Tolstoy and India - A Beautiful Bond
Tolstoy and India - A Beautiful Bond
It all began with the first Indian battle for freedom in 1857-58. Young Tolstoy was attracted towards India when he read the account of this fight of Indian people for freedom from the Britishers. Russia also felt the impact of this struggle, as precisely at this time the wave against serfdom had reached its crest in the Tsarist Russia. Russian media was ripe with the information about this war of independence - naturally the press controlled by the Tsarist administration was against this wind of freedom. But well known critic N.A. Dobrolyubov wrote a favourable article, dedicating it to the Indian freedom fighters in the journal 'Sovremennik'.
Young Tolstoy was keenly following the chain of events unfolding in India, and when in March 1858 he read about the cruel suppression of this mutiny and killing of 94 patriots, he wrote in his diary, "My God, they quietly shot 94 people dead!"
At the end of 70’s – beginning of 80’s when Lev Nikolayevich was himself experiencing the spiritual turmoil, he found solace in the ancient Indian philosophy, Vedas, Upanishadas as well as in the rich Indian epics and folklore. He tried to find the answers to the questions which were haunting him for a long time – the purpose of human life, role of a human being in this world etc. in these ancient Indian works.
Lev Nikolayevich studied Indian culture for a long time. He turned to Indian philosophy when he was only 19 years old. Having acquainted with a Buddhist Lama in 1847 in a hospital at Kazan, he first came to know about the principle of Ahimsa – non-violence against the evil.
Tolstoy was attracted to Buddhism because it propagated the ideas of love, peace and kindness, which were so near to his heart. He wrote an article about Gautam Buddha in 1886, where in, in a very simple language he tells about the life of the Buddha. The Buddhist ideas found reflection in his fairy tales: Karma (1894) and It’s You (Tu twam asi) (1903). The title It’s You implies that you can find yourself in everyman and in his deeds or the same Atma resides in every body. The story runs as follows: One cruel king asked his wise advisor to think of a cruel punishment for his enemy. But the wise advisor converted the king into that enemy for a moment, whom the ruler wanted to punish, and thus convinced him that the whole human race contains the same substance – the Atman, and punishing others will certainly mean punishing yourself.
As is clear from Tolstoy’s diaries and letters, he was attracted not only by Buddhism, but the philosophical ideas of younger and his contemporary Indian philosophers also had a great influence on him. He studied the teachings of Shankaracharya as well as those of Ramkrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda. One can still find books, journals and articles about the Hindu religion and the Hindu philosophy in Tolstoy’s library at Yasnaya Polyana.
Like many other Russian writers, L.N.Tolstoy was also attracted by ancient Indian literature and folklore. He was regularly getting the ‘Vedic Magazine’ at Yasnaya Polyana. He not only studied the Vedas, but also tried to propagate them among the masses. In his books ‘Krug Chteniya’ (Circle of Reading), ‘Thoughts of the Wise’ etc. he included many extracts from the Vedas and the Upanishadas. Among them are many Indian proverbs, sayings etc. He was well acquainted with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and was deeply impressed by the Bhagvad Geeta. Tolstoy believed in the teaching of the Bhagvad Geeta that the man should try his best to fulfill his duty (‘Karmanye Vaadhikaaraste…’). He himself tried to follow this idea and wrote about it in many of his works.
Tolstoy included many tales from the Hitopadesha and the Panchatantra in his ‘Russian Books for Reading’ (in four parts – 1870’s). He not only translated these tales into Russian, but also, modified them a little, so that they could appeal to the children living in the Russian social atmosphere. Along with the Tales of Aesop and legends from many other countries, ‘Russian Books for Reading’ contain 23 Indian tales. The first ‘Russian Book for Reading’ contains such tales as The Head and the tail of a snake, Fine threads, The monkey, The monkey and the Peas, Milking Cow, Mouse Girl, Two Merchants etc ; while The Merchant and his stick, The Duck and the Moon, The man and a half Pastry, The Best Pears, The Falcon and the Rooster, Jackals and Elephant, The Heron, the crab, and the fish, The Man and Pearl, and The Two Travelers are put in the second book. The third Russian Book for Reading has The King and the Falcon, The Wolf and Onion; while the fourth one contains The King and the Elephant (The blind Men and the King’s Elephant) and The Sadhu, Dove, Crows, Snake and Deer.
All the tales and fables included in these four books are written in very simple language by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, so that the young readers could easily understand them and grasp the moral underlying them.
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was slowly getting in touch with Indian culture and literature, when an incident in 1908 forced him to look deeply into the social life of pre independence Indians and to feel the pain of a nation bonded in the chains of slavery.
After the publication of his pamphlet ‘Can’t be silent any more’, Tolstoy received numerous letters from many Indians. These Indians, thrilled by Tolstoy’s brave exposure of the Tsarist Russia, requested him to write against the British rulers of India. These requests resulted in ‘Tolstoy’s Letter to an Indian’ (14.Dec.1908), in which he criticizes the activities of Britishers in India, exposes them to the whole world. At the same time he tries to save the Indian people from the western bourgeois civilization, which was the main cause of misery to the Indians. This letter was to play an important role in the whole of the East. Tolstoy begins his letter thus, “Exploitation of a majority of people by a minority of foreigners and the corruption emanating out of it, have been worrying me for the past few years.
“It seems even more strange in the Indian context, where a 200 million strong spiritually and intellectually talented people are enslaved by a very small number of people, who are at a comparatively very low religious and spiritual level.”
The root cause of this evil, as Tolstoy thinks, lies in the submission by Indians to these exploiters, to this religion of violence. Had the Indians, according to Tolstoy, followed the teachings of their ancient wise men and not surrendered to this violence, no power in the world was capable of ruling over them. “Well, you don’t protest against the evil, but don’t even be a party to this evil, don’t participate in the violence spread by the administration, courts, tax collectors and the army, and no one in the world can enslave you!” This was the advice given to the Indian people by Tolstoy and it is not difficult to see that these very principles formed the base of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement that was to begin a little later.
The further sections of this ‘letter’ stress the need for Ahimsa (non-violence). As mentioned earlier, Tolstoy sees the main cause of the misery of the Indians in their deviation from their rich spiritual heritage and inclination towards European bourgeois civilization. “A trading company (East India Company) has enslaved 200 million people! Tell this to any man free from superstition, he won’t understand the meaning of these words!” Tolstoy feels that in the battle between love and violence, which is going on deep in a man’s subconscious, one of them has to conquer and the retreat back, and Lev Nikolayevich is confident that in this battle the doctrine of love will emerge victorious over the doctrine of violence. Doctrine of life is the doctrine of love.
Tolstoy completes his ‘letter’ by saying that the Indians in the British India need no constitution, no conferences, no congresses, no new navigational inventions, no mighty explosions, no comforts, no new institutions or universities engaged in the teaching of an endless number of different sciences, no newspapers, no books, no gramophones, no cinema, no such slavish foolishness which is called ‘Arts’, but what they need is a conscious understanding of the doctrine of love which brings ultimate happiness to the mankind.
“Letter to an Indian” stresses the need for introspection and moral perfection, which, according to Tolstoy is the only way of reconstructing the world. It also tells about the non-violent methods of struggle as the only fruitful method of attaining the goal. In the Russian context, the path of non-violence proved futile, but in the Indian conditions, where non-violence forms the basis of its religious and ethical traditions, Tolstoy’s message about non-violence, non-cooperation with the administration, boycott of administrative machinery, refusal to serve in the armed forces etc proved to be of great significance. Later, these very principles – in a little modified form – formed the basis of Mahatma Gandhi’s program of India’s struggle for freedom. Thus, in a way, Tolstoy provided a forgotten spiritual weapon to the Indians to fight their war of freedom.
Tolstoy’s influence in the social spectrum of India is thus unquestionable. He received the thoughts which were expressed in our ancient religious and philosophical books and returned them back to us in a simpler and enriched form, so that the Indian people could feel the presence of that great spiritual strength, which was always present in them and make its fullest use in ousting the alien rule and free themselves from slavery.
Not only the social workers and political activists were influenced by Tolstoy’s ideas, his impact on Indian literature is also very significant. Apart from reading his works (many of Tolstoy’s works have been translated into many Indian languages), many Indian writers tried to reflect Tolstoyan ideals in their works. These works, divergent in themes, forms, styles etc. seem quite nearer to the ideas of self- purification , introspection, universal love etc., which form the base of Tolstoy’s major works. Well known Hindi writer Jainendra Kumar, for example, in his own way deals with the principle of self- analysis and self- purification in his novel ‘Transformation (1953). The young hero of the novel Jatin decides to dedicate his life for the struggle for freedom. After suffering a lot of mental turmoil he chooses the path of terrorism to achieve his goal. He fights with arms in hands and is consequently chased by the police, but he gains the sympathy and love of people for his courage and bravery. But suddenly, towards the end, he realizes his mistake in choosing the bloody path to freedom and surrenders to the authorities. This change in his attitude, this greatness of his soul inspires the police officer, who had been chasing him throughout, so much that he applies for retirement and later emerges out as a religious leader.
Great Indian writer Premchand was highly influenced by Tolstoy. He wrote in 1919, “If the working class of Russia could successfully revolt against the Tsarist regime, why can’t the people of India get rid of this social and colonial exploitation. The need is to prepare them for such a revolution, to encourage them for this ultimate goal, as was done by Tolstoy and many Russian writers.”
Praise of an enlightened human being, of his great moral strength and criticism of meanness and cruelty in human nature finds a clear reflection in the works of many Indian writers. Admiration of the moral strength of a neat, ordinary person, praise of his bravery, propagation of the principle of non-violence and love for life, which are so clearly reflected in Tolstoy’s ‘Kazaki’ and ‘Haji Murat’ can easily be traced in the works of Krishna Chander and T. Shivashankar Pillai.
An aspiration towards self- improvement through introspection, which was so characteristic of Prince Nekhlyudov and Katysha Maslova (‘Resurrection’); Levin, Anna Karenina, Kiti (‘Anna Karenina’); Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostova (‘War and Peace’); Ivan Ilyich (‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’) etc. served as a tool for many Indian writers. The hero of Amritlal Nagar’s ‘The Ocean and a Drop’ (1956) – artist Sajan, belongs to an aristocratic family. Under the influence of the religious teachings of Ramuji, he undergoes a process of self-purification; breaks away from his class, settle down in a hutment in Lucknow and lives in poverty; but he has grown rich in soul. Sajan’s path of attaining self-purification is identical to that followed by Nekhlyudov and Pierre Bezukhov. The same theme was worked upon by Yash Pal in such works as ‘Comrade Dada’, ‘Comrade in the Party’ and ‘The Traitor’ (1940’s)
Munshi Premchand in his ‘Abode of Love’ (1922) gives an expression to the ideas of self-perfection and universal love. Those, who, through introspection discover the negative traits of their characters, either try to achieve moral perfection and follow the path of universal love (Premshankar, Mayashankar, Jwaala Singh and others) or prefer to end their life (Gayatri, Gyanshankar). ‘Abode of Love’ is also called an epic of farmers in which Premchand has depicted the hardships of farmers’ life in a realistic way. But Premshankar, very much like Levin of ‘Anna Karenina’ comes to their rescue. He does new inventions in the field of agriculture, teaches the farmers the importance of precious values of life, helps them financially, morally; tries to gain sympathy of various social strata for these farmers and as a result of his efforts the village becomes a model for others. Premchand was influenced by Tolstoy to such an extent that he is often called the Indian Tolstoy.
In Shivdan Singh Chauhan’s words, “Tolstoy’s significance is increasing day by day in our times. Tolstoy… …called upon the youth to save this beautiful world from wars, imperialism and exploitation,…asked them to follow the path of love, beauty, peace and humanity.”
It is thus clear that the aesthetic values propagated by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy are eternal. He had those ideas in his subconscious. The study of Indian culture and philosophy enriched them to a great extent and he gave back all those precious values to the world. The relationship between Tolstoy and India thus enriched them mutually. It’s a beautiful eternal bond, so precious for the modern world torn into pieces by mutual hatred and violence.