The infamous Gandhi – Tagore debate on nationalism

Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore had a meeting in July 1921 at his home in Calcutta, where both had a long and argumentative debate about what Tagore described as the “bondage of nationalism”. Tagore had warned Gandhi that there is a sharp line that divided nationalism and xenophobia.

Gandhi had commented, on being criticised by Tagore, that: “The poet lives in a magnificent world of his own creation — his world of ideas”. Gandhi also stated: “…a drowning man cannot save others. We must try to save ourselves. Indian nationalism is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive. It is health-giving, religious and thus humanitarian. India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity. The mice which helplessly find themselves between the cat’s teeth acquire no merit from their enforced sacrifice.”

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Tagore was against Gandhi’s obsession with his spinning wheels, questioned by him and his followers as the remedy for the nation to come out of the supression from the British-inflicted slavery to extensive machines, as something exemplifying India’s inherent strength.

“Some people are telling me that cramping the mind of the nation in a narrow groove is a necessity till the country is free. Why things should be so even for a few years. Their argument is that we would attain Swaraj through these means. But can such an argument stand reason. Does Swaraj mean mere weaving one’s own clothes”?

Gandhi felt deeply embarrassed by Tagore continuously teasing him for his spinning-wheel axiom to heavenly heights, dubbing it as a height of sheer irrationalism. Gandhi wrote: “I am a slave of somebody else’s creation -the spinning wheel. The poet makes his gopis dance to the tune of his flute. I wander after my beloved Sita-the charka, and seek to deliver her from the ten-headed monster from Japan, Manchester, Paris etc. The poet is an inventor, he creates, destroys, recreates. I am an explorer and having discovered a thing I must cling to it. The poet presents the world with new and attractive things for day to day. I can merely show the hidden possibilities of old and even worn-out things. The world easily finds an honourable place for the magician who produces new and dazzling things. I have to struggle laboriously to find a corner of my own worn-out things…I may say in all humility that we complement each other’s activity.”

Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore despite that shared a philosophical similarity and mutual respect, their disagreement on nationalism will arise in the conversations that continue to be relevant. Tagore called Gandhi ‘Mahatma’ while Gandhi called Tagore ‘Gurudev’, in a way of appreciating each other.

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