”You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” — Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore with Einstein, 1930
We think of Leonardo da Vinci as the prototype Renaissance Man. Da Vinci had an unquenchable curiosity, was unhindered by the “you can’t do that” school of thought, and was adept in a range of fields as diverse as aerodynamics and painting religious scenes.
Rather than seeing da Vinci’s life as that of a rare genius, I think of him as a perfect example of someone who has kept his brain in good shape. Modern brain science supports the idea that, by exposing yourself to new information throughout life, the brain can remain fit like other muscles and organs in the body. The work the neurons in the brain do to take in, categorize, and store new data, actually strengthens the connections in the brain. So, it really is possible to “teach an old dog new tricks” as long as that old dog has been learning new tricks right along.
So, my curiosity was piqued when I came across an article about another “Renaissance Man,” Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was a turn of the century Bengali poet, novelist, musician,playwright, spiritualist, educator, philosopher, composer, singer, and cultural relativist. Renaissance, indeed.
Illustration, 1913, by Asi Kumar Haldar for a prose-poem "The Hero"
He was born in 1861 and in 1913, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore began writing poetry when he a boy, and published his first poetry when he was only sixteen. One of his poems is titled “Mind Without Fear”
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Tagore's ink on paper drawing "Dancing Girl"
Politically, he took a stand against the British Raj. His written work shunned the restraints of classical forms to deal with personal and political issues. His writing seems as appropriate today as it did in his own time. Tagore said, “I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.” Boy, who hasn’t felt that way in these days of social networking, cell phones, internet overload?
Tagore could have been writing about America’s current wars when he said, “If anger be the basis of our political activities, the excitement tends to become an end in itself, at the expense of the object to be achieved. Side issues then assume an exaggerated importance, and all gravity of thought and action is lost; such excitement is not an exercise of strength, but a display of weakness.”
A few years before his death, he developed a new interest — science. He wrote extensive essays on various scientific subjects. He debated Einstein on the newly emerging science of quantum mechanics and chaos. About physics, Tagore said, ” Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?”
It inspires me to learn of someone so accomplished in so many fields of endeavor who gladly takes on new challenges throughout life.