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Tagore & Sikhism




The following article is excerpted from the text of the Raghunath Reddy Memorial Lecture delivered by the author at the invitation of Dr Pratap Chandra Chunder, scholar-statesman and former Union Minister of Education, in his capacity as Chairman, Rabindra Bharati Society, at Kolkata, on January 18 2003. The author owes a debt of gratitute to Mr Rajat Das Gupta for the  English translation of Tagore's prose and poetry in his book "The Eclipsed Sun" (Vasco Books, Kolkata).                        


As a student of literature, I recall the letter Rabindranath Tagore wrote to the Viceroy,  whereby he relinquished his Knighthood in righteous protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Tagore described the tragedy as "without parallel in the history of civilized governments."

Looking back, his anguish continues to reverberate in the corridors of history, for he articulated the axiomatic human longing for liberty, justice and dignity. Now, more than eight decades later, his admonition of the colonial superpower still rings true, as the people of Iraq face invasion and occupation by a "power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives." (Tagore's words from 1919).

The poet had, by his dignified protest, re-awakened the conscience of the Indian nation and won the heart of every patriotic Indian. As a document of conscience, Tagore's letter seems to have provided inspiration for the universal declaration of Human Rights which was later adopted by the UN on 10th December 1948. The Preamble of the UN declaration says likewise:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world ..."

My other early favourite quotation from Tagore is from his book of poems, "Naibedya," titled Prarthna:

       "Where the mind is without fear

       Head held high for a vision clear

       Of a world unfragmented

       By parochial walls elated ..."

Its moral grandeur resonates with Gurbani's soulful prayer:

(Slok M.5 - SGGS: 1251)

       Gracious Lord, be Merciful,

       Keep all creaures in Thy care.

       Bless us abundabtly with food and water

       Rid us of pain and poverty (of spirit) ...

       [M5, GGS:1251]

The Sikh inspirational scripture wisdom, embodied in Guru Granth Sahib, is the poetry of pure devotion. T.S. Elliot reaffirms this, when he wrote: "True poetry merges the morality and the aesthetics. The human concern elevates poetry into a higher kind of morality."

Tagore's poetry does exactly that.

Gurbani, however, needs to be approached with love, devotion and humility. Only then its power to illumine our hearts and minds can sweep away the cobwebs of doubt and duality, dispel discord and discrimination.

Many years were to pass before I discovered Tagore's extraordinary "love affair" with Sikhism, and the legacy of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, from his autobiography.

In the 1870's, Tagore's father, Maharshi Debendranath, who was among illustrious pioneers of the Brahmo Samaj [Lit. ‘The Society of God'], used to visit Amritsar periodically in quest of divine inspiration. For some time, the Maharshi's personal attendant was ‘a fine featured young Sikh'. Rabindranath - barely ten years old - recalls his visits to the Golden Temple (that we call Harmandar, or Darbar Sahib) thus:

"The Gurdwara at Amritsar I remember as a dream. Many were the mornings when I went to the Sikh temple set within a lake. Singing of bhajans was continuous. Seated in the midst of the Sikh worshippers, my father would join them in song, and they would greet him with cheerful cordiality."

Rabindranath also recalls that his father would often invite one or another of the raagis - singers - to his house for kirtan sessions. Evidently, these memories of his youthful experience not only lingered in his mind but also made a deep impression on him. We are told that, as a teenager, he rendered into Bengali several hymns (pauris) from the Japji, some of which would then be sung at the Sunday prayer of Brahmo Samaj.

The late Prof. Amalendu Bose, writing in the Calcutta-based Journal, The Sikh Review, in the 1970's, tells us that the "pure monotheism of Japji appealed deeply to the monotheistic mind of the young poet ... Guruji's beautiful exhortations to the Sikhs to abjure all that is false and narrow, and to imbibe all that is truly unifying and comprehensive were the qualities that won the poet's heart."

Permit me to quote just one of the hymns in Japji:

"So dar ...

       What kind of doorway, what kind of mansion?

       Where You sit and care for Your creation!

       Where melodies of countless strumming instruments,

       And countless minstrels playing on it are heard.

       In how many raags and raaginis is Your adoration sung?

       And how many celestial musicians sing of You?

       There, even wind, water and fire glorify Your name ..."

In a manner of speaking, Japji is theology for everyman, a kind of universal adoration of the all-pervading Spirit of God.

"There is only One Being, who is the Creator and the uncaused cause of all. He has created the whole universe through his vital Will which is diffused throughout. The Absolute is beyond words, nameless, imageless. When he caused this universe, His Word was the cause."

For the first time the divine splendour was spelt out in the common man's language. Guru Nanak replaced the worship of countless gods and goddesses with the adoration of one God.

Guru Gobind Singh re-affirmed this precept: " The Lord of all the worlds is One. He is nirankâr, Formless, without physical attributes. He is not born, nor does He die to be born again. He is self-existent."

I would like to believe that Sikhism's appeal for Tagore was rooted in his childhood memories of the radiance and cadence of gurbani kirtan that he imbibed with his father during their sojourns in Amritsar. The musical Baul tradition of Bengal and Maharshi Debendranath's Brahmo-Samaj background seemed to cement a bond with the Sikh legacy. Like the Baul idealism, the Sikh philosophy embraces all human societies, recognizing the ultimate unity of the Supreme Being - who is all-pervading - best realised experimentally in the core of the human heart!

Tagore's own devotional poetry is replete with intimation of gurbani: Let me illustrate:

       Jodi e amaro hridaya -

       duaro bandha rahe go

       Kabhu dwar bhenge

       Tumi asho, more prané,

       Phiria jao na, Prabhu!

The lyricism of these poems, time and again, recall to mind gurbani's compelling, concise and coherent enunciation of life's moral purpose. Guru Granth's versified message likewise packs astonishing spiritual power and majesty. In so far as the holy text is set to symphonic raags, its appeal is to the deep faith residing within every heart, not just the intellect. The holy word affirms that the human being in devotion is capable of realizing God - Howsoever subtle and incomprehensible He may be, for the True devotee He is not impersonal:

The Guru says: Thou, O Lord, are beyond conception, unfathomable and profound. Yet to Your True Devotee,  You are fully manifest, stripped of all veils, ever in effulgent glory! [GGS:1299]

Let us now turn to Tagore's felicitous prose, his essays.

For Sikhs, and indeed for all people, Tagore's essay on Guru Gobind Singh has a special significance - both in timing and content. It was written at a time when the sun had set on the Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Punjab, Kashmir & the Frontier Province had been annexed by a wily and deceitful British Governor General, Lord Dalhousie. The Maharaja's youngest son, Duleep Singh, still a minor, had been whisked away to England, then ruled by Queen Victoria. With him also went the legendary Koh-i-Noor, robbed from the Lahore Treasury.

Tagore's essays on Guru Nanak  and Guru Gobind Singh, in simple idiom and direct style, seem to be meant for the younger generation of Bengalis. Perhaps Rabindranth sought to focus on the piety and moral grandeur of Guru Nanak, as also the matchless sacrifice and valour of Guru Gobind Singh that transformed Sikhs into saint-soldiers.

The essay on Guru Nanak tells us of the extraordinary child, son of Kalu, born in Talwandi, who, as a youngster preferred to spread God's holy Name, instead of becoming a businessman earning gold. Tagore mentions Guru Nanak's journey to Mecca, where fellow-travellers objected to his feet stretching towards the holy Ka'aba, the house of God. Nanak sweetly begged them to kindly turn his feet to any direction where God was not!

Tagore's Essay concludes with a gem:

"The Sikhs whom you see around you today are men of sturdy build, handsome countenance, of tough strength and unflinching courage. They are sishyas - disciples of Baba Nanak. There were no Sikhs before Nanak. It was his noble personality and sublime spirituality that brought this race into existence. It is through his teachings that their temper is fearless; they keep their heads erect; their character and countenance are brightened with magnanimity."

[Translation by the late Prof. Amalendu Bose]

This characterization remains unexcelled in Indian literature. In Katha-o-kahini (tales and legends), Tagore has also immortalized the legends of Banda Singh Bahadar and Bhai Taru Singh - both 18th century heroes of Sikh history. For steadfastness in the face of stark tragedy, ‘Bandi Vir' (Chained Hero) stands out as poetry of perennial inspiration.

Similarly the story of Taru Singh - Prarthanateet Daan -  in terse and taut poetry, symbolizes not only the grim determination but also the rejection of tyranny by the young Sikh who won't part with his beni, - the kesh, that is integral to the Sikh discipline and indeed cherished by all human beings.

Tagore's contribution to the understanding of the mystique of Sikhism, its theology and history, is a precious part of Indian heritage. At this point, let me recall to you Tagore's Essay on Shivaji & Guru Gobind Singh, writtten in the mid-1920's.

In the minds of most people, the image of Guru Gobind is that of a warrior-Guru. Tagore speculated that the "Tenth Master" had "deviated" from Nanak's Path of peace and goodwill for humanity at large. Indeed Tagore said: "the role of warrior does not belong to a Prophet but to an army general." Here, one wonders why a comparative view escaped Tagore. Sri Krishna's advice to Arjuna on the battleground of Mahabharat reverberates throughout the corridors of time.

Guru Gobind had echoed the precept enunciated by Guru Nanak:

"I have no other ambition than to struggle for righteousness."

It is scarcely realized what mental anguish Guru Gobind Singh must have gone through before he finally accepted the principle of use of force to right a wrong, the same dilemma that confronted Arjuna in the field of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. How is one to decide whether one should turn the other cheek; to submit to oppression and tyranny - in the hope that his gesture will bring a change of heart in the oppressor? Or that one should resist tyranny, and ensure restoration of justice and goodness, however long the struggle!

Guru Gobind Singh faced this dilemma. His father, Guru Tegh Bahadar had been executed in Delhi's Chandni Chowk for no other offence than championing the cause of the Kashmiri Pandits who faced forcible conversion - or extermination. Long before Guru Tegh Bahadur, the fifth Guru, Arjan, the builder of Amritsar's Harmandar, had been convicted of trumped-up charges and tortured to death at Lahore in 1605 during the Mughal reign of Jahangir. Both Noor Jehan and Mian Mir had protested, but to no avail.

It was no longer a time for turning the other cheek. On Poila Vaisakh in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh instituted the Khalsa Panth as his response. He redeemed his pledge - oft quoted by Swami Vivekananda -"savaa laakh sey ek ladaa-oon .."

As Tagore's essay records, Shivaji clearly and unabashedly wanted to establish Hindu sovereignty. Guru Gobind Singh, on the other hand, fought defensive wars. His Zafarnama, addressed to Aurangzeb, in 1707, spells out his compulsions:

       ba lachargi darmian amdam

       ba tadbiro teer-o-tufang amdam

       chun kar az hama hilatey dar guzasht

       halal ast burdan ba shamsheer-dast

The Mughals, Lodhis, Afghans and Baluchi hordes had, for centuries, and repeatedly, invaded the Indo-Gangetic plains unhindered, and massacred, rampaged and looted the people. It is nothing short of miraculous that these invaders were beaten back by Guru Gobind Singh's Khalsa warriors and pushed across the Khyber pass - beyond the frontiers of the subcontinent. It has never been fully appreciated by conventional historians that the Sikhs of Guru Gobind Singh forever put an end to the brutalisation of the subcontinent's masses.

Most significantly, Guru Gobind Singh took special care that anti-Muslim sentiment should not stain his crusade against the tyranny of the later Mughals. Both Hindus and Muslims fought shoulder to shoulder with Sikhs in each of his defensive wars. This secular tradition continued into the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, (1799 to 1849) who was - as pointed by Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India - one of the few genuinely secular rulers of our country.

Guru Gobind Singh had intense faith in his own divine mission. He forbade his soliders from looting and made them take solemn vows that they would never molest women or kill a fleeing adversary. No wonder he inspired an incredibly fierce sense of loyalty and sacrifice.

The story is told of an old woman who came to Guru Gobind for help. She told him that her husband and two sons had been killed fighting the aggressors. All that remained of her family was her youngest son, who was dangerously ill. She begged for the Guru's blessings to restore him to health - not to have someone to look after her in old age - but in order that this son too could attain martyrdom in the battlefield!

The New Millennium is, in many respects, the age of conflict, alienation and anxiety. The unlettered masses cling to superstition and look for supernatural intervention for being rid of their woes. Arguably, ‘globalization' has failed to provide moral and social justice. Instead it has spawned a type of religious fundamentalism that threatens the very existence of civilized society.

It is in this context that the Guru Granth and Sikhism become relevant, and the Gurus' message a moral imperative. In any re-assertion of the moral and spiritual principles, therefore, we must gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Sikhism, as well as the spirit of ‘kavi-guru' Rabindranath Tagore.


The author, Sardar Saran Singh (I.A.S. Retd.), is a former Secretary to the Government of India and the Chief Secretary, Bihar. He is currently the Editor of The Sikh Review and President of The Sikh Cultural Centre, both of which are based in Kolkata. At the beginning of 2010, he was honoured internationally by being named one of three Chic Sikhs of the Year 2010.   


[Courtesy: The Sikh Review]

May 17, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Surinder (Massachusetts, U.S.A.), May 17, 2010, 8:28 PM.

Balraj Sahni, who was already an accomplished actor, came to Tagore to seek his blessings to become a writer. The desire to write was tugging at Balraj's heart. Gurudev Tagore asked Sahni, which language he will write in. Balraj Sahni answered, "Hindi". Tagore ji asked him why not Punjabi? Balraj Sahni was taken aback, he had thought of Punjabi as a language of the Sikhs -a common feeling among Arya Samaji Hindus. Tagore ji encouraged Balraj Sahni to write in Punjabi. Balraj Sahni then got himself a typewriter in Gurmukhi and day in, day out, practiced the Gurmukhi script. He then went on to write some very good books in Gurmukhi/ Punjabi. He wrote about his travels in Pakistan; he traveled in Punjab and collected proverbs, etc. Thanks to Gurudev Tagore, Balraj Sahni produced some great literature in Punjabi/ Gurmukhi. My salute to a great man.

2: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), May 18, 2010, 1:09 AM.

I agree with Surinder of Massachusetts. Credible, original thinkers, writers, creative artists and clowns, yes, clowns are like that, because they are not in the 8 to 8 or 9 to 5 jobs, they are leaders, they devote to thinking, writing on a full time basis, like Tagore, the Nobel prize winner, who gave Gandhi the name of Mahatma. And Tagore was, and a number of his contemporaries, the noted Hindu/ Muslim/ Bengali intellectuals I came across as a student at St. Xavier's College, Calcutta, were also fascinated by the Sikh religion, and they respected the Ten Gurus and gurbani passionately. Tagore's other famous lines are 'ekla cholo, ekla cholo ...' - walk alone, walk alone! A new country always revels in its wonders. By the way, our living Sikh intellectual, Saran Singh, who I met in Los Angeles, has finer English than Tagore! And Balraj Sahni's reply to Tagore was typical of the Arya Samaj influence in him and the Samaj's in-tolerance of Sikhi. But the fact is Sahni rose beyond it and followed Tagore.

3: Pam Grewall (U.S.A.), June 07, 2010, 1:00 PM.

Thank you for posting this article. Tagore has always been one of my favorite writers and his poetry has inspired and touched me. "Where the mind is without fear ..." is my all-time favorite. Now reading about his gesture following the Jallianwallah massacre elevates his status in my heart and mind. Thank you for sharing.

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