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A Letter to a Hindu: Tolstoy and Indian independence movement

Taraknath Das, an anti-British, Indian revolutionary & internationalist scholar

"A Letter to a Hindu" was a letter written by Leo Tolstoy to Tarak Nath Das on 14.12.1908. The letter was written in response to the letters sent by Das, seeking support from the famous Russian author and thinker for India's independence from British colonial rule. The letter was published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. The letter caused the young Mohandas Gandhi to write to the world-famous Tolstoy to ask for advice and for permission to reprint the Letter in Gandhi's own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion, in 1909. Mohandas Gandhi was stationed in South Africa at the time and just beginning his lifelong activist career. Gandjiji then translated the letter himself, into his native Gujarati.

In "A Letter to a Hindu", Tolstoy argued that only through the principle of love could the Indian people free themselves from colonial British rule. Tolstoy saw the law of love espoused in all the world's religions, and he argued that the individual, nonviolent application of the law of love in the form of protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance were the only alternative to violent revolution. These ideas ultimately proved to be successful in 1947 in the culmination of the Indian Independence Movement.

This letter, along with Tolstoy's views, preaching, and his book "The Kingdom of God Is Within You", helped to form Mohandas Gandhi's views about nonviolent resistance.

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Other stories from the life of Leo_Tolstoy

Teachers described Leo Tolstoy as unable and unwilling to learn

Leo Tolstoy at age 20, in 1848

Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 and his mother died when he was two and his father died when he was nine. Tolstoy and his siblings were brought up by relatives. In 1844, he began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University, where teachers described him as "both unable and unwilling to learn". Tolstoy left the university in the middle of his studies and began leading a lax and leisurely lifestyle. In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother and joined the army. Tolstoy served as a young artillery officer including the Battle of the Chernaya. During the war he was recognised for his courage and promoted to lieutenant. He was appalled by the number of deaths involved in warfare and he left the army after the end of the Crimean War.

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Transformation of Leo Tolstoy to Non-violence and Spirituality

Leo Tolstoy in 1897

Tolstoy was appalled by the number of deaths involved in warfare and he left the army service immediately after the end of the Crimean War. His experience in the army and two trips around Europe converted Tolstoy from a dissolute and privileged society author to a non-violent and spiritual anarchist. During his 1857 visit, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that marked the rest of his life. In a letter to his friend, Tolstoy wrote: "The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens ... Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere." His European trip in 1860–61 shaped both his political and literary development when he met Victor Hugo.

Tolstoy's concept of non-violence or Ahimsa was bolstered when he read a German version of the Tirukkural (literally Sacred Verses, is a classic Tamil language text). He later instilled the concept in Mahatma Gandhi through his "A Letter to a Hindu" when young Gandhi corresponded with him seeking his advice.

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Tolstoy chose poverty and denial of the will

Tolstoy dressed in peasant clothing, in 1901

After reading Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation", Tolstoy gradually became converted to the ascetic morality upheld in that work as the proper spiritual path for the upper classes. In Chapter VI of A Confession, Tolstoy quoted the final paragraph of Schopenhauer's work. It explains how a complete denial of self causes only a relative nothingness which is not to be feared. After reading passages such as the following, the Russian nobleman chose poverty and formal denial of the will:

But this very necessity of involuntary suffering (by poor people) for eternal salvation is also expressed by that utterance of the Savior (Matthew 19:24): "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Therefore, those who were greatly in earnest about their eternal salvation, chose voluntary poverty when fate had denied this to them and they had been born in wealth. Thus Buddha Sakyamuni was born a prince, but voluntarily took to the mendicant's staff; and Francis of Assisi, the founder of the mendicant orders who, as a youngster at a ball, where the daughters of all the notabilities were sitting together, was asked: "Now Francis, will you not soon make your choice from these beauties?" and who replied: "I have made a far more beautiful choice!" "Whom?" "La povertà (poverty)"

: whereupon he abandoned every thing shortly afterwards and wandered through the land as a mendicant.

In 1884, Tolstoy wrote a book called What I Believe. He affirmed his belief in Jesus Christ's teachings and was particularly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, and the injunction to turn the other cheek, which he understood as a "commandment of non-resistance to evil by force" and a doctrine of pacifism and nonviolence.

Based on Christ's teachings, Tolstoy derived the philosophy "Non-resistance during conflict". This idea in Tolstoy's book "The Kingdom of God Is Within You" directly influenced Mahatma Gandhi and therefore also nonviolent resistance movements to this day.

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The Last Station: Final days of Leo Tolstoy

Lev Tolstoy railway station

In his last days, he spoke and wrote about dying. Renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle, he left home one winter night. His secretive departure was an apparent attempt to escape from his wife's tirades. She spoke out against many of his teachings, and in recent years had grown envious of his attention to Tolstoyan "disciples".

After a day's train journey south, Tolstoy reached Astapovo railway station (Russia). Tolstoy fell ill (pneumonia) at the Astapovo station and died here on November 7, 1910. Tolstoy died in 1910, aged 82. Later, the station was renamed Lev Tolstoy in 1918. The police tried to limit access to his funeral procession, but thousands of peasants lined the streets.

According to some sources, Tolstoy spent the last hours preaching love, non-violence, and Georgism to fellow passengers on the train.

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