The havoc caused by nature has often caused great anxiety and divided great minds about their cause and mitigation, including faith, action and belief. Such a divide was witnessed in 1934 between two of the greatest Indians that lived in the 20th century: Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Their debate holds significance in the times of COVID-19 virus when a large number of public personalities have expounded unscientific and superstitious positions.
Tagore and Gandhi were aware of each other’s work even though they first met physically in 1915 when Gandhi, along with the students of his Phoenix school in South Africa, visited Tagore’s Santiniketan. Tagore had received the Nobel Prize for literature a year earlier. While his work in South Africa was being spoken about in India, Gandhi was far from the pan-India leader he would soon become.
Gandhi and Tagore were contrasting personalities but they struck a friendship which lasted till Tagore’s death in 1941. Tagore was referring to Gandhi as the “Mahatma” by 1915 and Gandhi also addressed Tagore as “Gurudev”. While highly supportive of each other, they had public differences on fundamental political and social issues. They were unsparing in debate, captured often in the pages of publications like Modern India and Harijan. The friendship and the differences are recounted in The Mahatma and The Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941, compiled and edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, published in 1997.
Their most famous difference and debate was in 1934 when Gandhi was reported in the press to have made a statement following the devastating Bihar earthquake of 1934: “I want you to be superstitious enough to believe with me that the earthquake is a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans”.
Tagore took offence to the irrationality in the statement, even though he was totally in agreement with Gandhi on the issue of untouchability. “I find it difficult to believe it. But if this be your real view on the matter, I do not think it should go unchallenged,” Tagore drafted a statement on January 28, 1934 and sent it to Gandhi, requesting him to release it to the press. It appeared in Harijan, on February 16, 1934, under the title, ‘The Bihar Earthquake’. “It has caused me painful surprise to find Mahatma Gandhi accusing those who blindly follow their own social custom of untouchability of having brought down God’s vengeance upon certain parts of Bihar, evidently specially selected for His desolating displeasure. It is all the more unfortunate, because this kind of unscientific view of things is too readily accepted by a large section of our countrymen. . .,” the opening paragraph stated. Tagore then argued that we should not “associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena.”
“What is truly tragic about it is the fact that the kind of argument that Mahatmaji uses by exploiting an event of cosmic disturbance far better suits the psychology of his opponents than his own, and it would not have surprised me at all if they had taken this opportunity of holding him and his followers responsible for the visitation of Divine anger. As for us, we feel perfectly secure in the faith that our own sins and errors, however enormous, have not enough force to drag down the structure of creation to ruins. We can depend upon it, sinners and saints, bigots and breakers of convention. We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasise the elements of unreason in those very minds — unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect,” he concluded.
Gandhi published, in his own defence, a piece in the Harijan, titled ‘Superstition vs. Faith’. His spirited rejoinder did not concede an inch in the opening paragraph. “Visitations like droughts, floods, earthquakes and the like, though they seem to have only physical origins, are, for me, somehow connected with man’s morals. Therefore, I instinctively felt that the earthquake was a visitation for the sin of untouchability. Of course, Sanatanists have a perfect right to say that it was due to my crime of preaching against untouchability. My belief is a call to repentance and self-purification. I admit my utter ignorance of the working of the laws of Nature. But even as I cannot help believing in God though I am unable to prove His existence to the sceptics, in like manner, I cannot prove the connection of the sin of untouchability with the Bihar visitation even though the connection is instinctively felt by me. If my belief turns out ill-founded, it will still have done good to me . . . For we shall have been spurred to more vigorous efforts towards self-purification, assuming, of course, that untouchability is a deadly sin,” Gandhi argued. Tagore did not pursue the debate further: the two stalwarts stood at two polar opposites and accepted that they would disagree on this subject.
Even though they differed, Tagore had strikingly issued a statement in defence of Gandhi, from Santiniketan, on February 6, 1934, well before his statement was published in the Harijan. He forcefully argued that “To malign a life so truly dedicated as his because of occasional differences of opinion seems to be carrying public ingratitude to the point of meanness. I have often disagreed with him in public and even quite recently have criticised his belief that the recent earthquake devastation in Bihar is a divine chastisement, for the sin of untouchability but I have enough regard for the sincerity of his religious convictions and his abiding love for the poor as to hold his differences of opinion with me with respect.”