The Mahatma and the Poet: Tagore’s Letters to Gandhi on Power, Morality, and Science
“Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it.”
By Maria Popova
Between 1915 and 1941, Mahatma Gandhi (October 2, 1869–January 30, 1948) exchanged a series of letters with Indian poet, philosopher, and celebrated creative spirit Rabindranth Tagore (May 7, 1861–August 7, 1941), debating such subjects as truth, freedom, democracy, courage, education, and the future of humanity as India struggled for its independence. The correspondence, collected in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates Between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941 (public library) is more than a mere addition to history’s notable epistolary exchanges. These letters are unique in that they were private in nature but public in manifestation — Tagore wrote in the Indian Nationalist intelligentsia forum Modern Review and Gandhi in his own political journal, Young India — and their spirit of mutual respect and measured response was antithetical to how such a debate might unfold today, if carried out in the public forum of blogs and online commentary. In the age of the “drunks in a barroom” model for political debate, these letters offer a poignant example of what it means to be both friends and intellectual adversaries, to stand by one’s convictions with equal parts dignity and respect for the other’s, to seek above all else to advance the public good rather than the private ego.
While he reposed his wholehearted faith in Gandhi as a leader, Tagore was critical of some of his tactics, chiefly his use of non-cooperation, which the poet saw as planting the seeds of intolerance. On April 19, 1919, Tagore writes:
Power in all its forms is irrational; it is like the horse that drags the carriage blindfolded. The moral element in it is only represented in the man who drives the horse. Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it. The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.
I know your teaching is to fight against evil by the help of good. But such a fight is for heroes and not for men led by impulses of the moment. Evil on one side naturally begets evil on the other, injustice leading to violence and insult to vengefulness. Unfortunately such a force has already been started, and either through panic or through wrath our authorities have shown us the claws whose sure effect is to drive some of us into the secret path of resentment and others into utter demoralization. In this crisis you, as a great leader of men, have stood among us to proclaim your faith in the ideal which you know to be that of India, the ideal which is both against the cowardliness of hidden revenge and the cowed submissiveness of the terror-stricken. You have said, as Lord Buddha, has done in his time and for all the time to come:
Akkodhena jine kodham, asadhum sadhuna jine [Conquer anger by the power of non-anger and evil by power of good.]
This power of good must prove its truth and strength by its fearlessness, by its refusal to accept any imposition which depends for its success upon its power to produce frightfulness and is not ashamed to use its machines of destruction to terrorize a population completely disarmed. We must know that moral conquest does not consist in success, that failure does not deprive it of its dignity and worth. Those who believe in spiritual life know that to stand against wrong which has overwhelming material power behind it is victory itself,- it is the victory of the active faith in the ideal in the teeth of evident defeat.
I have always felt and said accordingly, that the great gift of freedom can never come to a people through charity. We must win it before we can own it.
And you have come to your motherland in the time of her need to remind her of her mission, to lead her into the true path of conquest, to purge her present day politics of its feebleness which imagines that it has gained its purpose when it struts in the borrowed feathers of diplomatic dishonesty.
This is why I pray most fervently that nothing tends to weaken our spiritual freedom may intrude into your marching line, that martyrdom for the cause of truth may never degenerate into fanaticism for mere verbal forms, descending into the self-deception that hides itself behind sacred names.
With these few words for an introduction allow me to offer the following as a poet’s contribution to your noble work:
Let me hold my head high in this faith that thou art our shelter, that all fear is mean distrust of these.
Fear of man? But what man is there in this world, what king, King of kings, who is thy rival, who has hold of me for all time and in all time and in all truth?
What power is there in this world to rob me of my freedom? For do not thy arms reach the captive through the dungeon-walls, bringing unfettered release to the soul?
And must I cling to this body in fear if death, as a miser to his barren treasure/ has not this spirit of mine the eternal call to thy feast of everlasting life?
Let me know that all pain and death are shadows of the moment; that dark force which sweeps between me and thy truth is but the mist before the sunrise; that thou alone art mine for ever and greater than all pride of strength that dares to mock my manhood with its menace.
Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer; the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone.
Give me the supreme faith of love, this is my prayer; the faith of life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailties of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt, but disdains to return it.
Very sincerely yours,
Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag on courage and resistance.
Though Tagore is often misconceived as a kind of Oriental mystic — a perception no doubt compounded by his big white beard and draping robes — he was in fact a proponent of rational thought and a champion of the liberating capacity of modern science, as evidenced by his famous conversation with Einstein. In 1934, after Gandhi made a public statement calling the Bihar earthquake divine retribution for India’s sins, an appalled Tagore wrote respectfully but assertively:
[I feel] compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts. … We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasize the elements of unreason in those very minds — unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect.
He argued for technology as a humanizing rather than dehumanizing force, something MoMA’s Paola Antonelli eloquently echoed more than a century later, writing in 1925:
If the cultivation of science by Europe has any moral significance, it is in its rescue of man from outrage by nature, not its use of man as a machine but its use of the machine to harness the forces of nature in man’s service.
Complement with Tagore and Einstein in dialogue about truth and beauty.
Published January 30, 2013