In 'Gitanjali,' I found wisdom, lost it, and found it again

This story appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.
A statue of Rabindranath Tagore in Ballabhpur, West Bengal, India (Wikimedia Commons/Biswarup Ganguly)
A statue of Rabindranath Tagore in Ballabhpur, West Bengal, India (Wikimedia Commons/Biswarup Ganguly)

by Francis Xavier Clooney

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

by Rabindranath Tagore
Chiswick Press, 1912

I had just turned 22, and had just come several months before to Kathmandu, Nepal, to teach at St. Xavier's School, a Jesuit boarding school for Hindu and Buddhist boys. I was figuring how to teach, how to supervise teenagers in games and recreation and in study hall in the evening, and asking myself what I was doing so far from home.

One evening in September 1973, I was sitting at the front desk of a classroom of some 30 boys, and to pass the time I had before me a book I had selected at haste from the Jesuit library shelf. It was Gitanjali (Garland of Songs), just a little book of 103 poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a Bengali Hindu writer, written and rewritten in a time of loss, as he lamented the death of his wife and daughter and son. I did not then know that this was the book, published in 1912 in the West, that had won for Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first non-Westerner to win any Nobel Prize.

I remember that night in study hall, reading the opening verses with some astonishment, recognition, and a sense of being at long last in contact with the great traditions of the East:

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.

At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.

Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.

I turned the page, and found the second to be nearly as beautiful:

When thou commandest me to sing it seems that my heart would break with pride; and I look to thy face, and tears come to my eyes ...

Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call thee friend who art my lord.

And every poem after that made its own mark on me. You can read them all here.

Gitanjali actually became a way of introducing myself. Any number of times when I talk about my initial experience of India and all that followed from it, I quote this song:

Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not. Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own. Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger ...

Through birth and death, in this world or in others, wherever thou leadest me it is thou, the same, the one companion of my endless life who ever linkest my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.

When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose the bliss of the touch of the one in the play of many.

I also appreciated Irish poet William Butler Yeats' amazement in discovering these songs, evocative of "a world I have dreamed of all my life long." For him, Gitanjali was a "work of a supreme culture" wherein "poetry and religion are the same thing." In Tagore's poetry, Yeats — and myself at age 22 — found encounter possible: "A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination."

Yeats, toward whom my Irish-American soul was already well-disposed, confirmed my hope that Tagore was indeed the very Indian, very Hindu, very universal poet who could convince us that the borders between cultures and religions were indeed crossable. I was on my way to what would become a lifelong study of Hinduism, a love of its literature and a sharing of some of its deepest emotions and insights.

And it was that I was in love with these poems, and found in them a validation of my trip around the world, from New York to Kathmandu. All of this convinced me, more than texts like the Bhagavad Gita, which I had already read, that I had not come east in vain. Gitanjali had become famous in Ireland and Britain, but it was there for me in Kathmandu.

In those two years in Kathmandu, I would gradually discover many other bonds to connect me to the students I taught, the culture of the valley, and to Hinduism. I would, later on, read much Hindu literature in the Sanskrit and Tamil languages, and find many holy and beautiful temples in the deep south of India. My link to India would soon enough not depend entirely on Tagore. Yet it was in reading Gitanjali, beginning that night in September 1973, that the possibilities of a Catholic realization of Hindu wisdom moved from possibility to actuality.

Later on, this early glow was eventually to fade. After my years in Katmandu (1973-75) and after ordination as a priest (1978), I did my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago (1979-84), in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. There, among many other things, I learned about Orientalism, the fatal temptation of the West to remake the world in its own image, "the Orient" reused and misused to confirm and reinforce ideas "the Christian West" already had about itself. I learned the complexities of translation, the inevitable betrayal of the original in a new language.

I read much more of Tagore's vast corpus of drama and novels, poetry and songs, criticism and philosophy. He painted; he founded Shanti Niketan, a school with novel ideas about how children learn; he resisted the intellectual hegemony of the Raj. This strong-minded public figure was no fragile mystic hovering between this life and the next. He was a flesh-and-blood person with a booming voice in a specific time and place, not a cipher standing in for the eternal East.

Broadly opposed to British rule in India, he was not willing to be shaped and reshaped in accord with even well-meaning Western views of him. He kept the Nobel Prize, but in protest against British rule, he returned his knighthood to the king.

And I learned that Gitanjali in the Bengali (a language I do not know) is quite different from the 1912 version known to most of us. I learned that in his introduction Yeats had conjured a fictional Tagore, who confirmed what Yeats was looking for in rediscovering his Irish soul in counterbalance to the British, their empire and their church.

I heard the rumors that Yeats may have "fixed" the poems of Gitanjali to suit the tastes of the West, so that it was a really a Tagore-Yeats Gitanjali that won the Nobel Prize in 1913, a work rather distant from Tagore's Bengali original. Scholars and translators like William Radice, Holy Cross Br. James Talarovic and Joe Winter created new translations that showed me how differently the poems collected as Gitanjali could be translated, received, experienced.

I came to understand why his other works (other than an essay here or there, such as those collected in Sadhana) never appealed to me as did Gitanjali, since the Tagore of 1912 perhaps had never really existed.

And so, like many a Westerner who had come to love India and Hinduism through works such as Gitanjali but then learned too much more, I was forced to step back, putting aside sentiment in deference to scholarship. Gitanjali had slipped away, reduced for a time to just one more book on my shelf, remembered but little-read.

While I did not abandon my intuition that Catholic and Hindu sensitivities could be deeply intertwined, I realized that my scholarship, like that of Radice, would in part serve to surprise readers, getting them to see that interreligious learning is hard work, never what we had first expected. India is not the mystical East, the comforting other, but a world as complex and real, stubborn and other, as our own.

But now, some 30 years later, I have learned still more, how also to distance myself also from the disenchantments of a post-Orientalist age. I've found the grace of Paul Ricoeur's "second naiveté," a surprising recovery of what had been lost, and so a chance to reconnect with Tagore, too, as that little English Gitanjali has come alive once more.

When I look back now, and review the singular translations Tagore made of his poems, placed in an order that does not replicate the Bengali, and when I read about the intensity he brought to this particular work of translation, when I consider how Yeats was consciously and unconsciously bringing this Indian soul-mate into his Irish soul — I am no longer a romantic, nor a skeptic. Where in life has bias not been operative, something lost in translation, the other reconceived in our own terms? The miracle is not the fact that simple things happen in a simple way; it is simple things arising in the midst of confusions, errings, manipulated and taken apart, taken apart but then put back together again.

Just as my original encounter with Tagore was too simple, I learned that was also wrong to allow the miracle of that 1912 Gitanjali to slip away entirely, erased by the cuts of sharper scholarship, historical detective work, alternative translations, and suspicions of motives. The prize-winning Gitanjali was, after all, Tagore's work, even if Yeats was a figure in its reception in the West. Tagore worked intensely on the book, as he never would again on a single small book.

Though not telling us everything of Tagore, it stands as a monument composed in a time of personal loss that was also the moment when he rediscovered the West. Flawed, singular, complicated, in need of footnotes, Gitanjali is still, I think, a meeting point of East and West, Hindu and Christian, potent in an age of disenchantment but also beyond it.

This tale of my discovery, loss and rediscovery of Gitanjali is consoling in a personal way. Much of my own scholarship stands in-between, on that uncertain yet wondrous edge between the Hindu and the Christian. Yes, I have written Indological essays and a whole book on Hindu ritual theory; and, yes, I can with some effort write simply as a Catholic theologian. But for the most part my scholarship, my "comparative theology," falls in-between, poised as a Catholic's reading of Hindu texts (largely poetry), going deep inside a Hindu tradition here or there, but then returning, changed, to a now changed Christian tradition.

My work does not prove that India and the United States, or Christianity and Hinduism, are the same or essentially belong together; there probably is no hidden stream of perennial wisdom. But the moments of insight and understanding, where Hinduism comes alive in my work and sets afire my own Catholicism, are worth all the trouble.

Perhaps Yeats was right in his introduction: Even as Tagore lamented his personal losses, and gave us something quite different from his Bengali songs, he really was communicating something "so much a part of himself" that it became universal, so much so that we cannot be "certain that he is not also speaking of the saints" when he writes,

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances ...

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.

[Jesuit Fr. Francis Xavier Clooney is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Since 2010, he has been director of the Center for the Study of World Religions.]

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