In 1901, the great Bengali writer and philosopher, Rabindranoth Tagore, opened an experimental school in West Bengal. He built the school to blend the best elements of India and the West. And it was a theme that would characterize Tagore’s entire life.
He was born in 1861 in Calcutta, the son of a religious reformer and the youngest of 13 children. As a writer, his earliest passion was poetry and he wrote more than 60 volumes of it during his lifetime. In 1913, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for a collection of religious poems, making him the first non-European to win that award. In a speech he gave on his 70th birthday, Tagore said:
“I have, it is true, engaged myself in a series of activities. But the innermost me is not to be found in any of these. At the end of the journey I am able to see, a little more clearly, the orb of my life. Looking back, the only thing of which I feel certain is that I am a poet.”
Tagore is remembered as one of the greatest Indian creatives of the twentieth century. But he was also a deeply spiritual writer. He opposed imperialism and advocated for Indian independence from Britain, and his writing reveals a passion for a spirituality that is stripped of trappings and embellishment.
For today’s inspiration, we’re taking a look at a Tagore poem that went viral in 2020 when Indian officials announced plans to build an elaborate new temple on the same day the country recorded its largest single-day surge in COVID fatalities. It’s a piece titled, “Temple of Gold.”
TEMPLE OF GOLD
By Rabindranoth Tagore
“SIRE,” announced the servant to the King, “the saint Narottam never deigns to step into your royal temple. He is singing God’s praise under the trees by the open road. The temple is empty of all worshippers. They flock round him like bees round the fragrant white lotus, leaving the golden jar of honey unheeded.”
The King, vexed at heart, went to the spot where Narottam sat on the grass. He asked him, “Father, why leave my temple of the golden dome, and sit on the dust outside to preach God’s love?”
“Because God is not there in your temple,” said Narottam.
The King frowned and said, “Do you know twenty millions of gold have been spent on that marvel of art, and the temple was duly consecrated to God with costly rites?”
“Yes, I know,” answered Narottam. “It was the dread year when thousands of your people lost their homes in fire and stood at your door for help in vain. And God said, ‘The poor creature who can give no shelter to his brothers would aspire to build my house!’ Thus he took his place with the shelterless under the trees by the road. And that golden bubble is empty of all but hot vapor of pride.”
The King cried in anger, “Leave my land!”
Calmly said the saint, “Yes, banish me where you have banished my God.
FOR ADDITIONAL READING: See The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam.
More spiritual nuggets for today …
On this day in 1943, four U.S. Army chaplains died rescuing military and civilian passengers on the sinking ship, the S.S. Dorchester.
The ship was a converted civilian liner carrying 900 passengers for service in WWII. It was headed to Greenland when it was torpedoed by a German sub off Newfoundland. The “Four Chaplains” as they came to be known, gave up their life jackets when the supply ran out. A survivor of the disaster described what happened next:
“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”
The chaplains were all first lieutenants and included the Rabbi Alexander Goode, Catholic priest Father John Washington, Reformed Church minister Rev. Clark Poling and the Methodist minister Rev. George Fox. They were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart posthumously. They were also nominated for the Medal of Honor, but didn’t qualify because they hadn’t technically engaged in combat. So, Congress created a new medal for them, one that carried the same significance and importance as the Medal of Honor.
Today also marks the death of Al Lewis, better known as Grandpa on the TV series, The Munsters, in 2006.
Lewis was born Abraham Meister in 1923 in Manhattan. He was the son of Jewish immigrants, and he was raised by his mother, who worked in the garment industry. Lewis recalled his mother in a 1998 interview:
“My mother was a worker, worked in the garment trades. [She] was an indomitable spirit. My grandfather had no sons. He had six daughters. They lived in Poland or Russia, every five years it would change. My mother being the oldest daughter, they saved their money, and when she was about sixteen they sent her to the United States, not knowing a word of English. She went to work in the garment center, worked her back and rear-end off and brought over to the United States her five sisters and two parents. I remember going on picket lines with my mother. My mother wouldn’t back down to anyone.”
In addition to an acting career that spanned more than 40 years, Lewis was a progressive activist and politician. In 1998, he ran for governor of New York as the Green Party candidate. He wanted to be listed on the ballot as “Grandpa Al Lewis” because, he argued, that’s the name the public knew him by. The Board of Elections and courts didn’t agree, and although he lost the election, he managed to earn enough votes to secure the Green Party an automatic ballot line for the next four years.
Although Lewis was Jewish by birth, his spirituality remained somewhat of a mystery. When he died in 2006, he was cremated and his funeral was held in a Christian church. His ashes were reportedly placed in his favorite cigar box.
And there you have it, that’s today’s Spiritual Almanac.
For additional reading, see The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam. There’s a link above.
Thanks for listening. Be kind, take good care and I’ll see you tomorrow.