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Mahatma Gandhi


When Gandhi first met Tagore: The story of their friendship, despite disagreements

Mere months after returning from South Africa, on March 6, 1915, Mahatma Gandhi met Rabindranath Tagore for the first time. The day is commemorated in Santiniketan on March 10 every year.

- By Arjun Sengupta

Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, February 1940

Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, February 1940

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore shared an enduring friendship that lasted from 1914-15 till the latter’s demise in 1941.

They met for the first time in West Bengal’s Santiniketan on March 6, 1915 — mere months after Gandhi’s return from South Africa. Gandhi spent nearly a month in Santiniketan and left a profound impact on Tagore’s idyllic school.

To date, Santiniketan celebrates ‘Gandhi Punyaha Din’ on March 10 every year to commemorate the meeting. On this day, the school’s working staff (janitors, gardeners, cooks, etc.) get a day off, while students and teachers carry out the chores — an ode to Gandhi’s teachings on self-reliance.

Meeting of two of India’s greatest, Gandhi and Tagore

In 1915, Tagore was already world-famous. He had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 and was all the rage in the West. Gandhi, however, was still to become the leader he would eventually be.

But it is not as if Tagore did not know about Gandhi at all. His elder brother Jyotirindranath met Gandhi in 1901, and an article written by Gandhi was also published in the Tagore family journal Bharati after the meeting.

Tagore was apprised of Gandhi’s work in South Africa by C F Andrews, a British social reformer and a common friend. It was Andrews who arranged for the meeting in Santiniketan after Gandhi’s return in 1915, the first of many stays at the school.

Founded in 1901, Santiniketan was established by Tagore as a residential school and centre for art. It was “based on ancient Indian traditions and on a vision of the unity of humanity transcending religious and cultural boundaries,” according to its description on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Rabindranath Tagore, Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi, February 18, 1940 at Shantiniketan

Tagore delivering the address of welcome to Gandhi and Kasturbai, Arma Kunj, Shantiniketan, February 18, 1940

As Gandhi recalled during a 1940 speech in Santiniketan: “It was here that the members of my South African family [students of his Phoenix School] found warm hospitality in 1914, pending my arrival from England, and I too found shelter here for nearly a month.” (as quoted in historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s The Mahatma and The Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941, 1997).

Accounts of the meeting on March 6 are rare. One such account, from Gandhi’s aide Kaka Kalelkar, noted the duo’s contrasting appearance. “His [Tagore’s] tall, stately figure, his silvery hair, his long beard, his impressive choga ...[made] a magnificent picture… in almost comical contrast, stood Gandhiji, in his skimpy dhoti, his simple kurta, and his Kashmiri cap. It was like a lion confronting a mouse,” he said (as quoted in

Great minds who didn’t think alike

After the first encounter, the Gandhi-Tagore friendship blossomed. They became close pen pals and would meet multiple times over the years. However, this was not a friendship of exactly like minds. The duo disagreed with each other on all kinds of things.

“They had differences on fundamental philosophical questions, which led to disputation about many political, social, and economic matters,” Bhattacharya wrote in his introduction to The Mahatma and The Poet.

For example, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Bihar in 1934, Gandhi called the calamity a “divine chastisement for the great sin we [upper castes] have committed against… Harijans”. Tagore did not agree.

“If we associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena, we shall have to admit that human nature is morally superior to Providence… For, we can never imagine any civilised ruler of men making indiscriminate examples of casual victims… in order to impress others dwelling at a safe distance who possibly deserve severer condemnation,” he wrote to Gandhi (and later published) in protest.

But Gandhi held firm. In a spirited rejoinder published in his weekly magazine Harijan, he wrote: “ … If my belief turns out ill-founded, it will still have done good to me and those who believe with me… it would be terrible, if it is an expression of the divine wrath for the sin of untouchability and we did not learn the moral lesson from the event and repent for that sin.”

Not all disagreements were so profound. In one of the more famous stories about their interactions, Gandhi once told Tagore that to fry puri in oil is “to turn good grain into poison”. Tagore retorted: “It must be slow poison… I have been eating puris all my life and it has not done me any harm so far.”

As Bhattacharya remarked: “Both were unsparing in their debate and, indeed, it cannot be said that either of them was very successful in persuading the other towards a path of convergence of views.”

Rabindranath Tagore on Mahatma Gandhi

Rabindranath Tagore on Mahatma Gandhi.

Common ground and mutual respect

Regardless, both Gandhi and Tagore welcomed criticism and disagreement and held a deep regard for each other. “The differences on public issues never affected, as far as one can judge from the letters [between Gandhi and Tagore], their personal relationship,” Bhattacharya wrote.

Tagore referred to Gandhi as “Mahatma” (Great Soul) as early as 1915. While it is widely believed that he bestowed the title onto him, there is no documentary evidence of the fact. Gandhi, meanwhile, readily adopted the salutation of “Gurudev” (Teacher).

Moreover, as Gandhi would himself say in 1945, on his last visit to Santiniketan, “I started with a disposition to detect a conflict between Gurudev and myself but ended with the glorious discovery that there was none.”

While this quote may paper over some real differences, it highlights that there was also common ground — most notably in the well of influences which they drew from and what they believed in.

As C F Andrews wrote to Tagore in 1914, shortly after meeting Gandhi in South Africa: “I had no difficulty in seeing from the first Mr. Gandhi’s position and accepting it; for in principle, it is essentially yours… a true independence, a reliance upon spiritual force, a fearless courage in the face of temporal power, and withal a deep and burning charity for all men.” (as translated from Prasanta Kumar Pal’s Ravi-Jeevanee, Vol VI, 1993).

Courtesy: The Indian Express, dt. 11.3.2024