Tagore and Gandhi on Women by Prof Malashri Lal

Lord Bruce concludes his discussion piece, agreeing with Jawaharlal Nehru, that Tagore and Gandhi “represented two aspects of the truth, neither of which can be ignored”. Prof Amiya Sen, in a different framework of “religious thought” is of the opinion that Gandhi and Tagore “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.”

Prof Malashi Lal
Prof Malashi Lal

I wish to carry this discussion further by bringing attention to yet another paradox related to moral thinking and social being in the expressions of Tagore and Gandhi. This pertains to their views on women.


Rabindranath Tagore’s upbringing in the Brahmo Samaj distanced him from the ritualism of caste Hindus but not from prevailing interpretations of womanhood. In 1926 Rabindranath contributed an essay titled “The Indian Ideal of Marriage” to Count Hermann Keyserling’s  anthology The Book of Marriage: A New Interpretation by twenty four leaders of Contemporary thought (1926). Tagore wrote: “Woman …has two aspects—in one she is the Mother; in the other she is the Beloved.”

He saw “marriage as a state of discipline…of which the method is the control of desire” and the creation of male progeny, whereas the “Beloved” remains an idealized concept, as the “joy- giving power of woman”.  Such a speech-act is in the realm of the poetic imagination, mythology and folk lore and not in the social reality of colonial India where a free spirited Beloved could hardly have been paraded.

Not far in time, in 1927, but far away in sentiments about woman’s societal or familial role, MK Gandhi wrote in Young India, “If I was born a woman, I would rise in rebellion against any pretension on the part of man that woman is born to be his plaything. I have mentally become a woman in order to steal into her heart. I could not steal into my wife’s heart until I decided to treat her differently than I used to do, and so I restored to her all her rights by dispossessing myself of all my so-called rights as her husband. And you see her today as simple as myself” (YI, 8-12-1927, p. 406).

In Gandhi, there is no poeticism but a stark look at the national cause in which he wished to have women participate in massive numbers. If domestic ideologies of wife and beloved persisted, women would be decorative artefacts rather than functional patriots.  While Tagore imbued the woman with gendered attributes (the ecstatic “ananda” bestowed by the Beloved and the power of ‘Shakti’), Gandhi divested her of such ornamentation (“you find no necklaces, no fineries on her… Refuse to decorate yourselves, and don’t go in for scents and lavender waters”). Tagore propelled women towards the realms of the imagination; Gandhi tried to pull them into the earthiness of street marches.

It may be useful to recall here the association of Sarojini Naidu with Tagore and Gandhi as an illustration of woman’s contrasting images and the differing interpretation of her role in the emerging women’s movement in India. Gandhi and Gokhale urged Sarojini to give up her poetic pursuits and “consecrate your life and your talent,/ your song and your speech,/ your thought and your dream to the Motherland.” (Poem quoted in Selected Letters, Gandhi -Sarojini Naidu Correspondence).

Tagore, acknowledging Sarojini Naidu as the Bharat Kokila or Nightingale of India, enjoyed a friendship based on the pursuit of art, poetry, aesthetics, music and spiritual thought. Sarojini Naidu remembered him as “a fascinating figure of romance.”

From the vignettes above on a subject that has deep implications, I wish to highlight that nationalism directed the paradoxical images of womanhood and Tagore and Gandhi were, to some extent, exemplifying the contrasts. Gandhi used “womanly” symbols for the satyagaraha: a fistful of salt, charkha weaving, fasting, silence and nonviolence, thereby drawing the common practices of Indian womanhood into the political movement of the time.

Tagore’s ‘reformist’ background took several aspects of woman’s freedom for granted—education and social mobility for instance– and he could indulge her presence in the realms of fancy. But Tagore’s decorated and embellished Beloved in literary texts could also be a tool of assertion.

One of the finest statements on contemporary feminism comes in the voice of princess Chitrangada to the warrior Arjun, (1914) “If you keep me by your side, as a partner and companion in the stern challenges of life/ Only then would you know my true worth…/ I am Chitrangada, the daughter of the King.”