Kolkata: A day after a controversy broke out over a claim that a journalist from Gujarat-whose name remains unknown-and not Rabindranath Tagore first called Gandhi ‘Mahatma’, Tagore scholar and poet Sankha Ghosh also made it clear that the Nobel laureate was indeed not the first person to use the title.
Ghosh told TOI on Monday that there were two wrong people’s perceptions of Gandhi and Tagore. “One of these is that Tagore first gave Gandhiji the ‘Mahatma’ title. The second mistake is that Gandhiji was the first one to address Tagore as ‘Gurudev’.” About the date on which Gandhi was given the title, Ghosh said, “Gandhiji was first addressed as ‘Mahatma’ at a reception at the Durban town hall in South Africa on July 12, 1914. The Indian government has published this fact in a book, ‘Mahatma Gandhi A Chronology’.” But he mentioned that Tagore had popularized the ‘Mahatma’ title.
Recently, the Rajkot Jilla Panchayat Shikshan Samiti, a recruiting agency conducting the exam for the posts of talati in the revenue department for Rajkot and half-a-dozen other districts, had cited Gandhian scholar Narayan Desai’s work to claim that Gandhi was first referred to as ‘Mahatma’ in an anonymous letter from Jetpur when Bapu was still in South Africa. The name of the reporter remains unknown, according to an affidavit filed by the district panchayat in Gujarat high court.
The controversy came to light when a candidate for the exam, Sandhya Maru, filed a petition in Gujarat HC, over answers to three questions. One of them was about this controversy. The petitioner argued that to the question who had first called Gandhi ‘Mahatma’, the provisional answer key mentioned ‘Tagore’ but the final answer key changed it to ‘an unknown journalist’.
It is quite possible that the anonymous journalist was referring to the reception at the Durban town hall in South Africa while writing the letter. “Gandhiji came to India in 1915. At a reception held by an Ayurvedic institute in Gujarat, he was addressed as the Mahatma,” said Ghosh.
The poet pointed out that there was one particular letter that Tagore wrote to social reformer C F Andrews in which he addressed Gandhi as “Mr Gandhi”. That was written in 1915. “This original letter is kept at the Rabindra Bhawan archives. But when this letter was later published in the form of a book, titled ‘Letters to a Friend’, the words ‘Mr Gandhi’ was changed to ‘Mahatma’,” Ghosh said. ‘Letters to a Friend’ was published in 1928.
Among the letters that Tagore wrote to Gandhi, he addressed the leader as “Mr Gandhi” in at least two of them. “One was written in 1915. The other was written on January 24, 1918. But in the letter to Gandhi, dated 12 April, 1919, Tagore addressed him as ‘Dear Mahatmaji’,” Ghosh said, adding Swami Shraddhanand of Arya Samaj and Tagore popularised the ‘Mahatma’ title.
Another myth that also runs deep is about the sobriquet of ‘Gurudev’ for Tagore. Many still believe it was Gandhi who had given Tagore that title. “But that’s not true. The title was given by Brahmabandhav Upadhyay in 1901. They were contemporaries. In the book, ‘Ashramer Roop O Bikash’, Tagore had also referred to the incident,” Ghosh said.
Asked how the two myths have been alive for so long, Ghosh said attempts at debunking them had not been very fruitful. “When a belief has long been in circulation, people find it difficult to negate it. Even when pointed out, the mistakes seem to have been overlooked,” Ghosh concluded.