Gandhi and Tolstoy


Gandhi and Tolstoy

Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD
Gandhi initially adopted a form of non-cooperation, which was echoed in the works of Tolstoy, Henry Thoreau and reinforced by his Quaker friends in South Africa.

The ideas of M.K. Gandhi, or Mahatma Gandhi as he is popularly known, are all but forgotten in India; and yet Gandhi more than most in recent times struggled to advance Indian ethics beyond the pale of its apparently diminishing relevance in a modern, civilizing and progressive world. Perhaps Gandhi does not present himself as much of a theoretician. But his genius lay in his practical wisdom, particularly in his ability to take an idea from a traditional practice or context (e.g. sat,  ‘true to being’, or religious fasting) and applying that with vivacity to disparate contemporary issues or situations, whether on dietary matters or in an act of civil obedience. For this he would attract criticism from both traditionalists and modernists alike.

Gandhi is, of course, rightly famous for his hand in bringing down the two century-old British Raj  or sovereignty in India, precipitating a spate of anti-colonial movements across the globe. Thus he stood hard against one kind of oppression, and one form of exploitation, though he was also pained by other consequences of its manifestations. But what is more significant is the way  or means by which he was able to achieve this feat and how this ties in with the particular ethics he gave voice to. That in the process he also ends up questioning many of the traditional (Hindu) values and customary practices, as well as a host of modern (Western) values, though perhaps not overturning them, is also significant. So he was happy to switch his grounds for vegetarianism from customary habit to ethical consideration for animals.

But Gandhi was a curious mix of the radical and the conservative. For example, he took up the cause of civil rights in South Africa, but his struggle did not extend much beyond the rights for the Indian community. Still, he set an example of ‘civil resistance’ which some Black leaders, and their Christian sympathizers of the time, followed. Returning to India, Gandhi was much anguished by the injustices of the caste, class and religious divisions that had taken deep root in Indian society. He became a champion of the cause of the ‘untouchables’, whom he gave the name Harijan (‘People of the Lord’, nowadays better known as ‘Dalits’), rallying against the prejudices and ‘the evils of the caste system’. It looked as though Gandhi was set to have the entire varna structure dismantled.

In the long run, however, Gandhi defended the varna qua class system, on the grounds that it was (i) different from the proliferate caste system; ii) a sensible scheme for the division of labour; and iii) it was a law of human nature, and hence part of dharma. What he did not find agreeable was the inordinate rights and privileges of one class, especially the brahmin, abrogated to itself over the other classes.

Equality, he thought, is not an issue in the design, but it becomes a problem when the structure gets tilted vertically The enigma of dharma oddly places constraints on the otherwise splendid idea of civil and human rights that Gandhi awakened to rather early in his career; but it also helps him forge a principle of human action which itself has buttressed the struggle for rights of one kind or another in different quarters. That principle is nonviolent action or ahimsa.

Above: A letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi

Gandhi initially adopted a form of non-cooperation, which was echoed in the works of Tolstoy, Henry Thoreau and reinforced by his Quaker friends in South Africa. It underpinned the idea of ‘non-resistance’, meaning the renunciation of al opposition by force, when faced with evil, injustices and oppression. Gandhi called this ‘passive resistance’ even as he modified his strategy, and coined a new term, satyagraha, which, he said, better reflected the Indian basis of this technique. What this implies is that Gandhi, no longer content with simply ‘turning the other cheek’ or just withholding taxes, obligations, or advocating ‘go slow’, sought a method by which to bring the adversary to (a) confront the situation and, as it were, meet eye-to-eye on the issue in dispute, and b) redress the evil or wrong without coercing or inflicting injury or violence onto the other party.

In developing this method, what Gandhi does, in effect, is to combine three cardinal notions that had long currency in Hindu, Jaina and Buddhist ethics.. And these notions or concepts are, satya, ahimsa, and tapasya.