Longfellow and Bhaktivinoda Thakur's 1871 poems

As I went through the revision of Sva-likhita-jīvanī, I spent a lot of time putting in footnotes, since I recognized that many of the names would be unfamiliar to readers, especially his Bengali contemporaries. Of course, these notes are brief and in some cases entirely inadequate. Here is one, for instance, that simply could not have been included in full, so I thought I would put it here.

When Bhaktivinoda Thakur's first wife died in 1861, he writes that this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow helped him. "I endured this grief like a warrior according to the 'Psalm of Life'."

No doubt it was Rev. Dall (also a New Englander) who introduced BVT to Longfellow). Somewhat ironically, it seems that it was the New England Unitarians and Transcendentalists who appealed the most to Bhaktivinoda rather than their British equivalents like Wordsworth. I think that Longfellow's lyrical style appealed to him more.

I think that anyone reading this and knowing the Thakur's poem to Haridas Thakur will recognize similarities in style and even substance. So for the record, for comparison's sake and for the pleasure of my readers, I have included the two poems he wrote in Puri in 1871 on the sāragrāhī theme, which was one of the main ideas supporting his "progressive" concept of religious development and shed light on that important concept.

A Psalm of Life

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife! 
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait

Bhaktivinoda;s poems were written ten years later, in 1871 when he took his duties in Jagannath Puri. The theme of a sāra-grāhī were dominant in his early thought and is indeed a concept that anyone following him should be familiar with.

Saragrahi Vaishnava

Alas, for those who spend their days
In festive mirth and joy.
The dazzling, deadly, liquid forms
Their hearts fore'er employ.

The shining bottles charm their eyes
And draw their heart's embrace;
The slaves of wine can never rise
From what we call disgrace.

Was man intended to be
A brute in work and heart?
Should man, the Lord of all around,
From common sense depart?

Man's glory is in common sense
Dictating us the grace,
That man is made to live and love
The beauteous Heaven's embrace.

The flesh is not our own, alas,
The mortal frame a chain;
The soul confined for former wrongs
Should try to rise again.

Why then this childish play in that
Which cannot be our own;
Which falls within a hundred years
As if a rose ablown.

Our life is but a rosy hue
To go ere long for naught;
The soul alone would last fore'er
With good or evil fraught.

How deep the thought of times to be!
How grave the aspect looks!
And wrapt in awe become, O, we,
When reading Nature's books.

Man's life to him a problem dark,
A screen both left and right;
No soul hath come to tell us what
Exists beyond our sight.

But then a voice, how deep and soft,
Within ourselves is felt,
Man! Man! Thou art immortal soul!
Thee Death can never melt.

For thee thy Sire on High has kept
A store of bliss above,
To end of time, thou art Oh! His-
Who wants but purest love.

O Love! Thy power and spell benign
Now melt my soul to God;
How can my earthly words describe
That feeling soft and broad?

Enjoyment, sorrow-what but lots
To which the flesh is heir?
The soul that sleeps alone concludes
In them it hath a share.

And then, my friends, no more enjoy
Nor weep for all below;
The women, wine, and flesh of beasts
No love on thee bestow.

But thine to love thy brother man
And give thyself to God,
And God doth know your wages fair-
This fact is true and broad.

Forget the past that sleeps and ne'er
The future dream at all,
But act in times that are with thee
And progress thee shall call.

But tell me not in reasoning cold
The soul is made alone
By Earth's mechanic lifeless rules
And to destruction prone.

My God who gave us life and all
Alone the soul can kill,
Or give it all the joys above
His promise to fulfill.

So push thy onward march, O soul,
Against an evil deed,
That stands with soldiers Hate and Lust-
A hero be indeed.

Maintain thy post in spirit world
As firmly as you can,
Let never matter push thee down-
O stand heroic man.

O Saragrahi Vaishnava soul,
Thou art an angel fair;
Lead, lead me on to Vrindaban
And spirit's power declare.

There rest my soul from matter free
Upon my Lover's arms-
Eternal peace and spirits love
Are all my chanting charms.

I think the line of influence is quite clear -- the reference to heroism in particular, just as in Longfellow's poem.

On Haridas Samadhi [A Saragrahi Vaishnava]

O! Born of Moslem parents, Haridas!
And trained in youth in Moslem creed,
Thy noble heart to Vaishnava truth did pass!-
Thy holy acts thy candour plead!

Is there a soul that cannot learn from thee
That man must give up sect for God?-
That thoughts of race and sect can ne'er agree
With what they call Religion broad?

Thy love of God and brother soul alone
Bereft thyself of early friends,-
Thy softer feelings oft to kindness prone
Led on thyself for higher ends!!

I weep to read that Kazees and their men
Oft persecuted thee, alas!
But thou didst nobly pray for th' wicked then!
For thou wert Vaishnava Haridas!!

And God is boundless grace to thee, O man!
United thee to one who came
To save the fallen souls from Evil's plan
Of taking human souls to shame.

And he it was who led you all that came
For life eternal, -holy, -pure!
And gave you rest in Heaven's enduring name
And sacred blessings ever sure!

Thy body rests upon the sacred sands
Of Swargadwar near the sea,
Oh! Hundreds come to thee from distant lands
T' enjoy a holy, thrilling glee!

The waters roar and storming winds assail
Thy ears in vain, Ah! Vaishnava soul!
The charms of Brindaban thy heart regale,
Unknown the wheel of time doth roll!!

He reasons ill who tells that Vaishnavas die
When thou art living still in sound.
The Vaishnavas die to live and living try
To spread a holy life around!

Now let the candid man that seeks to live
Follow thy way on shores of time,
Then posterity sure to him will give
Like one song in simple rhyme!
Despite the various controversial issues I have highlighted about Bhaktivinoda Thakur's life, which would certainly make it seem as though I am making an attempt to undermine his reputation, I don't see things that way. I continue to think of him as a really amazing person and definitely one of those highly accomplished individuals who manages to juggle a responsible career with copious intellectual creativity on the side. In short, an inspiration to me spiritually.

Those who worked in the Indian Civil Service were frequently such accomplished men, whether British or Native. Bhaktivinoda Thakur's appeal to his employers consisted of far more than his academic credentials -- for he had few. It seems that he was able to converse with them in an intelligent way.

He was writing English poetry in a very sophisticated classical style even at 17, He wrote his Poriade in two parts and published it, and proudly gave it to whomever he met, like Raj Mehtab of Burdwan, and Alexander Duff..

His reading was very extensive. He pretty much went through everything that was available. It does not seem that British India was very far behind developments in English thought and literature of the time,

It is something of a wonder that he did not go the way of all the people who surrounded him, contemporaries like Keshub Chandra Sen, Dwijendranath Tagore, Satyendranath Tagore, Nabagopal Mitra,, etc., and become a figure remembered by Bengalis to this day as a part of the Bengal Renaissance. For most Bengalis, Chaitanya Vaishnavism was part of the problem, something that belongs to the superstitious past and is certainly not something that reveals the highest ideals or concepts of human development.

Well, that is our subject when we talk about Bhaktivinoda. As people who take the essence through the natural revelation that comes through sahaja-samadhi, we are bound to extract the essence from Gaudiya Vaishnavism. That is the intellectual task that he set for us. He would accept, I should think, the critiques as necessary for progressive thought.

See also this article from 2007,


Prem Prakash said…
Reading Thakurji, it seems he was able to appreciate the intellectual and aesthetic strengths of the Western culture which exercised such an influence on him and his surroundings. Rising above his social world, he recognized much its showllowness, finding the greater wisdom and beauty of Vedic culture. What a true Paramahamsa, capable of crossing a seemingly insurmountable ocean of misunderstanding, drinking the milk out of the Yamuna and the Thames.



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