Gandhi was deeply affected by the writings of Leo Tolstoy, and in particular, a letter he wrote in reply to the editor of the magazine Free Hindustan. He would ultimately translate the piece into Gujarati, and disseminate it across the Indian Diaspora.
Gandhi was moved by Tolstoy’s discussion of violence, and in his introduction to the piece below described him as being “devoted to replacing the method of violence for removing tyranny or securing reform by the method of non-resistance to evil. He would meet hatred expressed in violence by love expressed in self-suffering.” It is clear that Tolstoy was integral to Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha.
The letter isn’t perfect. Gandhi defends Tolstoy despite the piece’s limitations, arguing that “one need not accept all that Tolstoy says- some of his facts are not accurately stated- to realize the central truth of his indictment of the present system, which is to understand and act upon the irresistible power of the soul over the body, of love, which is an attribute of the soul, over the brute or body force generated by the stirring in us of evil passions.” However, and somewhat obviously, Gandhi overlooks the main tension of the piece. Non-violence is uncritically praised as an avenue for securing policies of social change.
While reading selections from the letter, it is important to remember that part of the reason it has been so influential is precisely because of the limitations of non-violence. Indeed, Tolstoy anticipates Gandhian ideals, but fails to realize how advantageous they were for upper-caste Indians, and Hindus in particular. Tolstoy’s dismissal of armed resistance doesn’t take into account that a degree of violence would have been necessary to fully democratize the socioeconomic order of the British Raj. Neither does Gandhi, and this problem continues to affect Indian politics.
The fact of the matter is that if India faces another major insurrection, the “cult of satyagraha” could prove to be more of a hindrance than an advantage, particularly when it comes to questions of economic inequality, and substantive democracy. We should remember that Gandhi was ultimately shot by a Hindutva fanatic, and that India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is extremely important to be skeptical of both Tolstoy, and by association, Gandhi. Other reasons for this skepticism will be noted in the text. The fact is that if Gandhi’s strategies were perfect, then the Indian subcontinent would not be characterized by the level of bloodshed that occurs today.
A LETTER TO A HINDU (selections)
All that exists is One. People only call this One by different names. THE VEDAS.
God is love, and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him. I JOHN iv. 16.
God is one whole; we are the parts. EXPOSITION OF THE TEACHING OF THE VEDAS BY VIVEKANANDA.
Do not seek quiet and rest in those earthly realms where delusions and desires are engendered, for if thou dost, thou wilt be dragged through the rough wilderness of life, which is far from Me.
Whenever thou feelest that thy feet are becoming entangled in the interlaced roots of life, know that thou has strayed from the path to which I beckon thee: for I have placed thee in broad, smooth paths, which are strewn with flowers. I have put a light before thee, which thou canst follow and thus run without stumbling. KRISHNA.
I have received your letter and two numbers of your periodical, both of which interest me extremely. The oppression of a majority by a minority, and the demoralization inevitably resulting from it, is a phenomenon that has always occupied me and has done so most particularly of late. I will try to explain to you what I think about that subject in general, and particularly about the cause from which the dreadful evils of which you write in your letter, and in the Hindu periodical you have sent me, have arisen and continue to arise.
The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same—whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether, as in India and elsewhere, the oppressors are of a different nation.
This phenomenon seems particularly strange in India, for there more than two hundred million people, highly gifted both physically and mentally, find themselves in the power of a small group of people quite alien to them in thought, and immeasurably inferior to them in religious morality.
From your letter and the articles in Free Hindustan as well as from the very interesting writings of the Hindu Swami Vivekananda and others, it appears that, as is the case in our time with the ills of all nations, the reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called ‘civilization’.
Your letter, as well as the articles in Free Hindustan and Indian political literature generally, shows that most of the leaders of public opinion among your people no longer attach any significance to the religious teachings that were and are professed by the peoples of India, and recognize no possibility of freeing the people from the oppression they endure except by adopting the irreligious and profoundly immoral social arrangements under which the English and other pseudo-Christian nations live to-day.
And yet the chief if not the sole cause of the enslavement of the Indian peoples by the English lies in this very absence of a religious consciousness and of the guidance for conduct which should flow from it—a lack common in our day to all nations East and West, from Japan to England and America alike.
The problem is that neither Gandhi nor Tolstoy seemed to remember that modern Hinduism is not the same as “Indian spirituality.” Readers should ask themselves why Tolstoy seems to think that a “letter to a Hindu” addresses the entire movement for Indian liberation, which involved more than just Hindus, and why he constantly makes invocations to Krishna. Religious Sikhs and Muslims were militantly active against the British Raj during this period, and many nationalists were secular, or even atheistic. This rhetoric excludes them.
Gandhi makes similar mistakes in Hind Swaraj, in which he uses words like “praja,” which only have their intended resonance with particular subsections of the Indian population. These shortcomings make it easier to understand why the Muslim League eventually broke with the Indian National Congress and created the state of Pakistan. Gandhi’s movement effectively shaped Indian nationalism as a Hindu project, and indeed, the ascendancy of Hindutva makes perfect sense in that context. Gandhi never actually took moves to ensure that groups like the RSS wouldn’t appropriate his rhetoric about India being insufficiently spiritual, which was vulnerable to religious fundamentalism.
The clearest example of this is Narendra Modi’s conception of dharma, which essentially posits that socioeconomic oppression is a form of religious devotion, as the hierarchical order is sacred. RSS promotes these values as resistance against the Western-inspired decadence of Indian secularism, which is arguably in line with Gandhian rhetoric.
Who am I? I am that which thou hast searched for since thy baby eyes gazed wonderingly upon the world, whose horizon hides this real life from thee. I am that which in thy heart thou hast prayed for, demanded as thy birthright, although thou hast not known what it was. I am that which has lain in thy soul for hundreds and thousands of years. Sometimes I lay in thee grieving because thou didst not recognize me; sometimes I raised my head, opened my eyes, and extended my arms calling thee either tenderly and quietly, or strenuously, demanding that thou shouldst rebel against the iron chains which bound thee to the earth. KRISHNA.
Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement. In very ancient times love was proclaimed with special strength and clearness among your people to be the religious basis of human life. Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love. And what follows? With a light heart and in the twentieth century you, an adherent of a religious people, deny their law, feeling convinced of your scientific enlightenment and your right to do so, and you repeat (do not take this amiss) the amazing stupidity indoctrinated in you by the advocates of the use of violence—the enemies of truth, the servants first of theology and then of science—your European teachers.
You say that the English have enslaved your people and hold them in subjection because the latter have not resisted resolutely enough and have not met force by force.
But the case is just the opposite. If the English have enslaved the people of India it is just because the latter recognized, and still recognize, force as the fundamental principle of the social order. In accord with that principle they submitted to their little rajahs, and on their behalf struggled against one another, fought the Europeans, the English, and are now trying to fight with them again.
A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?
When the Indians complain that the English have enslaved them it is as if drunkards complained that the spirit-dealers who have settled among them have enslaved them. You tell them that they might give up drinking, but they reply that they are so accustomed to it that they cannot abstain, and that they must have alcohol to keep up their energy. Is it not the same thing with the millions of people who submit to thousands’ or even to hundreds, of others—of their own or other nations?
If the people of India are enslaved by violence it is only because they themselves live and have lived by violence, and do not recognize the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.
Pitiful and foolish is the man who seeks what he already has, and does not know that he has it. Yes, Pitiful and foolish is he who does not know the bliss of love which surrounds him and which I have given him. KRISHNA.
As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence—as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual. Do not resist the evil-doer and take no part in doing so, either in the violent deeds of the administration, in the law courts, the collection of taxes, or above all in soldiering, and no one in the world will be able to enslave you.
Editor’s Note: Tolstoy is correct here, and Gandhi was in fierce agreement when he first read this letter. The British Raj was not sustained by overwhelming military force. Rather, it was supported by a complex system of coercion that allowed a relatively small colonial force to rule an extremely large population. This would not have been possible if Indians did not accept colonialism, and internalize many of its dictates.
However, Tolstoy’s logic is shaky when he concludes that non-violence is the only means by which Indians could break “force as the fundamental principle of the social order.” It could also be argued that since force was considered the main pillar of the social order, it was the only language that elites would take seriously. After all, the British East India Company only ever willingly tempered its behavior in the subcontinent after the Indian Revolt of 1857, upon which it surrendered India to Queen Victoria, who made numerous concessions to the native population.
Children, look at the flowers at your feet; do not trample upon them. Look at the love in your midst and do not repudiate it. KRISHNA.
There is a higher reason which transcends all human minds. It is far and near. It permeates all the worlds and at the same time is infinitely higher than they.
A man who sees that all things are contained in the higher spirit cannot treat any being with contempt.
For him to whom all spiritual beings are equal to the highest there can be no room for deception or grief.
Those who are ignorant and are devoted to the religious rites only, are in a deep gloom, but those who are given up to fruitless meditations are in a still greater darkness.
UPANISHADS, FROM VEDAS.
Yes, in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity. Whether an Indian seeks liberation from subjection to the English, or anyone else struggles with an oppressor either of his own nationality or of another—whether it be a Negro defending himself against the North Americans; or Persians, Russians, or Turks against the Persian, Russian, or Turkish governments, or any man seeking the greatest welfare for himself and for everybody else—they do not need explanations and justifications of old religious superstitions such as have been formulated by your Vivekanandas, Baba Bharatis, and others, or in the Christian world by a number of similar interpreters and exponents of things that nobody needs; nor the innumerable scientific theories about matters not only unnecessary but for the most part harmful. (In the spiritual realm nothing is indifferent: what is not useful is harmful.)
What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art—but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions—the truth that for our life one law is valid—the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind.
Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world. It will in due time emerge and make its way to general recognition, and the nonsense that has obscured it will disappear of itself, and with it will go the evil from which humanity now suffers.
Children, look upwards with your beclouded eyes, and a world full of joy and love will disclose itself to you, a rational world made by My wisdom, the only real world. Then you will know what love has done with you, what love has bestowed upon you, what love demands from you. KRISHNA.
December 14th, 1908.
Editor’s Note: Love is a theme that is frequently discussed in regards to armed resistance as well, by thinkers like Che Guevera, Walter Benjamin, and Frantz Fanon. It is likely that Indians will continue to debate the best means for realizing the concept, both within the territorial boundaries of modern India, and the subcontinent more broadly.
Photographs courtesy of Seth Anderson and Wonderlane. Letter courtesy of Project Gutenburg. Published under a Creative Commons License.