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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 20 New Delhi May 4, 2019

Tagore and Gandhi

Saturday 4 May 2019

by Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

The following article is being published before Rabindranath Tagore’s 158th birth anniversary which falls on May 9, 2019.

This year being the sesquicentenary of Mohadas Karamchand Gandhi, it is important to have a focus on the two great personalities like Tagore and Gandhi. It is now very much pertinent to have an account of their relation-ship in a nutshell. Because it is really amazing to observe that India with her many back-wardness produced two such mighty men in the period of one generation.

Gandhi was younger to Tagore by eight years and when he first met Tagore, he was yet to attain a national stature in the country, though he was widely known to Indians for his great work in South Africa. And actually for this work Tagore came to know Gandhi. C.F. Andrews and W.W. Pearson acted as the catalytic agents here. And the relationship between the two deepened.

As early as on February 1915, we observe Tagore referring to Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’ and Gandhi immediately adopted the form of addressing Tagore as ‘Gurudev’. But theirs was not a friendship based on just mutual admiration. They differed on fundamental philosophical questions which led to differences about many political, social and economic matters. Both were unsparing in their debate and it must be remembered that neither of them succeeded to convince fully the other. Each accepted cordially the other’s right to differ.

There were many striking contrasts between the two personalities and, as Romain Rolland wrote his observations in a letter to Tagore in 1923 on the noble debate between the two, that ‘it embraces the whole earth, and the whole humanity joins in this august dispute’. Yet the two found some common chord and there began a friendship which lasted till Tagore’s death in 1941.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was close to both of them, with great astonishment commented on the relationship of the two—‘The surprising thing is that both of these men with so much in common and drawing inspiration from the same wells of wisdom and thought and culture, could differ so greatly. No two persons could probably differ so much as Gandhi and Tagore in their make up or temperament.’ Tagore even raising a question on the honesty of the works of Gandhi said—‘I wonder whether you are being quite fair to our people, Gandhiji or quite honest with them?’(Quoted in ‘Poet and Plowman’ by Leonad Elmhirst)

To compare and contrast them is very interesting. Tagore, basically an artist, was of strong democratic temperament with great sympathies to proletariats, represented the cultural tradition of India in the truest sense, the tradition of accepting life in the fullness and going through it with songs and dance.

Gandhi was more a man of the people, almost the embodiment of the Indian peasant. In Gandhi we see the other side of the ancient Indian tradition which was of renunciation and asceticism. Tagore was primarily an intellectual, a man of thought while Gandhi put great emphasis on concentrated and ceaseless activity.

Both Tagore and Gandhi took much from the West and also from the East. This was more so in the case of Tagore. The two at the same time refuted narrow nationalism. Their thoughts and messages were for the whole world towards achieving the emancipation of global mankind. At the same time both were cent per cent India’s sons. They have inherited and represented the age-old culture of India—their motherland.

Tagore looked upon Gandhi as ‘a liberated soul’ who according to him ‘.... is a great man, a great soul’ and ‘... wields tremendous power over the teeming million of India’. And the secret of Gandhi’s success, as Tagore observed, ‘lies in his dynamic spiritual strength and incessant self-sacrifice’. He also said that ‘Not because of his political prudence, but for his spiritual influence the people believe in him and they are ready to die for their faith’ and always ‘ready to suffer’. And to Tagore, ‘It is a miracle that these people, downtrodden for centuries, are coming out; and without doing any injury to others they suffer and through suffering, conquer.’ And Gandhi, as Tagore observed, also greatly influenced Indian women folk who ‘only the other day ....were secluded in their own inner apartments. They, too, have come out to follow this man, this leader.’

Analysing Gandhi, Tagore wrote on February 28, 1939—“when Mahatma Gandhi came and opened up the path of freedom for India, he had no obvious medium of power in his hand, no overwhelming authority of coercion. The influence which emanated from his personality was ineffable, like music, like beauty. Its claim upon others was great because of its revelation of a spontaneous self-giving.

Prior to this Tagore, on December 1, 1930, wrote: “We have been waiting for the Person, such a personality as we see in Mahatma Gandhi.”

And Gandhi after Tagore’s demise wrote in the obituary on August 7, 1941—“In the death of Rabindranath Tagore, we have not only lost the greatest poet of the age, but an ardent nationalist who was also a humanitarian. There was hardly any public activity on which he has not left the impress of his powerful personality.”


1. Mahatma Gandhi : Rabindranath Tagore.

2. The Mahatma And the Poet—edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya.

3. Gandhi number : The Visvabharati Querterly, Vol-35, No. 1-3.

The author is a social activist associated with literacy movement.

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