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Gurus Reverence-laden Homage To Guru Nanak


Apr 27, 2006
Reverence-laden Homage to Guru Nanak
12-01-2006 03:46 AM

Tagore and the Sikhs
by Amalendu Bose


An English translation of Bandadir is provided in the related link to this article. Rabindranath Tagore was granted Knighthood by the British Government, which he renounced in protest of the British massacre of peaceful protesters at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919. --Editor

This is a re-print of the Quin-centenary tribute to Guru Nanak Devji from one of the most celebrated scholars of Bengal, the late professor Amalendu Kumar Bose of Calcutta University. --Editor, The Sikh Review.

When I stand here to pay my humble and reverence-laden homage to the glorious child of God, Guru Nanak, whose holy birth - over five hundred years ago - brought solace, joy, purity, strength to millions of people down the corridors of history, I seek your permission to bring to your notice the deep impact produced by the Guru’s astonishing personality, and by certain memorable events of Sikh history, upon the mind and art of Rabindranath Tagore and, through his poetry, upon the thinking of generations of Bangalees.

We cannot contain the waters of the seven seas in the tea-cup: we cannot see all of the rounded sky through a pipe-hole; we cannot limit the universalist meaning of the great Guru to the narrow angles of particular incidents or values. His greatness is transcendental, all-encompassing, timeless. But it is precisely this all-encompassing and transcendental quality of the Guru’s personality that comes home to us when we consider how the creative imagination of a great modern poet blossomed forth in response to the Guru’s teachings.

Bengal is about a thousand miles far from Guru Nanak’s homeland. But what are a thousand miles to the universalist Spirit of one who traveled thousands and thousands of miles, north and south, west and east, the east including Bengal and Assam? Four hundred years after the Guru’s birth, a distinguished Bangalee, a man of deeply religious sensibilities, the poet Tagore’s venerable father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, went year after year to the Golden Temple of Amritsar in quest of joy and Truth.

We learn from the poet’s autobiography that for some years, the Maharshi’s personal attendant was a fine-featured young Sikh, named Lehnu who accompanied his employer to Calcutta. A boy of barely ten, the poet became attached to this Sikh youth and entertained him by exhibiting his toy ship that could gently roll, right and left, in tune with a toy organ. Shortly, after his upanayan, the shaven-headed Rabindranath, barely eleven, accompanied his father to Dalhousie, halting for a month in Amritsar. Let me quote here from the poet’s autobiography:

The Gurdwara of Amritsar I remember as a dream. Many were the mornings when I went to the Sikh temple set within a tank. Bhajan was incessant there. Seated in the midst of the Sikh worshippers there, my father would join them in songs and they would greet him with pleased cordiality.
The poet further says that his father would often invite one or another of the Bhajan singers of the Temple to his house and sing songs.

The recollection of this boyhood experience remained with the poet till his last days. Even as a teen-aged person, he rendered into Bengali several hymns from the Japuji and some of these are, I understand from a scholarly Brahmo friend of mine, still sung at the Sunday prayers of the Samaj. It is my belief that the pure monotheism of the Japuji songs appealed deeply to the monotheistic mind of the youthful Brahmo, the poet Tagore, and further, the Guru’s beautiful exhortations of his followers to abjure all that is false and narrow and fissiparous, and to imbibe all that is true and comprehensive and unifying, and especially the constant tone of absolute surrender to the One Deity, are the qualities, among others, of the Japuji songs that won the poet’s heart. I may be permitted here to quote just two of these songs (as rendered into English by my young friend, Purshottam Lal):

Hundreds of thousands!
Of earth, of skies,
Of skies upon skies!
Hundreds of thousands:
They cannot be counted:
This is the one truth of the Vedas.
Ask the Kateba!
Eighteen thousand worlds!
Eighteen thousand, but the source is one!
Count them if you like!
You will die before they end.
He is great, says Nanak.
He knows.
Himself by Himself.
~ The Japuji, Fourteen Religious Songs, by Purshottam Lal.

Like rivers rushing into seas,
Not knowing where they go,
They praise You, O Lord,
Without knowing who you are.
O King,
O my Kind of Kings,
All the oceans,
All the mountains,
All treasures, all power
All like nothing, nothing
Compared even to an ant
Who has You in his heart.
~ (Ibid.)

What makes these songs great poetry is the white radiance and purity of their emotion, absolutely untrammeled by the pettifogging dogmas of conventional theology. Here is palpably a man of God who has felt and known and whose feeling and knowledge well up in spontaneous words. I have found that the impact of such devotional poetry-especially the songs of Nanak, Kabir and the peregrinating bauls of Bengal-on Tagore’s own devotional poetry - is considerable.

Tagore’s reverence for Guru Nanak was constant and I find passing references to the Guru in numerous places in his prose. In his middle period, he wrote a series of essays on Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, and the Sikhs in general. These essays are not learned treatises, they were not meant to be so; they are written in a remarkably simple and direct prose style for the edification of Bengalee children.

You will remember that a hundred years ago, our school texts in history played down, for reasons of obvious political expediency, the teachings of the Sikhs. Tagore, therefore, sought to redress this imbalance by writing simple narrative accounts of the Guru and his followers, bringing their significance into luminous focus. And this has been of inestimable service to the growth of interest in Bengal in the Guru and his followers.

There have been distinguished scholars among the Bangalees who have made important contributions to the history of the Sikhs but none, I can assure you, has rivaled these simple accounts of Tagore, both in prose and verse, in the matter of imparting a basic knowledge and understanding of the Sikhs to Bengalee children for the last several decades. One of these essays reads like a story, though it is scrupulously fact-based. It tells of the strange son of Kalu of Talwandi, the boy Nanak who preferred God’s name to the gold that his father expected him to earn as a trader in salt. It tells of the Guru’s disciples, Mardana, Lehna, Bala Sindhu and Ramdas. It tells of his wide wanderings and that profound reply that he gave to some Muslims in Mecca when they objected to his stretching his legs in the direction of the Kabah - that they might be pleased to turn his legs to any direction where God is not; Tagore in the last paragraph of this essay tells his yong readers:

"The Sikhs whom you see around you today, men of sturdy build, handsome countenance, tough strength and unflinching courage, are the 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, and their character and countenance are brightened with magnanimity."
Tagore expects our children to proceed from the effect to the cause, to some understanding of the Guru’s greatness from the admirable qualities, both racial and individual, of the followers who derive their strength from him. In illustration of this belief, that it is because of the purity and power of the source that the fruits are valuable too.

Tagore wrote a number of poems that rank among his finest compositions and are known to every Bengalee, man and women, who has had some school education. In 1900 were published two volumes of ballads and narratives which are now combined in a single volume entitled Katha-O-Kahini (Tales and Legends). Some of these poems are based on Buddhist legends, some on Todd’s Rajasthan, and some on Sikhs history - one around Banda, another around Taru Singh, two others concern Guru Gobind Singh.

I myself admire most the last two poems, for their rare depth of understanding of Guru Gobind’s self-exploration and moral strength during two crises of his life; but the poem on Banda, with its stirring metre and diction, is a must for every school function or social get-together where poems are recited; there are lines in this poem that Bangalee revolutionaries for half a century have uttered while jumping into the fray of life and death. To give my audience here some idea of the quality of the content of the poem, I propose to offer a rendering of some of its portions in my hesitant English prose. The title of the poem is “The Chained Hero,” Bandi Veer, bandi meaning a prisoner, but, I hope, my audience here will recognize the subtle sonal affinity between bandi and the hero’s name Banda The poem goes somewhat thus:

"On the banks of the five rivers, inspired by their Guru’s mantra, hair tied up on head, the Sikhs wake up as a unified people, fearless and dauntless. All around, a thousand voices cry, Jai Guruji. Sikhs turn their gaze towards a new dawn. Alakh Niranjan, they cry, and that tremendous cry breaks down all fear, all inhibition, and their glad swords rattle next to their bodies. Alakh Niranjan, cries the Punjab on this day.
"By the banks of the five rivers, this is a day when million hearts know no fear or care, when life and death are twin slaves at their feet.

"By the banks of the five rivers, are the veins of blood now liberated in the bodies of a million bhaktas. And do their souls, like free birds, fly up to their nests? These heroes put the mark of blood on the forehead of their motherland. Locked in the embrace of a fight to the finish, Sikh and Mogul tighten their grips on each other’s throats; the bitten eagle struggles against the serpent. In that deadly battle, the Sikh hero cries in resonant voice ‘Jai Guruji’ and the blood-smeared faith-intoxicated Mogul repeats Deen, Deen.

(Banda is taken prisoner in the fort of Gurdaspur and is removed to Delhi)

"At the head of the procession, Mogul soldiers march through the dust that they raise, carrying severed heads of Sikhs struck on the pointed end of their spears; seven hundred Sikhs march behind, their chains tinkle but, heedless of the danger to their lives, they still cry, ‘Jai Guruji.’

"When in Delhi they are to be beheaded, there is rivalry among these prisoners as to who will precede the others in laying down his life. At the day’s end, a hundred brave men cry, ‘Jai Guruji’ and part with their heads.

"When in a weeks time, seven hundred men have been beheaded, the Kazi placed a small son of Banda in the father’s arms, and says, the father must kill the son. Without a word, Banda hugs his child for a moment, puts his hand on the child’s head and kisses his crimson turban. Then he draws out his dagger from the sheath and says, "Fear not, my son, say "Jai Guruji". “Jai Guruji, I have no fear,” comes the clear voice of the child’s neck and bends his left arm around the child’s neck and with the right hand plunges the dagger deep into the small body. “Jai Guruji” cries the child before his body rolls on the ground.

"Stillness descends on the congregation in the court. The executioner begins to tear off flesh from Banda’s body with hot pincers. Motionless stands the hero, dying without a single exclamation of pain."

I doubt if there are many comparably stirring poems in many languages, and though I regret that it is beyond my capacity to render the tremendous power of the rhythm and imagery of the original, I think the incident itself is powerful enough to enter deep into the reader’s sensibility. By contrast, the poem on Taru Singh is a brief, piece of only sixteen lines. It goes thus:

"The ground in Shahidganj became red with the blood of Sikhs taken prisoners in war and then slaughtered. Then the Nawab said, "Listen, Taru Singh, I wish to pardon you."
"Why should you neglect me?" asked Taru Singh.

Said the Nawab, "You are a brave man, I can’t be angry with you. I shall let you off. My only request is that you will cut off your hair plait and leave it with me." Taru Singh replied." I am so beholden for your kindness that, in return, I had better make a gift of my head along with the plait."

This is the poem, taut and terse in its verbal economy, offering us quick glimpses of the explosive passion that lies underneath the courteous exchange of compliments. And in Taru Singh we behold one who is more than an individual Sikh hero; we behold one who is also a symbol of his race, a symbol of his faith.

A parallel story occurs in one of the poems in Sesh Saptak (The Last Gamut) belonging to the final phase of the poet. This is once again the story of the siege of the Gurdaspur fort. The Badshah’s Lieutenants have planned to starve the handful of besieged Sikhs fighting under Banda Singh; all communication between the fort and the world outside has been snapped; the besieged soldiers are reduced to eating powdered barks and branches of trees and raw meat (if any meat be available). This infernal privation comes to an end when, after eight months, the fort falls; soldiers in chains shout, “Victory to the Guru” and day after day, severed Sikh heads roll on the ground.

The poet now turns the focus on to a teen-aged young man, Nihal Singh, one of the chained soldiers. His is a fresh, serene countenance lit by an inner light; in his eyes are congealed the morning song of pilgrims; it is as if some divine sculptor had carved out his eighteen-year old body; he stands like a young cypress plant, straight but lissome and an exuberant vitality almost overflows his body and mind. His hands bound, he is brought to the court of the victors, the executioner is ready with his sword.

At this moment a letter arrives from the capital conveying Syed Abdulla Khan’s order that the young man is to be set free. When they unloose the chains, Nihal asks why there should be such an order for him. He hears that his widowed mother has informed the authorities that her son is not a Sikh, that he has been forced by the Sikh to join them. The young man’s face is flushed in shame and grief, and he cries. "I do not care for my life in exchange for falsehood, in truth is my final liberation, I am a Sikh." - This too is a great poem in which Tagore has abandoned metre and rhyme, as he did in most of his later poetry.

As if he challenges the reader to see if the stark prose rhythm cannot adequately convey the character of the incident - its dramatic development, the grim background against which stands Nihal Singh, the sharp contrast between his youthful vitality and its destruction in the offering, and, above all, his unflickering adherence to Truth which is the cardinal meaning of his faith.

Of the two poems on Guru Gobind Singh, Shesh Siksha (The Last Lesson) tells the story of how the Guru had, once in sudden anger, killed a Pathan creditor; how, to atone for this act, he brought up the Pathan’s son, treating him as a son, and how the young Pathan became deeply devoted to the Master; how the Guru tried to arouse the young man’s vengeance but failed once, and how eventually the Pathan was made to fly into a rage and to plunge a dagger into the Master’s body; and how the dying Guru said, ?My son, this is my last lesson for you, you must take revenge for a wrong done.? This too is a great poem bringing out the Guru’s complex personality but the other poem, entitled Guru Gobind is, to my mind, the greatest of this group, great because of the rhythm and imagery, great because of the excruciating psychological self-exploration of the Guru during years of solitude.

A man of action and organisation, Guru Gobind has been passing his days in contemplation, in an endeavor to attain to that spiritual fullness which alone should entitle him to the difficult role of leadership of his people. A humanist rather than an ascetic, his heart yearns for life in the midst of multitudes; he wakes up in his sleep dreaming of calls from his people; his sword in the scabbard wriggles like a living thing as he watches the restlessness of his followers.

Ah, what a joy it would be to throw himself in the midst of a crowd, breaking and making kingdoms, destroying tyrants, catching hold of fate as if it were a disobedient horse, riding through millions, leaving behind indelible footprints on flame-crimsoned grounds, always jumping across death on to life. Sometimes it is a dark night and sometimes it is a shiny day, once the sky above is thunder-laden, torn asunder by a relentless and insane storm. But, heedless, the Guru sends his call to his followers, "Come ye all to me as the waters of the five rivers flow into the sea; come ye my bhakats and raise your intoxicated cry across the length and breadth of Punjab."

The Guru’s voice penetrates the remotest nooks of jungles lest there should be some timid one hiding there. As he advances, his followers swell in number, Brahmin and Jat abandoning caste consciousness, ready to lay down their lives - But these are visions of the future that cannot be worked out yet. Now he has to control his passionate natural humanistic desires, now he must ponder and thoroughly examine himself until he can say to all:

"I have no more doubts and hesitations, I have learnt what truth is, I have found my path and all obstacles, including life and death, cleared off from my course. A voice within tells me to stand up in the effulgence of my truth. I call ye, my followers, to come to me, let in your Guru’s life your own lives be enriched."
But all this is yet to be, and the Guru hardens himself to more days of strenuous self-examination. He must be like a lamp steadfast amid darkness, emitting its light in a stormy world. And therefore Guru Govind asks his followers Sahu, Lehari and Ramdas to leave him alone with his unremitting self-preparation. - This is a poem containing over half-a-dozen stanzas that are memorized by every Bengalee young man worth his salt; these offer us the crystallized essence of a resolute and courageous Gospel of Action.

In his prose and poetry, Tagore brings out some of the essential features of the Sikh character, especially the militant features. But these militant features acquire an unparalleled purity and nobility by virtue of their never-dimmed relation to their faith. For though changing times have necessarily brought about some modification or other in the social organisation of the Sikhs, there has never been a deviation from the Primal Spirit of their faith which they received from that incomparable man of God, Guru Nanak. I submit to this learned audience the view that a remarkably inspiring direction to that Primal Spirit has been indicated by Rabindranath Tagore in his poems, prose, essays, and in his devotional songs, a direction for which we in the eastern regions of our country are deeply indebted to him.




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