Gurudev and his Mahatma

As we remember Rabindra Nath Tagore on his death anniversary, let us recall the relationship between the two great representatives of Modern India - Tagore and Gandhi.

Strangely enough it was an Englishman, Charles Freer Andrews, who was the link between these two men. Tagore was the first notable contemporary to refer to Gandhi as Mahatma. Gandhiji also called him Gurudev, a term of respect by which many others called the poet. Even before the two actually met, a mutual regard existed between them.

When Gandhiji returned from South Africa, it was Andrews who suggested that Tagore extend his invitation to the members of Gandhiji's "Phoenix family" (inmates of his Phoenix Ashram in South Africa), and arranged their temporary lodging in Santiniketan. Although Tagore was not in Santiniketan when Gandhiji went there to meet the members, a simple yet warm reception was arranged for him by the teachers and students. He stayed for a week only and so completely won over the community that they were prepared to dispense with cooks and servants and do all the work themselves. Although this experiment did not last, its memory still survives in the form of a symbolic "Gandhi Day" observed on 10 March when servants and cooks enjoy a holiday and students and teachers do all the work.

Tagore and Gandhi met for the first time in March 1915 at Santiniketan. Kaka Kalelkar, a close associate of Gandhiji, describes this meeting thus:

"All the teachers, including me, were consumed with a great desire to see how these two sons of Bharat-Mata would conduct themselves at the first meeting. So... we went into the drawing room with Bapu. Ravibabu rose from the sofa on which he had been sitting. His tall stately figure, his silvery hair, his long beard, his impressive choga (gown) all this went to make a magnificent picture. And there, 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.

We knew that both men had a heartfelt respect each other. Ravibabu made a gesture inviting Gandhiji to sit beside him on the sofa. But as long as there was a carpet on the floor to sit on, Gandhiji was not going to sit on any couch. He settled himself on the floor, Ravibabu had to follow suit.

They met many times after that... They used to discuss food and diet among other things. Gandhiji being a strict fruitarian, said "To fry bread in ghee or oil to make puris is to turn good grain into poison." "It must be a slow poison." Ravibabu answered gravely "I have been eating puris all my life and it has not done me any harm so far."

The two seers, Tagore and Gandhi had their ideological differences. It is well-known that Tagore did not see eye to eye with Gandhiji in the matter of the Non-cooperation Movement launched by the latter; nor did he agree with the position of eminence which Gandhiji gave to the Charkha; he criticized Gandhi when he linked the Bihar earthquake to the sin of untouchability.

Despite these differences, however, their mutual respect for each other did not diminish and Gandhiji accepted Gurudev's criticism positively.

Gandhiji's way of atoning for a "public offence" through fast, penance and suffering, had won Tagore's admiration. With regard to his experiments in South Africa, Gandhiji's appeal of soul force against brute force, had won Tagore's approval. In fact, long before Gandhiji came to be known in Indian politics, Tagore had upheld the cause of "spiritual force" in the anti-partition movement of Bengal in 1905-1906.

When Gandhiji threatened 'to go on fast' to allow entry of Harijans into Guruvayur Temple, Tagore wrote a letter to the Zamorin of Calicut asking him to give the right to the untouchables so that Gandhiji's life could be saved.

When Gandhiji went on his 'epic fast' in Yeravda Jail against Ramsay Macdonald's Communal Award, he had sought Tagore's blessings-and received it. When the Poona Pact was signed and Gandhiji called off his fast, the poet was present and sang a hymn from the Gitanjali on the occasion.

Gandhi himself has said, of his supposed differences with Tagore, "I started with a disposition to detect a conflict between Gurudev and myself, but ended with a glorious discovery that there was none."

In 1940 Gandhi and Kasturba visited Santiniketan; it was to be his last meeting with the poet. Worried about his institution, he requested Gandhi to take this institution under his protection. Gandhiji replied "Who am I to take this institution under my protection?... It carries God's protection because it is the creation of an earnest soul." Rabindranath died on 7 August 1941.

Gandhiji visited Santiniketan for the last time in his life in 1945. His dear Gurudev was no longer there to welcome him. In his address to the Santiniketan community he said, "It is my conviction arrived at after a long and laborious struggle that Gurudev as a person was much bigger than his works; bigger even than this institution."