Monday 3 June 2024



We began our previous blog on Tolstoy and Gandhiji with Troyat’s quote about how Tolstoy “deeply admired” Gandhiji “except for his Hindu patriotism, which spoils everything”. There is a background to this exception that tempered Tolstoy’s admiration. 


In his Letter to a Hindoo, Tolstoy had expressed his great appreciation for the ways of the Hindus, but he had some reservation about some of their beliefs. Towards the conclusion of this Letter, he advised the Hindus to shun these beliefs, writing:


If only people freed themselves from their beliefs in all kinds of Ormuzds, Brahmas, Sabbaoths, and their incarnation as Krishnas and Christs, from beliefs in Paradises and Hells, in reincarnations and resurrections, from belief in the interference of the Gods in the external affairs of the universe, and above all, if they freed themselves from belief in the infallibility of all the various Vedas, Bibles, Gospels, Tripitakas, Korans, and the like, and also freed themselves from blind belief in a variety of scientific teachings about infinitely small atoms and molecules and in all the infinitely great and infinitely remote worlds, their movements and origin, as well as from faith in the infallibility of the scientific law to which humanity is at present subjected: the historic law, the economic laws, the law of struggle and survival, and so on… —the simple law of love, natural to man, accessible to all and solving all questions and perplexities, would of itself become clear and obligatory.  


Gandhiji, while translating the Letter did not quite appreciate this advice, especially the advice to the Hindus to give up belief in reincarnation and rebirth. In his letter to Tolstoy, seeking permission to publish the Gujarati translation of the Letter, he politely requested Tolstoy to remove the reference to reincarnation in this context:


I would also venture to make a suggestion. In the concluding paragraph you seem to dissuade the reader from a belief in reincarnation. I do not know whether …you have specially studied the question. Re-incarnation or transmigration is a cherished belief with millions in India, indeed, in China also. With many, one might almost say, it is a matter of experience, no longer a matter of academic acceptance. It explains reasonably the many mysteries of life. With some of the passive resisters who have gone through the gaols of the Transvaal, it has been their solace. My object in writing this is not to convince you of the truth of the doctrine, but to ask you if you will please remove the word “re-incarnation” from the other things you have dissuaded your reader from.


It was indeed impish for the young Gandhi to make such a request to the celebrated sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy, it seems, was not amused by the impudence. Replying to Gandhiji, he wrote: “As to the word ‘reincarnation’, I should not myself like to omit it, for, in my opinion, belief in reincarnation can never be as firm as belief in the soul’s immortality and in God’s justice and love. You may, however, do as you like about omitting it.”


Gandhiji, in his Gujarati translation, removed both “reincarnation” and “resurrection” from this paragraph of Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindoo.


Such was the deep faith that Gandhiji had already acquired in Hindu Dharma and its foundational principles. Later, in 1921, in an article published in the Young India of 6.10.1921, he proclaimed:


I call myself a sanatani Hindu, because,

1. I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avataras and rebirth,

2. I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense,

3. I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular,

4. I do not disbelieve in idol-worship.


Notice that the first of the essential attributes of Hinduism that he defines here is belief in rebirth and reincarnation. 


Gandhiji was the first and perhaps the only modern Hindu to proudly and unapologetically proclaim his faith in all of the foundational principles of Hinduism. Unlike many of our reformist leaders, he was not overwhelmed by neither the claims of universal rationality of the West, nor the claims to universal love and justice of Christianity. He refused to compromise on any of the principles of Hinduism on such grounds. He did not compromise on these even in the face of Tolstoy, the wise and saintly spokesperson of the western civilisation and Christian religion. This complete and unwavering faith in Indian civilisation and Hindu religion made the world pause and listen to him. Beyond his unconditional faith, he needed no other support to make an imprint on the world. 


Postscript: Gandhiji, it seems, was aware Tolstoy’s exasperation at his ‘Hindu Patriotism’. In March 1926, long after the death of Tolstoy, while writing to an unnamed correspondent about some ‘fundamental differences’ between him and Tolstoy, he wrote: … “My patriotism is patent enough; my love for India is ever growing but it is derived from my religion and is therefore in no sense exclusive."

This note is based on our book, "Making of a Hindu Patriot" and on an article on the Relevance of Mahatma Gandhi on our website.

No comments:

Post a Comment