Compulsion and individual freedom (Excerpt)

When Gandhi visited Tagore‟s Shantiniketan school in 1915, he cajoled the students and teachers, largely against Rabindranath‟s will, to learn about self-help by enactment, that is, by cooking and cleaning for themselves. As Judith Brown puts it in her biography of Gandhi, „the experiment was short-lived. But it demonstrated that wherever Gandhi went, even where he was most welcome and at home, his critical eye was on people‟s habits and relationships, and he could not rest content without attempting to reform according to his own ideals‟.96 This story takes us towards the issue of compulsion and individual freedom which lies at the heart of the disagreement between Gandhi and Tagore over nationalism and the nature of politics. As I have suggested, Tagore felt that the pursuit of swaraj that made Western political forms its objective, and which was motivated by negative forces (contempt for the British, the destruction of cloth and so on) was unacceptable. Tagore was deeply concerned with individual freedom too, that is, „the final goal of a fully and completely lived human life‟.97 It was the inner self, and specifically self-realisation through the freedom of self-creation, that was central to the human experience. To this end he deplored the compulsions of instrumental rationality. Humans also expressed themselves in the world of work and labour. But Tagore felt that it was the inner sphere of the creative impulse – the „abundance‟ or „surplus‟, that wealth of creative capacity and fund of emotional energy – which takes the human beyond the realms of a mere concern with self-preservation. Tagore did not ask humans to abandon their social identity, for the truth of love was, as he repeatedly states, expressed through cooperation and unity. But the sphere of inner self must also be defended if we are to retain our humanity, if we are to avoid alienation from our true nature.
It was out of this concern that much of Tagore‟s fear of Gandhi and his movement came. In a letter sent to C. F. Andrews as early as July 1915, Tagore made the striking claim that „only a moral tyrant like Gandhi can think that he has the dreadful power to make his ideas prevail through the means of slavery‟.98 It is fitting that Andrews‟ biographer titled his work The Ordeal of Love, because Andrews‟ love was not an ordeal for him alone: Tagore often found his attentions cloying and suffocating. But he was devoted to Gandhi and Tagore in equal measure and desperately wanted the two to see eye to eye. So much so that when he came to publish Tagore‟s comments in his 1928 Letters to a Friend he removed all reference to Gandhi and left only the „tyrant‟ in abstract form. The original letter is preserved in the Shantiniketan archives, and it is to this letter I refer here.99 It suggests to us that in spite of Tagore‟s obvious admiration for Gandhi; in spite of the fact that it was Tagore himself who first gave Gandhi the name of Mahatma – the „great soul‟ – he held deep seated reservations about Gandhi‟s intentions. „It is absurd‟, Tagore wrote „to think that you must create slaves to make your ideas free‟:
There are men of ideas who make idols of their ideas and sacrifice humanity before their altars. But in my worship of ideas I am not a worshipper of Kali. So the only course left open to me when my fellow-workers fall in love with form and fail to have complete faith in idea, is to go and give my idea new birth and create new possibilities for it. This may not be a practical method, but possibly it is the ideal one.100
The creative capacity of the individual, inner sphere was thus held in constant tension with the demands of the social, external world. I would suggest that Tagore‟s depiction of Gandhi as a „moral tyrant‟ betrays his own fear not simply of demagogues, but of mass politics in general. It is the regimentation of individual behaviour in the process of the nationalist struggle, not simply the oppressive power inherent in the end goal of the nation state, that Tagore sees as inimical to freedom. Where Gandhi claimed that his non-cooperation movement was „altering the meaning of old terms, nationalism and patriotism, and extending their scope‟, Tagore rejected the terms altogether.

Source: Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism: An Interpretation by Michael Collins

One Response to “Compulsion and individual freedom (Excerpt)”
  1. loonmoon says:

    interestingly enough while Gandhi himself claimed to be an opposer of -isms in theory, in practice he engineered movements piloted around ideals or those very -isms. Then again Tagore himself admits that it might not be practical though certainly the ideal.
    The question here is…is an anarchist soc. possible without following the method of -isms? Second, is an anarchist society ideally devoid of -isms? then is the term anarchism itself meaningless in such a society?

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