Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Buber: A Meeting of Two Great Souls by Abhik Roy

Although India’s myriad-minded literary genius, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and the renowned, highly revered Jewish philosopher and religious thinker, Martin Buber (1878-1965), met only three times, they had the utmost respect for each other’s philosophical and political views.  Despite their religious and cultural differences, both Tagore and Buber had much in common concerning their philosophical views about humanity.

Martin Buber, 1940-50  Image credit: public domain, from The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives
Martin Buber, 1940-50
Image credit: public domain, from The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives

In his magnum opus, Ich und Du (I and Thou), Buber expressed with great poetic power that dialogue is at the heart of every human existence (Buber, 1970).  According to him, we all live in a world of two-fold reality. One “fold” is based on our interactions with objects in this world.  In this fold “objects” include both humans and otherwise. In this mode of living, which Buber characterized as the ‘I-It’ relation, we use and experience the other person as an object for our profit or self-interest.

But the second “fold” occurs when we become fully human persons by entering into genuine relationships with others; when we meet another and make “the other present as a whole and unique being as the person that he is” (Buber, 1965/1998, p. 69).  This second fold, which Buber characterized as the ‘I-Thou’ relation, is based on respect, empathy, mutuality, directness and love in the sense of responsibility of one human for another.  Thus, his ‘I-Thou’ relation is one in which an individual is appreciated in all his or her uniqueness and is not objectified.

Although Tagore did not directly address the Buberian notion of “I-Thou” relation, he wrote about the need to make genuine connections with others in rich and profound ways.  Tagore explored the idea of approaching the other person as a soul instead of as a means to an end (Nussbaum, 2010).

For Tagore, the soul involved “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 6).  Tagore’s relationship with the other’s soul echoes Buber’s idea of genuine dialogue. Their ideas reorient toward the humanizing dimensions of social relations (I-Thou) rather than the instrumental (I-It) relations.

Both Tagore and Buber believed that it is in establishing genuine relations with others that we get to be complete beings.  This emphasis on a wholeness of engagement extended from other individuals to the world around us. For Buber, it was “only by looking at the world as a world can man grasp being as a wholeness and unity” (Friedman, 1955, p. 80).

This is done not by observing our world as an object from a distance; neither can it be accomplished by classifying and generalizing what we observe as science does, or by analyzing it with logic but by entering into a relation that is without any reservation or preconditions.  Akin to Buber’s idea of relations, Tagore stated:

“[M]y world exists in relation to me, and I know that it has

been given to the personal me by a personal being.  The process

of the giving can be classified and generalized by science, but

not the gift. For the gift is the soul unto the soul, therefore it can

only be realized by the soul in joy, not analyzed by the reason

in logic” (Tagore, The World of Personality, p. 220).

 

Thus, both Buber and Tagore provide us with models for understanding our relations to others and to our larger world in terms of mutuality, respect, and authentic engagement.

In 1921, Buber saw Tagore for the first time when he attended one of Tagore’s public lectures in Darmstadt, Germany.  Buber wrote to his friend, Louise Dumont, about his encounter with Tagore, whom he found to be a “lovable, innocent, venerable” individual “with a touchingly beautiful faith …” (cited in Mendes-Flohr, 2011, p. 3).

It is recorded that in the meeting with Buber, Tagore had expressed his profound appreciation of the Jewish people for their love of peace and intellectual accomplishments.  Tagore shared with Buber his sympathy for the Zionist settlement in Palestine but entertained serious doubts about its alignment with Western powers. Buber was also concerned about the implications of the unbridled westernization of Zionism.

Yet he chose to disagree with Tagore saying that Tagore was “removed from the reality of the hour in which we live” (cited in Mendes-Flohr, 2011, p. 4). Buber confided in his friend, Louise Dumont, that he didn’t agree with Tagore’s views on Zionism. Buber wrote: “Tagore wanted to relieve the burden of the Jews in Palestine by getting them to lay aside modern Western techniques. But we must bear the full weight of our burden and either carry it to the heights or plunge into the abyss with it” (cited in Friedman, 1981, p. 262).

Buber met with Tagore again in Düsseldorf in 1926 when he attended Tagore’s lecture.  He wrote to Louise Dumont once again: “how much the sound of his [Tagore’s] voice and his glance brought alive his younger (or elder) brother, Martin Buber.  His personality, more than his thoughts, made a deep impression. Thus he left behind healing strength … How much this man must be suffering from the idiocy of Europe …” (cited in Kämpchen, 1991, p. 95).  As Kämpchen (1991) has observed quite accurately, it was Tagore’s charismatic personality that resonated more powerfully with Buber than Tagore’s ideas at the time of their second meeting.

Tagore and Buber were to meet for the last time in Prague again in 1926 to discuss Zionism and Jewish settlement in Palestine at the request of Tagore. Tagore expressed his deep concern that Zionism was likely to weaken the Jewish people’s reverence for the spirit and universalism that he considered as the “finest, most valuable characteristics” of the Jewish people (cited in Friedman, 1981, p. 342).

Buber agreed with Tagore about the potential danger that Jewish people faced if they were to embrace a “narrow-hearted nationalism” of the Western nations under Zionism.  Although the danger was quite real, Buber responded by saying that to evade this danger by abandoning the Zionist project would possibly expose the Jewish people to possibly more harm: “If in this pressing historical hour one flees from danger,” Buber told Tagore, “one loses the capacity for advancing further, becoming paralyzed, and expires” (cited in Mendes-Flohr, 2001, p. 6).

Buber clarified his position by stating that the threat of danger must be confronted on two fronts: “internally, to fill Zionism … with that inherited treasure, reverence for the spirit and universalism, and thus to install the antidote within it [against narrow-hearted nationalism]” (cited in Mendes-Flohr, 2001, p. 6).

Buber also opined that Zionism needed to form a spiritual alliance with the Orient on the external front. While Tagore agreed with Buber’s ideas, he once again expressed his hope that the Jewish people would sever their ties with the West rejecting their “machines and canons” and opposing it with the “genuine meditation of the East, demonstrating to the Occident the emptiness and meaninglessness of its freneticism and teaching it, together with the Orient, to immerse itself in the vision of the eternal truth” (Friedman, 1981, p. 343).

Buber gently indicated that such a radical rejection of the West is “a chimera, an exalted but ultimately untenable vision” (cited in Mendes-Flohr, 2001, p. 7).  Buber politely reminded Tagore that there was no choice for the Jewish people but to embrace the West but at the same time not forgetting for a moment Western civilization’s ugly side by directly confronting it in order to avoid its pernicious consequence and, then, Buber entreatingly added, “and in this we need your brotherly help.”

In response, Tagore held out his hand to Buber.  Buber recounted that very special moment with Tagore, which was silent yet very poignant: “I am sure he [Tagore] felt no less than I did that amidst all the perils inherent in the history of nations there remains, inviolable, that fact of facts: human brotherliness” (cited in Kämpchen, 1991, p. 96).

These meetings between Tagore and Buber are not mere historical events without any relevance to contemporary times, yet are of great significance, especially in light of the current political climate in our nation, where a culture of disrespect and intolerance predominates. These meetings show us how to have a productive dialogue with someone whose views differ from ours.  In their all-consuming desire to win in a conflict, our political leaders often forget to treat their adversaries with respect, openness, reciprocity, and mutuality.  The outcome that they look for is win/lose and not win/win, resorting to crass and unrestrained behavior.

However, the meetings of these two intellectual and spiritual giants demonstrate that it is quite all right to disagree with another’s perspectives and still enjoy a strong sense of connection. This is precisely what happened in those magical moments that Tagore and Buber shared in Prague. They engaged in genuine dialogue that was marked with respect, mutuality, and directness, and even though Tagore did not agree with Buber, by holding Buber’s hand he showed respect for their kindred spirits.

 

Bibliographical Notes

Buber, M. (1947/2002) Between Man and Man (R. Gregor-Smith, Trans.). London and New York: Routledge.

Buber, M. (1965/1998). The Knowledge of Man New York (M. Friedman, Trans.). Humanity Books.

Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou. (W. Kaufamann,Trans.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Friedman, M S. (1981). Martin Buber’s Life and Work. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Friedman, M S. (1955). Martin Buber: Life of dialogue. New York: Harper Torchbooks

Kämpchen, M. (1991). Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A documentation. Calcutta: Max Mueller Bhavan.

Mendes-Flohr. P. (2011). Ex oriente lux: Tagore, Buber and Einstein in dialogue. Unpublished manuscript, Divinity School, the University of Chicago, IL.

Nussbaum, M.C. (2010). Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Tagore, R. (2004). “The world of personality.” In Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Essays. Calcutta: Rupa.

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