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Gandhi and Tagore  : The Great Debate

Gandhi and Tagore : The Great Debate

Both of them were colossuses of modern India – one a poet, a philosopher, a litterateur and a great patriot; the other the driving force behind India’s freedom movement. They were Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi ; they were, to each other, ‘Gurudev’ and the ‘Mahatma’.

Tagore and Gandhi were introduced by Englishman and nationalist Charles Freer Andrews, a Christian missionary and an activist for India’s independence. They finally met in March 1915, when the Mahatma visited Tagore’s Santiniketan in West Bengal.

The Mahatma and Tagore shared a deep friendship and mutual respect, and they both wanted the same thing – a free and united India, free of hatred and bigotry. But they also differed on some of the pillars of the freedom movement and expressed their views in letters as well as published articles.

It is these stimulating exchanges that Rudrangshu Mukherjee showcases in his book Tagore & Gandhi : Walking Alone, Walking Together (2021). In an edited excerpt from the book, we revisit the debate between these two shapers of modern India, on the charkha, the Mahatma’s symbol of dignity of labour, self-reliance and swadeshi.

The debate began when Tagore wrote a scathing article titled The Cult of the Charkha, in Modern Review, a magazine published in Calcutta, and another article titled Striving for Swaraj. Here’s their spirited exchange.

Gandhi spinning yarn on a charkha | Wikimedia Commons

The source of Rabindranath’s discomfiture was his growing conviction that what he called the ‘cult of charkha’ was overwhelming all other efforts to attain swaraj. Spinning had become synonymous with swaraj. He wrote:

Only one means of attaining swaraj has been definitely ordered and the rest is a vast silence. Does not such silence amount to a speech stronger than any uttered word? Is not the charkha thrust out against the background of this silence into undue prominence? Is it really so big as all that? Has it really the divinity which may enable it to appropriate the single-minded devotion of all the millions of India, despite the diversity of temperament and talent? Repeated efforts, even unto violence and bloodshed, have been made, all the world over, to bring mankind together on the basis of the common worship of a common Deity, but even these have not been successful…Can it then be expected that in the shrine of swaraj, the charkha goddess will attract to herself alone the offerings of every devotee? Surely such expectation amounts to a distrust of human nature, a disrespect for India’s people.

Charkha, Rabindranath argued, had become the new mantra to which Indians had surrendered the unique gift which ‘God slipped into his [man’s] constitution that most lively sprightly thing called the mind.’ In his view, India:

is the land of rites and ceremonials, so that we have more faith in worshipping the feet of the priest than the Divinity whom he serves. We cannot get rid of the conviction that we can safely cheat our inner self of its claims, if we can but bribe some outside agency. This reliance on outward help is a symptom of slavishness. Only to such a country can come the charkha as the emblem of her deliverance and the people dazed into obedience by some specious temptation go on turning their charkha in the seclusion of their corners, dreaming all the while that the car of swaraj of itself rolls onward in triumphal progress at every turn of their wheel.

He wanted to restate ‘the old truth’—‘the foundation of swaraj cannot be based on any external conformity, but only on the internal union of hearts.’ He reasoned that if out of all the economic activities ‘only one fractional portion be selected for special concentration’ then Indians would get homespun thread, and even genuine khaddar, but that one chosen endeavour ‘shall not have united, in the pursuit of one great complete purpose the lives of our countrymen.’ He was thus not ashamed, he wrote, ‘to admit that the depths of my mind have not been moved by the charkha agitation.’

. . .

What worried Rabindranath was his sense that the charkha had become a surrogate for swaraj and this was diverting attention from the real and substantive work of reconstruction which was at the heart of swaraj. What concerned him was that a symbol was being mistaken as the substance and the superficial for the profound. He was uncomfortable with a routinized practice replacing the work to change a mentality. 

. . . 

Gandhi responded to Rabindranath in an article called The Poet And The Charkha which was published in Young India on 5 November 1925. He admitted that he had taken two months to respond because he had been ‘heavily engaged’ and had thus been unable to study Rabindranath’s critique in detail.

Gandhi ’s article dealt largely with the arguments put forward in The Cult of the Charkha and not so much with Striving For Swaraj. Gandhi warned that ‘the Poet’s criticism is a poetic licence’ and this should not be taken literally: ‘Those therefore,’ Gandhi wrote, ‘who take the Poet’s denunciation of the charkha literally will be doing an injustice to the Poet and an injury to themselves.’

In this article, it was not Gandhi ’s intention ‘to traverse all the Poet’s arguments in detail’. He found that ‘there is nothing in the Poet’s argument which I cannot endorse and still maintain my position regarding the charkha.’ He added, ‘The many things about the charkha which he has ridiculed I have never said. The merits I have claimed for the charkha remain undamaged by the Poet’s battery.’

To illustrate the point that things he had not said were being imputed to him, Gandhi wrote:

He [Rabindranath] thinks for instance that I want everybody to spin the whole of his or her time to the exclusion of all other activity; that is to say that I want the Poet to forsake his muse, the farmer his plough, the lawyer his brief and the doctor his lancet. So far is this from truth that I have asked no one to abandon his calling, but on the contrary to adorn it by giving every day only thirty minutes to spinning as sacrifice to the whole nation.

Here Gandhi may have changed his mind because in his piece, The Great Sentinel, he had written in October 1921, ‘I do indeed ask the poet and the sage to spin the wheel as a sacrament. When there is war, the poet lays down the lyre, the lawyer his law reports, the schoolboy his books. The poet will sing the true note after the war is over…’

Gandhi ’s original injunction had been to drop everything and devote oneself to the charkha. In fact, as narrated in the previous chapter, when Rabindranath (as he told Romain Rolland) had asked Gandhi what work he could do for the movement, the latter had said emphatically, ‘just spin’. The advice to spin for only half an hour every day was an afterthought which may have grown out of Gandhi ’s conclusion that after the withdrawal of the Non-cooperation Movement, the country was no longer at war.

The book cover and author Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Excerpted with permission from ‘Tagore & Gandhi : Walking Alone, Walking Together’ (2021) by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, published by Aleph Book Company. You can buy the book here.

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