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Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo

Tagore painting. Image courtesy -

The aim of this paper is to explore the degree of difference in Rabindranath and Aurobindo’s pronouncements on aesthetics. Both poets devoted substantial thought to the problem of aesthetics and the relationship between truth, personality and form in art

Both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo hailed from Bengal, but were brought up in two different backgrounds, the former in gurukula tradition, the latter in western tradition but had soon realized the immensity of Indian tradition and never deviated from it till his death. Both were mystic poets, both had visions of India and life, both had dwelt extensively on moral and spiritual values. Both had defined the concept of man in the backdrop of Indian tradition, both were deeply involved in and championed the cause of freedom for the nation, both were original thinkers, philosophers, brilliant speakers and writers. In contrast, Tagore though a mystic had never swerved from the realities of life in the world. He struck harmony between the two worlds, the empirical and the transcendental. On the other Sri Aurobindo had left his revolutionary life and devoted completely to yogic life. 

Both were not interested in building up a theory of art, either eclectically or originally. Both had abhorred academicism and had little interest in theorizing. Both however had spoken extensively in poetry what they felt and experienced. Indian, Neo-Platonic, Hegelian, Kantian and nineteenth century romantic theories of art influenced their thought, but their influences could hardly be traced in their writings. Both remained original to the core in their thinking. The sources of Tagore’s pronouncements on poetics are seen in his essays: “What is Art?”, “The Realization of Beauty”, “The Poet’s Religion”, whereas “The Future Poetry” and letters embodied Sri Aurobindo’s views of art and poetry.

Let us first dwell upon Tagore’s aesthetic. To explain what art is, he distinguishes between two kinds of persons: the physical and the personal. The physical man is always in touch with the world through his hunger and thirst. The personal man, according to him “is found in the region where we are free from all necessity, - above the needs, both of body and mind, - above the expedient and useful. It is the highest in man, - this personal man.”1 This man too is important to achieve harmony, peace and happiness. For Tagore the world of science is an abstract world of force. He says, “We can use it by the help of our intellect but cannot realize it by the help of our personality.”2 “But there is another world which is real to us,” Tagore continues. “We see it, feel it; we deal with it with all our emotions. Its mystery is endless because we cannot analyze it or measure it. We can but say, “Here you are.”3 It is in this world Art takes its place. “For Art, like life itself, has grown by its own impulse, and man has taken his pleasure in it without definitely knowing what it is.”4

Before defining Art, Tagore questions the reason of its existence and tries to find out whether it owes its origin to some social purpose, or to aesthetic enjoyment or whether it has come out of some impulse of expression, which is the impulse of being itself. The distinction between man and animal is that the latter is bound within the limits of its necessities. But for man, Tagore says, “he earns a great deal more than he is absolutely compelled to spend.”5 He has enormous surplus of wealth of energy and emotions. Upon this fund of surplus, his science, philosophy and art thrive. Tagore observes, “Man has a fund of emotional energy which is not all occupied with his self-preservation. This surplus seeks its outlet in the creation of Art, for man’s civilization is built upon his surplus.”6 The excess of emotions and feelings try to seek an outlet. The retention of this excess is also baneful to man. Therefore, man tries to seek its release. “In Art,” Tagore says in line with Romantics, “man reveals himself and not his objects.”7 An ‘escape’ in T.S.Eliot’s sense is not negative, but positively directed once again upon the object. The ‘object’ contains the emotions released by the poet. Therefore it is not to be viewed as “a total escape” which is impossible. Instead of giving it directly as Romantics did, T.S.Eliot wants the poet to direct his emotion upon the object; thus the phrase “objective correlative” was born in his aesthetics.

Further probing into his aesthetics, in the essay “What is Art?” we discover that Tagore subtly distinguishes the two worlds: the world that still remains only as the partial world of his senses and mind. It grows with our perception; it changes with our changes. It becomes great or small according to the magnitude and littleness of this assimilation, according to the quality of its sum total. Our emotions can transform this world of appearance into the more intimate world of sentiments. There is another world which excites our emotional activities. This is identified as rasa in our Sanskritic tradition. A poem is defined in this backdrop. Tagore writes, “a poem is a sentence or sentences containing juices, which stimulate the juices of emotion. It brings to us ideas, life-stuff of our nature.”8 Facts are not poetry. But, for Tagore, it is the description of the beauty that has its eternal interest for us. Its relation to us is fundamental in literature.

Feeling is essential in art. It is only by feeling our essence of personality can be expressed. The artist cannot merely express by merely informing and explaining but by feelingand conveying this feeling in proper words. Art is born only in this way. As Tagore has succinctly put it, “When our heart is fully awakened in love; or in other great emotions, our personality is in its flood tide. Then it feels the longing to express itself for the very sake of expression. Then comes Art…”9 Therefore it might be said that art has its origin in sentiment. This is a clear proof of Tagore’s Romantic perception. Reflecting on object of art, Tagore argues mere matter cannot have the property of beauty; manner also is the principal factor in art. Tagore observes, “But the truth is, analytical treatment will not help us in discovering what the vital point in art is. For the principle of art is the principle of unity.”10 The value of unity cannot be analyzed. The principle of unity in artist is the principle of “organic wholeness”. Aristotle, considered the first literary theorist in western tradition, has emphasized this in tragedy; he has likened it to a living organism. The parts of it must be interconnected to the whole and be endowed with the unity of a living organism. Among the Romantics, S.T.Coleridge has formulated the “theory of organic wholeness” which stresses equal importance to parts and wholeness in a poem. In modern criticism, T.S.Eliot and Cleanth Brooks have championed its cause in their aesthetics.

For Tagore all abstract ideas are out of place in true art. They must come in the guise of personification. It is for this reason “poetry tries to select words that have vital qualities – words that are not mere information, but have become naturalized in our hearts and have not been worn out of their shapes by too constant use in the market.”11 Tagore has also dealt with the function of art at metaphysical level. For him Art has a supreme function. We are all the children of Infinity. Whenever we realize this we feel immortal. We try to extend its realm to every sphere of life. Thereby we try to build a world of truth and beauty. When we do this, we emerge as artists. Tagore says, “This building of man’s true world – the living world of truth and beauty, - is the function of Art.”12 For Tagore beauty is everywhere. Ugliness lies in our wrong perception and comprehension; it is “in the distorted expression of beauty in our life and in our art which comes from our imperfect realization of Truth.”13 Truth and beauty are the harmonious principles of creation and life. The Artist must ever work towards realization of this harmonious principle in his artistic creation. In a truly catholic way, he says “the more we comprehend the harmony in the physical world the more our life shares the gladness of creation, and our expression of beauty in art becomes more truly catholic.”14 Tagore asserts that there are no class distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly on the aesthetic plane. He says, “When we experience anything aesthetically we do not see only that object. A sweet song confers dignity on land, sea and sky, on the whole of existence. Great poets have taken upon themselves the task of proclaiming the glory of all that exists.”15 He says:

Does our aesthetic sense illumine and bring close to us only those parts of the world which we are in the habit of characterizing specifically as “beautiful” denouncing an dismissing all the rest? If so, then it must be regarded as a mighty barrier across the path of our self-development… Just as our knowing faculty is attempting to bring the whole of reality within its intelligent grasp, so our aesthetic sensibility attempts to bring the whole of reality within its joyful embrace; that is its only significance. The principle according to which we judge a flower as beautiful also enables us to judge the universe as a thing of beauty. That principle is unity in diversity. The more completely we view the great panorama of the universe, the more we realize that good and evil, pleasure and pain, life and death, in their ceaseless ebb and flow, constitute the symphony of the universe. When we contemplate the symphony as a whole no note sounds false, nothing is ugly.16

Reflecting on the functions of art, Tagore has not dismissed the world in the true Advaitic sense. He accepts all the three stages of realities: physical (pratibashika), psychical (vyavaharika) and transcendental (paramartika) He argues detachment and disinterestedness of aesthetic experience does not mean detachment from world of man and nature around us; it is only a detachment from the exigencies of action. The function of art therefore, according to him, is to make us realize the world as more fully and richly real than we do in normal experience. Art is no less a deepening of world-consciousness than it is a classification of self-consciousness. Art brings nature close to man, and enables him to establish an intimacy with all.

The function of art for Tagore is to remove the shadows which obscure the reality of the objective world as well as of the personality of man, and thereby to bring them together in intimate union. In his Bengali essays he uses the Bengali word for literature “Sahitya” which comes from “sachit”, and etymologically means “togetherness” or “intimacy”. Emotions occupy a very important place in Tagore’s philosophy of art for they are the principal instruments of man’s unification and harmonization with the world. However, he cautions, in art we should not be concerned with the emotions on the biological plane or, as the Vedanta puts it, on the plane of avidya-kama-karma. For him, an artist is one who can liberate himself, his reader, spectator or listener, from this bondage, at least momentarily.

Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is set within a more spiritual tradition. Though he was receptive to the impact of Homer, Dante, Goethe, French poetry, Shakespeare and the Romantics, his aesthetics was born out of his original yogic experiences firmly grounded in the Upanishads and the Indian aesthetic tradition. The oft quoted dictum “All life is Yoga” applies to art and literature also. All art sadhana, being a part of life, is yoga. For him all forms of art are various forms of beauty in act of creation by the Soul’s Delight. According to Sri Aurobindo, “Aesthetics is concerned mainly with beauty, but more generally with rasa, the response of the mind, the vital feeling and the sense to a certain “taste” in things…”20 Poetry tries to seek this rasa. “Aesthetics therefore is of the very essence of poetry, as it is of all art.”21 For him beauty is not denotative, but connotative it has a wider field and application. “It is the Universal Ananda that is the parent of aesthetics and the Universal Ananda takes three major and original forms - beauty, love and delight.”22 This creation of beauty in poetry and art does not fall within the sphere of the reason. It is not ordinary, but it is supranational. This beauty can be seen by the inner eye, heard by the inner ear. The search and realization of this beauty, for Sri Aurobindo, involves three-stages, in the form which appeals to the physical senses, in the ideas and finally in all things, the uplifting delight of absolute beauty. The third stage is Suprasensuous, Suprarational, Supraintellectual. Great art according to him seeks “the soul of beauty which is hidden from the ordinary eye and the ordinary mind and revealed in its fullness only to the unsealed vision of the poet and artist in man.”23

Though Aurobindo defines poetry as something elusive and unfathomable, he calls it “Mantra of the Real”.24 Tagore’s conception of art (“the response of man’screative soul to the call of the Real”) however is analogous to Sri Aurobindo’s definition. What Aurobino means by it is that poetry must transcend the earth to encompass higher spiritual regions inhabited by Divine Truth, Divine Beauty and Divine Delight. The source of Mantra is not the ordinary mind or higher mind or illumined mind, but “Overmind”. Imagination, howsoever brilliant and powerful maybe, cannot be the source. The source of Inspiration is this Overmind, above ordinary mental states. Explaining the “poetic inspiration”, he asserts: “What we mean by inspiration is that the impetus of poetic creation and the utterance comes to us from our superconscient source above the ordinary mentality so that what is written seems not to be fabrication of the brain mind, but something more sovereign breathed or poured from above”.25 This implies that in Sri Aurobindo’s view the poetic inspiration is Divine. The poet receives accordingly irresistible inspiration to write poetry from above. Like Shelley he thinks that poetry is Divine, mysterious act of creation beyond the comprehension of a conscious man. Thus great poetry is created. In this sense the poet is essentially a spiritual being. Naturally, this kind of poetry can be enjoyed only through soul. That is, it demands that the reader should also be spiritually awakened. Then alone he/she can really enjoy it.

This takes us to a question whether writing poetry is a divine activity, and not human. In fact, in Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics both divine and human powers collaborate in the creativity. Though the inspiration derives from the above, the place of creation is human mind. Hence he defines poetry as “the rhythmic voice of life.”26 But he cautions, “it is one of the inner and not one of the surfaces voice”27 This inner is beautiful, spiritual. Poetry should not be merely concerned with the physical, sensuous and imaginative outside. It must pulsate with the inner, and then it becomes the “rhythmic voice of life.” The poet is gifted to comprehend this, and he must unite both the finite and the Infinite. Poetry of this sort will give us “the spiritual and vital joy, the exalting power of a great breath of life.”28

Such poetry, according to Sri Aurobindo, has five perennial powers – Truth, Beauty, Delight, Life and the Spirit. To quote him, “these are indeed the five greater ideal lamps or rather the five suns of poetry.”29 Among these powers, Truth, Beauty and Delight are most important. So far as Truth is concerned, the poet must deal with dual worlds: the spiritual and the internal, the finite and the infinite. In the Overmind, “truth and beauty come together and coincide.”30 In the integral vision of Sri Aurobindo beauty is not divorced from Truth, for he says, “Truth is not merely dry statement of facts or ideas to or by the intellect; it can be a splendid discovery, a rapturous revelation, and a thing of beauty that is a joy forever. The poet also can be a seeker and lover of truth as well as in the expression of the beautiful.”31 His poetic truth is not the truth that is scientific or cultivated intellectually. Poetry gives us something of the infinite truth, eternal and eternally creative. Of this, Sri Aurobindo writes: “Truth of poetry is not truth of philosophy or truth of science or truth of religion only, because it is another way of self-expression of infinite Truth so distinct that it appears to give quite another face of things and reveal quite another side of experience.”32

Art cannot be divorced from life. Tagore also upholds this view. It is also inclusive and integral. Sri Aurobindo is not opposed to the need of Life-experience for literary creation. But he insists “there is no obligation to copy faithfully from life.”33 For art is not simply reproduction or imitation of life, it enriches life by attributing to it something which it lacks in reality. He says, “Art cannot give what Nature gives, it gives something more.”34 Here Sri Aurobindo repudiates the theory Art for Art’s sake, and he is opposed to the stark realism presenting life with all its ugliness and sordidness. Crude facts of life cannot be material of art. Art is integral and therefore, it is “no real portion of the function of art to cut out palpitating pieces from life and present them raw and smoking or well-cooked for the aesthetic digestion.”35 The greatness of artist lies in bringing out the deeper reality of things, so that when we see them life may present us something deeper than its actual mask. “The poet’s greatest work”, says Sri Aurobindo, “is to open to us new realms of vision, new realms of being, our own and the world’s and he does it even when he is dealing with actual things.”36 Thus according to Sri Aurobindo the poets should have the truth and reality of the eternal self and spirit in man and things and insistence on life.

Beauty and Delight are the very soul and origin of art and poetry. Sri Aurobindo writes: “Delight is the soul of existence, beauty the intense impression, the concentrated form of delight.”37 For Sri Aurobindo, Art is not only the discovery or the expression of Beauty, it “is a self expression of consciousness under the conditions of aesthetic vision and perfect execution, or, to put it otherwise, there are not only aesthetic values, but life-values, mind values, soul-values that enter into Art”38 He believes in art for the soul’s sake, and not for art’s sake. In his essay “The National Value of Art” he speaks of three uses of art. The first and lowest is purely aesthetic, the second intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. The aesthetic use simply purifies the feelings. Similarly in Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics there is no conflict between the true, the good and the beautiful. Sri Aurobindo observes, “The good must not be subordinated to the aesthetic sense, but it must be beautiful and delightful, or to that extent it ceases to be good. The object of existence is not the practice of virtue for its own sake but ananda, and delight, and progress consists not in rejecting beauty and delight, but in rising from the lower to the higher, the less complete to the more complete beauty and to delight.”39

Dwelling upon the role of Imagination in the creation of art, Sri Aurobindo says it “ultimately becomes inspiration when it ascends higher. The purer it becomes the nearer it gets to Truth. For instance, in the case of poets, generally it is the inspired imagination that works.”40 He dismisses imagination functioning merely at the lower level. He distinguishes four kinds of imagination41 – the objective which visualizes strongly the outward aspects of life and things; the subjective which visualizes strongly the mental and emotional impressions; poetic fancy which deals in the play of mental fictions; and the aesthetic which delights in the beauty of words and images for their own sake an sees no farther. “All these,” he remarks, “have their place in poetry, but they only give the poet his materials, they are only the first instruments in the creation of poetic style. The essential poetic imagination does not stop short with even the most subtle reproductions of things external or internal with the richest or delicatest play of fancy or with the most beautiful colouring of word or image. It is creative, not of either the actual or the felicitous, but of the more and the most real; it sees the spiritual truth of things.”42

Speaking on the use of imagery in poetry, Sri Aurobindo emphasizes again and again, “What the poet sees and feels, not what he opines, is the real substance of poetry.”43 The poetic mind captures for us the whole world through the inspired word in significant images and makes us see by the Soul in its light and with its deeper vision what we ordinarily see in a limited and halting fashion by the senses and the intelligence. He remarks, “Poetry, like the kindred arts of painting, sculpture, architecture appeals to the spirit of man through significant images, and it makes no essential difference that in this case the image is mental and verbal and not material.”44 For him images are not merely the vehicles of beauty, they are rather the “transcriptions of truths” allegorical or symbolical and can be accurate or free and imaginative. It is from the supraphysical the suggestion of image originally comes, but “ordinarily it is the mind’s faculty of imagination which gives it form and body.”45

To conclude both Tagore’s and Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of poetry focuses on the supreme beauty and truth of the Infinite in all its shapes and forms. Sri Aurobindo’s poetry emanates from the sublimity of his mystical experiences. His theory of poetry is characterized by profound yogic experiences. It certainly opens up new horizons though it is difficult to agree with him that all future poetry will be essentially spiritual and the product of superconscient mind. Tagore is more rooted within a Romantic tradition. He believes that man is by his very nature creative; as there are infinite possibilities in man, man’s art or literature also has infinite potential. According to him man and nature are closely united. Like the Romantics he believes in the importance of feelings, creative imagination (it includes sympathy as well as empathy) and in the value of the writer’s own individual self.46 Tagore admits that the writer expresses not only his own individuality, but the writer’s human quality, his essential human nature. Though there are differences in their pronouncements on poetics, though one may discover near similarities in their views, one may notice the synthesis of west and east in their personalities which reflected in their writings.


1. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol.Two. “What is Art”, New Delhi: National Sahitya Akademi, 2004, P.349.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid. P.351.
6. Ibid. P. 352.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid. P. 353.
9. Ibid. P. 354.
10. Ibid. P. 355.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid. P. 359.
13. “The Realization of Beauty”, P. 335.
14. Ibid. P. 335.
15. Sahitya, Viswabharati, 1958, P. 79.
16. “The Poet’s Religion”, P. 499.

17. Ibid. P. 336.
18. Ibid. Pp.75-77.
19. “The Religion of Man”, P.139.
20. Letters, 3, Pp.98-99.
21. Ibid. P. 123.
22. Ibid.
23. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol. 15. P. 135.
24. The Future Poetry and Letters on Poetry, Literature and Art. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972, P. 9
25. Ibid. Pp.236-37.
26. Ibid. P. 234.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid. P. 286.
30. Letters, 3, P.99.
31. Ibid. Pp. 127-28.
32. The Future Poetry, P. 297.
33. Letters, 3, P.56.
34. Ibid. P. 497.
35. The Future Poetry, P. 323.
36. Ibid. P.324.
37. Ibid. P. 331.
38. Letters, P.333.
39. SABCL, Pp. 241-42.
40. Evening Talks. First Series, A.B.Purani. P. 198.
41. The Future Poetry. Pp. 33-4.
42. Ibid. P. 34.
43. Ibid. P. 171.
44. Ibid. Pp 32-33.
45. Letters, 3, P. 83.
46. Rabindranather Sahityachinta S.Roy (ed.), Calcutta, 1939. P. 69.


Focus – "Reading Across Time": Tagore Today

  Amrit Sen : Editorial

Lead Article
  Udaya Narayana Singh : Redrawing the Boundaries

Critical Essays

  Nation, History, Cultural Exchange
    Avijit Banerjee : Tagore’s Visit to China
    Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History
    Biswanath Banerjee : Tagore and Acharya PC Ray
    Sagarika Chakraborty : Tagore the Diplomat
    Soumitra Roy : Tagore’s Ghare Baire

  Responses to Caste and Gender
    Dhriti Ray Dalai/ Panchanan Dalai : Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’
    Dipankar Roy : Women in Tagore’s ‘Domestic Novels’
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : “Streer Patra” - A Feminist Text?
    Swati Ganguly : Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti

  Translation and Reception
    Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations
    Jayati Gupta : Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?
    Sushobhan Adhikary : Cartoons on Tagore
    Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

  Rural Reconstruction and Ecopoetic
    Bipasha Raha : Experiments with Village Welfare
    Debotosh Sinha : Tagore and Rural Reconstruction
    Falguni Piyush Desai : Floriography in Tagore’s Poetry
    Marie Josephine Aruna : ‘Letters’ and Ecopoetics

  Aesthetics, Paintings and Dance Dramas
    Aju Mukhopadhyay : The Poet of Sublime Love
    Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo
    Sudeshna Majumdar : Paintings of Tagore
    Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

  Tagore and the Short Story
    Dominic K V : Tagore’s Short Stories
    Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee : ‘The Hunger of Stones’

  Tagore and Visva-Bharati
    Anindita Chongdar : Anecdotes of Santiniketan
    Debmalya Das : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly
    Subodh Gopal Nandi : The Visva-Bharati Library

Creative Responses

    Sanjukta Dasgupta : Remembering Rabindranath

    Frank Joussen : Tagore and Walt Whitman
    Nuggehalli Pankaja : The Voice of Tagore
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : To Rabindranath
    Shambhobi Ghosh : Yet

  Ahmed A H S : Birthday and other poems
  Anup Maharatna : From ‘The Last Writings’
  Ashoka Sen : Africa
  Barnali Saha : The Vacation (Fiction)
  Naina Dey : Chance Meeting
  Parantap Chakraborty : The Son of Man
  Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey
  Swapna Dutta : The Editor

  Amrit Sen:Behind the Veil & Tagore and Modernity
  Kumaran S : Pathos in the Short Stories of Tagore

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