Rabindranath Tagore (May 6, 1861 - August 7, 1941) was the son of Debendranath Tagore, the leader of one of two Brahmo Samaj splinter groups. His last name, in Bengali, is actually "Thakur," another Hindu name for God in Indian languages. This establishes his family as Brahmin. Affectionately and reverently known in India, especially West Bengal, as Robi Thakur and Gurudeb.
Tagore was known as a poet rather than as a formal philosopher, but these two arts are rarely far apart in Indian civilisation, just as in France, for example, philosophy seems closely tied to drama. An implicit philosophy can be seen in Tagore's poetry. The main literary device by means of which Tagore communicated his religio-philosophical views was that of "bridal mysticism". This entails seeing oneself as the bride of God, with a complete submission to and adoration of the divine bridegroom.
In India, especially in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore has transcended, as often happens in the Indian paradigm, the simple position of 'writer-philosopher.' Since great thinkers, who are often religious in their purview, are seen as gurus and close to Bhagavan (God) by Hindus, Rabindranath Tagore is especially revered. Hindus believe that by listening to the words of such wise and enlightened men, people are brought closer to Bhagavan. For this reason, he is affectionately known as Gurudeb (or Gurudev in Hindi), which means, literally, Teacher-God. For this reason, many Indians hang his picture in their houses, equal among sages and other holymen of the nation.
His spiritual journey was guided by the Upanishads, the traditional Hindu spiritual scriptures to which he had the opportunity of early exposure, being part of an upper-crust Brahmin family. The Upanishads, derived in turn from the Vedas, speak of the immanent Brahman, the supreme reality which differs from Western religious conceptions of 'God' in that it is an all-suffusing force that transcends personality and any sort of description. The Hindu idea is that all things in the cosmos, even the famous Hindu deities, are only temporal manifestations of Brahman. Its three main eternal aspects are Existence, Consciousness and Bliss (Satchidananda), and Rabindranath Tagore wrote in a universalist strain about man's relation to Brahman and the experiences that lead to establishing ultimate identity with Brahman, the goal of Hinduism. The material world is regarded as Brahman's manifestation by Upanishadic philosophy.
Among his literay oeuvre is included, though poetry takes the centrestage, novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, drama, and no less notably, over 2000 songs (known as Rabindrasangeets) which many Bengalis perceive as the closest to their hearts. His Rabindrasangeets, which most frequently deal with love and spirituality have taken on a very tender and potent tenor for Bengalis, and it would be difficult to find someone raised in Bengal who did not know the words to many of his songs.
While his prose often dealt with social questions, political ideas, educational ideals, and his vision of the universal brotherhood of man, Tagore's poetry and songs, apart from its deep spiritual and devotional streak, often expressed simply a celebration of nature and life. Life's multifarious variety was ever a source of 'Ohoituki Ananda', pleasure without outward reason, for him. No less noteworthy are his output on love, which recurs as a major motif throughout his literature, and on patriotism.
The importance of Tagore as a figure in literary history can be seen in the fact that not one, but two countries, (India and Bangladesh), adopted as national anthems songs created by him. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, the first non-westerner to receive this honour, for his powerful work "Gitanjali." Indeed, it was the the legendary Yeats, an English writer and poet of huge influence, who convinced Rabindranath to translate his work into English. Thus, the English version of the "Gitanjali" is still entirely Rabindranath Tagore's.
Tagore was also instrumental in the early stages of the nationalistic endeavour, though he disassociated himself from some of the later ungainly manifestations. He was the first to reject the knighthood given by the British crown, in protest against the Jallianwala Massacre in Punjab where an unarmed gathering of was fired upon on the orders of the British oficer, killing 350 men, women and children in 1919.
Prominent among the other contributions of Tagore is the university Visva-Bharati, incorporating the vidyalaya (school) instituted by him enshrining his educational ideal. In his boyhood, the rigid discipline and claustrophobic atmosphere in the various schools he attended left him unsatisfied. The artificial system of education introduced by the British, with total emphasis on unquestioning obedience, mechanical book-learning, little interaction with nature and usually in subjects with little touch with the life of the country around him, he felt was stifling to the sensitiveness of many Indian children and youth. These were certainly detestable to him. He sometimes referred himself in slightly mock-serious tones to his lack of formal education. He does appear to have spent a couple of years intermittently at various schools, mainly following his guardians' wishes, but his education was overwhelmingly seen in his family library of books, which was varied and deep, in accordance with the nature of his intellectually-imposing father.
This realisation led him to establish his school, called a Brahmacharyashram (centre for Brahmacharya), at Santiniketan in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, where his father had left a landed estate in his possession. The word Brahmacharya, though commonly understood as a synonym for celibacy alone, was used in ancient India to name the first of four stages, also called ashrama, of life, usually spent in the pursuit of knowledge-gathering in a natural and pure setting under the tutelage of a spiritually realised person called the Guru or the Acharya. This was naturally assumed, since the child was learning and striving to be pure for the reception of knowledge, which is considered sacred to Hindus, to encompass a detachment from the avenues of life that involved sex or career pursuit.
Tagore tried to recapture to the extent possible in modern times this system of learning among idyllic surroundings. Over time, the school grew into a university with over 30 departments today. Since 1951, the university is administered by the Government of India as a Central University.
Tagore was keenly sensitive to the world movements of his time and expressed his pain and despair over war eloquently. His yearning for world peace was however not of a political nature; he desired it to be based on a true realization of the universal identity of mankind and indeed, of the whole of the entire sentient world.
His international travels in the quest of funds for his university led him to many countries and sharpened his understanding of various national and civilizational charactersistics. His comparative treatment of the East and the West ranks among the finest examples this genre of world literature, perhaps pioneering it. His essays contributed to repudiate racially coloured views such as those of Kipling without overtly attempting to do so. In a way, he was among the forerunners of the emerging species of world citizens and to be remembered as such will perhaps be a fitting requiem for him. However, regardless of such world-views, his position as a beloved literary-musical genius, as a philosopher-saint of Bengali, Indian and Hindu culture, is a fitting enough tribute to the man who is said to have attracted wild deer and birds to his side during his meditative walks in the forests of West Bengal.