Rabindranath Tagore and the Dying Words of George Floyd

As America finds itself clutching the image of its former empire — cornered by its neo-liberal capitalist failures and its racist roots — the prayers of Rabindranath Tagore, a Brahmo Hindu from Calcutta, feel prophetic in 2020. 

(I refer to him as a poet here, because it’s his poems that I have in mind, but he wrote in almost every genre and held many important titles throughout his career.) 

In one of his less famous poems, “Questions to God,” Tagore confronts God for the injustices in the world (translation provided by Harvard Square Library):

Age after age, O God, You have sent Your messengers into this pitiless world, who have left their word:

‘Forgive all. Love all. Cleanse your hearts from the blood-red stains of hatred.’

Adorable are they, ever to be remembered; yet from the outer door, I have turned away today—this evil day—with unmeaning salutation.

Have I not seen secret malignance strike down the helpless under the cover of hypocritical might?

Have I not heard the silenced voice of justice weeping in solitude at night’s defiant outrages?

Have I not seen in what agony reckless youth, running mad, has vainly shattered its life against insensitive rocks?

Choked is my voice, mute are my songs today, and darkly my world lies imprisoned in a dismal dream; and I ask You, O God, in tears:

‘Have You Yourself forgiven; have even You loved those who are poisoning Your air and blotting out Your light?’

Like an observer of the numerous Hebrew prophets set to call Israel to repentance, Tagore feels a sense of hopelessness in the repetition of ‘the messengers,’ who all carry the same message because the status quo hasn’t changed. 

Tagore’s  unchanging situation, that of British colonialism, shares its repetition with the problem of racism in America.

The largest social movement in the history of America is currently taking place at the corner of every Main Street in the country, that of #BlackLivesMatter, but the solution to our situation isn’t quickly obvious. Neo-liberal Democrat voices like President Obama have reminded voters to maintain this energy in November; in the same vein, the donation button on the BlackLivesMatter website takes you to the Democratic party. Tagore’s cry fits our pleas:“Have I not heard the silenced voice of justice weeping in solitude at night’s defiant outrages? Have I not seen in what agony reckless youth, running mad, has vainly shattered its life against insensitive rocks?” 

Tagore knew that non-systematic solutions don’t solve systematic problems and that small gestures are empty pills meant to placate the oppressed and nothing more—this is why he rejected his Knighthood that was bestowed upon him by his colonizing country. Extending his perspective, our solution, at the very least, can’t be strictly Democratic because they are part of the establishment that built the very same problems they claim to be trying to dismantle. A Democratic solution to deconstructing America’s racist institutions would be tantamount to accepting the British’s knighting of their imperialist victims as an adequate apology. 

There is one line towards the end of “Questions to God” that I can’t but help read differently after hearing George Floyd’s dying words: “Choked is my voice, mute are my songs today, and darkly my world lies imprisoned in a dismal dream; and I ask You, O God, in tears.” I’m unconvinced of the original context of this poem (and I searched intently), but it quite obviously comes from Tagore’s own wrestling with India’s colonized status. He spent the majority of his life as one of the world’s strongest spiritual voices against nationalist and oppressive politics, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize; but, like most Black Americans throughout our history, he died before his oppressor’s grip ever stopped choking.

Thankfully, Tagore also provides us with a more hopeful prayer, “Let My Country Awake”: 

Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by You into ever-widening thought and action—

Into that haven of freedom, O God, let my country awake.

This poem has long been a favorite of mine for the choice of the word “awake.” It carries an immediacy with it. No longer is he talking about that “one day” in the future. It must be tomorrow. When we awake, let it be to that haven of freedom.

The poems published here, as they were originally published before 1960, are public domain.

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