Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Gitanjali Song Offerings was composed by Rabindranath Tagore between 1906 and 1910, a time at which he grieved the deaths of his father, wife, daughter, and younger son.
The collection’s dark mood is balanced by the poet’s outbursts of joy and exultation as he brings offerings of worship to his God. Gitanjali Song Offerings reflects Tagore’s continuity with the bhakti tradition in Indian poetry, which emphasizes a personal and mystical approach to God and the primacy of religious feeling and devotion over against philosophical argumentation or religious ceremonies. Such is Tagore’s God—approachable, omnipresent, immanent:
He it is, the innermost one, who awakens my being with his deep hidden touches. He it is who puts his enchantment upon these eyes and joyfully plays on the chords of my heart in varied cadence of pleasure and pain. He it is who weaves the web of this maya in evanescent hues of gold and silver, blue and green, and lets peep out through the folds his feet, at whose touch I forget myself.
It is interesting to note that Tagore’s vision of the divine is pantheistic and anthropomorphic. God “weaves the web of this maya in evanescent hues.” Maya, according to Hindu thought, is both the visible fabric of reality, veiling the Absolute, and something illusory, even deceptive. The poet here connects the Absolute to the relative. He can catch a glimpse of God, who has “feet” and is clothed in the mantle of maya, the continuum of things perceived by the poet’s senses. This God, however, is not to be found in temples with their pompous rites. Rather,
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!
This God is close to Tagore the singer, who is the other central character of Gitanjali Song Offerings.
The singer sums up his existential creed in these terse and candid words:
I am here to sing thee songs. In this hall of thine I have a corner seat. In thy world I have no work to do; my useless life can only break out in tunes without a purpose.
This is not false humility. Rather, it reflects the singer’s deep conviction that he is only a guest at “this world’s festival.” He is totally dependent on his God for life and sustenance. And though he himself is frail, God has made him endless. God empties and fills him anew with life, joy, and worship. At his immortal touch, the singer’s “little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.” Yet the worship is not without struggle. The singer seeks his God, and sometimes, in this world of toil and trouble, it is difficult for him to give utterance to his spiritual longings. His heart “vainly struggles for a voice. I would speak, but speech breaks not into song, and I cry out baffled.”
Number 60 is devoted entirely to children, a composite character. Tagore portrays them using imagery consonant with that of Western literary and religious tradition—not unlike the way the image of children is used in biblical narratives for the ideal of being simple-hearted and innocent. The children play on the seashore of endless worlds: “They build their houses with sand and they play with empty shells.” Their activity is absolutely impractical, but they are keen on their play. They have no idea of...
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the value of material things:
Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.
What they do know is the pure joy of being—and being one with the Universe. Such is Tagore’s ideal of a blessed life. The sea is both dangerous and playful. And the children, who are not afraid of death and who seek no gain in their amusements, personify here the soul’s attitude of being totally open to the world, which is both extremely beautiful and perilously unsafe. This is an attitude of being utterly vulnerable and at the same time completely trustful.