Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905); father of Rabindranath

Debendranath Tagore,  Rabindranath’s father, was a Hindu philosopher and religious reformer. He lived from 15 May 1817 to 19 January 1905. Debendranath was the oldest son of “Prince” Dwarkanath Tagore. He grew up in the midst of luxury and power. Yet even when he was still young, he turned away from the focus on wealth and towards a deeply religious outlook that was particularly inspired by a night beside his grandmother’s death bed and by finding a page from the Ishaponishad.

Debendranath Tagore
Debendranath Tagore
Image credit: Ministry of Culture, Government of India

Together with friends, influenced by his friend Ram Mohan Roy and under the tutelage from Pandit Ram Chandra Vidyabageesh, a leader of the Brahmo Sabha, Debendranath founded  the Tattwaranjini Sabha (later renamed Tattwabodhini Sabha). This influential society, which lasted until 1854, aspired to promote the purification of Hinduism (“Adi Dharma”) through the dissemination through philosophical enquiry and teaching of the Upanishads.

For this purpose, Debendranath started publishing a journal, the Tattwabodhini Patrika, that had articles on the rationalization of Brahmo doctrines and the propagation of natural theism as well as on female education, widow re-marriage and the denouncing of polygamy.

From 21 December 1843, Debendranath converted the society into a Brahmo Samaj (“Society of Brahmā”), a spiritual fraternity that came together for regularly for praise and prayer. This day is commemorated until today through the annual Poush Mela at Shantiniketan.

Debendranath came first to Shantiniketan in the 1860s and found it to be an ideal place for meditation. He bought a large piece of land. There, he planted trees along the lines of the old forest-ashrams, built a prayer hall made from coloured glass, the Brahmo Mandir, and named the place “Shantiniketan”, that is, “abode of peace.” Many years later, Rabindranath would establish his school and university in this place.

In 1848, Debendranath published a book based on selected passages from the Upanishads and published it as “Brahmo Dharma,” enshrining the fundamental principles of the Adi Dharma Doctrine that emphasized  monotheism and rationality, that focused on individual meditation rather than scriptural infallibility and that rejected idolatry and caste distinctions.

Through Debendranath’s effort, the influence of Brahmoism spread throughout India. He became known for his spiritual accomplishment as Maharshi, as great soul, which was confirmed by Sri Ramakrishna.

Through his social and religious reforms, Debendranath played an important role in the Bengal Renaissance. He has was also instrumental in the transformation of Indian life through the way he influenced his children, of whom so many were successful and influential. Debendranath and his wife Sarada Devi had fifteen children.

However, Debendranath frequently made pilgrimages to holy places of India, and even when he was home, he often remained unavailable to his children. Yet he created the special cultural atmosphere at home that Rabindranath wrote about much in his autobiographical essays, and invited scholars and artists for discussions of literature, concerts and performances.

Rabindranath also describes it as a life-changing experience when his father took him on one of his journeys – first to Shantiniketan and then to the Himalayas – and who taught him discipline as well as freedom and responsibility, and who acquainted him deeply with the Upanishads.

Maharshi Debendranath Tagore died on 19 January 1905 in Calcutta.


Bibliographical Notes

  1. Chaudhuri, Narayan 2010 [1973]. Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Makers of Indian Literature (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.
  2. Tagore, Debendranath 1916. The Autobiography of Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. Translated from the original Bengali by Satyendranath Tagore and Indira Devi. London: Macmillan and Co.