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By Rabindranath Tagore
Foreword by Philip Novak
Rhinebeck, New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, George Braziller, Inc., 2004
ISBN # 0-9726357-8-5
312 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2014

Bob Corbett’s Brief Overview Comment

As the Forward and Introduction below make clear, these essays were delivered as part of a lecture course at Oxford University in 1930. Many of the things of which he speaks are virtually timeless – his account of the nature of the religions of India, the historical quest of Indian scholars and his own journey toward his current views in 1930. However, an important part of these lectures is to speak to the relevance of his particular perspective on Indian religion to the time and issue of the day in 1930. I think some significant parts of that aim have not aged well.

Rabindranath Tagore is clear that in his later life he has shifted his focus to give a significant role of his studies to contemporary politics and that this study is deeply influenced by the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. Because of this focus some of the material is a good deal outdated. Evolutionary theory has made many discoveries which challenge some of the perspectives which Tagore argues for.

This is by no means a criticism of Tagore. Time and knowledge move on. However, I think it us useful to be forewarned of this if one is embarking on a reading of Tagore’s lectures. He is extremely learned and forward looking FOR HIS TIME. But the data have changed, the knowledge of evolution is much more sophisticated in our time than his and it is important for any reader to keep that in mind.

Philip Novak

“The Real is one; the wise call it by many names.”

This book is composed of the lectures from 1930 which he delivered at Oxford University in England.

“His concern is to help us see what he sees so clearly that the various religions of humanity are evolving expressions of the one Religion of Humanity, an eternal essence that lies beyond humanity’s historical religions, drawing the human family steadily forward toward greater and richer realizations of unity, love and freedom.”

Oh my, this sounds lovely, but my own experience with the practice of religious thought in all human history seems a mixed bag of the advancement and seeking of goodness and love, yet often the fountain of hatred, wars and human strife. It may be difficult for me to overlook the dark side of religion as he explores its virtues.

Tagore was deeply influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution and Tagore’s work is to go beyond physical evolution to understand spiritual evolution, a higher stage of evolution than the physical.

“. . . (he) defines the Buddha’s ‘nirvana’ as the elimination of all barriers to love.”

Ah, but this begs the question of what is love?

Andrew Robinson

He was 69 when he gave these lectures. He was from a very wealthy Bengali family. He was always seeking freedom and delight, but his schooling was brutal and lacked those qualities he sought, thus his primary education and intellectual growth came outside the arena of schools.

Chapter 1: Man’s Universe

“. . . on the surface of our being we have the ever-changing phases of the individual self, but in the depth there dwells the Eternal Spirit of human unity beyond our direct knowledge. It very often contradicts the trivialities of our daily life, and upsets the arrangements made for securing our personal exclusiveness behind the walls of individual habits and superficial conventions. It inspires in us works that are the expressions of a Universal Spirit; it evokes unexpectedly in the midst of a self-centered life of supreme sacrifice. At its call, we hasten to dedicate our lives to the cause of truth and beauty, to unrewarded service of others, in spite of our lack of faith in the positive reality of the ideal values.”

Chapter II: The Creative Spirit

Rabindranath describes early Earth as a struggle for success mainly decided by size. The large seemed able to win in the struggle for survival, but slowly he describes a new tactic – wit, and the coming of humans as the most successful of beings.

“The physiological process in the progress of Life’s evolution seems to have reached its finality in man.”

This seems very limited, perhaps even an unimaginative view. However, it is 1930, but great fictions, at least, have already been imagined, Jules Verne comes to mind. In only a short 40 years the movies with give us “Hal” taking over the space ship in “2001.” And, now the micro technologies of our early 21st century point to more and more technologies which are approaching the nature of life, a life certainly created by humans, but seemingly running off on its own with humans, gratefully, limping along, thankfully, but less and less in control, more and more dependent.

For me he seems to take a sort of defeatist position (from evolution’s standpoint) when he writes:

“The physiological process in the progress of Life’s evolution seems to have reached its finality in man.”

However, he does make a fairly compelling argument that “physical” evolution in man, at least, is not likely the future. The direction he sees whether “humans” always remain in control or not, seems plausibly

“. . . the spirit of life boldly declared for a further freedom, and decided to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This time her struggle was not against the Inert, but against the limitation of her own overburdened agents.”

Nonetheless his historical perspective seems quite plausible:

“It is the consciousness in Man of his own creative personality which has ushered in this new regime in Life’s Kingdom.”

At the same time man’s foolishness is now in our own time threatening the very existence of the environment which allows us to continue to exist.

He does make a strong case for the use of human intelligence (and feeling) as able to create a life of meaning for humans. However, it is also the case that these same humans have quite different views, even contradictory views, of what this future utopia is to be and for whom (all humans, some humans or even others).

Chapter III: The Surplus in Man

Rabindranath traces the evolution of man as following critically upon his “uprightness,” his two-legged stance. From this advance in the individual eventually arises the notion of unity and strength in numbers, namely civilization.

The essence of his point in this chapter is that some inner force in humans drives them to look for “more” in life than either survival or even ease.

“Each age reveals its personality as dreamer in its great expressions that carry it across surging centuries in the continental plateau of permanent human history. These expressions may not be consciously religious, but indirectly they belong to Man’s religion.”

I was delighted to see that his notion of “religion” is broader than what is typically meant by “religion” in our histories.

“This consciousness finds it manifestation in science, philosophy, and the arts, in social ethics, in all things that carry their ultimate value in themselves.”

Chapter IV: Spiritual Union

The notion of Yoga in Indian religion is essentially to seek union. It’s not a notion of “to have” but of “to be.” This is not a concept of mind. Rather Yoga is a practice to transcend mind and to experience an inner freedom of bliss.

Mahatma means “The Great Soul.” (It was Rabindranath Tagore who gave that nickname to Gandhi.)

The notion of spiritual union is a seeking to unite with the good for and aims of all peoples of the world. Yet this can be expressed in small acts.

Chapter V: The Prophet

The great Persian prophet, Zarathustra, was an important moment in the history of religion. Later in India came Krishna and the teaching of the Bhagavadgita.

Tagore argues that Zarathustra’s great contribution was to hold that it is not ritual but conduct that is central to religion.

“Conduct and its moral motives have been received almost the sole attention.”

There seems to me a rather blind cop-out in this chapter. Tagore gives us what seems to be one possible source of grief – those on the one hand who are of selfless good will and those who are selfish and controlling.

However, a profound source of destructive power is fundamental disagreement among people of serious good will, yet who have fundamentally contradictory ideas. There seem to be unlimited examples; I’ll just take two that seem to exist in the current world of the U.S.

  1. I live in place X. Assume that decent good willed people in X see that people in Y are doing great harm to people in X, so, in a real felt sense (and defensible sense) of justice then defend themselves, thus doing violence to people of Y.

    But others in X don’t see Y as a threat, or at least not an unjustified one. So people of serious good will in X are in fundamental disagreement on the meaning of The Good.

  2. In today’s America there are people of perfectly good will who choose to support the notion of abortion. There are others, also of good will, who see abortion as the murder of the defenseless.

Each side has, as they often say, “God on their side.”

The ideal unity of which Tagore speaks with such glib ease just isn’t able to solve those sorts of disagreements among people of SERIOUS good will. In those sorts of disagreement BOTH cases demand of all sides that each defends its view against the perceived “evil” of the other side. Tagore seems to just ignore the possibility of such fundament GOOD WILL disagreements of decent people who value things differently.

Non-action by any side is to accept evil being done to innocent people.

Chapter VI: The Vision

He acknowledges that religions cannot give specific information of the world, nor, for that matter, of clear-cut good and evil. Rather, it seems to be a larger sense of oneness of the totality, pointing to a sense of unity and intelligibility, even if far beyond our human ability to know.

The sense of wonder, amazement, and even awe at the universe and existence I can well understand. However, in gigantic leaps, even in his own thoughts, much more concrete claims are made that seem not to reasonably follow from the premises.

I’m not sure that Tagore would disagree. He argues often that this is not a scientific, philosophical or even rational study. It is the religion of a poet.

Chapter VII: The Man of My Heart

Tagore had difficulty as a young man with the “institution” of his father’s (and family’s) church. He had to leave it. While I would describe myself as an atheist, meaning I have no belief in any transcendent God, I think I am much like Tagore. Many of the things that religion, in what seem to me its best facets, emphasize the openness, kindness and respect for all existence, human and beyond. Tagore builds on such a foundation.

He believes the center emphasis of religion is our attitude to the human.

“And religion sought the highest value of man’s existence in itself.”

. . .

“Nothing is greater than the Person.”

I think I can see no particular reason to put human higher in value than any other bit of existence from man, a planet, a roach, a warm breeze or an icy sleet.

Chapter VIII: The Music Maker

Tagore singles out the human as special, unique and different.

“Of all creatures man lives in an endless future. Our present is only a part of it. The ideas unborn, the unbodied spirits, tease our imagination with an insistence which makes them more real to our mind than things around it.

He makes a strong case that this “atmosphere of the future” makes humans different from other beings. He cites a religious leader who expresses this human trait poetically:

“We are the music-makers
We are the dreamers of dreams.”

Chapter IX: The Artist

“Man the self-revealer” is unique in nature as we know it. If specialization were not rewarded the human species could not be what it is. Further, the human is by nature an artist:

“. . . he never receives passively and accurately in his mind a physical representation of things around him. There goes on a continual adaptation, a transformation of facts into human energy, through constant touches of his sentiments and imagination.”

Chapter X: Man’s Nature

In this section he elaborates and expands his notion of religion and humans’ final meaning. He continues to echo the spirit of human as needing to transcend human toward the higher power. Most of his argument is attractive to me other than the role and need to transcendence. I find total fulfillment in self-development for myself and others in a spirit of human unity with others.

It’s his need of transcendence in the argument which I find problematic.

Chapter XI: The Meeting

Humans have had diverse and contradictory images of God. However, the time has come to rectify this situation.

“One of the potent reasons for this – our geographical separation – has now been nearly removed . . .

(we) . . . must . . . refuse to allow the idea of God to remain indistinct behind unrealities of formal rites and theological mistiness.”

Alas, some 83 years later and we seem to have more religious strife among religions than in his own time! His warning was neither taken, nor is it an easy concept for most “believers” to comprehend. First:

“The vastness of the race problem with which we are faced to-day will either compel us to train ourselves to moral fitness in the place of merely external efficiency, or the complications arising out of it will fetter all our movements and drag us to our death.”

It is also ominous and sad to note that this was written just a couple of years before the blossoming of Hitler’s disastrous race-hating politics became more manifest.

Tagore cites the example in India of the period of time when India moved slowly from an age of nomadic warring tribes to more harmony after the development of agricultural societies demanded more peaceful cooperation.

Perhaps in our own future the new digital age can play a similar role on a global scale.

Chapter XII: The Teacher

Tagore felt the need to leave the world of isolated meditation and to act in the world to bring his ideas to the fore.

“The necessity was my own for I felt impelled to come back into a fullness of truth from my exile in a dream-world.”

I found this section quite fascinating since I would describe my own life as the exact opposite. From the time I was in 7th grade until my retirement at age 62 I was a political activist. When I formally retired from “paid” work, I decided to retire from activism as well and to leave that to the younger generation. Now I live this life of a near hermit, reading, writing, cooking, relaxing and just focusing on my own life and growth. Despite the appeal of his later-years activism, I think I’m very happy with my own choices and path.

Chapter XIII: Spiritual Freedom

Even unlearned people often know intuitively that “. . . the abiding cause of all misery is not so much in the lack of life’s furniture as in the obscurity of life’s significance.”

It is this sense that life’s meaning is a spiritual freedom.

Chapter XIV: The Four Stages of Life

There is an ultimate end which is beyond religion. It is:

“This end consists in the perfect liberation of the individual in the universal spirit across the furthest limits of humanity itself.”

He calls this transcendentalism.

I’ll be interested to see if the essay can draw me in. At this point I can’t imagine any aim higher than my own freedom and acceptance of myself! This is not to say that the good of others is not also important to me, it is, but I’m more talking, as he seems to be, about the meaning of my life itself.

Tagore compares this aim with science. Science tries to understand reality beyond our sensual experiences to the “reality” behind it. He cites examples of our lived experience being of a flat earth, but science shows us the roundness of its shape. Further, science shows us that the sun does “really” set in the west.

The aim of Indian transcendentalism is:

“. . . the individual finds his meaning in a fundamental reality comprehending all individuals – the reality which is the moral and spiritual basis of the realm of human values.”

I can see one believing this. However, my own sense of value is that each of us creates his or her own sense of values and that they are as real to us as we live them. Many, of course, don’t do much PERSONAL creating, but inherit values from their history, culture, religion, temperament and so on. Yet those values I end up with are mine and real for me. The analogy with science just doesn’t work for me.

He makes clear that this is a religious faith, not a fact of knowable things.

Central to Tagore is a claim which makes simply no sense to me at all:

“The Universe cannot be so madly conceived that desire should be an interminable song with no finale.”

It seems perfectly real to conceive the universe an utterly meaningless, at least as far as human knowledge can go. It seems completely beyond my (our) comprehension, and that it is senseless in the end. There is simply the fact of the IS.

The essay then goes on to discuss the four stages he sees as the path to the ultimate goal of knowledge and being.

Chapter XV: Conclusion

His “community” (seemingly meaning Indian culture broadly speaking) sees a dualism:

“Those of our community who believe in the liberation of man’s limited self in the freedom of the spirit retain the same epithet for themselves. In all departments of life shows this dualism – his existence within the range of obvious facts and his transcendence of it in a realm of deeper meaning.”

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett