By Parneet Jaggi
Debendranath Tagore frequently visited Amritsar to pay obeisance at Shri Harimandir Sahib and also while on his way to Dalhousie hills for a summer retreat. He even spent a couple of months to learn Gurmukhi from the qualified teachers (Granthis) so that he could read and recite Gurbani (or the hymns of Guru) in original. Sikhism, being a monotheistic faith induced eagerness in him to gain the insights gifted by the ten Gurus.
Rabindranath Tagore accompanied his father, Debendranath, to Amritsar in 1872. This impacted his later writings. In his Jibansmriti, he mentions having a deep impact that the recitation of verses of Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh religious scripture) had on his mind. These recitations are said to have impacted the practice of recitation of Brahmo religious texts and the singing of Brahmo Sangeet at Shantiniketan. As he witnessed the internal contradictions within the Indian society in his mature years, he turned more towards concepts of universal love, equality and unity preached by the poet saints, who had been allotted a revered place in Guru Granth Sahib. Many of his lectures like Seattle lectures (1916), Hibbert Lectures (1930), Kamla lectures (1933) mentioned Guru Nanak and Kabir for their words of unifying the nation by eradicating the ills of the caste-driven society.
Tagore believed that Guru Nanak’s vision envisioned a casteless, discrimination free society, which was a perfect model for carving out a new nation in India. His father encouraged him to read, understand and gain wisdom from gurbani. Rabindranath translated a few hymns from Gurmukhi to Bengali. As a teenager, he rendered into Bengali, several hymns (pauris) from the Japji, part of Guru Granth Sahib, some of which would then be sung at the Sunday prayer of Brahmo Samaj. One of the more famous translations is that of the Arti, a hymn that is part of the Sohila baani or Sikh bedtime prayers. It can be found in the fourth volume of the birth-centenary edition of Rabindrarachanavali.
“Gagan mein thaal rav chand dipak bane, tarika mandal janak moti,
The sky is puja thaal (platter used for the artis), in which sun and moon are the diyas (lamps), the stars in the constellations are the jewels
dhoop malyanlo pavan chavro kare sagal banraye phulant joti,
The wind, laden with sandal-wood fragrance, is the celestial fan/
kaisi arti hoye bhav khandna teri arti.” (Guru Granth Sahib)
All the flowering fields, forests are radiance! What wonderful worship this is, oh! Destroyer of fear, this is your arti (prayer)!
Many other writings of Tagore substantiate his urge for a moral regeneration by following the wisdom of these saints. He read Janamsakhis that contained stories about the lives of the Sikh Gurus and the historical accounts of their lifetimes, and he wrote these stories in Bengali in the youth magazine Balak. The first of these was published in 1885 as ‘Kajer Lok ke’ (Bengali , meaning ‘For the Man who Works’) on the life of Guru Nanak. It unravelled the faqir in the temperament of Guru Nanak in contrast to the businessman-like character of his father who gave him some money to do a sacha sauda (a fair trade). Guru Nanak spent the whole amount on feeding hungry sadhus or mendicants and discussing the mysteries of the universe with them. He further narrates Nanak’s experiences at Sultanpur Lodhi and his travels and extensive tours to distant places like Haridwar, Mecca, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and some more which he could access by walking to spread his message. Guru Nanak settled at Kartarpur in the later years of his life, living the life of a farmer. Tagore’s views coincided with this role model of Nanak who pursued his mystical goals while leading the life of a householder as he himself found his image of mangal (well- being of all) and kalyan (universal good) in universal love and doing good to all.
His next engagement was with the lives of Sikh martyrs and significantly with Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. But he initiated his contribution to Bengali literature for children and youth in Balak with a marked influence of Guru Nanak, his life and writings. Tagore realized that Guru Nanak’s disapproval of idolatory and his monotheism had stirred the elders of the Brahmo Samaj but that idealism would not touch children’s hearts. They would respond to a more lucid account in informal language.
In the last paragraph of ‘Kajer Lok ke’, he tells his young readers: “The Sikhs whom you see around you today, men of sturdy built, handsome countenance, tough strength and unflinching courage, are the sishyas (disciples) of Baba Nanak. There were no Sikhs before Nanak. It was his noble personality and sublime spirituality that brought this race into existence. It is through his teachings that their temper is fearless, they keep their heads erect, and their character and countenance are brightened with magnanimity” (Rabindra Rachanabali, vol.XV, trans. Amalendu Bose).
Today in times of uncertainty, proliferation of data-knowledge that lacks practical and spiritual wisdom, and the deadly pandemic, the world needs this vision of oneness of Guru Nanak and the inclusiveness of Tagore, who embraced everything that would work for the well-being of the individual and the nation, irrespective of any disparities and anomalies. The readiness to accept, imbibe and disseminate the best has been the quintessential attribute of Tagore.
Parneet Jaggi is Associate Professor of English, poet, critic, author of the historical fiction (co-authored) The Call of the Citadel. She was declared ‘Poet of the Year 2019’ and ‘Critic of the Year 2019’ by Destinypoets, UK.
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One reply on “Tagore and Guru Nanak’s Vision”
I read and moved by the ideals Shri Guru ak and appreciation by Ravindrath Tagore
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