In his Gitanjali collection of poems, Rabindranath Tagore reveals himself as a man of two worlds: a writer with a mystical mindset at home in the traditions of the Indian subcontinent, especially the Bengal region, as well as an international traveler aware of contemporary political issues.
From a notable Bengali family, Tagore was raised with the ideas of the Brahmo Samaj movement, a reformist approach to Hinduism. As a writer, he became a leading figure in the turn of the century Bengal Renaissance. During his long life, he traveled around the world to represent the cause of Indian independence and to meet with contemporaries to discuss shared ideals like pacifism, education, and cultural exchange between East and West.
Gitanjali is at turns thoughtful and joyful, representing Tagore's meditations on death as well as an aspect of Hinduism known as bhakti, intense personal devotion to a deity. In Gitanjali 2, Tagore addresses God and indicates he understands the role of the poet: “I know thou takest pleasure in my singing. I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.” He offers his collection of poems because the act of creation pleases God.
Tagore believed spirituality and experience of the divine do not come from ritual and code but from life itself. In Gitanjali 11 he implores his readers to create a living faith: “Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.”
His experiences with travel lead him to express the view in Gitanjali 12 that by going out into the world, explorers then meet themselves and gain better awareness of self and the divine: “The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.”
The collection’s most political statement, reflecting Tagore support for India's independence from British rule, is found in Gitanjali 35. He asserts heaven isn’t a mythical place or something to wait for after delayed gratification; heaven is a psychological state “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.”
In the last sections, Tagore expresses a sense of peace with mortality, relating in Gitanjali 93 and 94 that he is ready for the final stage, acknowledging that “the sky is flushed with the dawn and my path lies beautiful.” In Gitanjali 96, he expresses other aspects of traditional Hinduism, such as reincarnation and the awareness of the illusory nature of the mundane world, stating that his experience in this changing world nonetheless led him to the divine: “In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.”
The English language version of the Gitanjali collection earned Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Although he drew from the traditions of the Indian subcontinent, Tagore’s poems display an open, personal approach that relates to universal human experiences, making Gitanjali of interest to readers from different backgrounds.