Utsav-Celebration: Tagore’s Approach to Cultivating the Human Spirit and the Study of Religion

Kathleen M. O'Connell


Melaar jaatri ('On the way to the fair')

 Tagore’s original notion of utsav[1] was a celebration of diversity, in which everyone was accommodated; and where both individuals and groups could come together in ever widening circles of inclusion and integration.  At the broadest level, utsav, as conceived by Tagore, represented no less than a celebration of the whole of human society, or manabsamaj, where at least the possibility of meaningful creative sharing and global cooperation would exist.[2] 

From his perspective, which juxtaposed the idealism of such a concept with practical trial and error, Rabindranath was acutely aware that achieving and sustaining a meeting ground for our common humanity was a mammoth task, confronted at every turn by divisiveness and opposition.  Beginning with India, he noted the uncountable differences that exist--physical, social, linguistic, religious, and so on.  But while acknowledging the need for special types of individual and group space, he committed himself to the creation of an overall public space, where the extended human family could gather and be made welcome. As he wrote:

There is a private corner for me in my house with a little table, which has its special fittings of pen and inkstand and paper, and here I can do my writing and other work.  There is no reason to run down, or run away from this corner of mine, because in it I cannot invite and provide for all my friends and guests.  It may be that this corner is too narrow or too close, or too untidy, so that my doctor may object, my friends remonstrate, my enemies sneer…My point is that if all the rooms in my house be likewise solely for my own special convenience, if there be no reception room for my friends or accommodation for my guests, then indeed I may be blamed.  Then with bowed head I must confess that in my house no great meeting of friends can ever take place.[3]


From the above quote, it is clear how intensely personal was Tagore’s notion of utsav and the “great meeting of friends.” His model differed substantially from European models of cultural dialogue, which were largely intellectual and abstract and did not emphasize the personal side of a meeting of personalities in a hospitable setting. 

Within his own experience, Tagore’s model was one that was strongly influenced by the cultural richness, hospitality and social exchange that he witnessed within the sprawling joint family of the Jorasanko Thakur Bari, which he called the “living university”.  In his educational scheme at Santiniketan, he stretched this Jorasanko extended-family model to its limits by inviting creative individuals from around the world to come together  “in a single nest”-- and there to concentrate on those elements in each other’s cultures that harmonize and afford maximum development of the human personality and peaceful cooperation.

In developing his holistic educational paradigm, Rabindranath sought through various means to break down existing barriers and to foster interconnectivity between provincial and regional groups; between English-medium educated elites and those with little education, who conducted their lives in the vernacular. Through his work at Sriniketan, Tagore sought to bring together urban and rural economic groups and to reduce the gender gap through increased female participation in the Santiniketan activities.   Through bringing diverse individuals together in a hospitable setting, he sought to promote understanding between different linguistic groups, different races and global cultures and diverse religions.  Among these, he indicated that two of the most delicate areas of intercommunication involved different races and different religions. 

This article focuses on the inter-religious communication part of the utsav, an area that poses immense problems in our troubled world today, and one that deeply concerned Tagore throughout his lifetime.  In particular, Rabindranath’s perspective and insights on what he has called “spiritual culture” and how religion should and should not be taught within the Santiniketan setting will be examined through some of his comments regarding the teaching of religion and the cultivation of the human spirit. This will be done for the most part as Tagore’s comments appeared chronologically, from the inception of the Brahmacharya Ashram or Brahma Vidyalay, as it was called in 1901, though its evolution into Visva-Bharati, a learning centre that celebrated all cultures. I have chosen, where possible, to quote Tagore’s own lucid comments directly, rather than try to paraphrase his thoughts.


The Santiniketan Brahmacharya Ashram

`Mr. Pearson's class'

As we look at the early history of Santiniketan, we find that the educational model that Tagore had in mind for the Brahmacharya Ashram, was in many ways a cultural statement of its time, informed by late 19th century Hindu nationalism and revivalism. At this time, Tagore focused on the image of the tapoban or forest hermitage as an alternative educational paradigm to the existing colonial model, the goal being the training of national (which at the time meant largely Bengali) and spiritual leaders. For this tapoban model, he was guided by Upanishadic ideals and drew from various sources, including such works as Shakuntala by Kalidasa, where the forest becomes a symbol of tranquility or santa-rasa, representing purification, reconciliation and conflict resolution.[4]

Going through Tagore’s writings on education and religion, one finds relatively little material that deals specifically with the study of religion in an academic sense.  Rather, one finds comments about the cultivation of personal, humane religion within a more holistic discussion of spirituality and culture.  As Himangshu Bhushan Mukherjee has written in his excellent study of Tagore’s education, “There is little about religion in the syllabi because there was no organized religious instruction, as commonly understood by the term, at the institutions from its earlier days.”[5] This would change somewhat later as Visva-Bharati emerged as a university with a Department of Philosophy and Religion.

The first syllabus for Santiniketan stated that the principal object in starting the school was to give spiritual culture to the students, stating that “We rely more upon the sub-conscious influence of nature, of the associations of the place and the daily life of worship that we live, than on any conscious effort to teach them.” For spiritual development, Rabindranath encouraged the children to sit for fifteen minutes of meditation in the morning and evening, insisting that the children exert self-control and remain quiet for that period. There was recitation of the Gayatri Mantra, which Tagore felt to be a useful vehicle for helping the students realize the connection between the world and their consciousness--and between themselves and each other.  He believed that if a child’s sense of awe was awakened at an early age through nature, art, music, dance and the presence of artists and spiritually enlightened teachers, a sense of a spiritual dimension would develop spontaneously, and the senses would become refined.

As well as the Gayatri Mantra, the following mantra was also employed to help the students identify with nature: “The God who is in fire, who is in water, who interpenetrates the whole universe, who is in herbs, who is in trees, to that God I bow down again and again.” When the children recited these words in the vast Santiniketan landscape, wrote Rabindranath, it was easy for them to realize that the divine is manifested through water, land, fire, medicinal plants and vegetation. Music also played a seminal part of the school from its inception.

In the early 1900s, Tagore was an active participant in the National Council of Education, but he withdrew from their activities around 1906 because of differences over the emphasis that the National Council was placing on foreign models of education.

Tagore’s disillusionment with Hindu nationalism during the Swadeshi period was reflected in educational activities that would break down religious bias and class prejudices.  The birthdays of the great religious prophets and saints were celebrated, and new activities of social service were initiated. Such activities included student work in the villages with Hindus, Muslims and tribal peoples, and an interaction with nature.  There was a move away from authoritarianism towards greater educational freedom and expression through the arts. A further blow to the traditional image of the Brahmacharya Ashram was struck when women were admitted in 1909.

Concerning the non-sectarian position of the school Tagore would write: We have fully admitted the inequalities and varieties of human life in our ashram.  We never try to gain some kind of outward uniformity by weeding out the differences of nature and training our members… Because we do not deal with creeds and dogmas of sectarianism, therefore this heterogeneity of our religious beliefs does not present us with any difficulty whatever.”[6] He noted that when the eagerness to teach others was too strong, it had negative results, that religion could never be imparted by lessons:  “All the hypocrisy and self-delusion in our religious convictions and practices are the outcome of the goadings of over-zealous activities of mentorship.”[7]

In 1911, Tagore wrote an essay, “Hindu Visvabidyalay”, which was composed around the time of the establishment of Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University. In it, he discusses the problem of communal education within the larger context of communalism.  In the essay, we find Tagore advocating what Himangshu Bhusan Mukherjee has called “enlightened communalism”.[8] Tagore argued (in line with his belief that “Unity does not mean Uniformity”) that real unity among different units will be possible only when each unit, however small, fully realizes its own individuality and stature.  He felt it fitting that Hindus and Muslims should attain full growth and maturity through their own systems and the “free breath of modern learning would serve as an emancipating force.”[9]

Tagore supported the idea of separate communal education on the grounds that if each community received the best type of education in its own sphere, it would in the course of time forget its isolationist attitudes and come closer to other communities.[10] 

Regarding methodology, Tagore wrote to one of his Santiniketan teachers, Dhirendra Mohan Sen, from England in September 1912: “In the last analysis, we must come to the inevitable conclusion that education be imparted only by a teacher and never by a method.”[11] Arguing that free experimentation should be one of the most important qualities of a teacher, Tagore argued against any fixed method of education that seeks to bind the entire country by a fixed ideal.  Such an approach would not be national, but rather sectarian and dangerous for the whole country.[12]

A 1912 essay, Dharma siksha, discussed the nature of religiousness, indicating that it cannot be achieved by occasional sermons or by any systematic course of study.  His 1916 essay “My School”, written a few years before the establishment of Visva-Bharati, carried a similar theme stating: 

Religion is not a fractional thing that can be doled out in fixed weekly or daily measures as one among various subjects in the school syllabus.  It is the truth of our complete being, the consciousness of our personal relationship with the infinite; it is the true centre of gravity of our life.  This we can attain during our childhood by the daily living in a place where the truth of the spiritual world is not obscured by a crowd of necessities assuming artificial importance; where life is simple, surrounded by fullness of leisure, by ample space and pure air and profound peace of nature, and where men live with a perfect faith in the eternal life before them.[13]



Postage stamp released on 50th
anniversary of Visva-Bharati

Tagore created the foundation for Visva-Bharati in 1918 with an essay entitled “The Centre of Indian Culture” which was delivered during his tour of South India. It represents a distinct shift from the earlier 1902 constitutional letter of the Brahmacharya Ashram.  Here the language is expanded to consolidate the cultures of India and beyond to create a humanistic outlook and global interaction.

The “Centre of Indian Culture” discusses what should be the ideal of education in India and indicates that the most important factor in education must be the inspiring atmosphere of creative activity with the primary goal of the constructive work of knowledge. Tagore expresses the need for an educational centre that is in constant touch with complete life: economic, intellectual, aesthetic and social; for true education “is to realize at every step how our training and knowledge have an organic connection with our surroundings." Tagore rejects the fully blown Western models of education such as at Cambridge and Oxford as being non-organic to India, like bringing in an artificial tree.

And in one of his inimitable similes he writes, “These solidly complete Universities over which our country is brooding, are like hard boiled eggs from which you cannot expect chickens to come out.”[14]

 In the same essay he asks the question: “What must be the religious teaching to be given at our centre of Indian Culture?"  Arguing that national universities up to that time had only been another name for Hindu universities, he makes the case for non-sectarian education. The academic study of religion should be done in an integrated manner, with a goal of connecting the various streams of Indian culture. The cultural streams were designated as the Vedic, Puranic, Buddhist and Jain mainstream, which was supplemented by the Tibetan, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian…with the European as a separate stream.  A study of the living languages and folk literature must be included, he adds: “to know the psychology of our people and the direction towards which our underground current of life is moving.”

Continuing with his emphasis upon studying religion within its broadest cultural context, he writes:

The Muslim has repeatedly come into India from outside, laden with his own stores of knowledge and feeling and his wonderful religious democracy…in our music, our architecture, our pictorial art our literature, the Muslims have made their permanent and precious contribution.  Those who have studied the lives and writings of our medieval saints and all the great religious movements that sprang up in the time of Muslim rule know how deep is our debt to this foreign current that has so intimately mingled with our lives.[15]


At the inauguration of Visva-Bharati in December 1921, Tagore spoke of radical changes in civilization and the need for new forms of education.  Visva-Bharati was to be an experiment in which individuals of different civilizations and traditions learned to live together, not on the basis of nationalism but through a wider relationship of humanity.  Its constitution designated Visva-Bharati as an Indian, Eastern and Global cultural centre whose goals included the patient study and research of the different cultures on the basis on their underlying unity, and the aspiration “To seek to realize in a common fellowship of study the meeting of East and West and thus ultimately to strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the free communication of ideas between the two hemispheres…And with such Ideals in view to provide at Santiniketan a centre of culture where research into the study of the religion, literature, history, science and art of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Islamic, Sikh, Christian and other civilizations may be pursued along with the culture of the West, with the simplicity of externals which is necessary for true spiritual realization in amity, good fellowship and co-operation between the thinkers and scholars of both Eastern and Western countries, free from all antagonism of race, nationality, creed or caste and in the name of the One Supreme Being who is Shantam, Shivam,  Advaitam.” 

In a later letter to C.F. Andrews, Rabindranath explained his interpretation of the “Shantam, Shivam Advaitam” phrase in the humanistic terms of self-control, goodness and love, stating that The first stage towards freedom is the Shantam, the true peace, which can be attained by subduing self; the next stage is the Shivam, the true goodness, which is the activity of the Soul when the self is subdued. And then the Advaitam, the love, the oneness with all and with god.”[16]

As the tapoban or forest hermitage had served as a prototype for Santiniketan, for Visva-Bharati, Tagore looked to the ancient Buddhist monasteries of Nalanda, Taxsila and Vikramshila as models of hospitality, cosmopolitanism, scholarship and a harmonious relationship with the local community. And, as mentioned, there was also the generous model of cultural and social exchange that he had experienced in his joint-family Jorasanko residence.  Administratively, the academic and arts programs at Vsva-Bharati were carried out through various faculties called bhavans. There would not have been a separate bhavan for religion at this time. Vidya Bhavan administered academic activities and supported scholarly research on a wide range of topics, including the study of various religious traditions.

Around the same time, in an essay entitled, “An Eastern University”, Tagore asks the question: “What shall be the religious ideal that is to rule our centre of Indian culture?”  His answer is that:

The one abiding ideal in the religious life of India has been mukti, the deliverance of man’s soul from the grip of self, its communion with the Infinite Soul through its union in ananda with the universe… This religion of spiritual harmony is not a theological doctrine to be taught, as a subject in the class, for half an hour each day.  Such a religious ideal can only be made possible by making provision for students to live in intimate touch with nature, daily to grow in an atmosphere of service offered to all creatures, tending trees, feeding birds and animals, learning to feel the immense mystery of the soil and water and air.[17]


The conceptual foundation for the Department of Philosophy and Religion had been established as early as 1919, when a group of Gujarati students was admitted and Visva-Bharati was designated as a home for all cultures.  With the adoption of the 1921 constitution, the Department of higher Studies, then renamed Uttar Vibhaga, expanded the academic program by including Philosophy as an independent area of study besides Logic, Nyaya and Vedanta.  The 1923 Visva-Bharati syllabus repeats Rabindranath’s main educational objective, to “give spiritual culture” to the students and it states: “the religious atmosphere is unsectarian and undogmatic and is calculated to the promotion of a religious outlook generally”[18] In terms of curriculum, the 1927 Visva-Bharati annual report lists study in Vedic, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Avesta, Tibetan, Buddhism, Jainism (for which two new scholarships had been secured) and Medieval Religions.  The same year, Islamic Studies was given a boost by the establishment of the Nizam Chair of Islamic Studies made possible by a generous donation from the Nizam of Hyderbad. Cheena Bhavan was inaugurated in 1937.[19]

The method of instruction was that of guru-disciple; that is, of students working closely with a senior scholar without conventional examinations. The linguistic medium was Bengali with English as a second language.  Around this time, due to pressure from various sources and the need to attract better students, Siksha Bhavan was set up to train students for Calcutta University exams.  The success rate was high, but Tagore considered it a concession to convention and a hindrance to his own approach.

In 1922, as Gandhi was launching the Non-Cooperation Movement, Tagore was establishing Sriniketan, the Centre for Rural Reconstruction.  Tagore argued that what was most needed in India was not political agitation, but the slow process of village reconstruction and an educational system that would promote national integration.

In the last years of his life, Tagore became increasingly concerned about the directions in which both India and the international community were moving. He increasingly spoke out against sectarianism and aggressive nationalism. His lectures in The Religion of Man, published in 1930, were a mature summary of his pluralistic, humanistic thinking developed over many decades.

Tagore twice addressed the Parliament of Religions, which was held in Calcutta. In his 1929 address, he spoke out against sectarianism, calling it “a worse enemy of the truth of religion than atheism.” He continued:

Today science has offered us facilities that bring the human races outwardly close to one another, yet curiously enough it is our religions that zealously maintain the inner barriers that separate, and often antagonize nations and peoples…it is high time for us to know how much more important it is, in the present age, to be able to understand the fundamental truths of all religions and realize their essential unity, thus clearing the way for a world-wide spiritual comradeship, than to preach some special religion of our own with all its historical limitations.[20]


In the 1937 Parliament of Religions, which was held at the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, Tagore acknowledged Ramakrishna, whose birth centenary was being celebrated, as a great saint because “the largeness of his spirit could comprehend seemingly antagonistic modes of sadhana, and because the simplicity of his soul shames for all time the pomp and pedantry of pontiffs and pundits.”  He told the gathering that he had nothing new to tell them, no esoteric truth to propound, that he was a mere poet and lover of creation and humanity.  Religions at their most profound level, he indicated, help to reveal a spirit of harmony that bridges the dark abysms of time and space…that reconciles contradictions…and imparts perfect balance to the unstable. Yet, “when these same religions travel far from their sacred sources,” he noted, “they lose their original dynamic vigour, and degenerate into the arrogance of piety, into an utter emptiness crammed with irrational habits and mechanical practices, then is their spiritual inspiration befogged in the turbidity of sectarianism, then do they become the most obstinate obstruction that darkens our vision of human unity.” [21] He continued:

All through the course of human history it has become tragically evident that religions, whose mission is liberation of soul, have in some form or other ever been instrumental in shackling freedom of mind and even moral rights. 

…The pious man of sect is proud because he is confident of his right of possession of God.  The man of devotion is meek because he is conscious of God’s right of love over his life and soul….the bigoted sectarian nurses the implicit belief that God can be kept secured for himself and his fellows in a cage which is of their own making…

Thus every religion that begins as a liberating agency ends as a vast prison-house.  Built on the renunciation of its founder, it becomes a possessive institution in the hands of its priests, and claiming to be universal, becomes an active centre of schism and strife…This mechanical spirit of tradition is essentially materialistic, it is blindly pious but not spiritual, obsessed by phantoms of unreason that haunt feeble minds with their ghastly mimicry of religion.[22]



This provides a brief overview of Tagore’s approach to the development of spirituality and the study of religion within the natural setting of Santiniketan.  From an academic point of view, he was perhaps the most precise in the statements in his letter to Dhirendra Mohan Sen in 1912, his essay “the Centre of Indian Culture”, and at the inauguration of Visva-Bharati; that is, that religion should be studied as a whole, within its broadest cultural context.

 It is clear from Tagore’s writings, that, while advocating rigorous scholarship, he would be opposed to an over intellectualized and compartmentalized approach that would emphasize the separation of the world’s religions, rather than a unity of spiritual cultures. A Tagorean approach would include comparative studies of religious art and history, architecture, drama, music and the way in which such aspects of religion have developed a refined aesthetic sensibility.  As such, it would include the shared experience of the arts in a congenial setting. It would also include the area of social reform…the study of the ways in which a particular religious tradition has been able to reduce the inequalities and sufferings of its members, and to what degree it has, or has not facilitated significant interaction within the individuals of the particular community and with other traditions to create a climate of peace, as well as preservation and appreciation of the environment.  

And of course, he would place great emphasis upon the attitudes of the individual scholars and artists as they interact with one another and the importance of the atmosphere within which they meet.  He would decry the egotism, rivalry, narrowness and pettiness that characterize many enterprises, which was not unknown in his own time, even in Santiniketan, “The Abode of Peace”.  In advocating the model of an extended joint family as a microcosm for the maha-utsav, he sets for us the high ideals of amity, good fellowship and the coming together in a spirit of co-operation free from the antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or caste.



[1]‘Utsav’ can be defined as a festival or celebration. This article was presented at ‘Utsav—Celebrating Tagore in the 21st Century’ at the India International Centre in New Delhi , March  27-30, 2008.  Its initial version was prepared for a national workshop on “Academic Study of Religion in India” organized by the Department of Philosophy and Religion, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan (February 16-18, 2008). I wish to thank my husband Joseph T. O’Connell for his valuable comments and suggestions on this article.

[2]Navayuger Utsav,” in Rabindra Racanabali, vol. 14 (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1939), pp. 317-18.

[3] "The Centre of Indian Culture,” in Towards Universal Man (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 228-9.

[4] For further information on the early history of the Brahmacharya Ashram, see Kathleen M. O’Connell , Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2002).

[5] Himangshu Bhusan Mukherjee, Education for Fulness (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962), p. 239. Mukherjee continues: “Though for a short period at the beginning, under the regime of Brahmabandhab, the accent on Vedic Hindu Culture was rather pronounced, practices were soon mellowed and liberalized, so that but for a general inspiration from the eclectic Upanishadic ideals, no sectarian religious faith or rites found any place at this devotional services conducted at Santiniketan for the institution as a whole.”

[6]RT, “My School,” Personality  (London: Macmillan & Co., 1917), p. 136.

[7] Ibid., p. 134-5.

[8] Education for Fulness p. 41.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Tagore wrote: “The problem the world over is not how to become one through removing individual differences, but how to unite through preserving them.  To destroy genuine individuality  tantamounts [sic] to suicide. “ Ibid, pp. 41-2.

[11] Sikshabidhi, written to Dhirendra Mohan Sen in September 1912 from England; one of the few writings of Tagore’s that specifically focuses on appropriate teaching methodology within an Indian context.   Prabashi, Asvin, 1319 B.S.; reprinted Siksha, 1342 B.S. ed., p. 284.  Tagore continues indicating that a human can learn only from a human: “Just as a water tank can be filled only with water and fire can be kindled only with fire, life can only be inspired with life…In our social organization we are searching for a guru who will give pace to our life; in our educational system we are searching for a guru who will emancipate our mind from its imprisonment.  However it may be, we want a human being in every sphere of our life.  The mere pill of a method instead shall bring us no salvation.”  Siksha,  p.286,  quoted in Education for Fulness, p. 44.


[13] “My School,” op. cit., p. 135.

[14] “The Centre of Indian Culture” (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1961), p.205.

[15] “The Centre of Indian Culture,” p. 223.

[16] Letter to C.F. Andrews, Oct. 12, 1915, Letters to a Friend (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1929), p. 71.

[17] RT, “An Eastern University,” The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, vol 2, edited by Sisir Kumar Das (Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996), p. 568.

[18] Tagore expressed similar sentiments in an essay called “Notes and Comments”, published in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly in 1923, stating that religion “cannot be doled out in regulated measure, nor administered through the academic machinery of education.  It must come immediate from the burning flame of spiritual surroundings suitable for such life.  The Asrama, the Forest University of ancient India, gave for our country the answer to the question as to how this Religion can be imparted.”

[19] A further development occurred later in 1951, when Visva-Bharati was made a Central University by an Act of Lok Sabha (Parliament).  Vidya-Bhavan initiated undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a number of subjects including philosophy and comparative religion.  It was at this time that the present day Department of Philosophy and Religion came into being--the first department of its kind in India--where two parallel courses in philosophy and comparative religion are taught up to the PhD level. “Annual Report 2005-6,” Santiniketan:Visva-Bharati 2006, 57.

[20]  “Message to the Parliament of Religions,” Boundless Sky (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1964), p.262.

[21] RT, “Address at the Parliament of Religions,” The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, vol 3, edited by Sisir Kumar Das (Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996), pp. 706-7.

[22] Ibid, pp.707-8.

Published in Parabaas September 26, 2009.

Illustrations are by Nandalal Basu (`Melaar jaatri') and Ramendranath Chakraborty ('Pearson saheber class' [`Mr. Pearson's class'] respectively. Taken from Amader Shantiniketan by Sudhiranjan Das.

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