1000 petals by axinia

the only truth I know is my own experience

How Leo Tolstoy influenced Gandhi’s passisve resistance fight against the British September 11, 2014

Leo Tostoy is widely known as a great writer, Mahatma Gandhi is widely known as a great freedom fighter, the only one so far who could inspire people for the non-violence fights and made them win.

Little is known however about the connection between the two. Let me show you the missing link!

leo-tolstoy-painting-1  Gandhi

A couple of years before the death of Leo Tostoy, there was a highly interesting letter exchange between the two, please read here.

Gandhi mentioned several times in his life that Tolstoy was his true inspiration for the nonviolence fight.

A detailed text on relationship between Tostoy and Gandhi is here.

Further quoting the article “Tolstoy and Gandhi’s Law of Love” By Thomas Weber

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi started to practice law in South Africa as a young barrister in the 1890s, he was confronted with glaring racial discrimination as well as various other injustices. It was then that he began to develop his satyagraha philosophy of nonviolence, through which he would later lead India to independence. Perhaps the most profound influence on Gandhi at this time were the ideas and living example of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy who, in the last year of his life, became Gandhi’s mentor on nonviolence.

During an interview in London with Evelyn Wrench, the editor of The Spectator, Gandhi was asked, “Did any book ever affect you supremely and was there any turning point in your life?” Gandhi replied that he changed the whole plan of his life after reading Ruskin’s Unto This Last, adding that “Tolstoy I had read much earlier. He affected the inner being.” Gandhi’s chief biographer and secretary in later life, Pyarelal, claims that so deeply was Gandhi’s thinking “impregnated with Tolstoy’s that the changes that took place in his way of life and thinking in the years that followed [his reading of Tolstoy] can be correctly understood and appreciated only in the context of the master’s life and philosophy.”

When, late in his life, his inner conflicts became unbearable, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, gave his estate to his family, disposed of much of his personal belongings and attempted to live the life of a poor and celibate peasant. In this attempt to put his personal philosophy into practice, he denounced authority and all violence, and became a vegetarian. His Christian anarchist life and moral and religious writings were to influence many people–not least of whom was the young Gandhi.

Search for Truth

A year after he landed in South Africa [in 1893, aged 24], Gandhi went through a time of religious ferment, engaging in wide-ranging religious discussions and reading eclectically among the religious texts that came his way. One of these texts was Tolstoy’s book on living an authentic Christian life. Gandhi commented: “Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within Youoverwhelmed me. It left an abiding impression on me. Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and the truthfulness of this book, all the books given me by Mr. Coates seemed to pale into insignificance.” In that book, subtitled Christianity not as a Mystical Doctrine but as a New Understanding of Life, Tolstoy portrayed Christ as a teacher and moral example rather than as “a divine savior atoning for the sins of mankind and offering eternal life.” Here Tolstoy emphasizes the law of love as the moral core of Christianity and accuses the majority of Christians of not acknowledging “the law of non-resistance to evil by violence” which he sees as being at the central core of faith.

This in no way contradicted Gandhi’s growing understanding of his own Hindu faith. Further, from his reading of Tolstoy, Gandhi realized that the best way to help the poor was to get off their backs and practice “bread labor,” “the divine law that man must earn his bread by laboring with his own hands,” which was to be central to his economic and social philosophy. When, in 1908 and 1909, Gandhi started his regular rounds of imprisonment as part of his political campaigns, Tolstoy’s book was a constant companion. And when, with the assistance of another Tolstoyan, his close friend Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi established his next community in 1910, it was called Tolstoy Farm and was to be run on Tolstoyan principles.

As Gandhi’s nonviolent political activities were becoming known outside South Africa, some revolutionaries saw campaigns such as his as doomed to failure and worse. The Vancouver-based Bengali revolutionary Taraknath Das, who edited the insurrectionary underground journal Free Hindustan, was attacking Indian moderates who were in favor of the gradual attainment of self-government achieved with the agreement of the British rulers. In May 1908, Das wrote to Tolstoy as a great champion of the oppressed, asking the Count to contribute an article to his journal and, in effect, to bless the true revolutionaries, like himself, who could deliver the goods. Tolstoy’s reply, titled “Letter to a Hindoo,” made it clear that he saw nonviolence as the only legitimate means available to the morally upright conscience and accused Das of repeating “the amazing stupidity indoctrinated in you by the advocates of the use of violence . . . your European teachers” and instructed him and his fellow travelers to “Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of [the law of love], and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it.” The appropriate way of struggle was not violence but a rejection of state administration: a refusal to use the courts, pay taxes or serve in the army. Such sentiments would become music to Gandhi’s ears.

Gandhi came across a typed copy of “Letter to a Hindoo” in London on his 1909 visit to lobby for the interests of South African Indians. At the beginning of October 1909, he wrote his first letter to Tolstoy. This led to a close and mutually admiring correspondence that lasted until Tolstoy’s death on November 20, 1910.

Just a few months before he died, in the last long letter he was to pen, Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi commenting on how important his work in the Transvaal was in providing practical proof of the law of love in action. And in turn, over 30 years later, Gandhi was able to state:

“Russia gave me in Tolstoi, a teacher who furnished a reasoned basis for my nonviolence. He blessed my movement in South Africa when it was still in its infancy and of whose wonderful possibilities I had yet to learn. It was he who had prophesied in his letter to me that I was leading a movement which was destined to bring a message of hope to the downtrodden people of the earth.”

A Model of Conviction

During a speech at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram on September 10, 1928, to mark the birth centenary of Tolstoy, Gandhi reminisced about the impact of The Kingdom of God is Within You, and recounted its message:

“The title means that God’s Kingdom is in our heart, that if we search for it outside, we shall find it nowhere. I read the book 40 years ago. At that time, I was skeptical about many things and sometimes entertained atheistic ideas. When I went to England, I was a votary of violence, I had faith in it and none in nonviolence. After I read this book, that lack of faith in nonviolence vanished.”

On the effect of Tolstoy’s life on him, he added:

“I attach importance to two things in his life. He did what he preached. His simplicity was extraordinary; it was not merely outward; outward simplicity of course he had. Though he was born in an aristocratic family and had all the good things of life to enjoy, had at his disposal all that wealth and possessions could give a man, he changed the direction of his life’s voyage in the prime of youth. Though he had enjoyed all the pleasures and tasted all the sweetness which life can offer, the moment he realized the futility of that way of life, he turned his back on it, and he remained firm in his new convictions till the end of his life. I have, therefore, stated . . . that Tolstoy was the very embodiment of truth in this age. He strove uncompromisingly to follow truth as he saw it, making no attempt to conceal or dilute what he believed to be the truth. He stated what he felt to be the truth without caring whether it would hurt or please the people or whether it would be welcome to the mighty emperor. Tolstoy was a great advocate of nonviolence in his age.”


6 Responses to “How Leo Tolstoy influenced Gandhi’s passisve resistance fight against the British”

  1. I really enjoyed this article so much Axinia! My husband is Russian, and I find myself wanting to buy him this book from Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You…to better understand my journey which is a reflection of this pondering. Life is so joyful once you realize that there is proof that we are not random dwellers…feeling the connection to that kingdom inside, and then feeling the connection inside and out with everything and everyone makes every day miraculous. Thank you for making this wonderful connection between two seemingly different people and causes. I thoroughly enjoyed and am officially subscribed! I don’t want to miss anything else!

  2. axinia Says:

    thank you, dear, and welcome! please explore the older posts on his blog, they are about 900 already!…nowadays I am not posting that often.

  3. Sabine Degenhardt Says:

    Dear Axinia,
    Lot of thanks for your wonderful and rich blog and really beautiful photos.

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