Excerpt from Tapan
Raychaudhuri, Perceptions, Emotions, Sensibilities: Essays on Indias Colonial and
Post-colonial Experiences. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gandhi and Tagore: Where the Twain Met
The differences in opinion and attitude
between Tagore and Gandhi are familiar to the students of modern Indian history.
Tagores famous letter to the Mahatma at the inception of the Non-cooperation
Movement, condemning it as asceticism and orgy of frightfulness which found
a disinterested delight in any unmeaning devastation, a struggle to
alienate our heart and mind from those of the West, an attempt at spiritual
suicide has been quoted often enough as clinching evidence of their very basic
disagreement regarding the road to a better future for India.1
The poet was
also sceptical concerning other features central to Gandhis agenda, like the
latters prescription that everyone should spin as a part of their daily routine.
Tagore failed to see what would be gained by people better suited for other work
struggling to become clumsy spinners. Besides the two most eminent personalities of
modern India projected two very different self-images. There was little obviously in
common between the ascetic in loin cloth and the divinely handsome poet in his flowing
robes. Ones primary concern was the creation of a moral utopia while the other was a
celebrant of lifes many splendours.
Yet such genuine
differences in opinion and world-view have deflected attention from the vast areas of
agreement between the two. This is to be explained partly with reference to the fact that
the poet, shrouded in an unfamiliar language and, until recently, very inadequate
translations is virtually unknown to modern scholarship outside Bengal. Recent comments in
the British literary journals, remarkable for their ignorant arrogance, are a measure of
that unfamiliarity. To those who do not read Bengali, Tagore is exclusively a literary
person or a mystic of sorts. The fact that some two-thirds of his writings are serious
essays, mostly on political and socio-economic problems of India and the crisis of
civilization has been more or less ignored in Tagore scholarship. No wonder then that two
very dramatic epistles cited above have received greater attention than a great deal of
analytical writing which shows the continuity of thought and concern between two most
striking individuals of recent times.
An obvious fact which one must emphasize in exploring these
affinities is that their individuality notwithstanding, Tagore and Gandhi were both in
many was typical products of nineteenth-century India. Central to the intellectual and
moral concerns of that time was the attempt to grapple with the colonial experience.
Self-conscious emotional and intellectual exercises to work out a modus vivendi in a situation perceived to be
humiliating generated other related efforts: evaluating the west, introspection into the
strength and weaknesses of the Indian tradition and its true character and agenda for
reconstructing Indian society. The end results were of course not uniform, but there are
identifiable regularities in the thought patterns of modern Indias founding fathers.
In the spectrum of ideas which constitute the Indian discourse in the nineteenth and early
twentieth century, those traceable to Gandhi and Tagore are remarkably similar in many
ways. Tagores thinking on the themes mentioned above can be located squarely within
the tradition of nineteenth-century Bengali thought from Rammohan to the poets
contemporary, Vivekananda. The modern Indian antecedents of Gandhis ideas remain
unexplored. His discipleship of Gokhale is known, but little has been written on his
relationship to the debate between the sudharaks, reformers
and the traditionalists in western India. But even a superficial reading into the relevant
literature would show that his concerns were not all that different from other social
thinkers of his age. In short, the affinities between Tagore and Gandhi can be traced to a
large extent to the shared concerns of the nineteenth-century Indian intelligentsia trying
to work out world-views and agenda in the context of their colonial experience.
The purpose of this paper is, however, not to trace the sources
of their thought. It is only a preliminary exercise aimed at identifying the similarities.
Gandhis first elaborate comment on the Indian problem, his Hind Swaraj,2 identified one basic
evil, modern civilization. It was a threat to all that was worthwhile in human values, not
only in India but the world over. The British, as victims of this pandemic, were to be
pitied, not hated. It was not any race or nation but modern civilization itself and the
Indian infatuation with it that oppressed India. At the heart of that evil civilization
was the perception of man as a creature of desires and capitalism had a vested interest in
whetting these desires. Multiplication of wants hence become the sine qua non of the entire system which
dehumanized man, legitimized violence against nature and deprived life fall meaning and
purpose beyond the endless fulfilment of desires. The end results of such
soul-destroying pursuits were loss of all autonomy, mutual suspicion and violence and the
exploitation of man by man. Man, both as worker and consumer, had become slave to
machines. Imperialism and racism were integral to such a civilization. Even its apparent
benefits were of a highly dubious nature. Modern medicine produced patterns of
dependence which were highly unnatural and modern transport, far from making life
easier, actually helped spread disease. Wisdom had been reduced to knowledge in quest of
power and morality, equated with enlightened self-interest, had become a form of
prudence. The much-vaunted dynamism of the West was little more than mindless activism.
Only on two points was Gandhi willing to concede some moral merit to modern civilization.
He admired its spirit of scientific enquiry for he saw in it a genuine quest for truth. He
also found much to learn in the organizational aspect of western life: the civil virtues
were informed by the moral qualities of discipline and co-operation.3
Tagore, despite his great admiration for many features of western life, was
quintessentially in agreement with Gandhis judgement. Gandhi had described Indian
infatuation with the west as moha, the high
road to cultural suicide. The poet compared the western impact with disease. He did add
byway of apology and explanation: Everything is for the good in its own place; but
even what is good becomes dangerous rubbish in an inappropriate setting.4 He
was, however, far from certain that everything was for the good in western civilization.
His multi-faceted critique of the west focussed on certain basic themes which recur again
and again in his writings. Gandhi wrote that money was their God. Tagore states the same
idea in a more elaborate language: Every Feature of western civilization is an item
commanding very high price. Everything from pleasure to warfare costs a great deal of
money. Money has become a great power as a result and the worship of money now surpasses
all other forms of worship. Everything is therefore difficult to achieve or attain,
everything is shrouded in complexity. This is the greatest weakness of western
civilization.5 He linked this apotheosis of money to another central feature of western civilization which he
found even more disturbing. Gandhi had condemned its mindless activism. He saw in its
excessive effort a sign of inherent weakness, an unnecessary over-expenditure of energy
for which there was always a price to pay. In Europe there were already signs that nature
was calling for repayment.6 The excess of effort in every sphere of life had
created patterns of elaboration and ever increasing excitement which relegated human
beings to a position of insignificance.
pressure of competition reduces the workers to something worse than machinery. The grand
show of civilization which we see from outside astounds us. The human sacrifice which goes
on day and night under that facade remains hidden. But
it is no secret of Providence: social earthquakes bear witness to the consequences from
time to time. In Europe, powerful groups
crush weak ones, big money starves out small money and at the end swallows it up like a
This excess of
activism generates a poison of discontent. The
monstrous factories engulfed in black smoke deprive men of their life-protecting cover of
solitudeof space, time and opportunity for restful thought. People become unused to
their own company. Hence at every opportunity they try desperately to escape from
themselves through drink and reckless quest for pleasure. The affluent hedonists are not
much better off. They are fagged out by the endless pursuit of fresh excitement.
themselves around like dry leaves in a storm of parties, horse race, hunting and travel.
In the midst of such whirlwind, they fail to see clearly either themselves or the world
around them; everything appears obscure and indistinct. If the continuous cycle of
pleasure stops for a moment, they find even that momentary encounter with self, the
experience of unity with a wider world intolerable in the extreme.7
He was unequivocal in his rejection of this material
civilization. He did not believe in it, he wrote to Gandhi,just as he did not believe
in the physical body to be the highest truth in man.8
In his statements on western civilization, Tagore frequently
invoked the concept of relativistn which was a commonplace in the cultural discourses of
nineteenth-century Bengal. A common theme in this discussion is that one can not judge one
civilization from the point of view of another because each civilization had its
characteristic proneness. Tagore, citing Guizot, noted the uniqueness of western
civilization in its multiplicity of drives and the co-existence of often incompatible
institutions and tendencies. Yet, in modern Europe, he identified one dominant concern
which transcended all othersnamely, an apotheosis of the nation state. Everything
was permitted in its service and nothing was allowed to thwart its perceived interests.
The end result of such obsessive preoccupation with national self-interest was conflict
and eventually self-destruction. If Gandhi condemned the totality of modern civilization
as evil, to Tagore its supreme evil consisted in nationalism, which separated man from man
and led to destructive conflict.9 Gandhi, the leader of Indias militant
nationalism, provided in his writings indirect support for such views. He saw
Europes greed for territories as a function of her aggressive nationalism. The
nationalism he prescribed for India was one which would not ignore the interest of other
nations, nor make even ones own community its primary concern.10
nineteenth-century Indian discourse on the West was rarely, if ever, informed only by
intellectual curiosity. It was inspired mainly by an urge to assess the comparative merits
of Indian civilization, its differences with the dominant culture of the time and its
relative superiority or inferiority. A quest for cultural self-assurance was often the
unconscious motive. A more conscious purpose was to assess the impact of the west,
increasingly seen as a threat to the Indian way of life with unfortunate implications for
the country. Closely linked to such a perception was a recognition that there were things
to learn from the west, and at another, less clearly stated level of understanding, the
awareness that the clock of western influence could not be turned back altogether. There
were consequent attempts to work out strategies of cultural survival. The agenda for the
future the programmes for national regeneration focussed, inter alia, on the question as to what one could
adopt from the West. But nearly all such exercises started with an enquiry into the nature
of Indian civilization and implicit or explicit comparisons with the west.
Gandhis Hind Swaraj, an uncompromising critique of modern
western civilization, was based on an equally strong faith in what he believed to be the
values of Indian culture. There is no hint here of any need for self-assurance to
overcompensate for any perceived inferiority. Some of his data derive no doubt from the
Orientalist paradigm of self-sufficient village communities, which he idealized, but in
essence he projects an emotional and ideological preference rooted, arguably, in his life
experience of a traditional Indian home. I state this as an obiteror a hypothesis the validity of which would
not be very difficult to establish. One could show that he shared his preference for the
emotional ambience of Indian life conceptualized as a cultural value with much more
westernized Indians, like R.C. Dutt for example. While the latter were more welcoming to
Europes influence, they too found western life lacking in terms of the quality of
inter-human relationship. Underlying Gandhis statements on the superior worth of
Indias civilization one can detect his attachment to a pattern of social interaction
which did not privilege the individual or emphasize achievement over other objects of
The Indian civilization of his imagination was essentially rural
in character in contrast to the city-based modern civilization of the West. Its survival
over millenia despite numberless assaults was evidence of its viability and moral
validity. It was spiritual because the essentially spiritual nature of man was its
discovery. Gandhi recognized an age-old culture hidden under an encrustment of
crudity in rural India and that despite what he saw as the apparent brutishness of
peasant life. The self-governing, self-sufficient and harmonious village communities of
yore were the institutional bulwark of this ancient culture. He saw in the caste system a
social order which recognized the basic differences in human temperament: untouchability
was an aberration, a fall from grace. Indian society was essentially tolerant
perceiving, from the days of the Upanishads onwards, the truth underlying apparently
divergent beliefs. It was also a grand synthesis of different cultures, with an infinite
capacity for assimilation. Thus in terms of human values it was superior in every way to
the competitive, materialistic and violence-prone civilization of modern Europe driven by
insatiable desire forever seeking satisfaction of new wants. The British, to bolster up
their power, rubbished Indian culture and Indians, infatuated with the West, believed
their propaganda. Curing Indians of their moha was
one essential element of Gandhis agenda for reconstruction.11
Tagores idealization of Indian society and his implied
declaration of faith in its essential superiority was based on an imaginative
interpretation of what he had seen and experienced. He too repeatedly emphasized its
essentially rural character. And what Gandhi had described as the predominantly spiritual
proneness of Indias civilization, the poet pictured in terms of very concrete
images. He contrasted Europes endless and frantic pursuit of pleasure with the
Indians very different style of quest for happiness:
diluted the density of her material pleasures by distributing it among friends, relations
and neighbours; and she has simplified the complexity of action and distributed it among
various groups. As a result, there is always the space to cultivate ones essential
humanity in ones pleasures, ones activity and ones meditations. The
traderhe too listens attentively to the bards retelling stories from the ancient
scriptures and performs his rituals; the craftsman also reads the Ramayana tunefully. To a
large extent this expansion of ones leisure helps preserve the purity of ones
home, ones mind and the society at large and saves them from the dense vapours of
vice. . . . The forest fires of evil instinct set alight by mutual competition and the
crowding in on one another are kept in check in India.12
He saw an essential balance, an element of unity between the
various aspects of their existence in the life of the peasants in rural Bengal:
There is no grandeur, no complexity there. One does not
need a great deal of philosophy, science or sociology to live ones life at this far
end of the world and satisfy ones few modest wants. One requires only a few
ancient rules which govern the family, the village and ones duties as a subject of
the king. They blend very easily with peoples lives to become a total vibrant
The poet found the illiterate villagers and the
insignificant village beautiful because their steady allegiance to a set of feelings,
beliefs and attitudes over many generations gave them a sense of dignity and imparted a
quality of sweetness to their life. He saw in their faces an impression of compassionate
patience, a simple-hearted trustfulness which moved him. He preferred it to the
tremendous din of high civilization which reached his ears from London and
Paris.14 Even in the life of urban India of his times he found a quality of
contentment and happiness undiminished by the paucity of material goods. He found it more
satisfying and worthier in terms of human value than anything he had encountered in
Europe. He cited one concrete example in support of his argument. The Indian villager
never turned away a guest or supplicant from his door and did not consider any discomfort
entailed by his act of hospitality as discomfort. A profound and age-old belief in the
sacredness of this duty had become a part of his emotional make-up.15 Tagore
was not unaware of the miseries of rural life and its pervasive sin of pettiness. Many of
his short stories, based on his intimate knowledge of rural Bengal, are tales of
mans inhumanity to man. But he still saw the quality
of dignified integrity as the central feature of Indias traditional civilization,
a quality of wholesomeness he missed in Europe. In his words, the debilitating and
denationalizing impact of the West had not yet banished from Indian life the hard
strength of poverty, the stilled emotion of silence, the chilling peace of dedication and
the grand dignity of renunciation. And if someday a storm raged one would see the
blazing eyes of the ascetic burning bright undiminished by any external fury.16
He also came very close to Gandhis position in his
perception of Indias political traditions. While he did not emphasize the notion of
self-sufficient village republics he questioned the value of state power and, in fact, of
nationhood itself for the life of a people. He shared with other Bengali thinkers of the
nineteenth century the notion that society rather than the state was the central focus of
Indian life. Like Gandhi, he too was extremely suspicious of centralized state power.
Only, he went further to reject the need for nationhood which raised barriers between man
and man and led to vicious conflict. The fact that the idea was alien to India was for him
a plus point. His agenda for national reconstruction, like Gandhis, emphasized the
rural unit rather than the grand edifice of the state.17
Tagore discussed at great length and repeatedly the assimilative
power of Indian civilization, the belief first projected by Orientalists that it
represented a grand synthesis, a pattern of unity in diversity. It had not rejected any of
the numerous cultures which had come to its shores. The Scythians, the Huns, the
Pathans and the Mughals had all merged into one single body, he declared in one of
his most famous poems.18
The main features of Gandhis agenda for national
reconstruction are well-known.19 He
saw the central problem of Indian life as not something of external origin, but a flaw in
the Indian charactera pervasive lack of courage and a consequent tendency to blame
others for ones misfortune. The degradation and humiliations India suffered
ultimately derived from this flawed character, for one is inevitably trampled if one
behaves like a worm. Indias infatuation with western civilization was a by-product
of the same weakness, a loss of confidence in ones traditions. Independence for
him was a necessity primarily because it was a sine
qua non for preserving the very worthwhile features of Indian civilization. The
centralized state, which was to him a dehumanizing machine destroying all sense of
personal responsibility, he considered unsuitable for Indias essentially rural civilization. Though he accepted it as necessary
after 1930, the self-governing village communities were to be the base of Indias
future polity. And Indians would need to go through a process of self-purification, atma-suddhi, to escape from hybridization. They
needed serious introspection to reinterpret the central principles of her civilization,
and learn from others, as she had done in the past, in terms of her own self-perception,
not those of western assumptions.
The agenda for reconstruction had to start from the bottom and be
based, not on any sentimental attachment to an abstract Bharat-mata, but an active love of the people.
The worker in the cause had to eschew ostentatious living and refuse comforts denied to
others. The constructive programme emphasized village industries, health, education, use
and development of indigenous languages, fight against untouchability and integration with
Indias tribal population. The instrument of self-purification would be the practice
of satyagraha. India would not close her doors
and windows to the world outside and allow noble winds from all over the world
to blow, but only on her own terms.
The similarity between Gandhis programme and Tagores
ideas on the reconstruction of Indian society 1890s onwards is indeed striking.20 He
too, as noted above, regarded the centralized state as an institution alien to India. The
colonial state had caused the worst degeneration because Indians now looked for its
approbation rather than that of their own society in undertaking any act of service.
Petitions and complaints to the government, whining when the authorities failed to
respond, had become the prime instruments for the solution of the countrys problems.
Howls of protest were heard when a respectable Indian was insulted, but no one paused to
think that such humiliation was rendered possible by the loss of national self-respect. He
welcomed the spirit of swadeshi, not because it
would harrass the English or stimulate Indian industry, hut because it might teach us to
give up our comforts and make a modest act of self-denial the basis of national unity. And
the exit from the dark cave of self-interest for the wider good of the
people would give Indians the courage and self-respect they lacked so badly.
The privileged and the educated, if they desired national
regeneration, would have to start with a sense of unity with the masses and construct
bonds of love with the impoverished villagers through selfless service. He decried the
excesses of the boycott movement during the anti-partition agitation because it hurt the
interests of the poor for whom the elite had done nothing expecting unconditional support
when it suited the latter. Indians must learn to live by their own strength, atma-shakti, and the way to do it was constructive
effort in rural India in education, health, handicrafts without any dependence on
government. His emphasis was not on agitation but building self-confidence and ties of
unity between the elite and the masses. He repeatedly uses an expression for which there
is no exact equivalent in English, kalyan, moral
and material well-being. It is an expression with resonances which encompass the body
and the spirit, the individual and wider humanity. Tagores conception of kalyan uniting the entire society bear close
resemblance too Gandhis idea of sarvodaya. The
formers efforts were not limited to prescriptions. He did set up an organization to
implement his programmes and his Sri-niketan was something more than a craft school. Its
purpose was rural reconstruction through training in productive crafts suitable for rural
society. And while Santiniketan embodied the ideal of universal man, with its emphasis
on simple living,joyous education and unity with nature, its affinities with Gandhian
ideals were not insignificant.
Tagore s political agenda included the concept of a leader
whose authority one would accept despite his inevitable human failures. There is no doubt
that he recognized Gandhi as that leader. His initial response to the Non-cooperation
movement was very different from his subsequent feelings of revulsion:
It is in
the fitness of things that Mahatma Gandhi frail in body and devoid of military resources,
should call up the immense power of the meek; that has been lying waiting in the heart of
the destitute and insulted humanity of India. The destiny of India. . . is to raise the
history of man from the muddy level of physical conflict to the higher moral altitude.
He saw the movement, not as one for national liberation, but as
one for the emancipation of man from national egoism.21 I am not sure if this
perception is very different from Gandhis vision of satyagraha. A few days after
he wrote the above passage, Tagore penned his better known denunciation. As in 1905 so in
1921, he was revolted by the destructive acts which inevitably go with all mass
agitations. He rejected what he believed to be the negative implications of the movement
in terms of his values. These were not very different from what Gandhi stood for. Only the
latter did not see Non-cooperation as a threat to his universalist values. He too, like
Tagore in his initial response, saw the movement as a step towards the moral liberation of
1. Tagore to
Gandhi, March 1921, Gandhi, Collected Works, XX
(Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, 1966), 539, 540-1.
2. See Collected Works, vol. X.
Bhikhu Parikh, Gandhis Political Philosophy (Notre
Dame, Indiana, 1989), 15-26.
Rabindranath Tagore, Atmashakti (Strength of
Ones Own), Rabindra-rachnabali, vol. 3
(2nd edition, 3rd reprint, Viswa-bharati, Calcutta, 1975), 555.
University Bill, Rabindra-rachanabali, vol.
Nababarsha (New Year) in Bharatvarsha,
Rabindra-rachanabali, vol. 4, 372-3.
8. Tagore to
Gandhi, March, 1921, see note 1.
Prachya o Pratichya (The East and the West), in Samaj, R.abindra-rachanabali, vol. 12, 236-60.
Parikh, op. cit., 60.
11. See Hind Swaraj and Parikh, op. cit., ch. 2.
12. See note
13. Panchabhut (The Five Elements), in
Rabindra-rachanabali, vol. 2, 571.
14. Ibid., 571, 572.
15. Panchabhut, 570; Samaj, 240.
16. Bharatvarsha, 368-9.
17. Atmashakti, 529ff.
18. See his poem, Bharat-tirtha.
19. See Parikh, op. cit., 52-62, 111-17; Gandhi, Constructive Programme Its Meaning and Place (Navajivan
Press, Ahmedabad, 1945).
20. The following discussion is based mainly on Atmashakti, Panchabhul, Bharatvarsha cited above
as also Raja Praja in Rabindra-rachanabali, vol. 10.
21. Tagore to Gandhi, March 1921, Collected
Works, vol. xx, 539.