By Rabindranath Tagore. Translated by author
First published in 1913.
Gitanjali, a book of poems of love and longing for the divine, is the best known work of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Tagore wrote prolifically in Bengali. But only in 1913, with the publication of Gitanjali in Tagore’s own English version, did the entire world come to know of this remarkable voice. That year Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Many of the poems of Gitanjali have as their theme Tagore’s effort to understand the relationship between his talents as a poet and the God whom he wishes to serve and please.
My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration.
Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between
thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.
My poet’s vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I
have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple
and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.
He acknowledges that his poetic gift is a gift from God, and vows to await the divine inspiration patiently.
If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure
it. I will keep still and wait like the night with starry vigil and
its head bent low with patience.
The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish, and thy
voice pour down in golden streams breaking through the sky.
Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds’
nests, and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my
Many poems express Tagore’s pain at separation from the divine:
The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing and in unstringing my instrument.
The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set;
only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.
The blossom has not opened; only the wind is sighing by.
I have not seen his face, nor have I listened to his voice;
only I have heard his gentle footsteps from the road before my house.
The livelong day has passed in spreading his seat on the floor;
but the lamp has not been lit and I cannot ask him into my house.
I live in the hope of meeting with him; but this meeting is not yet.
Yet he lives constantly in anticipation of God’s presence:
Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes,
comes, ever comes.
Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their
notes have always proclaimed, ‘He comes, comes, ever comes.’
In the fragrant days of sunny April through the forest path he
comes, comes, ever comes.
In the rainy gloom of July nights on the thundering chariot of
clouds he comes, comes, ever comes.
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and
it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
Tagore revels in the beauties of nature, but in praising them he explicitly or implicitly is praising God. For example, when speaking ecstatically of light, the light of the sun is also the light of God:
Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-
Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life; the light
strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind
runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.
The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and
jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.
The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it
scatters gems in profusion.
Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without
measure. The heaven’s river has drowned its banks and the
flood of joy is abroad.
For Tagore, the divinity is intensely personal yet without a specific form. His connection to God is intimate, yet deeply reverent. He says, “Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call thee friend who art my lord.”
When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I
have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the
ocean of light, and thus am I blessed – let this be my parting
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here
have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is
beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come – let this
be my parting word.
Another recurrent theme is the struggle to overcome pride, which for Tagore is an impediment to devotion.
I came out alone on my way to my tryst. But who is this that
follows me in the silent dark?
I move aside to avoid his presence but I escape him not.
He makes the dust rise from the earth with his swagger; he adds
his loud voice to every word that I utter.
He is my own little self, my lord, he knows no shame; but I am
ashamed to come to thy door in his company.
Tagore returns again and again to prayers for surrender, expressing his longing to dissolve in the divine.
Let only that little be left of me whereby I may name thee my all.
Let only that little be left of my will whereby I may feel thee on
every side, and come to thee in everything, and offer to thee
my love every moment.
Let only that little be left of me whereby I may never hide thee.
Let only that little of my fetters be left whereby I am bound with
thy will, and thy purpose is carried out in my life –
and that is the fetter of thy love.
The copyright for Tagore’s English Gitanjali is in the public domain. A number of printed versions are available, and it is available on the Internet as well (see, for example, www.sacred-texts.com/hin/tagore/gitnjali.htm).
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