Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore: Two Contributions to the Romain Rolland Memorial Volume

By Dr. Andreas Katonis

            2013 has been, and still continues to be, a remarkable year in Indology: hundred years have passed since Tagore was awarded the Nobel Price in literature, and this was an occasion for ICWA in Delhi to organize an international conference to commemorate the poet’s merits in May of the same year. Mahatma Gandhi was honored on the 144th anniversary of his birth in Athens in a joint commemoration by ELINEPA and The Indian Embassy in Athens on 2nd October 2013.

            The two Indian patriots were united in various ways, and it is known that Gandhi received his epithet “Mahatma”, ‘the Great Soul’ exactly from Tagore. Their cooperation, similarities and differences in thought and action are familiar to us.

            I came across one more common point between the two political thinkers. Recently I spent ten days with research in the Philologische Bibliothek of the Freie Universität in Berlin where I found a Commemorative Volume to Romain Rolland published in 1926, containing, among others contributions by the two Indians. The French writer’s activity is also well known, especially his relations to Tagore and Gandhi. Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature two years after Tagore, in 1915. He, too, was a humanist, and a lifelong pacifist, embracing the work of Indian philosophers, and was strongly influenced by Vedanta. In 1923, he wrote a monograph on Gandhi; this is the book Gandhi refers to in his contribution cited below. However, it was not until 1931 that the two men saw each other personally in Switzerland after which they became friends and correspondents. In 1935, on the invitation of Maxim Gorki, Rolland visited Moscow and met also Joseph Stalin. He served unofficially as an ambassador of French artists to the Soviet Union. His relations with Gorki explains that the Russian writer was one of the editors of the Memorial Volume.

            The book contains some 130 contributions by eminent people from different nations, such as Valentin Bulgakoff, Ernst Curtius, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Selma Lagerlöf, Albert Schweitzer, Upton Sinclair, and others.

            Gandhi addressed his felicitation from Satyagrah Ashram (Ahmedabad, see p. 403), and Tagore from Santiniketan (see p. 405).

            In the list of contributors we find 9 Indians, e.g. the writer Amya Chandra Chakravarty, and the artist Abindranath Tagore who sent a portrait of Rabindranath (facing p. 348).

            Here is first, the shorter bow to Rolland by Gandhi, followed by Tagore’s longer tribute. (In the citations below, I retained the exact orthography of the texts, as well as the layout of the pages).

             “I have purposely refrained from acknowledging your letter all these long weeks, not because there was any unwillingness on my part to contribute my humble quota to the tribute that will be paid by many persons all the world over to the humanitarian work of Romain Rolland. My difficulty was my unfitness to find myself among those men of letters whose contributions you have invited. This is no mock modesty, but my inmost feeling. I am unfit, also, because, I confess, I knew practically nothing about our great and good friend before he imposed upon himself the task of becoming my self-chosen advertizer. And you will be perhaps amazed to know that now, too, my acquaintance with him is confined to a very cursory glance at that booklet regarding myself. The work before me leaves me no time to read the things I would like to. I have, therefore, even now, not been able to read any of his great works. All, therefore, I know about Romain Rolland is what I have learnt from those who have come into personal contact with him. Perhaps it is better that I know him through the living touch of mutual friends. They have enabled me to understand and appreciate the deep humanity of all his acts in every sphere of life. The world is the richer for his life and work. May he be long spared to continue the noble mission of spreading peace among mankind.                              M.K. Gandhi



            While in America I had occasion to talk about the rapid and enormous growth of organizations which attain their irresistible efficiency by eliminating the personal man and concentrating the mechanical one in a huge lump of system. I spoke of the callousness and the deadening of the moral sense of responsibility in consequence of the machine representing man in most of his activities. Cruelty and injustice of an appalling kind have to-day been made easily possible, because they can be done through an organized elemental force which ruthlessly takes a direct path towards the fulfilment of its purpose trampling down all other considerations. We have seen how the church can be blood-thirsty, while the religion it represents is humane; how it is possible to cheat on a wholesale scale in the name of business, while the respectability of the sharers of the profit remains untouched; how gross falsehoods are deliberately used for poisoning their victims by governments whose members have gentlemanly manners and traditions. When in loyalty to such gigantic institutions men commit terrible wrongs, they feel something like a religious exultation which smothers their conscience. It is the modern form of fetish worship with its numerous rituals of human sacrifice, in the shadow of which all other religions have faded into unreality. | One of my hearers who was in sympathy with my thoughts asked me how it could be possible to fight these organizations without setting up others in their place. My answer was that my reliance is on those individuals who have made human ideals living in their personality. They may look small and weak by the side of the power they resist, as does a plant by the side of a huge frowning boulder. But the plant has the magic power of life. It gradually creates its own soil with its own constant emanations, and its defeat and death are a prelude to a victorious resurrection. I believe that when anti-human forces spread their dominion, individuals with firm faith in humanity are born, who become acutely conscious of the menace to man and fearlessly fulfil their destiny through insult and isolation. We came to know such a man in the person of E. D. Morel who is dead now, but who can never die. When we see them, we know that the living spark of human spirit is not yet extinct and that there is hope. Human civilizations have their genesis in individuals, and they also have their protectors in them. One of the few proofs that the present day is not utterly barren of them is the life and work of Romain Rolland. And that the present day needs him most is proved by the scourging he has received from it, which is a true recognition of his greatness by his fellow-beings.     Rabindranath Tagore


            Source: Liber Amicorum Romain Rolland. Hunc Librum Curaverunt Edendum Maxim Gorki, Georges Duhamel, Stephan Zweig. © 1926 by Rotapfel-Verlag, Zürich und Leipzig.

            For Gandhi: p. 155, for Tagore: pp. 348-349.


        Andreas L. Katonis,  Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki