Rabindranath Tagore and Upagupta – An Introduction
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is arguably the most revered literary figure of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in India. Tagore was among the handful of poets, along with Sarojini Naidu and Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, for standing in resistance to the colonial powers while also shaping sociopolitical discourse in the country. Symbolism and social commentary were staple elements in Tagore’s poetry, and Upagupta is a great example of this fact.
Background of Upagupta
Upagupta is the English translation of Abhisaar (The Tryst), a poem included in Tagore’s famous collection, Katha o Kahani (pub. Visva Bharati Library, Shantiniketan). According to some sources, Tagore took the inspiration for Abhisaar from the notable disciple of Buddha, Upagupta, about whose story one can find in the 11th-century polymath Kshemendra’s magnum opus, Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā (Miracles of Buddha).
Prof. John S. Strong, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Bates College, Maine, mentions in his book The Legend of King Ashoka that Upagupta was the spiritual guru of the Mauryan emperor. Prof. Strong also mentions that Upagupta came to be known as the “preserver par excellence of popular Buddhist stories. Abhisaar or Upagupta is a poetic depiction of a popular story related to Upagupta, who was also regarded as the Fourth Buddhist Patriarch.
Summary of Upagupta
Upagupta, a young disciple of Buddha, resting on the outskirts of Mathura, a historically religious town. The poem describes the time as late night, indicated by all doors being shut. It’s also August when the stars in the sky are not visible due to the dark clouds.
The First Event
While resting in seclusion, Upagupta is startled by the tinkling of anklets. He sees light from a girl’s lamp. The girl is laden with jewels and is dancing to enjoy her youth. Suddenly, she realizes that she had disturbed a being, and lowers her lamp to check out her victim. Seeing the young, handsome monk lying in the dust, the girl apologizes for disturbing him and invites him to stay at her house. She says the dust was befitting for such a young ascetic.
However, Upagupta rejects the girl’s offer and asks her to leave. He says he would come to the girl when the time was right. Suddenly, lightning occurs in the darkness and it feels like a storm is approaching. The girl gets frightened and starts trembling in fear of the unknown.
The Second Event
Months pass and spring approaches. We move in April when the trees are blooming and pleasant sounds of music echo in the air While passing through the city gates, Upagupta encounters a woman lying in the shadow of tree groves. The woman is visibly suffering through smallpox. She appears to have been driven out of the town to avoid the spread of the deadly disease.
Taking pity on the ailing woman, Upagupta sits by her side, places her head on his knees, and starts applying a sandal ointment on her body. The woman cannot recognize who her saviour is and asks about him, to which Upagupta replies that the time has come for him to visit her. It was the same woman who was dancing in the night and invited Upagupta to her house a few months ago.
Literary Elements in Upagupta by Rabindranath Tagore
While the story depicted in the poem comes across as a simple tale, Upagupta is much more complex, showcasing all of Tagore’s literary prowess. The decorated poet has used several literary devices and techniques to add depth and meaning and convey a larger message in short stanzas.
Themes used in Upagupta
1. Desires and Detachment:
One of the themes Tagore uses in Upagupta is that of desire and detachment, represented by each of the central characters of the poem. Upagupta, who’s living a life of detachment as a monk gets attracted by the desire for a young, attractive girl. However, to attain spiritual enlightenment, Upagupta chooses to abandon his desires and embrace detachment, despite the attractive girl offering him the warmth of her house. In other words, Upagupta holds on to his apparent misery instead of giving in to his desires.
2. The Cycle of Life:
As he does in many of his works, Tagore also depicts the cycle of life in Upagupta. The poem is divided into two events. First, Upagupta is lying on the ground on the outskirts of Mathura, when the attractive girl “drunk with the wine of her youth” offers him the pleasures of a warm house. Second, the attractive girl is lying under the shadow of a tree, when Upagupta finds and comforts her. Between these two events, life comes full circle for both. Having survived murky times, Upagupta continues to enjoy the spring and his detachment from the material world, while things get ugly for the dancing girl even during the spring.
3. Spiritual Englightenment vs Worldly Pleasures:
Another important theme in Upagupta is the conflict between spiritual enlightenment and worldly pleasures. Being a direct disciple of Buddha, Upagupta favours spiritual enlightenment more than worldly pleasures, i.e., the company of an attractive woman and the warmth of her house. The detached monk finds pleasure in nature, whether it means suffering through murky nights of the rains, or pleasant spring evenings. The spiritual enlightenment also makes Upagupta compassionate to the woman while others drive her out of the town, even when she suffers from a contagious disease and is no longer attractive.
Symbols used in Upagupta by Rabindranath Tagore
1. Upagupta – The Seeker of Enlightenment
Upagupta symbolizes the journey one takes to attain spirituality. He is the archetype of a seeker of enlightenment, who’s willing to give every bit of material happiness for a higher purpose. His willingness to suffer and his compassion to help those suffering is a result of his forever quest to achieve inner solace. Even when his outer condition seems dismal and helpless, he is ready to let go of all his desires for the greater good.
2. The Attractive Girl – The Carnal Desires
The attractive girl, who finds the young ascetic handsome and invites Upagupta to her house, symbolizes the carnal desires of a human being. She is careless, intoxicated by her wealth and beauty, and apparently “drunk with the wine of her youth.” The ending of the poem shows what the ultimate fate of material desires is. In many ways, the girl also symbolizes youth and the careless mistakes young minds commit in search of material happiness.
3. Murky Clouds and the Spring Evening – Solace After Suffering
The first event in the poem shows a dark, murky August night. Upagupta lying on earth shows it’s his only hermitage, even when clouds have covered the sky and lightning is indicating a storm. However, Upagupta is ready to suffer and survives the murky weather, and in the end, he is rewarded with a pleasant spring evening in April, when trees are blooming and “gay notes of a flute came floating in the warm spring air.” Thus, Tagore symbolically argues that solace comes only when one suffers and sacrifices.
Four Major Multiple Poetic Devices
Tagore masterfully uses the poem as a metaphor to portray the internal struggle of a human being. Upagupta rejecting the attractive girl’s offer is a metaphor for choosing enlightenment over material happiness. Upagupta’s journey from suffering to solace is a representation of the human quest for spiritual illumination. Likewise, Upagupta’s silence in front of the girl even when he finds her attractive is a metaphor for his internal contemplation and his self-resistance to refrain from falling for his carnal desires.
As shown in the previous section, Tagore uses plenty of symbols throughout the poem to convey a greater message. Upagupta symbolizes an archetypical seeker of spiritual excellence, while the attractive girl symbolizes sensual desires. The place where the girl initially finds, Upagupta’s hermitage devoid of material comfort, itself symbolizes a spiritual treat away from worldly affairs. The girl attracting him in the middle of the night symbolizes the various tests a seeker of enlightenment faces throughout his journey.
One of the great literary powers of Rabindranath Tagore is imagery, i.e., painting a realistic picture of the environment in his works, and Upagupta is no different. The poet beautifully presents the image of the surroundings in which an event takes place. The first event – the murky clouds, the dark night, and Upagupta’s hermitage, convey the true geographical essence of the poem, an essential component for analyzing the symbols in the poem. Likewise, the spring evening in April is so beautifully depicted that one could feel the freshness of it.
Tagore makes strong uses of personification in the poem, especially in describing the attractive girl. He introduces her as the one “drunk with the wine of her youth,” which personifies her pride over her beauty and young age. Similarly, in the opening stanza, Tagore writes “Stars were all hidden by the murky sky of August” to describe the cloudy weather during the monsoons. Thus, using personification as a literary device, the poet adds depth and meaning to the layered tale of Upagupta and the attractive girl.
Conclusion: A Tale of Many Perspectives
The pleasures of analyzing classic poetry include interpreting the work from different perspectives. And when the poet is such a literary genius as Rabindranath Tagore, the activity becomes even more interesting. Upagupta, with all its cultural references and historical background, is a multidimensional masterpiece. In this section, we shall take a look at different perspectives of analyzing and interpreting Upagupta.
First Perspective: The Attractive Girl is a Test for Upagupta
Upagupta is the quintessential monk, the disciple of the Buddha himself. As history shows, every monk has to undergo rigorous physical and mental struggle to attain enlightenment. Upagupta’s humble hermitage shows that the ascetic had detached himself from material wellness. However, he needed to undergo another test, probably his toughest yet – overcoming his sensual desires.
While living in seclusion, controlling sensual desires wasn’t much of a challenge for Upagupta. However, when on a dark night, an attractive young invites a young man to her house, controlling the desires in a steep climb. The girl is beautiful, attractive, alone, and seemingly wealthy. Upagupta, though, rejects her offer and refuses to give up on his quest for enlightenment. In the end, he decides to comfort the girl when the world abandons her, further growing in spiritual excellence.
Second Perspective: The Girl’s Painful End is a Consequence of Seeking Material Happiness
The girl’s introduction in the poem is symbolic of youth and the ills that come along with it. A young woman dancing in the wilderness, proud of her beauty and wealth personifies human desires. She stumbles upon Upagupta, the young ascetic, and finds him handsome. Instead of respecting his seclusion, she feels sorry for him and mistakes his journey for misery. Also, the first event of the poem ends with her feeling terrified due to a flash of lightning, which symbolizes her inner fears.
Instead of embarking on the enlightened path, the girl chooses material happiness. However, the ending shows what becomes of her, when the wealth and youth she seemed so proud of, no longer have any value. Suffering from smallpox or some kind of a contagious disease, she’s driven out of the town. In other words, when things get rough, material happiness loses its value. On the contrary, compassion, a spiritual attribute, came to her rescue in the form of Upagupta, whom she couldn’t attract with her material beauty.
Third Perspective: The Poem is the Tale of Triumph of Spiritual Excellence
Upagupta also comes across as a tale of a journey of enlightenment. Our protagonist, Upagupta is in apparent pain and distress at the onset of the poem. He’s lying down in the dust in a dark August night. Detachment from the material world has left the young ascetic poor and unsettled, with no shelter to take if a storm hits. The journey becomes even more challenging when the attractive girl invites him to her house. There could be a burning desire for love that Upagupta could give in to.
But he refuses. He chooses struggle over comfort, detachment over desire, and continues with his inner crusade. Just a few months after the incident, Upagupta is rewarded with the spring. Trees are booming and pleasant music is in the air. For his resistance against base passions, nature remunerates the monk with spiritual triumph. His heart is filled with such compassion that he is willing to serve a person suffering from a poisonous contagion. In other words, he’s at last attained the peak of enlightenment like his master.
A Masterpiece by a Masterful Poet
Tagore’s greatness as a sociopolitical reformer is as great as his prowess of literary finesse. Upagupta, thus, is a beautiful union of philosophy and poetry, which Tagore delivers in his uniquely majestic ways. The simplicity of the message, the powerful impact of it, and the hidden symbols, all make Upagupta a landmark piece in Indian literature. Like William Wordsworth and his contribution to the Romantic Age, Tagore’s contribution easily make him the father of the Indian literary enlightenment in the 20th century.
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.