Tolstoy remains an enduring influence in India

Tolstoy remains an enduring influence in India

Leo Tolstoy. Credit: Pixabay Image

Even today, 110 years after his death, Leo Tolstoy’s books continue to have a profound influence on thousands of people across the world. Most book lovers invariably have at least one or two masterpieces of the great Russian writer on their bookshelves – perhaps War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

So, it was not surprising that Indian activist Vernon Gonsalves had a copy of War and Peace among his many books. But what astonished many was, when in August last year, the Pune police cited War and Peace as part of the “highly incriminating evidence” it has seized from the home of Gonsalves, accused of inciting violence in Koregaon Bhima in 2018. Also, the Bombay High Court asked Gonsalves why he kept “objectionable material such as books like War and Peace”.

Then, barely a few days later, Prime Minister Modi, addressing an economic forum in Russia said that Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi had an “indelible effect” on each other and that India and Russia must take inspiration from them to strengthen bilateral ties.

Howsoever one perceives Tolstoy and his books – objectionable or inspiring -- there is no doubt that he was a powerful writer, and his books have an enduring appeal. More so, in the time of the ongoing pandemic that has seen sales of his books soar.

Curiously enough, just as much as Tolstoy’s books have had an influence on Indian readers, India also had a strong impact on Tolstoy. He became interested in Indian thought as a young man and started reading about it. Indian ideas had a part in Tolstoy’s philosophy, and he adapted Indian stories into Russian.

Later, he also became interested in the thoughts of Vivekananda and Ramakrishna and had several contacts and admirers in India such as Tagore and Gandhi. A letter written by Tolstoy in 1908 to the Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das, following the latter’s request for support from Tolstoy for India’s independence, is indicative of the influence of Indian philosophy and religions on Tolstoy. In the letter, Tolstoy quotes from the Vedas and the Upanishads as well as excerpts from Lord Krishna’s teachings and stresses on the importance of love as the only source of freedom from every form of enslavement.

The letter was later passed on to Gandhi, who translated it from Russian and published it in an Indian newspaper, Free Hindustan. The letter was then published in the form of a slim book titled Letter to a Hindu with a foreword by Gandhi. Thus, began a series of correspondence between the two. “I read your book with great interest,” Tolstoy later wrote of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (“Indian Home Rule”) “because I think that the question you treat in it – passive resistance – is a question of the greatest importance not only for India but for the whole of humanity.”

In early 1909, Tolstoy had received the third volume of Vivekananda’s works and within a few months, he told an editor of a prominent Russian publishing house that Vivekananda was the most eminent of modern Indian thinkers and he should be published in Russian.

Tolstoy and Gandhi exchanged seven letters in 1909-10. Tolstoy was one of the sources of inspiration for Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. Gandhi was greatly influenced by Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You and his essay on Christianity and Patriotism.

Tolstoy’s ideal of simplicity of life and purity of purpose influenced Gandhi deeply and no wonder, when he started an ashram on a 1,000-acre farm in Johannesburg in 1910 for his Satyagraha campaign to protest discrimination against Indians, he named it Tolstoy Farm.

Meanwhile, Tolstoy’s literary output as well as the philosophy of his later years became popular reading in India, mainly through English translations as well as through Indian languages. Noted litterateur D Javare Gowda has translated at least three major works of Tolstoy into Kannada.

What is so unique about Tolstoy’s books that continue to remain on people’s reading list? Is it War and Peace, frequently cited as the greatest novel ever written; long, unconventional and with over 500 characters that explores the French invasion of Russia and its impact on Russian society?

Or is it Anna Karenina, the family drama that deals with love and betrayal? Or, perhaps Resurrection, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, A Confession, Hadji Murat or How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Is it his search for truth and God, the moralistic voice of right and wrong, the non-resistance to evil? 

The reasons may differ, but most readers will agree with the assessment of British poet Matthew Arnold that “a novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life.”

To end, a memorable line from Tolstoy: “We can only know that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

(The writer is a senior journalist)