Tagore and Gandhi as Religious Thinkers: Some Points of Comparison by Prof Amiya P. Sen

It has been commonplace to compare Tagore and Gandhi in the context of their contribution to the discourse on Indian nationalism. By now, we have ample scholarly work that brings out the interesting ways in which the two iconic figures of modern India differed over the substance and strategies embedded in this discourse, even as they agreed on its overarching objective.

Prof Amiya P Sen
Prof Amiya P Sen

However, I personally believe that in essence, such disagreement was also born of differing perspectives on larger issues concerning culture, epistemology and existential truths. For instance, there is good reason to believe that Tagore and Gandhi entertained perceptibly different notions about what constituted the ‘modern’ and modernity.

One especially recalls the incident when Gandhi somewhat irked Tagore’s by describing the English educated, modern reformer Rammohun Roy as a mere ‘pygmy’ when compared with saintly figures from medieval India like Acharya Sankara, Kabir, Nanak and Chaitanya who were neither ‘modernist’ in their outlook nor English educated. In Tagore’ view, such characterization was both unjust and anachronistic.

Such varying conceptions of what was good or enduring in Indian civilization were clearly anchored in perceptibly different intellectual and cultural settings. Here Tagore represented the intellectual orientation of a province that had been the first to experience colonialism and conceptions of modernity as also to be most radically affected by these.

In terms of a social transformation, the triumph of western categories of thought and social reformism, 19th century Gujarat would have been something of a cultural hinterland when compared to contemporary Bengal. The Hindu Bengali was among the first to oppose colonialism but he had also been the first to uncritically accept it. Notwithstanding his disenchantment with the alienating properties of colonial rule or the alienating effects of western education, Tagore might never have produced the strong indictment of the West and Western civilization as did Gandhi in his Hind Swaraj.

Perhaps for similar reasons he also distrusted collective, mass-movements; putting greater faith in individuality or subjective choices. On the matter of God and religion too, Gandhi, on occasions, preferred to go by an impulse or instinct rather than plausible scientific analysis. In 1934, he attributed the Bihar earthquake and the massive loss of life and property that it caused to vengeance inflicted by God on man for the sins of untouchability. As a person located more firmly in the post-Enlightenment view of religion or society, Tagore found this utterly irrational and unacceptable.

In this brief essay, I try to specifically draw upon some points of comparison between Tagore and Gandhi as religious thinkers. I do so for two fundamental reasons. For one, I believe that in colonial India, religion represented a consistently important medium of self-understanding and self-representation among Indians. By comparison, the so called, ‘secular’ fibre looks rather weak.

Much of the Hindu cultural renaissance and the intellectual re-awakening of the nineteenth century, the values of which both Tagore and Gandhi deeply imbibed, actually rests more on the separation of ‘good’ religion from the ‘bad’ and not, as it were, the secular from the religious. For much of the nineteenth century, the religious consciousness was the vital modicum of Hindu self-understanding. Second, not enough attention has hitherto been shown towards understanding Gandhi and Tagore as religious thinkers, far less so in a comparative framework.

My first submission here is that both Tagore and Gandhi operated within the philosophical school of Vedanta, as was true of most Hindu thinkers since the days of Rammohun. However, this Vedanta, as it occurs to me, was a unique blend of philosophical abstraction and emotive theism. In essence, it sought to substitute the mayavada of Sankara with a more aesthetic, morally responsible and world-affirming religion and philosophy.

A transcendental God was never fully negated but made more immanent and personal. Both Tagore and Gandhi appear to have affiliated themselves with a body of thought that, for the lack of a better term may be called Vaishnav-Vedanta. Apart from attempting to qualify an Impersonal and Transcendental God with a sensual and this worldly Immanence, it also foisted emotive bhakti upon what otherwise appears to be dense philosophical abstraction.

Put more simply, this represented attempts at humanizing God as against the tendency to divinize man, palpable in monistic Vedanta. However, in their reading of Vaishnavism itself, Tagore and Gandhi reveal interesting differences. I would venture to argue that whereas Tagore chose to emphasize the aesthetic aspects related to love and beauty, Gandhi leaned more on Vaishnav piety and on its humanistic appeal.

On one level, this only brings out more sharply their personalities as a poet and an activist respectively. Given his religious grooming in the iconoclasm of the Brahmo Samaj, Tagore could not have fully accepted the emotive and deeply personalised and ritualistic practices associated with image worship. Gandhi, as far as I know, had no pointed objections to accepting the same. Such differences, I find, are located also in the philosophical underpinnings of their thought.

 traditional Hinduism
traditional Hinduism

Of the compounds Satchidananda (sat+chit+ananda) or else Satyam Shivam Sundaram, commonly known to traditional Hinduism and representing, respectively, Truth, Auspiciousness and Bliss, Gandhi appears to have appears to have most readily accepted the element of Sat/ Satyam. This suggests that his primary concerns within religion were moral and epistemological. By the 1920s, as we know, Gandhi had turned around the expression ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’.

Perhaps Tagore may not have fundamentally disagreed with this conception and yet his preference clearly was for Ananda,- that which represented the Divine Bliss on earth, the Godly Beauty which pervaded every element of this creation. Arguably, Tagore’s was the choice of the poet and the aesthete who saw no difference between the word of God and the world he had created. In this view, Nature itself was the highest Scripture revealed to man.

In Tagore as with the Bengal Vaishnavas, devotion, in essence, was Rasa, an aesthetic feeling. Finding Beauty in everyday life and occurrences, a reciprocal Love between man and God and the Vaishnav concept of Lila or inscrutable Divine Play are really the defining features in much of Tagore’s poetry.

For Gandhi, by comparison, the emphasis was clearly on compassion and selfless service, the idea of bonding and respecting every form of life on earth, celebrating their common foundation in God. With Gandhi and on this particular issue, Hindu sentiments would have been only further strengthened by the Jain to which he was adequately exposed in early life.

There are fleeting, metaphorical references to the pastoral deity Krishna and of his love-dalliance with his mistress, Radha in some of Tagore’s early poetry and for the poet, these were conceptions born in that which is aesthetically rich and rewarding rather than that which was morally pure. The moral dilemmas underlying the Bhagavad Gita, are singularly absent in Tagore’s writings. The Poet confessed to have no particular understanding of this text, even when this was important both to Vaishnavism and to the raging social and political discourse in contemporary India.

On this matter, Tagore’s differences with Gandhi are indeed quite telling. Once, when speaking at Quillon, Gandhi asserted that the text most representative of Hinduism was the Isa Upanishad which spoke of God as pervading the entire Universe and yet standing outside it.[1] And yet, the very foundations of his moral, religious and political thought clearly rested on the Gita, a text on which he was also to comment quite creatively.

As a historian I cannot but notice the palpably ahistorical position in Gandhi who consistently defined himself both as a Hindu and a Sanatanist. Now apart from the fact that in colonial India, the term Sanatanist was associated with the orthodox, anti-reformist party in the Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, there is also something questionable about the use of the term itself.

As the term ‘Sanatan’ means something uninterrupted in time and space, its consistent use by Gandhi suggests his willingness to postulate an unchanging and eternally present core underlying Hindu thought and practice. There were several occasions when Gandhi attempted to define Hindu thought and practice in a rather formulaic way, listing characteristic qualities which, in his opinion, defined the Hindu and Hinduism. If anything, this makes complex matters look triflingly simple.

Besides, Gandhi’s self-description as a Hindu does not historically support the idea of his also being a Sanatanist. Understandably, the Hindu Gandhi included cow-protection and abstinence from beef-eating as a defining feature of Hinduism. On the other hand, to suggest that such belief or practices go back to the formative years of Hindu religion and culture is clearly unhistorical. Cow slaughter, as is only too well-known, was a part of Vedic religious culture as was the partaking of beef.

What further complicates matters is Gandhi’s use of the term Sanatanist in very different ways. Though generally interpreting this term to mean the ‘eternal’ values attributable to Hinduism, there is at least one instance of his using it in a pejorative sense, taking it to represent irrational orthodoxy as is borne out in colonial Indian history.[2]

This brings me to my last point of comparison. Both Tagore and Gandhi shared, as it would appear, a deep ambivalence with regard to religion and the religious consciousness. On the one hand, they were only too aware of social and political problems embedded in the free pursuit and propagation of religion, especially in a complexly plural society like that of India.

This, as they were quick to realize, bred dogmatism, intolerance and bitter sectarian rivalry, often resulting in violence between religious communities and the loss of life and property. On the other hand, as I have hinted above, a deep and abiding religiosity characterised their life and work. It might be argued that for these men, even patriotism was ultimately a spiritual virtue. In modern India, there could not have been a man more committed to combating sectarianism and inter-faith hostility than was Gandhi.

Also, he could not have been unaware of the fact that communal sentiments, as distinguished from the purely religious, represented an overt and tendentious politicization of the religious. The point then is that regardless of the dangers implicit in such associations, Gandhi consistently maintained that political self- expressions could not be separated from the religious.

It occurs to me therefore, that the biggest paradox in the lives of Gandhi and Tagore lies in the fact that they treated religion to be an integral and eternal part of Indian life and values even as they were only too well aware of the problems inherent in this persistence with religion and religious life. I suspect that the problem lay in their failure to acknowledge the fact that few indeed could meaningfully separate the spiritual from the religious.


Note: This essay is piecing together some random thoughts and is not a serious academic presentation, supported by copious citations. All the same, I see this as a modest beginning which, over time, will lead to more sustained study and reflection. Comments and criticism from those interested will be greatly appreciated.

[1] This echoes the feelings of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s father. There is an apocryphal story about how, one day, the Maharshi, chanced to come upon a stray leaf from Rammohun’s translation of this Upanishad and how that changed the entire course of his spiritual life. Rabindranath himself cites the Isa Upanishad copiously in his sermons and writings.

[2] This occurs in a letter that the Mahatma wrote to Tagore in 1934 and published in the Harijan (February, 1934). This exchange of letters took place during the controversy surrounding Gandhi’s statements regarding the Bihar earthquake. The fact that he used the term both ways would indicate that he was not unaware of the socially conservative meaning  also attached to it.