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The Religion of Man was based on the Hibbert Lectures that Rabindranath Tagore delivered at Manchester College, Oxford, in May, 1930. The ideas he presented were the culmination of many years of Tagore’s thought. Many of them can be found, for example, in earlier books such as Personality (1917) and Creative Unity (1922), as well as the later The Religion of an Artist (1933). The Religion of Man represents the final stage of Tagore’s mature thought, the position he reached following his earlier attempt to forge a synthesis between the best elements of Hinduism and the new religion of Brahmanism (founded by Raja Rammohan Roy in 1828).

Realizing the Spirit of God

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The main theme of The Religion of Man is the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God. Tagore pursues this theme through endless variations. Religion develops human consciousness and enables it to realize the eternal spirit, through science, philosophy, literature, and the arts. Tagore was a poet and artist rather than a systematic philosopher, and the ideal he proposes is to be attained not through philosophical reasoning but through direct experience of the union of the individual self and the eternal spirit.

In his chapter “The Vision,” Tagore relates his own experience of this process, which crystallized when he was eighteen years old. He was watching the sun rise when he suddenly felt as if a mist had been lifted from his eyes, and a world of infinite joy, both within and without, was revealed to him. All trace of the commonplace had vanished, and he had a strong sense of the significance of all things, including humanity. All the apparently divergent waves of life were revealed as part of a boundless sea. This revelation of the “superpersonal” human world lasted for four days, after which in his perception the world relapsed into its former disguise as a collection of mere facts. However, he was left with the feeling that some being larger than himself was seeking expression through him, and this became the foundation of his life’s work.

In the first two chapters, Tagore approaches the “religion of man” from the standpoint of science, arguing that the process of evolution finds its full meaning only in humanity. He accepts the truth of the Darwinian theory of natural selection but uses it to promote a theistic rather than atheistic view of life. According to Tagore, there is a shaping spirit of life that introduces more and more complex and interrelated forms of life in the evolutionary process, culminating in the creation of mind. Mind is the revelation of some truth or inner value that is not limited by space and time, and the vehicle of this revelation is humanity, through which the eternal comes to realize itself in history. This is accomplished by people’s continual efforts to develop truth and active love. The latter is achieved when people realize themselves in others, making up a great societal and cosmic wholeness that frees all humans from their consciousness of separateness.

In chapter 3, Tagore explains his theory of “surplus,” which lies at the heart of his religion of humanity. Throughout humanity’s long history, people have always been aware that their lives somehow transcend their apparent smallness or limitations. Their inner compulsion is to break out of the restrictions that nature imposes on them, to develop a life that is not limited to the body. This is why people develop a vision, expressed in the religions of the world, of a being who exceeds them and yet is closely related to them; they know intuitively that they belong to a universal reality that they must manifest to the fullest extent that they are able. This universal reality, according to Tagore, is simply people’s innate sense of their own fully developed consciousness.

Tagore develops this idea in the following chapter, in which he defines yoga as the union between the individual and the supreme divine reality, which is not an abstraction but is within people. Yoga is the realization of the “person” described in Vedic literature as purushah. The infinite is revealed not through creation but through humanity. This is the message delivered by all great religious founders and leaders. The danger for human beings is that they become lost in the objective, material world, forgetting that true freedom lies in the manifestation of inner truth, not the pursuit of externals or the formation of abstract systems of thought.

Tagore then extols the contribution of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra to the religion of humanity. According to Tagore, Zarathustra was the first man to preach a religion based on moral values rather than external rituals. He also was the first prophet to expound a monotheism that was accessible to all people, not just those belonging to a particular group.

Religion of the Heart

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After discussing some personal experiences in the following chapter, including the vision described above and other moments when he felt the beauty of the natural world as a personality that flowed into and harmonized with his own deepest nature, Tagore explores in chapter 7 the difference between institutionalized religion and what he calls the “religion of the heart.” He states that he grew out of the former when he discovered it to be sterile and artificial, and embraced the latter when he heard the simple emotional sincerity of the songs of the Baül sect of Bengal. Lacking all ceremonial aspects of religion, members of this sect simply declared their love for God through God’s expression in humanity. Tagore then praises other poets of India who have celebrated their love for the universal, divine person revealed through individuals.

In this chapter, Tagore clearly distinguishes his own religion from a major aspect of the Vedantic philosophy, which at many other points it seems to resemble. The religion of humanity has no place for the experience of God as a negation, beyond all sense experience, known by the yogi when his or her consciousness becomes transcendental and still, free of any object. Tagore does not dispute the truth or the value of such experience, but for him, it does not come within the domain of religion. Humans are more perfect as humans than when their individual consciousness is dissolved into formlessness.

It is for this reason that Tagore emphasizes the value of personality, a term to which he attaches a special meaning. In its limited sense, “personality” refers to the individual’s sense of the self as separate from the whole, but in the positive sense, the term refers to the aspect of people that, through their activities, feelings, and knowledge, gives them access to infinity. It is in the latter sense that personality is the true agent of religion because true religion is the pursuit of an ideal unity that is none other than people themselves in their most expanded, infinite state.

How people attain this sense of infinity is described in part in chapter 9, which examines the function of the arts. For Tagore, everyone is an artist because people are cocreators of their world. They do not passively record a preexisting, objective truth but rather create their truth by molding, through their feelings and their imagination, harmonious relationships between things. The conscious artist merely does this to a more intense degree. Sounding very much like his fellow poet William Blake, whose mystical-humanist philosophy resembles Tagore’s in many ways, Tagore exalts the function of the creative imagination. It is the imaginative faculty that brings before humanity the sense of its true being and the full extent of it. For this reason, art is “the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.”

Religious Unity

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After an amplification of humanity’s true nature in chapter 10, Tagore proceeds in chapter 11, “The Meeting,” to put in a plea for a universal religion. In the past, humanity’s consciousness of spiritual unity has been obscured by geographical separation, but because of modern communications, the time for this has passed. People’s idea of God should no longer be limited by rites and theologies that are particular, not universal, and there should be an end to “race egotism” and race isolation. The way toward this goal is through the power of creative, spiritual love.

This leads Tagore to outline in the following chapter how the religion of humanity brings opposites together. Both the Indian tradition of contemplation and detachment and the Western ideal of service to humanity are necessary. Together they can create an ethic of love in action, which is the only way that perfect knowledge, conceived as wisdom, can be obtained. This realization of spiritual freedom requires the renunciation of the small, isolated self in order to reveal transcendental truth, beyond the world of appearances. As another way of putting it, it requires a confluence of two aspects of the human mind, the outer, which seeks satisfaction in external objects, and the inner, which seeks unity in truth.

Tagore’s final chapter discusses the progress of the soul in terms of the four stages of life in Indian tradition. These four stages are brahmacharya (education and discipline), garhasthya (worldly work), vanaprasthya (retreat), and pravrajya (the awaiting of freedom with death). In Tagore’s formulation, the four stages become, first, the early life of the individual; second, the forming of ties with the human community; third, the development to universal awareness of the supreme person; fourth, at death, the entry of the soul into infinity.

Four appendices include the text of a conversation between Tagore and Albert Einstein on the nature of reality and an address given by Tagore in the Chapel of Manchester College in May, 1930.

Acceptance by the West

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The publication of The Religion of Man coincided with an increase in Tagore’s prestige in the West, as demonstrated by his visit to the United States in late 1930, where he met leading poets, writers, and statespeople, including President Herbert Hoover. In 1931, the American Tagore Society was formed in New York.

At a time of disillusionment with conventional religion and steady growth in materialism, Tagore’s visionary and optimistic philosophy pointed the way to the recovery of a faith in the limitless potential of humanity. Tagore’s belief that the function of civilization was to keep alive the faith in the possibility of ideal perfection, that human culture should be understood as an unfolding discovery of a new level of humanity, beyond the individual self, fell with freshness on jaded Western ears. In addition, The Religion of Man, along with Tagore’s other works and the works of Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan from the same period, fostered an understanding of the philosophies of the East in a West that had too often in the past looked on other cultures with a disdainful eye.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Banerjee, Hiranmay. Rabindranath Tagore. 2d ed. New Delhi: Government of India, 1976. One of a series about eminent leaders of India, this biographical narrative presents the depth and diversity of Rabindranath Tagore’s character and his contributions to the heritage of India. It includes genealogical tables and a chronological list of his important works.

Cenkner, William. The Hindu Personality in Education: Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo. Columbia, Mo.: South Asia Books, 1976. Focuses on Tagore’s role as the leading Asian educator of the first half of the twentieth century. Surveys his life, thought, and educational theories.

Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. Rabindranath Tagore and Modern Sensibility. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996. This book offers criticism and interpretation of Tagore’s work.

Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. This work focuses on the many facets of Tagore.

Ghose, Sisirkumar. Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: Sahitya Adademi, 1986. This short, interesting survey focuses on Tagore’s life and his poetry, drama, short stories, and novels. It also includes chapters on Tagore’s thoughts about religion, beauty, art, and education.

Kripalani, Krishna. Rabindranath Tagore. 2d ed. Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1980. Written by a scholar well acquainted with the Tagore family, this interesting, 450-page work is considered the best English biography of Tagore. Includes twenty-three photographic illustrations as well as a detailed bibliography of Tagore’s fiction, nonfiction, and musical compositions.

Lago, Mary M. Rabindranath Tagore. Boston: Twayne, 1976. This literary study concentrates on representative works by Tagore as a lyric poet and writer of short fiction. It suggests a perspective from which to view the national and international response to Tagore’s distinguished career and includes a chronology and selected bibliography.

Mitra, Indrani. “I Will Make Bimala One with My Country: Gender and Nationalism in Tagore’s The Home and the World.” Modern Fiction Studies 41 (1995): 243-64. Outlines the historical context of Tagore’s novel and analyzes its treatment of political action and women’s oppression.

Mukherjee, Kedar Nath. Political Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: S. Chand, 1982. In this volume, Mukherjee presents an analysis of Tagore’s political philosophy—in order to fill what he perceives as a gap in the literature on Tagore—and emphasizes the value of Tagore’s philosophy in contemporary political situations, both in India and the world.

Singh, Ajai. Rabindranath Tagore: His Imagery and Ideas. Ghaziabad, India: Vimal Prakashan, 1984. This comprehensive consideration of Tagore’s imagery relates Tagore’s images to his thoughts on life, love, beauty, joy, and infinity. It also includes a selected bibliography.

Thompson, Edward. Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work. 2d ed. New York: Haskell House, 1974. A reprint of an earlier edition, this brief survey of Tagore’s writing prior to 1921 includes commentary based on Thompson’s own translations of Tagore’s work.

Thompson, Edward. Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist. London: Oxford University Press, 1926. This was among the first detailed literary studies of Tagore’s work as poet and dramatist and is still considered one of the best.