Gish Jen:Tiger Writing– A Review

Tiger Writing by Gish Jen
Tiger Writing by Gish Jen

If there is one major aspect of writing the self then it is located between seeking independence and experiencing interdependence . The entire history of Anglo-American Modernism has been the formulation of the work of art and literature as an autotelic object, or an independent being initself , quite distinct from the interdependency that constitutes raw life. Writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust desired independence from all and everything — including culture, family, and language — and the great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual — one of Europe’s finest illusions — blossomed forth. The aesthetic of the Modern was conceived in such a desire to be independent. Nevertheless in the contexts of writing that has changed over the years, multicultural issues and pluralistic perceptions in the fast lane of life in the present have altered the concerns of the evolving narrative self as fully evidenced in Gish Jen’s exploration of her own writing and the cultural phenomenon of literature in America. Gish Jen is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of four novels including the acclaimed Typical American andWorld and Town .

Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self , is a three-part lecture she delivered as part of the Massey Lecture series in Harvard. The forum obviously offered for this second generation Chinese writer in English a specific reason to delve into herself and close-examine her own cultural and literary situation. The book is thus a testament and a manifesto for interrogating the closure of the self in the context of the West and the cultural necessity of opening up to the larger issues of interdependency in a globalising present.

In his essay Why I Write , George Orwell confidently gave “four great motives for writing” that he feels exists in every writer. The first of these is sheer egotism — to be talked about, to be remembered after death etc. The second is aesthetic enthusiasm — an investment “in the impact of one sound over another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” Then there is historical impulse — the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” And finally, political purpose — a “desire to push the world in a certain direction,” which he finds in every person. For Gish Jen there is another motive: the fascination with the western narrative per se . She discovers that the novel is fundamentally a western form, and her fascination with the classics of modernist writing she had encountered even from her childhood helped her locate the narrative strands as drifting toward a sort of narcissistic solipsism, as quite distinct from her own Chinese roots that she soon identified.

Tiger Writing is a remarkable achievement on account of its sobriety and unique perception of difference between what Gish Jen considers as the West and Asian narratives. The novel needs to be located within the ambit of anguish and joy and not constrained in terms of a narrow self-exploration as she desires.


Growing up in America as the second daughter of a Chinese immigrant Engineer, Gish Jen was well exposed to the wealth of classical modernist writing. Eventually with her discerning critical eye she was able to discriminate the appalling casualness of pronouncements like Lionel Trilling’s about how Thomas Mann “said that all his work could be understood as an effort to free himself from the middle class, and this of course, will serve to describe the chief intention of all modern literature.” With a characteristic Chinese clarity recalling Confucian insight, she dismisses this as ever being true of all times despite the special evocation of the radical political agenda in both Mann and Trilling.

Further there is a distinction in the interior exploration of Mann and Kafka and eventually Milan Kundera as she discovers. Gish Jen cites Kundera: “For Proust, a man’s interior universe comprises a miracle, an infinity that never ceases to amaze us. But that is not what amazes Kafka.” It is the involvement with history that discriminates the Kafkaesque.

Gish Jen’s thesis is that there is a distinct trait to individualism in the aesthetic of the West, while its Asian counterpart is one that liberates the self from its own mundane-ness through its involvement with the everyday and the rest. Individualism intensifies from the East to West, as pointed out by Richard Nisbett, she says.

In the end, what is ultimately required is an integration of the individualist and the interdependentvisions — “a balance of independence and interdependence, I might say today.” “We need both interdependent and the independent self. But how interdependent of me to see them as two poles of human experience that cannot be disengaged!”

Gish Jen, we must remember, is a second generation Chinese American western writer — and she thinks critically and thinks at times in terms of even us and them . However her sensitivity to her own roots and the transparency with which she focuses on these textures is what makes Tiger Writingremarkably interesting.

The book as we have it now is divided into three sections, and the first section is entirely devoted to her father’s autobiography which he wrote when he was 85. Here the focus is entirely on non-episodic experiences and what we could term as personal history. The items described are external objects and the narrative reads like a map of external experience.

The second section is an exploration of art, culture and the self in western especially white middle class intellectual tradition. The third is suitably entitled “What Comes of All That”, and is a critical exploration of the integration of interdependence and independence. Gish Jen cites John Updike’s use of a “fervent relationship with the world” as a critical touchstone, Updike “affirming with this a nose-pressed-to-the-glass-ness that seemed to me the opposite of nose-pressed-to-the-mirror-ness .”

In conclusion the author resorts to an observation from Czeslaw Milosz on poetry which could be true for fiction as well and which lends the title to this book:

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent;

A thing brought forth that

we didn’t know we had in us,

So we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out

And stood in the light, las ing his tail.

This element of surprise and discovery that takes place in a work of art that leaps straight at both the reader and the writer is in the end that which matters, and Gish Jen’s translucency as a novelist with an astute critical sense is that which leads us through the pages of this extremely interesting narrative. Tiger Writing is thus at once a text of critical exploration and a manifesto.

( Murali Sivaramakrishnan teaches English at the Pondicherry Central University )

Review of Conversations with Children

Conversations with Children  by S. Murali.  Puducherry Co-op Book Society, 9, Jeevantham Street, Ashok Nagar, Pondicherry 605008. 2005. 38pp. Paperback. Rs.60.00. ISBN 81-87299-10-06.

S. Murali is a painter of repute, and a literary critic who has specialised in Indian literary theory and aesthetics. He is Reader in the Department of English, PondicherryUniversity.  Conversations with Children, his second collection of poems, lives up to the promise of  his first collection, Night Heron (1998); however, unlike Night Heron, it has no illustrations.

The twenty-five poems here have a variety of themes — the title poem deals with the problem of communication, while “My Father and R.K.Narayan” is a moving tribute, mourning both his father and the eminent writer,  who “died a few days before R.K.Narayan did.” As in the earlier collection, love of nature is an important theme; “The Bleeding Tree” which laments over deforestation has an allegorical quality about it. Some poems, such as “I Like to let the word fly about”, “There’s no Wisdom in Poetry” and “Afterward” deal with the art and craft of poetry. Some poems are based on the Puranas. There are five poems about Krishna, and his miraculous childhood exploits. There are poems expressing the feelings of Eklavya, Garuda, Krishna, Karna and Kaikeyi. “Amba Upanishad” expresses the anguish of Amba, the princess forcibly brought to Hastinapur by Bhishma to be his brother’s bride; she confesses, “I had not known enough of hate/ Before now, to hate so much . . .” In “I, Bahuka”, the protagonist wonders who he really is, the glorious King Nala, husband of the beautiful Damayanti, or the dark, ugly Bahuka he became when bitten by a serpent. Murali’s poems are characterized by careful craftsmanship. His free verse  experiments with a number of stanza forms, such as four-line stanzas and three-line stanzas. Some poems have a refrain, but  he avoids rhyme.

The title poem is representative of his work – there is deep thought, a feel for human relationships, closeness to nature,  and striking imagery. “Conversations with Children” is a meditation on the way children casually avoid listening to adults and their sermons about “general rules of behaviour”, and  “dos and don’ts”. The imagery is  concrete, and original:

Like cows in the mid-stream of highway traffic

nonchalant they stand, letting each word

glide by; dodging and ducking, or with a simple

toss of the head disengaging artha from sabda


as simple as peeling bananas.

Waste water cascade.


Most Indians will respond to the unusual image, as the picture of a cow placidly chewing its cud in the middle of the road springs to mind.  The next image, of peeling a banana, starts on a new line, to highlight the ease with which unpleasant conversation is side-stepped, for it is considered only “waste water”.   Two lines are used as a kind of refrain, occurring thrice in the poem:

Fly away, fly away word –

there’s just not any  space for you.

But the poem is not a facile condemnation of the younger generation; it is only after “long years of wandering” that the poet has realized that “Conversation is all”, earlier he was among those who thought that “it’s all conversation”.  “Now my children beside me” indicates that it is an older (and wiser) man who is speaking. There is a note of hope as he sits with his children;  communication can take the form of responding together to nature, its fury and its beauty:

Now my children beside me, I sit and watch

the slow fading of light in the new monsoon

trees all agog with words, the wind

and lightning; thunder calls across the sky.

So much meaning being tossed about

in the open. Shall we reach out

and clutch? Conversation is all


But they do not understand the importance of  conversation, the response to the plea for reaching out and clutching is negative:

and clutch? Conversation is all

empty dispensation of words

a loose cloud over all


And  the poem ends with the refrain: Fly away, fly away word –/ there’s just not any  space for you.”

One does not know (and the  poet probably does not care) how a non-Indian reader would respond to such imagery. Would they slot the cow or the monsoon into the category of the “exotic Other”? Would they be able to understand the reference to “artha from sabda” (and the implied allusion to Kalidasa)? The same questions could be asked about Murali’s poems about figures from Indian mythology. But there is no doubt that these poems are a rewarding experience for the Indian reader; they are thought provoking, and present fresh perspectives on characters like Kaikeyi.

Prof. Shyamala A. Narayan

Journal of Indian Writing in English  14.3.2007


CRISIS IN ENGLISH DEPARTMENTS, PERHAPS… (Concerning the state of affairs of the English Classroom in Kerala, late last century)

Any self-reflexive teacher of English language and literature in Kerala is sooner or later bound to confront questions like: how and why does one teach literature? Is the literary categorizable at all? . What is the essential difference between the common man who reads for pleasure and the scholar who “studies” literature as a discipline? What is the relevance of teaching English literature in Kerala at present? These are theoretical questions, with cultural implications. What follows is a generalised attempt towards problematising them. However, for the sake of gaining certain amount of intellectual clarity in my presentation I would choose to regard this under three major heads– ofcourse, they are interlinked– that of the student, the research scholar and the teacher. And because of my own personal involvement in all these capabilities the discourse is not entirely objective either.

Those students who opt for English itself has dwindled down the years: many now stray into the English class for want of anything better. One cannot blame the student alone for this but the system itself creates such a lacuna between what the student learns and what the everyday life demands. Of what use is an English graduate in a postindustrial society that at every point makes practical demands on the individual: the distance between imagination and a sheer bread-and-butter-consumerist culture is fast increasing. The study of literature has undergone tremendous upheavals in the other parts of the world but we appear to upkeep a dead inheritance with admirable nonchalance and unshakeable faith! Small wonder then that the student of English finds nothing worth his/her while in this foreign burden.

The study any literature exerts certain demands on the student, however eager or involved, but to have to study a literature in a foreign language would be doubly demanding. For many a student the language of English literature is itself the major stumbling block : how does one get to see the finer aspects of a language and culture , feel the subtle nuances and innuendoes couched in an artful idiom ,if the denotative aspects of the language themselves are not fully grasped? Which is essentially more valuable– a language in its bare communicative aspect, or a literary sense that is couched in any language ? The average student in the English class struggles with his foreign words and phrases attempting to work out near equivalents in his native language while the more informed gropes in the dark for the subtler aspects of literature. Have our literary critical theories and our teaching been of any use to either of these at any time in any situation whatsoever?

Perhaps, the most important aspect of literary theory that the keen student would realise soon would be the irrelevance of the English language itself; for the imbibing of any language would mean the imbibing of its culture too, and the more alien a culture the more removed the student becomes from his/her indigenous roots. And this becomes a major crisis– of what use is it to waste five or more years of the best part of one’s life if it is only to realise at the end that what one had pursued is of little consequence to one’s life?

The problems facing a research scholar in the English department is not quite different from those faced by the conscientious student, only that here they take on a larger dimension. Now, serious research in English studies began in Kerala only quite recently. Although among the English teachers of the last generations one could easily cite singleminded scholars imbued with deep commitment to their work — excellent teachers who could expound on any topic at great length and profundity, explicate any text , and make the reading of English literature most entertaining and insight-offering– many of them had not thought of pursuing their knowledge in systematic manner , say, for instance, produce a scholarly treatise or dissertation. Perhaps, they did not feel the need for such endeavours or the times did not demand it of them! I do not mean to say that the dissertations that are churned out a-plenty on all kinds of topics in the present day from the departments of English is a sign of intellectuality and superior scholarship to that of the past generations of great teachers! Far from it.

Over the last few years there has been a tremendous rise in the number of M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations in the area of English studies — a large percentage of them worthless primarily because they are “random searches” that are not founded on any thorough scholarship or pursued through systematic methodology. This kind of end-oriented dissertations could not even be called “theses”: they are just extended essays largely culled from somewhere without even acknowledgment– a ritual performed for sheer practical purposes!

Most dissertations during the early seventies were mere explications of single author’s works. Up to about the mid eighties research in English meant simply taking up an author and making a thorough examination of his/her works, categorising them according to their genres, explaining the allusions and references, quoting from a variety of sources , and the thesis ultimately turning out to be a jumble of quotations drawn without any logic from here and there. But by the time literary theory hit our universities, the conscientious researcher found certain concrete methodologies possible in addition to mere re- reading.

As a usual practice (perhaps it is true of most other fields of enquiry as well) the English scholar looked to the West for theoretical sophistication : if earlier literature meant only literature from the British Isles , now literary theory meant only those with the fancy labels like “Structuralism” “Semiotics” “Deconstruction” etc. Everything that was Western in origin was looked upon with reverence and awe, and even to mention anything Indian was anathema — one had to be either fundamentalist or jingoist (something short of an ignoramus in “Theory”) to consider anything Indian as worthwhile at all! So we in Kerala wrote dissertations and journal articles on “English” and “American” Literatures. As our syllabus widened to include the “Third World” writing in the newly introduced form of Commonwealth Literature we gladly shifted our focus to that, but with an eye heavily overburdened with “Theory” and a methodology incorporated from the West. In the eighties our departments of English were overflowing with scholarly treatises on the works and worth of Indian and Third World writers, known and unknown, all studied under several sophisticated theoretical heads! We have dissertations on Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tagore, Bhasa, Kalidasa and even Valmiki– deconstructed and dissected , misread and bisected. Many have even gone to the length of unearthing Feminist and subaltern “subtexts” from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. All for the purpose of securing a degree! Under usual circumstances anything new that happens in the west takes several years to reach our departments, and only after many more years of dilly-dallying with the same do we realize its validity or irrelevance to our condition. But in the case of theory, one was compelled to reevaluate one’s own situation before one could practice it seriously. However, that was a realization open only to the chosen few– those that took even theory seriously. For the others theory meant only just another axe to chop and chisel, and they wielded it mercilessly and indiscriminately on any form of writing whether it be in English, “english”, Malayalam or any language! For years now, any scholarly work from our departments of English will be derided as inferior if it doesn’t carry citations from Derrida, Foucault, Lacan or Said and their kind.

True, in more than one sense theory is liberating in its application, but when handled inadvertently by our anglicized Pundits it loses its relevance and significance. In fact this is not the case only confined to our English departments but in our Malayalam departments as well scholars feel the compelling need to draw and disburse wisdom from the fashionable demigods of the West

When Commonwealth literature came to be looked upon as postcolonial and a new theory sprang up around it our departments caught on to it. The research scholar in English was ever on the lookout for new topics and areas to work on. And here it was – a virgin territory, a whole unexplored terrain rampant with themes and techniques ranging from incest to myth, expressionism to magical realism.
What more could we ask for? Hence we churned out dissertations on O.V. Vijayan and Kakkanadan alongside that of Milan Kundera and Rushdie to unheard of names from Canada , Australia, Latin America and South Africa. Comparison became easy and satisfying! Postcolonial theory also liberated literary canons: there was no need to bother about values! Why should one discriminate good writing from bad? Concepts like hegemony, interpellation, condensation, displacement, abrogation and appropriation have come to be household usages for our scholars. One wonders whether anyone pauses to deconstruct their own reading, thinking and writing! But dissertations are meant only for the academia and no one reads them. In fact where in the world does the scholar have time to read if he/she has to write so much? However, the residual problems that surface need to be interrogated. In the place of canonical writers we have installed new ones!

The crisis facing the research scholar in English in Kerala today is a sort of self-exterminating one: one does not require the self-styled postcolonial critic to tell us that our land and literature are unique. Then why write and discuss in a foreign language burdened with the sense of alienation and dispirit, a lengthy dissertation for a Ph.D. if only to formulate a contradictory conclusion? Why write in English at all? Why not study and write in Malayalam?

Naturally, these problems lead us to the position of the English teacher in the various colleges in the state. Now that Pre-degree is delinked from the colleges one could consider all the colleges as having to do with graduate and postgraduate studies in English. Here we have two kinds of English teaching: that which is aimed at the English optional student and the other for the student who studies English as Part I. However, the techniques adopted by our teachers by and large is the very same for both! We teach texts, and never anything else. We explicate passages and more often translate into Malayalam, professedly for the benefit of the Malayalam medium students! Many a teacher of English in Kerala teaches much more in Malayalam than in English! Here both the language and the literature content are lost on the students. For the students from the Science optional, the English class rooms have been reduced to mere ritual wastage of precious time which could be more fruitfully spent in their labs! Woe to the teachers of English who have been inculcated with a precious sense of self importance and missionary zeal!

The conscientious teacher is , to say the least, paralyzed by the overflow of all the stuff that he/she reads and the qualitatively irregular situation prevalent in the class room. The students who sit facing him/her seek immediate guidance from him/her and also expect him/her to tidy them over the examination and no more. The text books that are to be taught are often prescribed by a body of people who have several other factors that prod them to do so. The question papers are set by another person who hardly knows what has been taught or even how, and the answer papers are valued by yet another. Considering all these, the situation of the teachers in the English class room is very complicated indeed! Hence, it is not surprising that they often adopt the easiest way out: simple explication- de- text. In fact the majority of students get very upset if any teacher does anything other than this set routine! Several teachers that I am familiar with are quite emphatic about this practice of class room teaching: “what else are we to do,” they ask, “other than explain the texts?”

Any teacher who is adequately well-read in current developments in Theory and who believes in up-keeping scholarship confronts total contradictions in the prevalent class room practice! In an environment where so much discrepancy exists between the committed teacher and a majority that refuses to see the validity of keeping up with the latest, the former is often cramped for breathing space. From my experience, I could classify the English teacher in Kerala and his/her relation to theory in the following manner:

Those who are totally ignorant of theory and continue to be ignorant.
Those who are totally ignorant of theory yet pretend to know it all.
Those who know something of theory and know their limits and so don’t care
Those who know something of theory and would like to know more.
Those who know their theory well yet never think of practical application in the class room.
Those who know theory well enough to ATTEMPT some kind of application.

A majority of my colleagues appear to feel that reading and research are activities meant only for those who are young and have the time at their disposal to squander it on scholarship, while they are by virtue of their seniority blessed by wisdom that does not require them to upkeep any knowledge! Such senior teachers still practise the age old custom of textual explication and take pride in reading from their old notes that their teachers had given to their wards who in turn take it down diligently!( No personal affront meant!)

Once we have seen our situation for what it is, should we still continue with our old texts and older methodologies? Do we really have to recourse to a foreign language to teach our students what their lives mean to them? Granted that on account of certain historical incongruities English has come to stay as one among our native languages , should we insist on teaching literature in English through that language or simply teach the language alone for our practical purposes? If at all we do have to teach the literature it is long past the time to revamp our syllabus and awaken ourselves and our students to much that has happened since the 60-s. Once such a thing happens, ofcourse close on its heels would dog the problems that I have been highlighting! The self-contradictory nature of teaching English literature / literature written in English/ english literature in our class rooms is the crisis that looms large before the English teacher.

I do not wish to close on a pessimistic note. What the self reflexive English teacher thinks today is something that would reach the teachers of other departments quite soon. May be on account of dealing with imagination and its products, the English teacher is blessed with a prophetic insight. Like the hare that senses any minor changes on the earth’s surface the teacher of English senses far in advance. Well,shouldn’t the forewarned be forearmed ? To recall my opening words again, this essay is only a generalised attempt—it erratically displays my as yet unclear apprehensions. My intention was less on finding answers to the problems than on posing them. And if I have not been quite definitive in my arguments it would only show the incomplete nature of my critical awareness of the situation. But nevertheless that such problems are growing day by day in size and gravity no one would deny. Since I consider this to be a shared common problem I would be happy to receive the responses of other like-minded teachers.

*The above essay was published in the local Newspapers and I did receive a great number of responses. I was also asked to submit a rejoinder as closing comments. However, I still think the issues raised therein are currently relevant.

from Introduction to Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)

Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University

from Introduction
Murali Sivaramakrishnan
The Act/Art of Inter-reading

Reading is a not a simple process of transaction of meaning from the text to the reader. Of course, such a simplistic view is but a naïve manner of understanding the complex linguistic, lexical, syntactic, socio-political and aesthetic circuit of the author-text-reader continuum— so much intellectual and academic discussion and analysis over a long period of time has gone into the dissection of this triangular relationship, and it is not yet over. And quite understandably so. In fact, this may even be nothing new after all when we take into account the scholarship that has accumulated over the last century in the related fields of human sciences and the social sciences and turn our heads backwards into our own past. The virtue of hindsight could proffer us newer perspectives, no doubt. And, literature, it augurs well to remember, is not the only domain where these issues are problematised, of course. The consequences of the decode-encode complex and its dimensions in terms of the cultural-historic rhetoric/fabric has been discussed and debated ad-nauseum by now in academic circles all over the world, in as varied a discipline like Anthropology or Cybernetics, Geography or Ecology Nevertheless what all this has entailed for us in brief is the self-reflexive foregrounding of the author-text-reader complex. As Jeremy Hawthorne has put it succinctly:

“Meaning, significance, fulfillment are not to be found sitting obediently and expectantly in literary works, waiting for the pages to be opened so that they can troop out into the reader’s head. What we get from our readings we get as a result of a mental struggle which is informed and directed by our theories and ideas– whether or not we are conscious of these.” [Jeremy Hawthorne Cunning passages: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Marxism in the Contemporary Literary Debate. London:Arnold, 1996.]
The point well worth reiterating is that the mental struggle we engage in when we encounter texts could be conscious or unconscious—no reading thus could be free from theorizing on its own, every reading is an informed reading! In short, the common reader is most uncommon! Let us now take a closer look at the trigonometry of this relationship:

In brief, one could say that the movement of the arc of literary theorising has been historically decided by the instress of one of the three points of the literary triangle: the author, the text and the reader. Those theories in the past that accorded prime importance to the author like the Romantic or the Phenomenological theories could be grouped together on one end as against those formulations of the New Critics or the Formalists who argued for the autotelic nature of the text removed from all contexts. Post Structuralism and its aftermath challenges the very orthodox nature of these relationships and unties the very lynchpin of textuality and the fabric of reading. While socio-politically self-reflexive theories like Feminism(s) and postcolonialism read against the grain of that fabric situating themselves not outside this trigonometric relationship but firmly securing themselves within the eddy of the meaning making process, whether it be the inquiry into the ontology of the text/meaning .
Theorising in one form or other has gone on in our universities for several decades by now and we have come to recognize the act of theory as moving toward new and newer positions within this paradigm and evolving Strategies of Reading. In all, the idea is not to be bogged down to a sort of reading and interpreting of individual texts but untying the very process of meaning– formation and the dynamis of the trigonometry.
In all, the range of literary theories from Formalism through New Criticism and Structuralism to Deconstruction and their critical practices has been in more than one sense instrumental in creating a meta-language of literary production, meaning and receptivity.
And the academic institutionalisation of literature and literary studies – focus on how literature is –Created, Constructed, and Conditioned. Thus theory did usher in a paradigm shift. And the reading process as one discovers was never simplistic.
Now, if the academic institutionalization of literature and literary studies could be said to have brought about a sort of Copernican revolution—a paradigm shift—in the focus of how literature is created, how it makes meaning, or even how such an awareness is itself constructed and conditioned, one could say that the intense history of theoretical enterprise itself has brought about even an even profounder paradigm shift in the manner in which such theories themselves have been interrogated and applied in various cultural contexts. For instance, Postcolonial theory is necessarily a historical recognition of the status and relevance of theory, and at the same time it foregrounds a resistance and challenge to the inordinate theorizing of literature in non-European cultural contexts
Well, whatever its demerits might be, the emergence of theory in our academia has brought forth newer and newer perceptions for discovering cultural locations. The trigonometry of reading has evolved from the almost two dimensional Euclidian plane geometry into the pluralistic trajectory of a post-Einsteinian world of multiverse(s). The dynamic of this movement cannot be underestimated: it entails a new world of interpretative possibilities. The reader is as much ingrained into the text as the text is de-centred in the process.
This is the point where I propose to implant the theory of inter-reading that this book aptly bears out. Quite distinct from the deconstructive entertainment that the play of text-author-reader poses, this process would re-organise and recognize value and signification. Inter-Reading does not play down intertextuality neither does it inter/hinder the reader/writer. It allows for a slow percolation or osmosis of the trio I mentioned at first into one another. The writer does not cease to be, neither does the text, when the reader enters the play ground. The text in the sense of being a tissue, a woven thing— woven of former texts—is by virtue of being itself, a process of engagements, of con/texts. And the inter part of the theory that the reader ushers in does not inter the text, in the sense of inter – bury or put into the ground, neither does it hide the reader’s act of playing. The text proffers the vast but structurally limited playground where in the deconstructive play takes place. For as long as the reader can, the play goes on and it could also end in a tie! Meaning and interpretation are here not mere strategies but palpable sensations that bear out the testimony of delight—the ananda or beatification of being. And the implied value in literary texts do not go unrecognized. As pointed out earlier, caste, race, gender and history could be seen as conceptual tools in engaging with the textual territory. We recognize the category of nature without the text as also another criteria for this engagement. I have discussed this process at length in another context. Suffice it to say that the idea of the text does prefigure the work of human mind(s) and the process of meaning production hastens in the outside/inside continuum. The text opens itself before it encloses the fabric of its own destiny. Ancient Indian Sanskrit linguists have spoken about mahasatta—the great essence. This is in part what each individual reading would participate in. To stretch this anlogy further would be to essentialise, to narrow it down would be but to fragmentalise. Either way Interreading (without the hyphen) would lead us to mediate between the text and the author, to allow for the play to happen, and also to retain our integral beings. After all it is the human being that creates cultures and counter-cultures!

….Read More in Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)

Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University

Published by the Pondicherry University Pondicherry 605014, India
First edition, April 2010

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission from the editors. The views expressed in various essays are those of their authors alone and the editors are in no way responsible for those.

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