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Gandhi and Tolstoy

Gandhi and Tolstoy, the Correspondence That Changed the Fate of a Country


Gandhi and Tolstoy’s spiritual closeness as seen through their epistolary exchange.

If the ways of the Lord are mysterious, so are those of history. By chance or predestination, at times when they encounter History, men’s destinies are crossed and forked. That the thought of Anna Karenina’s author would end up influencing the fate of India’s independence proves that the laws of cause and effect by far surpass our limited forecasts.

Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi seemed destined to cross each other’s paths in the tumultuous becoming of 20th century History. The writer, transformed into a universally recognized literary figure, was going through a profound spiritual crisis that led him to seek answers in Science and Philosophy. Incapable of finding hope in said disciplines, Tolstoy turned to the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, once again only finding a hopeless absence of answers. It would be the in the careful reading of the Sacred Scriptures where the literary giant would believe to have found the guidelines that he so anxiously sought. Tolstoy located the answers to his anguish for humankind’s future in The Sermon on the Mount.

The Kingdom of God is Within You was his conclusion. A book that, despite its author’s immeasurable fame, was censured in Russia when it was first published. In the text, Tolstoy denounced the Church’s misrepresentation of the original message of Jesus Christ —one of love and forgiveness—, and declared the incompatibility of authentic Christianity and the reality of the State, which was inclined towards repression and violence. Gandhi’s was enraged by it.

Following Tolstoy’s participation in the Free Hindustan magazine —with his ultra-famous A Letter to a Hindu, with which he responded to the editor’s request to share his vision on the situation of India—, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy giving rise to a fluid correspondence. In this epistolary relationship, both thinkers exchanged their opinions concerning the state of the world, and coincided in recognizing non-violence as the only path towards change. Gandhi, influenced by the Hindu law of ahimsa (non-violence), saw his inclinations bolstered by the Russian’s passionate review of the message of Jesus Christ, specifically of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus called pacifiers sons of God. A doctrine of non-violence that seemed catalyzed by the influence of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Gandhi and Tolstoy’s correspondence went on for years. The great Hindu soul, son of a humble Vaishya family —a mediocre lawyer who’s great destiny could not be foretold by anyone— had found his Russian double, a wealthy nobleman’s son, another mahatma willing to sacrifice his life for the fate of humanity.

After leaving his wife and renouncing all his material goods in solidarity with the disadvantaged, the author of War and Peace fell deadly ill. In 1910, the year of the last correspondence between these two great men, at the age of 82 in the Lev Tolstoy train station, Tolstoy died. This last and extensive letter would definitely mark Gandhi’s path.

Forged as a liberator and abolitionist in his struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa, where he lived for over twenty years, Gandhi returned to India and implemented his idea of peaceful resistance. His stance was able to gather a mass movement that harbored the most disadvantaged classes in his country, and which resulted in India’s independence in 1947. Dressed with a traditional white dothi, Gandhi proved that to fight oppression love and peace were more valid weapons than thirst for vengeance and military struggle.

It is important to consider that Tolstoy was studying Law and Oriental Languages in the University of Kazan when he first came in contact with Indian culture and that, presumably, this influenced his future doctrine of non-violence. If this were so, everything would appear to be predestined for these two unrepeatable men. As if the fate of an entire country was already inscribed in their hearts, separated by geographic borders, but united by the same love for humanity.

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