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Volume Four - Issue Two

2 July 2011
Online ISSN 1756-4263 - Print ISSN 1756-4255


Father, Son and Holy Text: Rabindranath Tagore and the Upaniṣads

Brian A. Hatcher

The intellectual and spiritual world of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) was infused with the spirit of the ancient Upaniṣads. His love for the Upaniṣads was shaped in large part by his father, Debendranath Tagore, who had been an influential figure in re-invigorating the Vedantic theology of the Brāhmo Samāj, a reformist movement founded by Rammohan Roy in 1828. While the trajectory of Brāhmo-inspired Vedāntic thought from Rammohan to Rabindranath is well-known, the particular story of Rabindranath's response to his father's Upaniṣadic legacy merits greater attention for the window it provides into the existential factors shaping the religious views of modern India's greatest poet. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Tagore's birth, this essay offers an interpretation of the father-son dynamic that lies at the heart of Rabindranath's Upaniṣadic vision.

Tracing Vaishnava Strains in Tagore

Joseph T. O'Connell

The religio-cultural milieu of urban and rural Bengal within which Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) lived was variegated and dynamic with multiple Indian and foreign streams converging on Calcutta, then the capital of British India. One of the more popular but also more refined of the indigenous Bengali Indian streams was the religio-literary Vaishnava tradition of devotion (bhakti) to God Krishna and his human manifestation Chaitanya (1486–1533). Although Rabindranath was exposed to this tradition from his childhood, scholars, especially those writing in English, have tended to neglect this aspect of his experience and formation. The present article provides a corrective to this neglect by showing how Rabindranath treats Vaishnava matters in his fictional and non-fictional prose writings, including personal correspondence, and by examining how passages from his poetry resonate with basic Vaishnava themes, sentiments, and values. In summation, the article confirms that Rabindranath was well informed about the Vaishnava tradition in Bengal and that at the level of aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities, especially as expressed in poetry and song, he shared much with that tradition despite being critical of its restrictive dogmatic tendencies and alleged organisational distortions of the genuine spirituality that he would call the 'religion of man'.

'Where he lies, I lie': Tagore meets Kabir

Mandakranta Bose

What drew Rabindranath to Kabir? Although a poet's purpose is never entirely transparent, the enquiry here is necessary to understand the 'myriad-minded' reach of Rabindranath's art. In India's cultural history as well, it is worth asking the question because One Hundred Poems of Kabir represents the merger of two of India's foremost cultural institutions, Kabir and Rabindranath, within the global institution of English. From his early teens, Rabindranath had displayed the spiritual power of his poetic imagination, which progressed from awe at the distant father figure of the upaniṣads to an intense relationship with the personal godhead of vaiṣṇava poetry, especially as in Jayadeva's Gitagovinda. But it was when he came upon Kabir's poems that he found an answering echo to his growing attraction for a philosophically more sophisticated idea of an abstract, nirguṇa deity who could nonetheless be a viably and personally realised presence. His English versions of Kabir's poems are necessarily, then, approximations of that resonance, which explains their closeness in form to Rabindranath's own expression of spirituality, most notably in his Gitanjali. My aim here is to understand the Kabir–Rabindranath unity by viewing Rabindranath's translations in the light of his own poetry of spiritual self-affirmation.

'Natural Supernaturalism?'1 The Tagore–Gandhi Debate on the Bihar Earthquake

Makarand R. Paranjape

This article is a study of the confrontation between Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) on the Bihar earthquake of January 1934. Gandhi who was then campaigning against untouchability in South India called the earthquake 'a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed and are still committing against those whom we describe as untouchables … '. Reading this statement in the press, Tagore wrote to Gandhi pointedly disagreeing with him: 'I am compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combinations of physical facts'. This article examines the differences in their position over this topic and discusses the implications of their contrasting stands on it. In addition, I also look at Gandhi's other statements on the earthquake as I do at Tagore's exchanges with Einstein on the relationship between the observer and the phenomenal world. Perhaps no other disagreement between Gandhi and Tagore better illustrates the differences in their attitudes to life, their notions of what constitutes the relationship between physical phenomena and the realm of human morals, or between nature and God, within a broadly Hindu framework of understanding. But departing from the conventional view that Tagore's position is rational–scientific–modern, while Gandhi's is religious–superstitious–traditional, I argue that the contestations are not as much between rationality and faith, science and superstition, or modernity and tradition as between two kinds of rationality, two ideas of science, and two approaches to modernity. I try to show how both Tagore's and Gandhi's positions are intellectually more complex, nuanced, and compelling than might appear at first. Ultimately, both Gandhi and Tagore contributed, even with their contrasting perspectives, to the richness that made up Indian modernity, with its unique attempts to integrate rationality with a spiritual view of the world.

Book Reviews

Christopher Key Chapple

The History of Vegetarianism and Cow-Veneration in India. By Ludwig Alsdorf. Translated from the German by Bal Patil. Revised by Nichola Hayton.

The History of Vegetarianism and Cow-Veneration in India. By Ludwig Alsdorf, . Translated from the German by Bal Patil, . Revised by Nichola Hayton. Edited with additional notes, a bibliography and four appendices by Willem Bollée. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. ISBN: 78-0-415-54824-3, pp. xi, 171. £80.00 (hardback).

This book gathers in one place a lengthy 1961 journal article on vegetarianism, a review of it by Heesterman, two articles on the same topic by Hanns-Peter Schmidt (the first published in 1968 and the second in 1997), and a 1933 article by H. R. Kapadia defending the enduring observance of vegetarianism in the Jaina faith. Bollée introduces the project with a terse description of the materials. The tone of the original piece by Alsdorf, despite an occasional softening footnote by the editor, is somewhat unsettling. He states, referring to the food shortages of the 1950s, that 'This chronic crisis of nutrition could probably alone be solved if the cattle population were halved. It is the sacredness of the cattle which presents one of the toughest problems to the Indian economy' (p. 2). He places stock in Katherine Mayo's book Mother India which shows, in his words, 'abominable cruelty to animals' and 'the most miserable dairy farming' (p. 16). He cynically comments on Jain monks 'profiting from the transgression by others without a second thought' and notes that 'the pious Hindu, often without any scruples, sells his cow to the Muslim butcher' (p. 16). Citing variant attitudes toward levirate marriage in the …

Jonathan Edelmann

Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought: Toward a Fusion of Horizons. Edited by Rita Sherma and Arvind Sharma.

Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought: Toward a Fusion of Horizons. Edited by Rita Sherma, and Arvind Sharma. Milton Keynes: Springer, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-4020-8191-0, pp. 252. $159.00 (hardback).

Indologists such as William Halbfass and J.L. Mehta showed awareness of their role not only as historians of Indian thought, but also as necessarily engaged in a 'dialogue' between their own historical-locatedness and that of the ancient and modern traditions they study, often taking exception to phenomenological approaches to the study of religion, chiding those who felt it was possible or even desirable to set aside one's 'horizon' of interpretation. Building on their attitude towards the interpretation of India, this present volume uses Hans-Georg Gadamer's concept of the 'fusion of horizons' by engaging Hindu hermeneutical philosophies and theologies 'in the service of examining elements of Western history, religion, and culture' (Sherma, p. 3), and by exposing wrong-minded Western interpretations of India. Turning Hinduism's powerful lenses onto Western thought for 'dialogic fecundation'—or as Purushottama Bilimoria says, 'mākhanchān, ghee-churning' (p. 47)—is surely a welcome and needed project, and this collection of essays by leading scholars does so with great dexterity. A number of articles look at the larger issues involved with reading and interpreting texts, thereby developing theories as to how they might be understood. For example, Shrinivas Tilak examines the possibility of 'cāturdharmya,' (originally developed by Arvind Sharma) or the four dharmas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism acting as a …

Lloyd W. Pflueger

Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. Edited by Mark Singleton and Jean Byrne.

Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. Edited by Mark Singleton, and Jean Byrne. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-415-45258-8, pp. 208. £85.00 (hardback).

Despite a global explosion of interest in yoga in the last twenty years, a growing throng of tens of millions of practitioners, and a multi-billion dollar yoga industry, up to recent times there has been very little critical academic study of the phenomenon; this small volume of nine essays aims to address this gap and stimulate more scholarship. The scholars, some of whom also practice yoga, offer a variety of viewpoints, from the perspective of religious studies, history, and anthropology, as well as philosophy. What are the various types of contemporary transnational yoga(s) and is there any cohesion to them? How important are claims of inauthenticity directed by scholars contrasting modern and Western yogas with premodern forms ensconced in traditional Indian religions? How may we understand the experience of yoga practice from within as well as without? Answers fall into three sections: (I) Mapping the Terrain of Modern Yoga Studies, (II) Posturing for Authenticity, and (III) Spirituality, Sexuality, and Authority: Understanding the Experience of Contemporary Yoga Practice. Part I begins with a necessary overview, 'Modern Yoga: History and Forms' by Elizabeth De Michelis, whose pioneering book, A History of Modern Yoga, Patanjali and Western Esotericism, London: Continuum, 2004, grounds a discussion of the academic study of yoga. Her short essay quickly traces the complicated premodern development of yoga, based on the three yogas of the Bhagavad Gītā …

Loriliai Biernacki

The Teachings of the Odd-Eyed One: A Study and Translation of the Virūpākṣapañcāśikā with the Commentary of Vidyācakravartin. By David Lawrence.

The Teachings of the Odd-Eyed One: A Study and Translation of the Virūpākṣapañcāśikā with the Commentary of Vidyācakravartin. By David Lawrence. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-7914-7554-6, pp. xii, 195. $21.95 (paperback).

This study and translation of the Virūpākṣapañcāśikā by David Lawrence provides a welcome addition to Indological studies of Tantra. With the current overabundance of new translations and retranslations of the Bhagavad Gītā, it is refreshing to see a translation of a relatively unknown Tantric text made accessible to a wider audience. The only other English translation of the Virūpākṣapañcāśikā lies tucked away in the archives of Ph.D. dissertations at Benares Hindu University in that ancient and not particularly computer-savvy city of Varanasi in India, available only to the determined scholar willing to travel. The Virūpāksapañcāśikā dates to approximately the twelfth century, with its author versed in the medieval nondual Śaivist schools of Kashmir. As Lawrence points out, a number of manuscripts of the text found in the old Kashmiri Śāradā script indicate a likely Kashmiri origin (p. 4). Lawrence's book offers a translation of the fifty verses of the Virūpākṣapañcāśikā, along with the translation of the approximately …

David Buchta

Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. By Andrew Nicholson.

Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. By Andrew Nicholson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-231-14986-0, pp. xii, 266. $45/£31 (cloth).

Unifying Hinduism examines the state of Hinduism in late medieval India, focusing on the writings of Vijñānabhikṣu, a Bhedābheda (Difference and Non-difference) Vedāntin who commented as well on the Yoga-sūtras and the Sāṅkhya-sūtras. As per its title, the book focuses on Vijñānabhikṣu's attempt to reconcile differences between what modern scholarship treats as distinct schools of thought within Hinduism. Vijñānabhiksu, like many Vedāntins, wrote commentaries on the Brahmasūtras and a number of Upaniṣads. However, instead of commenting on the Bhagavad-gītā, he composed a commentary on the Kūrma Purāṇa's Īśvara Gītā (p. 7). These Vedāntic commentaries have previously received very little scholarly attention. Nicholson attributes this neglect to the relative realism of Vijñānabhikṣu's Bhedābheda philosophy in contrast to Śaṅkara's Advaita, a realism that 'did not jibe with the Orientalist depictions of India as the land of mystical other-worldliness' (p. 25). To help fill this lacuna, Nicholson offers, in the second and third chapters, a survey of Vijñānabhikṣu's Bhedābheda Vedānta, contextualising it with reference to Bhedābheda formulations …