“Gandhi and Tagore, two types entirely different from each other and yet both of them typical of India, both in the long line of India’s great men … I have felt for long that they were the outstanding examples in the world today. There are many of course who may be abler than them or greater geniuses in their own line. It is not so much because of any single virtue but because of the tout ensemble, that I felt that among the world’s great men today Gandhi and Tagore were supreme as human beings.” – Jawaharlal Nehru, in his jail diary, 1941.
Two of India’s greatest sons
Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel laureate, the author of the national anthem, one of India’s most famous polymaths. Mohandas Gandhi, father of the nation, one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers, one of history’s most dynamic personalities.
Tagore and Gandhi are among India’s greatest sons. They have both made significant contributions to their respective fields – Tagore to literature, Gandhi to political thought. They lived during the same, turbulent period of Indian history; both were opposed to British colonialism and unchecked capitalism. At the same time, they had many differences. From the Noncooperation Movement to spinning the charkha, Tagore and Gandhi differed on many issues. But they developed between them a fellowship
Tagore was the first to refer to Gandhi as the “Mahatma” or “Great Soul”. Gandhi hailed Tagore as “Gurudev” or “Revered Teacher”. These two giants of history met on 6 March 1915. But there already existed a great sense of respect and admiration between them.
Before the meeting
Ironically, it was an Englishman, Charles Freer Andrews, who was the link between these two men. Soon after Gandhi’s return from South Africa, Andrews arranged for a week-long stay for Gandhi in Shantiniketan, Tagore’s famous intellectual institution. However, Tagore was not in Shantiniketan during this period, but Gandhi stayed to meet and interact with the members. He stayed for a week but the impression he left was everlasting. To this day, the institution observes “Gandhi Day” on 10 March. On this day, the servants and cooks enjoy a holiday while students and teachers do all the work.
Tagore and Gandhi met for the first time on 6 March 1915 at Shantiniketan. Kaka Kalelkar, a close associate of Gandhiji, describes this meeting thus: “All the teachers, including me, were consumed with a great desire to see how these two sons of Bharat-Mata would conduct themselves at the first meeting … We went into the drawing room with Bapu. Ravibabu (Tagore) rose from the sofa on which he had been sitting. His tall, stately figure, his silvery hair, his long beard, his impressive choga (gown), all this went to make a magnificent picture. And there, in almost comical contrast, stood Gandhiji, in his skimpy dhoti, his simple kurta, and his Kashmiri cap. It was like a lion confronting a mouse. We knew that both men had heartfelt respect [for] each other. Ravibabu made a gesture inviting Gandhiji to sit beside him on the sofa. But as long as there was a carpet on the floor to sit on, Gandhiji was not going to sit on any couch. He settled himself on the floor; Ravibabu had to follow suit.”
This meeting was followed by many others. From this date till 1941 (when Tagore passed away), Gandhi and Tagore maintained a regular correspondence through meetings, letters, and telegrams. They debated topics like truth, freedom, democracy, courage, education, and the future of humanity. These letters – today available for the public to read – offer a rare and deep insight into the opinions of these two great men. More than that, as Maria Popova wrote, “These letters offer a poignant example of what it means to be both friends and intellectual adversaries, to stand by one’s convictions with equal parts dignity and respect for the other’s, to seek above all else to advance the public good rather than the private ego.”
Mutual respect despite differences
“I started with a disposition to detect a conflict between Gurudev and myself, but ended with a glorious discovery that there was none.” – Mohandas Gandhi.
There is no doubt that Gandhi and Tagore differed on many issues. The most famous example of these was Gandhi’s controversial response to the 1934 earthquake which wrecked havoc in Bihar and Nepal. Gandhi called the disaster “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans (untouchables).”
This observation ignited a public debate between Gandhi and Tagore. In his letter, Tagore expressed “painful surprise” at “this kind of unscientific view of things”. Tagore confessed himself “profoundly hurt” and said Gandhi’s words ignited the “elements of unreason” which were the “fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect”.
These differences, though, were overcome through vibrant debate and the pervading sense of mutual admiration between the two men. In a letter to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1938, Tagore wrote, “At this desperate age of moral upset it is only natural for us to hope that the continent which has produced two greatest men, Buddha and Christ, in the whole course of human events must still fulfill its responsibility to maintain the purest expression of character in the teeth of the scientific effrontery of the evil genius of man. Has not that expectation already shown in its first luminous streak of fulfilment in the person of Gandhi?”
Debates in Yerawada
In May 1932, Gandhi began his famous fast in Yerawada Jail to protest against separate electorates for backwards Hindus. (The result of this fast was the historic Poona Pact between Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar.) Gandhi and Tagore were in regular correspondence during this time. One time, concerned for his friend’s health, Tagore travelled to Yerawada and visited Gandhi in the prison. During the meeting, it has been reported, Gandhi asked Tagore to sing one of his self-composed songs and the two of them debated at length about the British idea of awarding separate electorates to backwards castes in India. When the Poona Pact was signed, Tagore was present with Gandhi. He also sang a hymn to mark the occasion.
Their last meeting
In 1940 Gandhi and his wife Kasturba visited Shantiniketan again. It was to be the last meeting between the poet and the politician.
Worried about his institution, Tagore requested Gandhi to take Shantiniketan under his wing. To this, Gandhi replied, “Who am I to take this institution under my protection? It carries God’s protection because it is the creation of an earnest soul.”
Tagore died on 7 August 1941. Less than seven years later, Gandhi was killed on 30 January 1948.
A tale of two leaders
In his last visit to Shantiniketan, in 1945, Gandhi visited an institution still lamenting the loss of its Gurudev. Gandhi addressed the community saying, “It is my conviction … that Gurudev as a person was much bigger than his works; bigger even than this institution.”
Gandhi and Tagore were, politically and ideologically speaking, extremely different. But that did not stop them from forming a strong bond of fellowship, based on mutual respect for one another’s efforts and differences. Their individual impacts on India are incomparable, their legacies are immortal, their friendship was eternal.
At a time of great polarisation in our country, when we are dividing ourselves based on politics and religion and viewing those with different views with distrust and suspicion, the relationship between two of India’s greatest sons must serve as an example.
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