I’ve loved Russian literature for as long as I’ve loved reading... The poetry of Pushkin (‘Russia’s Shakespeare’). The theatre of Chekhov. The novels of Dostoyevsky, Gogolm, and Tolstoy.
I was familiar with Dostoyevsky's peculiar life, but I couldn’t say the same about Leo Tolstoy.
So, I decided to delve into the history of the ‘War and Peace’ author. What I discovered surprised me – with his profound views on civilisation and his constant pursuit of tranquillity and social reform, he was a staunch advocate of non-violence and tolerance above all else.
I was also surprised to find that Tolstoy, who had written a book titled The Rule of the Prophet Muhammad, had influenced (and been influenced by) the greats of China and India.
While he had found great inspiration in the works of Chinese poet Lao Tzu, he had served as a source of inspiration himself for Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he fostered a deep scientific and philosophical relationship; his influence on Gandhi was so deep that it changed some of the activist’s ideas and beliefs.
For Gandhi, Tolstoy represented an ideal version of himself.
A rich partnership
Their correspondence began in October 1909. Gandhi, deeply touched by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, wrote the Russian author a letter, and from then on, the two became pen pals, up until Tolstoy’s death the following year.
Tolstoy’s writings on non-violence through love had a profound impact on Gandhi and served to awaken his conscience. They provided him with new understandings through which he read the Bhagavad Gita, the gospels, and especially Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
In 1932, Gandhi wrote: "Tolstoy reinforced my faith in something that, at the time, I only had a vague understanding of... I worked on the foundations laid down by Tolstoy. Like a good student, I added to what my teacher had left me.”
Personally, I believe that Tolstoy's main message to Gandhi was that genuine experience is demonstrated through acts of love and tolerance, completely rejecting any claim to know the absolute truth. In essence, he adhered to the basic concept that truth presents itself differently to each individual.