Tagore Redrawing the Boundaries, In Other Words,

Crossing the Limits of Language


Is human language capable of reflecting the complexities of the world outside language? Linguists often claim that our medium of communication is multi-layered, intricate and complex in architecture – something that has been bothering all technologists who tried building products around human language – be it the TTS (or, Text-to-Speech) systems, or its reverse, or Machine-readable/learnable devices, or Machine-aided translation devices etc. How do human languages deal with knotty content which is at once within and outside its author or originator? The second issue has to do with the relationship between language and non-language, or things other than language. In a more direct and simple expression, how do Language and Silence relate? It is often said that a continuous stream of noise which we call human language gains sense and interpretation only because there are patterned gaps or pauses or markers of silence in between such texts. Just as the colour white crucially depends on the contrastive element in the natural dyad in black, language and silence are almost like that. If so, one may conjecture that silence occupies the centre-stage of all our semiotic activity it controls our system of representation as we use language. The crux of understanding Tagore lies in appreciating the strife he had to weather within himself in trying to negotiate with many of these issues. As an architect of Bangla language on the world stage, he had to find answers to many of these complicated questions, for which he never hesitated in looking for illuminating ideas all around the world to understand these phenomena. In his lifetime he was sometimes criticized, even by a few of his most eminent contemporaries, for being too Western in his thoughts, not sufficiently Bengali or Indian in spirit, whereas others blamed him for looking into the past or in the Oriental tradition for all critical issues. It is my conjecture that he actually did both these only to return empty-handed, and he had to develop his own responses to these critical questions which are reflected in his writings or music scores or in paintings. He was aware that anyone who was in search of exploring the Limits of Language would have to chart a novel path as a critical thinker.

As a sensitive child born in a linguistically and culturally plural and vibrant family, the young Rabi was perhaps trying to create or construct what is known as a mental representation of the linguistic world around him as well as about the world beyond his known space through a Piagetian process1 of ‘adaptation’ – where he is constantly assimilating new information in his own mental structures, and also accommodating himself to each emerging situation to handle new experience. While doing so, he was creatively learning every time that there existed a relationship between each of our actions (or statements) and the external world – where any changes made or any addition/alteration would have some consequences. In his own play-world, he would ‘enact’ a few roles he would create for himself, and perhaps ‘pretend’ to act in a certain manner only to know more and more about the laws of nature and of societies. Unlike other children of his age, he was able to perceive that he would view the world differently from his siblings and other elderly and supposedly more experience individuals. Other children of his age may lack understanding of relational contrasts in colour, size, and texture or to view objects in sequences or in order, whereas he would not only be able to categorize objects and elements but would also be able to enter into an abstract reasoning where he would be able to deal with unreal as much as real. The fact of early development of linguistic behaviour and skills in the young master was a case of what Vygotsky2 would call the self-learning and self-correction process used by children in order to encounter obstacles and difficulties. Even though the social communication with caregivers could have played a key role in cognitive growth of the young master, as his reminiscences of childhood days show, he grew up quite independently, on his own, deciding on his own learning schedules and pathways as far as his linguistic skills were concerned. Nevertheless, the gaps he had had in verbal communication with the desired ones during his formative years may have had to do with his understanding of the value of silence.


That Language or Bhāşā (‘ভাষা) and its synsets have dominated Tagore’s thoughts right from his early writings to later day musings – only show that going beyond language towards silence in search of complex nature of human communication systems was not a chance journey but was a discovery of a matured poet. A text mining shows that even as there are many synonyms of ‘speech’ that appear throughout in Tagore’s wrings, Bhāşā (‘ভাষা) itself appears 866 times in his writings, and many of these are quite memorable lines or passages.

In the first major and matured anthology of poems by the poet titled ‘Manasi’ (1890) – we read a poem on the language of silence, called Mauna Bhāşā (মৌন ভাষা). Tagore opens the poem with a statement stating that “let it be as it is, let there be no words from you – let me just see and pass by, as I hum a tune within, and construct – nobody knows how much of pains, sorrows and happiness!”:

থাক্‌ থাক্‌, কাজ নাই, বলিয়ো না কোনো কথা।

thāk thāk, kāj nāi, baliyo nā kono kathā

চেয়ে দেখি, চলে যাই, মনে মনে গান গাই,

ceye dekhi, cale jāi, mane mane gān gāi

মনে মনে রচি বসে কত সুখ কত ব্যথা।

mane mane raci base kata sukh kata vyathā

Later in the same anthology, he asks: “Do you know of any speech that is soft, half-spoken, or one that comes out haltingly as are halted by the tears that roll by, and is pale because of one’s inherent shame and fear?” (Trans: UNS):

এত মৃদু, এত আধো, অশ্রুজলে বাধোবাধো
eta mŗdu, eta ādho, aśrujale bādho-bādho

শরমে সভয়ে ম্লান এমন কি ভাষা আছে?

śarame sabhaye mlān eman ki bhāșā āche?

“How soft, incomplete, indecision choked with tears

How pale are the words tied in shame and fear?”

(Translation: UNS)

Then he answers the question himself, when he says – “Don’t speak in words that has been already spoken by your eyes” (কথায় বোলো না তাহা আঁখি যাহা বলিয়াছে kathāy bolo nā tāhā ānkhi jāhā baliyāche’), as he would like the urge that lies trapped within one’s heart be let free (as in উড়িয়া বেড়াক সদা হৃদয়ের কাতরতা uiyā beāk sadā hŗdayer kātaratā). This is because if one spoke one’s feelings in language, there is a chance that the magic of illusion will be dispelled (কথা দিয়ে বল যদি মোহ ভেঙে যায় পাছে kathā diye bala jadi moha bhenge jāy pāche).

More I read on Tagore, my belief grows stronger that Tagore was in fact a poet-linguist in the tradition of Bhartrihari and Katyayana. Since a plethora of shy and reticent meanings reside in a text with each string leading to numerous other things, and which together constitute the grace (শ্রী śrī), elegance (সৌন্দর্য saundarya), and magnanimity (হৃদয়দেবতা hŗdaya-debatā) of the literary piece – we need to understand these things that define the inner quality, and not the outer appearance of the text – which is why he thinks we need to appreciate writing in our own languages, and not in languages foreign to us3.

The poet feels that he does not know his own self so well so as to give find expression for his feelings because he has not ‘known’ or ‘read’ himself (আমি তো জানি নে মোরে, দেখি নাই ভালো করে āmi to jāni nā more, dekhi nāi bhāla kare), and therefore only ‘You’ who has seen all could compose a lilting song in which all the mind’s words and the hope of the innermost quarters will get expressed –

মনের সকল ভাষা প্রাণের সকল আশা

maner sakal bhāșā prāer sakal āśā
পারো তুমি গেঁথে গেঁথে রচিতে মধুর গীতে।

pāro tumi gethe gethe racite madhur gīte

All that my mind could speak, all that my heart could hope

You are the only one who could wreathe it into a lovely song
(Translation: UNS)

He then invites us to look above, look beyond. If one looked above, one could see the entire sky filled with billions of silent stars burning a long language through their bodies to express themselves (অনন্ত আকাশ ছেয়ে/কোটি কোটি মৌন দৃষ্টি তারকায়। anata ākāś cheye / koi koi mauna dŗși tārakay). He also invites all to sit silently to listen to the great language of the quiet in this vast universe (প্রাণপণ দীর্ঘ ভাষা জ্বলিয়া ফুটিতে চায়।/ এসো চুপ করে শুনি এই বাণী স্তব্ধতারprāa-pan dirgha bhāșā jvaliyā phuite cāy / eso cup kare śuni bāi stabdhatār ). What happens if one did not pay heed to the poet? This is what rabindranath says would be the consequences:

শুধু কথার উপরে কথা,

śudhu kathār upare kathā
নিষ্ফল ব্যাকুলতা।

nișphal vyākulatā
বুঝিতে বোঝাতে দিন চলে যায়,

bujhite bojhāte din cale jāy
ব্যথা থেকে যায় ব্যথা।

vyathā theke jāy vyathā

Words pile upon words and

make man’s worthless anxiety aggravated

while the days pass by,

and the twinge remains” (Translation: UNS)

The above lines are from another poem in Manasi – titled প্রকাশবেদনা (‘The Pains of Expression’) where he begins with a lamentation – the secret desire of one’s mind could not be allowed to burst open, which puts a lid above the innermost pain to remain within, while the language remains outside, as if knocking at the outer door.

আপন প্রাণের গোপন বাসনা / টুটিয়া দেখাতে চাহি রে—

āpan prāer gopan bāsanā/ ţuţiyā dekhāte cāhi-re
হৃদয়বেদনা হৃদয়েই থাকে, / ভাষা থেকে যায় বাহিরে।

hŗdaya-bedanā hŗdayei thāke/ bhāșā theke jāy bāhire

“The secret desire of one’s life – I wish to uncover and show –

The anguish of the heart resides within but the words remain without!”

(Translation: UNS)

One wonders why the broken heart could not open up to play the flute, or why the innermost pain does not bloom as a flowery expression. Why must one wear a bare look bereft of all tears, and why the wailing veins do not find an expression in one’s heart?

মর্মবেদন আপন আবেগে / স্বর হয়ে কেন ফোটে না?

marmabedan āpan ābege / swar haye kena phoţe nā?
দীর্ণ হৃদয় আপনি কেন রে / বাঁশি হয়ে বেজে ওঠে না?

dira hŗdaya āpani kena re / bānśi haye beje oţhe nā?

আমি চেয়ে থাকি শুধু মুখে / ক্রন্দনহারা দুখে—

āmi ceye thāki śudhu mukhe / krandanhārā dukhe –
শিরায় শিরায় হাহাকার কেন / ধ্বনিয়া উঠে না বুকে?

śirāy-śirāy hāhākar kena / dhvaniyā uţhe nā buke?

“Why doesn’t the twinge of my heart speak up in voices?

Why doesn’t my broken heart play like a flute, on its own?

I keep staring at you empty-faced and even tears have dried up

My laments in the veins – why don’t they resonate in my heart?”

(Translation: UNS)

In other poems of the same anthology – উপহার (‘Upahar’ or ‘Gift’), Tagore mentions the cacophony that maddens man and arouses a false hope of saying something that has a sense whereas in the cauldron of life the happy and the sad songs keep bubbling where one could hear only the sounds that were devoid of language:

sukh dukha gītasvar phuţiteche nirantar

dhvani śudhu, sāthe nai bhāșā.

bicitra se kalarole vyākul kariyā tole

Jāgāiyā bicitra durāśā4

“Tunes filled with joy and grief blossoms everyday

Which is all filled with noise and not language

In this strange tumult creates an uproar of a kind

That gives rise to a weird hope

If we believe that this is where Tagore’s search for the language of silence ended, we need to look at another anthology – Kari o Komal (1887; 1293 b), where we have a poem called , হৃদয়ের ভাষা (Hridayer Bhasha) or ‘The language of the heart’. The poet laments here that he was the only one who did not know how to sing the song of his heart, while others sand his own songs with ease. Therefore, he opens the poem by addressing this straight to the heart by asking why does it deceive him every moment in the name of teaching its own secret language:

হৃদয় , কেন গো মোরে ছলিছ সতত ,

Hŗday, kena go more chalicha satata

আপনার ভাষা তুমি শিখাও আমায়

Apanār bhāșā tumi śikhāo āmāy

প্রত্যহ আকুল কন্ঠে গাহিতেছি কত ,

Pratyaha ākul kanţhe gāhitechi kata

ভগ্ন বাঁশরিতে শ্বাস করে হায় হায় !

Bhagna bāśarite śwās kare hāy hāy

The Poet wants to learn the language of the heart directly from the heart which seems to be deceptive as no matter how much the poet sang every day anxiously, what came out was only a noise in the broken flute. In the same anthology, he has another poem called চুম্বন The kiss’. The love writes its softest songs on the lips of the lovers, trembling in fear, but it is still the lips that speak in a language of their own in the ears of another pair as he opens the poem ‘Cumban’ with the following lines:

অধরের কানে যেন অধরের ভাষা

adharer kāne jena adherer bhāșā

দোঁহার হৃদয় যেন দোঁহে পান করে

dohār hŗday jena dohe pān kare

গৃহ ছেড়ে নিরুদ্দেশ দুটি ভালোবাসা

Gŗha chee niruddeś duţi bhālobāsā

তীর্থযাত্রা করিয়াছে অধর সংগমে

tīrtha-yātrā kariyāche adhar sangame

In several poems under the collection of very short poems, স্ফুলিঙ্গ (Sphulinga) or ‘The Spark’, especially in the following, Tagore shows his choice of using ‘language’ as a metaphor as well as his concern for ‘language’. In the opening poem, he says that he finds his lover shrouded in an unknown language: অজানা ভাষা দিয়ে/পড়েছ ঢাকা তুমি, চিনিতে নারি প্রিয়ে! (Poem 1),i.e. ajānā bhāșā diye/paŗecha ɖhākā tumi, cinite nāri priye’ . In the same vein, he composes a few lines in his famous dialogue poem কর্ণকুন্তী সংবাদ Karņa-Kuntī Sambād especially under the segment কাহিনী Kāhinī – which says:

প্রভাতের শুভ্র ভাষা বাক্যহীন প্রত্যক্ষ কিরণ

Prabhāter śubhra bhāșā bākya-hīn pratyakșa kiran

জগতের মর্মদ্বার মুহূর্তেকে করি উদ্ঘাটন

Jagater marma-dwār muhurteke kari udghāţan

নির্বারিত করি দেয় ত্রিলোকের গীতের ভাণ্ডার ;

Nirbārita kari dey triloker gīter bhāār

Tagore then sings a song for the pain and suffering, and argues that the pain that has forgotten its own history has only sighs but no language to express because it is like to mid-noon at night where no birds chirp but only crickets shriek in monotone:

যে ব্যথা ভুলেছে আপনার ইতিহাস

Je byathā bhuleche āpanār itihās
ভাষা তার নাই, আছে দীর্ঘশ্বাস।

Bhāșā tār nāi, āche dīrgha-śwās
সে যেন রাতের আঁধার দ্বিপ্রহর—

Se jena rāter ādhār dwiprahar
পাখিগান নাই, আছে ঝিল্লিস্বর।

Pākhi-gān nāi, āche jhilliswar (Sphulinga, Poem 214).

In this darkness, the poet’s pen feels tired and has only this hope that the language it knows will submerge in the penance for silence:

ক্লান্ত মোর লেখনীর

Klānta mor lekhanīr
এই শেষ আশা—

Ei śeș āśā
নীরবের ধ্যানে তার

Nīraber dhyāne tār
ডুবে যাবে ভাষা।

Dube jābe bhāșā (Sphulinga, Poem 214).

At such moments of solitude, the Spring-bird gifts its language to the shadows of the forest, and the sky asks for it again to sing a song in your own voice. Consider the following lines:

তুমি বসন্তের পাখি বনের ছায়ারে

Tumi basanter pākhi baner chāyāre
করো ভাষা দান।

Karo bhāșā dān
আকাশ তোমার কণ্ঠে চাহে গাহিবারে

Ākāś tomār kanţhe cāhe gāhibare
আপনারই গান।

āpanāri gān (Sphulinga, Poem 104).

In Purabi (1925, b.1332), Tagore has a poem titled কিশোর প্রেম (Kishor Prem, or ‘The Juvenile Love’), where we find the poet is remembering his first love at a tender age when he did not know what the language of love was like. It was as if there was a whiff of the southern wind that shook his sensibilities, as if an unknown language was trying to arouse an unspoken hope in the heart of magnolia bud:

তখন জানা ছিল না তো ভালোবাসার ভাষা—

Takhan jānā chila nā to bhālobāsār bhāșā
যেন প্রথম দখিন বায়ে

Jena prathama dakhin bāye
শিহর লেগেছিল গায়ে,

śihar legechila gāye
চাঁপাকুঁড়ির বুকের মাঝে অস্ফুট কোন্‌ আশা,

Cāpākuir buker mājhe asphuţ kono āśā,

সে যে অজানা কোন্‌ ভাষা।

Se je ajānā kon bhāșā

(From Purabi (1925, b.1332)

In the songs under প্রকৃতি (‘Prakŗti’) or ‘Nature’, published in নবগীতিকা (Naba-gītikā, Song 266), we find an interesting interplay between the two seasons from two different time slots – it was, as if, depiction of a dialogue between one spring and the other. In the song এক ফাগুনের গান সে আমার আর ফাগুনের কূলে কূলে (ek phāguner gān se āmār ār phāguner kūle kūle), songs from one spring keep looking for somebody who has lost his way in the forest of flowers. Some known faces try to help by asking for the way but she gets to know that one does not know if there indeed was a way out as one traverses through the flowers of a new age. When the spring of yester-years try to speak a few words in the ears of the spring of another and more recent time, one only hears a lament: মোর ভাষা আজ কেই বা জানে।’, i.e. mor bhāșā āj kei bā jāne (literally, ‘Who knows my language – I don’t know’). It is then that the sky and the wind come in for help, as the blue exclaims: ‘Who knows which language was that which floated around?’ The wind only swings with the flowers of the new age and says, ‘Perhaps I know, perhaps!’ Let me reproduce the lines in original:

এক ফাগুনের গান সে আমার আর ফাগুনের কূলে কূলে
কার খোঁজে আজ পথ হারালো নতুন কালের ফুলে ফুলে॥
শুধায় তারে বকুলহেনা, কেউ আছে কি তোমার চেনা।’
সে বলে, ‘হায়, আছে কি নাই
না বুঝে তাই বেড়াই ভুলে
নতুন কালের ফুলে ফুলে।’
এক ফাগুনের মনের কথা আর ফাগুনের কানে কানে
গুঞ্জরিয়া কেঁদে শুধায়, মোর ভাষা আজ কেই বা জানে।’
আকাশ বলে, ‘কে জানে সে কোন্‌ ভাষা যে বেড়ায় ভেসে।’
হয়তো জানি’ ‘হয়তো জানি’
বাতাস বলে দুলে দুলে
নতুন কালের ফুলে ফুলে

(From Gitabitan, Pg 532)

Similar exchanges or dialogues between elements of nature could be seen also in a poem titled বাতাস (Batas, or ‘The Wind’) in Purabi (1925, b.1332) which begins with the following lines: golāp bale, ogo bātās, pralāp tomār bujhte ke bā pāre,/kena ese ghā dile mor dwāre?/bātās bale, ogo golāp, āmār bhāşā bojho nāi bā bojho,/ ami jāni kāhār paraś khojo;/ sei prabhāter ālo elo, āmi kebal bhāngiye dilām ghum,/ he mor kusum5. The similar structure is repeated in later stanzas. The Wind says that he knows for whom the Rose waits, even if she feigns no knowledge of his language. Earlier than that, the Rose was trying to argue that the language the Wind spoke was only delirious at best, and that she did not know why the wind was knocking at her door. The incomprehensible language of the Wind was only an excuse to hide one’s longing for a magical touch of the kinesics kind. Therefore, the Wind says – he knows whose touch the flower was longing for, and that was why he paved the way for the morning light to descend as he was only trying to awake the flowers.

Under the anthology ‘Kanika’, we get more than one reference for language, and one of them (স্পষ্টভাষীSpaşţabhāșī’ or ‘Outspoken’) is satirical as in the following text, and the other (প্রশ্নের অতীত Praśner Atīt’ or ‘Beyond questioning’) focuses on a profound idea.

আমি কাক স্পষ্টভাষী, কাক ডাকি বলে।

āmi kāk spaşţabhāșī, kāk ɖāki bale
পিক কয়, তুমি ধন্য, নমি পদতলে;

pika kay, tumi dhanya, nami padatale
স্পষ্টভাষা তব কণ্ঠে থাক বারো মাস,

Spaşţabhāșā taba kanţhe thāk bāromās
মোর থাক্‌ মিষ্টভাষা আর সত্যভাষ।

Mor thāk misţabhāșā ar satyabhāș (From Kanika 1899;1306b: স্পষ্টভাষী’)

In one of his songs ‘āpni āmār konkhāne’ (Wherein – within me- you reside?), he writes:

হে সমুদ্র, চিরকাল কী তোমার ভাষা
সমুদ্র কহিল, মোর অনন্ত জিজ্ঞাসা।
কিসের স্তব্ধতা তব ওগো গিরিবর?
হিমাদ্রি কহিল, মোর চিরনিরুত্তর

(From Kaņikā 1899;1306b: প্রশ্নের অতীত’)


It is not surprising that Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889 –1951) who revolutionized our enquiry on language and philosophy, was also concerned with similar issues. Wittgenstein turned out to be the most seminal influence on a large number of thinkers world-wide through his work on the nature of relationship between propositions as expressed through language and the world at large in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922-23) and his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) – is known to have often reverted to Rabindranath Tagore, and especially appreciated the latter’s use of silence in texts. That theory of numbers, or Mathematics and logic fail to capture this important aspect of man’s attempt to break free of the ‘boundedness’ of language, while remaining within the realm of language, was realized by both Wittgenstein as well as by thinkers such as Tagore and Aurobindo. In 1921, Wittgenstein recommend to his friend Paul Englemann that he should read Tagore’s King of the Dark Chamber (Cf. Englemann 1967:44-7), and gave a copy to his sister as his favourite. In the meetings of the Vienna Circle during 1927-28, he used to read out poetry from Tagore when he would not like to respond to his fellow positivist philosophers.

Interestingly, the influence of Tagore on Wittgensetin remains unexplored, even though this was mentioned by Janick and Toulmin (1973), and discussed by Ray Monk (1990: 408-10) while presenting Wittgenstein’s translation of Act II of the play. Abrahim Khan (2002) of the University of Toronto, briefly touches upon this relationship in a conference paper, but tries to bring in the ancient Indian philosophical thought under the Sāñkhya School, where concepts such as purușa, prakŗti, and the product of interaction between the two, i.e. the jīvapurușa are considered in terms of notions of boundednesss and of the reaching over boundary. Recall that these are the kernel ideas that also dominated the works of the founding fathers of Stucturalism in the west. The basic thrust here was that human beings and other living entities differed in that the former was able to cross the boundaries or limits it encountered in both thought and expression, whereas others could not. So much so that human beings could also make use of Silence as a form or unit of expression – something that helps define the workings of mind and consciousness. Khan differentiated between the notion of being a ‘Human’ and becoming a ‘Person’, where he carried with himself the idea of boundedness, or the potential for experiencing it.

The idea that the Self is bounded finitely to the finite and infinitely to the infinite at the same time (Kierkguard) – which would seem otherwise to be a contradictory proposition is reflected in Tagore’s description of the problem of self, when he says:

Man’s word are not a language at all, but merely a vocal gesture of the dumb…. The more vital his thoughts the more have his words to be explained by the context of his life,

He added that those seeking the meaning get only to the house and

are stopped by the outside wall and find no entrance to the hall

(“Sadhana”, Tr. 1972: 71f; Tuscon: Omen Communications).

It is not surprising to see an echo of this thought in Tagore’s letter of 13th October 1912 to Bertrand Russell, and let us look into linkages Tagore is trying to establish between:

I read your essay on the Essence of Religion in the last issue of the Hibbert Journal with very great interest. It reminded me of a verse in the Upanishad which runs thus: Yato veiche nivartante aprapya manasa saha/ Anandam brahmano vidvan na vibheti kutuschana. ‘From him words, as well as mind, come back baffled. Yet he who knows the joy of Brahman (the infinite) is free from all fear’

Through knowledge you cannot apprehend him; yet when you live the life of the Infinite, and are not bound within the limits of the finite self you realise that great joy which is above all the pleasures and pains of our selfish life and so you are free from all fear (Russell, Bertrand. 1967: 221. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1872-1914. London).

In fact, way back in 1913, in Sadhana, Tagore had already argued strongly that “man’s history is the history of his journey to the unknown in quest of the realization of his immortal self—his soul (II; Page 292)”, and he went on to add about the journey man had to perform by saying:

Through the rise and fall of empires; through the building up [of] gigantic piles of wealth and the ruthless scattering of them upon the dust; through the creation of vast bodies of symbols that give shape to his dreams and aspirations, and the casting of them away like the playthings of an outworn infancy; through his forging of magic keys with which to unlock the mysteries of creation, and through his throwing away of this labour of ages to go back to his workshop and work up afresh some new form; yes, through it all man is marching from epoch to epoch towards the full realization of his soul,–the soul which is greater than the things man accumulates, the deeds he accomplishes, the theories he builds, the soul whose onward course is never checked by death or dissolution (II, 293-4).


At the centre of this stance on redrawing the boundaries of speech is the firm belief of the likes of Tagore and Wittgenstein that when the din of all questioning dies down and the big waves of doubt snuggle down, nature upholds Silence, something that demarcates the boundaries of each word and the precedent expression, or stands like a brick wall between any two sentences. One could go one more step to say that one of the biggest discoveries of man is the discovery of punctuation and mark of these boundaries. This has echo in many texts of Tagore, but more truly in many verses included in his Stray Birds (1916).

Once again, these are not thoughts that appear only in the Oriental and in the typical Western traditions but they are of equal importance in the Arabic tradition. This fact has been noticed by an Egyptian poet-critic – Muhammad Hesham (2008) in his blog post – ‘Language of eternal silence: A reading of poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).’ For instance, he quotes Tagore writing in the 12th poem:

What language is thine, O sea?”

The language of eternal question.”

What language is thy answer, O sky?”

The language of eternal silence.”

Or, one could see in Tagore’s comments such as this:

The dust of the dead words clings to thee

Wash thy soul with silence. (Ibid. CXLVII)

In support of the above position, one could argue that ‘breaking free of’ or ‘getting outside’ language is the only way to found our notions of Truth and Objectivity (Scott, Michael 2003), which would be a realist position, whereas others like McCutcheon (2001) would argue that there is a sense in which Wittgenstein would show this view to be wrong because any appeal to reality or reason must be done ‘in and through’ language, and that therefore, mediation of language seems inescapable. This would therefore lead to the debate on what thinkers like Tagore had said or done to free the ‘subjects’ from the tyranny of the Objective. This perhaps need some reference to the positioning of Schiller, Hegel, Kierkegaard and others in the West, and the positions taken by Tagore, Brajendranath Seal and Sri Aurobindo in the East.

We would fail in our description of Tagore’s thoughts if we did not mention the brilliant lines that often surfaced in his fictional writings on the matter of ‘language’. In Galpaguccha, in a story titled ‘Shubha’ written in 1893, he says the following where he uses the metaphors of ‘translating’ and ‘constructing words’:

The feelings we express in words we construct ourselves, almost like a translation. The approximation is not always exact; mistakes do occur. But eyes don’t have to translate. The mind immediately casts its shadow over them; feelings ebb and flow at ease. Sometimes the eyes sparkle, sometimes they look faded and listless. At times, like the setting moon, they gaze on all impassively. At other times their glance bounces off objects like swift, glittering lightning. The language of the eyes of the one who cannot speak is limitless, benevolent and profound— somewhat like the clear sky, the site for an endless battle between dawn and dusk.


Schiller draws from many other poets and thinkers such as Goethe, Lessing, Ferguson, Herder, and Kant while working on his in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man where he argued that with industrialization, emergence of the divided classes and the State “machinery” wielding enormous power over subjects, all individuals are turned into mere fragments further “chained to a single fragment of the whole” (Taylor 1980: 25). The dissatisfaction towards the prevailing state of affairs where each subject must keep a vigil as to the unfolding events in the life of the society or state is evident in his cryptic comment such as follows:

 The eyes of the philosopher as well as of the man of the world are anxiously turned to the theatre of political events, where it is presumed the great destiny of man is to be played out. It would almost seem to betray a culpable indifference to the welfare of society if we did not share this general interest. For this great commerce in social and moral principles is of necessity a matter of the greatest concern to every human being, on the ground both of its subject and of its results. It must accordingly be of deepest moment to every man to think for himself. It would seem that now at length a question that formerly was only settled by the law of the stronger is to be determined by the calm judgment of the reason…” (Schiller 1794; Letter II; Literary and Philosophical Essays; The Harvard Classics.  1909-14).

Schiller had, therefore, created a paradigm of an integrated culture with a purported harmony between their “subjective purpose and objective forms of life” (Taylor 1980: 26), from where, Hegel (1793) picked up and showed that the religious life of individuals were intrinsically linked to the sociopolitical matrix of culture, which was defined in terms of fragmentation and spiritlessness of his time, and in terms of the disjunction between objective and subjective religion. In the anxiety to set up paradigms of a system of objective religion, the discourses are often set forth into a book, and expounded to others by a coercive authority. As a result, the objective religion becomes divorced from the subjective life of believers, and living faith becomes spiritless; or “superstitious adherence to purely external formalities”, which Hegel calls fetishism.

Marsh (2003) argues that Hegel’s entire project in philosophy had been to try and reintegrate people’s subjective purpose with their outward form of life, because Hegel believed that rather than there being a fundamental disjunction there must be a fundamental connection between subject and object, self and world. For Hegel, the dialectical unity of possibility and actuality is necessity, because that made it possible for Hegel to show that freedom is the “self-relation in difference which is born from of ‘pure self-recognition in absolute otherness” (Taylor 1980: 158).

Kierkegaard extended this Hegelian position further and said: “When a man is characterized as spiritless, he has become a talking machine, and there is nothing to prevent him from learning a philosophical rigmarole just as easily a confession of faith and a political recitative repeated by rote (The Concept of Dread;1957: 84-85). Do we not hear an echo of Tagore’s story ‘Tota-Kahini’ here where the bird has been tutored to death by those who thought that all knowledge was possible to be captured by merely memorizing it?

For Kierkegaard, an individual who resigns himself completely to be defined by his context, “…forgets himself, forgets his name (in the divine understanding of it), does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like others, to become an imitation, a number in the crowd” (Sickness unto Death 1970: 186). Considering the differences between Hegelian and Kierkegaardian positions and Tagore’s own ideas on the Self and the World, it is evident that all of them were engaged in thinking about the differentiation of subject and object, and on how an individual could transcend the shackles of his language, culture and context to join the forces of Universal Humanism. In various songs and poems, Tagore argues that Freedom and Sublimation could not be sought outside one’s own self, and that they would rather emerge from within. The materialism that dominates the modern times blinds us from this perception. In this context, Tagore had a lot of support from the philosophers of the East such as Sir Brajendranath Seal (the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mysore – an entirely indigenous institution set up as opposed to the British-sponsored university projects in early modern India). Pointing towards the dangers of the State and the Religious Authorities spreading the gospel of doom during and before the First World War (1914-18), Seal said in 1935: “A world gone mad and clanking the chains in hymns of hate, looks and looks not in vain, to the East, nay to India, for a new gospel of freedom, a gospel of the peace of the spirit, in the oneness of the Brahman” (qtd in Das 1981:164).

In the opening remarks in his Sadhana, Tagore (1916) began brilliantly by placing similar thoughts in his own inimitable style which shows that his line of thinking was much in conformity with the Hegelian ideas that would even like to “read” Jesus Christ and his ideas as purely philosophical ideas that defined Christ’s breaking away from the prevailing ideas about the relationship between the individual and the sublime. The fact that domestication of knowledge that civilizational efforts produced did not break the mental wall of the citizens comes out well in Tagore’s own interpretation:

The civilisation of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all the modern civilisations have their cradles of brick and mortar.

These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of “divide and rule” in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our…” (Tagore, Rabindranath. 1916. Sadhana)

It is this ‘Wall’, or the ‘Achalayatan’ (the immovable edifice) that Tagore talked about breaking in so many texts.

While Tagore was often criticized for taking his institution back into the Upanishadic age, and whereas many easily concluded and even liked to write him off as an unmodern (if not anti-modern) reactionary, we often tend to overlook how he argued to situate nature and culture in a harmonious duality through his efforts at Santiniketan beginning from the Nature School, Patha-bhavana (where one learns, or takes lesson – or Patha – ‘reading’ as it were, from Prakriti – the nature) to his efforts of Sriniketan – through the connections that were made with the rural and the folk around the place by linking up numerous villages around with his institution. He writes:

…in India it was in the forests that our civilisation had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects.

Such a life, it may be thought, tends to have the effect of dulling human intelligence and dwarfing the incentives to progress by lowering the standards of existence. But in ancient India we find that the circumstances of forest life did not overcome man’s mind, and did not enfeeble the current of his energies, but only gave to it a particular direction. Having been in constant contact with the living growth of nature, his mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisitions. His aim was not to acquire but to realise, to enlarge his consciousness by growing with and growing into his surroundings. He felt that truth is all-comprehensive, that there is no such thing as absolute isolation in existence, and the only way of attaining truth is through the interpenetration of our being into all objects. To realise this great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavour of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.

In later days there came a time when these primeval forests gave way to cultivated fields, and wealthy cities sprang up on all sides. Mighty kingdoms were established, which had communications with all the great powers of the world. But even in the heyday of its material prosperity the heart of India ever looked back with adoration upon the early ideal of strenuous self-realisation, and the dignity of the simple life of the forest hermitage, and drew its best inspiration from the wisdom stored there. (Tagore, Rabindranath. 1916. Sadhana)

I am often asked as to why Tagore was relevant even today, and also where his moorings were – in the Oriental knowledge system or in the Western thoughts. I think his brilliance was in arguing for a rare synthesis which was practically the beginning of global modernity. I would also ask the questioners to go back to what he says about governance, about nation-building, about building relationship with nature, about the place of culture in all that we do in the name of “higher” education (trying to forget the “lower” and the base elements of life), and you would get the answer yourself. If he were only a bard, singing songs of love and peace, or only a novelist, highlighting the debates and the discourse of his time on fashionable topics such as gender (man-woman relationship) and person (man-to-man relationship) and number (one-to-many relationship in modern nationhood and democratic governance), we would have still hailed him as one who would forewarn his fellow beings of the generations to come to ‘realise’ what he was doing. But that he had a project of immense importance for a new world – not just a new and resurgent India (in terms of Indian ideas and thoughts, and not in terms of dominance) would be amply clear if we skimmed through his lectures and essays as well as his numerous letters written to so many fellow travellers in life.


Englemann, Paul. (1967). Letters from Wittgenstein. Oxford: Blackwell.

Das, Trilochan. (1981). ‘The Social, Anthropological and Philosophical Philosophy of Acharya Brajendranath Seal’ In Frantz, Charles ed. Ideas and Trends in World Anthropology. XIth International Congress of Ethnological and Anthropological Sciences, or ICEAS Series 4 [Gen Ed. Lalitha P. Vidyarthi]. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company. 145-68.

Hesham, Muhammad. (2008) ‘Language of eternal silence: A reading of poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).’ Retrieved from


Janick, Allan and Toulmin, Stephen. (1973) Wittgenstein’s Vienna. New York: Simon and Schuster,

Khan, Abrahim H. (2002) ‘Person and Boundedness in Wittgenstein and Tagore: Positioning Artificial Intelligence’. Paper given at MiCon 2002 (Conference on Mind and Consciousness: Various Approaches), Infinity Foundation, IIAS, ICPR, CSIR and ICMR; IIT-Kharagpur; January 9-11.

Marsh, Jack. (2003). ‘Hegel, Kierkgaard, and the Structure of a Spirit-full Self’. Quodlibet Journal: Volume 5 Number 4, October 2003 [ISSN: 1526-6575].

McCutcheon, Felicity. (2001) Religion Within the Limits of Language Alone: Wittgenstein on Philosophy and Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Monk, Ray. (1990). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Free Press.

Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von. (1794/1909). On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Literary and Philosophical Essays ; The Harvard Classics.  1909–14. Tr. of Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen (1794).

Scott, Michael. (2003), ‘Review of Felicity McCutcheon. (2001)’ in Ars Disputandi 3, a Web-Zine at http://www.ArsDisputandi.org.

Tagore, Rabindranath. (1913/1916). Sadhana: The Realization of Life. New York: The Macmillan Company.

—. (1916) The Stray Birds. [Trans. from Bengali to English by the author]. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Taylor, Mark C. (1980). Journeys to Selfhood. Berekly: University of California Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1793). Tubingen Essays. Stuttgardt.

— (1807) Phenomenology of Spirit. Tr. of System der Wissenshaft & Phanomenologie des Geistes (Bomberg & Wurzburg: bey Joseph Anton Goebhardt) by A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Kierkegaard, Soren A. (1957). The Concept of Dread. trans. Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1922-23). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Tr. by C.K.Ogden with assistance from G. E. Moore, F. P. Ramsey, and Wittgenstein). Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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1 Piaget, J. (1975). The child’s conception of the world. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams. (Originally published 1932).

2 Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R.W. Rieber, A. Carton (Eds.). The Collected Works of Vygotsky, Vol. 1, 37-285.

3 বিদেশী ভাষা নূতন শিখিতে আরম্ভ করিয়া যখন সেই ভাষার সাহিত্য পুস্তক পড়িতে চেষ্টা করা যায়, তখন দুই কারণে সেই সাহিত্যের প্রকৃত রস গ্রহণ করা যায় না। ১মতখন আমরা পরপুরুষ বলিয়া ভাষার অন্তঃপুরের মধ্যে প্রবেশ করিতে পারি না। প্রত্যেক কথার অন্দর মহলে যে লাজুক ভাবসকল বাস করে, যাহারা সেই কথার শ্রী, সৌন্দর্য, হৃদয়দেবতা তাহাদের সহিত সাক্ষাৎ হয় না, কেবল তাহার বহির্দেশবাসী অর্থটুকুমাত্র আফিসের সাজে দেখা দেয়। ২য়প্রত্যেক কথাটাকে পৃথক পৃথক করিয়া বুঝিতে হয়অনভিজ্ঞ আনাড়ির কাছে তাহারা সকলেই স্বস্বপ্রধান হইয়া নিজমূর্তি ধারণ করে, তাহারা সকলেই বড়ো হইয়া সমগ্র পদটিকে (sentenceকে) আচ্ছন্ন করিয়া ফেলে (From Tagore’s essay titled অপরিচিত ভাষা অপরিচিত সংগীত).

4 সুখ দুঃখ গীতস্বর ফুটিতেছে নিরন্তর—
ধ্বনি শুধু
, সাথে নাই ভাষা।
বিচিত্র সে কলরোলে
ব্যাকুল করিয়া তোলে
জাগাইয়া বিচিত্র দুরাশা

5 গোলাপ বলে, ওগো বাতাস, প্রলাপ তোমার বুঝতে কে বা পারে,/ কেন এসে ঘা দিলে মোর দ্বারে? / বাতাস বলে, ওগো গোলাপ, আমার ভাষা বোঝ বা নাই বোঝ, / আমি জানি কাহার পরশ খোঁজ; / সেই প্রভাতের আলো এল, আমি কেবল ভাঙিয়ে দিলাম ঘুম, / হে মোর কুসুম।


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