The Great Indian Poet and Philosopher Tagore on Truth, Human Nature, and the Interdependence of Existence
By Maria Popova
“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason… Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.” So wrote the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he contemplated how we come to know truth. Nearly a century later, the great Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861–August 7, 1941) explored this question from a kindred angle, bringing to it the tools of philosophy, scientific knowledge, and spiritual inquiry.
In May of 1930, two months before his famous conversation with Einstein about the intersection of science and spirituality and seventeen years after he became the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore delivered a series of lectures at Oxford University exploring human nature, spirituality, and our experience of reality. The following year, they were collected in The Religion of Man (public library).
Tagore — whose legacy has inspired writings as diverse as physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic ode to science and philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s investigation of our political emotions — begins the opening lecture, “Man’s Universe,” with a poetic cosmogony of life:
Light as the radiant energy of creation started the ring-dance of atoms in a diminutive sky and also the dance of the stars in the vast lonely theatre of time and space. The planets came out of their bath of fire and basked in the sun for ages. They were the thrones of the gigantic Inert, dumb and desolate, which knew not the meaning of its own blind destiny and majestically frowned upon a future when its monarchy would be menaced.
Then came a time when life was brought into the arena in the tiniest little monocycle of a cell. With its gift of growth and power of adaptation it faced the ponderous enormity of things and contradicted the unmeaningness of their bulk. It was made conscious not of the volume but of the value of existence which it ever tried to enhance and maintain in many-branched paths of creation, overcoming the obstructive inertia of Nature by obeying Nature’s Law.
But the miracle of creation did not stop here in this isolated speck of life launched on a lonely voyage to the Unknown. A multitude of cells were bound together into a larger unit, not through aggregation but through a marvellous quality of complex inter-relationship maintaining a perfect co-ordination of functions. This is the creative principle of unity, the divine mystery of existence, that baffles all analysis. The larger cooperative units could adequately pay for a greater freedom of self-expression, and they began to form and develop in their bodies new organs of power, new instruments of efficiency. This was the march of evolution ever unfolding the potentialities of life.
When humans emerged, Tagore argues, we “turned the course of this evolution from an indefinite march of physical aggrandisement to a freedom of a more subtle perfection” — a realization of the unity between the physical and spiritual dimensions of existence, between one and all. He writes:
The leather binding and title-page are parts of the book itself; and this world that we perceive through our senses and mind and life’s experience is profoundly one with ourselves.
The divine principle of unity has ever been that of an inner inter-relationship. This is revealed in some of its earliest stages in the evolution of multicellular life on this planet. The most perfect outward expression has been attained by man in his own body. But what is most important of all is the fact that man has also attained its realisation in a more subtle body outside his physical system. He misses himself when isolated he finds his own larger and truer self in his wide human relationship. His multicellular body is born and it dies; his multi-personal humanity is immortal.
Inhabiting this sense of belonging to the interconnectedness of things, Tagore suggests, is the closest our mortal selves can get to an experience of immortality. In a sentiment which the trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson would echo a few years later in asserting that appreciation of nature’s wholeness gives us the only real taste of immortality, Tagore writes:
In this ideal of unity [man] realizes the eternal in his life and the boundless in his love. The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth.
We have our eves, which relate to us the vision of the physical universe. We have also an inner faculty of our own which helps us to find our relationship with the supreme self of man, the universe of personality. This faculty is our luminous imagination which in its higher stage is special to man. It offers us that vision of wholeness which for the biological necessity of physical survival is superfluous; its purpose is to arouse in us the sense of perfection which is our true sense of immortality.
Tagore argues that we find this sense of immortality — or, rather, we create it — in our works of art, in philosophy and science, in service. He writes:
On the surface of our being we have the ever-changing phases of the individual self, but in the depth there dwells the Eternal Spirit of human unity beyond our direct knowledge. It very often contradicts the trivialities of our daily life and upsets the arrangements made for securing our personal exclusiveness behind the walls of individual habits and superficial conventions. It inspires in us works that are the expressions of a Universal Spirit; it invokes unexpectedly in the midst of a self-centred life a supreme sacrifice. At its call, we hasten to dedicate our lives to the cause of truth and beauty, to unrewarded service of others.
Reflecting on his own experience of first contacting this immortal awareness of the interconnectedness of things, he adds:
The first stage of my realisation was through my feeling of intimacy with Nature — not that Nature which has its channel of information for our mind and physical relationship with our living body, but that which satisfies our personality with manifestations that make our life rich, stimulate our imagination in their harmony of forms, colours, sounds and movements… that which lavishly displays its wealth of reality to our personal self having its own perpetual reaction upon our human nature.
Nearly six decades before the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler proffered his “It from Bit” theory, in which he asserted that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Tagore considers the relationship between the consciousness of the human observer and the truth this consciousness perceives:
Even the impersonal aspect of truth dealt with by science belongs to the human Universe. But men of Science tell us that truth, unlike beauty, and goodness, is independent of our consciousness. They explain to us how the belief, that truth is independent of the human mind, is a mystical belief, natural to man but at the same time inexplicable. But may not the explanation be this, that ideal truth does not depend upon the individual mind of man but on the universal mind which comprehends the individual? For to say that truth, as we see it, exists apart from humanity is really to contradict science itself; because science can only organise into rational concepts those facts which man can know and understand, and logic is a machinery of thinking created by the mechanic man.
Interestingly, Tagore is writing the selfsame year that the mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, demonstrating through mathematics rather than philosophy that there are limits to how much of reality scientific logic can grasp. Perhaps Gödel would have been pleased by the example with which Tagore illustrates his point:
The table that I am using with all its varied meanings appears as a table for man through his special organ of senses and his special organ of thoughts. When scientifically analysed the same table offers an enormously different appearance to him from that given by his senses. The evidence of his physical senses and that of his logic and his scientific instruments are both related to his own power of comprehension; both are true and true for him. He makes use of the table with full confidence for his physical purposes and with equal confidence makes intellectual use of it for his scientific knowledge. But the knowledge is his who is a man. If a particular man as an individual did not exist, the table would exist all the same, but still as a thing that is related to human mind. The contradiction that there is between the table of our sense perception and the table of our scientific knowledge has its common centre of reconciliation in human personality.
The same thing holds true in the realm of idea. In the scientific idea of the world there is no gap in the universal law of causality. Whatever happens could never have happened otherwise. This is a generalisation which has been made possible by a quality of logic which is possessed by the human mind. But this very mind of man has its immediate consciousness of will within him which is aware of its freedom and ever struggles for it. Every day in most of our behaviour we acknowledge its truth; in fact our conduct finds its best value in its relation to its truth. Thus this has its analogy in our daily behaviour with regard to a table. For whatever may be the conclusion that Science has unquestionably proved about the table, we are amply rewarded when we deal with it as a solid fact and never as a crowd of fluid elements that represent certain kinds of energy.
But, in a sentiment which Karl Popper would echo decades later in his admonition against the dangers of relativism, Tagore takes care to ground his point in the lively conviction that science remains our best method for ascertaining truth with accuracy and, as such, offers a model for exploring the human mind itself:
I do not imply that the final nature of the world depends upon the comprehension of the individual person. Its reality is associated with the universal human mind which comprehends all time and all possibilities of realisation. And this is why for the accurate knowledge of things we depend upon science that represents the rational mind of the universal man and not upon that of the individual who dwells in a limited range of space and time, and the immediate needs of life. And this is why there is such a thing as progress in our civilisation; for progress means that there is an ideal perfection which the individual seeks to reach by extending his limits in knowledge, power, love, enjoyment, thus approaching the universal. The most distant star whose faint message touches the threshold of the most powerful telescopic vision has its sympathy with the understanding mind of man, and therefore we can never cease to believe that we shall probe further and further into the mystery of their nature. As we know the truth of the stars we know the great comprehensive mind of man.
A century after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, asserted that “everything is naturally related and interconnected,” Tagore considers how this unity of the elements of existence — of observer and observed, of physical and psychic — illuminates the human experience:
The truth, which is Man, has not emerged out of nothing at a certain point of time, even though seemingly it might have been manifested then. But the manifestation of Man has no end in itself — not even now. Neither did it have its beginning in any particular time we ascribe to it. The truth of man is in the heart of eternity, the fact of it being evolved through endless ages. If Man’s manifestation has round it a background of millions of light years still it is his own background. He includes in himself the time, however long, that carries the process of his becoming.
Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.
Complement this particular portion of The Religion of Man with Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, Lewis Thomas on the transmutation of ignorance into truth, Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.
Published March 7, 2017