Tagore on Christ and Buddha

I have been reading the letters of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali writer/poet most famous in the West for the Nobel Prize he won in 1913 for his collection of poems Gitanjali. In May, 1933, he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, “…In every important act of his life Buddha preached limitless love for all creatures. Christ said ‘Love thine enemies’ and that teaching of his found its final expression in the words of forgiveness he uttered for those who killed him…”

In 1937, E.J. Thompson was writing a book about Buddhism and commented to Tagore, “To me it is increasingly clear that what the world needs is to take both Buddha’s and Christ’s teaching – the pity and tenderness of Buddhism supplies what Christianity lacks, in a certain ‘hard-boiledness’ (perhaps the fault of Christian nations). The subtle and many-colored beauty of your own wonderful life interprets Buddhism as nothing else does, and I am glad that I have known you.”

Tagore replied in his letter of the same year, “….I agree with you that both Christ and Buddha embodied in their lives the only true principles that can work for men’s common good; Buddha’s insistence on the renunciation of greed creates the necessary condition of the mind in which the love of others ceases to conflict with one’s own good. Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

(from Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, Ed. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Cambridge University Press, 1997)

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