Edward Thompson on Gandhi, Tagore, Iqbal and Nehru and their ethical ideals

1942 Edward Thompson

Ethical Ideals in India Today

Delivered at Conway Hall 22 March 1942. Chaired by E M Forster.

For the last 30 years, the Indian political movement has been rich in ideas of universal relevance, to do with the unity of all mankind. The chief propagators of these ideas have been Gandhi, Tagore, Iqbal and Nehru.

Gandhi, influenced by Tolstoy and Ruskin, has extolled the virtues of the materially simple life. He has assimilated lines of thought from several cultures, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and seeks to rebuild India on the basis of an essentially peasant civilisation. His lifestyle is founded on the Satyagraha doctrine of truthfulness at all costs. His doctrine of non-violence derives too from Satyagraha, but also from Buddha and Jesus.

The poet Tagore, however, was critical of Gandhi. Unlike the latter, he admired the west’s scientific achievements, and saw them as important to India’s development. He felt that Gandhi was too provincial in outlook, and disagreed with some of his political methods. Also, he believed in strong and effective political action, and admired the Soviet Union for its social achievements. He sought a cultural synthesis of what was best in both East and West, and was emphatically an internationalist. Yet, despite his admiration for Western science and technology, he hated the way, in the West, the machine had subordinated human beings to its purposes.

The poet Iqbal resembled Tagore in his desire to see India achieve an East-West synthesis. He regarded the Islamic spirit as an agent in this project. In this respect, he viewed modern Turkey as exemplary, even though he was opposed to nationalism.

Like Tagore and Iqbal, Nehru is a man of literary leanings who is also dedicated to improving the common lot. He committed to the world-wide, and not just Indian, struggle against political repression. He is a socialist, though not a Marxist, and eschews rigid orthodoxies of all kinds, including religion. Hence he is highly empirical, receptive to criticism, and ready to modify or change his views. Though not a pacifist, he believes that non-violence is the best path for the Indian resistance movement.

Full text here

Advertisements