Tagore’s Gitanjali as a work in the Bhakti Tradition

“The soul of music slumbers in the shell
Till waked and kindled by the master’s spell
And feeling hearts – touch them but rightly- pour
A thousand melodies unfelt before.”

Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” or “Song Offerings” written and translated into English by the poet himself, earned him world-wide acclaim. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913. This essay analyzes how his poems from “Gitanjali” are reminiscent of a great Indian tradition called the Bhakti tradition.

In the 7th century A.D., the Bhakti cult propagated worship accompanied by music and dance. The Bhakti poets believed in surrender to the Godhead and in praising the name of the Lord in order to attain ‘Mukthi’ or salvation. The Bhakti yoga had two aspects to it – The Nirguna Bhakti and the Saguna Bhakti.

In Nirguna Bhakti, God or the Supreme power was a formless energy or force that had to be deeply felt and realized. These poets spoke of everyday activities as a service to God. They believed in love, surrender and in a universal religion.

The Saguna Bhakti tradition believed in a God who had a human form and personality endowed with supernatural qualities. These poets worshipped Vishnu or Siva as a God with a concrete form, abode and identity. They sang of pilgrim centres or temples where their God resided and stressed on total surrender of body, mind and soul to this Supreme Personality of Godhead.

“Gitanjali”, written in 1912 is a string of devotional poems. Love is a major theme that connects all the verses in “Gitanjali” The God in “Gitanjali” has no name or abode and cannot be identified with any specific Indian God. He has His own form and personality. He is referred to as “You”, “Thou” or “Thee” At times He is shown as a loving father who cares for His children and at times as a Lover who is waiting for reciprocation from His own creation.

The title “Gitanjali” or “Song Offerings” is in itself reminiscent of the Bhakti tradition. Bhakti poets such as Chaitanya, Mirabai and Aandal believed in worshipping God through music and dance highlighting performative nature of art in cultures with an oral tradition such as the ancient Tamil culture.

Music becomes an expression of infinite fountains of creativity that springs forth from the enlightened soul. Such music allows the devotee to string choice phrases together and sing the glory of God.
“This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new” [Gitanjali, I]

Man becomes a mere instrument of carrying God’s Love to the earth. The very music that the Bhakti poet renders is a gift from God, a divine expression that cannot be realized without the Grace of God.
“When thou commandest me to sing it seems that my heart would break with pride”
[Gitanjali, II]

The poet is “Drunk with the joy of singing” since he knows that he comes before God only as a singer. “All that is harsh and dissonant”, in the poet’s “life melts into one sweet harmony”. The poet aspires to touch the unreachable feet of God with the “edge of the far-spreading wing of…song”. The whole of life is seen as music made by God. “The light of thy music illumines the world. The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky” says the poet.

In a similar tone Aandal says,
“Worldlings, listen to what we will do,
How observe these sacred days.
We will sing at the feet of that Supreme One.”
[Tiruppaavai I,2]

The Bhakti poets had processions inviting one and all to sing the praise of the Lord. Amid clanging cymbals and drums, they sung the glory of God in Bhajans, simple and straightforward with cries of ecstasy which did not follow the strict rules of ‘raag’ or ‘taal’.
“My song has put off her adornments…they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers…My poet’s vanity dies in shame before thy sight.”
[Gitanjali, VII]

Kabir condemns external telling of rosary beads and chanting of Rama’s name. A true devotee does not make shows of his piety.
“Ram! Ram! they yell
till there’s a callus on their tongue
They don’t drink clean water
but yearn to dig a well.”
[Ramaini, 33]

Tagore says,
“The child who is decked with prince’s robes and has jewelled chains round his neck loses all pleasure in his play.”
[Gitanjali, VIII]

Tagore’s God loves simple expressions of devotion than extravagant displays of religious fervour.
“Here is thy footstool…where live the poorest and lowliest and lost…” [Gitanjali, X]

In Bhakthi poetry, the poet often demeans himself, while praising God.
Mahadevi Akka says,
“My body is dirt,
my spirit is space:
shall I grab, O lord?”
[Speaking of Siva, 12]

Aandal says,
“What a worm-eaten wood apple I am
Ague-stricken and sucked dry by his love!”
[Nachiyar Tirumozhi, VIII]

Tagore’s devotion, however, goes one step further and believes that God’s love is incomplete without reciprocation from man. Man becomes the receiver of God’s love in its entirety.

A similar vein is to be found in Mahadevi Akka
” Dear girl go tell Him
bring Him back to His senses…
My lord white as jasmine
is angry
that we are two.”
[Speaking of Siva, 321]

Influenced by Buddhism and its little expressions of local folk religions such as the religion of the Bauls, Tagore derives several of his images from Baul folk songs. The Bauls were mendicants. Their simple songs, set to a beautiful tune, sung with a one-stringed violin seemed to Tagore the greatest expression of Love for God. God, for the Bauls, was ‘Love’ in its supreme form. The Bauls considered the transient human body as a temple of God.

Poems by Mahadevi Akka and Aandal capture the anguish in separation from God. Such pain the devotee goes through in pining for the Lord has been a major theme in Bhakti poetry.
“I cannot understand…
…my torture by south wind and moon
..I love him who straddled the world
And he leaves me in the lurch”
[Nachiyar Tirumozhi, V]

“Four parts of the day
I grieve for you.
Four parts of night
I’m mad for you.
I lie lost
sick for you, night and day,
O lord white as jasmine.”
[Speaking of Siva, 79]

A devotee runs to the ends of the earth in search of God. At last, he rests to take a breath, weary with futility. At that moment of silence, God’s Love springs upon him and takes him unawares. He realizes that God resides inside his very own soul.
“The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end”
[Gitanjali, XII]

Mahadevi Akka says
“Not one, not two, not three or four,
but through eighty-four hundred thousand vaginas
have I come
through unlikely worlds..”

The ultimate realization that God is within oneself is also found in other Bhakti works. In one of Kabir’s poems he says,
“Kabir says, clarity comes
when the musician lives
in your heart”

treasure hidden in the ground
taste in the fruit
gold in the rock
oil in the seed

the Absolute is hidden away
in the heart”
[Speaking of Siva, 2]

Tagore has captured this feeling in a couplet.
“The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’” [Gitanjali, XII]

Separation from the loved one, waiting, searching, mourning and lamenting over the absence of the Supreme Lover are all common sentiments in the Bhakti tradition. The search is painful and the destination, elusive.
“When I awaken and hurry in search of my goal…cruelly thou hidest thyself before me”
[Gitanjali, XIV]

“only there is agony of wishing in my heart…I live in the hope of meeting with him; but this meeting is not yet…” [Gitanjali, XIII]

Tagore expresses his ideas on the Vaishnava religion. He says it is similar to that of the Bauls while romanticizing the notion of God.
“God’s love finding its finality in man’s love… A
According to it, the lover, the man, is the complement of the Lover, God, in the internal love drama of existence”
[Tagore “An Indian Folk Religion”]

“O Mother, don’t grieve. This my disease
No one can understand.
He whose hue is like the sea’s
Can cure it with a touch.”
[Nachiyar Tirumozhi, XII]

In his play, “Natir Puja”, Tagore speaks of the simple and rebellious devotion of a dancer girl who dares defy the orders of King Ajatasatru to light lamps in a temple, the entry to which is forbidden to people of her clan. The punishment for her rebellion is death. The persecution that Mirabai, Mahadevi Akka and Aandal faced for their devotion is known to all. It must also be noted that Mahadevi Akka stripped herself naked and walked about covered only in her tresses. Her explanation for such a rebellion is like this:

“…can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?

To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of the morning,
you fool,
where’s the need for cover and jewel?”
[Speaking of Siva, 124]

“Those who came to call me in vain have gone back in anger. I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands” [Gitanjali, XVII]

The sonority, the theme of surrender, love for the Lord, praise for the Lord, anguish in separation from the Lord and the final realization of God within oneself, are all features of Bhakti poetry.
“Like the colour in gold,
you were in me…
the paradox of your being
in me
without showing a limb”
[Speaking of Siva, 50]

Gitanjali is a masterpiece of devotion…

“In the pulsing life of dance,
To thee I raise
In wordless praise
My eager body’s rhythmed cry –
This new birth’s eloquence
In music and in gesture shines
My worship, Lord”
[Tagore, “Natir Puja”]

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11 thoughts on “Tagore’s Gitanjali as a work in the Bhakti Tradition

  1. Have you read Tagore’s Sadhana? I feel Gitanjali is the experience that was got by the knowledge in Sadhana. Nice to see someone sharing a strong interest in Taore…would love to discuss more. Came through Orkut, my profile name is Agni Barathi. And yes do check out my BLOG as well!

  2. Many people always believe that God is some one who can be realised only by Saints and Yogis. I have always believed that God is also realised by people who pursue their passions until perfection. Tagore was simply great as he was able to take the art of writing to describe something that is difficult for a common man to describe. Love as a concept is always interpreted in the physical sense by most of the poets. But Tagore was able to take it beyond that level.
    Well, I must admit that I havent read Kabir or Andal, though I am inspired to do so now. You reference to Natir Puja was really good. That was one of the impressive plays that I have read.

  3. love,is a feeling that no one can explian in words.To many,it is a pursuit related to body.Tagore has shown his greatness by choosing ‘LOVE’ as the theme for his great work ‘Gitanjali.

  4. thanks for expressing your views on the main theme of Gitanjali. I hope it would help many readers of Gitanjali to read every song of it with full devotion and with god in their mind and heart…thanks again..

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