Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a prolific Bengali playwright, novelist, poet, painter, and musician who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His compassion ran deep and permeated his writing. Within the short span of five years, his wife, son, and daughter died. Rather than becoming bitter, Tagore turned his sorrow into tenderly poignant mystical poems. In 1891, he went to manage his father’s estate, living close to villagers and developing sympathy for them, which became the keynote for his later writings.
Although Tagore was knighted in 1915, he surrendered this award four years later to protest the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar massacre) in which peaceful protestors along with Baishakhi pilgrims were fired upon by troops of the British Indian Army. His resistance to orthodoxy was so strong that he even rebuked Gandhi for saying that a 1934 earthquake which killed thousands was due to karmic retribution for oppression.
Tagore's legacy endures in paintings and sketches, hundreds of texts, some two thousand songs, and his founding of Visva-Bharati University. His last poem, dictated the month before he died, ends with these words:
"I have given completely whatever I had to give. In return if I receive anything — some love, some forgiveness — then I will take it with me when I step on the boat that crosses to the festival of the wordless end."
"Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky."
— in Stray Birds
"Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
but to be fearless in facing them.
"Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but
for the heart to conquer it."
— in Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore
"Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by thee
into ever widening thought and action.
Into that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake!"
— in Gitanjali: Song Offerings
"Let my thoughts come to you, when I am gone, like the afterglow of sunset at the margin of starry silence."
— in Stray Birds
The depth of Tagore's spirituality is undeniable, but he was not an ascetic. "Deliverance is not for me in renunciation," he wrote in Song Offerings. "I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight." Today, notice the things in which you take delight and look for ways in which those bonds make you more rather than less free.