An Indian Folk Religion
by Rabindranath Tagore
The miseries of the thraldom of self
IN HISTORICAL TIME the Buddha comes first of those who declared salvation to all men, without distinction, as by right man's own. What was the special force which startled men's minds and, almost within the master's lifetime, spread his teachings over India? It was the unique significance of the event, when a man came to men and said to them, ‘I am here to emancipate you from the miseries of the thraldom of self.’ This wisdom came, neither in texts of Scripture, nor in symbols of deities, nor in religious practices sanctified by ages, but through the voice of a living man and the love that flowed from a human heart.
And I believe this was the first occasion in the history of the world when the idea of the Avatar found its place in religion. Western scholars are never tired of insisting that Buddhism is of the nature of a moral code, coldly leading to the path of extinction. They forget that it was held to be a religion that roused in its devotees an inextinguishable fire of enthusiasm and carried them to lifelong exile across the mountain and desert barriers. To say that a philosophy of suicide can keep kindled in human hearts for centuries such fervour of self-sacrifice is to go against all the laws of sane psychology. The religious enthusiasm which cannot be bound within any daily ritual, but overflows into adventures of love and beneficence, must have in its centre that element of personality which rouses the whole soul. In answer, it may possibly be said that this was due to the personality of Buddha himself. But that also is not quite true. The personality which stirs the human heart to its immense depths, leading it to impossible deeds of heroism, must in the process itself reveal to men the infinite which is in all humanity. And that is what happened in Buddhism, making it a religion in the complete sense of the word.
Like the religion of the Upanishads, Buddhism also generated two divergent currents; the one impersonal, preaching the abnegation of self through discipline, and the other personal, preaching the cultivation of sympathy for all creatures, and devotion to the infinite truth of love; the other, which is called the Mahayana, had its origin in the positive element contained in Buddha's teachings, which is immeasurable love. It could never, by any logic, find its reality in the emptiness of the truthless abyss. And the object of Buddha's meditation and his teachings was to free humanity from sufferings. But what was the path that he revealed to us? Was it some negative way of evading pain and seeking security against it? On the contrary, his path was the path of sacrifice - the utmost sacrifice of love. The meaning of such sacrifice is to reach some ultimate truth, some positive ideal, which in its greatness can accept suffering and transmute it into the profound peace of self-renunciation. True emancipation from suffering, which is the inalienable condition of the limited life of the self, can never be attained by fleeing from it, but rather by changing its value in the realm of truth - the truth of the higher life of love.
We have learnt that, by calculations made in accordance with the law of gravitation, some planets were discovered exactly in the place where they should be. Such a law of gravitation there is also in the moral world-And when we find men’s minds disturbed, as they were by the preaching of the Buddha, we can be sure, even without any corroborative evidence, that there must have been some great luminous body of attraction, positive and powerful, and not a mere unfathomable vacancy. It is exactly this which we discover in the heart of the Mahayana system; and we have no hesitation in saying that the truth of Buddhism is there. The oil has to be burnt, not for the purpose of diminishing it, but for the purpose of giving light to the lamp. And when the Buddha said that the self must go, he said at the same moment that love must be realized. Thus originated the doctrine of the Dharma-kaya, the Infinite Wisdom and Love manifested in the Buddha. It was the first instance, as I have said, when men felt that the Universal and the Eternal Spirit was revealed in a human individual whom they had known and touched. The joy was too great for them, since the very idea itself came to them as a freedom - a freedom from the sense of their measureless insignificance. It was the first time I repeat, when the individual, as a man, felt in himself the Infinite made concrete.
What was more, those men who felt the love welling forth from the heart of Buddhism, as one with the current of the Eternal Love itself, were struck with the idea that such an effluence could never have been due to a single cataclysm of history - unnatural and therefore untrue. They felt instead that it was in the eternal nature of truth, that the event must belong to a series of manifestations; there must have been numberless other revelations in the past and endless others to follow.
Infinite Being was already in every one of them
The idea grew and widened until men began to feel that this Infinite Being was already in every one of them, and that it rested with themselves to remove the sensual obstructions and reveal him in their own lives. In every individual there was, they realized, the potentiality of Buddha - that is to say, the Infinite made manifest.
We have to keep in mind the great fact that the preaching of the Buddha in India was not followed by stagnation of life - as would surely have happened if humanity was without any positive goal and his teaching was without any permanent value in itself. On the contrary, we find the arts and sciences springing up in its wake, institutions started for alleviating the misery of all creatures, human and non-human, and great centres of education founded. Some mighty power was suddenly roused from its obscurity, which worked for long centuries and changed the history of man in a large part of the world. And that power came into its full activity only by the individual being made conscious of his infinite worth. It was like the sudden discovery of a great mine of living wealth.
During the period of Buddhism the doctrine of deliverance flourished, which reached all mankind and released man's inner resources from neglect and self-insult. Even today we see in our own country human nature, from its despised corner of indignity, slowly and painfully finding its way to assert the inborn majesty of man. It is like the imprisoned tree finding a rift in the wall, and sending out its eager branches into freedom, to prove that darkness is not its birthright, that its love is for the sunshine. In the time of the Buddha the individual discovered his own immensity of worth, first by witnessing a man who united his heart in sympathy with all creatures, in all worlds, through the power of a love that knew no bounds; and then by learning that the same light of perfection lay confined within himself behind the clouds of selfish desire, and that the Bodhi-hridaya - ‘the heart of the Eternal Enlightenment’ - every moment claimed its unveiling in his own heart. Nagarjuna speaks of this Bodhi-hridaya (another of whose names is BodhiCitta) as follows:
One who understands the nature of the Bodhi-hridaya, sees everything with a loving heart; for love is the essence of Bodhi-hridaya.' My object in writing this paper is to show, by the further help of illustration from a popular religious sect of Bengal, that the religious instinct of man urges him towards a truth, by which he can transcend the finite nature of the individual self. Man would never feel the indignity of his limitations if these were inevitable. Within him he has glimpses of the Infinite, which give him assurance that this truth is not in his limitations, but that this truth can be attained by love. For love is the positive quality of the Infinite, and love's sacrifice accordingly does not lead to emptiness, but to fulfilment, to Bodhi-hridaya, 'the heart of enlightenment'.
The members of the religious sect I have mentioned call themselves 'Baul.' They live outside social recognition, and their very obscurity helps them in their seeking, from a direct source, the enlightenment which the soul longs for, the eternal light of love.
It would be absurd to say that there is little difference between Buddhism and the religion of these simple people, who have no system of metaphysics to support their faith. But my object in bringing close together these two religions, which seem to belong to opposite poles, is to point out the fundamental unity in them. Both of them believe in a fulfilment which is reached by love's emancipating us from the dominance of self. In both these religions we find man's yearning to attain the infinite worth of his individuality, not through any conventional valuation of society, but through his perfect relationship with Truth. They agree in holding that the realization of our ultimate object is waiting for us in ourselves. The Baul likens this fulfilment to the blossoming of a bud, and sings:
Make way, O bud, make way, Burst open thy heart and make way. The opening spirit has overtaken thee, Canst thou remain a bud any longer?
One day in a small village in Bengal, an ascetic woman from the neighbourhood came to see me. She had the name 'sarva-khepi' given to her by the village people, the meaning of which is 'the woman who is mad about all things.' She Fixed her star-like eyes upon my face and startled me with the question, 'When are you coming to meet me underneath the trees?' Evidently she pitied me who lived (according to her) prisoned behind walls, banished away from the great meeting-place of the All, where she had her dwelling. Just at that moment my gardener came with his basket, and when the woman understood that the flowers in the vase on my table were going to be thrown away, to make place for the fresh ones, she looked pained and said to me, 'You are always engaged reading and writing; you do not see.' Then she took the discarded flowers in her palms, kissed them and touched them with her forehead, and reverently murmured to herself, 'Beloved of my heart.' I felt that this woman, in her direct vision of the infinite personality in the heart of all things, truly represented the spirit of India.
In the same village I came into touch with some Baul singers. I had known them by their names, occasionally seen them singing and begging in the street, and so passed them by, vaguely classifying them in my mind under the general name of Vairagis, or ascetics.
The time came when I had occasion to meet with some members of the same body and talk to them about spiritual matters. The first Baul song, which I chanced to hear with any attention, profoundly stirred my mind. Its words are so simple that it makes me hesitate to render them in a foreign tongue, and set them forward for critical observation. Besides, the best part of a song is missed when the tune is absent; for thereby its movement and its colour are lost, and it becomes like a butterfly whose wings have been plucked.
The first line may be translated thus: 'Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?' This phrase, 'the Man of my Heart,' is not peculiar to this song, but is usual with the Baul sect. It means that, for me, the supreme truth of all existence is in the revelation of the Infinite in my own humanity.
'The Man of my Heart,' to the Baul, is like a divine instrument perfectly tuned. He gives expression to infinite truth in the music of life. And the longing for the truth which is in us, which we have not yet realised, breaks out in the following Baul song:
Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart? He is lost to me and I seek him wandering from land to land. I am listless for that moonrise of beauty, which is to light my life, which I long to see in the fulness of vision, in gladness of heart.
The name of the poet who wrote this song was Gagan. He was almost illiterate; and the ideas he received from his Baul teacher found no distraction from the self-consciousness of the modern age. He was a village postman, earning about ten shillings a month, and he died before he had completed his teens. The sentiment, to which he gave such intensity of expression, is common to most of the songs of his sect. And it is a sect, almost exclusively confined to that lower floor of society, where the light of modern education hardly finds an entrance, while wealth and respectability shun its utter indigence.
In the song I have translated above, the longing of the singer to realize the infinite in his own personality is expressed. This has to be done daily by its perfect expression in life, in love. For the personal expression of life, in its perfection, is love; just as the personal expression of truth in its perfection is beauty.
In the political life of the modern age the idea of democracy has given mankind faith in the individual. It gives each man trust in his own possibilities, and pride in his humanity. Something of the same idea, we find, has been working in the popular mind of India, with regard to its religious consciousness. Over and over again it tries to assert, not only that God is for each of us, but also that God is in each of us. These people have no special incarnations in their simple theology, because they know that God is special to each individual. They say that to be born a man is the greatest privilege that can fall to a creature in all the world. They assert that gods in Paradise envy human beings. Why? Because God's will, in giving his love, finds its completeness in man 'swill returning that love. Therefore Humanity is a necessary factor in the perfecting of the divine truth. The Infinite, for its self-expression, comes down into the manifoldness of the Finite; and the Finite, for its self-realization, must rise into the unity of the Infinite. Then only is the Cycle of Truth complete.
The dignity of man, in his eternal right of Truth, finds expression in the following song, composed, not by a theologian or a man of letters, but by one who belongs to that ninety per cent of the population of British India whose education has been far less than elementary, in fact almost below zero:
My longing is to meet you in play of love, my Lover; But this longing is not only mine, but also yours. For your lips can have their smile, and your flute its music, only in your delight in my love; and therefore you are importunate, even as I am.
If the world were a mere expression of formative forces, then this song would be pathetic in its presumption. But why is there beauty at all in creation - the beauty whose only meaning is in a call that claims disinterestedness as a response? The poet proudly says: 'Your flute could not have its music of beauty if your delight were not in my love. Your power is great - and there I am not equal to you - but it lies even in me to make you smile, and if you and I never meet, then this play of love remains incomplete.' If this were not true, then it would be an utter humiliation to exist at all in this world. If it were solely our business to seek the Lover, and his to keep himself passively aloof in the infinity of his glory, or actively masterful only in imposing his commands upon us, then we should dare to defy him, and refuse to accept the everlasting insult latent in the one-sided importunity of a slave. And this is what the Baul says - he who, in the world of men, goes about singing for alms from door to door, with his one-stringed instrument and long robe of patched-up rags on his back:
I stop and sit here on the road. Do not ask me to walk farther. If your love can be complete without mine, let me turn back from seeing you. I have been travelling to seek you, my friend, for long; Yet I refuse to beg a sight of you, if you do not feel my need. I am blind with market dust and midday glare, and so wait, my heart's lover, in hopes that your own love will send you to find me out.
The poet is fully conscious that his value in the world's market is pitifully small; that he is neither wealthy nor learned. Yet he has his great compensation, for he has come close to his Lover's heart. In Bengal the women bathing in the river often use their overturned water jars to keep themselves floating when they swim, and the poet uses this incident for his simile:
It is lucky that I am an empty vessel, For when you swim, I keep floating by your side. Your full vessels are left on the empty shore, they are for use; But I am carried to the river in your arms, and I dance to the rhythm of your heart-throbs and heaving of the waves.
The great distinguished people of the world do not know that these beggars - deprived of education, honour, and wealth - can, in the pride of their souls, look down upon them as the unfortunate ones, who are left on the shore for their worldly uses, but whose life ever misses the touch of the Lover's arms.
The feeling that man is not a mere casual visitor at the palace-gate of the world, but the invited guest whose presence is needed to give the royal banquet its sole meaning, is not confined to any particular sect in India. Let me quote here some poems from a mediaeval poet of Western India - Jnandas - whose works are nearly forgotten, and have become scarce from the very exquisiteness of their excellence. In the following poem he is addressing God's messenger, who comes to us in the morning light of our childhood, in the dusk of our day's end, and in the night's darkness:
Messenger, morning brought you, habited in gold. After sunset, your song wore a tune of ascetic grey, and then came night. Your message was written in bright letters across the black. Why is such splendour about you, to lure the heart of one who is nothing?
This is the answer of the messenger:
Great is the festival hall where you are to be the only guest. Therefore the letter to you is written from sky to sky, And I, the proud servant, bring the invitation with all ceremony.
And thus the poet knows that the silent rows of stars carry God's own invitation to the individual soul.
The same poet sings:
What hast thou come to beg from the beggar, O King of Kings? My Kingdom is poor for want of him, my dear one, and I wait for him in sorrow. How long will you keep him waiting, O wretch, who has waited for you for ages in silence and stillness? Open your gate, and make this very moment fit for the union.
It is the song of man's pride in the value given to him by Supreme Love and realized by his own love.
The Vaishnava religion, which has become the popular religion of India, carries the same message: God's love finding its finality in man's love. According to it, the lover, man, is the complement of the Lover, God, in the internal love drama of existence; and God's call is ever wafted in man's heart in the world-music, drawing him towards the union. This idea has been expressed in rich elaboration of symbols verging upon realism. But for these Bauls this idea is direct and simple, full of the dignified beauty of truth, which shuns all tinsels of ornament.
The Baul poet, when asked why he had no sect mark on his forehead, answered in his song that the true colour decoration appears on the skin of the fruit when its inner core is filled with ripe, sweet juice; but by artificially smearing it with colour from outside you do not make it ripe. And he says of his Guru, his teacher, that he is puzzled to find in which direction he must make salutation. For his teacher is not one, but many, who, moving on, form a procession of wayfarers.
Bauls have no temple or image for their worship, and this utter simplicity is needful for men whose one subject is to realize the inner-most nearness of God. The Baul poet expressly says that if we try to approach God through the senses we miss him:
Bring him not into your house as the guest of your eyes; but let him come at your heart's invitation. Opening your doors to that which is seen only, is to lose it.
Yet, being a poet, he also knows that the objects of sense can reveal their spiritual meaning only when they are not seen through mere physical eyes:
Eyes can see only dust and earth, But feel it with your heart, it is pure joy. The flowers of delight blossom on all sides, in every form, but where is your heart's thread to weave them in a garland?
These Bauls have a philosophy, which they call the philosophy of the body; but they keep its secret; it is only for the initiated. Evidently the underlying idea is that the individual's body is itself the temple, in whose inner mystic shrine the Divine appears before the soul, and the key to it has to be found from those who know. But as the key is not for us outsiders, I leave it with the observation that this mystic philosophy of the body is the outcome of the attempt to get rid of all the outward shelters which are too costly for people like themselves. But this human body of ours is made by God's own hand, from his own love, and even if some men, in the pride of their superiority, may despise it, God Finds his joy in dwelling in others of yet lower birth. It is a truth easier of discovery by these people of humble origin than by men of proud estate.
The pride of the Baul beggar is not in his worldly distinction, but in the distinction that God himself has given to him. He feels himself like a flute through which God's own breath of love has been breathed:
My heart is like a flute he has played on. If ever it fall into other hands, - let him fling it away. My lover's flute is dear to him. Therefore, if to-day alien breath have entered it and sounded strange notes, Let him break it to pieces and strew the dust with them.
So we find that this man also has his disgust of defilement. While the ambitious world of wealth and power despises him, he in his turn thinks that the world's touch desecrates him who has been made sacred by the touch of his Lover. He does not envy us our life of ambition and achievements, but he knows how precious his own life has been:
I am poured forth in living notes of joy and sorrow by your breath. Morning and evening, in summer and in rains, I am fashioned to music. Yet should I be wholly spent in some flight of song, I shall not grieve, the tune is so precious to me.
Our joys and sorrows are contradictory when self separates them in opposition. But for the heart in which self merges in God's love, they lose their absoluteness. So the Baul's prayer is to feel in all situations - in danger, or pain, or sorrow - that he is in God's hands. He solves the problem of emancipation from sufferings by accepting and setting them in a higher context:
I am the boat, you are the sea, and also the boatman. Though you never make the shore, though you let me sink, why should I be foolish and afraid? Is the reaching the shore a greater prize than losing myself with you? If you are only the haven, as they say, then what is the sea? Let it surge and toss me on its waves, I shall be content. I live in you, whatever and however you appear. Save me or kill me as you wish, only never leave me in others' hands.
It is needless to say, before I conclude, that I had neither the training nor the opportunity to study this mendicant religious sect in Bengal from an ethnological standpoint. I was attracted to Find out how the living currents of religious movements work in the heart of the people, saving them from degradation imposed by the society of the learned, of the rich, or of the highborn; how the spirit of man, by making use even of its obstacles, reaches fulfilment, led thither, not by the learned authorities in the scriptures, or by the mechanical impulse of the dogma-driven crowd, but by the unsophisticated aspiration of the loving soul. On the inaccessible mountain peaks of theology the snows of creed remain eternally rigid, cold, and pure. But God's manifest shower falls direct on the plain of humble hearts, flowing there in various channels, even getting mixed with some mud in its course, as it is soaked into the underground currents, invisible, but ever-moving.
I can think of nothing better than to conclude my paper with a poem of Jnandas, in which the aspiration of all simple spirits has found a devout expression:
I had travelled all day and was tired; then I bowed my head towards thy kingly court still far away. The night deepened, a longing burned in my heart. Whatever the words I sang, pain cried through them - for even my songs thirsted - O my Lover, my Beloved, my Best in all the world. When time seemed lost in darkness, thy hand dropped its sceptre to take up the lute and strike the uttermost chords; And my heart sang out, O my Lover, my Beloved, my Best in all the world. Ah, who is this whose arms enfold me? Whatever I have to leave, let me leave; and whatever I have to bear, let me bear. Only let me walk with thee, O my Lover, my Beloved, my Best in all the world. Descend at whiles from thy high audience hall, come down amid joys and sorrows. Hide in all forms and delights, in love, And in my heart sing thy songs, - O my Lover, my Beloved, my Best in all the world.