Bangladesh: Book review on “Sufism in Rabindra Thought & other Essays”

Rabindranath Tagore is the lighthouse of Bengali language and Bengali culture. Rabindranath’s Sufi thoughts are well explicated and other essays are also well thought-out in this precious book.

Written by: Belal Bangalee, Bangladesh
Reviewed by : Anwar A Khan
Published by: Gonoprakashan, Dhaka
First edition published :OmorEkusheyBoiMela, February 2019, Bangladesh
Distributor :TafadarProkashani, Dhaka

A book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is merely described or analysed based on its content, style, and merit. I have read the book “RabindraChatonaiSufibad o bibidhProbandha (Sufism in Rabindra Thought & other Essays).” It carries 112 pages comprehending 15 essays of immense significations. The first two essays of the book are themed on Sufism in Rabindranath Tagore’s thought and 6th and 7th essays are centredness with loving, amorousness and final state in Rabindra mental thought; collaborative approach of RabindraSangeet and Baul philosophical truth, and they do tempt inBelal’s writings. And these parts among all the essays are the foremost lineament voice of the book.

Rabindranath Tagore has been praised by a number of Bengali Muslim authors for his sympathetic portrayal of Islamic concepts and ideals, and it is well known that some of his works of prose and verse were influenced by Persian poetry and Sufism. He was also deeply influenced by the Persian classical poet. In the last decade of his life, Tagore described his admiration for the great Persian Sufi poets, visiting the tombs of Ḥafiẓ and Sadi in Shiraz in Iran.

Although it is clear that Tagore was not himself as thoroughly involved in mystical practice and contemplation as Vivekananda or his own father, he was far from being a secular intellectual basking in the pleasures of the mind at the expense of the raptures of the spirit. He maintained regular exercises of meditation, and his prose and verse were steeped in mystical sentiments and metaphysical disquisitions.

Tagore himself was in every sense a Renaissance man. The sources of Tagore’s religious and spiritual thought are multi-faceted, varying from Hindu Vaiṣṇava traditions to the reformist BrahmoSamaj movement, as well as native Bengali mystical teachings such as those of the Bauls, and Unitarian Christianity, along with various Western literary, philosophical, and religious traditions and doctrines. Although Persian Sufi ideas constitute a significant feature of Tagore’s philosophical and mystical thought, these aspects are generally disregarded by critics of his writings. Nonetheless, during his lifetime, which was riven by sectarian struggles between Muslims and Hindus, Tagore rose above all these divisions to gain the admiration of Muslim writers in Bengal. Among these admirers were the popular poet Golam Mostafa, who in a 1922 article about Tagore, commented, “There are great similarities in contents and ideals of what poet-emperor Rabindranath has expressed in his lyrics. Any Muslim can accept these concepts without hesitation. No other poet of Bengali language has ever uttered these expressions of Muslim heart. . . We did not find any hostility towards Islam in the vast literature produced by Tagore. On the contrary, there is so much of Islamic content and ideals in his writings that he can be called a Muslim without hesitation. It is not too much to say that the concepts of idolatry, pluralism, atheism, re-incarnation, renunciation, etc., which are considered as to tally opposed to Islam, are also non-existent in his writings.”

As Persian was Bengal’s main literary language for centuries, Muslims in the Middle East regarded Bengal as “the easternmost haven of Indo-Iranian culture on the Indian subcontinent. Without proper knowledge of Persian, one scholar pointed out, “it is difficult to go through the past history and to understand the culture of Bangladesh. One has to learn Persian if one wants to know the past glory and grandeur of Bangladesh.” A host of Persian poets flourished in Kolkata, the cultural capital of Bengal during the nineteenth century, which rivalled and more often than not outshone Dhaka.

Since the entire composite culture of northern India was steeped in both Persian literary models and the ideals of Persian Sufism, it comes as no surprise that there was a significant interest in Persian language and literature studies and Sufi teachings in the literary and mystical circles to which Tagore’s father Debendranāth Tagore and grandfather belonged. In his Reminiscences, Tagore recalls how his boyhood days were steeped in Persianate modes of life, customs, and manners, “In those days the fashions in food and dress of our recent Mohammedian conquerors had not become obsolete . . . the out-door costume of men consisted of the Muslim type of Achkan and Jibba.

However, the influence of Persian thought and Sufi imagery on Tagore must be viewed in the context of native Bengali poetic and spiritual traditions: medieval North Indian Sant poetry (as his English translations from the Hindi poetry of Kabir, who was deeply influenced by Sufi ideals and imagery, show), medieval Bengali Vaiṣṇava poetry, the Upanishads, and, most important of all, the modern mystical troubadours of Bengal, the Bauls. Since the latter happens to be the lyrical tradition most akin in its ideals, philosophy, and expression to the Persian Sufi poets, it will be helpful if we review the impact of the Baul mystical tradition upon Tagore.

Meditating beside the tomb of Ḥafiẓ, Tagore recalled to his hosts that Ḥafiẓ was one of a very few Persian poets of his day to have mentioned Bengal in poetry, appropriately quoting a line by the poet that displayed the cosmopolitan reach of his poems: This itinerant Persian verse sent errant on Bengal ways is delicious and rich enough for Indian parrots to crunch its luscious, sugary chunks.

Crouching beside Ḥafiẓ’s gravestone amid a gaggle of Iranian dignitaries, Tagore brought up the legend again, commenting that if once the ruler of Bengal failed to bring the poet to his land, well, today a poet of Bengal has come to offer his good wishes and has felt fulfilled. The Iranians felt that Ḥafẓ’s body awoke from the eternal sleep of centuries and lifting the lid of the dumb coin came up to the sky with a smile. On that sunny spring morning, Tagore felt the Poet’s beaming eyes on a smiling face.

Enchanted by his communion with the poet’s spirit, Tagore announced, “I am like one of those preceding Sufi saints, poets, and artists; only I have come with the language of today.” Commenting on his encounter with Persian poetry and visitation to Ḥafiẓ’s tomb, Sugata Bose notes, “Word had also spread that Tagore had certain sanities with romantic and devotional Persian poets and it was the brotherhood of Sufi poets, which eventually turned out to be the more emotionally charged aspect of the relationship. European race theory took second place to Indo-Persian poetry as the ground for commonality. Shades of Aryanism were drowned in the depths of Sufism.”

But as Tagore brooded beside Ḥafiiẓ’s tombstone, he sunk into a reverie, depressed about “unfortunate India, benumbed from head to foot in the coils of intricate religion,—our country, crippled underneath the might of blind usage, our society, divided in a hundred ways by meaningless interdictions.” When will “the liberation of India from the deadly stranglehold of blindness that goes by the name of religion occur?” he mused.

At that moment Tagore was handed a large tome—Ḥafiẓ’s Divan —by the steward in charge of the poet’s tomb complex, who suggested the Bengali sage take an augury from Ḥafiẓ’s poems. When he opened the Divan, the immortal Ḥafiẓ, who has for centuries been known to Persian speakers as the “Tongue of the Invisible,” responded to the Bengali poet’s rumination over the evils of religious puritanism in India and Iran.

The Preface part of the book is so richly written that it sounds incredible. The first edition of the book has been dedicated by BelalBangalee to his dearest mother and daugther, Kulsuma Begum and KashfiaMahjabeen respectively. Belal is undoubtedly a scholar persona in the literary circle in Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore said, “Love is the only reality and it is not a mere sentiment. It is the ultimate truth that lies at the heart of creation.” From his early student life, Belal had the propensity of pennings. He started his career as a journalist, serving last in The Daily Janakantha. Currently, he is Senior Vice President, Apex Club, Ramna and Member of Bangladesh Youth Writers’ Council.

Other essays of the book blankets the great Buddha, legendary singer UstadAlauddin Khan, solitary world stranger Lev Tolstoy, the lost lighthouse of the Bengalis –Shilbhadra – Nalanda University, SM Sultan-a righteous person’s cultivation of arts and crafts, a sigh of history- Muslim son-in-law at Nehru family, an indomitable courageous revolutionary- SardarBhagat Singh, farmer Mithu’s development philosophy, expectation of people’s oriented media and a different Jinnah. Each of his essays is written based on his extensive study of books in the related fields and each one is a scholarly production of his dedicated exploits.

Told with a poignant, touching yet direct voice, the feelings which are expressed on a great poet like Rabi Thakur are true narratives from the golden pen of BelalBangalee. I can say the beauty of Tagore works, and the pains and life of those in parts of this book have further enlightened me. Well, what I love most about the book is the raw, direct facts about the poet said as they are. We don’t see words being sugarcoated, or incidents downplayed. The starting of each chapter and each part of the book is with a nice piece of write out. The coverlet of the book has painted a beautiful coloured photo appropriate for the book. Sometimes a book jumps out at you for one reason… that’s the cover. It makes you think of what unfolds in the book. It stays in your head even if you don’t buy the book immediately, like a reminder…

Another that touched me is BelalBangalee’s writing style. When the world outside would be buzzing with excitement, or rushing through with effort, but all I would be doing is clear my thoughts. If I were to share a book, or keep one, just one hidden away in my heart, I think that would be one of this. I would go through every essay in it here more than once, because they are deep and meaningful to me. But the same meaning they might not hold to you. It is a journey in itself to go through his write-ups and understand them. So, I will leave it here.

Many a time I have been so engrossed in a book that I have forgotten the world around me. It is like alchemy for my thoughts, each book transforming a part of me unknowingly, to gold or silver or whatever comparison the world would like to give to preciousness. I find it a welcome escape to dive into the book, into its words and into its worlds, away from reality for a while. That is, to me, as therapeutic as writing. Overall, an engaging story that brings a smile as it is read. Quite worth reading, I feel. It might even be worth revisiting sometime soon. Thanks to BelalBangalee who has brought this book to my notice!

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark” which was correctly spelt out by Rabindranath Tagore long back. That is, their similar visions for social change in India and their aim towards a spiritual union of all mankind through greater social awareness. There is a rich epistemic tradition of relying on the direct experience of seers and visionaries in South Asian philosophical thought and Tagore understands of truth as something that requires such an experience would make for an interesting comparative starting point.

Rabindranath Tagore is the lighthouse of Bengali language and Bengali culture. Rabindranath’s Sufi thoughts are well explicated and other essays are also well thought-out in this precious book. It is of great significance that BelalBangalee has divulged some stunning revelations in other essays in the book which are unknown to me, to many of us. In short, the core essence of his book is the communiqué for craving for love for humanity which is of universal appeal. My special encomium must go to his intellectual prowess.

-The End-

The writer is a senior citizen of Bangladesh, book reviewer, writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs


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