Rabindranath Tagore died on this day, the 7th of August in 1941. He had been seriously ill for five years, and many considered his death a release from unmerited suffering. He was 80 years old.
Tagore was born on the 6th of May,1861. He was a Bengali poet, a musician, and an artist. Really, that barely suggests who this person was. Perhaps a bit more telling is how Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1913.
His Wikipedia article noted how he was a “humanist, universalist, internationalist, and ardent anti-nationalist.” He was also active in the Indian liberation movement, not so much as a nationalist, but simply seeking to throw off what was a soul killing yoke of English imperialism.
He wrote of himself, “I have, it is true, engaged myself in a series of activities. But the innermost me is not to be found in any of these. At the end of the journey I am able to see, a little more clearly, the orb of my life. Looking back, the only thing of which I feel certain is that I am a poet (ami kavi).”
Of particular interest to me is how following his father who had been a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu-reform movement, he was inspired in part by both English and American Unitarianism. It is a movement which, I suggest has over the many years returned the favor. (For some small examples look here and here and here) birthing what I often speak of as a New Universalism.
An unsigned article about Tagore at the Harvard Square Library attempts to summarize this new universalism’s core theological assertion.
“Tagore’s parables and prayers express a philosophy of polarity whose God is temporal-eternal, actual-potential, Becoming-Being. He dramatizes and personalizes the modern scientific worldview of panentheism (not pantheism) independently developed by Whitehead and the contemporary American Unitarian Universalist philosopher, Charles Hartshorne. Rabindranath Tagore has contributed to humanity a legacy of prayers which express an intimacy characteristic of the Psalms of the Old Testament, but they avoid the latter’s recurrent vindictiveness. His I-Thou experience is as vivid as that communicated in the Confessions of Augustine, but it avoids the latter’s debilitating otherworldliness.”
I could argue with several points. But that’s part of the compelling quality of this universalism of which Tagore is a central figure. It cannot be captured by a single voice, a single treatise, a single song. There are endless facets to this jewel.
And. Of all the world religions it can be argued it is Hinduism, or, at least threads of Hinduism that have most inspired this shift in American liberal religion’s understanding of universalism. Tagore would be closely associated with this spiritual movement for the whole of his life. And, so, I’m grateful for the poet and the mystic, Rabindranath Tagore.