They belonged to different orders. To quote Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, “No two persons could probably differ so much as Gandhi and Tagore”. Pilgrims to the same shrine, they came by different paths, the one trudging on bare feet, blasting barriers, building bridges over chasms, leading and heartening his crippled and despairing fellowmen, the other flying on equal wings, scattering the nectar of his music on earth.
When Gandhi came to India from South Africa, in January 1915, his first place of halt was Shantiniketan of Tagore. It is during this period the two developed deep friendship.
Tagore was born in 1861 when India lay prostrate at the feet of the British. The great mutiny had been ruthlessly quelled. The ancient ruling classes had been either wiped out or lay cringing in the dust.
India had attained the peace of the graveyard. She had ceased to be creative. Politically she had lost her freedom and culturally her soul. The age of the toadies and reactionaries had begun, those who aped Western ways and ‘hose who sought consolation in the bondage of immemorial tradition and dogma.
Unlike many modern thinkers, Tagore had no blueprint for the salvation of the world. He believed in no particular ‘ism’. He emphasized certain basic truths which men may ignore only at their peril.
He was what Gandhiji rightly termed the Great Sentinel. His genius enriched whatever it touched. Like the Sun he shed light and warmth on his age and vitalized the mental and moral soil of his land. He revealed unknown horizons of thought and spanned the arch that divides the East from the West.
Gandhi came from a middle-class Vaishya family in Kathiawar. Tagore belonged to an aristocratic Brahmin family of Zamindars in Calcutta. Gandhi though born in a respectable family, was not the favourite of fortune as was young Tagore. Shy and reserved Gandhi gave no promise in his boyhood of the extraordinary qualities.
It is true that a deep sense of loyalty to his parents, of devotion to duty, of truthfulness and unwillingness to think ill of others were evident even in the little school boy. These qualities were always the rock-bottom of his character. As children both were very shy and avoided the company of their schoolmates.
Tagore at the age of fourteen began writing poems. About the same age young Gandhi was experiencing the first stirring of patriotic zeal and was putting through his experiment with Truth, (meat eating incident under the influence of an unworthy friend).
Gandhi’s personality is integrated in one single pursuit of Truth. He keeps the doors of his life open. Tagore has drawn a discreet curtain over his personal and private life. The complexities of that development, the pitfalls tripped over on the way and the scars burnt in the soul of one will ever remain a mystery to us. Both were deeply religious.
Each had a different vision, but both were sustained by the same faith in the absolute reality of the spirit. Both strove in their own way to attain this ideal. Both sought God through love: one as Truth revealed in the good, and the other as beauty revealed by harmony. Neither of them sought God in the privacy of a temple or in the solitude of a cave, or in the piety of ritual.
Both sought Him in this world of humanity. Gandhi’s mind was more logical, his devotion more single-hearted, his passion less varied and more intense, his courage, his willingness and capacity to suffer much greater than Tagore’s.
He was the crusader of India’s new humanity. Tagore was its herald and its bard. To quote Tagore; “Deliverance is not for me in renunciation, I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”
Gandhi was the apostle par excellence of non-violence. Tagore had hailed him. In 1927 Tagore wrote a poem on the Buddha: ‘The world to-day is wild with the delirium of hatred. The conflicts are cruel and unceasing in anguish. Thou giver of immortal gifts give us the power of renunciation and let life come to the souls that are dead.’