The only artist from India of Sri Aurobindo’s stature in the last century is Tagore. And it is of interest to note that they both had the highest regard for each other. Sri Aurobindo, called him ‘a wayfarer towards the same goals as ours in his own way’, in a letter to DK Roy. While Tagore honored him after his arrest by the British in August 1907 for sedition as editor of the Bande Mataram,

“Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee!

O friend, my country’s friend, O voice incarnate, free,

Of India’s soul! No soft renown doth crown thy lot,

Nor pelf or careless comfort is for thee…

The fiery messenger that with the lamp of God

Hath come – where is the king who can with chain or rod

Chastise him? Chains that were to bind salute his feet,

And prisons greet him as their guest with welcome sweet…

And then to Him I bow Who in His sport cloth make

New worlds in fiery dissolution’s awful wake,

From death awakes new life; in danger’s bosom rears

Prosperity; and sends his devotee in tears….”

Tagore, a poet, novelist, playwright, story-writer, essayist, travelogue, composer, painter and educationist single-handedly energized Bengal Renaissance in literature and music. While reviled for his compositions and paintings by many modernist critics, he remains the high watermark of creativity, wisdom, lyricism and idealism in modern India, the standard against whom all poets to follow were appraised, and even in criticism and deprecation acknowledged as a dominant influence and a giant. It almost became an emblem of honor for a critic to have attacked Tagore. But Tagore is like the Himalayas. Which peak shall one attack as lowly or not attained enough? Which snowcap pales in luster to the others in its company?

His word-music is enchanting even to those who do not fully understand Bengali. His paintings depict a different way of seeing, despite the fact that he had had no formal training in draftsmanship. A natural artist, flowing like the mighty Ganges, taking vast tracts of terrain in its wide embrace, all we can do with this wonder of creative flowering is behold quietly as one gazes at a wonder of the natural world. Girish Karnad criticized the lack of movement in his plays which criticism might have some validity. Pritish Nandy might take issue with Rabindra Sangeet. But it seems to me that even trying to defend Tagore is an impertinence to him. It is as if one attempted to defend the culture and art of a nation, such was his deep identification with the genius of the people he loved. 

Sri Aurobindo appraised him as one of the forbears of ‘The Future Poetry’ and his lyricism and spirituality with a fine sensitivity and an artist’s spontaneous ease of expression are mentioned with respect and critical praise. And he says, ““The poetry of Tagore owes its sudden and universal success to this advantage that he gives us more of this discovery and fusion for which the mind of our age is in quest than any other creative writer of the time. His work is a constant music of the overpassing of the borders, a chant-filled realm in which the subtle sounds and lights of the truth of the spirit give new meanings to the finer subtleties of life.”

And Tagore saw the great seer and rishi in Sri Aurobindo when he came to Pondicheri. And he describes his visit thus. “…the French steamer on which I was travelling touched Pondicherry and I came to meet Aurobindo. At the very first sight I could realise that he had been seeking for the soul and had gained it, and through this long process of realisation has accumulated within him a silent power of inspiration. His face was radiant with an inner light and his serene presence made it evident to me that his soul was not crippled and cramped to the measure of some tyrannical doctrine…I felt that the utterance of the ancient Hindu Rishi spoke from him of that equanimity which gives the human soul its freedom of entrance into the All. I said to him, “You have the Word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world, ‘Hearken to me’.”

“Years ago I saw Aurobindo in the atmosphere of his earlier heroic youth and I sang to him, “Aurobindo, accept the salutation from Rabindranath.” Today I saw him in a deeper atmosphere of a reticent richness of wisdom and again sang to him in silence, “Aurobindo, accept the salutation from Rabindranath.”

How does one compare the two, both renaissance men, both virat purushas in their fields and genres, both representative men of the Indian nation in its gathering potential, both great yogis, nationalists and revolutionaries in their own realms? It is sufficient to realize our great fortune that we are so close to their presence spatially and temporally, with barely a few degrees of separation. It is sufficient to know that we represent them in our journey forward as their chosen people.

If Tagore invented the genre of Bengali short story or created the Bengali that we hear today, Sri Aurobindo rediscovered the secret of the Vedas and gave us the greatest bhashya of the Gita in modern times. If Tagore established Bengali renaissance after Bankim and Michael Madhusudan, Sri Aurobindo initiated the national renaissance at about the same time as Gurudev Rabindranath. If Tagore gave us international recognition with his universalism, idealism and pacifism, Sri Aurobindo announced the new age of earth’s evolution in ‘The Life Divine’ and ‘The Supramental Manifestation’.

And yet, each is incomparable. Attempts to contrast their contributions are both odious and otiose. Each is a unique synthesis of the great fountainheads of Indic civilization. Each uniquely honoring each other as two ancient rishis born in modern times, seeing each other’s life blossoming in public and in deepest inner seclusion. They are each a lesson to us, as beacons and guideposts, as a reminder of our own possibilities and the greatness they encompassed in their lives as infinitely as humanly possible.

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