Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gora by Rabindranath Tagore

Somehow or another I found myself reading Gora, which I found in the Gurukula library. Written in 1910, this novel is sometimes said to be Rabindranath's masterpiece. I started reading it 20 years ago in Bengali but never finished it. translation, done in 1924 by W.W.Pearson, is in the literary English of the period and keeps the spirit of the original quite well. The overall flavor seems to have been touched by the feminine social and romantic mood of Jane Austen or the Brontes, or even Louisa May Alcott. Perhaps more Dickensian social overtones would have been welcome, and where Rabindranath uses irony, it seems insufficient. Indeed there is enough earnestness in this work to make me wonder if it was not written by a much younger man than the 50-year-old Tagore was in 1910.

It is also quite clear from the historical references that the events described are taking place in a Bengal of a few decades earlier, when the Brahmo Samaj was a greater force in Bengali society than it was by the turn of the 20th century. Since the name of Keshab Babu (Keshab Chandra Sen) is mentioned, it would appear that it is set in the time before that movement split in the 1860's.

Rabindranath's account seems to reflect the tensions present in the Brahmo Samaj during that time. On the one hand he describes genuine wisdom in the group--the individual (Paresh Babu, পরেশ বাবু) who is accepted as the "guru" in the end is a longtime Brahmo Samaji liberal--its decadence is represented by the same man's wife, Boroda (বরদা) and of theis more or less blacklisted by the more dominant conservative factions represented by one of the book's less pleasant characters (Haran, হরণ), a militant preacher of the organization.

Paresh and Boroda have two daughters and a son, as well as two adopted children. His own daughter Lolita (ললিতা) and the adopted daughter Sucharita (সুচরিতা) are the young girls whose romantic sentiments are at the center of Rabindranath's concerns about women's issues. The two girls, though not as young as typical Hindu girls of the period would have been when marriageable, are nevertheless in their early to mid-teens, i.e., past 14 but not much past. As such, Rabindra seems to make them, their thoughts and sentiments rather more mature than we could reasonably hope girls of that age to be. But he is clearly speaking approvingly of the Brahmo Samaj opposition to many of the social restrictions placed upon women--including widow remarriage, suttee, increasing the legal age for marriage, and so on. The Brahmo Samaj also approved of women's education, and clearly these young girls are educated far beyond what Hindu society would have permitted. This is important in the story, because our male heroes, who are vigorous and committed to the nationalist movement of the time, will be attracted to these women, not only for their physical attributes, but because they are worthy intellectually and are themselves able to engage with their ideas.

The two heroes are the eponymous Gora (গোরা) and his friend Binoy (বিনয়). Though Gora is named after our Gaurachandra, Rabindranath makes no allusions to that antecendent anywhere. Indeed, there is some question about whether Rabindranath was very familiar at all with Mahaprabhu. We know that he was inspired in his early life to write poetry after reading the Mahajan padavali, but as far as I know, he wrote little or nothing indicating a familiarity with Chaitanya Charitamrita, etc. In this book, for what it is worth, Vaishnavas seem to be almost completely assimilated into the orthodoxy, and Rabindra makes no practical distinction between them. If Vaishnavas had any heterodox elements, like Sahajiyaism or Bauls, there is no indication of any such thing in this volume. Indeed, Bengali society has been reduced to two monoliths, Hindu orthodoxy and Brahmoism. Whether this is a simplification for the sake of narrative or whether it is a true representation of the state of affairs, at least in Calcutta in 1880.
The only Vaishnava character, a widow who took up the religion on being cheated of her position in her in-laws' family home after the death of her husband, shows a certain kindness and humility (or obsequiousness) as long as her social status is precarious, but as soon as money and a restoration of her family position are held up as possibilities, she becomes increasingly hypocritical and scheming.

To return to Gora, though. (TO BE CONTINUED)

The two main themes of the book are Hindu nationalism and the condition of women.


Anonymous said...

rabindranath had indeed commented a lot on chaitanya and gaudiya vaishnava movement . in numerous cases he has reffered to his debt to the vaishnava literature in shaping his own style of writing. he repeteadly read chaitanya charitamrita and chaitanya bhagavat in his early teens and himself composed a series of padavali poetry under the penname of bhanusimha .

Jagat said...

I know that. I meant that in Gora, he does not mention Vaishnavism, except in the case of one woman (forget name) who is a bit of an unpleasant character. Vaishnavas are considered part of the orthodox Hindu system.

Anonymous said...

anyways , it was absolutely lovely to read through your blog . what particularly fascinated me was your intellectual taste and freedom of thought which is so typically absent in most of iskcon disciples . in my school days i entered youth forum and got involved with iskcon only to realize later that i simply cannot reconcile my passion for culture , compararive religion etc with theirs . besides being a bengali myself i have utmost respect for both mahaprabhu and ramakrishna and was educated in both the veiws since childhood . consequently the demeaning of shaktisim and ramakrishna movement didnt go down well with me . then i withdrew from iskcon . i strongly feel that iskcon can see amazing succses if they remain silent on the local cultures and its figures while preaching . another thing that i find missing in iskcon is the intrinsic bengali culture of ancient gaudiya vaishnavism . without the beautifull padavali , festvals like rasayatra , dolayatra etc iskcon has completely lost its bengali connection . now it is a global vaishnava hindu movement . many of my friends return dissapointed from mayapur without finding any element of bengali ethos . the traditional bengali cultural fervour of the gaudiya vaishnavas , their subtle songs , tears , humility etc all seems to have dissapeared . this makes it even harder for a bengali to relate to this 'alien' movement . they love the mahaprabhu of their literature , they respect the mahaprabhu of charitamrita but they stare confused at the opulent mahaprabhu at mayapur ! same can be said of the southern parts of india . this cultural gap between the iskcon and the indian mainstream society should be bridged first if it is to gain a foothold in this land . and they need more of people like you to do that !!!

dandavat ....

Jagat said...

Thank you. I greatly appreciate your comments and your sentiments. I have often expressed exactly what you say here. This began with the Gaudiya Math who were embarrassed by the things that you recognize are intrinsic to Bengal Vaishnavism.

It may be impossible for me to do what you say, since I am deficient in so many ways, but certainly I would like to find a way to recreate that mood and internationalize that.

Anonymous said...

i think i shall keep in touch with you under the name of ayan . because many a times i have seen some defects and deficiencies in iskcon which i wanted to speak with to someone who can understand and implement . but sadly such persons have been always rare to find . as you know the bengali brahmacharis of mayapur are primarily from east bengal( looked down as 'bangal' in western bengal) and they generally lack in intellect and higher understanding.and the western devotees out there are often pretty sincere but brush aside such discussions for the fear of mayavada etc etc . moreover with their lack of knowledge about bengali culture it would be indeed very hard to make them get the idea . thats why i was initially surpised seeing you reading bengali books of calcutta university .

you know..... sometimes i get so irritated with iskcon ( due to their certain comments) and the very next moment i sit thinking of the beutiful golden days of mahaprabhu when the entire bengal shook with thundrous kirtan and suddha prema and then forget all my anger .

same can be said with most other bengalis ....... they want mahaprabhu but not iskcon . and in the process the dont want to recognise even the beneficial practices introduced by iskcon . this huge divide is the cause of unsuccesfull preaching in bengal .

i have a few suggestions to improve this gaudiya movement which i would write to you later .

koti dandavat ,


Jagat said...

It may be better to write to me at jankbrz {at}

Radhe Radhe!

Anonymous said...

great !! i'll have that noted .