thee in, O spirit ethereal,

Be sure I will with heart insatiate

Pursue thee like a hunter through them all.

Thou yet shalt turn back on the eternal way

And with awakened vision watch me come

Smiling a little at errors past, and lay

Thy eager hand in mine, its proper home.

Meanwhile made happy by thy happiness

I shall approach thee in things and people dear

And in thy spirit’s motions half-possess

Loving what thou hast loved, shall feel thee near,

Until I lay my hands on thee indeed

Somewhere among the stars, as ’twas decreed.

Despite its strait-jacket form and perhaps a little over-strained narration, this sonnet does convey more than its desired intent. The image of the hunter pursuing his quarry is striking but once the quarry, the spirit ethereal, turns and lays its eager hand on the hunter, he learns to see things afresh:

Meanwhile made happy by thy happiness

I shall approach thee in things and people dear

And in thy spirit’s motions half-possess

Loving what thou hast loved, shall feel thee near…

And having seen and felt that sun’s rays on his eternal self the tireless will of the poet still pursues the spirit, never giving up till it is reached.  Although this sonnet does not reveal all of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical inquiring, it does presage an unsettled poetic psyche a relentless soul that tirelessly worked to transform all earthly being into a spiritual becoming.  If in this sonnet the poet-narrator seeks solace “somewhere among the stars, as ’twas decreed,” the final resolution was never to be elsewhere for the yogi. As Sri Aurobindo envisioned it the involuted Spirit had to reach through Matter, Life, and Mind into the various planes and parts of Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition and Overmind, until it finally united itself with the Supermind in an all transforming unity and integrity. His Integral Yoga was a recognition of the higher than mental life and a step ladder toward its achievement.

In the final analysis Tagore and Sri Aurobindo stood at two different extremities, perceived life in unique angles, thought and wrote differently, but, however, in their most subtle of perceptions they did not differ much.  That desire for the harmonious, for the virtuous, for the beautiful perfection, held them on diverse paths in the same direction. Their journey as we have seen was never on foot on well-trodden paths but over time and space in air, water, fire and ether. And whatever they touched they transformed into something rich and strange!

It is the propensity and capability for being sensitive to the overpowering vision and revelation of strong feelings, to be able to withstand their onslaught and internalize them into levels of profound poetic experience that makes the life and works of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo contemporary and relevant to us in these irreverential and descralised days of market capitalism.  When the youth of India as elsewhere are driven away from their own interior realms from even the minus-one days of their existence by the lures of the playing fields of technology and the tinsel establishments of commercial contrabands, trapped and intepellated in the clutches of a morbid educational system, conditioned into mistaking what they profess as their virtual existence as the real real, the poetic voice of the bard seldom reaches them from the other shores of time. What Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore stood for might appear so far removed from our own everyday existence and their struggles seen to be mere wrestling in the dark to no avail. If only the thin veils of our own deception were to fall off for a fraction of a second we could see their golden boats for what they are worth.  The true calling of poetry is the revelation of the real. And only when the mind’s eye is open can we see and hear properly. Until such times the complete worth and the significance of the struggles of these two visionaries might be condemned to remain in the dark.


[1] The phrase of course is from the well known song sung by Ariel in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest! But the context is altered suitably and conveniently, retaining only the rich texture of the phrase with no connotations intended.

[2] Rabindranath Tagore 1929: 73-74) “Ideals of Education”, The Visva-Bharati Quarterly (April-July), 73-4.

[3] Iyengar, Sreenivasa K.R. Indian Writing in English, 5th Edition (New Delhi: Sterling, 1985),p101

[4] Sri Aurobindo, A Preface on National Education,Two articles in the “Arya“(Nov-Dec 1920 and January 1921)

[5] Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity (London: Penguin, 2005) 92ff.

[6]  Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture, p.81

[7] (ibid p 81)

[8] Kathleen M O’Connell, Rabindranath Tagore on Education.

[9] Bardhan, Kalpana. Of Love, Nature, and Devotion: Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: OUP,2008) p 218.

[11] Complete Poems, Volume 2- The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, p 178.

[12] Op cit p. 180– Baroda, c. 1898 – 1902



                            When the Almond Tree Blossoms:Reading, Enchantment, and Enterprise


[For Presentation at Dvanyaloka, Mysore, July 2003]

            “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein

                     “I am a wanderer and a mountain climber…I do not like the plains and it seems I cannot sit still for long…” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 “Don’t listen to me. I don’t know what I am talking about. I am a poet” Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

The significance of this Seminar on Books in my life cannot be overstressed. In the announcement that was sent out to the participants Prof CDN has made a lengthy argument in this regard.  He stresses the way in which books mean what they mean to us, the way we respond to books, the way we devour meaning, the way we absorb the sense, and adapt or adopt them in our life and living, understand, misunderstand or misappropriate knowledge. I was most struck by these words:  “… the motivation is not to add another book but education of the self, a discipline of the mind and the soul, in other words, cultivation of true sensibility.”

The key words here are “education of the self”, “discipline of the mind and soul” and “ cultivation of true sensibility.”  Over the last fifty years or so European and American academics and intellectuals have theorized and counter-theorized about the production of meaning and the act of reading.  And right from the times of the Buddha concepts like the “mind” and “self” and “soul” have occupied the forefront of philosophical debates and their very conceptual veracity challenged. However, even in this twenty first century one cannot categorically dismiss the role of books in enlarging one’s vision—interior or otherwise. Questions like “true sensibility” might come to be challenged, but, that the reading of books do play a significant role in building up one’s insights and outlooks is as yet not a mere matter of belief.  It is a matter for serious concern for all of us for whom books indeed matter a great deal and consciously or unconsciously at many stages in our lives books have changed the course of our living, thinking and seeing.

Yes. Books do matter.  In fact they matter more than we can ever imagine. I recall that the everyman editions of classics used to have a common blurb which went like this: even if the entire world were to be destroyed and only a box of everyman books were to float about, any alien who would chance upon those would know that there existed a great human civilization at one time on earth! Tall claims these, especially now that we are endowed with the hindsight of postcolonial reading strategies and Foucauldian theories of power and politics that instigate and enable us to see through the thinly disguised façade of the vainglory of western culture and civilization that these words conceal. However, what I would like to see also in them is a claim to the significance of books.

When I was leaving for this seminar, a young colleague of mine asked me what it was all about, and exclaimed: “but, Sir, isn’t it all so old fashioned?” Yes, I replied.  It is old fashioned. The act of reading itself is old fashioned. Let alone the art of reading. Any one who loves reading would vouch for the tremendous sense of fulfillment and pleasure that reading would afford. The feel of the book the smell of the book, the crackle of the pages as we turn them one by one and live perhaps through centuries and beyond. The feeling of the true the vast the beautiful—satyam, ritam, brihat—as we stand amidst the rows and rows of books in a library.  The beatitude of discovering a book that you never thought existed. The exultation of reexamining a book you had read with so much involvement years ago. The pleasures of reading are untold.  And as with everything else, it remains for one to explore for oneself: no amount of retelling can induce the same feeling.  One should know it for oneself. After all, in the final analysis one can experience only one’s self.  The art of reading is not a mere exercise in linguistic entertainment but one of “soul-making.” If it so happens that we have misplaced our souls in the last century it is time we invented our human soul.  Especially after the gruesome happenings that mark off our century: Afganistan, Pakistan, the September 11th, Gujarat and Iraq.

To talk about books in one’s life might at the outset appear to be a simple task: but it is deceptive.  Should I choose to dwell at length on those great works of the master story teller, Dostoevsky—the amazing Brothers Karamazov or that heart rending Crime and Punishment, or those by Thomas Mann or Frantz Kafka, or any of those by that man from my part of the world—OV Vijayan, whose Kazakkinte Ithihaasam—The Legends of Khazak—has left so deep and profound a wound in my insides ever since I read it what now appears ages ago? The list of books that have changed one’s life at many points could be pretty long indeed. Thus the choice becomes a lot difficult. And yet with due restraint I have chosen to remark on a worka of significance—keeping in mind the tempo of the seminar—an epic poem of multiple dimension and extraordinary significance.. I do not claim that my reading of this work is exhaustive and complete.  What I have attempted is to recover some of those notes I had jotted down while I read the work and piece them together to form a narrative of coherence and meaning in the present.  I read these works at different periods of time in different frames of mind and hence responded to them differently.  However, now that I am recovering that act of reading, in the course of my recovery my present interpolates into my past and vice versa.  Above all, my attempt would be to relive the pleasures of reading.  Here in too would lie the relevance of the title of my paper.

The two books I choose to dwell on are so widely spaced apart: both in terms of their genres as well as in the content, argument, and spirit.  Nikos Kazantzakis wrote in Greek and is quite renowned for his classic narratives, while Leonard Shlain is neither a novelist nor a philosopher and is comparatively less known. In what follows I read Kazantzakis’s Odyssey: A Modern Sequel and Leonard Shlain’s  Art and Physics. Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light

In 1938, at the age of fifty five, Nikos Kazantzakis published his Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. This was in a sense the culmination of his life-vision. For, in the traditionally ambivalent character of the Greek national hero, Ulysses, he found a sufficiently complex archetype to depict his own anomalous personality and temperament.

Nikos Kazantzakis’ present reputation rests mainly on his great works of fiction—Zorba the Greek, The Greek Passion, Freedom or Death, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Fratricides.   His poetic plays Odysseus, Theseus, Christ, Buddha, and Prometheus are lesser known and seldom read or performed. However, the singular titles of these works would serve to project the heroic mould in which he attempts to cast his poetic vision.  It is the inherent synthesis that vibrates behind the apparent contraries and antitheses that Kazantzakis consistently sought for: the greatest hero or the Nietzschean Superman, for him was the Authntic Being, in kind of Heideggerian sense His Report to Greco is a sort of spiritual autobiography.

As Kimon Friar, his translator writes in the introductory note to the Odyssey:

His own life and personality would seem to be a battleground

of contradiction unless one looked upon them with the third

inner eye, and from a higher peak, as on an unceasing battle

for a harmony never resolved.

This glance between the eye of the orient and the eye of the Hellenic Greece, Kazantzakis called the Cretan Glance. He was born in the island of Crete, at the cross roads between Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Throughout his life he was attempting to find a synthesis, not a philosophical one, but in terms of a personal vision—between the twin streams of what Nietzsche has termed the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It would be simplistic to reduce his conflicts to the mere tension between the religious and the artistic impulses, very much prevalent in the 19th century, but the creator of the ebullient Zorba, full of zest and zeal, felt deep the passions of Christ as too real in flesh and blood, and never came to resolve these two aspects, because in the final analysis one experiences only one’s self. Reading Kazantzakis is an odyssey of the soul. He writes with so much passion and flame in the language of the spirit. And great souls are always dangerous. There is an occasion in the Report to Greco when his friend turns to Kazantzakis and utters a few lines of poetry.

My friend riveted his blue eyes upon the flowering almond tree and crossed    himself  as though doing obeisance before a holy wonder-working icon. He remained    speechless for a long moment. The speaking slowly he said, “ A poem is rising to my lips, a tiny little poem, a Haiku.”  He looked again at the Almond tree.

I said to the almond tree,

“Sister, speak to me of God.”

And the almond tree blossomed.  (234)

Such is the language of Kazantzakis. It is the language of the gospel. However, each reader feels a deeper kinship with the book as the pages are turned, because it is a intimate and personal gospel—an experiential one.  If at all there is any element of the religious in Kazantzakis works it is a religion of the heart. He writes:

I lived, spoke, and moved in a fairy tale which I myself created at every moment,         carving out paths in it to allow me to pass.  I never saw the same thing twice,     because I gave it a new face each time and made it unrecognizable. Thus the world’s  virginity renewed itself at every moment. (48)

I read Kazantzakis at a very sensitive age when the crucial aspects of language never appeared to create a veil between the world and the self—language was the very passion of the soul and could utter “truth”, like the mantra enchant and enfold the real and recreate the world afresh.

I believe that one of the strong forces that turns a person towards books is the feeling of the passing of time. We cleave through space and cling to time.  Everything around us only betokens the passing, and growing apart. The works of Kazantzakis reverberate with in our own troubled selves in a strange kind of interior harmony, in a primal sense of sympathy.  This is the force that drives us through, a seeping force that never tires nor departs, but only remains constantly on the move like the Kazantzakian hero, Ulysses.

The Buddha left his home to wander forth in quest of self knowledge and Homer’s Odysseus sails back after a life time of adventure and battle.  The journey of the Buddha as both Nietzsche and Kazantzakis see it is the journey of the Superman who renounces all worldly pleasures that stand in the way of enlightnment.  The image of the wandering hero also would symbolize the lost soul in search of home. Haunted by memory, moved by the instinct of homecoming the suffering hero’s way back home is a mystic symbol of the return to the Source. This is a common symbolic function that one encounters repeatedly in the religio-mystical traditions.  But Kazantzakis’s Odysseus is again the world-wanderer, the man-slayer, the home- wrecker. Cast in an entirely original mould and conceived in the Nietzschean spirit, this Odysseus is an existential hero seeking authentic existence, Heideggerian dasein, in the face of danger and pain.  The Geman philosopher and pupil of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: “To be free is nothing; to become free is very heaven!” and Odysseus continuously partakes of this ecstasy of freedom. The Odyssey is the most monumental work of Kazantzakis and indeed his greatest achievement. He devotes an entire chapter in his autobiography, Report to Greco, to the making of this epic: “When the Germ of the Odyssey Formed Fruit Within Me”  He worked and reworked on this poem and made seven complex versions of it. – attempting to present a comprehensive weltanschauung a world view transcending the contradiction of flesh and spirit which was his lifelong intellectual preoccupation.  His effort remarkably parallels those of Goethe writing Faust and Sri Aurobindo composing his Savitri.   Kimon Friar, his translator, observes:

Perhaps his ideal image of himself was as a Hebrew prophet

out of the Old Testament, like Isaiah or Ezekiel, who roamed the

countryside from village to village, inflamed with the word of

God, and who combined thus in one entity both the poet and the doer,

but who disdained to distort the inspiration of his electric vision

into the betrayal of treacherous words.

Kazantzakis felt that even words should not stand as barriers to communication. He wanted to transmute his vision directly from spirit into living action without the distortion of any intervening medium. The resemblance to the Faustian ideal cannot be missed. This kind of heroism and profound self examination is the hall mark of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the European Existentialists it reached its peak and fell with the rise of new philosophies of language and history.  The individual has now disappeared completely and in its place reality has reinvented the social and the regimental. Who if I cry, writes Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Duino Elegies, would hear me in the dominion of angels?   But how could the thinking mind by pass that perceptive dictum of Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Friar continues:   Like the painter who turns to collage for a more immediate replica of life,  and in desperation glues or rivets on his canvas sand, iron, fur, flowers, bits  of string  or fragments of newsprint proclaiming the world’s catastrophies  or its trivialities, Kazantzakis longed to glue on the blank pages of his despair  sections from his own flesh, bits of his skin and bone, splinters from his  fingernails,  all ensanguined  and  smeared with his life’s blood.  Like the god who  created him, he longed to transmute the word directly into flesh, that flesh might in time be transubstantiated into something more spiritual, more refined than     either words or flesh.  His was the vain search and dilemma of the true mystic,  and all his works must be considered to be the vain betrayers of his vision.

In his book, The Ulysses Theme, ( Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954) W B Stanford traces the permutation of Odysseus in literature through almost three thousand years and considers Kazantzakis’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses as “the most elaborate portrayals of Odysseus in the whole post Homeric tradition.”  Kazantzakis’s Odyssey, he says, offers as much scope for ethical, theological, and artistic controversy as Joyce’s Ulysses.  Kazantzakis , he continues, has found many new ways of understanding Odysseus in terms of modern thought , and has presented a fully integrated portrait of the Hero.—as wanderer and politician, as destroyer and preserver, as sensualist and ascetic, as soldier and philosopher, as pragmatist and idealist, as legislator and humorist, combining many scattered elements in both ancient and modern traditions until the episodic and spatial enrichment of the myth are augumented on a scale, both physical and imaginative, far beyond any contribution since Homer’s .  Stanford believes that Kazantzakis’s Odysseus is an avatar of Dante’s centrifugal hero. He also finds close resemblance to Tennyson’s Ulysses who aspires

To follow knowledge like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

And for Odysseus Ithaca had been only an ideal home, to yearn for, to sail towards and once it is reached it becomes no more meaningful. For him the only meaning had been the enriching experiences of the voyage, the journey itself.  At one place he exclaims:  “My soul, your voyages have been your native land!”

A wanderer himself, Kazantzakis could not suffer to see Homer’s Odysseus settling down to a quite life in his old age in Ithaca, his imagination wanted to hurl him into fresh adventures.  Colin Wilson, in his Poetry and Mysticism, has pointed out that Kazantzakis’s forefathers were blood thirsty pirates on water, warrier chieftains on land and the poet has thus inherited many of the harshest characteristics of his ancestors. This extreme coexistence of apparently incompatible nature: infinite compassion and ascetic temperament of the Buddha and the self sacrifice of Christ coupled with the barbaric cruelty and violence of Odysseus, is what makes Kazantzakis’s Odyssey  sui generis.

Kazantzakis’s life work is an exploration of the meaning of human freedom. Throughout his life he was obsessed with this ideal—in fact he lived to experience its farthest limits. His translator points out that the meaning of freedom in all its implications of liberation, redemption, deliverance, and salvation are explored in this epic. He cites the poet’s own words spoken st a newspaper interview:   Odysseus is the man who has freed himself from everything—religions,             philosophies, political systems—one who has cut away all the strings. He  wants to try all the forms of life, freely beyond plans and systems, keeping  the  thought of death before him as a stimulant, not to make every pleasure     more acrid or every ephemeral moment more sharply enjoyable in its brevity, but to whet his appetites in life to make them more capable of  embracing and of exhausting all the things so that , when death finally came, it would find an extremely squandered Odysseus. 

In Book XIV of the Odyssey, where Kazantzakis develops the core of his ascetic philosophy, Odysseus climbs the mountain to commune with God, in an obvious parallel to Moses.  On the first day when he has ascended to a cave in which to sleep for the night, he has symbolically reached a dimension beyond the subhuman and reached the cave of the human where neither ghosts nor demons dare attack him.  On the second day when he wakes up to find the cave filled with primitive drawings of a hunt, and hailing the hunter as his blood brother he bursts into a song praising the joy of life. But here when he dreams of his most ardent and secret wish—immortality—a worm climbs on his chest to remind him of his mortality.   In spite of all his unlimited enthusiasm and yearning for more life, Kazantzakis falters when confronted with death and fails to transcend it.  For him, as for the Existentialists, death remains as a stimulant.  Colin Wilson has termed him as an “evolutionary romantic.” Perhaps it does not appear to bother Kazantzakis that if death is recognized as an absolute and ultimate reality then his evolutionary theory gets reduced to absurdity.  I should recall here that Kazantzakis was a student of Henri Louis Bergson (1859-1941) and so in his conceptual framework the individual is amalgamated into the universal rhythm or élan vital.   In The Saviours of God that he called his spiritual exercises,Kazantzakis sets down his philosophy thus:

Whether we want to or not, we also sail on and

voyage, consciously or unconsciously amid divine

endeavours.  Indeed even our march has eternal

elements, without beginning or end, assisting God

and sharing his perils. …. We discern a crimson

line on this earth, a red blood splattered line which

ascends, struggling from matter to plants, from

plants to animals, from animals to man.  This indestructible

prehuman rhythm is the only visible journey of the

Invisible on this earth.

Therefore in his view the essence of all creation is to seek perfect freedom and ultimate salvation. These are also the basic tenets of Bergson and Nietszche.  God is not the Absolute Pure Being but an agonized struggle towards more and more purity of spirit, a spiritual becoming. And the goal of existence is the struggle itself.   Pervading influence of Spinoza, Spengler, Darwin, Frazer and Dante have been traced in Kazantzakis’s philosophy by many critics, however, it is the pure and clear voice of Nietsche that one hears from every page of the Odyssey.

            I am a wanderer and a mountain climber…

                I do not like the plains and it seems I cannot

                sit still for long. And whatever may yet come to me

                as fate and experience—a wandering and a

                mountain climbing will be in it: in the final analysis

                one experiences only oneself.

Says Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.   True, in the final analysis Kazantzakis remains the strong man who takes joy at the eternal strife that is the law of life , and the Hebrew prophet who leads his people to the promised land on a journey bestrewn with danger and suffering.


The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel

The poem opens with an invocation to the sun as the fecund principle and the symbolic goal of a time when the flesh shall be transformed into the spirit.

and the mud winged and heavy soul, freed of its flesh,

shall like a flame serene ascend and fade in the sun. (lines 29-30)


The full spirit of the poem emerges in the Prologue itself

Ho workers, peasants, you ant swarms, caretrs of grain,

I fling red poppies down, may the world burst in flames.

O brain, be flowers that nightingales may come to sing!

Old men , howl all you can to bring your white teeth back

To make your hair grow crow-black, your youthful wits go wild ,

For by our Lady Moon and Lord Sun, I swear,

Old age is but a false dream and Death but fantasy…

Aye, fellow craftsmen, seize your oars, the Captain comes;

And mothers, give your sweet babes suck to stop their wailing!

Ahoy, cast wretched sorrow out, prick up your ears—

I sing the sufferings and torments of renowned Odysseus.

(lines 47-73)

The first book begins abruptly with an “And when in his wide courtyards Odysseus had…”

Kazantzakis has grafted his epic to the 22nd Book of Homer’s Odyssey—after having killed all his wife’s suitors Odysseus allows his identity to be revealed.

If the essential Kazantzakis is an expression of human freedom the next work that I choose to highlight explores the dimensions of freedom in terms of human creativity. It is a unique work in that it explores parallels between the world of modern physics and the world of twentieth century western art.

Anyone who has evinced at least a casual interest in the visual arts, would have necessarily, at the outset, experienced certain amount of discomfiture at encountering the art of the modernist and postmodernist generation.  In comparison with the western Classical and the Renaissance art products the twentieth century’s art output is not easily understood—in other words, their meaning is not freely comprehended without a certain amount of  mental struggle.  Pablo Picasso’s “Maids of Avignon,” or Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” or Jackson Pollock’s numbered Action Paintings, do not appear to please as effortlessly as a painting by Rembrandt Giotto or Leonardo.  Even a most enthusiastic art lover would pause to reconsider before passing judgement on a work by the eccentric genius Andy Warhol or by the abstract expressionist Jasper Jones.  Not to mention the innumerable inexplicable innovations of the post Avant Garde  generation of artists in Europe and America.  Very much like in the realm of music and poetry, the proper appreciation of the visual arts certainly calls for an expert initiation.  And what is often tragically overlooked is that art necessarily calls for the inculcation of a visual culture, something that is qualitatively different from a verbal and auditory one. The reason why these artists created the things as they did and the manner in which they chose to express themselves, similarly runs deep roots in human history and psychology.  To understand and appreciate modernist and postmodernist art per se, one has not only to seek for historical roots but also to engage in a creative dialogue with the evolution of ideas in other allied disciplines too.

Here one might be tempted to say that an apparently innocuous piece of canvas or board stretched on the wall marked with strange hieroglyphic and patterns of colours is not at all that simple as it appears to be , but bears the historical record of the enterprising human psyche.   Painting and sculpture, over and above their commonly held aesthetic magnitude, do something more than please or beautify, but on the other hand demand something from the sahrdaya.  As Leonard Shlain in his book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, (New York: William Morrow, 1991), argues,  the western artist’s concern with space, time and light, in a mystical manner, anticipate and to a certain extent, explicate and valorize the intellectual advance of modern physicists. The parallels are what his exciting book sets out to demarcate and explain. And he does so with justifiable élan.

It is now more than a decade since Shlain’s book was issued [ Note: This essay was authored for the Seminar in 2003]. And yet the astute manner in which he has traced the connections between these two divergent spheres of human activity, remains fascinating reading.  As it is generally held, artists are concerned with interpreting the visible real, through their medium, and the physicists, on the other hand, are involved in explaining and charting the working of the world of reality.  By virtue of their inherent preoccupations, art and science have been held to oppose each other; one is held to be a purely subjective enterprise, while the other purely objective; there doesn’t seem to be a common space.  But in this erudite and penetrating study, running close to five hundred odd pages, worked out in twenty nine chapters—each encasing apparent binary opposites like Illusion/Reality, Sacred/Profane, Rationality/Irrationality, I/We, Dionysus/Apollo, etc, Shlain establishes that art and physics are not opposed to each other but complementary.  He provides numerous illustrations of art’s precognitive power, showing how artists repeatedly conjure up revolutionary images before physicists formulated new configurations of the world.  In order to substantiate his theory, Shlain marks out as his area the turn of the twentieth century when some of the most stunning examples of deeply revolutionary art in western history were made and side by side two thought-changing branches of physics were emerging – relativity and quantum theory.  To quote Shlain:

Our present world full of computers, lasers, space probes, transistors and         nuclear energy attest to the great power of prediction implicit in these        two theories.  Most members of contemporary society still have not         processed the profound implications these two hold for their belief in                commonsense reality.  The new physics presently rests like a pea under     the collective mattress of human kind, disturbing tranquil sleep just        enough                 to begin to change how people think about the world.  Art was there before     to sound the clarion warning of the technostress to come. (p.     425)

In order to create a context in which to discuss individual works of art and how they relate to the theories of physics, Shlain begins with  ancient Greece where many of the premises of the present day thought and value systems is held to have originated. Although many of the ancient insights were discarded by advances in modern science a basic structure can still be discerned: if the ancients attempted to trace all experience to certain primordial element or elements and conceived of a four-fold paradigm, a similar structure persists in the twentieth century paradigm of space-time-energy and matter.  Space and time constitute the grid work within which we construct and conduct our everyday real life, while inside their frame work energy, matter and various other combinations thereof create our world of appearances.  These four elemental constructs form a mandala of totality.  All perceptions created in the dream-room of our minds are built from these four building blocks.  Another mysterious element which is in a way a connecting link is light.  Both fields of relativity and quantum theory rose out of  the two unsolved questions about the nature of light.  Very much in similar lines, Shlain argues, artists over the centuries have been concerned with light, space and time. And it is in the struggle of the modern that this concern comes into the limelight.

Launching into a comparative study of classical physics and pre Renaissance art, Shlain traces the nuances through Platonic and Aristotelian thought and Greek and Roman art , until the discovery of perspective by the Italian artist Giotto ( 1276-1337), the persistence of the Euclidian notions of space and time.  During the rise of the Newtonian system western specifically European art had also been concerned with the concrete objects of the external world.  Perspective distinctly separated the “I” from the “It” and painters very much   in the manner of physicists examined the world from a stationary and privileged standpoint. Towards the end of the nineteenth century artists began to tamper with the hitherto hallowed rules of perspective, the virtually straight horizon line and the vanishing point.  While the elucidation and the formulation of the concept of space as curved was almost fifty years away, Impressionist painters like Eduard Manet and Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne had anticipated the idea in a painterly manner. Cezanne devoted a life time to studying the relationship of space light and matter.  His investigations of loaded space, static light and multiple perspective were to wait until the advent of relativity theories to be appreciated and comprehended. To a chapter entitled “Einstein/Space, Time and Light” Shlain prefixes as epigraph a quote from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”   With the inception of the observer dependent theories of physics, the Newtonian world view with its rigid vantage points and privileged positions had to yield to the human imagination. The special and general theories of relativity are so remote from our commonsensical world view that they call for particularly strong visual imagination. After 1905 fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality came to be challenged.  Shlain sets them out like the following:

Space and time are relative, are reciprocal coordinates, and combine to form  the next higher dimension called the space-time continuum.    They are not      constant, absolute and separate.

There is no such thing as a favoured point of view.  For objects of   substance there is no internal frame of reference at absolute rest, and  ether does not exist.

The rules of nineteenth century causality under certain relativistic   circumstances are invalidated.

Colour is not only not an inherent property of matter but depends also  upon the relative speed of the observer.

A universal present moment does not exist.

Observations about reality are observer dependent, which implies a  certain degree of subjectivity.

To believe Leonard Shlain artists anticipated each and every one of these without actually knowing the theoretical importance of their insights. Further as he endeavours to show, it is this prescience on the part of the creative artists that made their work totally opaque to their contemporaries.   We with our present day knowledge and the advantage that hindsight offers us are now enabled to see the patterns of the future emerging as a jigsaw puzzle in the various misadventures of the modern artists.

With the development of quantum mechanics classical physics had died a natural death and contemporary theoretical physics has oriented our thinking in different directions. Instead of questing after primal building blocks physicist pursue  the underlying entity, the field. If artists before 1920-s anticipated a great deal of what the general theory of relativity would effect in human thought and history the American painter Jackson Pollock in the sixties reiterated a profound truth that the later physicists discovered: that the field is more important than the particle, ie.the process superceded the object.

As Emile Zola observed art is nature seen through a temperament, and the nature of space time and light is revealed for those  who want to see it through the creations of innovative temperaments of the great artists. This is Shlain’s professed objective in his work and he engages the reader through enlightening arguments and ample illustrations. The works of modernist artists like Cezanne, Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Magritte, de Kooning and Calder are examined in depth in the light of the history of ideas and modern physics.

Throughout the work, Shlain takes special care not to take a partisan view of things: the artist doesn’t seek the corroboration of the scientist at any point. Neither does the scientist.  He fully agrees with Werner Heisenberg who said: Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality and  the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language. (quoted   p. 363)

If the works of the modern artists appear to be baffling and weird, equally, if not more, baffling and weird, would appear the language of the physicists who trace the birth and death of stars, white dwarfs, quasars, black holes, event horizons and singularities.  The biologist JBS Haldane once remarked, “the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but it is queerer than we can imagine. “

Towards the close of his book, Shlain draws together  the insights of various  minds like that of John Wheeler, the physicist, P.D Ouspensky the Russian mathematician, Tielhard de Chardin, the Catholic theologian and postulates the possibility of a universal mind as another unity in the matrix of the spacetime continuum.  This is a natural culmination of the readings of            parallels in art and physics, where each dovetails into the other perfectly.Shlain looks upon the sensitive artist’s mind as the space wherein the zeitgeist reveals itself.  If the artist’s intuitions are the first intimations of movement in the larger entity of universal mind , artists themselves can be seen to serve the unique function of seers through whom  the zeitgeist appears .  Visionary artists able to discern the what the rest of us still cannot embrace and announce through their art the principles emanating from this spiritus mundi.  It does not matter if the critics and even the artists themselves are unaware of their singular purpose.  If the artist’s work is truly the apparition of the zeitgeist it can become evident only in retrospect as society matures and its members achieve the same vantage point visionary artists occupied decades earlier. (p. 387)

In concluding his prodigious intra-disciplinary study Leonard Shlain remarks that the gulf that divides the right hemisphere of the brain from the left in western culture is very wide, while what is called for is a paradigm shift which could integrate both functions. Leonardo da vinci the renaissance  man is the one notable example of the total integration of creativity’s dual aspects.   According to him Leonardo emerges as the unique blending of seeing and thinking and the profusion of images and insights that emerged from that cross fertilization is cornucopian.

Shlain’s arguments linking painting and physical science make interesting reading for the depth of his analysis and the wealth and range of his material. Perhaps, even in spite of the insights he brings to bear upon his subject the connections might not serve to add anything new to the knowledge of the casual reader. However, Art and Physics would hasten in a paradigm shift in the order of perception. Art and science over the years have diverged so much, and more emphasis has been heaped on their singular ways rather than their unified visions.  The consciousness of the modern was created in the minds of the creative artists who pioneered a new world view; perhaps they did not formulate the same in the language of science; the scientists who hastened the birth of a new age in science spoke a different language and seldom cared to seek corroborations in the a-rational world of the artist. The difference lay in the language. Art spoke in metaphors and metonymies; physicists spoke in mathematical symbols.  Michael Phillipson in another groundbreaking work of equal significance speaks about this divergence in unity in this way:

(the) transformation of the artist’s relation to nature and tradition, which Cezanne’s work inaugurates, is a defining feature of modernity itself, and finds its parallel in modern science in the transformation of the observer’s relation to the observed in post Einsteinian physics.  A necessary feature of this relativising of the relation is the way it begins to require and display an alternative sense of language , for if reality is      not some absolute pregiven external to human being, is not a ‘transcendental signified’ but rather obtains its sense from the ways in which human beings methodically make sense of it from within specific contexts and languages, then the relation of language to its other (nature) can no longer be that of correspondence but rather of  constitution. (p.50)

It was not much farther now for the radical ideas in western intellectual history like deconstruction and poststructuralism to emerge and challenge human perception and the order of things. After all the artists have laid the foundations and broke new wood.

By Way of Concluding:

When one attempts to recall the pleasures of reading one is on this side of nostalgia, especially when one tries to chew the cud of wisdom. What is knowledge? Is it merely information? Where does knowledge cease and wisdom begin? Ancient Indian Sanskrit aestheticians demarcated meaning in many levels: Abhida, Lakshana, Tatparya, Vyanjana—thereby defining progressive levels of meaning as it is unfolded to the initiated. And in terms of completeness of syntactical, lexical and axiological meaning: Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama, and Vaikhari, where Vaikhari is the basic level where the word corresponds to the mere informative and the Pasyanti vak—or the seeing speech—that leads the reader into levels beyond the knowing into empathetic oneness at the Para stage. Any reading can be a misreading as deconstructionists would see it—if it remains at the levels below the madhyama guided only by the tatparya.  But those levels beyond are afforded only to the few who desire to tread beyond into the third bank of the river.

We read some books for mere information; some we read for sheer pleasure.  Some alter our perceptions for a time being while certain books leave a lasting trace in our very being . The Odyssey is one of those works that leave us different; we wake up like Gregor Samsa—transformed utterly.  But only more human than human. Works like these are a discovery. However there are others that one reads with a feeling of surprise like looking upon one’s own mirror image We already seem to know what is being revealed to us and it is only a matter of saying yes in whole hearted agreement: “Of course, I knew that. How I wish I had written this!”  Such is my experience of going through Art and Physics.

Of course, in the final analysis one experiences only one’s self.  There is a Zen koan that goes like this: A finger is necessary to point towards the moon; but once the moon is observed there is little need for the finger.  But I would add: Let us not discredit our finger for there are more moons!


Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.  Trans. Kimon Friar. New York:   Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. Report to Greco. Trans P A Bien. New York: Simon and Schuster,1965.

Phillipson, Michael.  Painting, Language and Modernity. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Shlain Leonard, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light. New York: William Morrow, 1991.   

Fallen Feathers

The afternoon of the 16th February 2011 was just like most other late winter afternoons in Pondicherry—there were many birds scampering and feeding in and around the densely forested area of the University Campus. There were Common Myna, Black Drongo, Sunbirds, Red-Vented Bulbul, Iora, Brainferever bird, Paradise Flycatcher, White-browed Bulbul, and Golden Oriole—all hunting about when the Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo landed. There was a slight breeze from the east. My excitement was overflowing. At first I had thought this was a rather plump Paradise Flycatcher female, but then closer inspection showed the clear white shoulder patch and black crest. Identity confirmed— Clamator coromandus! It was the Red Winged Crested Cuckoo visiting the campus and perhaps taking off immediately. Strangely enough I spotted the very same specimen the next day at almost the same time on the same whereabouts.  But that was all. The bird’s brief visit had ended as suddenly as it began.  Now after the great cataclysmic cyclone Thane’s visit it was as if the year had just turned about. Winter afternoons would not be the same again for the avid birdwatcher in these parts.

Red Winged Crested Cuckoo in Pondicherry University Campus

I have been keeping close watch over the local migrations of birds in this campus for over the last decade. Most migrants arrive exactly around the tenth of October and leave as mysteriously as ever around the 10th of March. Of course during this brief span of time the green campus becomes a little more hospitable in terms of the weather. All kinds of feathered bipeds make this small green patch their homes for a brief while—some like the Orange headed Thrush make a silent stop over enroute to their wintering home in the Andaman Isles.

I am not sure whether this Red Winged Crested Cuckoo has been recorded in this part of the country by other ornithologists. I know there are a few specimens in the Madras Museum.

As a matter of fact, an year ago, on 16th February 2011 afternoon at around 4.30 p.m. this bird landed on a broad leaved tree near my residence in the Pondicherry University Campus.  It was a slightly pleasant afternoon and the sunlight was trickling through the not-so sparsely wooded campus. The bird appeared a little bit shaky but not too frightened and intimidated by the photographer. After a quick glance around and waving its crest the bird flapped into the neighbouring wooded area adjacent to Auroville campus. One whole year has rolled by and it is February once again.

The Pondicherry University campus is coterminous with the boundaries of Auroville—(a significant place on all tourist maps of the country on account of the idealist bio-centric international community living together inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s vision of harmony)–  and the land, soil and vegetation certainly is not much different. There are not much variety in terms of trees and bushes. Cassia, Acacia and Cashew Nut trees along with variety of palms comprise the major flora. An occasional Neem or a Tamarind would add spice to the air. Many new species are also being planted and cared for.  But then for the most the campus is dry and does not harbor many fruiting or flowering tree, except of course for the ubiquitous cashew—and when in season it is rife with birdlife. Coppersmith Barbets and the other kinds of frugivorous birds usually live off the nuts and berries. Tamarind, Mango and Lime are also not too hard to come by.  Insects and reptiles abound. And so do a variety of amphibians.  An occasional visit from a Peafowl from beyond the walls of the University Campus would add a tinge of colour to the red sand dunes. And to any willingly receptive ears the shrill crescendo of this region’s most common Francolin Partridge the Francolinus pondicherianus would be virtually unforgettable. Early dawns and late evenings appear to be the favourite times for these dumpy ground dwelling birds to break forth into their frenzied shrieks.

The heartline of the campus is of course the deep gorge or the Ravine that runs toward the sea on the east coast. A walk down or even along these red slopes in the early dawn or late evening is bound to yield interesting results for the avid bird watcher. Resident owls and nightjars have been reported by enthusiastic students. During the rains this ravine empties the excess water down to the sea and all along the dry summer days the ravine affords some sort of cool shade and respite for the ground dwellers, lizards, scorpions, snakes and chameleons as well. Many a time we have been fortunate to have had brief visits from the serpentine communities and sometimes from a solitary Iguana. Mongoose also live alongside Hare and Jackal. A decade ago late evenings would have been punctuated by the howls of jackals—they have become spare and rare indeed over the years. New constructions and ever expanding demands of natural space for human development have taken care of their dwindling populations no doubt.  But then this is inevitable indeed.

For the most the sprawling eight-hundred acre campus is a quiet haven for a large number of bird species among those insects. And overhead at almost any time of the day depending on the season one can find large flocks of estuary and coastal birds, egrets, and herons slow winging toward the marshes and salt water ranges on the east coast road. The crackling racket of Roseringed Parakeets is a fairly common greeting for the naturalist who steps into the campus during the day. So is the tonk-tonking of the Coppersmith Barbet.

But then all this has changed after the Thane Cyclone’s disastrous visit.  The landscape has changed and certainly for the migrating bird groups the local map has been altered and earth lies a little shadier brown and crumbled. The super fast flight of the Green Pigeon groups has also been altered considerably.  I had photographed orange breasted green pigeons on tall tree tops during the last two years and they have been fairly predictable in their movements in and out of this region. This year a large flock arrived albeit a bit late. They are also visibly a bit shaky. The general turn out of songbirds and flycatchers have been for the most getting a bit less predictable while the ubiquitous cry of the Brain-fever bird rises in crescendo every morn and evening.  I have almost forgotten when I last heard the Indian cuckoo’s pi..ppi…ppiyu

The fateful Cyclone Thane blew over this region on the 29th of December. Around midnight the storm became violent and the wind blew with rising ferocity. Many trees were uprooted and the roads became virtually unrecognizable from the surrounding debris. While we watched helplessly many a huge tree crashed and their branches flayed about in the wind. Lots of White-Browed Bulbuls and Magpie Robins fell victims to the demonic cyclonic fury. After the rains the next day by about evening we came across many a wet bundle of feathers. Poor things, their world had been altered beyond recognition. Birds are such helpless victims when it comes to natural disasters; however, their recovery is indeed remarkable. The very next day when the skies cleared the song of the Indian Koel rang out cheerfully, the Brainfever kept company. Indian Robins became their perky selves once again. And the Orioles flew at breakneck speed across newly felled clearings. The Black Drongo and the Myna hung around the workmen who came to hack away the debris—there was a flurry of insect activity. Everything was coming back to life and the birds knew their landscape had been altered.  The fluttering butterflies and the vociferous cicadas day in and out keep up the hope for a brighter tomorrow.  For after all, in nature nothing ever goes to waste; everything is recycled—including the fallen feathers.

 Orangebreasted Green Pigeon Treron bicincta

Lark Landing on a Tree


These are among some of the birds most commonly met with by anyone who has been fortunate enough to have fairly good eyesight and equally good hearing.

  1. Common Myna
  2. House Crow
  3. Jungle Crow
  4. Tree Pie
  5. Magpie Robin
  6. Oriole
  7. Golden backed Woodpecker
  8. Drongo Black
  9. Drongo Ashy
  10. Sunbird(s)
  11. Rose ringed Parakeet
  12. Brainfever Bird or Indian Cuckoo
  13. White Browed Bulbul
  14. Red Whiskered Bulbul
  15. Red Vented Bulbul
  16. Partridge
  17. Spotted Dove
  18. Small Green Bee-eater
  19. Brahminy Myna
  20. Coppersmith Barbet
  21. Crow Pheasant
  22. Hoopoe
  23. Indian Koel
  24. Pariah Kite or the Black kite
  25. Swifts
  26. Blackheaded Munia
  27. Shikra Hawk
  28. Iora
  29. Small Minivet
This list of course is not exhaustive—I have haphazardly noted from what comes to my mind at the moment. If I were to verify my bird notes and field guides I am sure I could bring half a dozen more common birds to light! However, among the more exotic are the following:
  1. Orange Breasted Green Pigeon
  2. Indian Pitta
  3. Sand Lark
  4. Crested Serpent Eagle
  5. Green Billed Malkoha
  6. White Throated Ground Thrush
  7. Paradise Flycatcher

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to capture some good and some not so good images of these amazing forms of life. When I reflect on these images I am transported to those moments of ecstasy and intense happiness that I shared with them. Birds no doubt form the most endearing and colourful forms of life that we humans are fortunate to share our living spaces with. Dr Salim Ali the doyen of Indian ornithologists has recorded that there is perhaps no place on the globe that has not been darkened by the shadow of a bird—this goes to prove the extreme adaptability of this life form. Almost anywhere in the world one is sure to come across bird life—provided of course one keeps one’s eyes and ears open!

When I reflect on the years of bird watching that I have gone through the most exciting thing that comes to my mind is sharing notes with the legendary Salim Ali. It was in the late seventies that I had the good fortune to meet this great man. We were instrumental in setting up what was then known as the Kerala Natural History Society—KNHS for short—and our president was none other than the pioneer of Kerala’s bird studies, Dr K K Neelakantan. I was then an undergraduate student under him involved in trekking and natural history alongside my literary studies. As part of the natural history work I organized a wild life exhibition and I was awarded a prize for my involvement. The prize was none other than a copy of the famed Book of Indian Birds. I had also the good fortune to be introduced to Dr Salim Ali who was then engaged in field work in the Western Ghats. He was delighted in signing the book for me! This priceless possession is now adorning my book shelf. And every time I take it down I am whisked back to those days!  How decades ago I was walking down the Ponmudi hills with Dr Salim Ali with his dangling his field glasses, listing the hill birds. The high pitched rackets of Grackle and Racket tailed drongo even now float down the byways of my imagination. The sounds and songs of birds no doubt serve to make our otherwise dreary life meaningful and joyous.

Magpie Robin

Ask anyone to name a singing bird and you will be fairly surprised by the quizzical looks that might appear on their surprised faces—well, they might murmur, how about the Koel? That’s a singing bird, right?  Some who are blessed with wild imagination and with a bit of general knowledge trivia might come out with astounding names like the Nightingale, or the Skylark!  True, they are all birds that sing—but the most commonly available sweet-singing thrush of our own lawns and backyards as yet remains seldom noticed or recognised! Most people would have some rehashed knowledge of birds through their brush with romantic poetry—either in English or in their own native tongues. Hence their idea of the Cuckoo! But then come March, and this sprite black and white bird bursts into such sweet melody perched on the top of some tree or bush and will keep on for months together till it raises its chicks. The Magpie Robin certainly has a special place in every bird-watcher’s heart; there is little doubt about it. You can meet with this bird usually in the mornings or evenings almost anywhere in our campus. Its favourite nesting spots are on dead trees or among electric-wiring boxes!


Orioles are certainly among the most beautiful birds anywhere in the world. They catch our attention as they dazzle their way through the sunlight.  Many a time you would see only a flash of golden yellow. These are Golden Orioles. They are more or less residents in our campus. The Black Naped Oriole is conspicuously absent in these parts. And so is the Black Headed. After the rains you can usually hear the fluting cry of the orioles among the trees. They are not very shy birds and one can easily watch their flying antics.

Common Myna

This bird is quite common in our campus and its sprightly gait and variety of calls is bound to attract the attention of even the most uncaring student in the campus!  One could see them hitch hiking on cattle many a time, helping the cattle get rid of marauding insects. They are omnivorous birds and the young ones as a rule appear to have a ravenous appetite. The poor parents are kept on their toes diving for insects and feeding the little ones. Many a lamp post in and around the campus is the nesting place for these sleek black and brown birds.  Their yellow eye patch gives them a dignity no doubt. Perhaps they are postgraduates here and elsewhere!

The one I have here was being attacked by an oriole!

Small Green Bee-eater

Bee eaters are definitely eye catching. They swoop down on their prey in flight and deftly gathering it up return to the very same perch. The common one in our campus is the Small Green. I have also come across the Blue Bearded Bee eater perched on high tension wire near the building sites.

The small blue nests in holes in the ground.  And you might be surprised to come across their nest in such obvious places that you wonder how the birds survive from their natural predators. But that they do is a sign of their success. They plan their breeding season in early summer when there is a plenitude of insect life. And the little ones are quite deft and spritely as they flirt around lamp posts and telephone lines.

Brahminy Myna

Dr Salim Ali, the doyen of Indian ornithology, lists so many varieties of mynas in the Indian subcontinent—they are almost fairly commonly distributed too. Apart from the common myna, there is the Jungle Myna, Blyth’s Myna, Grey Headed Myna, Pied Myna, Grackle or Hill Myna, and Brahminy Myna. In our sprawling campus you could easily come across the Brahminy—so called on account of its white tuft no doubt. They are usually found in pairs. The best time to spot them is immediately after the rains.


The hoopoe is certainly a majestic bird with its outstanding crest and royal gait. Its hooping call most often echoes round the campus and floats down the corridors and through the open windows. Your first sight of the bird would be surely on the ground as it walks by kingly in its grace. It would take off flapping its barred wings at your approach. Insects are its food and you can meet with them singly or in pairs, almost anywhere in the campus.

White Browed Bulbul

There are many birds that one usually hears but seldom sees.  This is one such bird. The bubbling calls echo and reecho among the bushes morning and evening, and the birds dash about usually in pairs. The white brow is distinct, provided you have enough patience to wait for the bird to show itself. Other than this brow the bird is drab and not at all noticeable. It usually merges with the dry foliage.

Red Whiskered Bulbul

As the name implies this bird sports red whiskers and is adorned with a black crest.  Most often you might mistake its crest for its beak and the bird appears to have two heads—so a Janus-faced bird! It is not uncommon in our campus and you are bound to come across fairly large hunting parties in and amidst bushes, crackling away. They are usually early risers and quite active throughout the day.  These bulbuls— so named on account of the musical instrument of that name—are among the lovable birds which keep our campus alive.

Red vented Bulbul

It would be good for the beginner to keep some standard sizes of birds in mind for further reference when you come across newer birds.  Sparrow, Bulbul or Myna are usual reference sizes.  Red vented bulbul is usually found alongside mixed hunting parties of red whiskered and white browed.  As the name implies it is identifiable on account of the red patch below its tail. The head dress is something that resembles a crew-cut!  It nests on small patchy bowls of twigs and dry leaves amidst bushes.


This beautiful resident bird in the campus is a famed singer—but seldom do people see it! Obviously the usual pair loves to hide amidst the thick leafy braches and tease the searcher! Anyone who takes a stroll down the green part of the campus is certain to hear unusual whistles and chirpings from among the foliage. If one were to take the pains to wait it out patiently one is sure to spot the couple darting between the branches. The male is yellow and black and the female dullish green. One is left wondering how such a small dumpy bird could hold with in itself such lovely repertoire of notes and songs! The life of the campus would be drained if these lovely birds were to desert us! A couple of years ago I was taking an overseas professor for a morning walk round the campus and hearing an Iora pair among the trees we both stood amazed and silent – so religiously like in a church or a temple!

Green Pigeon

One evening in mid-February I was most excited on sighting a whole family of Green Pigeons right across a small clearing beside my quarters. They were perched high up on a cassia tree eating the berries on the lantana or some sort of parasitical growth on the trees, and the late evening glow of the sky was reflected in the bosom of the male. I am not quite sure whether these Orange breasted Green Pigeons were just visiting the campus for a breather in the midst of a long distance flight or even local migrants. Either way the campus is a bustle of bird life between October and March.  However, as each year passes the numbers of our feathered friends are certainly dropping.  Massive tree-clearings, no doubt, here and elsewhere are regularly destroying their green cover. Just imagine what a dreary place our earth would be without these beautiful creatures!

Birds against the blue skies

One morning in November last year I was gazing up into the deep blue sky when I spotted these long distance fliers.  Their flight formation is amazing. Just as a taut bow, they were a gaggle of Geese. Large groups of ducks and geese assemble during winter alongside pelicans, storks, herons and egrets in the water bodies in and around Chennai—the best time to watch them is between October and late March. Ducks and geese like flamingoes are among the high flying birds—ducks have been reported flying as high in the air as even five miles! I have some good shots of Glossy Ibises as well.

White Throated Ground Thrush

A long time ago while bird watching  in the western ghats I had many an occasion to come across this short stumpy ground thrush—and I recall making a even a presentation for my naturalist friends including images of this beautiful bird that I had sketched in my notebooks of those days.  But then imagine my surprise when I came across this bird here in our campus one morning sitting and meditating all alone among the leaves! The short stretch of tree cover amidst the bamboos near to the Centre for Pollution control was the haunt of this silent one. I have never heard its whistling songs here in Pondicherry.

When one starts writing about birds there is no end to what one could put in. Birds are such delightful creatures that once you have started noticing them you will find yourself drawn to their world, their calls, their songs, their movements and their habitats more often. The study of birds has developed so much these days that from being a mere amateur birdwatcher one could progress to a full-fledged ornithologist in no time provided one takes the pains for it. However, as an aesthete and a committed bird photographer I have discovered another dimension to the whole thing: waiting for the right moment for the right kind of light and aperture, I have found, is a process of silent meditation. It bestows you with a patience and quiet –a calm that passeth all understanding!

Murali Sivaramakrishnan