IF WE IGNORE the criticism against Rabindranath Tagore that members of his ancestry were avowed supporters of the British and focus on his literary corpus and his meditations thereon, much value will accrue to us. The summary assessment of Tagore’s literature is that he was and remains a deeply sensitive and sentimental poet and writer. Above all, he was also deeply embedded in and derived his inspiration from the fount of classical Sanskrit literature to which he paid rich and heartfelt tributes of gratitude.
One of the best tributes showcasing this gratitude is a now-forgotten essay titled The Springhead of Indian Civilisation, originally written in Bengali and lovingly translated into English by Acharya Jadunath Sarkar. The main subject of the essay is Tagore’s explorations of the various forces that shaped and nurtured and built the Sanatana civilisation. Like his more illustrious junior contemporary, the leonine Swami Vivekananda, Tagore too, extols the Indian Forest as one of the incubators of our civilisation. While Swami Vivekananda’s emphasis was more on the lineage of the forest-dwelling Rishis who sculpted our civilisation, Tagore chose classical Sanskrit literature to arrive at pretty much the same point. And within the vast realm of Sanskrit literature, Tagore chose a specific poet, Kavikulaguru Kalidasa, to make his point and to make it in a compelling fashion.
What better way to start the auspicious Parva of Navaratri than offer some delicacies from the eternal kitchen of Kalidasa as described by Rabindranath Tagore?
And so, here are some selections from The Springhead of Indian Civilisation. Slight editorial changes have been made but the original text has been retained intact.
THE FORESTS OF THE NORTH INDIAN PLAINS gave our country a peculiar advantage. They sent the Indian mind off to explore the inmost realm of mystery of the universe. All mankind must in due time acknowledge the need of the treasure that the Indian mind has brought away from the far islands of that vast ocean of mystery.
The Hindu sages who lived lives of deep meditation amidst the forest trees which revealed, day and night, season after season, the action of the life of Nature, had clearly perceived a delicious mystery all around themselves. Therefore could they say so easily, “All that exists has issued from the Supreme Life, and is vibrating in our souls.” They did not shut themselves up in rigid brick and iron cages of their own making. Where they dwelt, the vast universal life had unfettered communion with their life. This very forest gave them shade, fruit and flower, fuel and grass for their Yajna. This very forest was connected by a lifelong exchange of services with their daily toils, recreation and wants. Thus, they could realise their own life by connecting it with the vaster life all around them. To them their environment was not vacuous, dead, or detached.
The gifts of light, air, food and drink which they received through the medium of Universal Nature, they knew by a natural perception to be not the gifts of the earth, nor of the trees, nor of the vacant space, but as things springing out of a self-conscious, Infinite Delight. Hence they accepted breath, light, food and drink with respect and devotion. Hence the Indian method of acquisition has been the acquisition of the universal world as a close kindred of our souls, as realised by our life, consciousness, heart, and intellect.
In both the great ages of ancient India — the Vedic age and the Buddhist age —the forest has been the nurse of their life.
Then, in course of time, kingdoms, empires and cities sprang up in India. She established commercial intercourse with foreign lands but not for a day did the strong rich and youthful India of that age feel ashamed to confess her debt to the forest. She has honoured abstract meditation (tapasya) above all kinds of action. The kings and emperors of India have felt themselves glorified by recognising, ancient forest-dwelling hermits as their first progenitors. The memory of the ancient hermitages is twined with whatever is grand, marvellous or pure, whatever is noble or adorable in the ancient story of India. Herein lies the uniqueness of India in the history of mankind.
When we look at the treatment of hermitages in the works of the greatest poet of the time, we find that even in a later age, flushed with the pride of wealth, though the hermitage had gone out of our sight, it had never gone out of our mind.
Kalidasa’s pictures of hermitages alone prove him to be distinctively the poet of India. Who else has bodied forth the ideal of hermitages with such fulness of delight?
When the curtain rises on the epic of Raghuvamsa, it presents to us at the very outset, the tranquil sweet and pure scene of a hermitage.
IT IS EVENING. The Rishis are returning to the hermitage after gathering the Darbha, fuel and fruits in the neighbouring woods, and lo! an invisible flame seems to welcome them back. There, the deer are to the hermits’ wives like their own children. They are browsing on the share of the paddy thrown to them and are fearlessly lying down athwart the track to the cottage-doors. The hermits’ daughters are watering the trees, and, as the water rises to the brink of the earthen embankment round the roots, these girls are stepping aside to let the birds come and drink the water without fear. The sun is declining. The courtyard is heaped up with paddy grain. The deer are reclining, chewing the cud. The air, laden with the Yajna-incense, purifies by its touch the bodies of the guests' entering the hermitage.
The true inwardness of this scene is the completeness of the harmony between Nature and man.
In the play of Abhijnana-Sakuntala is a hermitage which puts to shame the royal palace with its heartless lust of pleasure. Of that hermitage, too, the keynote is the pure charm of the kinship between man and all the outer world, animate and inanimate alike.
To be continued
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