By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

            I am of the opinion that Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi were two of the greatest personalities of the East who touched the hearts, minds and souls of the Western people in the 20th.century. Gandhi inspired political reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for the rights of Blacks in a peaceful way and psychologists like Erik Erikson who wrote Gandhi’s Truth, while Tagore was the first East Indian who received Nobel Prize of literature for his mystic poetry.

            These two intellectuals had as many differences as they had similarities. They both believed in social reforms and spiritual enlightenment and considered freedom, independence, justice and human dignity as their ideals but in their lives they took different routes towards those goals. They had an ambivalent relationship with each other, in which respect and resentment, admiration and condemnation went hand in hand. They were both leaders and had strong personalities, but being intellectual heavyweights, when they clashed the whole nation felt the reverberations of a political earthquake.

To understand the similarities and differences in their personalities and philosophies and have a better appreciation of the dynamics of their ideological and political conflicts, when I studied their biographies, I came to know that their first meeting took place in 1915 and the last one in 1940. Both those meetings were in Shantiniketan, the academic institute established by Tagore in India. Their quarter of a century long relationship went through many ups and downs and hot and cold periods. In those twenty five years, they never worked together. They were like two banks of the river of enlightenment, over troubled waters, that were joined with bridges of respect and good will at different intervals of time.

            By the time the first physical meeting of two great minds and souls took place in 1915, they both had become leaders of respective schools of thought and as gurus had acquired a number of students and disciples. They had conceived their centers for training their followers. After facing some serious problems in his Phoenix Ashram in South Africa, Gandhi had returned to India with his friends and students to start a new chapter of his struggle. Gandhi, alongside his disciples, went to Shantiniketan to meet Tagore and stayed there for a while.

            In spite of their mutual respect for each other’s philosophy, they realized that they had different styles to train and educate their students. Within a few days Gandhi not only challenged Tagore but also wanted to change the existing system. Before Gandhi’s arrival, Brahmins ate separately from other castes in Shantiniketan. Gandhi who believed in social equality suggested that people from all classes and castes eat together. Tagore welcomed that suggestion. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson wrote, “ For a long time at Shantiniketan—in fact until Gandhi stayed there in 1915—the Brahmin boys dined separately from the others; and a Brahmin boy did not touch the feet of a non-Brahmin teacher.” Gandhi also believed in self-service and was never in favour of servants. So he suggested for all the students to do their own cooking and cleaning. Gandhi wrote in his auto-biography, “ I quickly mixed with the teachers and students, and engaged them in a discussion on self-help. I put it to the teachers that that, if they and the boys dispensed with the services of paid cooks and cooked their food themselves, it would enable the teachers to control the kitchen from the point of view of boy’s physical and moral health, and it would afford to the students an object-lesson in self-help. One or two of them were inclined to shake their heads. Some of them strongly approved of the proposal. The boys welcomed it, if only because of their instinctive taste for novelty. So we launched the experiment. When I invited the Poet to express his opinion, he said that he did not mind it provided the teachers were favourable.” Tagore’s students and teachers practiced the idea for a while but then went back to their original lifestyle. To pay respect to Gandhi’s philosophy they devoted one day a month when they gave their servants a holiday and took care of their own needs. They called it a Gandhi Day.

            Within a short time Gandhi and Tagore, like many friends and sweethearts, realized that loving each other is very different than living with each other. In many cases day-to-day concrete realities become more important than abstract ideals. Their honeymoon period of friendship did not last very long and Gandhi left with his students. During that brief encounter, Gandhi and Tagore realized that in spite of their mutual respect, they had significant differences in their styles and those differences could become a source of conflict and tension. After that meeting they kept a respectable distance from each other.

            Their differences transformed into full blown conflicts, clash of the titans in 1921, when Gandhi went to visit Tagore in Calcutta to recruit him for his political movement of non-cooperation. They had long and passionate secret discussions about the future of the Indian nation but Gandhi found Tagore non-cooperative to the philosophy and practice of non-cooperation. Those dialogues created sparks that turned into flames as political wind swept the whole nation. They never saw eye to eye on many aspects of life.

            Dear Friends, When I compared Gandhi’s and Tagore’s biographies, I discovered a number of significant differences in their philosophies and styles. In this letter I will share some of them with you so that you can see a few glimpses of their mysterious relationship, their understanding of the dynamics of social and political problems and their solutions to those problems.

Gandhi believed that Indians were suppressed and oppressed and unfairly treated by the British. Gandhi believed that Indians should fight for self-rule and demand for British to leave. He thought that the only realistic way for Indians to gain freedom and independence was by non-cooperation. He suggested that if Indians stopped using Western clothes, goods and products, it would hurt British Empire economically and politically and would demoralize them to the point that they would quit India. Gandhi was trying to organize a grass-root movement and mobilize masses to put moral and political pressure on British Government.

            Tagore also believed in the philosophy of freedom and independence but he was afraid Gandhi’s peaceful demonstrations would not remain peaceful and would lead to violent confrontations between strikers and police and thousands of innocent men would land up in jail. Tagore also felt that Gandhi was focusing more on the political struggle rather than educating people, more on revolution rather than evolution. Tagore perceived Britian as a symptom rather than a problem. He shared his insight in these words, “ Many of us have the illusion that our subjection is not like a

headache, an ailment pestering us from within, but like a load on the head, pressing down on us from without in the shape of the British Government and that relief will be ours as soon as we can shake off that load by some mean or other. Well, the matter is not so simple as all that. The British Government is not the cause of our subjection; it is merely a symptom of a deeper subjection on our part.”

            Tagore’s worst fear was that if Gandhi stirred up feelings of anger and resentment against the British Rule, then after the British left those feelings might turn into hatred for each other and Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other religious and ethnic minorities might start killing each other. He shared his views in these words, “ Some of us are reported to be of the opinion that it is mass animosity against the British that will unify India…So this anti-British animus, they say, must be the our chief weapon…If that is true, then once the cause of the animosity is gone, in other words when the British leave this country, that artificial bond of unity will snap in a moment. Where, then shall we find a second target for animosity? We shall not need to travel far. We shall find it here, in our country, where we shall mangle each other in mutual antagonism, a thirst for each other’s blood.”

            While strongly disagreeing with Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent non-cooperation, Tagore offered his own solution. He felt that long standing solution to the dilemma lay in evolution not revolution, education not strikes, by love of fellow men and women and not hate of the British. Tagore perceived Gandhi’s non-violent solution as potentially violent, based on negative rather than positive emotions, more aggressive than passive. That was a significant part where they disagreed. After showing him the violence in his street Tagore shared his views with Gandhi in 1921 in these words,  “You can see for yourself. There they are howling around it like a lot of demented darveshes. Is that non-violence Gandhiji? We Indians are, as you well know, a very emotional people. Do you think you can hold our violent emotions under firm control with your non-violent principles? No! You know you can’t. Only when the children of our different religions, communities, and castes have been schooled together can we hope to overcome the violent feelings which exist today.”

            For the next few years Tagore kept on warning Gandhi and others the potential of violence in the non-violence movement. Dutta and Robinson wrote, “ On 3rd February 1922 Tagore published a clear statement in the Bengali press warning against the violence latent in the movement. Two days later twenty-two policemen who had fired on a crowd of non-cooperators were burnt alive or hacked to death by the mob at Chauri Chaura. The Mahatama was profoundly shocked. About a week later he suspended the civil disobedience movement. On 10th of March he was finally arrested on charges of sedition, tried and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.”     

Tagore seemed to be more of a teacher than a political activist. Because he was reluctant to get actively involved in the movement for which he harboured great philosophical and ideological reservations, Gandhi called him The Great Sentinal. When Tagore did not join the masses and did not cooperate with the non-cooperative movement he was strongly criticized. Even his loyalty to the Nationalistic Movement was questioned. Tagore had hard time explaining his position that he believed in freedom but he did not believe in the political process that was adopted. There were times he felt frustrated even irritated because ‘non-cooperation was both the fashion and the passion of the time”. He was swimming against the tide for a few years. Tagore believed that the Nationalistic Movement was in denial and their leaders were focusing more on the outside world than the inside world. They were blaming others but not promoting enough introspection and soul-searching. He wrote, “National self-respect is ordering us to perform an impossible task: to keep one of our eyes wide open and the other one closed in sleep.”

            Gandhi and Tagore had one more fundamental difference in their proposed solutions to the national problems. Gandhi had suggested that all Indians should start spinning wool and making their own clothes, have their own charkas. Tagore did not agree with that. He believed in individual choices of people rather than preaching mass practices. His focus was to develop people’s minds rather than training their hands. His approach was more creative than economic, more personal than socialistic. In 1921 when Gandhi felt frustrated with his dialogue with Tagore, he made the last desperate suggestion. “ He asked, “I see my request for your help is almost hopeless. If you can do nothing else for me…Gurudev, you can spin. Why not get all your students to sit down around you and spin?.” They both laughed. Tagore retorted, “Poems I can spin, Gandhiji, songs and plays I can spin, but your precious cotton what a mess I would make.”

            After that meeting both shared their views in print and expressed their opposing views. In his essay “The call of truth” Tagore wrote, …”But if man can be stunted by big machines, the danger of being stunted by small machines must not be lost sight of. The charka in its proper place can do no harm... But where, by reason of failure to acknowledge the differences in man’s temperament, it is in the wrong place, there thread can only be spun at the cost of a great deal of the mind itself. Mind is no less valuable than cotton thread.”

            Gandhi responded in his article “The Great Sentinel” in these words, “It was our love of foreign cloth that ousted the wheel from its position of dignity. Therefore I consider it a sin to wear foreign cloth. I must confess that I do not draw a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well being of an individual or a nation are immoral and therefore sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral” Dutta and Robinson comment on such a heated dialogue and disagreement, “ Spinning and the spinning wheel charka would become a focus of irreconcilable disagreement between Tagore and Gandhi. Tagore detested Gandhi’s diktat that all true Indians must spin; Gandhi as resolutely insisted on spinning’s profound symbolic significance.”

            One of the reasons why Tagore was against Gandhi’s spinning wheel was he thought Gandhi was resisting scientific thinking and progress. In his article “The Cult of the Charka” Tagore wrote, “One thing is certain, that the all-embracing poverty which has over-whelmed our country cannot be removed by working with our hands to the neglect of science.”

            Although Tagore and Gandhi had a mystical side to their personalities, Tagore had a more scientific attitude towards life and believed in laws of nature while Gandhi had a religious attitude and believed in miracles. He even believed that human sins could cause environmental disasters. The difference in their philosophy came to the surface when India experienced an earthquake and Gandhi offered a moral rather than a scientific explanation. Tagore was shocked to read Gandhi’s statement, “You may call me superstitious if you like. A man like me cannot but believe that the earthquake is a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins.” Tagore responded, “ If we associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena, we shall have to admit that human nature is morally superior to Providence that preaches its lessons in good behaviour in orgies of the worst behaviour possible. For we can never imagine any civilized ruler of men making indiscriminate examples of casual victims, including children and members of Untouchable community, in order to impress others dwelling at a safe distance, who possibly deserve severer condemnation…” Gandhi wrote a response to the response by stating, “I have the faith that our own sins have more force to ruin that structure than any mere physical phenomenon. There is indissoluble marriage between matter and spirit.” Dutta and Robinson share Jahavar Lal Nehru’s response, “Nehru read Gandhi’s response to the earthquake ‘with a great shock’. He called it a ‘staggering remark’. He welcomed Tagore’s response and ‘wholly agreed’ with it.”

            One of the fundamental differences in Tagore and Gandhi’s philosophy was their relationship to the West. Tagore, in spite of political differences, was impressed by the Western modernization and wanted to build creative bridges between Eastern and Western cultures. On the other hand Gandhi not only believed that Western civilization was dangerous to humanity, he wanted Western people to adopt Eastern philosophy, values and traditions.

            It seems to me as if Tagore looked towards the future while Gandhi looked towards the past. Tagore wanted to learn, Gandhi wanted to teach, Tagore wanted to have a dialogue, Gandhi wanted to preach. The poet seemed more humble than the reformer. Dutta and Robinson write, “Although Tagore had deep reservations about modern civilization, machines and cities, at bottom he accepted them. Fundamentally Tagore was humble, willing to learn as well as teach until the day he died, whereas Gandhi, for all its compelling self-analysis, thought he knew better than anyone else in all matters of importance.”…”Tagore has given India ways to assimilate the West without making mockery of it. Gandhi was not interested in such assimilation, he thought the West should become more like ancient India”.

            As Tagore and Gandhi grew older and wiser they lost their edge of criticism and started to acknowledge and appreciate each other’s contributions. They realized that alongside contradicting each other, they also complemented each other. In 1940, a year before Tagore died at the age of eighty, when Gandhi visited Shantiniketan the last time, Tagore asked him to look after the institution after his death. Gandhi readily agreed. In spite of some philosophical disagreements with Shantiniketan, Gandhi admired its contributions. Shantiniketan was the institution that later on produced people like Satiajit Ray, the Oscar winning film producer and Indira Gandhi, who by becoming a female Prime Minister of India, suggested to the Western world to go beyond patriarchal system and share their political power with women by electing them as heads of the state.

            Gandhi’s visit brought the painful chapter of their relationship to a sweet ending. At the end of the visit Tagore gracefully asked, “ Accept the institution under your protection, giving it assurance of permanence if you consider it to be a national asset.” and Gandhi affectionately responded, “Though I have always regarded Shantiniketan as my second home, this visit has brought me nearer to it than ever before.”

            I find it quite interesting to read that many intellectuals who were faithful followers of Gandhi’s teachings in their youth came closer to Tagore’s philosophy as they grew older. One such intellectual was Jawarlal Nehru. In 1921 he “found himself agreeing more with Gandhi.” But in 1961, a year before his death, when he was the prime minister of India he wrote, “But the more I have read what Tagore wrote then, the more I have appreciated it and felt in tune with it.”

            Although those two great men never met again physically after 1940, yet I am confident their passionate relationship will remain a fascinating chapter of Indian history for decades to come and their thoughts, ideas and philosophies will guide us in our contemporary political and social conflicts, locally, nationally and internationally.


May 2003.

Mohandas Gandhi…1869—1948

Rabindranath Tagore…1861--1941




1.      An Autobiography…The Story of My Experiments with Truth…Mohandas Gandhi

Beacon Press Boston 1993

2.Rabindranath Tagore…the myriad-minded man

Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson

Bloomsbury Publishing London England 1995