The Impoverished Gift

By Rabindranath Tagore's Deen Daan (excerpt), Translated with comments by Dr Monish R. ChatterjeeonAug. 06, 2020in Perspectives

Thus offered the royal servant-

“Your Highness, despite much pleading

Narottama, the greatest of the Sadhus,

Shunning the opulent shelter of your golden temple

Is engaged upon the sacred devotions of sankirtana

Under the shade of a tree by the roadside.

Scores of devotees swarm the holy man

Tears of uncontrollable bliss overflow their

Down-turned faces, and cleanse the earth with

Waves of piety. Your temple stands near-empty;

As the honeybee, driven wild by the first wafting

Of the perfume from the lotus grove, instantly rejects

The gilded pot of honey and flies briskly over to

Where the lotuses have blossomed in profusion, eager

To quench his thirst, likewise, the great multitudes,

(Caring not for the glittering temple) run from

Far and wide to there, where down by the edge

Of the street, from the lotus blossom of the

Devotee’s heart, there emanates the fragrance of Heaven.

Upon the jewel-studded throne- the lonesome Deity

Suffers silently in ultimate rejection.”

Hearing this, and understandably vexed, the monarch

Stepped off the royal throne, and with due haste

Rushed to where under the shade below the bough

Sat the sadhu upon his grassy seat.  Offering pranam

At his feet, he spoke thus.  “Behold, Father, yonder

Royal temple with the golden dome- its crest

Piercing the sky itself!  Why, pray, would you

Reject such grandeur, and offer praises to the divine

Here by the dusty street?”

“The divine resides not inside that vacuous temple,”

The sadhu responded.  “Resides not?” retorted

The sovereign in fury.  “O Sannyasi- you blaspheme

Like an atheist!  Radiant upon a jewel-encrusted throne

Sits in glory the luminous icon of divinity.  You call

That empty and vacuous?”

“Not empty, Your Highness, it is full only of Royal

Arrogance.  Within that hall of glamor, it is yourself

You have installed, not the benevolent devata.”

With knotted brow, the irate sovereign then spoke thus.

“With the princely sum of two million pieces of gold

Have I created this unblemished temple which

Rises past the clouds, and through the chanting of

Potent puja mantras consecrated to the sacred divinity-

And you tell me that the devata has not a place within

This temple of glory?”

With an unruffled voice, the sadhu responded-

“That year when a raging wildfire consumed their

Homes and impoverished twenty thousand of your

Subjects- homeless, penniless and desperately hungry,

They stood at your palace door, begging for relief from

Your royal hands. Their collective pleas fell upon deaf

Ears, and without hope, they retreated to the deepest

Forests, into caverns, under the shades of trees by

Street-sides, the courtyards of abandoned old temples

Split asunder by overgrown invading wild asath.  That very

Same year, spending your two million pieces of gold

Your Highness created your temple of gold

And consecrated to the divine.  That day Bhagwan,

The Compassionate One, spoke thus.   “My timeless

Home spread across the limitless Universe is strewn

With countless luminous points of light dispersed

Beyond the endless blue of the sky.  That refuge of

Mine is founded ever upon the four pillars of Truth,

Peace, Compassion and Love.  The lowly, impoverished

Miser who cannot provide even shelter and safety to his

Own homeless subjects- he dare offer me a home!”

That instant the Compassionate One departed to where

Under the shades of trees languished the impoverished.

The refuge-giver joined his flock, the refugees.  Empty

As the bloated foam riding the vast seas- likewise is

Your vaunted temple empty under the vast skies-

Nothing but bubbles of gold and vanity.”

Lighting up like a conflagration, the monarch thundered,

“Bogus lowlife charlatan, leave my kingdom forthwith-

Make haste and begone!”

His voice calm and resolute, the sannyasi replied-

“Where you expelled, my dear King, the beloved of the

Devotees- Your Highness, pray expel me there.”

[Rabindranath Tagore, the timeless cultural icon, identified consistently with the cause of the oppressed and colonized around the world, and spoke out decisively for them in his speeches, lectures, during travels worldwide and conversationswith the greatest minds of his time (which included, rather importantly, some of the greatest in human history, including Albert Einstein, Romain Rolland, H.G. Wells, and many other luminaries including a great many who were influenced and inspired by his work and his message).  Most of all, his empathy for the poor, the downtrodden, the tyrannized of the world is graphically emblazoned across his literary writings, and it is well past time that many of these be brought before the world as a whole.  Given Tagore’s immense oeuvre, this is a massive task indeed.  This translator intends to present some of these, in bits and pieces as long as fate provides the necessary time.

Tagore’s Deena Daan is a story narrative whose relevance extends far beyond both the space of the kingdom where the event takes place, and also the time frame which extends to all time.  It underscores the obscenity of extravagance on the part of the rich and powerful (here depicted through the grandiose actions of a monarch, and yet just as applicable to the obscenity of imperials looters and plunderers, many, many from the haughty Western world, who routinely lay to waste the precious resources of the earth and pile up unimaginable plunder and heartless consumption at the cost of millions of the poor and deprived whose lives are piled high with suffering and violence to keep running the machinery of the inherent evil and arrogance of the mighty).  In this balladic story, a vainglorious monarch expends enormous quantities of gold to build up a glittering temple to benevolent God while at the same time heartlessly turning away thousands of suffering subjects rendered paupers by a wildfire which consumed their all.  The arrogant King is taught a lesson in humanity and morality by a highly revered sage who chooses to offer his devotions to God under the trees and upon the dust of the green earth instead of the King’s opulent temple. There is truth here which applies to the imperial, consumerist and market-economy world (the government, business and military nexus which is running berserk in the capitals in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere) and its heartless greed and arrogance right now in our times.

Narottama–      name of the sannyasi; literally, the highest among men.

Sadhu–            a holy man, a renunciate, a recluse.

Sankirtana–     sacred devotional chants usually to the Lord Krishna practiced by Bengal’s Vaishnavas.

Pranam–          the Hindu practice of touching an elder’s feet out of reverence.

Sannyasi-        an alternative name for Sadhu; literally, one who has renounced the world.

Devata–           the deity or divinity being worshipped.

Asath-             also called aswath or the peepul tree, similar to tree of enlightenment associated with the Buddha.

Bhagwan-       the Lord of Destiny in Hinduism; often implying God.


The author is Professor, Dept. of ECE University of Dayton

First published by Counter Currents on 15 Mar. 2017

Also read  Tagore poem’s similarity with the present ‘eerie’

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