Three Poems from the Gitanjali


Gitanjali (Anjali of Songs) is a book of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali master poet of the early twentieth century. The English translation of the Gitanjali was most of the reason that Tagore later received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Like all true poems, those from the Gitanjali are irreducible. But the common themes are the personal and intimate nature of the divine, which is found in all places; the painful and desperate longing to find it; the power and process of creating songs to praise it; and the meaning of death and time in the face of it.

The collection has 103 poems, all of which are on Wikisource. But although they are all lovely in their own way, only a small number have stuck with me over the years. Here are three, plus whatever comments come to mind for me when I read them.


The first poem that comes to mind when I think of Tagore:

My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.

My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.

Through all our complications, the core of life is so simple. But simple does not mean easy; the fundamentals of life are so basic and clear, yet we still need to practice them over and over and over again. And when we connect to those purposes much larger than ourselves, our responses become natural.


Another with a striking image:

The child who is decked with prince's robes and who has jewelled chains round his neck loses all pleasure in his play; his dress hampers him at every step.

In fear that it may be frayed, or stained with dust he keeps himself from the world, and is afraid even to move.

Mother, it is no gain, thy bondage of finery, if it keep one shut off from the healthful dust of the earth, if it rob one of the right of entrance to the great fair of common human life.

Through fixation and concept we lose touch with the loam of reality. I'm reminded of the phrase "the devil is in the details," a sad inversion of the earlier phrase "God is in the details."


And another, more of a narrative:

"Prisoner, tell me, who was it that bound you?"

"It was my master," said the prisoner. "I thought I could outdo everybody in the world in wealth and power, and I amassed in my own treasure-house the money due to my king. When sleep overcame me I lay upon the bed that was for my lord, and on waking up I found I was a prisoner in my own treasure-house."

"Prisoner, tell me, who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain?"

"It was I," said the prisoner, "who forged this chain very carefully. I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive leaving me in a freedom undisturbed. Thus night and day I worked at the chain with huge fires and cruel hard strokes. When at last the work was done and the links were complete and unbreakable, I found that it held me in its grip."

The meaning is more elusive to me. The danger of serving two masters? The peril of ends justifying means? Or perhaps that our deepest problems are of our own doing? The common factor in all of your life experiences is you. Make sure that "you" is a good one.