“Law, morality, religion are to him(proletariat) so many bourgeois prejudices behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests”
-The Communist Manifesto
The poem “A Little Grain of Gold”, an extract from Gitanjali is chiefly and most popularly read as one which reiterates the faith of an ignorant and selfish beggar in the infinite grace of the divine. These readings have merely favoured knowingly or unknowingly the interests of the ruling class. Instead of subjecting the poem to a socio-political analysis, these readings have, like the poem itself, done a grave injustice to many pivotal questions. These questions become very obvious in the reading of the poem makes clear the poet’s attempt to purposefully overlook the issues of the ruled and favour capitalist interests. The poem deconstructs itself and these gaps and silences are exposed when essential questions arise about justifications for the life of the ruled class and their economic status. In the poem, the beggar’s life(ruled class) is a poignant and prominent contrast to the life of the king(ruling class).
The beggar is a servile flatterer or submissive citizen who is made to look aghast at the magic performed by the ruling class to exploit the ruled. Using the ruled against themselves is a common strategy of fascists or capitalists. A citizen like the beggar who fails or doesn’t dare to ask cardinal questions of economic and political justice is the backbone of capitalist exploitation. All questions of the ruled class are silenced or suppressed by shrewd and diplomatic moves by the ruling class. The king in the poem like a successful conjurer thwarts the questions within the beggar by holding out his pal before him in a very dramatic gesture. The king cleverly forestalls the beggar by this and leaves him distraught.
The class disparity is very obvious in the poem. The king in the poem is a representative of the ruling exploitative class which laughs at the ruled by making them regret for not offering everything they have to the ruler. When a king moves in golden chariot in his kingdom, isn’t he responsible for the beggar in his kingdom and his “evil days”? Isn’t it an adequate testimony to reveal the political and economic injustice prevailing in the kingdom? Isn’t it his political and social obligation to give alms “unasked”? Instead, the king asking for alms from the beggar in a “kingly jest” is an instance of ruthless mockery of the ruled. The misery of the ruled class is a royal joke for the king speaks volumes of his ideology and intentions. What the beggar finds at the end of the day is a mere return for what he had given out of his hard earned livelihood(“I had gone a-begging from door to door in the village path” ). The king who demands the beggar’s livelihood and is imagined by the beggar to have given him a grain of gold in return(the text offers no logical justification or clear proof for this and the assumption is perpetrated by the capitalists through its own institutions like religion which serve as cozy couch for itself in order to suppress burning questions of the ruled class) is no embodiment of grace. The intention of the poet reveals itself more clearly when he calls the beggar’s day’s gains “a poor heap” drawing a deliberate contrast to the “grain of gold”. The “grain of gold” and not the “grain of corn” given by the beggar from his most precious collection to the king forms the title of the poem reasserts it again. Or the title, if given by the editors, too speaks the way the poem is popularly read. These interests of the exploitative class culminate when the beggar is made to regret for not having the “heart” to give all that he has to the king. (Intellect replaced by heart, reason replaced by sentiment, questioning replaced by belief is how the ruled class should be for the bourgeois). The beggar is thus portrayed heartless, ungrateful and selfish. The popular readings of the poem blindly assume or ridiculously justify the presence of the grain of gold in the beggar’s bag on a spiritual or metaphysical hypothesis. This sort of hypothesis is purposefully disseminated among the ruled class by the exploitative class in order to justify and strengthen their economic interests. The most widely manifested form of this is religious beliefs. Marx’s “Religion is the opium of the people” is worth reference. The king deftly tackles the beggar’s potential query by cleverly creating a brainstorm in him. This is a hijack that leaves the beggar more submissive to the king. All his regrets for not having given whatever he has to the king (he weeps bitterly which never happens with the king in spite of seeing a beggar in his kingdom) have two reasons. Firstly, he could have got a bagful of gold if he had given everything. Secondly, he failed to recognize the king and his magical power. Both contribute to the beggar’s assumption that king is like god and that grain of gold is given by none other than him. These sorts of illusions if exists the longer in the mind of the ruled class, the better for the ruling class. This is how it deftly safeguards its interests and exploits the ruled.
The ruling class wants the ruled to surrender itself to their interests to facilitate exploitation where questions unfavourable to their interests are serious offences. It wants a system of submissive followers who live in the illusory world in order to mar their true perception of reality. The regret of the beggar has a tinge of guilt too. The concept of sin and guilt is a product of religion.
The poem has direct, if not overtly mentioned, elements of intertextuality as it echoes Puranic tales from Hindu religion. The ironic results of the “kingly jest” of King Krishna on poor Sudhama’s visit to his court in the Bhagawata are one such, which too retains the same ideology. The poet’s cultural influences and social outlooks are of a capitalist, exploitative class’s interests thus disclose itself conspicuously in the poem.
1. Rabindranath Tagore. “A Little Grain of Gold”, English With a Purpose, Textbook for class XI, edited by Sandhya Sahoo & V.K.Bajpai, NCERT.