Comparative Literature as a discipline has gained an academic status all over the world. Comparing two authors of different times and different linguistic backgrounds throws light on the cultural and social realities of the periods during which they lived and wrote. Parallel studies between any two great writers whose works transcend the geographical, national and linguistic limitations, are rewarding and interesting. Though separated by time and distance these thinkers exhibit many similarities in their approach to life and art. The final evaluation of a piece of literature or philosophy is possible only as a result of comparison. All great minds have thought and felt alike and certain fundamental ideas are common among them. To quote Rene Wellek, “Literature is one as art and humanity are one.”
Saint Thyagaraja and Tagore were separated by a time span of more than hundred years. Thyagaraja lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries while Tagore came about a hundred years later during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Though separated by time and distance these two shared many religious, philosophical, social and cultural ideas. Thyagaraja inherited all the south Indian Braminical Agrahara traditions and followed the daily religious rituals of an orthodox Hindu. Tagore on the other hand was a Bengali North Indian who was exposed in his younger days to all kinds of reformatory movements such as the Brahmo Samaj. While there are superficial differences between these two spiritual giants, they are basically the products of the ancient Hindu Sampradaya, and the culture which has come down to us from the times of the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas. They are the finest example of our spiritual heritage and religious and cultural unity. A comparative study between them can focus attention on their religion and spiritualism, their eminence as music composers, their mystical experience and their reformatory and revolutionary ideals. Thyagaraja belonged to a family of Telugu Brahmins domiciled in the Kaveri delta. He lived in Tiruvayyaru, a small hamlet in those days, on the banks of the river Kaveri which was a centre for scholars, musicians, poets and philosophers, well versed in the Vedas, Sastras and Puranas. He was the product of South Indian Agraharam culture and lived the life of a mendicant, shunning the royal patronage which was liberally offered to him. He is essentially a composer of Carnatic music but at the same time his compositions can be treated as the outpourings of a great poet and a philosopher. He combines in himself all the aspects of a musician, a poet and a philosopher. Valmiki wrote his Ramayana in 24000 slokas. In the same way Thyagaraja wanted to write 24000 songs in praise of Rama, his chosen deity and produce a Thyagaraja Ramayana but only about six hundred of his compositions have survived the ravages of time. His music and philosophy have their roots in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas. That is why his compositions have been termed as Thyagopanishad.
Tagore was also brought up in a similar background. He was born in a family, gifted for music and arts. Under the influence of his great father, Maharshi Devendranath, he became a votary of the revolutionary social movement, the Brahmo Samaj. In his younger days he was profoundly influenced by the Bengal version of the Ramayana and Sanskrit religious poetry. He was drawn towards Chaitanya, Kabir, and Tukaram as deeply as he was towards the Bengal Vaishnavas. The Upanishads were like a reservoir which inspired and enabled his thoughts and ideals. The three early influences on him were Sanskrit Literature, religious love poetry of the Vaishnavas and the Western Literature. Tagore was a poet, playwright, novelist, musician and artist, thinker, nationalist, social reformer, educationist and above all the prophet of a new age. He is primarily a bard who comes before us as a singer, singing in praise of God. His poems and songs number well over three thousand and many of his poems lend themselves to be sung. All of them bear the quality of exquisite poetry.
Both Thyagaraja and Tagore were great music composers. While Thyagaraja stood like a colossus in the tradition of Carnatic music, Tagore revolutionized the Bengal music. Thyagaraja’s songs are sung all over the world wherever Carnatic music is appreciated. The Rabindra Sangeet has its votaries in all parts of the world. Many tunes that they have sung, in both systems, are original. Both of them are in the direct lineage of Valmiki and Kalidasa and among the world’s greatest devotional lyricists, comparable to Bach and Beethoven. The divine music of these two artists has been elevated to an international status. The language of their composition is Telugu and Bengali.
For both Thyagaraja and Tagore , music is a mode of realizing the infinite. Tagore said, “God loves me when I sing”. The central theme which imparts continuity of thought in all the songs of both the poets, is Bhakti or love of God, accompanied by an intense yearning for his grace. Swami Vivekananda defines Bhakti as “real genuine search after the lord, a search beginning, continuing and ending in love.” He quotes Narada who said that “ Bhakti is intense love to God and it is greater than karma and the other yogas, because these are intended for an object in view, while Bhakti is its own fruition, its own means and its own end.” He says that one great advantage of Bhakti is that it is the easiest and most natural way to reach the great divine end. Thyagaraja inherited from his great predecessors the Bhakti and Bhajana traditions. Similarly Tagore assimilated the path of Bhakti which he learnt from the great seers like Chaitanya, Kabir and Tukaram. His great poems like The Gitanjali, The Gitali and The Gitimalya reveal the deep expression of a devotee. They record the poet’s life in which the quest for God is the dominant theme. He says:-
“ Ever in my life I sought thee with my songs
I was they who led me from door to door
and with them have I felt about me,
searching and touching my world.
it was my songs that taught me all
the lessons I ever learnt; they showered
me secret paths, they brought before
my sight many a star in the horizon
of my heart.” (Gitanjali,CI)
Thyagaraja expresses a similar feeling that music without devotion is useless. He sings to take the listeners to a sublime state.