Man of science

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

Tagore: I am not a scientist, but from childhood my strong desire to enjoy the rasa of science knew no bounds.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE was a quintessential poet-philosopher with a deeply rational and enquiring mind who strove for freedom ( mukti) from every possible limitation of the human mind. He broke away from a life of contemplation of the other-worldly philosophy of the Upanishads to which he was initiated in childhood by his father, Maharshi Debendranath, into the enchanting real world of forms, colours, sounds and movements revealed by his senses. He declared in Gitanjali (73):

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.

And again (96):

When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.

Rabindranath's song akash bhara soorjo tara expresses a sense of deep wonder in the universe. All creative geniuses have this sense of insatiable wonder at the mysteries of the universe. Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Einstein admitted (in Ideas and Opinions):

A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes true religiosity; in this sense, and this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

In the preface to his only book on science, Visva Parichay, dedicated to the scientist Satyendranath Bose, Rabindranath wrote about his fascination for science from his childhood how his teacher Sitanath Datta used to thrill him with simple demonstrations like making the convection currents in a glass of water visible with the help of sawdust. The differences between layers of a continuous mass of water made obvious by the movements of the sawdust filled him with a sense of wonder that never left him. According to him, this was the first time he realised that things that we thoughtlessly take for granted as natural and simple are, in fact, not so, and this set him wondering.

The next wonder came when he went with his father to the hills of Dalhousie in the Himalayas. As the sky became dark in the evenings and the stars came out in their splendour and appeared to hang low, Maharshi Debendranath would point out to him the constellations and the planets and tell him about their distances from the sun, their periods of revolution round the sun and many other properties. Rabindranath found this so fascinating that he began to write down what he heard from his father. Thus, his first long essay in serial form was on science. When he grew older and could read English, he started reading every book on astronomy that he could lay his hands on. Sometimes the mathematics made it difficult for him to understand what he was reading, but he laboured through them and tried to absorb their gist. Sir Robert Boyle's book he liked the most. Then he started reading Aldous Huxley's essays on biology. He writes in the preface to Visva Parichay (1937):

The universe has hidden its micro-self, reduced its macro-self or shelved it out of sight behind the curtain. It has dressed itself up and revealed itself to us in a form that man can perceive within the structure of his simple power. But man is anything but simple. Man is the only creature that has suspected its own simple perception, opposed it and has been delighted to defeat it. To transcend the limits of simple perception man has brought near what was distant, made the invisible visible, and has given expression to what is hard to understand. He is ever trying to probe into the unmanifest world that lies behind the manifest world in order to unravel the fundamental mysteries of the universe.

It is needless to say that I am not a scientist, but from childhood my strong desire to enjoy the rasa of science knew no bounds. My mind was exercised only with astronomy and life science. That cannot be called proper knowledge, in other words, it does not have the sound foundation of scholarship. But constant reading created a natural scientific temper in my mind. My lack of respect for the stupidity of blind faith has, I hope, saved me from the extravagance of cleverness to a large measure. Nevertheless, I have never felt that it hurt my poetry or imagination in any way.

Today, at the end of my life, my mind is overwhelmed with the new theory of nature scientific mayavada. What I read earlier I did not understand fully, but I kept on reading. Today also it is impossible for me to understand everything of what I read, as it is for many specialist pundits too (translation by author; emphasis added).

Reverence for science

His lifelong and intimate friendship with Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose must have also helped him no end to develop a reverence for science. The Acharya's life was devoted to the search for reason in the workings of nature, for a unity in the diversity of nature, a synergism between spiritualism and reason. This search did not remain confined to philosophical speculation alone but led him to invent instruments of unprecedented precision and sensitivity for collecting direct evidence from nature. This must have greatly influenced Rabindranath who also searched for a synergism between spiritualism and reason in the Indian tradition. Not only did Rabindranath help his friend with money to carry on his pathbreaking experiments in England, he also wrote extensively about them and made them known to the public at large in Bengal.

He also had extensive conversations with other leading scientists of his time, such as Albert Einstein, on the nature of reality and causality in Germany in 1930, and with Werner Heisenberg, the discoverer of the famous Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics, who came to Calcutta in 1928 to meet him. Fritjof Capra has this to say about what transpired between Heisenberg and Rabindranath ( Uncommon Wisdom, 1989):

In 1929 [1928] Heisenberg spent some time in India as the guest of the celebrated Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he had long conversations about science and Indian philosophy. This introduction to Indian thought brought Heisenberg great comfort, he told me. He began to see that the recognition of relativity, incommensurability, interconnectedness and impermanence as fundamental aspects of physical reality, which had been so difficult for himself and his fellow physicists, was the very basis of Indian spiritual traditions. After these conversations with Tagore,' he said, some of the ideas that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me.' (parenthesis added; the year quoted by D.M. Bose was 1928.)

This understanding of science and empathy with science helped him develop his own interpretation of the Upanishadic philosophy of Nature. It engrossed his mind when he delivered the Hibbert lectures in Oxford in 1930. These lectures were later published as the Religion of Man (1931) in which he writes, The idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal, is the main subject of this book.

Although he was critical of technology dominating over man in some of his plays ( Muktadhara, Raktakarabi), he readily embraced its beneficial effects. In Sriniketan, where the emphasis was on rural reconstruction, he introduced many technologies like weaving, carpentry, leather work and so on. In Personality (1917) he wrote: Science is at the beginning of the invasion of the material world and there goes on a furious scramble for plunder. Often things look hideously materialistic, and shamelessly belie man's own nature. But the day will come when some of the great powers of nature will be at the beck and call of every individual, and at least the prime necessaries of life will be supplied to all with very little care and cost. To live will be as easy to man as to breathe, and his spirit will be free to create his own world.

To Rabindranath scientific truths were not mere abstractions and formulas but concrete living truths that inspired him to write great poems and compose wonderful songs. He assimilated and internalised the scientific spirit and weaved it into the very fabric of his philosophy and his artistic creations. So complete was the fusion that the songs and poems appear to stand by themselves as great artistic creations far removed from the world of science.

(The author's translation of Birat srishtir kshetre atash bajir khela akashe akashe, Arogya'.)

Professor Partha Ghose is Senior Scientist Platinum Jubilee Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, India.

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