Sunday 2 June 2024




Henry Troyat, the scholarly Russian-French author who wrote an authoritative biography of Tolstoy, records that in the months before his death in 1910, Tolstoy was corresponding “with Gandhi, whom he deeply admired, except for his Hindu patriotism, which spoils everything’”.

Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest and most influential authors of all times; within his lifetime, he had come to be regarded and celebrated as an author and philosopher of the west. Reports of Gandhiji’s Satyagraha in South Africa, the form of struggle against tyranny that he invented and led, must have reached far and wide already in 1910, for Tolstoy, who lived in his “inaccessible literary stronghold” of Yasnaya Polyana, to agree to correspond with the young man and even to come to admire him deeply.

The correspondence occurred in the context of the Letter to a Hindoo, which Tolstoy had written to response to a couple of letters from Tarak Nath Das, an Indian revolutionary in North America, seeking support for the Indian Independence movement. Gandhiji came across this letter during his visit to England in the latter half of 1909 and translated it into Gujarati in the course of his voyage back to South Africa. Before publishing the translation in his weekly paper, Indian Opinion, Gandhiji writes to Tolstoy requesting him to confirm the accuracy of the English translation that he had used and seeking his permission for publishing the Gujarati translation. This was the beginning of Gandhiji’s correspondence with Tolstoy. In his last letter to Gandhiji written in September 1910, a couple of months before his death in November 1910, Tolstoy writes:

“…your [Gandhiji’s] work in Transvaal, which seems to be far away from the centre of our world, is yet the most fundamental and the most important to us supplying the most weighty practical proof in which the world can now share and with which must participate not only the Christians but all the peoples of the world. …”

Gandhiji and his work were thus already known in 1910 to Tolstoy, in his remote abode. The fame had spread because of the crucial significance of his work for mankind, as Tolstoy hints. The Mahatma and his work continue to guide all people of the world suffering under the tyranny of unjust and arrogant rulers. No films or other exercises in public relations are required to propagate it.

[Gandhiji in his correspondence with Tolstoy displayed an impish insistence on the foundational principles of Hinduism, which seems to have led Tolstoy to temper his admiration with the proviso “except for his Hindoo Patriotism” that Troyat records. We shall write about this episode in a later blog. The correspondence between Gandhiji and Tolstoy is reproduced in our book Making of a Hindu Patriot.]


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