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Recalling Bengal’s brightest lights

Modern India owes debt of gratitude to legacy of Tagore and Vivekananda

  • Julian Das, Kolkata
  • India
  • January 19, 2012
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Last year, West Bengal celebrated with aplomb the sesquicentennial anniversary of the birth of the first non-European Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

Now, the government is all set to make people from the eastern Indian state draw inspiration from Swami Vivekananda by celebrating the Hindu philosopher’s birth anniversary.

Celebrating these two eminent sons of Bengal has come in handy for a state experiencing a series of social and political changes after 34 years of Marxist rule.

New Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is using these celebrations to usher in the “new” Bengal she envisions for the state that was once the cradle of the Indian intelligentsia.

The contribution of Tagore and Swami Vivekananda was not limited to Bengal alone. A quick look at their contribution to the nation during their heyday shows us that modern India owes a lot to their bold efforts.

Tagore (1861-1941), was a multifaceted personality: author, philosopher and artist rolled into one. Modern Bengali literature is much richer thanks to his contribution in all spheres.

The unconventional Tagore had a few months of schooling at the Jesuit-run St Xavier’s School in Kolkata. After several decades, he recalled in his memoirs an incident there.

One day he was unwell, and during the class Tagore was not paying attention. Belgian-born Jesuit Father Penaranda enquired if he was feeling ill. Even after 50 years, Tagore could still remember the concern the Jesuit showed him.

Needless to say, he had also learned a lot from Bhabanicharan Banerje, a close associate and friend who converted to Catholicism, and who took the name Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya after his baptism.

Tagore and Upadhyaya had been contemplating an indigenous approach to education, religion and arts. Their association ended when Upadhyaya turned towards nationalist movements, while Tagore concentrated on setting up his indigenous education system in Santiniketan.

It was to Tagore’s credit that the Bengali language moved from its rigid written form to the colloquial used in literature now.

Tagore was a member of the Brahma Samaj, a society of enlightened Hindus who worshipped only the formless Brahma, the supreme God. However, he was an admirer of the rich traditions of all religions. He had borrowed ideas from both major and folk religious traditions of the time. And his numerous songs and poems bear witness to this fact.

Towards the end of his life, Tagore claimed to be a humanist who was concerned about the plight of the poor and the marginalized. He said he was able to recognize God in poor peasants and those who toiled in fields.

His poems, especially his most popular collection called Gitanjali (song offering) for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, demonstrates the intimacy the poet had with the all-pervasive and all-loving God.

Swami Vivekananda, a contemporary of Tagore, was born Narendra Dutta in 1863 and died before his 40th birthday. Vivekananda introduced Vedanta and Yoga to the western world. He presented himself as the representative of Hinduism during the Parliament of World Religions in 1893, and the opening words of his speech attracted world attention.

Like St Francis Xavier who went to the Indies to spread the message of Christ, Vivekananda visited Europe and the Americas to enlighten people about the ancient religious traditions of Hinduism. It is thanks to him that Hinduism gained the status as a major world religion on a par with Christianity and Islam.

By a strange coincidence, both Xavier and Vivekananda, though separated by about three centuries, were guided by their own ‘gurus’ (Xavier by Ignatius of Loyola, and Vivekananda by Ramakrishna) and died at a relatively young age.

Freedom fighter, litterateur, publisher and theologian, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay was a friend and contemporary of Vivekananda. Julius Lipner, an authority on Upadhyay, states: “Vivekananda lit the sacrificial flame or revolution; Brahmabandhab in fuelling it safeguarded and fanned the sacrifice.”

Vivekananda was a seeker of truth, and it is for this reason that he had undertaken after the death of his guru, Ramakrishna, a tour of the country on foot, and he called himself a pilgrim in search of knowing his country.

One of his great contributions is the Ramakrishna Mission he founded to engage in humanitarian work, looking for God in the poor (daridra narayanan – the poor Lord). Today the monks belonging to this order (which is modeled partly on Catholic religious congregations) serve the poor and the socially marginalized.

Respect for all religions is what Vivekananda professed and preached, not only to his disciples, but also to those in Europe and America. He invited Christians to dialogue with him on the basis of philosophy and theology, on the basis of the serious study of the Holy Scriptures.

Today, as Bengal remembers what did to reorganize the region and rejuvenate it from its social, cultural and religious slumber, his words find resonance in all Indians, especially the youth.

Swami Vivekananda did not hesitate in taking recourse to the teachings of Jesus. He said: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything shall be added unto you. This is the one great duty, this is renunciation. Live for an ideal, and leave no place in the mind for anything else. Let us put forth all our energies to acquire that which never fails -- our spiritual perfection.”

In Christianity, what interested Vivekananda was Jesus the spiritual teacher. He saw several points of strength in the life and teachings of Jesus, particularly the purity of heart and renunciation of worldly pursuits.

“If you want to be Christian,” he said, “it is not necessary to know whether Christ was born in Jerusalem or Bethlehem or the exact date on which he gave the Sermon on the Mount; you only require to feel the Sermon on the Mount.”

Vivekananda infused fire in the hearts of the youth, challenging them at every stage.

“Have you the courage to face any hurdles, however formidable? Have you the determination to pursue your goal, even if those near and dear to you oppose you? You can be free men only if you have confidence in yourselves. You should develop a strong physique. You should shape your mind through study and mediation. Only then will victory be yours."

These challenges are still relevant for Indian youths, who filled streets in recent campaigns against corruption and for transparency in public life.

Tagore and Vivekananda are considered the two pillars on which the very identity of India stands. Its language, literature, spirituality, philosophy owe a lot to these two luminaries of Bengal.

By paying homage to them, Bengal and India commit to follow in their footsteps in ushering in a society of peace and harmony, prosperity and fellowship among all sections of the people.

Julian S. Das, a Jesuit priest of Calcutta Province, works in West Bengal state’s capital Kolkata as the director of the Jesuit-run media and communication center Chitrabani.
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