A Reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s Play Bishorjon

Shahman Moishan

I. A problematic preface by Visva Bharati

Written in 1890 Rabindranath Tagore’s Bishorjon is ostensibly about the illogic of faith and the sacrifices it forces on believers. The play centers on a ban: the king of Tripura, Govinda Manik, has banned ritual sacrifice and slaughter at the altar of the goddess. His power threatened by the ban, Raghupati, the high priest, orchestrates opposition. Caught between is Jai Singh, a disciple and mentee of Raghupati, who serves with unmitigated faith at the altar of the goddess. In most readings, Bishorjon is a conflict between love and power and the Visva Bharati edition introduces it as such: Raghupati’s desire for authority pitted against Govinda Manik’s capacity to love. The king wants to see his love victorious. Raghupati wants to maintain and expand his authority. In the end, all barriers are overcome, the priest awakens, and love prevails.16

Read differently, however, Bishorjon is a contest between a king and a priest, each vying to enforce their authoritative will over the other. To introduce the play as the Visva Bharati edition does, reduces Bishorjon to a simpler conflict and steers us from something deeper, more poetic: rather than solely sacrifice, Jai Singh’s death becomes complex as it can also be seen as a deliberate act to renew the living. Read as a play of a multi-meaninged death, Singh’s death – Singh’s rebellion – is against the worldly enactment of power, be it priestly or secular. But for this reading we have to move away from Govinda Manik and Raghupati and inquire into Jai Singh: his characterization, the underlying conceptual framework of his character, and his progression through the play.

II. Death, pain, and beauty

Brought up by Raghupati and anointed his successor, Jai Singh is descended from the royals. With sacrifice banned by royal decree, when Raghupati decrees only royal blood can appease the goddess, Jai Singh volunteers himself as sacrifice. His death is a gift to the living. But what does he hope to gain for the living? Can the dead really do anything for the living? Death, here, serves only as an occasion and the poet Shankha Ghosh gives us the real purpose of such occasions:17

Reasoning or theory cannot explain our life and our most common relationships. A poet does not seek to know life through any reasoning, but seeks to know life through all his senses and through all his being, he seeks to see the world in all its manifestations. We run into quite a few characters of such poetic disposition in Tagore’s plays. They are not labeled as poets, but they stand out through the torment they endure and the truth they uphold.

Jai Singh, as cited by Shankha Ghosh, is one such poet: Jai Singh’s death is the straight and simple path to life. Jai Singh loves Raghupati but cannot accept his machinations against Govinda Manik. His spirit drawn by the prospect of love, he hearkens to a call from Aparna to leave the confines created by struggles for power. From the midst of worldly bonds, Jai Singh ascends to another plane. From the ascension he gains inner sight. Jai Singh senses the end. He realizes how everyday life chains us to our sorrows. Such realizations bring detachment from life and its bonds.18 Shankha Ghosh points to this detachment as the purpose behind Tagore’s poetic characters who distance themselves from relationships as Jai Singh does in standing aside from everyday life. They see a new aspect, they see life in its entirety, they see the pain and the beauty.19 Jai Singh goes to his death reaching out for an incandescent beauty unchained from the sensory and the sensual, the staples and constraints of life. In his sacrificial death, an awakening is attained.20

III. Royal pride versus lordship of the priest

And so a more encompassing reading reveals the conflict of love and power as described by Visva Bharati to be a poorer interpretation. More poetically, Bishorjon is a conflict over the use of power in the world that brings us to an ending of painful beauty. We agree with Shankha Ghosh and propose that it is only at the surface that the play unfolds as a conflict between crown and clergy over protecting the faith. Visva Bharati’s interpretation leaves out a more essential nature of the conflict. A few lines drawn from the play show the need for a closer, textured reading:21

Priest: I come to the royal stockade, I seek livestock for sacrifice.
King: From this year hence, the beheading of animals in the temple is forbidden.
Priest: Do I hear this in my dream?
King: No dream my lord!
It was a dream until now, but today I awaken.
The Mother herself, in her maiden form
bid me that animal blood she can bear no more.
Priest: How then! She bore it for so long?
Drink blood She did for a hundred years.
How then this distaste now?
King: Drink she did not.
Turned away her divine face
From the blood you spilled.
Priest: Your highness! Think well on what you do.
The scriptures do not repose in you.
King: Above all scriptures, the Goddess herself bids me so.
Priest: You err. You boast, ignorant mortal.
Only you hear the goddess?
But I do not?
King: Divine ordain does ring throughout the ages
He is most dumb,
who hears the goddess but remains numb.

Notice what is missing: substantive discussion of what the goddess has said. Rather, king and priest each merely claim the goddess for their side. But let us not mistake the arguments for the goddess to be ones of impassioned belief. To sustain his livelihood Raghupati, the priest, must preserve religious and social customs; he needs the ritualistic animal sacrifice and other ritual practices from which he draws power and for that he depends on Govinda Manik, the king. And Govinda Manik needs to preserve the religious cultural practices that legitimize his rule: through ritual and custom the priest lends the king divine legitimacy. Priest and king are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

The sudden ban on animal sacrifice ends Govinda Manik’s dependence on the priest and cleaves the relationship. Raghupati stands to lose his livelihood and in response labels the ban an affront to established custom, royal hubris, and an attack on faith, while Govinda Manik positions himself as a reformer of religious custom. Both king and priest profess to protect faith from the other’s intrusions, both are confident in their knowledge, and they stand in opposition. Ostensibly, the opposition roots in who has the benefit of greater knowledge, but belief in pure knowledge is a dangerous myth: knowledge is also about particular understandings and interpretations and when interpretive differences surface, power becomes paramount. Specifically, who has the power to interpret and who has the rhetorical, positional, political, and physical power to corner knowledge and interpretation. Both Raghupati and Govinda Manik claim knowledge. The pretense is knowledge for the best practice of faith. But really each claims knowledge to legitimate his own power. The politics of knowledge is in fact a politics of worldly faith. Because both Raghupati and Govinda Manik want others to have faith in them and in their worldview, power is always the ultimate goal, knowledge a mere instrument.

Aparna instinctively knows that faith is entangled in the twists and turns of politics. She alerts the audience to the pitfalls – be they secular or religious – of the politics of faith, and calls out to Jai Singh: “Come away Jai Singh. Leave this temple, let us flee.”22

Once Jai Singh understands the consequences wrought by the confines of royal hubris versus clerical authority he understands his condition and raises the alarm: “Truth is a prison.”23

IV. Jai Singh’s simple truth and spiritual principles

Jai Singh’s inspiration to escape and break free of the politics of faith, even at the cost of his life, comes from Aparna. The cronies of the powerful have seized Aparna’s goats – ‘the bundle of her sweetest affections’ – to sacrifice to the goddess; seeking redress from the goddess, Aparna arrives at the temple. To Jai Singh, however, Aparna represents the true spirit of the goddess, the universal Mother, cast in stone upon the altar.

Jai Singh’s tears at Aparna’s plight at the beginning of the play are her only refuge and his sympathy establishes a communion that leads Aparna to expectations of Jai Singh. Expectation turns into claim, as love takes hold. Aparna emboldened by love demands: “Come then, leave this temple and come.”24

All issues in the play, all possible outcomes, are summed up in this plea from Aparna. Jai Singh, a servant to the goddess, accepts Aparna as a manifestation of the divine and resolves to make his supplications: “This guest, the goddess in guise, shall I worship today.”25 For, gods, when they appear among humans, often come in the guise of the weak and lowly. They arrive as strangers, as guests. Aparna, as a guest, is assumed to be an incarnation of the goddess Universal Mother (Bishwa Mata).

In his essay on human nature, Tagore says:26

Our scriptures say that guests are gods in this world. The guest stands for every man. When the guest is fed, every man is fed. The host’s means are enlarged, and he is drawn to the greater world. Hospitality merges us to the Great. Hospitality merges us with more than ourselves.

In his desire to worship the guest, Aparna, Jai Singh moves toward merging with the greater. In accepting Aparna as divine incarnation he effaces himself, in elevating Aparna above himself he gains humility. Aparna’s inspiration leads Jai Singh to find the courage to grow from the lowly to the exalted. This courage gives him the strength to sacrifice his life, and through his sacrifice he joins a greater being.

Ego and the drive for power reign over the peddlers of faith, Govinda Manik and Raghupati, as they freely ignore the “Soul that touches the universal soul of cosmos.”27 It is Jai Singh, the commoner, who is willing to sacrifice his life.28 That sacrifice is both a death and a union of a fragment with the whole. The self, in dying, coming into alignment with the cosmos. Through his sacrifice then, Jai Singh embodies the best of humanity. Tagore, in his essay on humanity, argued that humans have three abodes.29 First, the earth; second, memories; and third, the spiritual world, or the continent of all human spirits. It is in the last domain that humans are connected to one another. One person’s spirit may be hemmed in by a narrow mind, another’s by twisted beliefs. But there is a bigger spirit, which is not personal but universal. We stumble upon it by surprise, and suddenly we are eager to believe and die for that universal spirit.

Where Govinda Manik and Raghupati are focused on wielding power over the other to assert faith and knowledge on their side, Jai Singh sacrifices his life for another kind of faith: union with the cosmos. Where does Jai Singh find the strength for his self-sacrifice? Again, Tagore answers:30

What gives man the power to throw away his life, to embrace pain and suffering, and oppose the might of injustice with no arms? Humans are not only endowed with their life, but also endowed with greatness.

Life is physical and of the body. But, there is a greatness which surpasses the body, that is supra-physical, and this human greatness is in the realm of the spiritual. His worldly life tormented by the politics of faith, Jai Singh, in the true spirit of his faith ends his physical existence and joins the unending and the eternal. When we arrive at this awareness, we realize that loss from Jai Singh’s sacrifice is not the main interest of the play. Jai Singh finds greatness and sacrifices his life to achieve it. His sacrifice is the attainment of greatness. Thus Bishorjon is not a play about loss and human failings but rather a union of the individual with the cosmological.

[Image Credit: Abir Shome. Noshto Atmaar Telivision; August 2015. Acrylic on paper. Private collection of Tanzim Rahman. Courtesy: Artist]

 

  1. Rabindranath Tagore. Bishorjon. Visva Bharati Documentation Department. Kolkata. Aghrahayan 1411; p122.
  2. Shankha Ghosh. Kaler Matra O Rabindra Natok. Dey’s Publishing. Kolkata. 1985; p166.
  3. Ibid. p168.
  4. Ibid. p168.
  5. Ibid. p171.
  6. Rabindranath Tagore. Bishorjon. Visva Bharati Documentation Department. Kolkata. Aghrahayan 1411; p20-21.
  7. Ibid. p64.
  8. Ibid. p64.
  9. Ibid. p19.
  10. Ibid. p19.
  11. Rabindranath Tagore. Manusher Dharma. Mowla Brothers. Dhaka. 1999; p45-46.
  12. Ibid. p46.
  13. Ibid. p46.
  14. Ibid. p54.
  15. Ibid. p50.
  16. Rabindranath Tagore. Bishorjon. Visva Bharati Documentation Department. Kolkata. Aghrahayan 1411; p122.
  17. Shankha Ghosh. Kaler Matra O Rabindra Natok. Dey’s Publishing. Kolkata. 1985; p166.
  18. Ibid. p168.
  19. Ibid. p168.
  20. Ibid. p171.
  21. Rabindranath Tagore. Bishorjon. Visva Bharati Documentation Department. Kolkata. Aghrahayan 1411; p20-21.
  22. Ibid. p64.
  23. Ibid. p64.
  24. Ibid. p19.
  25. Ibid. p19.
  26. Rabindranath Tagore. Manusher Dharma. Mowla Brothers. Dhaka. 1999; p45-46.
  27. Ibid. p46.
  28. Ibid. p46.
  29. Ibid. p54.
  30. Ibid. p50.
  31. Rabindranath Tagore. Bishorjon. Visva Bharati Documentation Department. Kolkata. Aghrahayan 1411; p122.
  32. Shankha Ghosh. Kaler Matra O Rabindra Natok. Dey’s Publishing. Kolkata. 1985; p166.
  33. Ibid. p168.
  34. Ibid. p168.
  35. Ibid. p171.
  36. Rabindranath Tagore. Bishorjon. Visva Bharati Documentation Department. Kolkata. Aghrahayan 1411; p20-21.
  37. Ibid. p64.
  38. Ibid. p64.
  39. Ibid. p19.
  40. Ibid. p19.
  41. Rabindranath Tagore. Manusher Dharma. Mowla Brothers. Dhaka. 1999; p45-46.
  42. Ibid. p46.
  43. Ibid. p46.
  44. Ibid. p54.
  45. Ibid. p50.