A Comparative Study of Tagore's Dharma and Gandhi's Sudharo

  • Aratrika Ganguly
  • Sunday, Nov 22, 2020

The eminent Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), on his visit to China during 1924 delivered some very important and these lectures have been collected as Talks in China (1924). Before Tagore delivered his lecture, the President of the Universities association Peking, Liang Chi Chao, gave his inaugural lecture. During this he said

Both the civilization represented by India and china are hoary with ancient traditions and yet I feel that there is in them the vigor of eternal youth, which shows itself to-day in India in the two great personalities of Tagore and Gandhi.

These two eminent figures of Indian history, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869- 1948) and Rabindranath Tagore, have been praised all over the world. As Chao said they really gave our country a new vision of civilization through each of their unique philosophy. Although they had differences in opinions and philosophies at times still these eminent personalities gave the manifesto which would ultimately lead towards better humanity in days to come.

There is a popular adage that says, “All that glitters is not gold” and Gandhi’s views on western civilization were the same. In his work, the Hind Swaraj or _Indian Home Rule _(1909) Gandhi’s views on modern civilization are mentioned minutely. This text was first written in Gujarati and was banned by the then colonial British government. Later Gandhi translated it into English and published it in 1910. This text acts as the manifesto of Gandhian ideas and briefly explains the above-mentioned adage as believed by Gandhi. Written in a dialogic form as dialogues exchanged by the editor and reader, it describes the main concept of civilization as surmised by Gandhi in his concept of ‘sudharo’. Hardiman points out that Gandhi used the Gujarati word ‘sudharo’ as an equivalent for the English ‘civilization’ in the Gujarati version of Hind Swaraj. He also said that ‘sudharo’ also refers to ‘good conduct’, ‘reformation’, and ‘improvement’. Although the intended meaning is not the same as the meaning of the word in the western sense. For Gandhi, like Tagore, civilization is more than improvement in material culture or living with machinery, but it is as Tagore said in his Talks in China, “….the expression of some guiding moral force which we have evolved in our society for the object of attaining perfection.” Likewise, for Tagore too, the word ‘civilization’ being a European word never meant “merely be a growing totality of happenings that by chance have assumed a particular shape and tendency which we consider to be excellent”, but it became synonymous to the Sanskrit word dharma. Gandhi himself said,

Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty.

In defining ‘sudharo’ as the synonymous term for ‘civilization’ in his Gujarati text, he also mentioned ‘kudharo’ i.e. the opposite of ‘civilization’ which is ‘barbarism’. And for Gandhi, this ‘kudharo’ was every aspect of life as represented by the contemporary, western civilization that according to him “is the Kingdom of Satan”. Gandhi outright rejected the notion of western civilization (that came to South Asia along with colonialism) and even went into the extreme of saying that it should be banned along with all of its components like the railways, factories, etc and the ancient Indian civilization should be established once again. For him, then the notion of ‘sudharo’ will be established properly.

There are many different definitions of dharma, but Tagore’s one in Talks in China properly describes his views on making the term synonymous with the western idea of ‘civilization’. According to Tagore, “The specific meaning of dharma is that principle which holds us firm together and leads us to our best welfare. The general meaning of this word is the essential quality of a thing. Dharma for man is the best expression of what he is in truth.” He also said that the contemporary men are being led towards a blind path and they call it civilization. This path is nothing but the “principle of progress”, whereas it cannot be termed as dharma or civilization because dharma sustains not kills. Gandhi echoed this similar sentiment in his Hind Swaraj. Consequently, we see there were various similarities between Gandhi and Tagore. Both these eminent personalities had so much in common in their opinion and philosophy regarding modern civilization. Gandhi criticized the moral inadequacy of western civilization and its harmful impacts. Whereas Tagore said, “their science makes their prodigious success so utterly cheap on the material side, that they do not care to count which their spirit has to bear.” According to Tagore, the European power came to our country for exploiting the material wealth the subcontinent had in store, although it never cared about the spiritual wealth of the land. The people of the subcontinent lost against them because they did not meet Europe on equal terms. “the result was the relation of superior to inferior; of insult on the one side and humiliation on the other….we are still suffering from want of confidence in ourselves. We are not aware of our won treasures” .Gandhi too believed in the same outlook when he said, “the tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of the Western civilization is to propagate immorality. The latter is godless; the former is based on a belief in God. So understanding and so believing, it behooves every lover of India to cling to the Indian civilization even as a child clings to the mother’s breast”. Both of them believed that to rise against the domination of the west, the east needs to find her own “birthright” and that can essentially be found in our bountiful treasure of spiritual riches. As Tagore wanted China and India and the whole of Asia to come together and fight the colonial domination, similarly in the Indian context Gandhi wanted the Hindus and Mohammedans to come together to fight the foreigners who caused a rift between these two brothers.

These far-sighted philosophers were actually worried about the corruption of the spirit caused by colonial domination and its by-product; western civilization. These two seers were not in favor of the extremists and Tagore entirely supported Gandhi’s passive resistance as a method for fighting against the colonial rule. They believed in a civilization that would reflect the simplicity of truth and spirituality in man’s everyday life. The ancient Indian civilization which was once glorious was taken as the ideal by these two men. They wanted India to move forward to those ideals again as it “represents the best that the world has ever seen.” Together they believed that each man of the newly emerging nation of India has to fight for this and to learn what is necessary for their culture. For Tagore and Gandhi, to be true citizens and abide by dharma and sudharo, one has to ultimately devolve in finding one’s very own source of self-sustenance. “If Gandhi resolves, ‘Let each do his duty’, Tagore asks: ‘If they answer not thy call, walk alone’.”

Tagore and Gandhi had similar ideals in many respects, but they would differ in one major point. Though Tagore stressed on the east to renew her ancient wisdom again, however, he never rejected the ideals of western civilization altogether as Gandhi did. Guns and bombs were not supported by both of them, but Gandhi was very orthodox in his opinion when he yearned to his countrymen that everything western should be rejected, even their doctors, lawyers, and or the railways invented by them. Tagore, on the other hand, rejected the material ideals but not the material progress in all spheres of life. He denounced violence like Gandhi, but didn’t reject every scientific discovery or technological advancement. Tagore was not in favor of the money-making trend of the west nor did he supported the organizations (like the League of Nations) built every day to check the flow of greed from the womb of the catastrophic modern civilization. Gandhi on the other hand rejected any western output. He called them ‘sin’. And to achieve a sinless life one had to adopt ‘swadeshi’ i.e. acceptance of everything indigenous and rejecting anything foreign. It was started mainly as an economic reform policy. Gandhi’s swadeshi was considered as the soul of his concept of Swaraj or self-rule. Self-rule doesn’t mean the rule of the state by the people of the country only. He redefines it to mean the ability to rule the self, to control, discipline, and set the self the task of performing its moral duty. It was a necessary way for Gandhi to achieve real independence from the tyranny of British rule. Both of the two seers, Gandhi and Tagore, had their own ideological differences. Like Tagore never supported Gandhi’s non-cooperation or his linking the Bihar earthquake tragedy with the sin of untouchability. In spite of the differences, the two great souls actually had immense respect for each other. Even on one occasion Gandhi had said, “I started with a disposition to detect a conflict between Gurudev and myself, but ended with a glorious discovery that there was none.”

The Mahatma and the Gurudev both felt the need for the country to awaken in the time of the crisis. They both preached this but in their own way. They realized that the conflict was between two civilizations and had to be approached in that way. Both of them believed in a world larger than human reality. In today’s world, these two visionaries and their ideals are very much relevant. When the world is getting corrupted each day and people are falling into the clutches of the modern civilization resulting in mental bondage, then their philosophy of ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Freedom’ becomes most important. Only by rule over self, we can achieve the perfect freedom of mind. In the end, we all strive for the same perfection as they did. It has been mentioned beautifully in one of Tagore’s poem:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/
where knowledge is free/ where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls/Where words come out from the depth of truth…..

Aratrika Ganguly is one of the founder members of CC1919 and currently is a research scholar at the dept. of Comparative Indian Language and Literature