Tagore Redrawing the Boundaries,
In Other Words, Crossing the Limits of Language
1. THE TWIN QUESTIONS
1.1. The question that has bothered Tagore all his life, something that is not manifest through his writings, but is evident through his expressed dissatisfaction about what he wrote and the way he did it, is this twin question with respect to Language:
First, is the complexity of the world around us - or the world within - truly representable through this medium called language? Alternatively, is it true that our language derives its complex, intricate and layered structure because it has to deal with a dense and knotty content which is at once within and outside its author or originator? In terms of stylistic drifts through which Tagore’s writings have progressed, the idea is that his Linguistic Designs were similar to the Byzantine architecture in that both imbue influences from the far east to the far west.
Secondly, does language begin where silence ends, often slashing as waves against a vast coastline of content, or when all attempts are made to speak what an author such as Tagore always wanted to speak, resulting in a journey to nowhere? Does silence gain entry into our system of representation, and occupy the centre-stage of all semiotic activity?
At the outset, both these issues might seem complicated but to my mind, the crux of understanding Tagore lies in appreciating the strife he had to weather within himself in trying to negotiate with many of these issues.
1.2. It is not surprising that Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889 –1951) who revolutionized our enquiry on language and philosophy, and turned out to be the most seminal influence on a large number of thinkers world-wide through his work on the nature of relationship between propositions as expressed through language and the world at large in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922-23) and his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) – is known to have often reverted to Rabindranath Tagore, and especially appreciated the latter’s use of silence in texts. That theory of numbers, or Mathematics and logic fail to capture this important aspect of man’s attempt to break free of the ‘boundedness’ of language, while remaining within the realm of language, was realized by both Wittgenstein as well as by thinkers such as Tagore and Aurobindo. In 1921, Wittgenstein recommend to his friend Paul Englemann that he should read Tagore's King of the Dark Chamber (Cf. Englemann 1967:44-7), and gave a copy to his sister as his favourite. In the meetings of the Vienna Circle during 1927-28, he used to read out poetry from Tagore when he would not like to respond to his fellow positivist philosophers.
1.3. Interestingly, the influence of Tagore on Wittgensetin remains unexplored, even though this was mentioned by Janick and Toulmin (1973), and discussed by Ray Monk (1990: 408-10) while presenting Wittgenstein's translation of Act II of the play. Abrahim Khan (2002) of the University of Toronto, briefly touches upon this relationship in a conference paper, but tries to bring in the ancient Indian philosophical thought under the Sankhya School, where concepts such as purusa, prakrti, and the product of interaction between the two, i.e. the jivapurusa are considered in terms of notions of boundednesss and of the reaching over boundary. The basic thrust here was that human beings and other living entities differed in that the former was able to cross the boundaries or limits it encountered in both thought and expression, whereas others could not. So much so that human beings could also make use of Silence as a form or unit of expression – something that helps define the workings of mind and consciousness. Khan differentiated between the notion of being a ‘Human’ and becoming a ‘Person’, where he carried with himself the idea of boundedness, or the potential for experiencing it.
2. THE IDEA OF ‘SELF’
2.1. The idea that the Self is bounded finitely to the finite and infinitely to the infinite at the same time (Kierkguard) – which would seem otherwise to be a contradictory proposition is reflected in Tagore’s description of the problem of self, when he says:
"Man's words are not a language at all, but merely a vocal gesture of the dumb.... The more vital his thoughts the more have his words to be explained by the context of his life,"
He added that those seeking the meaning get only to the house and
"are stopped by the outside wall and find no entrance to the hall" (in his Sadhana, Tr. 1972: 71f; Tuscon: Omen Communications).
It is not surprising to see an echo of this thought in Tagore’s letter of 13th October 1912 to Bertrand Russell:
“I read your essay on the Essence of Religion in the last issue of the Hibbert Journal with very great interest. It reminded me of a verse in the Upanishad which runs thus: Yato veiche nivartante aprapya manasa saha/ Anandam brahmano vidvan na vibheti kutuschana. ‘From him words, as well as mind, come back baffled. Yet he who knows the joy of Brahman (the infinite) is free from all fear”#. Through knowledge you cannot apprehend him; yet when you live the life of the Infinite, and are not bound within the limits of the finite self you realise that great joy which is above all the pleasures and pains of our selfish life and so you are free from all fear” (Russell, Bertrand. 1967: 221. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1872-1914. London).
In fact, way back in 1913, in Sadhana, Tagore had already argued strongly that “man’s history is the history of his journey to the unknown in quest of the realization of his immortal self—his soul (II; Page 292)”, and he went on to add about the journey man had to perform by saying:
Through the rise and fall of empires; through the building up [of] gigantic piles of wealth and the ruthless scattering of them upon the dust; through the creation of vast bodies of symbols that give shape to his dreams and aspirations, and the casting of them away like the playthings of an outworn infancy; through his forging of magic keys with which to unlock the mysteries of creation, and through his throwing away of this labour of ages to go back to his workshop and work up afresh some new form; yes, through it all man is marching from epoch to epoch towards the full realization of his soul - the soul which is greater than the things man accumulates, the deeds he accomplishes, the theories he builds, the soul whose onward course is never checked by death or dissolution (II, 293-4).
3. THE SILENCE
3.1. At the centre of this stance on redrawing the boundaries of speech is the firm belief of the likes of Tagore and Wittgenstein that when the din of all questioning dies down and the big waves of doubt snuggle down, nature upholds Silence, something that demarcates the boundaries of each word and the precedent expression, or stands like a brick wall between any two sentences. One could go one more step to say that one of the biggest discoveries of man is the discovery of punctuation and mark of these boundaries. This has echo in many texts of Tagore, but more truly in many verses included in his Stray Birds (1916).
3.2. This fact has been noticed by an Egyptian poet-critic – Muhammad Hesham (2008) in his blog post – ‘Language of eternal silence: A reading of poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).’ For instance, he quotes Tagore writing in the 12th poem:
“What language is thine, O sea?”
“The language of eternal question.”
“What language is thy answer, O sky?”
“The language of eternal silence.”
Or, one could see in Tagore’s comments such as this:
The dust of the dead words clings to thee
Wash thy soul with silence. (Ibid., CXLVII)
3.3. In support of the above position, one could argue that ‘breaking free of’ or ‘getting outside’ language is the only way to found our notions of Truth and Objectivity (Scott, Michael 2003), which would be a realist position, whereas others like McCutcheon (2001) would argue that there is a sense in which Wittgenstein would show this view to be wrong because any appeal to reality or reason must be done ‘in and through’ language, and that therefore, mediation of language seems inescapable. This would therefore lead to the debate on what thinkers like Tagore had said or done to free the ‘subjects’ from the tyranny of the Objective. This perhaps need some reference to the positioning of Schiller, Hegel, Kierkegaard and others in the West, and the positions taken by Tagore, Brajendranath Seal and Sri Aurobindo in the East.
4. THE OBJECTIVE AND THE SUBJECT
4.1. Schiller draws from many other poets and thinkers such as Goethe, Lessing, Ferguson, Herder, and Kant while working on his in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man where he argued that with industrialization, emergence of the divided classes and the State “machinery” wielding enormous power over subjects, all individuals are turned into mere fragments further “chained to a single fragment of the whole” (Taylor 1980: 25). The dissatisfaction towards the prevailing state of affairs where each subject must keep a vigil as to the unfolding events in the life of the society or state is evident in his cryptic comment such as follows:
“The eyes of the philosopher as well as of the man of the world are anxiously turned to the theatre of political events, where it is presumed the great destiny of man is to be played out. It would almost seem to betray a culpable indifference to the welfare of society if we did not share this general interest. For this great commerce in social and moral principles is of necessity a matter of the greatest concern to every human being, on the ground both of its subject and of its results. It must accordingly be of deepest moment to every man to think for himself. It would seem that now at length a question that formerly was only settled by the law of the stronger is to be determined by the calm judgment of the reason...” (Schiller 1794; Letter II; Literary and Philosophical Essays ; The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.).
4.2. Schiller had, therefore, created a paradigm of an integrated culture with a purported harmony between their “subjective purpose and objective forms of life” (Taylor 1980: 26), from where, Hegel (1793) picked up and showed that the religious life of individuals were intrinsically linked to the sociopolitical matrix of culture, which was defined in terms of fragmentation and spiritlessness of his time, and in terms of the disjunction between objective and subjective religion. In the anxiety to set up paradigms of a system of objective religion, the discourses are often set forth into a book, and expounded to others by a coercive authority. As a result, the objective religion becomes divorced from the subjective life of believers, and living faith becomes spiritless; or “superstitious adherence to purely external formalities”, which Hegel calls “fetishism”.
4.3. Marsh (2003) argues that Hegel’s entire project in philosophy had been to try and reintegrate people’s subjective purpose with their outward form of life, because Hegel believed that rather than there being a fundamental disjunction there must be a fundamental connection between subject and object, self and world. For Hegel, the dialectical unity of possibility and actuality is necessity, because that made it possible for Hegel to show that freedom is the “self-relation in difference which is born from of ‘pure self-recognition in absolute otherness” (Taylor 1980: 158).
4.4. Kierkegaard extended this Hegelian position further and said: “When a man is characterized as spiritless, he has become a talking machine, and there is nothing to prevent him from learning a philosophical rigmarole just as easily a confession of faith and a political recitative repeated by rote (The Concept of Dread;1957: 84-85). Do we not hear an echo of Tagore’s story ‘Tota-Kahini’ here where the bird has been tutored to death by those who thought that all knowledge was possible to be captured by merely memorizing it?
4.5. For Kierkegaard, an individual who resigns himself completely to be defined by his context, “…forgets himself, forgets his name (in the divine understanding of it), does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like others, to become an imitation, a number in the crowd (Sickness unto Death 1970: 186). Considering the differences between Hegelian and Kierkegaardian positions and Tagore’s own ideas on the Self and the World, it is evident that all of them were engaged in thinking about the differentiation of subject and object, and on how an individual could transcend the shackles of his language, culture and context to join the forces of Universal Humanism. In various songs and poems, Tagore argues that Freedom and Sublimation could not be sought outside one’s own self, and that they would rather emerge from within. The materialism that dominates the modern times blinds us from this perception. In this context, Tagore had a lot of support from the philosophers of the East such as Sir Brajendranath Seal (the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mysore – an entirely indigenous institution set up as opposed to the British-sponsored university projects in early modern India). Pointing towards the dangers of the State and the Religious Authorities spreading the gospel of doom during and before the First World War (1914-18), Seal said in 1935: “A world gone mad and clanking the chains in hymns of hate, looks and looks not in vain, to the East, nay to India, for a new gospel of freedom, a gospel of the peace of the spirit, in the oneness of the Brahman” (as in Das 1981:164).
4.6. In the opening remarks in his Sadhana, Tagore (1916) began brilliantly by placing similar thoughts in his own inimitable style which shows that his line of thinking was much in conformity with the Hegelian ideas that would even like to “read” Jesus Christ and his ideas as purely philosophical ideas that defined Christ’s breaking away from the prevailing ideas about the relationship between the individual and the sublime. The fact that domestication of knowledge that civilizational efforts produced did not break the mental wall of the citizens comes out well in Tagore’s own interpretation:
“The civilisation of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all the modern civilisations have their cradles of brick and mortar.
These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of "divide and rule" in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our "
It is this ‘Wall’, or the ‘Achalayatan’ (the immovable edifice) that Tagore talked about breaking in so many texts.
4.7. While Tagore was often criticized for taking his institution back into the Upanishadic age, and whereas many easily concluded and even liked to write him off as an unmodern (if not anti-modern) reactionary, we often tend to overlook how he argued to situate nature and culture in a harmonious duality through his efforts at Santiniketan beginning from the Nature School, Patha-bhavana (where one learns, or takes lesson – or Patha – ‘reading’ as it were, from Prakriti - the nature) to his efforts of Sriniketan – through the connections that were made with the rural and the folk around the place by linking up numerous villages around with his institution. He writes:
“...in India it was in the forests that our civilisation had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects.
Such a life, it may be thought, tends to have the effect of dulling human intelligence and dwarfing the incentives to progress by lowering the standards of existence. But in ancient India we find that the circumstances of forest life did not overcome man's mind, and did not enfeeble the current of his energies, but only gave to it a particular direction. Having been in constant contact with the living growth of nature, his mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisitions. His aim was not to acquire but to realise, to enlarge his consciousness by growing with and growing into his surroundings. He felt that truth is all-comprehensive, that there is no such thing as absolute isolation in existence, and the only way of attaining truth is through the interpenetration of our being into all objects. To realise this great harmony between man's spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavour of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.
In later days there came a time when these primeval forests gave way to cultivated fields, and wealthy cities sprang up on all sides. Mighty kingdoms were established, which had communications with all the great powers of the world. But even in the heyday of its material prosperity the heart of India ever looked back with adoration upon the early ideal of strenuous self-realisation, and the dignity of the simple life of the forest hermitage, and drew its best inspiration from the wisdom stored there.”
4.8. I am often asked as to why Tagore was relevant even today. I say to the questioners to go back to what he says about governance, about nation-building, about building relationship with nature, about the place of culture in all that we do in the name of “higher” education (trying to forget the “lower” and the base elements of life), and you would get the answer yourself. If he were only a bard, singing songs of love and peace, or only a novelist, highlighting the debates and the discourse of his time on fashionable topics such as gender (man-woman relationship) and person (man-to-man relationship) and number (one-to-many relationship in modern nationhood and democratic governance), we would have still hailed him as one who would forewarn his fellow beings of the generations to come to ‘realise’ what he was doing. But that he had a project of immense importance for a new world – not just a new and resurgent India (in terms of Indian ideas and thoughts, and not in terms of dominance) would be amply clear if we skimmed through his lectures and essays as well as his numerous letters written to so many fellow travellers.
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