Chennai: One may see this as both a retrospective and prospective review. With the two-year-long 150th birth centenary year celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi having been launched on October 2 this year, a cut-back to a valuable publication by the National Book Trust, intended to be part of the 125th Gandhi Jayanti year, 1994-95, may not be out of place now.
The book titled, “The Mahatma And The Poet: Letters and debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941” , including some seminal essays written by them, on major issues have been painstakingly and brilliantly compiled and edited by Dr Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, former Vice-Chancellor at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, founded by Gurudev.
The author, an eminent historian himself, has gone about this task by providing a detailed historical backdrop and context of the correspondences between these two of the great figures of modern India, with Tagore, already a world renowned poet, being the first person to poetically celebrate Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’.
They unveil the setting, the letter-writing and the cable ‘wires’ being only a mode of self-expression, of profoundly troubling and changing times in pre-Independent India, in which as the author puts it, the letters exchanged, amid the “differing perceptions which they had of major national issues,” also throw light “upon the relationship between these friends and adversaries in debate.”
Dr Bhattacharya’s work is an exemplar of scholarly austerity and fidelity to original sources in bringing out the range and depth of exchange of ideas on developments of the day, between these two great, yet contrasting personalities. Tagore was from an artistically-gifted, land-holding family of Bengal, whose social reformers and thinkers had led the Indian Renaissance from the East. M.K. Gandhi, on the other was from a corner of Gujarat, where Gandhi hailed from a conservative Vaishnava family of responsible administrators, in a milieu where Jainism was also influential.
Dr Bhattacharya alludes to this sociological and historical backdrop in his collation that in part explains the differing temperaments of these two towering personalities of their times, Tagore inclined more towards aesthetics, and Gandhi seeing the ethical as his principal domain.
Both were equally open and sensitive to the thought-currents of their times, assimilating and reinterpreting. Tagore from the perspective of a grand poet, artist and a philosopher of the creative spirit with the ‘tanha’ to transcend the limitations of an insulated view of culture and history, and Gandhi freely daring to “experiment with Truth”, hitching his thought and praxis to the destiny of the Indian masses in seeking to restore their self-respect from foreign yoke, a journey that began in South Africa.
And equally remarkable, both at a higher level, were with a sense of purpose and yet without being self-propagandist, added to the richness of the ‘Time Spirit’ of their times. They cast away all petty distinctions of caste, creed and religion, in moving away from stereotyped and deeply entrenched ‘Sanatanist’ view of Hinduism. Yet, they profoundly differed.
Tagore would refuse to endorse Gandhi’s arguments for ‘Varnashrama Dharma’ as a natural template of what Gandhi was inclined to see as a means to avoid inter-professional poaching! But he was in perfect sync with the man of action on the question of eradicating untouchability from Hindu society, with ‘caste (Jaati)’ as an oppressive form of social hierarchy being totally different from ‘Varna’.
Going by his letters and articles, which form a seminal part of this volume, Tagore took a deeper perspective on the question of Hindu-Muslim unity, a cause so dear to Mahatma Gandhi’s heart until his last breath before a prayer meeting in the garden of Birla House in Delhi on January 30, 1948.
For the poet, overcoming the Hindu-Muslim divide was the troubling legacy of the first partition of Bengal in 1905. Hence for Tagore, it had to be something more than participation in the ‘Khilafat Movement’, overgrowing our cultural prejudices, which distances the Hindu from the Muslim including in respect of eating habits.
Fortunately, for Tagore, who was roughly ten years older than Gandhi and who died on August 7, 1941, he did not live to see the trauma and agonies of the post-partition communal riots, the incredible humanitarian response to which by Gandhi, particularly in the East from Noakhali to Calcutta, turned out to be his ultimate vindication of the title ‘Mahatma’ that Tagore had conferred on Gandhi.
Gandhi’s perhaps sharpest rebuttal of Tagore was his response to the poet’s brilliant, encyclopaedic article, ‘The Call of Truth’, published sometime in 1921 (which itself was a rejoinder), where Tagore dons Hegelian proportions in analysing the contemporary political situation including key issues like the non-cooperation movement, everyone taking to the spinning wheel, boycott of foreign cloth, goods, and last but not least, the question of Nationalism.
And Gandhi’s response to it, much shorter and titled ‘The Great Sentine’, begins by acknowledging that it is a “brilliant essay on the present movement”, a “series of word pictures” which only the ‘Bard of Santiniketan can paint’. ...”The Poet deserves the thanks of his countrymen for standing up for Truth and Reason.” But Gandhi makes it plain that the Bard’s song could only be for another occasion, “after the war is over”. “India is dying of hunger because it has no work to buy food with.” Gandhi agrees with the Poet’s warning of the “approaching enemies of bigotry, lethargy, intolerance and inertia,” but wants Tagore “to go deeper” on why ‘Charkha’ is a “reasoned necessity”.
Tagore, exposed to the rising trend of ‘ethno-centrism’ in the West after World War I, as Dr Bhattacharya puts it, rejected narrow walls of Nationalism which the West was raising and which translated into tariff barriers and trade wars, besides the growing ‘Imperialism of Japan’, called for a new order to “achieve the unity of man by destroying the bondage of Nationalism, and to realise the ‘Advaita’ of Humanity”. But Gandhi was not contradicting his breath of vision. Only that, Gandhi’s priority then was different in acknowledging the limits of Nationalism. “Indian Nationalism is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive; it is humanitarian,” replies Gandhi, adding, “India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity.” Later, these ideas were elaborated by Gandhi, for whom “patriotism includes the service of humanity.”
Thus one can well imagine how complex the overlapping influences and the ‘Karmic’ push that shaped their relationship. The Tagore-Gandhi ties were in part adversarial, but eventually complimenting and ennobling from, what Philosopher Spinoza would call, the ‘standpoint of eternity’.
And how did it all begin? Dr Bhattacharya writes in his introduction: “Of more than historical interest, is the debate between Gandhi and Tagore over certain issues and questions which continue to be relevant to this day and age.” “This intellectual exchange began in 1914-15 when Mahatma Gandhi along with the students of his Phoenix School in South Africa visited Tagore’s Santiniketan.” Gandhi recalled later: “It was here that members of my South African family found warm hospitality in 1914, pending my arrival from England, and I too found shelter here for nearly a month.” Dr Bhattacharya’s work should hopefully help in keeping that quest of free and open-minded exchanges going in a ‘New India’.