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Why is Tagore still important?


Last week on 7th May it was the 150th birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941). Tagore as we know him was a Bengali poet, philosopher, artist, playwright, composer and novelist. Just late last year we even saw the inauguration of a Tagore library here in Auckland at the Mahatma Gandhi centre.

Tagore has been acclaimed as perhaps the greatest literary figure in history. His extraordinary output in literature includes approximately 50 dramas, 1000 poems, 2000 songs, 38 plays, 12 novels, 100 books of verse (much of which he set to music), 200 short stories, innumerable essays covering every important social, political and culture issue of his time. Tagore also left numerous drawings and paintings, and songs for which he wrote the music himself.

There is any hardly any Indian from mainland India who doesn’t know about the great bard of Bengal – Tagore. But do we know enough about Tagore and his major ideas which renewed Indian culture in his writings.

We certainly know him to be the author of India’s national anthem – the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and as a poet was the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. He was the father figure who gave the title of ‘Mahatma’ to Mahatma Gandhi. It was given in response to Gandhiji conferring the title of “Gurudev” (great teacher) upon Tagore.

Tagore who gave us our national anthem wrote –

“I have loved India and sought to serve her not because of her geographical magnitude, not because of her great past, but because of my faith in her today and my belief that she will stand for truth and freedom and the higher things of life”.

His song ‘Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) of which the first ten lines got adopted in 1972 as the Bangladesh national anthem. In fact, in 2006, even China’s Communist Party signalled its favourable view of the Indian poet when the party organ, the People’s Daily, elected him as one of the 50 foreign personalities who have influenced modern Chinese thinking. The paper described his as “one of India’s greatest poets, writers, artists as well as social activists”. Tagore’s poems were translated in Chinese as early as 1915 and also published in influential publications of the time like the Xin Qingnian (New Youth).

According to the biography available in, Rabindranath was educated at home; and although at seventeen he was sent to England for formal schooling, he did not finish his studies there. In his mature years, in addition to his many-sided literary activities, he managed the family estates, a project which brought him into close touch with common humanity and increased his interest in social reforms. He also started an experimental school at Shantiniketan where he tried his Upanishadic ideals of education.

Tagore was knighted by the ruling British Government in 1915, but in 1919 he surrendered it as a protest against the Massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed some 400 Indian demonstrators protesting colonial laws. Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore visited more than thirty countries on five continents; many of these trips were crucial in familiarizing non-Indian audiences with his works.

Tagore’s ideal was the universal human being – rational, humane, creative and spiritual. He was himself such a person. His philosophy was founded on his vision of reality. Rabindranath Tagore was not a stranger to the political arena either. He actively supported Mahatma Gandhi, and his agenda of social reforms through civil disobedience.

Gandhi and the other founding leaders of modern India were deeply influenced by Rabindranath. Dr.S.Radhakrishnan who wrote his first book “The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore” believed Tagore’s philosophy to be the “genuine manifestation of the Indian spirit.”

So why is Tagore still important in this modern world? What are his major ideas? Tagore is important because he is unquestionably the most towering figure of modern Indian and what he teaches us is timeless.

His major ideas some 130 years ago are still relevant and implemented even today. His major ideas according to an article by Professor Narayan Champawat in the book ‘Great Thinkers of the Eastern World‘ were:

‘Modern civilisation has gathered its wealth and missed its well-being.  True education must aim at freedom from ignorance of the laws of the universe and freedom from passion and prejudice. The supreme one is personality and creates the world and its people for self expression. The supreme and humanity are related by mutual love. The same stream of life runs throughout the universe. Religion should establish unity in diversity.’

As a philosopher, he brought out the essence of Eastern spirituality in his poetry like no other poet. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India he became a great living institution. That’s why Tagore is still important.

Here are samples of his famous quotes:

  • Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
  • Do not say, “It is morning,” and dismiss it with a name of yesterday. See it for the first time as a newborn child that has no name.
  • The soil, in return for her service, keeps the tree tied to her; the sky asks nothing and leaves it free.
  • You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.
  • If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars
  • Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come

Mind without Fear by Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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