The Tagore-Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth by Prof Bindu Puri

My recent book on the Gandhi-Tagore debate, The Tagore-Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth, argues that the debate between Gandhi and Tagore appeared to have been about many issues: Satyagraha, the non-cooperation movement, the boycott of educational institutions, swadeshi, Gandhi’s mantra that “swaraj can be attained by the charkha” (Tagore in Bhattacharya (ed), 2008:109) and the possibilities of self-mortification in Gandhi’s fasts. 

Prof Bindu Puri, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi
Prof Bindu Puri, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi

However I argue in the book that the fundamental issues at stake in this debate were the nature of truth,untruth and freedom. Tagore’s exchanges with Gandhi did not constitute a set of disconnected arguments. These arguments can be re-interpreted as Tagore’s varied efforts to articulate his insights about the possibilities of untruth in Gandhi’s conception of the proper means to the truth/satya.

In chapter three of The Tagore-Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth, I discuss “Gandhi’s truth.” Professor Bilgrami (Bilgrami, 2006) has argued that Gandhi rejected universalizability, moral principles and criticism as incompatible with ahimsa. According to Bilgrami, Gandhi viewed truth in relativist terms and thought that truth was an exclusively moral notion.

Gandhi’s debate with Tagore poses a philosophical challenge to this interpretation, as they debated the truth of Gandhi’s moral “principles” and Tagore’s insistence on the individual’s freedom to reject them. “Truth” also enters the debate through a consideration of the possibilities of untruth which were present in the Gandhian methods to arrive at the truth, which I discuss in chapter four, “Tagore-On the Possibilities of Untruth and Moral Tyranny.”

Within the dichotomies of truth and untruth, swaraj/freedom formed an important issue in the debate between Gandhi and Tagore, of which both had conflicting interpretations. Gandhi had already explained what he meant by swaraj in 1909 in Hind Swaraj. Gandhi was clear that swaraj was to be understood as both home-rule and self-rule.

He argued that home-rule as collective political self-determination was dependent on individual self-rule as moral discipline/self-mastery. While both Tagore and Gandhi saw swaraj as related to the self and to India, they had different understandings of what swaraj meant for the self and for India.

Tagore understood individual freedom in terms that remind us of enlightenment philosophy, especially of Kant. On this individual level, swaraj was freedom of the mind; freedom to reason and to judge for oneself. As home-rule, swaraj was a complicated end which required a comprehensive programme of national re-construction and the removal of internal obstacles such as the Hindu-Muslim antagonism.

The differences between Tagore and Gandhi came from their differently negotiated relationships to tradition and modernity. Though Tagore was closer than Gandhi to the Western Enlightenment (and its central ideas) he cannot be assimilated to the enlightenment project of modernity.

One reason for this is that Tagore rejected the anthropocentricism of Western modernity, which puts man at the centre of the universe and dismantles the idea of a wider order. It was his rejection of the primarily modern “anthropomorphic hallucination” (Tagore 2012: 88) of seeing man everywhere that brought Tagore fairly close to Gandhi. They shared the belief that man could be thought only against the vastness of the cosmos: “We stand before this great world” (Tagore, 1996: 511).

Consequently, the conclusion to this book attempts to bring out their shared sense of wonder in living life in an enchanted cosmos. While Gandhi saw enchantment in truth, Tagore saw enchantment in nature. Gandhi heard the voice of truth as an “inner voice” and Tagore heard the music of the spheres. The important point was that they heard a voice other than man. They believed in a world larger than human reality. This distanced them both equally from modernity.



  • Bhattacharya, S. (Compiled and Edited) 2008. The Mahatma And the Poet, Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore, 1915-1941 (New Delhi: National Book Trust).
  • Bilgrami, Akeel (2006) “Gandhi’s Integrity: The Philosophy Behind the Politics” in A.Raghuramaraju (Ed.) Debating Gandhi: A Reader, pp. 248-266 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi).
  • Tagore, R. 2012. “Sadhana.” In The Tagore Omnibus, Vol IV, pp. 71-181 (New Delhi: Rupa Publications India Pvt.Ltd).
  • Tagore, R. 1996. “The Religion of the Forest.”  In The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. 2, edited by Sisir Kumar Das, pp. 511-519. (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi).