Learning Under the Trees

Sandra Machado, Shantiniketan

If you take a train from Munger to Calcutta, you pass en route a small station called Bolpur Santiniketan. Rabindranath Tagore's father, Debendranath Tagore, soon after Rabindranath's birth happened to visit a friend who stayed in a country estate 100 miles out of Calcutta. He had to alight at Bolpur which was the nearest station and proceed in a palanquin. There was nothing very attractive about Bolpur. Then only a smattering of trees, most of the land was devoid of vegetation and was in fact known as a dangerous place inhabited by dacoits. But for Maharishi, as he was called, the open stretches of this place unlike the rest of Bengal which is abundant in vegetation, had a special charm. He was enchanted and sat down under a pair of chhatim trees (saptaparna in Sanskrit) and did his evening meditation. He was filled with peace and after his meditation he decided to immediately purchase the site. He lost no time in doing so and called the place Santiniketan which means abode of peace. He planted the seed and left it for his son, Rabindranath, to nurture with light and energy. The growth of Santiniketan began many years later.

Rabindranath Tagore of Bengali heritage, was born in 1861, a time when many great changes were taking place in India. He was the youngest son of fourteen children, and grew to be a great poet, dramatist, educationalist, philosopher and composer of songs and music. His father, a busy man, was away for long periods of time and used to go into hibernation for at least six months of the year at the foothills of the Himalayas. His mother was fully occupied caring for a large household. "Rabin" they called him was put under the care of a tutor for his studies and servants to look after him.

To keep him out of mischief they drew a chalk circle and threatened him that if he took a step out he would suffer dire consequences. He was trapped like a bird but fortunately, the circle was near a window and he spent that time watching all the people passing to and fro, children playing, women filling their pots from the tank, people and bullocks bathing and he dreamed and dreamed when he would be set free to wander as he wished. In one of his poems he cries out:

"The child who is decked with prince's robes and who has jewelled chains round his neck loses all pleasure in his play; his dress hampers him at every step. In fear that it may be frayed, or stained with dust he keeps himself from the world, and is afraid even to move.
Mother, it is no gain, thy bondage of finery, if it keeps one shut off from the healthful dust of the earth, if it robs one of the right of entrance to the great fair of common human life."

The day of release soon dawned. Just after the great occasion of Tagore's thread ceremony (Upanayan Samskar) his father decided to take him along on one of his travels. Rabi was overjoyed, no more boring lessons, no more school, and he was relieved not to go back there with his shaven head.

They set off and one of the first places they visited was Santiniketan. Maharishi was not a strict father, he loved Rabi and wanted him to grow and develop totally in mind and body. He had to rise before dawn and chant Sanskrit slokas together with his father. Then after breakfast he was made to read Bengali and English, but the rest of the day he was free to do as he liked. He wandered alone here and there tracing and drawing patterns in the soft sand and he felt as if he had the whole universe to tread on. In the evening his father used to teach him about the stars and the myths associated with them. Because his father enjoyed music and Rabi had a beautiful voice, he sang for him every evening.

This journey which took him up to the foothills of the Himalayas had such a profound effect on his young mind that it was like a lotus slowly awakening in a still pond. He was not only able to watch the dance of nature at a distance, but to partake of it, to feel and touch and listen. He felt such a tremendous joy; why can't everyone feel and experience it, why aren't we all living side by side with nature and speaking and learning from her like our Rishis? Why must young children spend their sunlit energy memorising facts and figures, cramming for examinations, sitting for hours and hours in a classroom, listening to the drone of the teacher's voice, being shouted at and attacked if not paying attention? Is learning only this much? An environment like this would certainly hinder their growth, they would never be able to think freely, to stand up and shout and dance and swing on the trees, to stretch their arms and embrace the fresh morning air.

These questions forced him away from the city and the world to Santiniketan where he started his ashram with four young students initially. They were awakened before dawn by songs of Tagore's own composition. Then morning duties and classes under the trees. Even today, classes are being held under the trees, and there is an abundance of trees now.

Tagore loved the children. They were so much a part of himself- their simplicity and innocence, their joys and love of life, their energy, filled his soul with happiness.

"On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
They build their houses with sand and they
play with empty shells. With withered leaves
they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep.
Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.
They know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers
dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships,
while children gather pebbles and scatter them again.
They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.
On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children."

Tagore loved teaching them. When inspired, he would break into song and verse and would get the children to enact during the class his drama, thought of on the spur of the moment. Consequently, his classes filled the children with delight and they were never restrained. Sometimes instead of a class if they wished to climb the trees he allowed them to; and what better way is there for children to learn botany? By observing, climbing, feeling with hands and feet, discovering the footholds of the trees, the natural seats and head rests, eating the fruit and breaking open the seed, replanting it and watching it grow again. Nature is such a wonderful teacher. The different kinds of soil, what they contain, why some plants grow in one kind and others do not, how each of them differ and has its own identity. Then the incredible animal kingdom, the butterflies, ants and bees. What a busy life they lead! An endless process of learning! Tagore believed learning should not stop after a degree or a job but the wonder and quest for understanding should never cease. Nothing remains static, everything evolves slowly and silently; we only have to watch and listen. No true learner will ever stop, will ever want to stop, unless he transcends all the visible and invisible barriers that exist.

Rabindranath laid great stress on the arts and felt music and art was the best way for children to lose all inhibitions and express themselves spontaneously. Tagore saw that his students imbibed a strong tradition and developed their own culture and also took them beyond its confines, away from their superstitious beliefs in order to make them think freely and openly. Tagore wished that all the doors of their mind would be opened and wanted a meeting of the internal and external to take place. One of his very famous poems reads:

"Where the mind is without fear and head is held high,
Where knowledge is free,
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where the world has not been broken up into
fragments by narrow domestic walls;
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 Thee into
ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let
my country awake."

Rabindranath Tagore had to face many trying times, such as financial problems, and being an unusual school, people found his ideas and philosophy of education absurd. Many moments he despaired and wondered how much more he had to work for the fulfilment of his dream.

One evening, while he was sitting on the balcony at the point of total despair, he was suddenly transfixed at the sight in front of him. The sun was just dropping down below the horizon; the evening was absolutely still, not even the sound of leaves rustling- everything rested silently in the twilight. Rabindranath looked at his ashram lying below and stopped worrying about its future and the problems and let his whole being float in harmony with the evening. Tagore thought, "Why should I worry about Santiniketan? Can I fashion and shape its future? Who am I? Is there not a greater force more gigantic and brilliant than me? I am nothing. Let my ego dissolve into thin air and vanish completely from this earth............

"He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand lest the least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take, I lose sight of my true being." This was Tagore's reminder till the end of his life.

Tagore allowed Santiniketan to take its own course. Today it is a very big university and perhaps it had to go that way. But one can't say that his ideology and spirit do not still exist. It is there on the lips of hundreds of young boys and girls who sing his songs daily. Tagore and every great person have left the way open for us. Why should it end with their death? Sometimes we come to a standstill and can't decide in which direction to proceed. We only have to look at the great seers and sages gone by- their teachings and inspiration. Their perception of the whole man was incredible. They went deep inside themselves searching for light and truth. A time comes in every man's life when he yearns for that experience, for that illumination. It is a difficult way and We surrender too easily to failure......

"At last, when I woke from my slumber and
opened my eyes, I saw thee standing by me,
flooding my sleep with thy smile.
How I had feared that the path was long and
wearisome and the struggle to reach thee was hard!"

Rabindranath Tagore was certainly a great yogi, even though he did not set any store by the science of yoga. We, on the other hand, who are not like Tagore and other great sages, need yoga to take us step by step deep down within. If we want to understand the mind and soul of mankind we have to begin with ourselves first and then only everything else- the whole universe is revealed............

"Have you not heard his silent steps?
He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and
every night he comes, comes, ever comes........"