Gora by Rabindranath Tagore, trans. Radha Chakravarthy, Gurgaon: Penguin Books India, 2009, pp. 517 + xxv.
reviewed by H. L. Richard
Gora is short for Gourmohan, the central figure in this striking novel by Rabindranath Tagore, originally written in Bengali between 1907 and 1909. Gora is a powerful leader in Hindu society who represents what is today called “Hindu nationalism” or Hindutva or Hindu fundamentalism. As the novel is set in the 1880’s, it is only a nascent form of this ideology whose emotional and intellectual appeal is impressively presented in many of the dialogues in this novel.
Yet Tagore is powerfully opposing the Hindutva position. “Gora” in fact means white man, and the reader is early let in on the secret that Gourmohan is not a pure Brahman, but rather an unclean European who was adopted as an orphaned infant. Gora’s mother is treated as unclean by Hindu society as she violates all caste taboos so as to live consistently with the violations involved in loving her adopted son. Gora’s Brahman father stays away from him, and Gora himself only learns the truth in the next-to-last of seventy-six brief chapters.
Tagore promotes a romantic humanistic ideology in this novel by contrasting the nascent Hindutva ideology with the Brahmo Samaj of Keshab Chandra Sen (Keshabbabu). The Brahmo Samaj was the great reform movement of 19thcentury India, and under Sen it became remarkably Christ-centered. (Keshab is mentioned a few times in the novel, but he is a true historic figure. He joined the Brahmo Samaj as a young man and later split the Samaj due both to his Christ-centeredness and some distinct personality issues.)
The hero of the novel is a Brahmo Samaji, Poreshbabu. Nothing is said about what made this man the compassionate, wise, spiritually-minded man that he is, but nothing needs to be said. He clearly learned it from the Keshab-influenced Brahmo Samaj, and so from Christ, interpreted according to insights from Hindu spirituality. Poreshbabu’s rejection by society suggests that he is something of a Christ-figure in the novel, but it is better to view him as a picture of a contextual disciple of Christ.
The Centrality of Community
This novel is all about community, and community is the essential fact to grasp in Hindu contexts. Thus, this novel is a brilliant introduction to understanding the astounding complexity of the Hindu world. The importance of community is easy to explain, despite being often overlooked, to all people desiring to walk alongside Hindu people, but in Tagore’s novel it is deeply felt rather than merely defined.
The Brahmo Samaj, with an impressive ideology and a heroic figure in Poreshbabu (not to mention Keshabbabu), is yet completely marginalized in Hindu society by its insistence on communal separation from the Hindu body. The choice of the Brahmo Samaj to remove itself from the existing communities in which it might have flourished, rather than overlay or indwell them, very clearly limited its influence. At a number of points throughout the novel Christianity makes marginal appearances as a still worse example of the disease of Pharisaical separation that mars the Brahmo Samaj. Of course, one could argue that Tagore is not being fair to Christianity, but he is accurate indeed to Hindu perceptions of Christianity.
This novel does not contain solutions to the many problems and tensions involved in contextual discipleship to Jesus within Hindu families and communities. But the problems of non-contextual Christianity are clearly displayed for all who wish to learn why the gospel has made so little impact on the Hindu world. Today Hindu society is being impacted by modernization and urbanization, yet this new translation (the second in recent years) of a novel from over a century ago was made because the issues Tagore saw then are still vitally significant. Community remains at the center of Hindu lives and Hindu contexts. Feel it for yourself in this novel, and then see how it rings true as you get heart to heart with Hindu friends.
The book has a valuable introduction and glossary to aid comprehension.