Review of Prof Bindu Puri’s “The Tagore–Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth”

Tagore and Gandhi corresponded with each other in the form of letters, newspaper articles and rejoinders that span a period of 26 years starting from 1915 till the end of Tagore’s life in 1941. This was historically significant in the backdrop of the tumultuous emergence of a nation called India.

Prof Kumkum Bhattacharya, Visva-Bharati University.
Prof Kumkum Bhattacharya, Visva-Bharati University.

From these correspondences, Puri, a philosopher, researches those that concern Tagore and Gandhi’s understanding and practice of truth (and untruth); issues that are of central concern to philosophers. Through this, Puri has made a novel attempt to go beyond the usual historic-political discourse of these two epochal personalities to enter the realm of philosophic insight and analysis helping us in understanding their individual ideas and principles while being allowed to appreciate the similarities and variations objectively; there is no space in the narrative for us to take sides.

Puri has also attempted to delineate, too finely in my opinion, the sources that underpinned Gandhi’s perceptions. Her treatment of Tagore’s ideas is superficial, though, if it was developed along the lines indicated, could have been a very fulfilling exercise into the intellect of this creative individual.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, a historian’s contribution to the critical discussion of the correspondence between Tagore and Gandhi, is the benchmark for many scholars. Puri uses this text copiously from the point of view of arranging the divisions in the historical timeline of the exchange that were clearly (in Bhattacharya’s view) triggered by the historical/political/social nature of event(s).

Bhattacharya suggests that if we seek to go beyond this plane into that of ideas then we should care to observe and appreciate the ‘family resemblance’ in their statements on truth and untruth so that we avoid the pitfalls of forced debate on the contrasts between the two. As Tagore and Gandhi’s correspondence is rather small, it needs to be balanced with the vast cornucopia of works and the varying impact they had on both intellectuals and lay readers.

The strength of this book lies in the portrayal of two highly reflective individuals with contrasting life styles, vocations, world views and ideas, engaging and participating in the concerns of their times and from that engagement developing a body of intellectually stimulating ideas that are central to philosophy and its discourse.

The Tagore–Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth

The book, at a subliminal level, communicates that neither Tagore nor Gandhi had any pretension for their thoughts and ideas transcending to a doctrine or credo or to be considered philosophers. The correspondence is dialogic in nature, standing testimony to their eagerness and willingness to sound out their ideas. Puri’s somewhat lengthy discussion of the influence of specific philosophical texts, more on Gandhi and fleetingly on Tagore, does not emerge as the cornerstone of the volume.

Puri’s position of Tagore being considered a philosopher and Gandhi growing into one over the years does have a certain appeal to our reason, though this position is somewhat restrictive and constricting. However, the volume, for the first time, brings to the scholarly table many aspects that have not hitherto been part of philosophical discourse. Tagore’s creative oeuvre is placed on the same platform with Gandhi’s political and other writings, as windows into their minds and sensibilities.


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