Gandhi and Tagore On Tolerance & The Nature of Indian Civilization


“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…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” (pg 91) – Jawaharlal Nehru

In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen opined that India is characterised by an ‘argumentative tradition’, a rational, heterodox, heterogeneous, sceptical tradition and it is this very tradition that makes India tolerant towards differences. Tagore and Gandhi were perhaps, as pointed out by Sen himself, two of the most ‘Argumentative Indians’, differing on many points and at the same time sharing mutual respect and esteem. They shared a vision of the merging of the East and the West, past and present, modern and traditional. However their emphasis was different, the former’s more social and the latter’s more political and it is my contention that though their means were different, their aim was the same, though not professing an absolute absence of contradiction and an idiosyncratic way of dealing with them. To elaborate my point I would look at both Gandhi and Tagore’s idea of civilization as espoused in their writings, most prominently Talks in China and Hind Swaraj.

“Talks in China”

Since the early decades of the twentieth century till the end of his life Tagore ‘went out on a cultural mission for restoring contact and establishing friendship with peoples of other countries without any immediate or specific educational , economic, political or religious aim.”(Humayun Kabir) He travelled to “other lands out of curiosity, simply to see and speak with humans of a cultural background different from his own” (Ramachandra Guha) and to share with them his own cultural background and find the point of synthesis between the two.

One such visit was made to China in 1924 to deliver speeches which were later retrieved and reconstructed from newspaper reports by his University, Visva Bharati as Talks in China. I shall return to it shortly but first let us look at the immediate Indian context to fully appreciate the relevance of the talk.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Tagore started these visits, India was engulfed by the swadeshi movement mainly concerned with rejection of Western goods and expressed through burning of the same. Though initially enthusiastic, Tagore later became a bitter critic of the movement which for him embodied ‘patriotic prejudice’, economic, social and educational disadvantages, implicit xenophobia sectionalism and ‘national vain-gloriosness’. Tagore’s-we shall do well to remember- ‘vision was that of a grand harmony of all of human races…not to see the world broken up by narrow domestic walls’(Kalyan Sengupta)

Before visiting China he had visited America, Japan and Europe and much like China his visit to all these places with the same message of cultural exchange and appreciation, for highlighting the spiritual unity between all of humanity, to break those ‘narrow domestic walls’ which he found his own countrymen erecting in form of the Swadeshi movement.

Hind Swaraj

Hind Swaraj was written fifteen years before Tagore’s talks delivered in China aboard the Kildonan Castle. Before tracing the immediate historical context let us look at the meaning and history of usage of the word Swaraj. First used in during Sivaji’s endeavour to establish a Maratha kingdom. The word was used to denote the “legitimate” rule of Sivaji/Insider (Swa-Self) against the Mughal/Outsider rule. The term again gained popularity in context of India’s struggle for Independence. Though used in varied connotations, the most important perhaps was the way it was used by expatriate Indians living in Europe, America and Canada. Popular among whom were V.D. Savarkar, Madan Lal Dingra and Shyamji Krishna Varma. Their argument was in favour of determining who the ‘legitimate’ Indians were and justified any  means of attaining political freedom for the ‘legitimate’ Indians, including acts of violence.

Hind Swaraj was Gandhi’s response to and scathing critique of such claims and finding the‘legitimate’ Indians and use of violence as means to achieve the same. For Gandhi in a socio-culturally and ethnic-religiously diverse country like India, such demands went directly against the spirit of Nationalism. It perhaps becomes pertinent here to mention Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindoo” which Gandhi translated and wrote a preface to the same week he wrote Hind Swaraj. In the article Tolstoy in favour of non-violence as the sole mean to reach political Independence in India, a view that Gandhi adhered to and promoted all his life.

Gandhi as a political leader was trying to find a link that would bind together a religious and ethnically diverse Nation as India together and to him Nationalism provided that link. As he puts it in Hind Swaraj:

“India does not cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it…In reality there are as many religion as there are individuals, but those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion. If they do, they are not fit to be considered a nation”

Tagore as a poet and a social leader emphasised the inherent spiritual link that binds the entirety of Humanity, decrying the sectarianism, xenophobia and divisiveness that Nationalism based on Western notions of Nation-State entails. As he would write in “East and West in Greater India”:

“Whether India is to be yours or mine…whether it is to belong more to the Hindus, or the Moslem, or whether some other race is to assert a greater supremacy then either-that is not the problem with which Providence is exercised…It is only our vanity which makes us think that it is a battle between contending rights-the only battle is the eternal battle between Truth and Untruth”

What is apparent is the non-sectarian nature of both their views and both are critical of Western notions of Nationalism, or the formation of ‘pseudocommunities’(Hannah Arendt) or Imagined Communities(Benedict Anderson). Nationalism then for Gandhi is the aspiration that emerged out of the Indian population. It is closer to what we understand as patriotism rather than nationalism.

Civilization: Gandhi’s Sudharo and Tagore’s Dharma

Sudharo as used in the Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj have been rendered by Gandhi himself as civilization in English, however Gandhi has on more occasions than one pointed to the broader meaning the word embodies. It is also pertinent to point out that in the Gujarati text Gandhi uses an oppositional term Kudharo, which does not find place in the English translation. It then is prudent to use the word true civilization for sudharo, as has been used by Gandhi elsewhere to better capture the nuances of the word. He defines civilization/True Civilization as:

“that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our minds and our passions. So doing , we know ourselves”

Gandhi uses the words in two different senses. First as the good path,   ( su meaning good and dharo meaning ‘path of life’) second, the aim of that path, viz., virtue. Hence it is the journey towards a higher mode of conduct. The concept of ‘duty’ is central to Gandhi’s concept of Sudharo (Parel) and the concept of duty also plays a central role in Indian tradition. Dharma (or the performance of duty) is one of the four ends of life according to Indian philosophy, the other three being artha, kama and Moksha. Dharma not only means performance of duty but also means ethics and religion. Hence sudharo or ‘true civilization’ is the ‘good path’ as well as the responsibility of living a moral, non-violent and truthful life.

The Relation between Swaraj and Sudharo

Gandhi’s use of the word Swaraj has a dual meaning-home and self rule. In Hind Swaraj he says “Real Home-Rule is Self-Rule”(pg 116). The idea of Self-Rule is intrinsically related to Gandhi’s conception of Truth. For Gandhi Truth was the telos of life. By this Truth- as has been pointed out by Bindu Puri (The Tagore-Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth) Gandhi means three different truths–“propositional truth, or how things really were in the world. The moral value involved in truth telling and Absolute Truth or God. In other words, Gandhi thought that transparency in what a person thought and did and realism in moral matters were the goal of life”(Bindu Puri)

Let us then re-asses the concept of Sudharo on the basis of Gandhian use of Truth. According to Gandhi, as stated previously, Civilization is:

“that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our minds and our passions. So doing , we know ourselves”

‘Knowing ourselves’ is the pragmatic truth, which can be achieved through ‘performance of duty’, Dharma/truth telling. ‘True Civilization’ is one which allows the transparency of thought and action, (which was the practice of non-violence for Gandhi) which act as mean to achieve the end of self-knowledge. A civilization which allows such self-knowledge is Sudharo and the one which does not is Kudharo.

Gandhi calls modern civilization kudharo, ‘Black Age’, ‘Satanic’ and ‘irreligion’ because it denies people living under it to know themselves, because of the inaccessibility of Truth it represents and not because the scientific progress it has made. Gandhi posits “its [modern civilization] true test lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life”. It is this shift from Truth to material fulfilment as the aim of life that Gandhi is critical of.

Tagore’s Idea of Civilization: Dharma and Truth

Like Gandhi, Dharma and Truth plays pivotal role in Tagore’s conception of Civilization. In the essay “Civilization and Progress” Tagore after emphasing a lack of comprehensibility of the word Civilization, (it being a European import), equates the word with dharma and puts forth his own interpretation:

“The Sanskrit word Dharma is the nearest synonym in our own language…for the word civilization…The specific meaning of dharma is that principle which holds us firm together and leads us to our best welfare. The general meaning of this word is the essential quality of things”

Like Gandhi, for Tagore too civilization is a path towards Truth, the path in fact gets defined by that very quality “Truth itself is dharma” and is also the foundation of Humanity.

We will get a better idea of Tagore’s conception of Dharma if we looked into his essay “Swadeshi Samaj” where Tagore, like Talks in China and other essays on Nationalism puts the spirit of India political aggressiveness of the West. In West, argues Tagore, the State plays the central role while in India-and by extension the East-society takes centre stage. Kings, only a nominal head, in India have conducted their activities based on the Dharma accepted by people. And political leaders have refrained from interfering in social matters and people have lived in harmony though kings have come and kings have gone.

Tagore criticises the intrusion of political forces under the British rule because it goes against the very spirit of India and the only solution according to Tagore is to resolve that:

“each one of us, in every day of our life, shall bear the weight of our country. This is our joy, and this is our dharma. Now the time has come when we should know that we are not alone, but stand united with others”

The Conflict between “Civilization and Progress”, Between Dharma and A-dharma

As mentioned ‘civilization’ for Tagore was a process, a continuous spiritual and moral movement towards ‘Truth’. It the denial of this very movement that makes modern civilization a-dharmic, which engulfed in Maya, manifests itself in the form of lust for power and material progress. Hence, Tagore repeatedly and emphatically opposed the idea of ‘progress’ as an alternative of ‘civilization’

“Through a-dharma (the negation of dharma) man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies but perishes at the root.”

It is essentially this lust for and hankering after material possession and power that Tagore finds wrong with Modern Western Civilization, not Western Civilization itself. In fact Tagore, much like Gandhi, was critical of certain aspect of Modern West. But at the same time did not hesitate to draw a parallel ancient Indian ideals and European Humanism, or ever denied Europe’s contribution to Humanity.

From the foregoing discussion then we can assert that the quest of realising the true meaning of civilization was crucial for both Tagore and Gandhi and both appropriated the use of the word to put forward their visions of what a ‘true civilization’ is. The use Sudharo and Dharma as used by Gandhi and Tagore respectively emancipated the term civilization from the limitedness of the meaning associated with the term civilization and in so doing, transcended the narrow meaning that the word had come to embody in modern western tradition. Caution should however be made while making such statement as neither Gandhi nor Tagore where against Western Civilization or Modernity as such. Both of them, as discussed, are essentially critical of its materialistic and mechanistic tendencies.  And that as argued, Gandhi and Tagore though using different registers of language their vision, argument and conceptualization of Civilization is inherently linked.


Article by Shreemoyee Chakraborty.Shreemoyee is a post-graduate student at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. She takes interest in international politics, political philosophy, and linguistics among other things.
Edited by Manisha
Picture courtesy: Gandhigram Rural Institute (Deemed University)

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