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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.”

Between 1915 and 1941, Mahatma Gandhi — who was assassinated on January 30, 1948 — exchanged a series of letters with Indian poet, philosopher, and celebrated creative spirit Rabindranth Tagore, 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:

Dear Mahatmaji,

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,

Rabindranth Tagore

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.


How To Make Great Radio: An Illustrated Guide Starring Ira Glass

“When correctly harnessed, radio can be as emotional, as funny and as satisfying as the best motion pictures or television shows.”

“The laws of narrative are the laws of narrative,” NPR’s Ira Glass once famously proclaimed. “What engages us is what engages us.” But, surely, there must more to radio — to great radio — than a passive surrender to some inscrutable law. And, if there is, then surely no one knows what that might be better than Glass himself — for, as Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad readily acknowledged, it was Glass who ushered in a new era of storytelling on the radio.

In 1999, the staff of This American Life invited cartoonist Jessica Abel to spend several weeks with them. The result was Radio: An Illustrated Guide (public library), in which Abel peeks inside the hood of the beloved radio show to reveal what makes it hum and teach us how “to lift Radio to its true potential” — a fine addition to other echelons of comics as nonfiction, most similar in ethos and sensibility to fellow public radio maven Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine.

When correctly harnessed, radio can be as emotional, as funny and as satisfying as the best motion pictures or television shows. But sadly, few radio programmers even shoot for that. … [N]o mass medium is cheaper to do, or easier to learn. In these few pages we show you all the tricks you need.

From the ins and outs of editing to the intricate art of the interview to how you can get yourself on the radio, the slim but potent 32-page zine-like book offers a surprisingly dimensional lens on what it takes to make great narrative radio.

Complement Radio: An Illustrated Guide, which is also available as an ebook for jus $2, with Ira Glass’s timeless wisdom on the secret of creative success.

Lest we forget: Public radio, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by, well, the public — contribute your possibility to This American Life here.


Richard Burton Reads John Donne’s Poem “The Flea”

“Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.”

Though beloved poet John Donne’s exact date of birth remains unknown, it is believed to be between January 24th and June 19th, 1572. As inconveniencing as this flexibility might be for history’s exacting annals, it gives us the luxurious five-month elasticity of choosing when to celebrate his birth. Like, for instance, today: In this beautiful recording, found in the altogether fantastic collection Richard Burton Reads the Poetry of John Donne, the celebrated Welsh actor and Academy Award winner reads Donne’s poem “The Flea,” originally recorded in the 1960s but only released posthumously in 2009, a quarter century after Burton’s death. Inhale and enjoy:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;   
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?   
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?   
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou   
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Find more of Donne’s timelessly enchanting poetry in the Penguin Classic John Donne: The Complete English Poems (public library), and treat yourself to some Donne-inspired literary jukebox.


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