I have read and reread Rabindranath’s ‘Gitanjali’ both in English and Gujarati. Every time I am deeply impressed by Tagore’s, what I may call, Christian Spirituality expressed in his poems. That spirituality, apart from the literary quality, may be one reason for me to consider Gitanjali as one of my most favourite books.
Whenever I read Gitanjali, I ask myself a question: From where does come Christian Spirituality in Rabindranath’s poems? I thought first that Rabindranath may have gotten Christian Spirituality through his ascetic father Devendranath, who was a leader of Brahmo Samaj, which was highly influenced by Jesus Christ’s message and Christian religion.
We cannot deny the influence of his father Devendranath and of Brahmo Samaj on Rabindranath’s life and thinking. But I see another source, a sure fountain of influence, for Rabindranath’s Christian Spirituality.
When Rabindranath was a 14-year-old-teenager, two things happened which profoundly influence his life and vision. He received basic education at home under his father’s guidance. Then, at an impressionable age he was admitted to St. Xavier;s School, Kolkata for formal schooling. The second thing which deeply affected the teenager is his mother’s death in the same year in 1875.
We can imagine a teenager’s plight and the effect on his tender mind at the death of his mother. I imagine that his mother’s death profoundly affected him and he found solace and sympathy in his school teachers, especially the Jesuit fathers, with their counseling and love for him. In the counseling the Christian vision and the spirituality of death and life after death must have helped Rabindranath to face the terrible tragedy of his mother’s death. Rabindranath might have been impressed by Christ’s message that life does not end in death but is transformed for a superior life with God.
I have not yet fully read the autobiography ‘Jeevansmruti’ of Rabindranath. But from what I have read in Jeevansmruti I know St. Xavier’s School left a lasting impression on the Rabindranath.
The orderly teaching and disciplined life of St. Xavier’s School might not have been to the liking of Rabindranath that he left the school after a short while. Since he has done basic education at home he might have been uncomfortable with formal schooling.
Rabindranath has acknowledged in his autobiography that a Spanish Jesuit missionary, Fr. Alfonso de Penaranda, had the greatest impact on young Tagore. He has acknowledged this saying “I cannot speak for other boys, but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even today the recollection of it seems to give me a passport to enter into silent seclusion of the temple of God.”
In his autobiography, written at his age of 50 and 36 years after leaving St. Xavier’s School Rabindranath wrote, “a sacred memory of St. Xavier’s remain unfaded in my mind – the memory of its teachers.”
On my visit some years back I have seen that St. Xavier’s College as well as St. Xavier’s School are on one campus on Park Street at Kolkata. The Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Fr. Felix Raj in a press note has said, “As a mark of respect to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, an alumnus, St. Xavier’s College will start a Honour’s course in Bangla from July 2012.”
Recalling the past, Fr. Felix Raj added, “In 1927, when Tagore was 66, he agreed to a request to serve as patron and vice-president of the St. Xavier’s Alumni Association. He also presented to St. Xavier’s College a white marble bust of Jesus Christ which is still preserved in the Principal’s office.” In this precious gift we can see Tagore’s love for Jesus Christ and his appreciation for his Alma Mater.
At Ahmedabad, friends and acquaintances come to me for recommendation to admit their son or daughter in St. Xavier’s School or St. Xavier’s College. Unfailingly I ask one question to all of them, “Why do you want to admit your child to St. Xavier’s?” Among many varied reasons two common reasons stand out; first, children get regular and orderly teaching in Christian schools; second, children usually get the disciplined and all round training only in Christian schools.
At Ahmedabad, Kolkata or elsewhere the good Christian schools provides regular teaching. Their education and formation of children are based on the eternal values like love and service as proclaimed by Jesus Christ. So the Christian schools provide classes on religion and moral science even if such subjects are not required academically. Then, there are priests as spiritual directors and counselors to guide and counsel students in their problems and difficulties.
I am sure that young Rabindranath must have availed himself the facilities of spiritual guides and student counseling during his short schooling at St. Xavier’s, Kolkata. Topics like God, love of God, spiritual life, death, life after death, nature, beauty of creation, etc. are beautifully expressed in his poems and in them we can see the influence of Jesus Christ and Christian religion on Tagore.
In Indian culture and devotion God is often propitiated usually through routine sacrifices and offerings. But in Christian religion God’s unconditional love is preached for all without any deserving merit of a person. Then, there is the Christian understanding of God coming in search of the lost men and women. These types of ideas and values are found in Rabindranath’s poems. His song number 152 in Gitanjali resonate the idea of God coming in search of his people :
If I call not thee in my prayers,
If I keep not thee in my heart,
Thy love for me
Still waits for my love.
The readiness to welcome death as God’s will and acceptance of death as the crown of life are typical Christian concepts. These values are very much in Tagore’s poems. In song number 116 of ‘Gitanjali’ we read,
“O thou the last fulfillment of life, death,
Come and whisper to me!
Day after day
have I kept watch for thee;
for thee, have I borne the joys and pangs of life.”
Rabindranath is not a Christian in the conventional sense; but I have no difficulty to accept him as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The vision and the values in his poems proclaim him hundred per cent a Christian. The Christian west very much influenced by the values and ideals of Jesus Christ readily welcomed Rabindranath’s poems of Gitanjali. The English poets gave him name and fame.
The English poet Yeats himself selected 103 poems from the manuscript of Tagore’s translation of his own poems and published Gitanjali in English with Yeats own preface. Many editions were published in a short time as they acclaimed by the English poetry lovers. Then, a fellow of Royal Society of Literature, England, Thomas Sturge Moore, recommended the name of Tagore for the Nobel Prize for literature. Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize on 13 November 1913.
The Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata in his press note wrote: “It is believed that Tagore’s faith in God, his understanding and relation to God as Father and his deep respect for Jesus Christ were all influenced by what he imbibed at St. Xavier’s.”
Changed on: 16-09-2019
Next Change: 01-10-2019
Copyright Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ – 2019