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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Gandhi Before India

Gandhi & Tolstoy

“Gandhi and Tolstoy were akin in good ways and bad. Both were indifferent fathers and less than solicitous husbands.” - Ramchandra Guha

Ramchandra Guha was in Toronto recently to launch his latest offering – Gandhi Before India – the first part of a two part biography of the Mahatma. The volume deals with Gandhi’s life from birth to 1915 – the year he returned from South Africa. It is a chronicle of his transformation from a failed lawyer to a leader of people. 

Guha is an erudite scholar who speaks as well as he writes. He had his audience spellbound for the better part of an hour as he narrated the highlights of the Mahatma’s life in South Africa.

Guha spoke about Leo Tolstoy’s influence on Gandhi.  In the book Guha says, “Leo Tolstoy (at this time) was certainly the most famous writer in the world. (He was) admired for his novels and stories, and in some quarters, even for his attempts at simplifying his life. In his early fifties he had a conversion experience, following which he gave up alcohol, tobacco and meat. His vegetarianism became so well known that he was asked to write an introduction to a book of Henry Salt’s. He took up working in the fields, and splitting wood and making shoes in a bid to empathize with his serfs. From a martial background, he now began to preach the virtues of pacifism. Although born and raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, he developed a deep interest in Hinduism and Buddhism.

“Of the many transitions, the most painful was his embrace of celibacy. In his youth he had been (in his own words), a ‘radical chaser after women.’ His wife went through more than a dozen pregnancies. He had affairs with peasant women on his estate. A man of ‘wild passion,’ he sought in middle age to give up sex along with the other pleasures he had forsaken.”

The Russian writer was Gandhi’s intellectual mentor. His was the most decisive intellectual and philosophical influence on Gandhi. Although Gandhi hadn’t read War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, he had minutely read and re-read Tolstoy’s religious and philosophical texts.
He read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You in 1893 in Johannesburg. The title of the book is a line from the Bible and Tolstoy used it to make an eloquent case for interfaith dialogue and for individuals to reach their personal, conscience-driven path to God.

Tolstoy claims in the book that the spiritual truth or the essence of Christianity is not what the archbishop or the pope says; the essence of Islam is not what the grand mufti tells you what it is; and the meaning of Hinduism is not what the Shankaracharya tells you. You must find your own path to God.

Tolstoy’s The First Step (translated into English in 1906) also influenced Gandhi immensely. In this book, Tolstoy says that any person who wants to contribute socially and politically to the society’s transformation, and who wants to devote his life to the service of society must abstain from idleness, gluttony and carnal desire – the three cardinal sins of the Russian aristocrats.

In Gandhi’s case, idleness and gluttony were not a problem. He was always hardworking, and he was a vegetarian. The real problem was carnal desire and he adopted a vow of celibacy, detached himself from his family and his children to simplify his life.

Tolstoy’s pacifism has played a significant role in formulating Gandhi’s ideas for non-violent struggle in Transvaal in South Africa. After reading, understanding and interpreting Tolstoy nearly two decades, Gandhi finally is inspired to write directly to Tolstoy in 1909 – a year before Tolstoy died.

Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy about what he was doing in South Africa, and Tolstoy was delighted to find an Indian disciple in South Africa. He replied immediately. During the course of this correspondence Gandhi  in an extraordinary display of self-confidence tells Tolstoy that what he and his group is doing in Transvaal (which is partly inspired by Tolstoy’s ideas of pacifism) is going to have a positive impact on the whole world. Guha observed, “It is an extraordinary confident claim to make of a nebulous movement that involves just a few thousand people – that it is going to transform the whole world.”

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