The Nobel prize winning work Gitanjali by Rabdinranath Tagore quotes:

Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light

Is he referring to the actual electromagnetic wave nature of light? The mention of crest seems to suggest that he is, but given that Gitanjali was written in 1910 and by that time the particle nature of light was also discovered it seems quite odd to think like that. And given the family background of Rabindranath Tagore, his previous generation was also devoted to music, literature and philosophy and his brothers were too in the field of art and bureaucracy, so that kind of scientific allusion seems a little off.

I'm looking for the analysis of that line and does it have any scientific allusions?

  • Something is wrong with the first sentence. Gitanjali doesn't quote the line in question, it's the source of the line.
    – verbose
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 11:56

1 Answer 1





Tagore was interested in science, and even arranged to meet Einstein in 1930. So it is tempting to speculate that Tagore had the wave nature of light in mind when he wrote in Poem 57 of Gitanjali:

Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.

However, there is no evidence for this claim. The poem treats light both as a visible phenomenon and a metaphor, but it does not approach the nature of light in a scientific way. Here is the entire poem:

Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!

Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.

The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.

The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion.

Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without measure. The heaven's river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.

The opening line itself describes the light as "world-filling", which isn't particularly scientific. The light is also described as dancing, striking chords, etc.; such descriptions are not compatible with a strictly scientific view of light as electromagnetic waves.

The highly metaphoric nature of this light is clear even in the context of the line in question:

The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.

The specific use of the word waves follows the idea of butterfly wings as sails upon a sea of light. The flowers that follow are also on the waves on that sea; those are not electromagnetic waves. This is light as a metaphor for joy and liberation, not light as objective phenomenon.

William Radice, in his own translation of the poems in the 1912 English Gitanjali from their original Bengali sources, provides a much more beautiful version—to my mind, anyway. He translates the relevant lines as follows:

Streams of light for sails of thousands
     of butterflies;
Waves of light where dancing jasmines
     buoyantly rise.     (p. 185)

Source Info

The original source of Poem 57 is a song from Tagore's 1911 play অচলায়তন / achalaayatan, "Immobile":

আেলা, আমার আেলা, ওগো
     আেলা ভুবনভরা ।
আেলা নয়ন-ধোওয়া আমার
     আেলা হৃদয়হরা ।

aalo aamaar aalo, ogo
     aalo bhuvan_bharaa
aalo nayan-dho_oya, aamaar
     aalo hR^iday_haraa

Literal translation (mine):

Light, my light, oh,
     world-filling light,
Eye-cleansing light, my
     heart-captivating light!

Radice translates the opening lines as follows:

Light, light, light, oh light
     that fills the world!
Eye-bathing light by which
     our hearts are swirled.

The line about "waves of light" is as follows:

আলোর স্রোতের পাল তুলেছে
     হাজার প্রজাপতি।
আলোর ঢেউয়ে উঠল নেচে
     মল্লিকা মালতী।

aalor sroter paal tulechhe
     haajaar prajaapati
aalor Dheuye uThala neche
     mallikaa maalatii

Literal translation:

On the stream of light, the sails/wings are raised
     of thousands of butterflies;
on the waves of light have risen, dancing,
     jasmine flowers.

In his introduction, Radice describes the context of the song within the play:

Achalayatan is about an oppressive, stultifying ashram, in which the boys who are educated there are deprived of all freedom. One of the boys in the ashram, Panchak, rebels against the orthodoxy of the ashram and slips out of it to meet communities that are beyond its grip. Another boy called Subhadra commits the heinous sin of opening a window in a wall of the ashram in order to look outside. The Acharya [i.e., teacher] in charge of the ashram, however, reassures his colleagues that the ashram’s ‘guru’ will soon come to restore order. But when the guru arrives he turns out to be a force for change and revolution, breaking down its walls and letting in light. The light pours in ‘as if the whole sky is rushing into this abode’, and the boys of the ashram sing the song to the light that Panchak has taught them: Alo, amar alo, ogo alo bhuban-bhara. (p.41)


Here is a 1983 recording of the song. The lyrics and composition are of course Tagore's. The arrangement and choral direction are by Suchitra Mitra, one of the most celebrated interpreters of Rabindranath's music. The singers listed on the album cover are:

  • Sumitra Ray
  • Shailen Das
  • Tanmoy Chatterjee
  • Bani Thakur
  • Shrikumar Chatterjee
  • Aditi Sengupta
  • Swapna Ghoshal
  • Bithin Banerjee.

Knock yerselves out.


  • As always, transliteration from the Bengali follows iTrans conventions
  • The question is a bit inaccurate about the date of Gitanjali. Tagore published a Bengali collection called Gitanjali in 1910, but the English collection to which he gave the same title was published in 1912. It did not include translations of all the poems from the Bengali collection of that title; but it included translations of several other poems from various sources, such as this song, which wasn't written until 1911. See this answer for a fuller description.
  • 1
    In the original Bengali song, the word ঢেউ is used, which is generally used to describe waves in sea or a river. The word which is used to describe waves in physics is তরঙ্গ (it is rarely used to describe water waves when people speak (unless in a science class)). Despite being a native Bengali speaker (and a physics student), it never occurred to me that Tagore was referring to "light as an electromagnetic wave" in this song, because of the totally different choice of words. I have never seen the word ঢেউ used to describe waves in physics. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 20:06
  • @ArchismanPanigrahi thanks for this very illuminating comment! Yes, of course, Dheu and tara~Ng are completely different words in Bengali and the fact that I didn't twig to that obvious distinction in my answer only proves what I said in multiple Tagore answers: my Bengali is atrocious.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 7:44

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