Debendranath Tagore (Bangla: দেবেন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর Debendronath Ţhakur) (May 15, 1817 - January 19, 1905) was an Indian Bengali philosopher and Hindu reformer from current-day West Bengal, in India. His son, Rabindrantah Tagore was a Nobel Prize winning poet. Debendranath was himself a leading contributor to the Bengali renaissance. A philanthropist and social activist, his interest in democracy and in education helped to produce a generation of Indians from whom the leaders of the nation emerged in its independence struggle against the British Empire. His concern to integrate Indian and Western ideas and to be guided by reason had a major impact on the public consciousness. The desire to modernize and to industrialize but not to become a cultural replica of the West can be traced back to Debendranath, and to his influential family.
He was born in Calcutta, India. His father, Dwarkanath Tagore, was a wealthy landowner and successful entrepreneur with interests in shipping and banking, among other ventures. Dwarkanath was a co-founder, with Ram Mohan Roy of the reformist Brahmo Samaj. He had also financed such projects as the Calcutta Medical College. From the age of nine, Debendranath received a classical Brahmin education which included the study of Sanksrit as well as Persian but he also studied English and Western philosophy. In 1827 he enrolled in the Anglo-Hindu College in Calcutta, which Roy had founded.
After graduating, he started managing the family estate but his interest in religion and philosophy soon began to take up most of his time. His grandmother's death in 1838 further stimulated this interest. In 1839 he founded a Society to promote discussion of religion and philosophy, then in 1842 he succeeded to the leadership of the Brahmo Samaj. Founded by Ram Mouhun Roy and his father in 1828, the Samaj promoted worship of one God, opposed image-veneration, such practices as Sati (widow suicide on their husband's funeral pyre), repudiated any need for a mediator (such as an Avatar) between people and God and also the authority of the Vedas. The Samaj stressed equality of all before God, regardless of gender, race or class.
Debendranath and the Samaj
Debendranath embraced all of the above but wanted to locate the Samaj more firmly within Hindu culture. Initially, he revived interest in the Vedas, starting a Bengali translation of the Rig Veda. He also began to work on a liturgy for the movement's worship, which was introduced in 1845. He composed many devotional songs. He replaced the pujas with the Magh Festival, in which images played no role. His use of the Vedas resulted in a dispute with Keshub Chunder Sen, a leading member of the Samaj and a close friend of Debendranath. Sen was attracted to Christianity and wanted the movement to be more eclectic. Although by 1850, Debendranath had ceased to use the Vedas, suggesting that no scripture, however ancient, is binding for all time in 1866 Sen led a break-away group, which took the name of the Brahmo Samaj of India. The original society became known as the Adi (original) Samaj. In 1878, Sen started his Church of the New Dispensation. He believed in a universal religion which in different contexts would have a different cultural color. In India, that color would be Hindu. In 1867, Debendranath was awarded the title of "Maharishi" by the Samaj.
Debendranth campaigned to reduce the tax burden on the poor. In 1859 he founded a Brahmo school. He also co-founded a charitable institution. From 1851, as Secretary of the British Indian Association, he also campaigned for India's political autonomy. The Association aimed to represent Indian interests to the British government. He also campaigned for universal primary education in India. Debendranath was a supporter of democracy and was against entrenched, traditional authority in both the religious and the political spheres.
Debendranath stressed reason and discrimination. He wanted to combine the best of what he found in the West with the best of what was found in Indian culture. He was deeply spiritual but until his retirement from business affairs in 1867 he continued to be involved in worldly matters. He did not renounce his material possessions as some Hindu traditions prescribe but continued to enjoy them in a spirit of detachment. He was praised by no less a spiritual master than Sri Ramakrishna who compared him to the Puranic king Janaka, father of Sita, the heroine of the epic Ramayana, extolled in the scriptures as an ideal man who perfectly synthesized material and spiritual accomplishments.
What is remarkable in this achievement is that he excelled his father, who received the title Prince from the British colonial government owing to his large fortune and yet retained his dignity before them, famously wearing an all-white outfit bereft of all jewelry in a party attended by the Queen, with only his shoes studded with two diamonds bettering the Koh-i-noor in the Queen's crown. This was a gesture symbolizing the mastery of wealth, as opposed to its slavish pursuit. In 1867, Debendranath retired to the hermitage he had established in 1863, later made world-famous as Santi Niketan by his son, Rabindranath. Dabendranath wrote several books. His Bengali commentary on scripture, the Brahmo-Dharma (1854) was widely acclaimed.
Debendranath played no small role in the education of his sons. Dwijendranath (1840-1926) was a great scholar, poet and music composer. He initiated shorthand and musical notations in Bengali. He wrote extensively and translated Kalidas's Meghdoot into Bengali. Satyendranath (1842-1923) was the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service. At the same time he was a great scholar with a large reservoir of creative talents. Jyotirindranath (1849-1925) was a scholar, artist, music composer and theatre personality. Rabindranath (1861-1941) was his youngest son. His other sons Hemendranath (1844-1884), Birendranath (1845-1915) and Somendranath did not achieve that great fame but everybody was filled with creative talents. His daughters were Soudamini, Sukumari, Saratkumari, Swarnakumari (1855-1932) and Barnakumari. Soudamini was one of the first students of Bethune School and a gifted writer. Swarnakumari was a gifted writer, editor, song-composer, and social worker. All of them were famous for their beauty and education.
His part in creating the legacy of Thakurbari-the House of Tagore-in the cultural heritage of Bengal, centered in Kolkata, was not negligible. It was largely through the influence of the Tagore family, following that of the writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that Bengal took a leading role on the cultural front as well as on the nationalistic one, in the Renaissance in India during the nineteenth century.
The house of the Tagore family in Jorasanko, popular as Jorasanko Thakur Bari in North-western Kolkata, was later converted into a campus of the Rabindra Bharati University, eponymously named after Rabindranath.
- Furrell, James W. The Tagore Family: A memoir. New Delhi: Rupa, 2004. ISBN 978-8129104113
- Sharma, Arvind. The Concept of Universal Religion in Modern Hindu Thought. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN 9780312216474
- Ṭhākura, Debendranātha. Brahmo Dharma. Brahmo classics. Calcutta: Brahmo Mission Press, 1928.
- Tagore, Satyendranath, and Indira Devi. Autobiography of Debendranath Tagore. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2006. ISBN 978-1428614970