Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Re-reading Rabindranath’s Iran Travelogues

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya


Rabindranath Tagore’s later travelogues seem to be a cross between a diary and a philosophical notebook. While visiting various places in a foreign land, he keenly observes what is shown to him, records his itinerary and at the same time writes down his impressions and reflections based on his newly earned experience. It is no wonder that most of his travelogues, specially his travelogue of the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (ussr) are composed in the form of letters actually sent to several recipients. It is also no wonder that the English translation of one of these epistles was proscribed by the British rulers although the Bengali collection called Russiar Chithi was spared.

Rabindranath’s travelogues of Persia (Iran) and Iraq was published as Parasyayatra and Parasyabhraman serially in two journals, Prabasi and Bichitra in 1339-40 Bengali Sal (June-July, 1932 and July-August,1932 – April-May,1933). Both were incorporated in Japane-Parasye (Shraban, 1343 BS = July-August, 1936) as a joint travelogue of Japan and Persia. The visit to Iran and Iraq lasted from 11 April to 1 June 1932, that is, eighteen months after his visit to the ussr.  His experience in the first socialist country in the world impressed him most favourably and the echo of his admiration can be heard in his travelogue of Iran as well. The rise of the people in Russian Turkestan had left a permanent mark in Rabindranath’s mind. It is evident from his repeated references to the Asiatic Russian people both in his Parasye and in his last testament, Sabhyatar Sankat (Crisis in Civilization).

Rabindranath was indeed a world poet (as Brahmabandhab Upadhyay described him as early as 1900, long before the award of the Nobel Prize) but he was an Asian at heart.1 He was more interested in the uplift of the Asiatic peoples, suffering under the double yoke of ignorance and imperialism. His visit to Iran and Iraq prompted him to express his ideas and aspirations in a way he had never done before. His account of Persian travels deserves to be studied as much as his Letters from Russia. His Iran and Iraq travelogues have recently been translated into English, although with some regrettable omissions here and there.

Let me confess at the outset that my attention to Parasye was first drawn by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. In a Special Lecture delivered at the University of Mysore in 1984 he quoted long extracts from Parasye to establish his point that philosophy is sometimes directly related to politics. After re-reading Parasye I discovered how radically Rabindranath changed some of his long-cherished views in the last decade of his life. In what follows I propose to deal with two such themes:

                                    (a) Rabindranath’s assessment of the Gita,
                                    (b) His attitude towards religion.


In Baghdad, Rabindranath and his party came to know from the Christian chaplain of the British Air Force that some Sheikh villagers were being bombed everyday. He observed:

The men, women and children, there done to death, meet their fate by decree of the upper region of British imperialism, – which finds it so easy thus to shower death because of its distance from its individual victims. So dim and insignificant do those unskilled in the modern arts of killing appear to those who glory in such skill! (Journey to Persia 23)

Rabindranath was horrified. He thought:

Christ acknowledged all mankind to be the children of his Father; but for the modern Christian both Father and children have receded into shadows, unrecognizable from the height of his bombarding planes; for which reason these blows are being dealt at the very heart of Christ himself. (Journey to Persia 23-24)

This reference to aerial bombing is significant. From his first experience of long-distance air travel Rabindranath had come to understand how easily men, women and children could be killed from above without any risk of recrimination. The very reality of killing itself became blurred. Rabindranath writes:

As it (sc. the aeroplane) rises higher and higher, it reduces the play of our senses to that of one alone – of sight – and even that is not left in its fullness. All the signs for which we believe the earth to be obviously and variously real, are gradually wiped out, resolving its three-dimensional picture into lines of one dimension only. Thus deprived of its substantiality, its hold on our mind and heart is loosened. And it is borne in on me how terrible such aloofness can become, once it is found expedient to rain destruction on the vagueness below. Who is the slayer, who the slain? Who is kin, who is stranger? It is a travesty of this teaching of the Gita that the flying machine has raised on high. (Journey to Persia 23)

This translation, although said to have been approved by Rabindranath himself,2 does not reflect the words of the original. Chattopadhyaya translated this passage as follows:

The philosophy preached by the Gita was also some kind of an aircraft like this. It carried the compassionate mind of Arjuna to such a dizzy height from where, when he looked below, there remained hardly any distinction between the killer and the killed, between the kin and the foe. There are in human arsenal many a weapon like this made of philosophical stuff. These serve the purpose of concealing the real. These are to be found among the theories of the imperialists, in sociology and in religion. Those on whom death is showered therefrom are left only with one consolation: na hanyate hanyamane sarire – it [the soul] is not slain when the body is slain. (3)

The Visva-Bharati translation omits all this and dilutes the strong words of Tagore by interpolating the word ‘travesty’, thereby travestying the original. Such a travesty of the Gita’s teaching can indeed be found in Ghare-baire (The Home and the World) in which Sandip justifies robbery by referring to the same verse (2.20) from the Gita (Rabindra-Rachanabali, 8:97), but not so in the passage in Parasye.

Rabindranath’s message is loud and clear. He condemns the teaching of the Gita itself and holds Krishna responsible for propagating such a view. This is the first time that Rabindranath publicly censures the message of the Gita. Much earlier (1908) in a private letter he had noted his disapproval of introducing the concept of the immortal soul in a book meant to incite Arjuna to battle (qtd. Sen 6-7). But this is not all. The verse in question is in fact a direct quote from the Katha Upanisad (1.2.18) with some variants. Chattopadhyaya points out that by condemning the Gita verse Rabindranath was also indicting the teaching of the Upanishad itself (6). The Gita, and by implication the Katha Upanisad and the Vedanta philosophy (cf. Brahmasutra 2.3.16-17) too are subjected to re-examination and found wanting in human content.

It is not that Rabindranath never quoted from or referred to the Gita in his works after this. He did. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that he never alluded to Krishna’s advice to Arjuna again in his later works, although previously he had referred to the Katha Upanishad verse approvingly in his Shantiniketan twice (Rabindra-Rachanabali, 14:759-60 and 764). In Parasye, however, he explicitly mentions the Gita and criticizes the verse in no uncertain terms. The whole of the Gita thus is no longer accepted as a holy book containing infallible truths.

 It should be kept in mind that not only Rabindranath but also the whole Tagore family used to revere the Gita as a sacred text. His father, Debendranath introduced him to this work when he was barely twelve. Debendranath had made a selection of verses from the Gita that were later published in Tattvabodhini Patrika and he included many of them in his Brahmadharma. Rabindranath’s brothers too held the Gita in great esteem. Dwijendranath wrote a book called Gitapath in 1322 BS (1915-16). Even earlier Satyendranath had translated the Gita into Bangla (1311BS/ 1904-05) and later Jyotirindranath rendered Tilak’s Gitarahasya from Marathi into Bangla in 1924. It is indeed not right to say (as Niharranjan Ray does) that Rabindranath, unlike Tilak, Sri Aurobindo and Gandhi, did not go to the Gita for his “ideological sustenance and emotional and intellectual inspiration,” and  that “Tagore’s voluminous writings do not contain more that half a dozen of references to the Gita” (Ray 35. Qtd. Majumdar 130). In fact there are no fewer than forty verses of the Gita either fully or partly quoted or alluded to, directly or indirectly  in Rabindranath’s published works (as Pampa Majumdar’s  monumental study, 535-42, amply bears out). Yet Rabindranath in Parasye denounces the verse in the Gita derived from an Upanishad as a poor consolation for killing humans without any qualm.


The metaphor of the aircraft applied to religion that takes away the mind from the earth and blurs reality, is not unexpected. In several passages in Parasye Rabindranath condemns religion as a means of suppression and exploitation. He had earlier praised the Bolsheviks’ attempt to liberate the people in the Soviet Union both from religious delusion and Tsarist autocracy:
The Soviet revolutionaries have uprooted the old religious organization and the political system, both of which for centuries had subdued their minds and sapped their vitality. Because even a king, however much he may limit the freedom of his subjects from without, cannot be a greater enemy than the religion which kills man’s freedom of mind by taking advantage of his ignorance. It has been observed so far that the king who wants to keep his subjects in bondage finds his chief support in the religion which keeps them blind. That religion is like the poison-princess who fascinates by embracing and kills by fascinating. The arrow of piety enters the heart deeper than the arrow of death, because it kills without hurting.

The Soviets have saved the country from the insults of the Tsars and self-imposed humiliation; however much the devout people of other countries may reproach them, I personally cannot. Far better is atheism than religious infatuation that darkens the mind and keeps the soul in a dungeon. (Letters from Russia,11)
Strong words indeed. And we hear an echo of these in Parasye too:

A long enduring creation does not necessarily signify man’s genius, however great and splendid that creation may be. The temple of Madura or the mosque of Isfahan document[s] our past, not our present. If that were so, it would be trespassing. Ancient relics of the time past, these monuments have become inert, unable to inspire new creations in their image. It is possible to imitate them but the creative impulse that fashioned them has long since dried up. (Journey to Persia 68)

But are not these temples and mosques specimens of living religions? Rabindranath is not convinced of such a defence. He says:

[I]n reality no communal religious faith survives in this modern age and time purely on the strength of spiritual sanctity. These orthodox faiths have been kept going down the ages by various artificial infrastructural supports, which are nothing but rituals and customs, beliefs and hearsays, handed down from the past. The attempt to impose once held religious culture and beliefs on another age only retards the progress of history.
Communalism in religion is a concept hoary with age. In the olden days the mandatory ruling of any religion was that everyone must, without question, conform to the laid down beliefs and rituals. The king and the priests worked in tandem to exercise their control over the people. (Journey to Persia 68)

Rabindranath vehemently condemns this nexus between royalty and priesthood:

Both these powers had effectively robbed the people of all freedoms – freedom to opt for self-government, freedom of thoughts, freedom of religious faiths. If any individual had the gall to follow the dictates of his own conscience and break away from the imposed bondages, then he was promptly labelled as a rebel and ruthlessly victimized. (Journey to Persia 68-69)

In spite of all this, Rabindranath is hopeful, for things are changing:

Over the years, however, strong dictatorial rules are gradually being replaced by people’s democracies, but even so, the old dogmatic strictures continue their fearsome stranglehold, subjugating people to mindless passivity. This cannot be allowed to persist. Attempts to preserve all the old symbols of a communal religion and force feed the people with them will only lead to a brood of weaklings. They will be as worthless as a child who refuses to grow up beyond the apron strings of the mother. (Journey to Persia 69)

Should we then dispense with the past and demolish all temples and mosques? Rabindranath does not suggest so. He says:

It is not my case that the great deed[s] of the past should not endure. They will, as commemoration of the past, but otherwise serving no useful purpose. Take for instance the Scandinavian sagas – we accept them as noble epic poems but not as hallowed texts. Or, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost – to be enjoyed certainly, but not to accept rigidly what it says. Europe is full of cathedrals built during the middle-ages following certain religious sentiments, which have since undergone considerable transformations. (Journey to Persia 69)

Rabindranath then uses a homely example which, for reasons best known to the Visva-Bharati translator, has been silently omitted from the English rendering.3 Rabindranath writes : “The mooring (ghat) is there but the water has moved away. There is no harm in keeping the boat tied to the mooring but such a boat is of no use for ferrying people” (Rabindra-Rachanabali 12: 468).

 More instances of such disparagement of religion can be cited from the Persian travelogues. But enough has been cited above to show that Rabindranath does not mince his words when he speaks of both the bigoted Hindus and the Muslims as also the Christians and is highly critical of all religious rituals and practices. His visit to Iran and Iraq provides him with an opportunity to vent his innermost feelings about the evil effects of religion on social life. He considers the ‘inauguration of scientific attitude’ to be the primary need, as did Kemal Pasha. Rabindranath quotes with approval what the Turkish Minister of Justice said, “Medieval principles must give way to secular laws. We are creating a modern civilized nation and we desire to meet contemporary needs. We have the will to live, and nobody can prevent us.” To this Rabindranath adds: “Medieval legendary prejudice stands in the way of total, rational performance of life’s journey. They (Turkey government) have declared that it is necessary to be ruthless towards it in modern worldly usage.” (Rabindra-Rachanabali 12: 449. Much of these are left out in the Visva-Bharati translation, 30-31).

From what has been said above it is amply clear how far Rabindranath moved from his ideal of Santiniketan Brahmacharyashram, attempting to revive tradition and upholding purely Hindu values, including the caste (varna) system. In his Persian travelogues he seeks to promote modernization, secularism and scientific temper instead. The Letters from Russia has been widely studied for its political implications but his Parasyayatra and Parasyabhraman, too deserve particular notice.


The Katha-Upanishad 1.2.18-19:

The knowing (Self) is not born, it dies not; it sprang from nothing, nothing sprang from it. The Ancient is unborn, eternal, everlasting; he is not killed, though the body is killed.

If the killer thinks that he kills, if the killed thinks that he is killed, they do not understand; for this one does not kill, nor is that one killed. (Trans. F. Max Mueller. The Upanishads, Part II. The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XV. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982 (reprint), pp.10-11)
The Gita 2.20:

He who thinks one to be the killer and he who thinks one to be killed, both know nothing. He kills not, is not killed. (Trans. Kashinath Trimvak Telang, The Bhagavat Gita, The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. VIII. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,1975 (reprint), pp. 44-45).

Notes and References

1 Cf. “Because we are Asiatics, a protest against Europe seems to run in our blood. Since the last time that its pirates of land and sea have gone out to exploit the weaker continent from the 17th Century onward, the European races have irretrievably damaged their own reputation in the East.” (Journey to Persia 27)

2 Chapters 1 and 3 were translated by Surendranath Tagore and published in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly in 1937. Chapter 2 appeared in the Modern Review, October 1932. Rest of the chapters have been translated by Sukhendu Ray and published for the first time in Journey to Persia and Iraq: 1932.

3 Similarly the references to Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Iran in a passage are absent in the English translation. Rabindranath here lamented that while religion was yielding place to human essence (manushyatva) in these places India alone was still divided between the Hindus and the Muslims (Rabindra-Rachanabali 12: 480).

Works Cited

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Tagore and Indian Philosophical Heritage. Mysore: University of Mysore, 1984.
Majumdar, Pampa. Rabindra Sanskritir Bharatiya Rup o Utsa. Kalikata: Jijnasa, 1972.
Sen, Prabodhchandra. Dhammapada-parichaya. Kalikata: Visva-Bharati Granthalaya, 1360 BS (1953).
Tagore, Rabindranath. Journey to Persia and Iraq: 1932. Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2003.
––––. Letters from Russia. Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1960.
–––– . Rabindra-Rachanabali. Kolkata: Paschimbanga Sarkar, 1980-2001.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Siddhartha Datta and Sanjiban Sarkar

 This essay is an abridged version of a paper originally appeared in Tagore – At Home in the World (New Delhi: Sage, 2013, pp. 66-74).

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata.


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