If, as Ramachandra Guha remarked, Gandhi was the mother of all debates on the future of India, surely his debates with Tagore rank as the greatest and most profoundly enriching. Tagore and Gandhi - born in the 1860s in two regions separated by the bulk of the country - were men who came to represent the quintessence of Indian thought and life in the modern age. Living in a period when India experienced dramatic social and political changes, the two drew from the mother-lode of Indian culture and forged it with their own understanding of the Western civilisation - to invent idioms and creeds that are of enduring value.
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya's work is a collection of the correspondence and public debates between the two men, competently put together when the editor was the Vice-Chancellor of Visva Bharati, founded by Tagore himself at Santiniketan. The writings start in 1915 with Gandhi's arrival in India after a most crucial period of 23 years in South Africa and end with Tagore's death in 1941. The larger-than-life questions discussed in the book notwithstanding, the dense and particular nature of contemporary events forms the essential backdrop.
The Mahatma and Gurudev, 1940
In line with the high quality of his material, Bhattacharya's Introduction is a masterly assessment. Using a judicious lightness of touch the editor lays out the terrain of the debate and mostly manages to avoid imposing his views and prejudices on it - a most difficult task indeed. And in a short narrative he erects the scaffolding of the larger political context within which the critical engagement of Tagore and Gandhi was taking place. Out of the many choices the editor had in organising his material, he chooses a chronological order for the "interweaving of the public discourse and their private communications ... is designed to dovetail these two kinds of writings in the chronological framework of the four different phases into which I have periodised the narrative."
By the time they came to share in India's public life, Gandhi and Tagore were pioneers and had stamped their calling with the distinct hallmark of sheer genius. When they first met in 1915, Tagore - a fount of creativity and without doubt amongst the finest of poets ever - had his greatness already acclaimed and accorded with international recognition. Gandhi, at that point, of lesser fame had made his name in South Africa and was about to launch himself into the maelstrom of Indian public life and give it a new, enriched meaning. Fondly respectful of each other (addressing each other as Mahatma and Gurudev) they acknowledged the other persons greatness and his love for the country and its people. However, Gandhi and Tagore differed deeply on many important issues and made no bones about it. Steadfast in their commitment to Truth as they saw it, over a period of time they also learned to live with each others views.
Most of the debates were about specific issues arising out of the politics of an age when India was staking its moral right to independence. Of course this period was itself being profoundly shaped by Gandhi's emergence as the undisputed leader of India and a most remarkable champion of its cause. The debates were initiated by Tagore through his varied criticism of the ideas and methods adopted by Gandhi and his followers. Tagore, the prescient genius that he was, spent a lifetime swimming against the tide in many ways. From his struggles to build a landmark institution in Santiniketan to his prophetic denunciation of nationalism of all forms, he drew upon himself the ire of many. And to go against the undisputed Mahatma was a bold step for even someone as famous as Tagore. His criticism did elicit a lot of bile from Gandhi's followers in Bengal. However the friendship of the two of them wonderfully transcended their differences. They argued and loved in public and private for they were driven by a great fidelity to the higher Truth.
The four periods span the years 1915-22, 1923-28, 1929-33 and 1934-41. Each period is characterised by a specific issue and such a periodisation allows us to discern the changing nature of the relationship between Tagore and Gandhi. We shall in turn consider each period and its predominant characteristic.
The differences between the two men emerge early on. In 1919, Tagore's warned against an instrumental view of satyagraha, inadequately characterised as passive resistance - "Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it. The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation". In this letter Tagore also says with remarkable clairvoyance that "our authorities have shown us their claws", for it was penned on the eve of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre, an event that was to mark a turning point in the perceptions of the Raj and forced many to reconsider their relationship with it, Gandhi and Tagore included. Tagore of course was deeply anguished by the atrocities in Punjab and relinquished his knighthood for "the time has come, when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation". This is a fact that is lost on present-day India because a prestigious scientific award is even to this day referred to as the Sir C V Raman Award!
The main bone of contention between the two leaders was Gandhi's use of non-cooperation in the political struggle against the British, and the associated boycott of British institutions. Tagore acknowledged the moral right of a Mahatma "frail in body and devoid of all resources" to lead the country but he was deeply troubled by the negative impulse in non-cooperation. Having witnessed the deeply divisive Swadeshi movement of 1905, Tagore's skepticism was roused. He was particularly troubled by the call for students to boycott schools without a meaningful alternative in place.
Gandhi was not impressed for he felt that schooling was an important part of our willingness to be governed and be held in slavery, moreover he did not feel that formal schooling added much of real worth to the moral dimension of a person. Gandhi's interpretation of education and literacy will fill many of us with a deep unease as it did with Tagore. By ignoring many subjective realities, Gandhi placed an excessive reliance on the individual's ability to forge a life on his own merits. And in a modern society where formal education is normative, its lack can only accentuate existing differences and social and economic inequities. On the other hand, it remains true that formal education cannot lay claim to producing all that is merit worthy - Tagore himself being a prime example.
Other characteristics that were to endure in their viewpoints also emerge. In non-cooperation, Tagore sees a negative impulse that does not rejuvenate the withered polity and economy and contains the seeds of intolerance and destruction. Tagore is able to foresee the problems arising out of an oversimplification of issues and the foregrounding of nationalism at the cost of individual freedom. He loudly proclaims the essential freedom of the creative individual, something the idea of ritual spinning militated against.
In an essay aptly titled 'The Great Sentinel', Gandhi recognises the crucial importance of Tagore's dissenting voice on matters of grave import. But he holds his ground and goes on to make a point that "A plea for the spinning wheel is a plea for recognising the dignity of labour". In a society ridden with caste-based division of labour and a complex set of discriminative practices and taboos, Gandhi's insistence on spinning (along with cleaning latrines, community kitchens etc.) can be seen as what sociologist Andre Beteille called in a recent article, the 'Secularisation of Work'. One must recognize that inter-dining was instituted at Santiniketan only after Gandhi insisted on it, Tagore being unable to 'impose' any idea on others. Answering Tagore's charge that burning cloth served no purpose and instead it should be given to the needy, Gandhi moves beyond the immediate, tactile meaning of cloth and relates it to our economic independence.
"It was our love of foreign cloth that ousted the wheel from its position of dignity. ... In burning my foreign clothes I burn my shame. I must refuse to insult the naked by giving them clothes they do not need, instead of giving them work they sorely need. I will not commit the sin of becoming their patron ... [but will] associate myself with them in work."
The debate is abruptly terminated with Gandhi's imprisonment in 1922 and the dignified Tagore desisted from any further criticism until 1925 when his celebrated essay "The Cult of the Charkha" appeared. The ostensible reason is that Tagore was chastised by Acharya P C Ray for not displaying enthusiasm in turning the charkha and Tagore issues a ringing denunciation of what he perceived as the coercive nature of Gandhi's spinning dictum. For "it is an outrage upon human nature to force it through a mill and reduce it to some standardised commodity of uniform size and shape and purpose". This is a familiar thread and Tagore in his writings repeatedly asserts the primacy of the creative individual's freedom. And he goes on to link such a ritualisation with the extant evils of the caste order and reposes his faith in the emancipatory potential of modern science. "If the cultivation of science by Europe has any moral significance, it is in its rescue of man from outrage by nature, not its use of man as a machine but its use of the machine to harness the forces of nature in man's service". Today, this view of course will not stand scrutiny in many schools of thought. Tagore goes on to prescribe that "the foundation of swaraj cannot be based on any external conformity, but only on the internal union of hearts" with hardly a programmatic explanation as to how such a union could be achieved.
Tagore, often falsely viewed as an Oriental mystic (the flowing robes and beard probably added to the perception, as did poor translations of his works into English) comes across as a strong proponent of a rational basis for society. Hailing from a Brahmo family, he is extremely critical of the prevalent caste decadence - "Our country is the land of rites and ceremonials, so that we have more faith in worshiping the feet of the priest than the Divinity whom he serves" or when he says "And therefore while we keep our wells reserved for the cleaner sect, we allow our ponds to get polluted and the ditches round our houses to harbour messengers of death". Tagore rounds off his critique that while he obviously reposed his faith in the Mahatma's ability to lead, he could not agree with his method. And as someone used to being attacked, he was willing to weather the storm that his criticism was bound to provoke.
That the charkha has totemic significance for Gandhi and is not an end in itself is clarified in his response - "Round the charkha, that is, amidst the people who have shed their idleness and who have understood the value of cooperation, a national servant would build up a programme of anti-malaria campaign, improved sanitation, settlement of village disputes, conservation and breeding of cattle and hundreds of other beneficial activities. Wherever charkha work is fairly established, all such ameliorative activity is going on according to the capacity of the villagers and the workers concerned".
While obviously aware that India's poverty was "complexly ramified" as Tagore asserted, the pragmatic Gandhi was groping for a practicable scheme he could give to everyone. Also Gandhi was perhaps driven by other considerations for on being questioned years later by Mira Behn about his choice of khadi instead of propagating improvements in agriculture, Gandhi is said to have replied that he did not know how to farm but had learnt to spin, a lesson in experiential grounding that jet-setting consultants and planners would do well to absorb. Gandhi views himself and the rest of us as interlopers who partake of food that is not earned; thus he views spinning as an obligation but not as a substitute of other forms of occupation and avocation.
On the other hand, the free mind of Tagore recoils at the idea of forcing everyone to sing the same song and upholds the freedom of the individual. He instead proposes that efforts be put into seeking men to co-operate with each other. Curiously, this is the language (i.e. of cooperation) that Gandhi himself spelt out. Gandhi, sought to rediscover the dignity of labour lost in the messy edifice of caste and taboo so peculiar to India. Tagore on the other hand claimed the very same dignity for the individual by reading it as a text for individual freedom. Thus both sought to approach the same issues in quite different ways leading to the differences which Gandhi later, in typical fashion, claimed did not exist.
The third of our periods (1929-33) witnesses a lessening of the differences and over Gandhi's prolonged fasts the two men are drawn closer to each other. Gandhi having finished his period of voluntary sanyas from public action embarks on a new phase of civil disobedience in this period starting with the celebrated Salt March to Dandi. The internal contradictions within Indian society also emerge in a similar decisive manner and Gandhi resorts to a fast unto death to force an about-turn by Ambedkar on the issue of separate electorates for the scheduled castes. A much worried Tagore travels all the way to Poona to be by Gandhi's bedside when he broke his epic fast. And when Gandhi declares his intention to fast again, now in favour of allowing lower castes entry into the Guruvayur temple, Tagore expresses his deep reservations. "For lesser men than yourself it opens up an easy and futile path of duty by urging them to take a plunge into a dark abyss of self-mortification. You cannot blame them if they follow you in this special method of purification of their country, for all messages must be universal in their application, and if not, they should never be expressed at all".
That the idea of fasting is routinely abused today probably vindicates Tagore's stand.
In his letter to Tagore on 27 July 1933, Gandhi discusses Tagore's new doubts about the Poona Pact and suggests that he (Tagore) convene a meeting to revisit the issue since Gandhi himself felt that Bengal was not treated unjustly as claimed by some. Towards the end of the letter he slips a simple sentence of great import "Just now, I am absorbed in disbanding the Ashram and devising means of saving as much as can be for public use". This bland statement underplays the huge shifts taking place in his life - forced to disband Sabarmati Ashram due to his vow before the Dandi March, Sevagram is a new world and from then on till his death, Gandhi is propelled into the thick of events he cannot control, with consequences that he can only despair about.
The Bihar earthquake of 1934 provokes the final confrontation, although the debate is muted compared to previous ones. Gandhi in a public statement declared provocatively that the earthquake is divine retribution for India's sin in upholding untouchability. Rationalists are horrified and Tagore is "compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts" and goes on to clarify that "We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasise the elements of unreason in those very minds - unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect". To this Gandhi reasserts his faith in the connection between the physical and the spiritual - "To me the earthquake was no caprice of God nor a result of a meeting of mere blind forces. We do not know all the laws of God nor their working".
Tagore had worked against tremendous odds to build Santiniketan as a vision for the world to emulate in the field of education. But this didactic experiment in freeing the student's creative potential from 'factory schooling' always ran into deep financial difficulties, not least because of the antagonism that Tagore faced from the orthodox amongst his own people. The importance and dignity of Santiniketan is something both the men agreed upon and there was a touching exchange between Gandhi and Tagore on financial matters. Gandhi arranges for donors to cover Santiniketan's debt and requests Tagore to avoid further fund raising that he calls "begging expeditions" for he felt that raising money for Santiniketan was the responsibility of all and beneath the dignity of a great poet. The free spirit in Tagore is offended and he once again asserts his rights as an artist. Later, plagued by ill-health and sensing approaching death, he writes in an emotional letter to Gandhi - "I make my fervent appeal to you, accept this institution under your protection giving it an assurance of permanence if you consider it to be a national asset. Visva-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life's best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation".
For a man of peace who celebrated the beauty of the world all his life, the utter and senseless destruction of the Second World War was immensely painful for Tagore. When Gandhi wired Tagore on his eightieth birthday, "FOUR SCORE NOT ENOUGH. MAY YOU FINISH FIVE", Tagore's replied in poignantly succinct telegraphese "FOUR SCORE IS IMPERTINENCE. FIVE SCORE INTOLERABLE". Thus when he passed away on 7th August 1941, Tagore spared himself the agony of witnessing the brutality that broke out in Bengal five years later. Gandhi, by now isolated in the Congress that he had nurtured and built was left with the onerous task of keeping the peace in Noakhali. He who wanted to live till 125 had changed his mind.
In different measures, Tagore touched upon Gandhi's three main considerations - political and economic freedom, Hindu-Muslim unity and the caste system. They were both committed to the upliftment of Indians and saw themselves as addressing the problems of all of humanity. But entirely different sensibilities inform their understanding. Tagore was in many ways a product of European Enlightenment - a brilliant one no doubt - that shaped modern Bengali life. So he favoured the liberative impulse of modernity, was sanguine of the promise of science and brooked no consideration that attached limitations to the freedom of the individual. This modern sensibility of Tagore however was informed by a depth of feeling and comprehension of Indian culture that are not even remotely accessible to many of us who are unschooled in Indian languages, Sanskrit included.
Gandhi on the other hand started from the other end of stick as it were. Undoubtedly his long exposure to the ugliness of racism in South Africa shaped his perceptions of Western civilisation. And having followed Gokhale's advice to keep his eyes open and mouth shut while travelling in India, Gandhi was privy to an intimate look at the poverty and destitution of the Indian peasantry. While Tagore felt one with humanity at large with the keenness of a truly poetic mind, Gandhi saw what (modern) British rule meant for the peasant of Champaran. It is this difference in perception that speaks out from the pages of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya's compilation.
Tagore's understanding of Indian poverty is elaborated in somewhat abstract terms of freedom, free choice and the liberation of the creative mind from the shackles of poverty, mind-numbing orthodoxy and the weight of tradition. Gandhi's description is in more immediate, accessible and tangible terms ("But I have had the pain of watching birds who for want of strength could not be coaxed even into a flutter of their wings. The human bird under the Indian sky gets up weaker than when he pretended to retire.") Thus while Tagore felt burdened by any constraint on the human mind, Gandhi was seized with the problem of providing people with work and leading a people to freedom. By pointing to the dignity of labour Gandhi was addressing a crucial question of taking charge of our lives. He pointed to the immense possibilities that are waiting to be unleashed if only one were willing. Thus instead of waiting for deliverance, spinning khadi was to be a step in improving our own lives. That these noble ideas were to get washed away was inevitable for while for Gandhi gram swaraj was a creed to die for, khadi and its appurtenances were strategic tools for the Congresswallahs waiting for the inevitable power that came with freedom.
By their very nature, the Gandhi-Tagore debates touched upon fundamental questions - the nature of life and truth, reason and rationality, democracy and freedom, and the future of humanity. As Gurdial Mallik wrote in his book 'Gandhi and Tagore', they "deepened the inherent human urge for perfection, as against what passes muster under the protean term 'progress'". Public debates are usually clever and often acrimonious but this "august dispute" as Romain Rolland called it, en-nobles all of us by its sheer merit and reaches out beyond the constraints of geography and history. And most astonishing for us living in an age marked by propaganda, spin and embedded journalism, they conducted their entire debate in public media without recourse to any rancour and diatribe - Tagore wrote in the Modern Review and Gandhi in his own journal Young India.
Gandhi and Tagore are twin efflorescences of our civilisation. While Gandhi gave the world a moral weapon - "the gift of the fight", Tagore delights us in song and was a prescient thinker who proclaimed the inalienable freedom of the individual and denounced the perils of nationalism and other chauvinistic tendencies. We can ignore one or the other, or what's worse, both, only at our own peril.
Low-priced but excellent editions such as these from the National Book Trust demonstrate that with care and vision even government institutions can deliver. One hopes that more of such valuable and pertinent works will be added to the NBT's catalogue in the years to come.