Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore by Christine Kupfer

Rabindranath Tagore and the famous German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who developed the general theory of relativity and won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1921), met several times. Two of their conversations – which tackled questions of free will, the universality of truth and beauty, and a comparison between Eastern and Western music – have been recorded, published and celebrated by the media.

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore
Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met for the first time during Tagore’s second visit to Germany in mid-1926. They had a short exchange of letters that expressed Einstein’s respect for Tagore,[1] and met again in Einstein’s house in Caputh near Berlin on July 14, 1930, just after he arrived back from Oxford where he had given the Hibbert lectures that were later published as The Religion of Man and that may have influenced the topics of their conversations on science and truth.

In 1930, there were at least three more meetings between the two men: on 19 August (Berlin); in late September (Berlin), after Tagore came back from a journey to Moscow that included Einstein’s stepdaughter Margot Einstein as one of his travel companions; and in mid-December (New York City).

The meetings of the two celebrities were a sensation for the media. The New York Times wrote an article with the headline “Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth” and published a photo of their New York meeting in late 1930 with the caption: “A Mathematician and a Mystic meet in Manhattan.”

While some have described their meeting as “one of the most stimulating, intellectually riveting conversations in history exploring the age-old friction between science and religion,” others argue that “[d]espite their warm regard for one another, their conversation did not go particularly well”[2] and that “apart from professions of mutual regard (…) there was [not] much in common between them — although their social ideals may have been very similar”[3].

Although Einstein communicated always deeply reverentially with Tagore,[4] he himself wrote in a letter, after Romain Rolland had invited him to contribute to a Festschrift to Tagore, that his “conversation with Tagore was rather unsuccessful because of difficulties in communication and should, of course, never have been published.”[5]

Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein
Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein

Einstein didn’t speak English very well, so they had to rely on a translator. But many argue that their ideas and opinions also differed; Einstein for example was convinced that in the realm of truth, reality was independent of the human mind, while Tagore argued that truth is always limited by human perception.

Tagore wrote more positively about their conversation: “Einstein is an excellent interrogator. We talked long and earnestly about my ‘religion of man.’ He punctuated my thoughts with terse remarks of his own, and by hiss questions I could measure the trend of his own thinking”;[6] and elsewhere he adds “there was no intellectual aloofness.

He seemed to me a man who valued human relationship and he showed toward me a real interest and understanding”.[7] However, he also seemed to have reservations and “made significant changes, restoring certain passages cut from the draft seen by Einstein and adding some new material to clarify his own point of view.”[8]

 

Bibliographical Notes

  1. Rabindra Bhavan Archive, Einstein, German letter from 25/09/1926.
  2. Flohr, Paul Mendes 2011. “Across a Cultural Divide: Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Einstein, and Martin Buber.” Lecture at the Centre for Jewish History, New York, on November 6, 2011.
  3. Letter by Isaiah Berlin 1993, quoted in Dutta, Krishna, & Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p. 529.
  4. Pais, Abraham 1994. Einstein Lived Here. Oxford University Press.
  5. Einstein in Dutta, Krishna, & Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p. 529.
  6. Dutta, Krishna, & Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p. 529.
  7. Qtd. in ”Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth.” The New York Times, 30 August 2001.
  8. Dutta, Krishna, & Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p. 529.

 

Further Reading

Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson (eds.) 1997. Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gosling, David L. 2007. Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore. Routledge.

Pais, Abraham 1994. Einstein Lived Here. Oxford University Press.

Gussow, Neil 2001. “THINK TANK; Is Truth True? Or Beauty? A Couple of Thinkers Go Deep.” New York Times.

Gosling, David 2012. Einstein Versus Tagore. Lecture delivered at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, organised by The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

Figura, Marta 2011. „How Einstein met Tagore and what came out of it: He saw God behind his equations.”

Sudbery, Anthony 2012. “Einstein and Tagore, Newton and Blake, Everett and Bohr.” A contribution to the seminar The Nature of Reality: The Perennial Debate” held at the Indian Institute for Advanced Study, Shimla in March 2012.

Robinson, Andrew & Home, Dipankar 1995. “The Mathematician and the Mystic.” Times Higher Education.  .

Singer, Wendy 2001. “Endless Dawns” of Imagination. Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore, aportfolio.” The Kenyon Review 23(2 – Cultures of Creativity: The Centennial Celebration of the Nobel Prizes): 7-33.

Root-Bernstein, Michele & Root-Bernstein, Robert 2010. „Cosmic Convergences: Einstein Talks About Music Improvisation with Rabindranath Tagore.” Psychology Today. Imagine That!

Home, Dipunkar & Robinson, Andrew 1995. “Einstein and Tagore: Man, Nature and Mysticism.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(2): 167-79.

Sorkhabi, Rasoul 2005. “Einstein and the Indian Minds: Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru.” Current Science 88 (7): 1187-91.

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