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Tagore and The Sikh Gurus (A Search for an Indigenous Modernity)

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Item Code: NAM995
Author: Chhanda Chatterjee
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789350980316
Pages: 200
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 420 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

The volume tries to portray how Rabindranath Tagore looks back to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and the Bhagats of the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib like Ramanand, kabir and Ravidas for resolving the crisis of Indian Renaissance had failed to reach the Muslim minority and the most numerous section of the population- the untouchables. Attempts to consolidate a national consciousness in the face of colonial rule often ended up in a misguided Hindu revivalism which looked upon the Muslim as the ‘other’.

Tagore had recoiled from such narrow nationalism during the days of the Swadeshi. In his more mature years he could identify this kind of nationalism as giving rise to as aggressive imperialism.

Instead of seeking a solution in some Western philosophy like Bolshevism or Socialism, Tagore turned to the rich heritage of an ‘indigenous modernity’ evolved in the ideas of the Sikh Gurus and the Bhagats from various corners of India who had worked out a common idiom of Indian in their simple, vernacular shlokas and dohas.


About the Author

Chanda Chatterjee is Professor of History and Director, Centre for Guru Nanak Dev Studies, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal. She was educated at Presidency College and Calcutta University. She was elected President of the Modern History Section at the Punjab History Conference Patiala in 2006.



The purpose of this study is to bring into focus how the teachings of the Sikh Gurus have played a vital role in influencing the development of Tagore's ideas on almost every aspect of contemporary life. In all his important works and letters to his intimate friends like C.F. Andrews he confessed to have found a solution to all the problems confronting India in the ideas of these medieval saints. Instead of pursuing chimerical European ideas of progress, he would rather go for these home grown ideas of 'modernity.’ This was Tagore's way of challenging the European notions of supremacy that all enlightenment must first originate in the West and then go elsewhere.

The emotional bonds which thus tied Bengal to distant Punjab on the farthest corner of the sub-continent are not always noticed by academics and intellectuals of either of these two places. Sumant Dhamija, who has recently published a book on the great misl Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia's capture of Delhi in 1783, bringing the eternal Sikh dream of lording over (Raj karega Khalsa) the Delhi takht very close to realization, found it very surprising that a modern poet like Tagore could be influenced by the ideas of the Sikh Gurus. Others like Dr. Mohinder Singh, Director of the Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, wanted to know what exactly Tagore had written about Guru Gobind Singh as he had only vague notions that the Guru had been brought in by Tagore for formulating some of his political arguments. When I published a monograph in Bengali, the artist Suvaprasanna, equally well-known for his love of Tagore literature, pointed out exactly these things to me. 'True, Tagore had written so much about the Sikhs, but do the Sikhs know that'? I cannot ask my Sikh friends in Delhi to go through this Bengali book. You must write in a language comprehensible to them.’

Closer at home, where people are supposed to have a greater familiarity with Tagore's works and where the anniversary years saw an embarrass de richesses in the outcrop of publications on Tagore, there was hardly a single book reflecting an awareness of this very vital dimension in Tagore's thinking. His Gitanjali, which enabled his conquest of the West, was later found to be containing the very ideas which had been disseminated by the Sikh Gurus. The same common inspiration from Vaisnava and Sufi ideas might have worked these wonders. The Gurus tried to unite the Indian mind in a single unity collecting verses from all corners of the sub-continent straddling across the various regions. Tagore saw in it the microcosm of a 'world system', which, according to him, had suffered a setback, when Guru Gobind Singh tried to instil a typically regional flavour in it by creating an insignia for his Khalsa. The retreat from universalism was not to be encouraged on an ideological plane. But Tagore was not unaware of the practical significance of Guru Gobind's ideas for the wilting morals of a subject nation. That is why Tagore made the Guru the hero of the nation, a nationalist icon.

My ideas of the close links between the ideas of Tagore and the Sikh Gurus took several years to mature. I read of the martyrdom of the Sikh Gurus from the many books lent and generously gifted to me by Sardar Saran Singhji, the Editor of the Sikh Review. Sardar Manohar Singh Batra, the Editor of Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion, compelled me to think deeper and find out more about the use of the ideas of martyrdom in Tagore's writings. As I went more into them I could discover a link between the pieces that our former Vice-Chancellor Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya used to read out from Tagore's Santiniketan addresses during our Wednesday morning rituals in Visva-Bharati and the ideas of self- obliteration or 'martyrdom.' The temptation of presenting these ideas before the Sikhs at one or two SGPC conferences gradually pushed me to taking up the pen. This book would be said to have fulfilled the purpose of writing it if it can inch forward even a bit towards creating a common cultural awareness for the people of this sub-continent.

I would not have dared to publish my modest work without the painstaking effort of the Tagore expert and poet Prof. Sankha Ghosh to correct an earlier and much shorter draft. He drew my attention to many gaps in my thinking. Prof. Indu Banga was kind enough to point out several flaws in my knowledge of the Sikh Gurus and tried to rectify many errors in the present manuscript.

The opportunity to make a presentation on 'Rabindranath Tagore and the Poet Saints of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib' before an international audience at Scottish Napier University, Edinburgh in May 2012 was very rewarding. I must thank the convener Prof. Bashabi Neil Fraser for that. The criticisms and comments from Prof. Uma Dasgupta, Prof. Bharati Ray, Prof. Gautam Chakravarty, Dr. Igor Grbic, Dr. Eiko Ohira and Dr. Blanka Knotkova were of great help in the subsequent formulation of the arguments of this essay. I must also acknowledge my indebtedness to Prof. Alpana Ray and Prof. Amal Pal of Visva-Bharati and my friend, philosopher and guide Prof. Dipika Basu, who always encouraged me to go ahead in all my ventures.

I must thank Shri Awtar Singh of the Sikh Cultural Centre, Kolkata for interpreting and translating many verses of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib. The staff of National Library, Kolkata, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi, Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha Library, Punjabi University, Patiala and Rabindra Bhavana Library, Visva-Bharati have been very helpful. I am grateful to my friend Prof. Param Bakhshish Singh for having come up with every conceivable support while I was in Patiala.

I must thank Shri Ramesh Jain for agreeing to publish the manuscript. Mr. Siddharth Chowdhury of Manohar was very co-operative in the task of editing.

My husband Arun helped me throughout the work, carrying the proofs from Delhi to Kolkata and back. His personal secretary Mr. Sreedharan had been very active in these efforts. My manuscript would not have seen the light of the day without the constant efforts of my daughter Anupurba Roy to whom the volume is dedicated.



Rabindranath Tagore's interest in the ideas of the Sikh Gurus and some of the poet saints whose works have been included in the corpus of Sikh canonical literature arose out of his desperate search for an answer to the fractured image of the nation in India. Despite nationalist claims to a common cultural identity, India in Tagore's times remained fragmented among the contrary pulls of a strong Muslim minority and a large mass of socially depressed castes. The so-called nineteenth century Indian Renaissance could not reach the Muslims and the dalits because of ideological as well as institutional constraints." The challenge of colonial rule elicited a nationalist response, which unfortunately often assumed communal overtones and became tinged with Hindu revivalism." Votaries of Indian nationalism like Ramesh Chandra Dutt and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay could anchor their images of nationalist heroes only to tales of Rajput or Maratha valour using the Muslim rulers as their 'other'. Tagore himself had experienced the pernicious impact of such mindless and sectarian nationalism in the days of the Swadeshi movement and boycott of the Muslim peasants in his family estates in eastern Bengal. This prompted the hasty retreat from his early enthusiasm for the anti-partition agitation and led him to question the premises of a narrow and stifling nationalism. Tagore had also been aware how the awakening of a new consciousness about the country's culture and heritage could not spread among the depressed and the lowly. Of the nineteenth century stalwarts, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar alone had tried to bring education within the reach of the common people through the introduction of his primers and tried to include women in his projects of modernization. However, Vidyasagar's efforts in this regard remained isolated and did not immediately succeed in creating any ripples in the placid waters of the hierarchical society in India. As Kishorichand Mitra has aptly summed up, 'the dawn of intellectual consciousness could only touch the peak of Indian society,' and the culture of the Indian Renaissance remained 'highly elitist in character' and 'increasingly alienated from the Islamic heritage'.

Rabindranath hoped to tide over the twin threats confronting the construction of a common national identity through a recourse to the ideals evolved by the Sikh Gurus, who had worked out a common idiom of the entire country by tapping the rich heritage of religious ideas accumulating in various corners of the sub- continent. Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the first Sikh Guru, was said to have travelled all over the country and beyond and collected all the good sayings of the religious teachers that he came across and which he found compatible with his own beliefs. The songs of Ramanand, the renegade disciple of Raghavanand, who left his home in the south to settle in Benares to blend Sufi ideas with those of Vaishnava bhakti, Kabir, the julaha (weaver) and Ravidas (alternatively Raidas), the chamar (leather worker), which Tagore later found to be of great interest, were said to have been heard by Guru Nanak in the samas or evening assemblies of the devotees of these religious teachers in course of his itinerary. Guru Nanak carefully brought them back home and set them in various ragas or music and sang them in the assemblies of his devotees to popularize and to cherish them. Guru Amar Das, the third Guru in the line, made a collection of these songs, which were later compiled by the fifth Guru Arjan Dev in the Adi Granth, Tagore's Guru Nanak probably lacked historicity as Tagore seems to have drawn liberally on the Janam Sakhis or hagiographic, legendary accounts of the Guru's life. But even if the Janam Sakhis lacked authenticity, they fulfilled the needs of the times. They conveyed the teachings of the Guru and depicted him as a true humanist, who tried to evolve a community of faith which would steer clear of the bickering of the Hindus and the Muslims. There was, for instance, the oft-quoted saying attributed to Guru Nanak in the form of a revelation after a bath in the river Vein that:

Na ko hindu Na ko musalman.

There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman.

As W.H. McLeod has rightly remarked, ‘all such works will reflect, to some extent, the context in which they evolved, a context which will include not only current beliefs and attitudes but also current needs."

For Tagore too such utterances came as the long sought after panacea with which to treat the open wounds of the society to which he belonged. The social ills of his days would not be cured through superficial attempts at reforms prompted by Western ideas of modernity. Bankimchandra had ridiculed Vidyasagar's attempts to combat polygamy and introduce widow remarriage as Quixotic. Much as he admired Western reason and rationality, he was not unaware of the difficulties of trying to introduce Western values in an indigenous milieu. He would rather try to revive the indigenous ways of spreading ideas and instructions among the people. Such ideas also appealed to Tagore and he began to look for ways and means to keep alive the village tradition of itinerant operas (jatra) and ballad-singers (kathakata), which played a very educative and useful role in promoting popular instruction and knowledge. It was from those operas that the illiterate villagers could acquire their rudimentary knowledge of the great epics of the country, which laid down the basic norms of living in a society.

Tagore also shared with Bankim Chandra a pride in the country's rich cultural heritage, the typically indigenous values encoded in the lyrics of Thlsidas's Ramcharitmanas, the mystical connotations of the songs of Vidyapati and Chandidas and the egalitarian appeals of the doctrine of bhakti preached by Sri Chaitanya. Attention had also been drawn to the beauty and humanistic value of the Vaishnava lyrics through the researches of men like Rajendralal Mitra (1822-91). Tagore spoke of the influence of Vaishnava ideas in the Tagore household in Jorasanko in Calcutta in his formative years and his familiarity with the compositions of Chandidas, Vidyapati, Jnanadas and Govindadas. He even wrote under the pseudonym 'Bhanusingha' imitating the lyrical style and language (the Brajabuli) of the Vaishnava poets. This was the beginning of many more poems with mystical overtones. The viraha or longing of the soul to reach out to the Supreme Lord or creator, the journey of the soul to seek out the beloved hazarding all hardships on the way, the long sorrowful wait for the sought after - all these were the themes of many of Tagore's Gitanjali, Gitimalya and Gitali poems. Tagore had imbibed the mystical themes of these poems from his early - acquaintance with Vaishnava padas or lyrics.

In his more mature years Tagore encouraged his colleague Pandit Kshitimohan Sen, who came to Visva-Bharati in 1908 and who had spent the early years of his life in western and northern India and was familiar with the cultural life and language of those regions, to collect the dohas and padas (lyrics) of the medieval saints like Kabir, Dadu and Ravidas. These dohas and padas (the Punjabi/Gurmukhi word for them is shabad) were originally sung in evening assemblies of the local people and transmitted and circulated orally among the devotees of these poet saints. These verses were compiled for the first time through the efforts of Guru Amar Das and finally by Guru Arjan Dev with the help of Bhai Guru Das. It was through Kshitimohan's researches that Tagore came to be aware of the basic similarities in the themes of some of his compositions and the poems of these medieval saints. This intensified Tagore's interest in these poems and he selected one hundred of Kabir's padas from the vast corpus of Kshitimohan's collections for translation into English. Tagore's One Hundred Poems of Kabir published in 1914 brought home to the Western world the high degree of intellectual perfection attained by the east as early as the fifteenth century when the light of the Renaissance was just beginning to dawn on Europe. While text book histories of the repeated foreign invasions and conquests of the country dismayed Tagore, he took great pride in this 'living history of India':




  Foreword 9
  Preface 11
  Introduction 15
1 Nationalism, Indian Civilization and Its Regeneration in Tagore's Imagination 27
2 The Early Encounter with Sikhism 52
3 Tagore's Idea of Nationalism and the Sikh Martyrs 76
4 Guru Gobind as a Nationalism and the Sikh Martyrs 95
5 Cast e Discrimination, the Sikh Gurus and the Poet Saints of the Shri Guru Granth sahib 108
6 The West Versus the East 140
7 In Retrospect 169
  Bibliography 183
  Index 193
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