A book review I wrote, Ahimsa: Tagore and Gandhi is now live on an South Asian: Journal of South Asian Studies T&F page.
While scholars’ views on ahimsa differ (31), the introduction suggests that the problem of difference and polarity can be aided through the dedicated pursuit of nuance. This is difficult given the fragility of ahimsa. Contradictions, conflicts, and greed create violence across geopolitical and ideological boundaries, subsuming “the inherent plurality of society itself” under “a single uniform language, culture, and religion” (28). … Through the prominent positioning of a fully-cited letter addressed to Gandhi by Tagore that emphasizes Sadhana, or the “hospitality of love” (26), and through how the content of this letter is echoed in a later chapter, the importance of cultivating such higher purpose forms a foundation of and frame for the book. …The book assembles essays by Bengali and Serbian scholars and is itself an artifact testifying to the spirit of sadhana.
Such higher purpose is elaborated in Datta’s chapter on “Ahimsa in an era of violence”. She notes how Tagore’s view of ahimsa, which is embodied “as a means of overcoming the violence governing the rhetoric of exclusive political power and interest” in human affairs was misunderstood by both Westernizers and traditionalists in India (64). Both Tagore and the Mahatma “re-membered” the ancient lesson of ahimsa into the present. This was not to imitate it but to inform a response to the “trauma of the present” (60) by viewing truth less as a fixed category than as part of the contingent development of truth and justice within the unfolding of “historicality” (59) – here, Datta draws on Homi Bhabha and Ranajit Guha. Tagore and Gandhi sought a “place for ahimsa in society for the future common good … for the cause of humanity across the limits of time and space” (61).
Tagore’s concern for universal humanity was neither vague cosmopolitanism nor the “self-idolatry of nation-worship” (65) but a transcendental negotiation of difference through adjustments “while remaining rooted in India’s different inherited traditions” (65). Similarly, he disapproved of people “using the Mahatma” by submitting themselves to blind obedience and seeking instantaneous results instead of pursuing “the spirit of inquiry” (67). Tagore believed in the creative coordination of different cultures and creeds and that if Bengal could solve the problem of unity it would help solve the world problem as well (64). A lesson of ahimsa that Tagore and Gandhi shared is how boundaries are artificial because we ultimately realize ourselves through each other (73–75).
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