Tagore was born into a Hindu family in Kolkata, the son of Debendranath Tagore, leader of one of two Brahmo Samaj splinter groups. His last name, in Bengali, is Thakur, literally meaning The Lord, and for this reason signed his works as 'Rabindranath Thakur' in his native and favored language of Bengali. 'Tagore' is an Anglicized corruption of his proper name. Be that as it may, 'Thakur' is Brahmin, and his family was indeed of an educated and intellectually diverse lineage. Tagore is known to Westerners as a poet rather than as a formal philosopher, but these two arts are seldom differentiated in traditional Indian culture. An implicit philosophy can be seen in Tagore's poetry. The main literary device by means of which Tagore communicated his religio-philosophical views was that of bridal mysticism. This entails seeing oneself as the bride of God, with a complete submission to and adoration of the divine bridegroom. A powerful Hindu thinker, his Upanishadic notions (expressed in his book Sadhana) permeate his works and he has been elevated in the minds of Indians to a sort of poet-sage.
In India, Rabindranath Tagore has transcended, as often happens in the Indian paradigm, the simple position of a writer-philosopher. Especially among bodies, he is revered as a Guru. Since great thinkers, who are often religious in their purview, are seen as gurus and close to Bhagavan (God) by Hindus, Rabindranath Tagore is especially revered. Hindus believe that by listening to the words of such wise and enlightened men, people are brought closer to Bhagavan. For this reason, he is affectionately known as Gurudeb (or Gurudev in Hindi), which means, literally, Teacher-God.
His spiritual journey was guided by the Upanishads, the traditional Hindu spiritual scriptures to which he had the opportunity of early exposure, being part of an upper-crust Brahmin family. The Upanishads, derived in turn from the Vedas, speak of the immanent Brahman, the supreme reality which differs from Western religious conceptions of 'God' in that it is an all-suffusing force that transcends personality and any sort of description. The Hindu idea is that all things in the cosmos, even the famous Hindu deities, are only temporal manifestations of Brahman. The Hindu trinity being Existence, Consciousness and Bliss Satchidananda, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in a universalist strain about man's relation to Brahman and the experiences that lead to establishing ultimate identity with Brahman, the goal of Hinduism. The material world is regarded as Brahman's manifestation by Upanishadic philosophy. A representative book of his that details his personal views on the Upanishads and their centrality to his thinking and life is his book 'Saadhanaa,' which is a Hindu term for spiritual 'mode of living or practice.'
Among his literary oeuvre is included, though poetry takes the centre stage, novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, drama, and no less notably, over 2000 songs (belonging to a genre known as Rabindrasangeet) which are cultural treasures of Bengal in both West Bengal (India) and the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. The Rabindrasangeets, which most frequently deal with transcendental love and spirituality are immensely popular with speakers of the language and form a foundation for the Bengali ethos that is comparable to, perhaps even greater than, that which Shakespeare had on the English-speaking world.
While his prose often dealt with social questions, political ideas, educational ideals, and his vision of the universal brotherhood of man, Tagore's poetry and songs, apart from its deep religious, spiritual and devotional streak, often expressed simply a celebration of nature and life. Life's multifarious variety was ever a source of Ohoituki Ananda, pleasure without outward reason, for him. No less noteworthy are his outputs on love, which recurs as a major motif throughout his literature, and on patriotism.
The importance of Tagore as a figure in literary history is perhaps aptly illustrated by the fact that two countries, (India and Bangladesh), adopted as national anthems songs authored by him. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, the first non-westerner to receive this honour, for his English translation of his powerful work Gitanjali. W.B.Yeats, and Wilfred Owen, two of the greatest poets of the 20th century, were greatly moved by this work, and it is said that it was under Yeats's encouragement that he agreed for its translation to English, which he did himself.
Tagore was also instrumental in the early stages of the nationalistic movement in India, though he dissociated himself from some of what he observed as "the later ungainly manifestations". He was the first to reject the knighthood given by the British crown, in protest against the Jallianwala Massacre in Punjab where an unarmed gathering of civilians was fired upon on the orders of the British officer, killing 350 men, women and children in 1919.
Prominent among the other contributions of Tagore is the university Visva-Bharati, incorporating the vidyalaya (school) instituted by him enshrining his educational ideals. The rigid discipline and claustrophobic environments in various schools he attended in his boyhood left a bitter taste in his mouth. He saw the educational system introduced by the British as "artificial", with total emphasis on unquestioning obedience, mechanical book-learning, little interaction with nature and usually in subjects with little touch with the life of the country around him, and consequently he felt this was stifling to the sensitiveness of the Indian youth. He sometimes referred to himself in slightly mock-serious tones to his lack of formal education. He does appear to have spent a couple of years intermittently at various schools, mainly following his guardians' wishes, but his education was overwhelmingly seen in his family library of books, which was varied and deep, in accordance with the nature of his intellectually-imposing father.
This realization led him to establish his school, called a Brahmacharyashram(centre for Brahmacharya), at Santiniketan in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, where his father had left a landed estate in his possession. The word Brahmacharya, though commonly understood as a synonym for celibacy alone, was used in ancient Vedic India to name the first of four stages, also called ashramas, of life, usually spent in the pursuit of knowledge-gathering in a natural and pure setting under the tutelage of a spiritually realized person called the Guru or the Acharya. Celibacy was naturally assumed, since the child was learning and striving to be pure for the reception of knowledge, which is considered sacred to Hindus, to encompass a detachment from the avenues of life that involved sex or career pursuit.
Tagore was keenly sensitive to the world movements of his time and expressed his pain and despair over wars eloquently. His yearning for world peace was however not of a political nature; he desired it to be based on a true realization of the universal identity of mankind and indeed, of the whole of the entire sentient world.
His international travels in the quest of funds for his university led him to many countries and sharpened his understanding of various national and civilizational characteristics. His comparative treatment of the East and the West ranks among the finest examples this genre of world literature, perhaps pioneering it. His essays contributed to repudiate racially coloured views such as those of Rudyard Kipling without overtly attempting to do so.