|Review of the Contributions of a Major Thinker
This issue of Samyukta highlights the contributions of RabindranathTagore
Rabindranath Tagore has created myriads of women in his short-stories, dramas and novels. But they cannot be said to represent his ideal woman or give voice to his concept of woman. They may yield shards or fragments which may be fitted together to form a whole. Tagore has been reticent on women except for a few remarks in the context of Nationalism. But the essay on ‘Woman’ included in the sub-section of ‘Personality’ in the collection selected Essays is an exception. Here he has left no stone unturned to give us a clear-cut idea of woman – of her nature, her purpose and aim in life, and even a prediction of the future course of her destiny. It is as if Tagore has broken his long silence to give vent to strong feelings concerning woman. This article attempts to enumerate and summarize a few stray thoughts of the genius on the subject.
Tagore’s essays are very personal reflections – rather abstract and metaphysical. As indicated by the titles, they cover a wide range of topics from ‘Beauty’ to ‘Creativity’, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Crises in Civilisation’ to ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’. Tagore, it is interesting to note, classifies men and women differently. Contrary to the radical feminists, Tagore stresses that it is the passive nature of women which lead them to heal, nourish and store life. According to him, woman is endowed with the passive qualities of chastity, modesty, devotion and power of self-sacrifice (226). The passive qualities which are negative as far as the feminists are concerned are positive qualities for Tagore. Tagore points out that man has an intellectual bent of mind in his capacity as the ‘tool-making animal’ and is adept at his task of expanding horizons and boundaries. But woman on the contrary is never interested in power for its own sake. She interacts with other human beings on the level of love and mutual co-operation. Her intention is never to empower her neighbour. It is indeed surprising to trace in Tagore the ‘binary opposites’ much before it was spelt out by the Western critical theorists. Tagore associates men with Nurture (Culture) and women with Nature. Therefore he points out that the masculine creations are never stable:
The masculine creations of intellectual civilisation are towers of Babel, they dare to defy their foundations and therefore topple down over and over again. Thus human history is growing up over layers of ruins; it is not a continuous life growth. (225)
Tagore endows woman with a rare rejuvenative power and women who are conscious of this mission have a big role to play in the future civilisation. Contrary to the feminists who fight for equal rights for their sex, Tagore has gone further and placed women on a higher plane in his idealistic vision. Time and again, he points out the difference in the attitudes between men and women. A man’s interest in his fellow-beings becomes real when he finds in them some special gift of power of usefulness, but a woman feels interest in her fellow-beings because they are living creatures, because they are human, not because of some particular purpose which they can serve, or some power which they possess and for which she has a special admiration. And because woman has this power, she exercises such charm over our minds; her exuberance of vital interest is so attractive that it makes her speech, her laughter, her movement, everything graceful; for the note of gracefulness is in this harmony with all our surrounding interests (227-228).
It would not be out of place to say that Tagore sees man and woman as two sides of a coin – the one representing the quest for power, wealth and accumulation and the other representing stability, harmony, grace and love. Therefore, he seems to be saying that they are complementary and that one would be lost without the other. But Tagore does agree that women have been kept in the shade in the present civilisation. He describes the present stage of civilisation as exclusively masculine, a ‘civilisation of power’. Since women have been thrust aside in the shade, it has lost its power and is hopping from one war to another. Very evocatively, Tagore paints before our eyes a ‘one-sided civilisation … crashing along a series of catastrophes at a tremendous speed because of its one-sidedness’. It conjures up a vision of a train hurtling towards its destruction. But the panacea for all the ills is the role the woman has to play — ‘And at last the time has arrived when woman must step in and impart her life rhythm to this reckless movement of power’(226). The intuitive, passive and loving woman functions as the soil for the growing tree. It not only helps the tree to grow but keeps its growth within limits. Just as the tree, our civilisation must grow and branch out but as the stable roots of the tree, our civilisation must also have its passive element, broad, deep and stable. It is not mere growth but a harmony of growth which like the banks of a river guide it to truth and beauty.
Tagore does clarify that he does not imply that domestic life is the only life for a woman. He opines that the human world is the woman’s world, be it domestic or be it full of the other activities of life, which are human activities, and not merely abstract efforts to organise. It is only in the domestic world that an individual finds his worth as an individual—it is only here that he is not evaluated against the market value. But Tagore sounds the warning note for the male half of the civilisation. In spite of all the insult and injury heaped upon women in the present civilisation, Tagore has a prophecy to make—just as it was prophesied in the Bible ages ago that the meek shall inherit the earth, the men who ‘have been boastful of their power and aggressive in their exploitation’ will have to give place to women, the feebler creatures. Tagore makes the situation more clear and vivid by putting it thus:
It is the same thing that happened in the ancient days, in the prehistoric times, to those great monsters like the mammoths and dinosaurs. They have lost their inheritance of the earth. They had the gigantic muscles for mighty efforts but they had to give up to creatures who were much feebler in their muscles and took up less space with their dimensions. And in the future civilisation and the women, the feebler creatures, – feebler at least in their outer aspects,-who are less muscular, and who have been behind hand, always left under the shadow of those huge creatures, the men, – they will have their place, and those bigger creatures will have to give way. (233)
Tagore also points out a certain ruthlessness on Nature’s part. He argues that Nature connives with the male creature’s propensity to kill another in its quest for power because it has no sympathy ‘for the hungry broods who are quarrelsomely voracious and who yet contribute very little towards the payment of Nature’s bill’ (224). Nature is interested only in the female of the species because only females are needed for her purpose while males are barely necessary. He illustrates this with an example from the insect world where we witness the phenomenon of the females taking upon themselves to keep the limits of the male population down to the bare necessity. Another amazing capacity of woman that Tagore points out, is her ability to take interest in the common place things. However, if she loses touch with this talent, then leisure frightens her with its emptiness because her natural sensibilities become deadened and then there is nothing to occupy her attention. With the result she keeps frantically busy, ‘not in utilising the time but merely in filling it up’ (228). The everyday world which woman naturally relates to is poetically described by Tagore thus: ‘Our everyday world is like a reed, its true value is not in itself, — but those who have the power and serenity of attention can hear the music which the Infinite plays through its very emptiness’ (228).
However, Tagore is sensitive to a certain restlessness of the western women. The reason he ascribes to this is the fact that a large number of western women as well as men condemn the things that are commonplace. They seem to be hankering and straining after a spurious original which surprises but does not satisfy. Tagore cautions against this tendency of running after sensationalism by which they would lose their real power to sustain the human race with what it needs the most.
Since Tagore has seen and depicted women in close connection with Nature, it would be pertinent at this juncture to examine his attitude towards Nature. Tagore reveals that Nature is a living presence for the Indians. The first civilisations took root in the lap of Nature in the forests which were later cleared for cultivation. It was also to the forests that the ancient seers departed for meditation and enlightenment. In the ancient Sanskrit classics of India, for example, the ashram of Shakuntala and the Chitrakoot forest of Rama were abodes where people lived in close communion with Nature, away from the treachery and intrigues of the Court. Unlike in many Western classics, Nature was never depicted as hostile. In Western classics Tagore intuitively notes ‘the gulf between Nature and human nature owing to the tradition of … (their) race and time’ (38). Even in Milton’s Paradise Lost though the animals are described as living in amity and peace among themselves, there is no communion between them and man:
They were created for man’s enjoyment; man was their lord and master. We find no trace of the love between the first man and woman gradually surpassing themselves and overflowing to the rest of the creation, such as we find in the love-scene in Kumarasambhava and Shakuntala. In the seclusion of the bower, where the first man and woman rested, the garden of Paradise – Bird, beast, insect or worm, Dust enter none, such was their awe of man. (38)
But he observes that there is a complete change of mind in the poets of the nineteenth century like Wordsworth and Shelley, through the influence of the newly discovered philosophy of India which ‘stirred the soul of Germany and aroused the attention of the Western countries’ (38). Tagore reveals that he has a lot in common with Shelley who did not believe in any conventional religion. He sought perfection and therefore unity in the worldly forms. The beauty of nature inspired him to creation, to rise above the materialistic. Otherwise he realised that life would be like a locomotive engine zigzagging along without any stations.
He identified with Nature and sought a religion in Nature. Tagore encounters the problem of the co-existence of the infinite and the finite. Very deftly he proves that the infinite is the reality:
… Logically speaking the distance between two points, however near, may be said to be infinite, because it is infinitely divisible. But we do cross the infinite at every step, and meet the eternal in every second. Therefore some of our philosophers say there is no such thing as finitude; it is but a maya, an illusion. The real is the infinite, and it is only maya, the unreality which causes the appearance of the finite. (143)
In the same way Tagore proves that the opposites in creation which exist in the physical world do not bring confusion in the universe, but only harmony. With the example of a flower, Tagore proves that in the outer world of activity nature has one aspect, but in our hearts, in the inner world, it presents an altogether different picture. The colour, the smell and the beauty of the flower are all there for some purpose – to facilitate pollination and thereby to bring about the fruit and the seed, and to maintain the unbroken chain of being. Tagore almost puts a Marxian interpretation to the whole purpose of life:
In the great office of nature there are innumerable departments of endless work going on, and the fine flower that you behold there, gaudily attired and scented like a dandy, is by no means what it appears to be, but rather, is like a labourer toiling in the sun and shower, who has to submit a clear account of his work and who has no breathing space to enjoy himself in playful frolic. (146-47)
But the same flower becomes the very emblem of leisure and repose when it enters the heart of men – it is a perfect expression of beauty and peace within. By this simple example, Tagore illustrates the duality of Nature – the physical aspect of Nature and the relationship of the human heart with Nature. Continuing in the same philosophical vein, Tagore comments on the two aspects of Nature – one of thraldom and the other of freedom. Our seers fully recognised the inexorable laws of Nature, but the poets sung only of joy which sustains everything:
The joy which is without form must create, must translate itself into forms. The joy of the singer is expressed in the form of a song, that of the poet in the form of a poem. Man in his role of a creator is ever creating forms, and they come out of his abounding joy. (156)
Tagore proves that it is only in love that both the opposites unite and the contradictions of existence merge themselves and are lost. Only in love are unity and duality not at variance.
Tagore, Rabindranath. (2004), Selected Essays. Rupa, New Delhi.
NISHA VENUGOPAL. Teaches at the Sree Sankaracharya University, Kalady. Her doctoral work was on the plays of Robert Lowell. Regular contributor to research journals.
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