Tagore’s Persia and Asia’s resurgence
In old age, the poet was ecstatic about an oncoming Asian Renaissance. The Asia that was once the homeland of all invention and prophecy
On 11 April 1932, Rabindranath Tagore headed out to travel to Iran. He was 71 years old at the time, yet eternally youthful at heart. He could not turn down the imperial invitation and agreed gladly despite considering the fatigue the journey would bring. It wasn't that the inertia of age did not try restraining him.
He had dreamt of roaming these lands as an Arab Bedouin in his youth; now in old age, he was visiting their abode. Persia was an intimate part of the poet's sensibilities, woven into the web of his friendship with the land. Though the poet was born in a traditional Brahmin family in Calcutta, the image of Persia was immortalised in him from childhood.
His father, Debendranath, was a scholar of the Farsi language. Despite being newly discarded in favour of English as the official language, Farsi lived on in the poet's Brahmin abode. Besides, Shams-ud-Din Hafez was a favourite of Debendranath. He had wanted to name his youngest, and 14th child after Shams-ud-Din Hafez. He wrote about it in his memoirs. And one could see that Rabi and Shams mean the same in their respective languages.
Of course, there could be many other reasons for wanting to go to Iran. Rabindranath himself was not spared the dose of mistrust that had brewed in the then colonial India at the cusp of the independence movements. That his visit to Iran could refute some of this propaganda wasn't an unreasonable idea. Yet, the big reason was Rabindranath's philosophical forays.
In old age, the poet was ecstatic about an oncoming Asian Renaissance. The Asia that was once the homeland of all invention and prophecy. Asia was the birthplace of all the great men of the middle and ancient ages: Moses, Christ, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Zoarasthrar – they were all the sons of Asia. Just as we had all arrived from Babel only to scatter around the world, similarly, our sensibilities regarding knowledge and science had all arrived from this region.
Yet, it is this Asia today that is devoid of new thought and philosophy. This turn in history was a cause of pain for the poet. He thought he could voice these anxieties regarding Asia's independence. After being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, whenever he had travelled abroad, even in Europe he had stressed how there was much yet to learn from Asia. Rabindranath had taken this direct stance in adulthood, yet Indian nationalism had been present in him since adolescence.
One could also add that in the case of Persia, there had been millennia of trade and friendship between both cultures. The same blood flowed through the veins of the people of these two lands. The Indo-Aryans who diverged in India had merely created a different strain. They had, also, given birth to the Upanishads, which formed the basis of Tagore's upbringing. One could very well say that Tagore felt a kinship with the Iranians. Visiting the place wasn't the same as touring any other country.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy had reformed the stale Hinduism of his age and brought it under the Upanishads under the gamut of logic and reason. The man was also a noted scholar of Persian literature. Rabindranath's father, Debendranath, was among the first to walk the path of Roy's reform. They rejected the Hinduism of the past and took the mantle of the Brahmo Samaj. This led to the Tagore family, influential in Colonial Bengal, becoming a minority.
To survive the test of time, the old belief systems had produced many cysts, which limited one's expression of the new. This belief made Debendranath's family an outsider. They were not privy to the rituals and right to pray as a result. Of course, it was only a continuation of events for the Tagore family that had started hundreds of years ago. Debendranath's youngest son had lived the torment of exclusion all his life.
During the colonial years, religious strife and the plight of the minorities had left a burning mark in the young poet's mind. Rabindranath did not forget this during his travel to Iran. Besides, Rabindranath's philosophy had largely been influenced by his father's devotions toward Sufism, who had been enamoured by their sensibilities. His adoration of Hafez was not merely for the poetry, but also because of the philosophy apparent in it.
There's a similarity of Sufism with the Bhakti movement, whose doctrine calls to make men transcend their mortality. Here Hafez played a significant role in Debendranath's religious and philosophical outlook. Therefore, Rabindranath's father became a relevant factor in the poet's travel to Persia. Then again, the poet's travels had begun with his father, too. At the age of 11, Rabindranath had accompanied his father back to the Himalayas.
They had visited places such as Allahabad, Kanpur; had taken rest at Amritsar, then to the Dalhousie Hills before returning to Calcutta. These travels with his father brought a sense of spirituality in travelling in the young poet's mind. Speaking of his father's influence on him, Rabindranath had said in his essay Religion of Man, "Religion had a special meaning the family I was born in. The Upanishads, my father's experiences, Ram Mohan, the devotion toward devotees, these were our familial worship." These latent influences of Ram Mohan and his father made Persia a different place for Rabindranath Tagore.
The poet thought of not taking the risk of travel at the age of 71. But he had also been able to finish his landmark work Shesher Kobita just a couple of years before. It did not seem that he was losing time. It was summertime. The sky hadn't yet become plane and accessible. But the cordiality of the organisers stopped him from declining. Knowing that travel by sea and rail wouldn't bode well for the old poet, they had arranged for travel by air.
This was the second time the poet had travelled by air, yet the romanticism of the travel was in full swing for the poet. The pull of the magnetic field made the poet fully realise mother Earth's attraction toward its children. It wasn't the same when he had visited London or Paris. His friend Dinshah Irani joined him at the Bushehr port. Tagore's daughter-in-law Pratima Devi had also accompanied the poet to look after his health. The young poet Amiya Chakravarty was also a fellow companion.
Tagore had written about his air travel. The poet had enjoyed being on the plane with the wide-eyed wonder of a curious, young boy. This was a time when few Indians had ever been on a plane. The perennial dream of soaring to the sky was finally becoming a reality, like birds flapping their wings toward the clouds. Yet, man did not receive the powers to fly, rather the ability to win over nature. Nature had provided all living beings with their necessities.
Only humans had to earn their keep. Rabindranath's air travel, in that sense, did not have the same joy as purely flying, for travelling in a plane is not as thrilling. The poet could not sympathise with the vehicle. Especially the screams it emitted on launching. However, he did discover a truth seated there. That is why man become so ruthless and violent during modern warfare in the skies. It is surely because once we take off from the ground, Mother Earth becomes alien to us.
Man's existence becomes secondary to us. Tagore had found a fascinating resemblance here with Krishna's character in the Mahabharata. In the Gita, Krishna had assuaged and advised an Arjuna full of emotions to prepare for the slaying of his kin. Similarly, these modern machines had forced men to war against their fellow brothers.
Rabindranath's visit had taken place in the years between the two world wars. The poet had witnessed the horrors and cruelties of war. He had tried to warn everyone. Here lay his greatness. It wasn't faith or reform, that he put importance in, but in humanity itself. Rabindranath never stopped mocking the Gita that put laws on killing people.
He didn't believe the Christians who killed as well. The British Army at the time was regularly bombing Persian villages at the time. It did not make sense to him that people should take them literally, for the Gita also talked about an ancient air-ship that took Arjuna to another dimension.
Rabindranath had said that British imperialism obscured the individual, there it was easy for them to dish out their brutality. Had Christ sacrificed himself for these sins, too? These were some of the reasons why Tagore could not be enthusiastic about the new technology. His message had a point, for why should one build these fascinating vehicles that flew only to use it to bomb and kill. India was still under colonial rule at the time.
Two rules governed the lands. One for the rulers and the other for the subjugated peoples. Their motive lay only to enrich themselves from resources snatched from these lands. On the third day, Rabindranath arrived at Basra. That evening a member of Iran's parliament had met with the poet and asked him what sort of curiosity he had in knowing about their country. Rabindranath told him that he wanted to know the real, eternal Persia. The Persia had broken free from the darkness and arrived into the light.
In 1912, when Tagore had travelled to Europe, he was asked a similar question. What was his purpose in travelling through Europe? He had said that he had arrived to meet the Europeans, to see the enlightened men who had spread the light of knowledge throughout their lands. The poet was in search of light wherever he had gone.
Persia – the land of an ancient civilization. Its millennia of history and self-established glory was a cause of curiosity and wonder for the poet. But this enthusiasm was dimmed, for modern Paris was one of hunger and illiteracy. Even the people blessed with modern education are ignorant of their rich past.
The honour and hospitality that the poet was treated with were only possible because of their traditions. They were of the same consciousness as the poet. The Persian poets there also considered Rabindranath as one of their own. They found great similarities between their sensibilities. Besides, there was a difference in how poets were treated in Europe and Asia. In Europe, poets were regarded by other people of literature. In Persia, poets belonged to everybody. The poet influenced a spiritual guru there, belonging to a different sphere of thinking entirely from the rest of us mortals.
Therefore, there wasn't any shortage of respect for the poet. Tagore truly was a poet of Asia, and not just of India and Bengal – a part of the Persian conscience. Rabindranath learned in Paris that he had much reputation as an 'Oriental' poet. This was the tradition of respect in nations of the east. When the poet had visited Egypt, the parliament there had a moment of silence in respect to the poet's visit.
This is the sort of thing only possible in the east, and never in the occident. Tagore was quite satisfied to have learned that he was considered as one of the Iranian poets. He didn't have to win their hearts with the test of work. Rather, he had learned, his reputation preceded him in these lands. The Persians did not know Bangla, yet the poet was amazed by their ability to accept. This Persia was quite above the religious narrowmindedness and profiteering.
He had said, "It is harder to break the social barriers in Europe. Whenever I venture out of Bengal, be it toward the west or south, it becomes harder to make oneself at home. Even within Bengal, one has to walk on eggshells to keep traditions intact. Here people come together from all spheres. They are famous for their hospitality, no doubt about that."
Rabindranath was equally impressed by the physical aspect of the country. He had grown up in a different climate in Bengal. When the poet of the delta visits the plateaus, it is only natural to be fascinated by the landscape. His eyes noticed the handful of houses on fields that went for miles ahead. Back in India, foliage abounded. There was a distinct difference between people of the tropic and those of the desert.
Iran was around four thousand feet above sea level. Rabindranath's eyes had caught on the two opposing poles of Asia. From Afghanistan to Mesopotamia to Arabia – these lands were in the poet's words, "ruthless, restless and relentless." They were lucky, the poet mused, that they had the horse and the camel as a vehicle. That they relied on sheep to live. This made their stark lives easier. This was a reason why peoples of West Asia were able to build empires upon empires. The harshness of their land played a part. It did not provide them with easy food, had driven them out of their nations. They had to save their existence, protect themselves by taking food from elsewhere. They had to turn into warriors.
Persia – the land of ancient civilizations. It has always had a rocky political relationship. Their histories have changed countless times. There has been invasions and foreign rule. Barbarism and blood-shed. But the nation had risen constantly out of subjugation. Many nations have merged within it. The Aryans had made this a permanent settlement during their migration. Many other migrants arrived over the millennia, calling it a new home.
Despite the numerous attacks, their territory had only strengthened over time. Even the Russians and the British could not carve up the nation in the twentieth century. Development was hindered, but Rabindranath was fascinated by the vitality he found in the country. Crushed by the Arabs, the Turks, and Afghans, they were nevertheless able to keep their culture intact, and not stray far from it. Rabindranath thought that this was possible because of the overall unity the Achaemenid, the Sassanid and the Safavid dynasties helped lay ground.
There were no perforations in their intellectual tradition. Their literature has flowed from antiquity. The country did accept the new, but reluctantly. When Rabindranath visited, Reza Shah, was the King of Iran. Rabindranath had praised his rule. It is true, of course, that Reza Shah had precipitated the rise of Modern Iran.
On 17 April, Rabindranath visited Saadi's tomb. The Governor of Shiraz hosted a reception at the premises. The poet had also visited the chamber of commerce before arriving there, for the poet was also interested in these matters. He was impressed by the upkeep of the tomb, how everything was decorated with flowers, lamps, and carpets.
Perhaps, Hafez was his biggest achievement during the visit. The Tagore family had been culturally enriched by the Persian masters. Their intellectual prosperity can be credited back to these Persian poets. Tagore's father's admiration for Hafez was devotional. One sees this in the writings of the poet in Bichitra, where he wrote of his travels.
He said, "I was a child then. Persia, then, was of the mind of the poets. Even though the language was Persian, it spoke universally to all. My father was a devotee of Hafez. I have listened to him recite Hafez's poetry and translations a lot. Through the beauty of that poetry, I was able to get into the hearts of Persia. Today, the Shah of Iran had invited me to his land. His invitation is also the invitation of the poets. I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to them, for their poetry had given unending pleasure to my father all his life."
The poet's recollections on the visit: "Finally, we head out to see the tomb. Renovations are going in the age of the new King. A mandap is being placed in front of the Tomb. It does not go well with Hafez's poetry. The iron fence makes it seem like the man was a prisoner. I went inside to sit. The keeper arrived with a book. It's one by Hafez. There is a general belief that if one desires something and opens the book at random, then the poem he finds on the page will be determined by that poem. I wished that India be free of the ignorance of dogma."
"The page that came up divided the poem in two. It's been translated by a few Iranians. One could take the poem metaphorically. Simply, it's written for one's beautiful beloved."
His father's devotions had also influenced Rabindranath. He began to feel spiritually at one with Hafez. He had talked of this admiration: "Seated beside the tomb, a flash shook me. There it was, the poet's smiling eyes in the calm, spring morning. Felt like we were friends of the same school, our joy brimming out of countless pots. I, too, have noticed the countless crooked eyebrows of the religious. They could not catch us onto our nets. I fled, took leave in joy. Today it seems a traveller has arrived who had known the man for a long while."
The poet was content after this visit to the visionary who had such an impact on his adolescence and philosophy.
A big success of the journey was the start of Rabindranath's nationalist feelings. It wasn't the sort of short-sighted, xenophobic nationalism, but one that came from the desire to free people from their subjugation. Rabindranath was an enlightened man from the start. His familial and educational surroundings had brought him up as a man of optimism. It was similar to the case of other great men in Asia. Rabindranath realised that one day Asia would reclaim its position as the land of knowledge and science, of great men.
Yet, the Asia he saw was one bereft of these very things. These intellectual traditions had abandoned Asia for Europe. But Rabindranath felt the need for Asia to rise again if one wanted to tilt the balance back into equilibrium. Humanity cannot survive solely on the pursuit of material. The pursuit of the mind, of new ideas, is also imperative. Even as Rabindranath loved the spiritual philosophy of Asia, he wasn't against the materialism of Europe. He merely felt it as incomplete. Humanity wouldn't go anywhere clinging onto one and avoiding the other.
The fruits of this knowledge are for all humanity to come. Those who won't accept it will only deprive themselves. But Europe, paying attention to the exterior, could not keep track of their interior. They did not find the value in the interrelationships of all humanity, busy as they were inventing new ways to kill. The poet saw no other way to come out of this than focusing on Asia. It had once lit the world with its bright knowledge.
It should return once more. But Tagore was troubled by the thought of European cold-bloodedness seeping into Asian blood. He had warned everyone not to mistake Europe's newfound might as the start of a new age. He said, "If Asia has entered a new era, let Asia give it a new language. Failing to do so will result in imitating the roars of Europe." Tagore did not want Asia to merely rise for itself. He believed that if it couldn't, then there was no salvation from Europe. Its death lay in its weakness.
Tagore gave a public lecture on 8 May, where his ideas on the resurgence of Asia was encapsulated. This portion was cut out when the address was in the press for publication. Why this was so isn't known. Was the poet's dream of a rising Asia only a dream, then? Perhaps he wanted to keep this aspiration out of the text's concreteness.
Yet, still, there is some value in quoting some lines from his speech: "Asia must take charge today to complete ourselves. We must unite the power of work and belief. Asia was once an epoch-making power of creation. Back then, Persia, India and China were luminous in their respective light and made possible the spread of a continental civilisation. Asia was the product of great words and actions. Its scholarship had crossed many seas and borders and kept showing the path of light.
"Then the days of misfortune arrived. The trade of riches disappeared along the way. The continental ties were shattered by the brutal consequences of famine and war. One couldn't claim Asia as a humane land any more. Today it is merely a geographical component."
The India Rabindranath was born in could accept as much as Persia. They had their common ancestry in the Aryans of Antiquity. There was considerable contribution in terms of devotion and logic between the nations. Both had been, ruled by others, notably the Islamic empires later on. Persia had accepted Islam quite readily. Yet it turned Islam's Arabic roots on its head. It fashioned Islam in a Persian light, giving it a new language.
It gave birth to Sufism – creating a hypnotic, spiritual state of an otherwise orthodox belief system. Islam lost much of its belligerent outlook in Persia. "Arabia had given Persia its religion, but Persia had given Arab their sciences and industrial civilisation. Persia made Islam prosperous." It is from Persia that Islam had made its home in India. India did not have much trouble accepting it back then. But about the time Rabindranath had visited Iran, that India was no more to be seen.
British colonial machinations had ruined it all. These were present in Persia as well, but they were able to keep their house in order. Rabindranath was overwhelmed. He said, "Religion was not just an external matter, but one that was a matter of their heart."
They did not just follow it as the letter of the law, but rather saw it as a refuge of the individual. This was a reason why the development of Sufism had such permanence in Iran. Such was their outlook that a religion such as the Baha'i Faith could be established at the time. But Rabindranath was ever grieving about the sectarianism prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. Rabindranath had written about in his essay Kalantar, noting how both Hindus and Muslims did not leave the matter alone.
Once, the principal deity worshipped in Persia was Ahura Mazda, who asked for his worshippers to have pious thoughts, words and deeds. In those days, the Semitic people did not show much mercy in their warfare. There was looting, murdering, destruction all around. But Horus and his successors ruled differently. They consolidated their powers by establishing peace, justice and order in the conquered lands.
On 11 April, the poet had headed for Iran, arriving on the 13th. He had met with the Persian Royals on the 26th of that month. The poet found the Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, fascinating. He had thought that this King would bring in a new era. Tagore invited the King to visit India, and Reza Shah had expressed his interest in doing so as well. He had the desire to know India.
He had told the poet, "The Indian problem is quite complex. In comparison, Persia is quite straightforward. The enormity of the land and the people of India are the reason for it. They are divided in many ways." The poet had no trouble understanding that the country's biggest enemy was its largeness.