Report on Colloquium, 26 October 2017:East Meets Modern Secular West: Two Examples from India

In the recent colloquium “East Meets Modern Secular West: Two Examples from India,” organized and co-chaired by Peter Slater and Kathy O’Connell., there was a brief initial presentation by O’Connell and Slater on   the thinking of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore concerning the confrontation of East and West. The speakers pointed out that both Tagore and Gandhi wanted a Hindu state independent from England but had very different views on many subjects (relationship with Western culture and religions, civil disobedience, education, idol worship, technology and science, sexuality etc.).

Tagore had received a broad humanistic education and grew up in a family which showed spirit of cosmopolitanism. He founded a school along humanistic ideals, where the students should meditate and commune with nature and be open to different ideas and religions. He wanted collaboration of East and West and an education that would allow that.

Gandhi instead wanted non cooperation with the West in the new state of India. He went back to traditional rural arts and crafts (Indian spinning wheel) and wore hand spun clothes. He wanted every Indian to spend half an hour a day spinning this ancient wheel. Tagore thought that there were better occupations for the human mind than pushing a wheel.

Gandhi was against science and technology which he viewed as the basis for modern Western capitalist society and a source of corruption. Tagore thought that science should be used to harness nature to man’s needs. Gandhi thought that women should not use birth control, but Tagore thought that it prevented unwanted pregnancies and helped tp control population. Gandhi thought that earthquakes were a punishment for sin, whereas Tagore looked for a scientific explanation.

In the course of the ensuing discussion a question was asked about the languages used by Gandhi and Tagore for communication. Their letters and Gandhi’s speeches were in English, but Tagore wrote all his literature in Bengali, used Bengali in his school and admitted English as second language. Gandhi used Gujarati with his family and friends. Hindi was the lingua franca at the time, used mainly for business and practical things, and English was used for official communications.

A question was also asked about the contrast between traditional Indian depiction of erotic scenes and Gandhi’s asceticism. It was pointed out that he believed that celibacy and fasting would be signs of devotion and fortitude. A comparison was drawn between Gandhi’s fasting and the fasting on Yom Kippur and Ramadan.

Another question was about how the many religions in India could live together.  An explanation was given that there is multiculturalism and tolerance in the big cities, and that the villagers who move to the big cities tend to lose their traditional customs.

Another question was whether Hinduism could be seen as a universal religion like Christianity and Islam. The answer was that Hinduism contains many movements, but does not impose its belief in violent ways.

The organizers suggested several short readings:

For Tagore and Gandhi related readings, they suggest a couple of online readings that are relatively short and easy to access:

‘Tagore and His India’ by Amartya Sen (particularly the section dealing with Gandhi and Tagore, which provides a pretty good overview)

The writings of Gandhi are available on this website. I would particularly recommend Gandhi’s statement on ‘Brahmacharya’ which was challenged by Tagore:

Those who want to go into more detail can consult the following anthology, which is on reserve at Robarts. There are also numerous copies in the stacks.

Sources of Indian Tradition: Modern India and Pakistan, vol II Edited by Stephen Hay (NY: Columbia University Press, 1988) on Gandhi: pp. 243-263; on Tagore: 275-286.

We have also attached a short piece by Peter Slater on the thought of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Canadian export on Indian Islam.