India, Unhappy in its own Way

The Hindu FEATURES » BOOK REVIEW    May 1, 2012

India, unhappy in its own way

Murali Sivaramakrishnan

Essays on the paradox of India as a wealth-producing machine with a deep division between the rich and the poor

The IPL fever these days is felt in every sphere of Indian life: it is telecast live and otherwise through every possible channel. And MNCs are quick to latch onto the league’s immense reach. Exquisitely prepared commercials, equally wily in their content, invoke the fast-track wave of smart technology that is sweeping through the country and deliberately tease the viewer to grapple with the world of make-believe and the whirligig of development. That this fanfare is all about professional event management and there is little about the game to make it more exciting than any other, is common knowledge. And the fact is it but provides a platform for rival brands to leverage the opportunity to prosper — very much in tune with the media-hyped Commonwealth Games 2010. Mega events powered by self-styled international brands have become almost every day events in our country.

India’s World, 2012


Ideal marketplace

Granted, India is now the ideal market place for the promised utopia. Indian corporates have gone global in a big way with Indian media groups signing deals with corporate giants, Indian auto markets competing with U.S. and European markets, and Indian students getting admitted to the finest universities in the US and Europe in record numbers. In many ways, then, India is on the fast-track to economic success. But nevertheless, the contradictions and crises that India encounters are equally massive and challenging.Arjun Appadurai and Arien Mack have produced an anthology of writings that pose multi-levelled questions from amidst this apparent paradox of success and failures. As Appadurai caustically points out in his introduction, the country reveals at least one feature of social division that appears global in its reach, namely the gap between the richest and poorest members.

What perhaps has happened in the post-independence era is that India has become an unrelenting wealth-producing machine, where state policies and private enterprise have created legal and economic frameworks in which ironically the fetters to private enterprise and wealth accumulation have been broken. A combination of political corruption and black money has weakened Indian parliamentary politics and brought a hitherto unprecedented scale of crooks, criminals, and thugs into all aspects of the public sphere. The essays in this volume reach into the major aspects of Indian politics, history, science and culture, and debate on the dilemmas and issues that are paradoxical. The question that all eleven contributors raise, in their own various ways, is how to understand the relationship between India’s success and its failures. In all, this issue of the politics of creativity in a fast-globalising society, as visualised by these very intriguing essays, is bound to disturb and at the same time inspire any reader concerned with the fate of India.

India is well on the way to losing its memory: one cannot simply go around a tradition to overcome it and wipe out its memory—one certainly has to encounter it and go through the same with an open mind. This is the situation as posited by Shelden Pollock, in the context of debating the crisis in the classical language of the Gods . Corporatisation, commodification, and technologisation have been the root cause for the calamity staring at classical studies in India. With prophetic insight he writes: “India is confronting a calamitous endangerment of its classic knowledge, and India today may have reached the point the rest of the world will reach tomorrow.” This is indeed a dismal picture of a nation casually laying aside its classical lineage.

Writing in English

However what has emerged successful is Indian writing in English—the language re-establishing itself for the wrong reason in the market place of consumerist culture. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s essay leads to the unravelling of the nation-centred novels in the post-Rushdie mould. The paradox of the postcolonial novel of nation lies typically in the deployment of nation as narrative in combination with a critique of nationalism.

Suvir Kaul traces the subversive contexts of Kashmiri poetry and its inherent political tensions and tragedies, while Ranjani Mazumdar depicts Bollywood cinema’s tryst with terror, conspiracy, and violence as the bridge between popular culture and entertainment in India today. Indian liberalism might have helped Dalits acquire self-esteem, in terms of some tangible assets, at the cost of self-respect, points out Gopal Guru, because Indian democracy exists in the shadow of the eternal truth of caste. In the pervasive resurgence of a religious Puritanism on the other hand, as Wendy Doniger argues, citing Burton’s translation of Kama Sutra , India has given rise to its own home-grown traditions of prudery in opposition to its history of sensuality and openness. There is a great lapse of memory in the fall of kama and the rise of karma .

Contradictions abound in the education sector: the IT services revolution has blinded the already befuddled policy makers in the process of transfer of learning. School and University systems have virtually closed themselves to a measure of science and technology at the expense of all other forms of knowledge. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s essay on Science Today and Ajit Balakrishnan’s India’s IT Industry , speak of the breakdown between science education and the demands of technology.

The rise of the IT industry could be even traced back to the 12{+t}{+h}century when the Persian mathematician Musa al-Khwarizmi’s book on Hindu numerals was translated and made available to the western world, however, its future success may lie in its ability to make the transition from being a mere provider of low-cost programming services. What is similarly called for is a committed workforce capable of teaching in high-quality higher educational institutions: for knowledge is best acquired where knowledge is created, not only for those who receive it but also for those who create it. We need to rethink with policy administrators in terms of extending quality education rather than allowing educational plans to peter out as mere “strategies for university buildings and not for building universities” (Mehta 2008, Pollock)

Growth & equity

Appadurai has paraphrased Tolstoy thus: “in a world of multiple modernities every modern society is unhappy in its own way.” Indian cultural resources run deep in history and the haste and waste of modernisation has posed its own issues. By way of offering a solace in view of all these crises Appadurai sums up: “we need to search our own hearts and minds to rethink the relationships between wealth and inclusion, growth and equity, success for some and survival for all.” This is the collective task of criticism, debate, and social reconstruction possible only in a genuine public sphere where all voices are heard — more so the dissenting ones.

Disinheriting its own memory but powered by the market and technology, India thus is on the highways of globalising development. Despite internationally celebrated economic growth rates, its illiteracy and infant mortality rates, food security, and the gap between rich and poor continue to remain at unhealthily high levels. While more and more magnificent highways are charted out over the heart of this ancient land and super-fast vehicles fly like wind over newly tarred surface between metros brightened by colossal hoardings on either side, the common man and woman wait gingerly hidden behind the commercial hoardings for the mystery of a super-transformation. This volume of essays is bound to be of immense interest to anyone concerned with the future and present of a nation that has almost disinherited its memory and is currently struggling at the threshold of emergent new registers. Michael Foucault drew a distinction between universal intellectuals, concerned with larger issues, and specific intellectuals involved with small-scale issues in particular sectors of society. However distinct each might sound there is a fractal relationship between them: this is true of this volume as well. Each essay in its characteristic way focuses on grass-root issues and leads on to discussions in a broader spectrum.


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