Revolution of ideas: When Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy...

Iconic Russian writer and thinker Leo Tolstoy.Source: Itar-Tass

Iconic Russian writer and thinker Leo Tolstoy.Source: Itar-Tass

It is something of a paradox that people who are iconic figures in their own country sometimes come to represent the heritage of mankind. Human history is peopled with such homo universalis or the universal man. Lev Tolstoy was one such man. This legendary Russian writer, philosopher and thinker is admired and venerated throughout the world, particularly in India.

The 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death is an ideal occasion to reflect on his manifold legacy that includes not just his magnificent contribution to literature, but also his original ideas on political philosophy and social reforms that influenced two of India’s iconic figures: Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

In an age of privileges when all manual work was performed by the poor, Tolstoy extolled the dignity of manual labour and set an example by working in the fields with his peasants and learning shoemaking. He would use this knowledge for his powerful short story – What Men Live By. Gandhi, too, emphasised the dignity of labour in a caste-dominated society.

Another trait Tolstoy and Gandhi shared was their profound empathy for the oppressed and that spontaneous impulse to ameliorate their pitiable condition.

It is something of a paradox that persons who are iconic figures in their own country sometime come to represent the heritage of mankind. Human history is peopled with such homo universalis or the universal man. Lev Tolstoy was one man. This great Russian is admired and venerated throughout the world, particularly in India.

On the hundredth anniversary of Lev Tolstoy’s departure from this world it is natural to assess his legacy. But the legacy of greatness is difficult to define because it encompasses so much of human existence. In the case of Tolstoy his magnificent contribution to literature is accompanied by his contribution to political philosophy and social reforms.

In an age of privileges when all manual work was performed by the poor, Lev Tolstoy extolled the dignity of manual labour and set an example by working in the fields with his peasants and learning the work of shoemaking. He would use this knowledge for his powerful short story –What Men Live By. Gandhi also emphasized the dignity of labour in a caste dominated society where manual labour was assigned to the lower castes. Tolstoy’s exposure of dismal conditions in prisons in his last novel Resurrection prompted the impulse for prison reforms in Russia and other countries.

Hearing of the famine that was devastating rural Russia in the late 1880s, Tolstoy provided food and funds. Countess Tolstoy assisted him by organising food relief in public kitchens. Standing up against the ravages of imperialism, Tolstoy spoke not only against the repressive Tsarist regime in his own country, but also gave his generous support to nations suffering the indignity of alien rule.

When historian Arnold Toynbee wrote about the “round-about of traffic” of civilizations where ideas turn full circle, he perhaps had Tolstoy in mind. He was a nineteen-year-old student at the Faculty of Eastern Languages at Kazan University, leading a merry and boisterous life, when he met a Buddhist lama who told him about Lord Buddha and the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence. The story made an indelible impression on the young aristocrat. All his life, he sought inspiration in ancient civilizations to vivify the future of mankind through the wisdom of its epics, philosophies, legends and arts.

Philosopher and writer Romain Rolland tells us of how the young Tolstoy plunged into the works of indologists and orientalists like William Jones and Colebrooke. Tolstoy became acquainted with the Indian epics through French translations, the teachings of Sankara, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and Vivekananda and was impressed by their profundity of thought. “The fundamental metaphysical idea about the essence of life is good,” he said. Tolstoy read the Vedas when he was facing his own spiritual crises in the 1880s to find the answers to questions regarding the meaning of life and the final destination of the human soul.

Tolstoy was, therefore, no stranger to Asian civilization. It was this empathetic understanding of a different culture, not as an Orientalist but as a great humanist, which enabled him to leap over the barriers of creed and class and reach out to other nationalities. This high social and ethical purpose, the spirit of humanism and belief in freedom for all are special contributions of Russian thinkers and litterateurs in the nineteenth century. Through Tolstoy, these ideas flowed into India.

It was perhaps a historical inevitability that the young Mohandas Gandhi, struggling against the oppressive Boer regime in South Africa should turn to Tolstoy. Their epistolary friendship is a poignant episode in India’s struggle against imperialism. In 1908, the sage of Yasnaya Polyana received a letter from Gandhi who called him the “Titan of Russia”. The future Titan of India signed himself “a humble follower of your doctrine of non-violent resistance to evil”. Tolstoy was overjoyed to receive this letter, replied immediately and sent his sympathy and support to Gandhi who was taking on armed overlords with the doctrine of non-violent resistance to evil. For Gandhi, the support of Tolstoy, a renowned European writer greeting him like a comrade-in-arms, was a big moral boost. Mohandas Gandhi was emboldened to go forward in the seemingly hopeless battle against Boer oppression and forged his weapons of satyagraha that were to prove so successful later in the struggle against British imperialism.

Over the years, Mohandas Gandhi, the sage of India, and Lev Tolstoy, the sage of Russia, became inextricably linked in a dialogue of cultures that would dismantle colonial empires.

Tagore was to continue this enriching dialogue of cultures. Tagore was influenced by Tolstoy’s ideas of “spontaneous education” and practiced and experimented at Yasnaya Polyana. He read of how Tolstoy, the celebrated novelist, opened a school in his mansion for the poor peasant children on his estate, and opened their minds to numerous subjects.

Enthused, Tagore enlarged on Tolstoy’s educational experiments and made Vishwa Bharati in Shantiniketan into a great international center of learning and unconventional teaching methods. Tagore, or Gurudev (revered teacher) as Gandhi named him, declared Tolstoy as the “teacher of mankind” whose “solitary voice for peace was crying out in the wilderness”. Tagore’s admiration for Tolstoy attracted him to Russia, to the grandeur of its literature and the heroism of its people. His famous “Letters From Russia” after his visit there in 1930 familiarised Indians with the inspiring story of the new experiments in education and social reforms of Soviet Russia. It paved the way for the friendship between the two nations that blossomed in later years.

Tolstoy’s impact on literature cuts across national boundaries. In India, he is read in English and other languages and occupies a special place in the minds of people. Tolstoy, like Rabindranath Tagore, Prem Chand and Subramanya Bharathi, described the predicament of mankind and celebrated the glory of human existence.

To use the words of India’s former president S. Radhakrishnan, an eminent philosopher, Tolstoy “raised the stature of civilization and added to the sweetness of life”.

The spiritual and intellectual interconnectedness Tolstoy’s multifarious writings and thought spawned between India and Russia, continues to this day.

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