Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How Rabindranath Tagore reshaped Indian philosophy and literature

This April, the OUP Philosophy team honours Rabindranath Tagore as its Philosopher of the Month. Tagore (1861-1941) was a highly prolific Indian poet, philosopher, writer, and educator who wrote novels, essays, plays, and poetic works in colloquial Bengali. He was a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance, a cultural nationalist movement in the city. Born in Calcutta in 1861 into a distinguished, intellectual and artistic family that played an important part in the economic and social activities of Bengal, he was the son of Debendranath Tagore, an important Hindu religious leader and a mystic.

Tagore pioneered the use of colloquial Bengali instead of archaic literary idiom for verses in his first poetic collection Manasi (1890), in a philosophical and symbolic play Chitra (1895), and the lyric collection, Sonar Tari (1895). By the turn of the 20th century, at the age of 40, he had become a household name. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his English version of his celebrated poetic collection, Gitanjali, which is a free verse recreation of his Bengal poems modelled on medieval Indian devotional lyrics.

Tagore also helped to shape the development of Indian philosophy in the early 20th century. His philosophical works have religious and ethical themes. His best-known philosophical writing is The Religion of Man, based on the Hibbert Lectures he delivered at Manchester College, Oxford, in May, 1930, which contains his reflections on the spirit of religion and explores the themes of spirituality, God, the divine experience, and humanity. His body of literary works also expresses universal humanism, in particular his sympathy for the lives of women and the poor people of Bengali. His view about nature was also closely aligned with the philosophical aspects of the Hindu tradition in which nature is seen as a manifestation of the divine. His verse about the natural world expresses a sense of wonder and a human longing to be with the divine. Apart from this love of nature and humanity, he believed that the highest religion of man is to try to enhance creativity, which is “the surplus in man.”

Tagore was also a social critic and an educator. He rejected the mechanical, formal system of learning in favour of a curriculum that encouraged creativity, imagination, and moral awareness in students. His philosophy of education incorporated the synthesis of nationalist tradition, Western and Eastern strands of philosophy, science and rationality, and an international cosmopolitan outlook.  In 1901, he established a school at Santineketan, Bolpur, which he later developed into an international institution, Visva-Bharati, based on his education principles.

As a close friend of Mahatma Gāndhī, who called him the “Great Sentinel” of modern India, Tagore  opposed British rule and initially had an influence on the Indian nationalist movement. However, Tagore later embraced a humanist inter-nationalism, preferring instead to harmonize eastern and Western world views. His critique of nationalism and its violence is expressed in his key philosophical essay, “Nationalism” in which he called for a spirit of cooperation and tolerance between nations.

To this day Tagore is regarded as a cultural icon for India, and a key figure for innovations and modernization of Bengali literature and his formative influence on many modern Indian artists.

Featured Image: taj-mahal-india-agra-temple-tomb by Simon. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Kiriti Sengupta

    A nice read. What I’ve failed to understand is the term “colloquial Bengali.” Bengali, as language, has several dialects, and what we understand as “colloquial Bengali” is the most popular form we use in our day-to-day lives. I’m sure the essayist wanted to point at the same, but then Tagore rarely used chaste Bengali in his writing. Rather his style of writing in Bengali is called Tagorean Bengali (Rabindrik Bangla).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *