Tabla and Tagore

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 16 October 2014

Part I

Rabindranath Tagore was born in Bengal in 1861 to a wealthy, progressively literary Brahmin family.  In 1913, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature.  He was prolific in his creative expression.  He wrote more than 50 volumes of poetry, his first collection published at the age of 17.  He wrote prose, novels, plays, several autobiographies, and composed more than 2,000 songs, including the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.
At the age of 60, he decided to take up painting and produced more than 2,500 paintings.  During the last five years of his life, he lived with chronic pain and illness, yet critics say that his best poetry was written during this period.  He died in 1941 at the age of 80.
As a young man, Tagore was sent to England to study, but he was never a happy student.  He believed that education shouldn’t be explanation, but inspiration.  In 1901 he started an experimental school in West Bengal that taught Indian and Western philosophy.  Twenty years later, the school became a university. 

In 1906, Tagore sent his son and a friend to study agriculture in Urbana, Illinois, in the U.S.   The two young men developed a relationship with the local Unitarian Church.  So, in 1912, Tagore went to visit and gave his very first North American public address at the Unitarian Church of Urbana.  This began a legacy of cultural exchange between India and several Unitarian communities in the Midwest.  

Tagore was a nationalist who advocated for India’s independence from Britain.  He was knighted in 1915, but resigned the honour in 1919 when the British army massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in Amristar, India.  He belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, a liberal Hindu movement that rejected distinctions between caste, creed or religion.  Tagore himself advocated for and won the right for untouchables, the Dalit, to enter a major temple in Kerala, India.
Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi were friends, though they often did not see eye-to-eye.  Gandhi wanted to reject all things Western and advocated for the return to the spinning wheel as a way to liberate Indians from the tyranny of the Manchester mills.  Tagore disagreed.  He wanted to see Indians move forward, liberating themselves from the British while maintaining the best that imperialism left behind:  education, science and industrial techniques.  He believed it was possible to bring together the best of the East and West.

During one of Gandhi’s prison fasts, it was Tagore who convinced him to eat again.

Tagore was a humanist and an idealist, but he was also a realist.  He lost his mother when he was 15 and, later in life, lost his wife, four children and only grandson. He lived through the First World War, the outbreak of World War Two and years of violence in India.  There is grief and sadness in many of his poems.  He saw his life guided by a divine source of love, but he also saw the inhumanity that humans are capable of.

Tagore wrote in his native language of Bengali and did some of his own English translations.  But they say that his poetry loses a lot in English.  Personally, I like the French version of this particular poem, which comes from a collection of song-poems or poèmes chantés.

Phiré, Phiré : À tous moments j’entends ta voix

À tous moments j’entends ta voix
Ton cri d’appel, dak, dak, dak,
À tous moments.
Aucun écho ne te répond, dak, dak, dak.

À tous moments j’entends ta voix
Ton cri d’appel, dak, dak, dak,
À tous moments.

Ton cri résonne dans les forêts
Semant le trouble dans tous les cœurs.
Ton cri apporte joie et tristesse
À tous les êtres, dak, dak, dak.

À tous moments j’entends ta voix
Ton cri d’appel, dak, dak, dak,
À tous moments.

À l’aube, au soir, dans la nuit calme,
Ici et là dans le silence
J’entends ta voix qui fait vibrer mon cœur.

De tes yeux aussi un appel s’élance,
Je reste à l’écoute, interrogeant le chemin,
Ta voix s’enroule autour de moi
Comme un chaîne de fleurs, dak, dak, dak.

À tous moments j’entends ta voix
Ton cri d’appel, dak, dak, dak,
À tous moments.

Part II

Awe comes to us in the vast and in the microscopic.  Tagore was inspired by the scripture of Hindu tradition, the Upanishads and the Vedas, yet he rejected simplistic religious labels.  He wrote of a life-god or a life force, something that he called jibandebata – a word that defies definition, a word he invented to name what he felt couldn’t really be expressed in words.  He once asked “[How] can you [possibly] squeeze me behind any one religious boundary?”  

In an autobiographical essay, Tagore writes:

“Within me is the happiness of an expression of my inner god -- that joy and that love have flooded my limbs and senses, my mind and intellect, my future without end. Certainly I understand nothing of this play of love, and yet it is always taking place within me. The light that pleases, the greenery of grass and foliage that pleases, the cloud-glow of a loved one's face that pleases -- all this is a succession of waves brimming with love's divine play. And within it frolic the shadows of the whole of life, joy, sorrow, light and dark. 

“…when the unbroken strand of unity of the creative power within oneself can once be felt, I can realize my own link with the endlessly created universe; I can see how the planets and stars, the moon and sun are being created in their constant burning and circling. Just so in me, from time without beginning, a process of creation has been going on.  Within it my joy and sorrow, desire and pain accept their respective places.  

“What will come of this I don’t know, since we don’t even know what a speck of dust is.  But when I look at my own flowing life in its connection with the infinite world and time outside itself, then I can see all life's sorrows tied to a huge strand of happiness -- I exist, I become, I continue, I can understand this is a large affair, I am and with me everything else also is, not even a molecule or an atom of this endless universe can exist without me.” 


For a month now, we have wondered what it means to seek a life of awe.  What I have learned -- in this short time, from all of you -- is that awe comes easily to some and is challenging for others.  There have been times in my life when I have felt truly connected to the universe, when I can feel, as Tagore describes, that huge strand of happiness that seems to connect to everything I have ever experienced, be it good or bad.  But there have been times when I know that life has overwhelmed me, that sadness has crept into my heart, its shadow weighing upon my shoulders as heavy as a boulder.  It is hard in those moments to find awe, wonder or amazement in anything.  Perhaps this is what I want to take away from Tagore:  his insistence to keep creating, writing, singing, painting, loving -- prolifically, no matter how much heartache or pain confronts you.  That is not to say that we must ignore our pain in order to be free.  It means we name the pain, we draw it into sketches, we write it into poems, we offer it up to the universe in hopes that it becomes something that becomes of use to someone else or at least to ourselves.

The day before he died, Tagore dictated his last poem.  With these words, I invite you into a time of silence, followed by more tabla and santoor.  As the instruments play, I invite you to come forward to light a candle for any joy, sorrow, moment of awe, or loss of awe in your life.  
Please join me in the spirit of meditation, as we hear these final words of Rabindranath Tagore:

I'm lost in the middle of my birthday.
I want my friends, their touch, with the earth's last love.
I will take life's final offering,
I will take the human's last blessing.
Today my sack is empty.
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 onto the boat that crosses
to the festival of the wordless end.
Amen.  Namaste.  Blessed Be.

May we carry these words into a time of silence.

Download Table and Tagore

Download Alain-Pierre Bachecongi's Reflection - Émerveillement

Download Kirstin McKeown Reflection - Analytical Awe