Tolstoy and Gandhi Exchange Letters: Two Thinkers’ Quest for Gentleness, Humility & Love (1909)


Some of the most rig­or­ous moral thinkers of the past cen­tu­ry have spent time on the wrong side of ques­tions they deemed of vital impor­tance. Mohan­das Gand­hi, for exam­ple, at first remained loy­al to the British, man­i­fest­ing many of the vicious prej­u­dices of the Empire against Black South Africans and lob­by­ing for Indi­ans to serve in the war against the Zulu. Maya Jasanoff in New Repub­lic describes Gand­hi dur­ing this peri­od of his life as a “crank.” At the same time, he devel­oped his phi­los­o­phy of non-vio­lent resis­tance, or satya­gra­ha, in South Africa as an Indi­an suf­fer­ing the injus­tices inflict­ed upon his coun­try­men by both the Boers and the British.

Gandhi’s some­time con­tra­dic­to­ry stances may be in part under­stood by his rather aris­to­crat­ic her­itage and by the warm wel­come he first received in Lon­don when he left his fam­i­ly, his caste, and his wife and child in India to attend law school in 1888. And yet it is in Lon­don that he first began to change his views, becom­ing a staunch veg­e­tar­i­an and encoun­ter­ing theos­o­phy, Chris­tian­i­ty, and many of the con­tem­po­rary writ­ers who would shift his per­spec­tive over time. Gand­hi received a very dif­fer­ent recep­tion in Eng­land when he returned in 1931, the de fac­to leader of a bur­geon­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment in India whose exam­ple was so impor­tant to both the South African and U.S. civ­il rights move­ments of suc­ceed­ing decades.

One of the writ­ers who most deeply guid­ed Gandhi’s polit­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al, and philo­soph­i­cal evo­lu­tion, Leo Tol­stoy, expe­ri­enced his own dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tion, from land­ed aris­to­crat to social rad­i­cal, and also renounced prop­er­ty and posi­tion to advo­cate stren­u­ous­ly for social equal­i­ty. Gand­hi eager­ly read Tolstoy’s The King­dom of God is With­in You, the novelist’s state­ment of Chris­t­ian anar­chism. The book, Gand­hi wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “left an abid­ing impres­sion on me.” After fur­ther study of Tolstoy’s reli­gious writ­ing, he “began to real­ize more and more the infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of uni­ver­sal love.”

It was in Eng­land, not India, where Gand­hi first read “A Let­ter to a Hin­du,” Tolstoy’s 1908 reply to a note from Indi­an rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tarak­nath Das on the ques­tion of Indi­an inde­pen­dence. Tol­stoy divides his lengthy, thought­ful “Let­ter” into short chap­ters, each of which begins with a quo­ta­tion from the Vedas. “Indeed,” writes Maria Popo­va, the mis­sive “puts in glar­ing per­spec­tive the nuance­less and hasty op-eds of our time.” It so affect­ed Gand­hi that, in 1909, he wrote to Tol­stoy, thus begin­ning a cor­re­spon­dence between the two that last­ed through the fol­low­ing year. “I take the lib­er­ty of invit­ing your atten­tion to what has been going on in the Trans­vaal for near­ly three years,” begins Gandhi’s first let­ter, some­what abrupt­ly, “There is in that Colony a British Indi­an pop­u­la­tion of near­ly 13,000. These Indi­ans have, for sev­er­al years, labored under var­i­ous legal dis­abil­i­ties.”

The prej­u­dice against col­or and in some respects against Asians is intense in that Colony….The cli­max was reached three years ago, with a law that many oth­ers and I con­sid­ered to be degrad­ing and cal­cu­lat­ed to unman those to whom it was applic­a­ble. I felt that sub­mis­sion to a law of this nature was incon­sis­tent with the spir­it of true reli­gion. Some of my friends and I were and still are firm believ­ers in the doc­trine of non­re­sis­tance to evil. I had the priv­i­lege of study­ing your writ­ings also, which left a deep impres­sion on my mind.

Gand­hi refers to a law forc­ing the Indi­an pop­u­la­tion in South Africa to reg­is­ter with the author­i­ties. He goes on to inquire about the authen­tic­i­ty of the “Let­ter” and asks per­mis­sion to trans­late it, with pay­ment, and to omit a neg­a­tive ref­er­ence to rein­car­na­tion that offend­ed him. Tol­stoy respond­ed a few months lat­er, in 1910, allow­ing the trans­la­tion free of charge, and allow­ing the omis­sion, with the qual­i­fi­ca­tion that he believed “faith in re-birth will nev­er restrain mankind as much as faith in the immor­tal­i­ty of the soul and in divine truth in love.” Over­all, how­ev­er, he express­es sol­i­dar­i­ty, greet­ing Gand­hi “fra­ter­nal­ly” and writ­ing,

God help our dear broth­ers and co-work­ers in the Trans­vaal! Among us, too, this fight between gen­tle­ness and bru­tal­i­ty, between humil­i­ty and love and pride and vio­lence, makes itself ever more strong­ly felt, espe­cial­ly in a sharp col­li­sion between reli­gious duty and the State laws, expressed by refusals to per­form mil­i­tary ser­vice.

The two con­tin­ued to write to each oth­er, Gand­hi send­ing Tol­stoy a copy of his Indi­an Home Rule and the trans­lat­ed “Let­ter,” and Tol­stoy expound­ing at length on the errors—and what he saw as the supe­ri­or characteristics—of Chris­t­ian doc­trine. You can read their full cor­re­spon­dence here, along with Tolstoy’s “Let­ter to a Hin­du” and Gandhi’s intro­duc­tion to his edi­tion. Despite their reli­gious dif­fer­ences, the exchange fur­ther gal­va­nized Gand­hi’s pas­sive resis­tance move­ment, and in 1910, he found­ed a com­mu­ni­ty called “Tol­stoy Farm” near Johan­nes­burg.

Gand­hi’s views on African inde­pen­dence would change, and Nel­son Man­dela lat­er adopt­ed Gand­hi and the Indi­an inde­pen­dence move­ment as a stan­dard for the anti-apartheid move­ment. We’re well aware, of course, of Gand­hi’s influ­ence on Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. For his part, Gand­hi wrote glow­ing­ly of Tol­stoy, and the mod­el the nov­el­ist pro­vid­ed for his own anti-colo­nial cam­paign. In a speech 18 years lat­er, he said, “When I went to Eng­land, I was a votary of vio­lence, I had faith in it and none in non­vi­o­lence.” After read­ing Tol­stoy, “that lack of faith in non­vi­o­lence vanished…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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Gandhi’s Famous Speech on the Exis­tence of God (1931)

Albert Ein­stein Express­es His Admi­ra­tion for Mahat­ma Gand­hi, in Let­ter and Audio

Leo Tolstoy’s Masochis­tic Diary: I Am Guilty of “Sloth,” “Cow­ardice” & “Sissi­ness” (1851)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Christina says:

    How can we apply non vio­lence to the fun­da­men­tal reli­gious based groups who are dri­ving whole pop­u­la­tions out of their coun­tries to be forced upon oth­er coun­tries which cre­ates more vio­lence from a non vio­lent sec­tors.

  • Ellie Gratz says:

    Non vio­lence is the pre­req­ui­site to stop vio­lence amongst any groups, not just fun­da­men­tal reli­gious groups. It is the fun­da­men­tal­ism itself that cre­ates a chism if it does­n’t incor­po­rate non­vi­o­lence. Once vio­lent, it pro­motes vio­lent reac­tion, or proac­tions. the ques­tion is how to reduce or remove vio­lence as a form of exis­tence in human beings. Socio-eco­nom­ic strug­gles pro­mote vio­lence as a means of sur­vival (of the fittest). If we can reduce that strug­gle to sur­vive, we can reduce the vio­lence.

  • Ellie Gratz says:

    On a lighter note, my won­der­ful tablet likes to spell words for me and that, along with the lack of ear­ly morn­ing cof­fee may result in drop­ping in a some­what inap­pro­pri­ate word where ‘chasm’ was the intend­ed one. LOL

  • MyLinh Shattan says:

    I enjoyed this, thank you Josh Jones. George Orwell wrote an insight­ful essay on Gand­hi which pro­vid­ed a can­did assess­ment of the man and reshaped my under­stand­ing of him. Paci­fism is an admirable idea, though not always prag­mat­ic. Gand­hi’s sug­ges­tion about the holo­caust is shock­ing: col­lec­tive sui­cide. If you want a fuller view of the icon, read Orwell. Essay link here


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