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COLLECTIONSUnpublished articles, Biographies
TITLERabindranath Tagore: Some Encounters with Bahá'ís
AUTHOR 1Peter Terry
ABSTRACT'Abdu'l-Bahá is alleged to have met India's poet laureate Tagore in Chicago in 1912. This article examines the historical sources for that story.
CROSSREFWikipedia article on Rabindranath Tagore
TAGS- `Abdu'l-Bahá,; - Hinduism; - Interfaith dialogue; `Abdu'l-Bahá, Travels of (documents); Bengal Renaissance; Brahmo Samaj; Chicago, IL; India; Prosperity; Rabindranath Tagore; Renaissance; Santiniketan, India; United States (documents); West Bengal
CONTENT Acknowledgements

Most historical investigations involve the participation of multiple interested parties, and this one is not an exception. The author was able to collect the information which is shared here entirely due to the generous assistance of the custodians of the Bahá'í Centre in Calcutta; the archivists of Rabindra-Bhavan, Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan; the librarians of the Bahá’í World Centre Library in Haifa; the archivists of the Bahá’í National Archives in Wilmette; and Diane Iverson of Eliot, Maine, who graciously lent me her copies of "Star of the West", a periodical published under Bahá’í auspices in the United States, which enabled me to delve deeply into its invaluable contents. All errors of commission and omission are to be attributed to the author.

The two protagonists

‘Abbas Effendi (23 May 1844-28 November 1921), known to many as 'Abdu'l-Bahá was born in Iran to Mirza Husayn ‘Ali (known as Bahá'u'lláh) and his wife Asiyih Khanum, their firstborn son. His father was a wealth aristocrat, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was home schooled, and was a voracious reader, particularly of the Persian Bayan and other writings of Haji Siyyid ‘Ali- Muhammad (called the Bab). As an eight year old child he witnessed the seizure of the family’s assets and the imprisonment of his father in particularly horrifying dungeon in Tehran. When, after some months, his father was released from prison, the family was exiled to Baghdad, in the middle of winter. He accompanied his parents on their subsequent exiles, to Istanbul, to Edirne, and finally to ‘Akka (the city called Acco, in Israel). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was relied upon by his father to assume the administration of his family, and to write on various topics on his behalf. His first treatise was authored at the age of 18, a commentary on the Islamic hadith of the Hidden Treasure, and in 1875 he authored the much longer letter to the Shah which is now best known in by its English translation, entitled “The Secret of Divine Civilization”. In 1890, he authored a new history of the religious movement begun by the Bab and continued in a new form by his father. In 1892, when his father passed on, the governance of his affairs was left to ‘Abdu’l- Bahá. For the next few years he lived in the vicinity of ‘Akka, but in 1911, he began a series of Western tours, visiting France, Germany, England, Switzerland, Hungary, Canada and the United States of America. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave many addresses, in private and public during these journeys, and most of them were transcribed and have been translated into English. They touch upon a great range of topics. He contemplated visiting India and China but did not do so. Upon his return from these journeys, he resided for some time in Egypt, but he lived out his last few year in ‘Akka and its neighboring Haifa. From 1892 onwards, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote a prodigious quantity of letters, currently estimated to be 27,000, addressed to members of his religious movement and to his many friends. He made one journey to North America, in 1912.

Rabindranath Tagore (9 May 1861-7 August 1941), known to many as “Gurudev” was born Bengal to Devendranath Tagore and his wife Sarada Devi, their eighth son and fourteenth child. His father was a wealth aristocrat, and Rabindranath Tagore was home schooled, and was a voracious reader, in Bengali, Sanskrit and English. Devendranath was also the leader of the Brahmo Samaj movement among progressive Hindus, and this son was to follow in his footsteps as a religious reformer. Gurudev grew up in Calcutta, in the family’s sprawling home, and in “Shantiniketan” (Abode of Peace), his father’s religious retreat, about an hour’s journey north of Calcutta. For eighteen months he studied law in London, and discovered English literature from Henry Morley. It was there he wrote his first poem. When he returned to India, he devoted himself to writing, publishing many volumes of Bengali poetry, as well as plays, short stories, novels and essays. In 1912, his first volume of poetry in English was published, entitled “Gitanjali” (Song Offering), for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. In addition to literature, Tagore had great interest in education, village reconstruction, painting, music and dance. He was himself a good singer and he composed over 2000 songs, which are called “Rabindra Sangit”. He founded a school at Shantiniketan, and later expanded it into Visva-Bharathi University in 1921. It is now a publicly funded institution. At the age of 60, Tagore began to paint, and in all he generated over 2000 drawings and paintings, many of which have been exhibited in Europe and other countries. Tagore’s encounters with the philosopher Henri Bergson, the poet Robert Frost, the novelists Romain Rolland and Thomas Mann, the playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw, the historian H.G. Wells were the subject of many publications, and in particular his friendships with Gandhi and Einstein were rendered famous in the press and in collections of dialogues. He traveled a great deal, from May 1916 to April 1917 in Japan and the USA, in November 1924 to South America, in May 1926 to Italy, in July 1927 to Bali, Java, Kuala Lampur, Malacca, Penang, Siam and Singapore, returning to England and the European continent in January 1930, and in April 1932 to Iran. He made his first trip to the United States in 1912.

From the standard sources

Some of my readers will be familiar enough with Shoghi Effendi's history of the first hundred years of the Bahá’í Era (1844-1944), "God Passes By", to recall that Rabindranath Tagore was one of those "people of eminence" who is reported to have met 'Abdu'l-Bahá in North America during his seven month long visit in the year 1912. He is so listed on page 289 (American edition, 1970). Inasmuch as Shoghi Effendi grew up in the household of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and was intimately acquainted with all the affairs of the Bahá’í community from shortly after the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (in 1921) until his own demise, some thirty-six years following (in 1957), it is likely that Shoghi Effendi was accurately informed about this meeting; and it is most unlikely that he would have based his report on flimsy evidence inasmuch as this would have reflected poorly upon his personal integrity and, in his estimation of infinitely greater consequence, upon the integrity of the Faith to which he devoted his life. Another attestation to such a meeting is found in Martha Root's written account of her conversation with Tagore on 14 December 1937 in India ("The Bahá’í World," vol. VII, p. 687-88); she quotes him as saying:

"I met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Chicago in 1912. He was staying in an hotel; he was talking to his followers who gathered around him and I, too, spoke with him. He very kindly asked me if possible, to come and see him in his own place in Haifa. I always thought I would try to go, but it wasn't to be like that. The years went by and one day I read in the newspapers that ‘Abdu’l- Bahá had passed."

In a separate report ("Bahá’í World," vol. VIII, p. 63) Martha Root writes of a meeting with Tagore (possibly on 13-14 November 1938, inasmuch as she here states that she met Tagore in 1938; and elsewhere that she addressed the Brahmo Samaj Centenary Celebration on 19 November 1938 in Calcutta — in "Bahá’í World," vol. VIII, p. 816):

"It was a great privilege to meet Dr. Tagore and to hear him talk with deep love and appreciation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá whom he met in Chicago in 1912."

Martha Root, besides her integrity as a Bahá’í and as a teacher of her Faith, and her concern for the protection and purity of “the Cause” as powerful motivations for reporting truthfully, she had the further distinction of possessing a thorough and professional training and years of experience as a newspaper reporter, by which she made her living. Her moral rectitude and the accuracy of her reports have never been questioned, let alone criticized. Hers are the only two extant accounts of a meeting between Gurudev and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’.

When could such a meeting have taken place? The most detailed and comprehensive biography of Tagore, written by Krishna Kripalani ("Rabindranath Tagore," Oxford: University Press, 1962), indicates that the Poet departed on 27 May 1912 for a journey abroad; spending some months in England; traveling in October to the United States where he remained until April 1913, when he returned to England; and finally home to India in September. Rathindranath Tagore, the Poet's son and successor as head of Visva-Bharati University (founded by Rabindranath in 1921), wrote in his book "On the Edges of Time" (Visva-Bharati: 1958), that he accompanied his father on this voyage abroad; that they set sail from Bombay on 27 May 1912; sojourned in London and Hampstead Heath; and sailed for the United States in October. Consultation of Bengali-language chronologies in the Rabindra-Bhavan of Visva-Bharati University in November 1992 revealed that Rabindranath and Rathindranath Tagore arrived in New York on 28 October 1912 and proceeded directly to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where the son was studying for his Doctorate in Agriculture at the University of Illinois. In order to get to Champaign-Urbana, the father and son took the train, and their train would have been a transcontinental train, making a stop in Chicago, from whence they proceeded by local rail for the last 120 miles of their journey. The trip to Chicago would have taken two days by rail, and hence, if the father and son departed New York on 28 October they would have arrived in Chicago on 30 October; if they left the day after arriving in New York, they would have arrived in Chicago on 31 October. If they had remained in Chicago overnight before taking the local train to Champaign-Urbana the Tagores would have departed Chicago either 31 October or 1 November. It is unlikely that they lingered for more than an overnight stay inasmuch as the chronicles state that they went directly from New York to Champaign-Urbana. The only time that Gurudev could have met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Chicago was, in all likelihood, on 30-31 October or 1 November. Tagore returned to Chicago on 1 January 1913, and by that time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had left North America and already arrived in England.

The only daily record of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's sojourn in North America which includes entries for the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's visits to Chicago is the Diary of Mirza Mahmud Zarqani. This Diary was published long ago in Persian (the original language) and has been circulated in English translation for decades. According to the newly-revised and soon-to-be-published English translation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited Chicago from 30 April to 5 May, and from 31 October until 4 November. Obviously, he and Tagore could not have met during the earlier visit, inasmuch as the Poet had not yet left India. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, according to Zarqani, arrived in Chicago by train, on the morning of 31 October, having left Denver on 29 October. Zarqani writes: "The Beloved stayed at the Hotel Plaza where He had stayed during His first visit. People came in groups to see Him and to be in His presence until late in the afternoon." While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued to receive visitors at the Hotel Plaza until his departure on 4 November, it seems most likely that the Poet and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá met at Hotel Plaza, the former after arriving from New York and the latter upon arrival from Denver, on 31 October 1912. Tagore was reported to have described his meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as follows: "He was staying in an hotel; He was talking to His followers who gathered around Him and I, too, spoke with Him." (see Martha Root's account above). Zarqani states that: "People came in groups to see Him and to be in His presence until late in the afternoon."

Neither Zarqani nor any other diarist of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's North American visit describes a meeting between Rabindranath Tagore and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; this is not surprizing, considering the fact that the Poet did not become well-known by the public until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913, and indeed, the first publication of his poetry (or any of his writings) in English (or any other language other than Bengali) occurred in November 1912, when "Gitanjali" was first printed in London, followed closely by the appearance of six of his poems in the Chicago literary magazine "Poetry" in December 1912 (Krishna Kripalani, "Rabindranath Tagore"). That the publication of these poems did not occur until after the two men met in Chicago is one demonstration of the unlikelihood that he would have been noticed by Zarqani or indeed by anyone else among the believers or the American public. Furthermore, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Bahá’í Movement were not well-known in India in 1912, even among such cultured people as Rabindranath and his son, and there is no reason why Rathindranath would have singled out such a meeting — if indeed he was an eye-witness to it — in his book, which omits many details which might well have seemed far more important to Rathindranath.

Nonetheless, it seems that Rathindranath may well have overheard comments from Bahá’ís in reaction to the appearance of his father. Rathindranath writes: "His handsome appearance never failed to attract admiration wherever he went. His soft beard, kept trimmed during his youthful days, and long curls of hair added to the charm of his appearance. At a later age [Rabindranath was fifty-one years old in 1912], when he had let the beard grow and wore the flowing dress — a double djibba — how often I have overheard people in the West exclaiming in hushed voices, 'How like our Prophet!'" ("On the Edges of Time," p. 158). "Abdu'l-Bahá was regarded by many Western believers to be a Prophet, and was so described frequently in news reports during his North American sojourn. The appearance of the two men may well have seemed strikingly similar, particularly to Occidentals who are not accustomed to seeing men sporting long flowing hair and beards and dressed in long flowing robes. In any case, there was simply no other "Prophet" whom people in the West might have compared with Tagore — Jews do not refer to Moses as "our Prophet", nor do Christians refer to Jesus as "our Prophet", and while Vedantists had Vivekananda, he was clean-shaven and markedly different in appearance to either the Poet or ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Compare photographs of the two men and you will be convinced for yourself.

There is another account which is very interesting and which may relate to this meeting. Louis G. Gregory, writing in "Star of the West," (a Bahá’í periodical) in a short report published in the November 1923 issue (vol. 14, no.8, pp. 247-48), states the following: "Among the visitors in Boston during the past month has been Dr. J.F. King of Chicago, a Hindu Bahá’í who, with a group of his fellow students of the same nativity, received the message directly from ‘Abdu’l- Bahá in Chicago in 1912. Dr. King, who rejoices in his emancipation from the sectarian prejudices imposed by the caste system of his native land, speaks of the Bahá’í religion in terms of high appreciation." While this point will require further investigation, it is possible that the Tagores were traveling with other Indians, that J.F. King and his fellow students may have been among the party, and that they met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá together with the Tagores during his second visit to Chicago, 31 October to 4 November 1912. It might be noted that an Indian of Hindu background who rejoices in his emancipation from the caste system is probably a sympathizer and possibly even a votary of the Brahmo Samaj reform movement, while Rabindranath Tagore assumed the leadership of the Adi Brahmo Samaj in 1911, and was the hero of the younger generation of Brahmos, among whose number were Rathindranath and other Hindu students studying in the United States.

The next chapter in the encounter between Gurudev and the Bahá’í Faith is still for the most part shrouded in the obscurity of ignorance. At some time in the future we will know more about the relationship between Tagore and the prominent Bahá’í teacher named Mrs. J. Stannard, who visited India in 1913-15(?). "Star of the West," (vol. IV, no. 17, p. 284) reproduces an article written by Mrs. J. Stannard for "The Egyptian Gazette," Alexandria, published on 24 September 1913. Mirza Ahmad Sohrab reports in another issue of "Star of the West," (vol. VII, no. 11, p. 104) that Mrs. Stannard left Ramleh (Egypt) for Cairo on the morning of 29 October 1913 to prepare for her trip to India. "Star of the West," (vol. V, no. 2, p. 21-23,26) also reports Mrs. Stannard's first talk in India, on 24 December 1913, and further states that Mrs. Stannard and the Getsingers — Dr. Edward and Mrs. Lua — were traveling and giving lectures together in India, and that Mrs. Stannard gave lectures on 25-28 December 1913 at the Theistic Conference; on 24 January 1914 and 7 February 1914 in Bombay, leaving for Madras on 10 February of that year. That issue reprints excerpts from "The Sind Gazette," and "The Bombay Chronicle". The next Bahá’í press report of the whereabouts of Mrs. Stannard is in "Star of the West," (vol. VII, no. 17, p. 175) where she is described as giving a talk on "The Ideals of East and West in Religion," on 1 October 1915 in Bournemouth, England.

Gurudev returned to India from London in September 1913, and according to his Bengali chronologers, he did not leave India again until 3 May 1916. Mrs. Stannard appears to have spent over a year traveling and giving lectures on the Bahá’í Teachings in India, as the writer was able to glean from the above-cited issues of "Star of the West" and by reading clippings from various Indian newspapers, dated 9, 18, 24 March 1914; 1,4 April 1914; August 1914; and 8 December 1914, including three notices for lectures, and five articles, all of which describe lectures she gave. Four articles in her name were as follows: "Bahai," p. 10, "The Empress," 1 April 1914; "untitled," n.p., "The Amrit Bazar," 4 April 1914; "untitled," p. 601, "The Indian Review," August 1914; and "untitled," n.p., "The Hindustan Review," vol. 30, no. 180, August 1914. These clippings were read by the author where he found them, in the basement of the Caravan House, location of the New History Society (founded and directed by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab), in a large oversize album entitled, "Clippings and Pamphlets and historical materials on the Bahá’í Cause 1913-1919", which has now been transferred, along with the other contents of the Caravan House archives, to the Bahá’í National Center in Wilmette, Illinois. In answer to a letter of enquiry, the Bahá’í World Centre Library sent the author a photocopy of an article (the fifth listed) in "The Indian Daily Telegraph," 8 December 1914 which describes two lectures given about the Bahá’í Faith by Mrs. J.H. Stannard at the Rifah-i-Am Club in Lucknow, India.

None of these press reports mentions any connection between Mrs. Stannard and Rabindranath Tagore. That they met while she was in India is reported in "Bahá’í News," no. 48, February 1931, p. 4: "Some years ago ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent Mrs. Lua Getsinger and Mrs. Stannard to India, instructing them to visit Dr. Tagore. Their description of the Hindu poet and mystic, with flowing robes, walking in a palm grove in the silverly moonlight, listening with deep attention and respect to the Words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; and of his subsequently establishing his International School on the foundation of these universal principles, links itself strangely with the present." The authorship of this account is unknown. It is perhaps apt to mention that Mrs. Stannard and Mrs. Getsinger visited India in 1914, and Tagore founded Visva-Bharati University in 1921. Neither in any of the literature about Tagore's life nor in any other accounts of Bahá’í adherents has any reference been found to a connection between Mrs. J. Stannard and Gurudev. This may be because neither Mrs. Stannard nor Rabindranath Tagore left detailed dairies covering these years, and apparently neither of these persons was regarded as worthy of a chronicler and hence nobody else kept a meticulous record of their lives. On the other hand, this connection is reported by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself, in a letter addressed to Juliet Thompson, which was translated into English and published separately (and with omissions from the original text, which will be identified shortly) in "Bahá’í News," no. 48, p. 4 (Bahá’í Publishing Society:Chicago, February 1931); and in "Torchbearers," p. 19 (New History Society:New York, 1931). The English translation of both published versions of this letter was effected by one individual, as is evident from reading them inasmuch as the changes in wording are as a result of omissions, which are found in both versions. Inasmuch as the translator is not identified but the letter in question was read in English at a gathering in New York which was conceived and supervised by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab — for some years the principal translator of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's correspondence (1910 or earlier until 1919) — it is most likely that he translated the letter and that it is his translation which is found in both publications. The omissions in the published versions do not commence until after the passages which are pertinent to this matter. The letter begins with the following (the punctuation in the "Torchbearers" version has been replicated inasmuch as this version was published under the direction of the translator:

To the dear daughter Miss Juliet Thompson,
Upon her be greetings and praise.

He is God!

O thou dear daughter!
Thy letter has been received.

From its contents it
became evident that Rabindranath Tagore was going from India to America.

Tagore returned to America for a visit lasting about four months, September 1916 to January 1917 (Krishna Kripalani) and again for approximately the same time period, November 1920 to March 1921 (Ibid.). This letter could have referred to either of these trips. Inasmuch as "Bahá’í News" (same as above) reports that this letter was "found in His room after His departure [decease]" and "Torchbearers" (same as above, p. 18) likewise states that this letter "had been found among Abdul Baha's papers after his ascension to the Kingdom [decease]", it seems most likely that this letter was written in 1920, inasmuch as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá passed away on 28 November 1921. However, it is also possible that the letter was sent to the United States in 1916, and that, like so much other correspondence, it could not be delivered because of the interruption of postal service during the World War (1914-1918). Dr. J.E. Esslemont attested that during the World War "Communication with friends and believers outside Syria was almost completely cut off" ("Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era," p. 63). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá resided in Palestine, a district of Syria and administrated by the Ottomon Empire, which was in league with the Empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary and inasmuch as this coalition was opposed to a group of nations which included the United States, it is particularly likely that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's correspondence with the United States would have been interrupted. If this is the case, the letter might have been returned to its sender. There is the statement in "Torchbearers" to the effect that this letter "reached America at the end of the World War" (same as above, p. 18), and if indeed Miss Thompson received this letter after the World War and before the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, it would appear that what she actually received was probably an English translation of the original letter (in which case it would certainly have been translated and perhaps even delivered to its addressee by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, inasmuch as he was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's translator throughout the World War and until December 1918 when he emigrated at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's insistence to the United States). The letter continues:

This personage has exercised the utmost consideration to the maid-servant of God, Mrs. Stannard, in India.
He is one of the promoters of peace and reconciliation. He is kind to all people and now he is going to America to travel and to see all the states. Therefore, the friends of God in all the cities should receive him and exercise toward him the utmost respect.

In the Rabindra-Bhavan of Visva-Bharati University, the present author discovered the original Persian Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed to Juliet Thompson. How did it come to be there? In the above-cited issue of "Bahá’í News" the following is written: "the recipient of this Tablet [Juliet Thompson] was enabled to meet Tagore during his recent brief sojourn in New York, and to present to him the blessed Tablet revealed in his honor." The same encounter is described in a more detailed account in "Torchbearers," p. 18: "On the afternoon of Saturday, December 13, 1930 Mr. and Mrs. Chanler gave a reception at their house at 132 East 65th Street in honor of Rabindranath Tagore...At this reception Miss Juliet Thompson read the following "tablet" which had been found among Abdul Baha's papers after his ascension to the Kingdom, and which reached America at the end of the World War! Miss Thompson presented the original "tablet" in Persian to Tagore — a priceless spiritual treasure." We have it then from two sources then that this letter was given to Gurudev by Juliet Thompson, and we can easily guess that it has been kept at Visva-Bharati University in the Tagore archives ever since his return to India, in 1931.

At this time no more is known about the connection between Mrs. Stannard (and possibly also Mrs. Getsinger) and Rabindranath Tagore. It is apparent from the above-cited letter of ‘Abdu’l- Bahá to Miss Thompson that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a high regard for Gurudev:

From what has been heard he is one of the promoters of peace and reconciliation. He is kind to all people...

It has already been stated that Rabindranath Tagore assumed leadership of the Adi Brahmo Samaj in 1911 (according to David Kopf, "The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind," Princeton: University Press, 1979). Martha Root, in her lecture at the Brahmo Samaj Centenary Celebration, on 19 November 1938, made the following statement ("Bahá’í World," vol. VIII, p. 816):

"There is a very warm friendship between Brahmo Samaj and Bahá’í brothers and sisters. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said that Brahmo Samaj is doing great work in India, and Shoghi Effendi has told us to work with Brahmo Samaj."

Thus, there would seem to have been a warm and friendly regard for Rabindranath Tagore and for his religious society and its votaries on the part of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Bahá’ís.

As for Gurudev's relationship to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and to the Bahá’ís, Martha Root has published reports of two meetings with Tagore in which the Poet mentioned ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and in the second of these encounters she writes ("Bahá’í World," vol. VIII, p. 63): "It was a great privilege to meet Dr. Tagore and to hear him talk with deep love and appreciation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá whom he met in Chicago in 1912." "Torchbearers," (p. 18) reports a conversation at the reception in his honor on 13 December 1930, in which Tagore is quoted as saying:

"It may not be out of place to mention here that the ideals of my university (Visva-Bharati) Santiniketan, Bengal, India, are quite akin to the universal ideals of Bahá’u’lláh. Visva-Bharati cherishes the ideal of an active co-operation between the different religions and cultures of the East and the West, and nothing would please me more than to offer a permanent place at my university to the culture and research of the great religion founded by the Prophet Bahá’u’lláh."

On 7 December 1930, as reported in "The New York Times," 8 December 1930, p. 12, column 3, Rabindranath Tagore gave a lecture in the Crystal Room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. "Torchbearers" gives a detailed account of that gathering, including a summary of Tagore's address (p. 11-13), which, it is stated, "was approved by the Poet and signed by his own hand" (p. 13). Among his last words to that gathering, as reported in "Torchbearers" are these (p. 12-13):

"The first Prophet whom we know in the history of man was Zoroaster who preached God as the universal truth of unity, the eternal source of goodness and love; and it is significant that in the same soil of Persia which gave birth to him arose the other great Prophet of the modern age, Bahá’u’lláh, who also preached God as profoundly one, in all races, tribes and sects, the true worship of whom consists in service that has reason for its guide, and goodness and love for its inner motive principle.

"We are here tonight to offer our homage to Bahá’u’lláh. He is the latest Prophet to come out of Asia. His life is certainly a glorious record of unflinching human search after truth; and his message is of great importance for the progress of civilization."

While only the beginning of this excerpt is independently confirmed — as it was cited in the 8 December 1930 "New York Times" article as follows: "the Persian prophet Zoroaster had been the first to see that God cannot be divided by different nations or sects" — it seems very unlikely that Mirza Ahmad Sohrab or his collaborators the Chanlers would have risked public embarrassment by reporting comments which the Poet never made, especially as they published the summary of his lecture relatively soon after the lecture in question (in early 1931), when it would have been remembered by at least some of the audience, and as this lecture was heard by over 2000 people, according to the "New York Times" reporter who witnessed it, and seems to be borne out by a photograph of the gathering, reproduced in Mirza Ahmad Sohrab's book, "Broken Silence," (New York: New History Foundation, 1942), p. 248-49.

Hence, while for Gurudev's regard for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá we have only the one report by Martha Root ("Bahá’í World," vol. VIII, p. 63), for the Poet's appreciation of the Bahá’í Faith and its Founder we have multiple accounts, and it seems very likely indeed that he was an ardent friend of the Bahá’í movement. Also, it is well to remember that he remained at the head of the Adi Brahmo Samaj from 1911 until his passing in 1941, and that he regarded himself as a Hindu throughout his life. Therefore, his warm appreciation of Bahá’u’lláh and of the Bahá’í Teachings should not be understood as a full-fledged affirmation of adherence to the Bahá’í Faith. Rather it is most likely that in this lecture and on other occasions Tagore expressed his perception of the profound and essential consonance between his own ideals (and those of the Adi Brahmo Samaj) and those of Bahá’u’lláh, in the classic Hindu spirit of there being many roads which lead to the one truth. This is a matter for further investigation, and will require study of the writings and recorded addresses of the Poet and their comparison to such expositions of the Bahá’í Teachings to which Tagore may have had access. While Rabindranath Tagore has been largely forgotten in the West — he was outspokenly critical, both in his public lectures and his published essays, of the extreme nationalism, materialism and militarism of the Western nations, and was therefore shunned and forgotten during the First and Second World Wars, and remained largely marginalized after his passing in 1941 — he remains the poet laureate and the outstanding literary genius of modern India, and, in particular, perhaps the greatest and most influential Bengali artist in recorded history. The author found the Poet's songs being sung by Bengalis of all classes, castes and professions, in 1992, over fifty years after his passing. It is obvious that his connections with adherents of the Bahá’í Faith and the connections of his ideas with the Bahá’í Teachings are potentially of more than ephemeral interest to millions of Bengalis and hundreds of millions of Indians.

    (researched and written by Peter Terry, 1992-1998; revised, 2004; with cosmetic changes, 2011; with light editing and added biographies of the two protagonists, 2015)
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