Saturday, 17 September 2011

Rabindranath Tagore and "The Age of the Sound Bite"

This morning we were celebrating the first anniversary of a youth theatre group that are using the large schoolroom here at Dunham Road. I was invited along to have my picture taken with them and was then interviewed for the local press. I was asked to give a couple of “sound bites” about why we were supporting them using our building and what we hoped this might achieve.

We are told that the best way to communicate with people in this day and age is through “sound bites”; that if you’ve got something to say, you must be able to communicate it in no more than 140 characters.

Is this true? Well I personally do not think so, although I do accept that the “sound bite” is a useful method of communication and ought not to be dismissed.

A lot of the publicity material produced by Unitarians has the tag line “Many Beliefs, One Faith” a sound bite that I actually like. I believe that it portrays accurately, our faith tradition. I reckon that it could well open the door to people and lead to further inquiry. Could it lead to them asking Ciff Reed’s question “Unitarian, what’s that?”

Of course “Sound bites” have their limits. They are not created to offer answers merely stimulate questions. Isn’t this what the spiritual life is all about? Asking the questions? Well actually in my experience this is only part of it. If it is only about asking the questions, then the spiritual life is limited. This is why I am one of those folk who believe that spiritually, without religious community, will always be limited. As I have said before I believe that spirituality needs religion, just as religion needs spirituality. One without the other doesn’t really work. True religion is about free spiritual seeking, but in constructive activity with others, in the world that we actually inhabit. Spirituality, at least in many of its modern incarnations, seems to miss so much due to it’s over emphasis on the individual.  A free religious faith, where a diversity of beliefs is encouraged, is about the asking the questions in community with others and then living those questions in life itself. Or to put it another way, it’s about “Unity in Diversity”. Or as our current publicity reads “Many Beliefs, One Faith”.

The “Wayside Pulpit” is one method of displaying our message to outsiders. It is something that I have not fully got the hang of as of yet. Michael Jackson (not the recently deceased singer) a Buddhist/Christian solicitor is an avid reader of our “Wayside pulpit”, at Altrincham. He tells me the ones that he likes and the ones that he considers to be too wordy. Some of our recent one’s have been too wordy, he tells me. Yet another case of progress not perfection, I am working on this.

The current “Wayside Pulpit” at Dunham Road reads “I feel called to be faithful in two ways, inwardly to God and outwardly to man” by George Fox the 17th century Quaker, who definitely followed both of his callings. He was a spiritually enlightened man, who lived out his religious convictions.

Fox’s “sound bite” is echoed in the teachings of Rabindranath Tagore who taught that God is found through personal discovery and human service.

2011 is the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, which is being celebrated by diverse groups of people in many parts of the world. We Unitarians are celebrating his life and teachings too. This is because we have been influenced by him and his work and we ourselves influenced his own personal spiritual development.

Rabindranath Tragore was born into privilege in Calcutta, to a family who combined Indian culture with western ideas. He was a child protégé who began writing poems at the age of eight. By the age of 17 he was a published author. He enjoyed a fine education, including a spell studying law at University College London.

Following his marriage in 1883 he moved to East Bengal now Bangladesh and began to collect folk stories. He wrote prolifically in the local language and had several books published during the latter years of the 19th century. He wrote a variety of poems, prose, short stories and novels. In 1901 he founded a school near Calcutta, which taught a combination of both eastern and western philosophy.

In 1913 Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature, he was the first non-westerner to do so. How this came about is cloaked in mystery. In 1912 he sailed for England with 100 translations of his poems, which would become the anthology “Gitanjali” (“song offerings”). He carelessly left them on the tube and thought they were lost. While in London he met WB Yeates who became a passionate supporter and helped him to get his work published in England. He quickly became a global phenomenon, due in no small part to him being awarded the Nobel Prize.  He was the embodiment of the synthesis between east and west. He was the first Guru, more than half a century before the Beatles went on their pilgrimage to India.

He is portrayed by many Unitarians as a beacon of religious inclusivity. He was a member of the Liberal Hindu movement Brahmo Samaj, which was heavily influenced by western thinking. Not only did he want to share his culture with the west; he also wanted to learn about the west. He wanted to combine the best of both of these worlds. As he said his dream was to unite “the introspective vision of the universal soul (eastern spirituality) with the spirit of its outward expression in service (western religion).

This brings to my mind the parable of Mary and Martha (Luke Ch 10 vv 38-42). Many Biblical scholars have seen Mary as the representative of contemplation, prayer the inner life; whereas Martha is seen as the representative of social action, of good works for others. Together they represent the “Golden Rule of Compassion”, the love of God and the love of neighbour. Mary represents the east and Martha the west; Mary represents spirituality and Martha religion. They are the perfect embodiment of our current Wayside pulpit, spoken in the 17th century, by George Fox “I feel called to be faithful in two ways, inwardly to God and outwardly to man”. Sound bites are not a modern phenomena, Jesus used them...”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” and many, many more.

Tagore played a leading role in the Indian reform movements of the inter-war period. He and Gandhi were friends and allies for quite some time, although they did fall out over what Tagore saw as Gandhi’s idealisation of cottage cotton spinning. Tagore did not want to live in the past and criticised Gandhi for idealising it. Tagore wanted the best of both east and west and not the total rejection of either. Gandhi saw Tagore as being too complex and positive about life and Tagore viewed Gandhi as being too simplistic and negative with regard to India and her problems. That said, although they disagreed, they continued to show respect for one another and their different religious views.

Tagore was a strong believer in the dignity of the individual, he upheld the value of freedom. He believed in the divine purpose and of the diversity of language, religion and culture that was at the heart of Indian life. He championed “Unity in Diversity” and believed that every language, religion and culture had its place in India. Multi-culturalism is not a modern invention; many of the ancient civilisations were multi-cultural. He saw India as the great exemplar of this and believed that its contribution to world civilisation lay in its example of unity in diversity to the whole world. Sadly this was damaged due to partition and the nationalism that accompanied it.
I believe that my Unitarian tradition owes a debt to Tagore for this concept of “Unity in Diversity”, exemplified in our current “sound bite” “Many Beliefs One Faith”. Paradoxically it is both a simple and yet complex message. Many beliefs suggests a broad questioning spirituality; where as one faith is speaking of a community coming together and impacting on the society in which it lives and breathes. Yes it is diverse, while also bringing individuals into oneness with each other, their world and with God however each understands this word.

I believe that we all have that Divine spark within us. We are all capable of so much more than we sometime allow ourselves to be. We are capable of moving beyond self centred accumulation to a life of service with and for one another. We can dedicate ourselves to the cause of truth and beauty, to unrewarded service for others. We can dedicate ourselves to love for self and neighbour, the love of nature and we can grow in harmony with all existence.

All are capable of heeding George Fox’s call:

“I feel called to be faithful in two ways, inwardly to God and outwardly to man”
I will end this piece with some words of Tagore. I will not call them a “sound bite” and they are too long for a future “Wayside Pulpit”, nevertheless are believe they are worth reflecting on

 “All my work and all my dealings with people feel very easy. Actually, everything is simple. There is one straight road - if you open your eyes you can go along it. I don’t see the need to search for all sorts of clever short cuts. Happiness and sadness are both on the road - there is no road that avoids them - but peace is found only on this road, nowhere else.”

By the way it’s a very Broad Highway, not a narrow path.

Does that sound like an ok “sound bite”? I'd better ask Michael Jackson.

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