Dialogue  October-December, 2010, Volume 12 No. 2

The Relationship between Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi — A Historical Review

Y.P. Anand


Nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been the bloodiest in human history, while Count Leo Tolstoy (9.9.1828 – 20.11.1910) in Russia and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) (2.10.1869 – 30.1.1948) from India, have been the two greatest leaders who preached non-violence, universal love, concern for the weakest, a moral stance in whatever we do, and a non-violent resolution of conflicts among individuals, groups, as well as nations.

Tolstoy was a Russian noble, had wealth and serfs, had fought in the Crimean war, and was the greatest writer of this age. However, he realized the futility and injustice inherent in violence and in luxury. He freed his serfs, started working like them, and wrote a series of literary pieces in later years on religious, social, and political philosophy while trying to concretize the forgotten message of Jesus, of early Christianity, of the Sermon on the Mount.

Gandhi went to South Africa as a lawyer in 1893 for one year but remained there till 1914. There, he evolved the doctrine and technique of non-violent resistance, then called ‘passive resistance’ (later named by him as ‘satyagraha’) against racial discrimination against Indians. In 1909 he went as a part of a delegation to London for redress of such discrimination, and there came across Tolstoy’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ advocating the non-violent way instead of the violent way, which the Indian youth were trying to adopt, for attaining India’s freedom. Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy about the Indians’ struggle in Transvaal. Thus started the correspondence between them during the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy remained one of the main mentors of Gandhi till the end.

Here, an attempt has been made to give a historical review of the relationship between Tolstoy and Gandhi, in terms of their approach to philosophy and practice of human life and society, which remains as relevant today as it was in their time.        

Initial Phase: Gandhi studies Tolstoy (1893 – 1909)

Gandhi’s first reference to Tolstoy occurs in 1889 when as a student in London he visited the great Exhibition in Paris, and later in his An Autobiography, he recounts his own reaction to the Eiffel Tower thus: ‘A particular attraction of the Exhibition was the Eiffel Tower - -. - - - - Tolstoy was the chief among those who - - said that the Eiffel Tower was a monument of man’s folly - -. Tobacco, he argued, was the worst of all intoxicants - -. The Eiffel Tower was one of the creations of a man under such influence. There is no art about the Eiffel Tower.’ [An Autobiography, CW1 39:68-9] In his ‘Guide to London’, based on his student days, Gandhi quoted from Tolstoy’s essay on “Why People Become Intoxicated” written as a Preface (1890) to an English work ‘Drunkenness’ to stress how hateful both ‘drink and smoke’ are. [CW 1:89-90; and Gandhi the Writer, by B. Bhattacharya, New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1969/2000: p.17]

After coming to South Africa, Gandhi started a study of a wide range of literature and Tolstoy’s works were among those which influenced him the most. He wrote in An Autobiography: ‘Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You [1893] - - left an abiding impression on me. Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and the truthfulness of this book, all the books given me by Mr. Coates seemed to pale into insignificance.’  And, ‘I made too an intensive study of Tolstoy’s books. The Gospels in Brief, What to Do? and other books - -. I began to realize more and more the infinite possibilities of universal love.’ [CW 39:114; & CW 39:131]

In South Africa, he set up his first ashram as Phoenix Settlement (in 1904) so that, ‘the ideas of Ruskin and Tolstoy [be] combined with strict business principles.’ [IO2 (24.12.1904), CW 4:320] He also published a biographical sketch of Tolstoy: ‘It is believed that, in the western world at any rate, there is no man so talented, learned and as ascetic as Count Tolstoy. - - - himself a Russian nobleman, and has, in his youth, rendered very good service - - in the Crimean War. - - - - He gave up his wealth and - - lived like a peasant - -. - - - He believes that - - men should not accumulate wealth; no matter how much evil a person does to us, we should always do good to him - - - -; agriculture is the true occupation of man. - - - - Such is the power of his goodness and godly living that millions of peasants are ever ready to carry out his wish no sooner than it is spoken.’ [CW 5:56-7] He published Gujarati translation of Tolstoy’s short story titled ‘Wonderful Is The Way Of God’ (also titled ‘God Sees the Truth, but Waits’). [IO (23.12.1905), CW 5:167]. 

Gandhi had started the ‘passive resistance’ struggle by Indians against racial discrimination in Transvaal on 11 September, 1906. His quote from Tolstoy summed up the doctrine thus: ‘The principle of State necessity can bind only those men to disobey God’s law who, for the sake of worldly advantages, try to reconcile the irreconcilable; but a Christian - - cannot attach any importance to this principle.’ [CW 7:304] To him, ‘Tolstoy was the best and brightest exponent of the doctrine.’ [IO (12.6.1909), CW 9:243] While inviting essays on ‘The Ethics of Passive Resistance’ for a prize, Gandhi asked that these should contain an examination of, among others, ‘Tolstoy’s works—more especially “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You”’. [CW 7:509] He presented Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ to his warder in Volkrust jail and asked others too to read it as, ‘It is a most logical book. - - Tolstoy practises what he preaches.’ [25.3.1909, CW 9:209] While being taken to the court in handcuffs, he took permission to carry ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’. [IO (5.6.1909), CW 9:240] Earlier, he had advised ‘all in Phoenix to read Tolstoy’s Life and My Confessions. Both are soul-stirring books.’

London Phase: Gandhi—Tolstoy Correspondence (1909 -1910)

Gandhi arrived from South Africa in London on 10 July, 1909 and was there till 13 November, 1909. On 2 July, 1909, Madanlal Dhingra had assassinated Sir Curzon Wylie. In London, Gandhi met many Indians who propagated violent resistance as the only way to obtain India’s freedom. And then he came across a copy of Tolstoy’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, written in reply to the letter of Tarak Nath Das, an Indian who advocated the violent approach. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution.

This prompted Gandhi to write to Tolstoy (1 October, 1909), apprising him about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal going on for three years. He wrote that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and ‘nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times.’ He sent a copy of Tolstoy’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ which ‘has been placed in my hands by a friend.’ He sought Tolstoy’s confirmation of this being written by him and his approval to his friend printing 20,000 copies for distribution and having it translated. He had ‘taken the liberty’ to write the letter ‘in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work.’ [CW 9:444-6]

Later, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views ‘advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on’, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that ‘my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them.’ Gandhi concluded: ‘True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.’ [IO (30.10.1909), CW 9:448-50]

Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): ‘It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as “Resist not him that is evil - -” I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.’ [Gandhi the Writer, by B. Bhatacharya, New Delhi: National Book Trust (1969/2000): p.57]

Tolstoy promptly replied (7 October, 1909) that ‘same struggle of the tender against the harsh, of meekness and love against pride and violence,’ was rising in Russia too, ‘especially in one of the very sharpest of the conflicts of the religious law with the worldly laws—in refusals of military service.’ He wrote that he was happy with the proposed publication and translation of ‘Letter to a Hindoo’. [CW 9:593] With his second letter to Tolstoy (10 November, 1909), Gandhi enclosed a copy of his biography by Rev. J.J. Doke [M. K. Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa] as it ‘had a bearing on the struggle - - of the Indians in the Transvaal - - - idealized both as to the goal as also the methods adopted to reach the goal.’ If Tolstoy were satisfied ‘as to the facts’ as given in Doke’s book, Gandhi would request him to use his influence ‘to popularize the movement’. He also wrote that the negotiations for which he had come to London had failed. [CW 9:528-9]

On the return journey by ship (13 to 22 November, 1909), Gandhi worked at a red hot pace:

          l   He translated Tolstoy’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo [dated December 14, 1908] into Gujarati.

          l   He wrote ‘PREFACE TO LEO TOLSTOY’S “LETTER TO A HINDOO” [the Gujarati translation]. Some extracts are: ‘Slavery consists in submitting to an unjust order, not in suffering ourselves to be kicked. Real courage and humanity consist in not returning a kick for a kick. This is the core of Tolstoy’s teaching.’ ‘Tolstoy gives a simple answer - - - . We are our own slaves, not of the British.’ While Gandhi differed in some aspects, he wrote: ‘The central principle of his teaching is entirely acceptable to me, and it is set out in the letter given below.’ [18.11.1909, CW 10:1-3] 

          l   He wrote ‘PREFACE TO LEO TOLSTOY’S “LETTER TO A HINDOO” [the English version] Referring to the assassination of Sir Curzon Wylie by Madanlal Dhingra, Gandhi wrote that Tolstoy ‘would meet hatred expressed in violence by love expressed in self-suffering. He admits of no exception to whittle down this great and divine law of Love.’ Tolstoy ‘condemns Japan for having blindly followed the law of modern science, falsely so-called’, and Tolstoy questions the very basis of English rule in India in this ‘Letter’: ‘A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising 200 millions. - - - - thirty thousand people, not athletes but rather weak and ill-looking, have enslaved 200 millions of vigorous, clever, strong, freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that not the English but the Indians have enslaved themselves?’ [19.11.1909, CW 10:3-5]

          l   In Appendix I.: ‘Some Authorities’ of his first seminal work, ‘Hind Swaraj’, a primer of non-violent resistance and a critique of ‘modern’ civilization based on violence., Gandhi’s list ‘for perusal to follow up the study’ starts with six books by Tolstoy [The Kingdom of God Is within You, What Is Art? The Slavery of Our Times, The First Step, How Shall We Escape? Letter to a Hindoo] followed by 14 books by 12 other authors. 

In South Africa, in the ‘Preface’ to the English translation of ‘Hind Swaraj’, titled as ‘Indian Home Rule’, he wrote: ‘I have but endeavoured humbly to follow Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson and other writers, besides the masters of Indian philosophy. Tolstoy has been one of my teachers for a number of years.’ [20.3.1910, CW 10: 189] He sent its copy with his third letter to Tolstoy (4 April, 1910) requesting his ‘criticism of the writing’. [4.4.1910, CW 10:210] Tolstoy wrote in reply (8 May, 1910) that he had read the book ‘with great interest because I think that the question you treat in it—the passive resistance—is a question of the greatest importance not only for India but for the whole humanity.’ He also wrote that Doke’s book on Gandhi had given him ‘the possibility to know and understand you better.’ [CW 10:505] In his fourth letter (15 August, 1910), Gandhi referred to his friend Kallenbach’s letter regarding setting up of Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg for the Indian passive resisters’ struggle in Transvaal. Kallenbach had gone through most of the experiences that Tolstoy had described in his work My Confessions. [CW 10:306-7]

In his last letter (7 September, 1910), Tolstoy thanked Gandhi for the articles on ‘passive resistance’ from Indian Opinion and wrote that ‘Love is the aspiration for communion and solidarity with other souls - - the supreme and unique law of human life - -. - - - That law of love has been promulgated by all the philosophies—Indian, Chinese, Hebrew, Greek and Roman. - - it had been most clearly expressed by Christ -  -.’ He critiqued the modern statehood thus: ‘if the law of love cannot exist, therein remains no other law except that of violence, that is, the right of the mighty. It was thus that the Christian society has lived during these nineteen centuries. - - - - Consequently, the life of the Christian peoples is an absolute contradiction between - - love recognized as the law of life, and violence recognized as inevitable in different departments of life: like Governments, Tribunals, Army, etc., which are recognized and praised.’ Referring to the modern pursuit of ‘progress’, he wrote: ‘Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, Salvation Army, the growing criminalities, unemployment and absurd luxuries of the rich, augmented without limit, and the awful misery of the poor, the terribly increasing number of suicides—all these are the signs of that inner contradiction which - - can only be resolved by acceptation of the law of love and by the rejection of all sorts of violence. Consequently, your work in Transvaal - - is yet the most fundamental and the most important to us supplying the most weighty practical proof in which the world can now share - -.’ He closed the letter ‘With my perfect esteem’. [CW 10:511-4]

The letter was received a short time before Tolstoy’s death (20 November, 1910). Gandhi wrote under the title ‘THE LATE LAMENTED TOLSTOY THE GREAT’: ‘In India, we would have described him as a maharshi [great seer] or fakir. He renounced his wealth, gave up a life of comfort to embrace that of a simple peasant. - - he himself put into practice what he preached. Hence thousands of men clung loyally to his words—his teaching.’ [CW 10:369-70]

Tolstoy too had a truly high opinion about Gandhi. After reading his ‘Indian Home Rule’, he wrote in his diary on 20 April, 1910: ‘This morning two Japanese arrived. Wild men in ecstasy over Europe and its civilization. On the other hand, the book and the letter of the Hindu [Gandhi] reveal an understanding of all the shortcomings of European civilization and even of its total inadequacy.’ He wrote in his diary on 6 September, 1910: ‘Good news from the Transvaal about the colony of passive resisters.’ [Mahatma, vol. 1, by D.G. Tendulkar, (1988):121-4, & Gandhi the Writer, by B. Bhattacharya, New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1969/2000: p.72-3]

Post-Tolstoy Period: Gandhi in South Africa (1911-14)

During his stay in South Africa after Tolstoy’s death, Gandhi continued to propagate his ideas and exhort others to study Tolstoy’s books, including works such as ‘Relation of the Sexes’, and ‘Ivan the Fool’ (‘a most devout piece of writing’), whose Gujarati translation (Moorakh Raja Ane Tena Be Bhaio) too was printed . [CW 10:356; & CW 11:161 and 164-5] He wrote to Kallenbach thatre had found ‘many gems to be picked up’ from Tolstoy’s pamphlets  such as, ‘The salvation of men from the calamities which they inflict upon themselves can be realized only in that degree in which they are guided in their lives, not by advantages, not arguments, but by religious consciousness;- -.’ He also wrote: ‘If Tolstoy was the greatest reformer of his age in Europe, he owed it to his doctrine of non-resistance.’ And, he could not accept ‘qualified acceptance of Tolstoy’s teaching’. [5.4.1911, CW 96:47; <11.6.1911, CW 96:55; & 23.9.1911, CW 96: 80]

In ‘The Phoenix Trust Deed’, ‘objects and purposes’ listed for its settlers included: ‘(3) To follow and promote the ideals set forth by Tolstoy and Ruskin in their lives and works’. [IO (7.10.1911), CW 11:164-5] He counted ‘the courage of a Tolstoy who dared to defy the Czars of Russia’ among those ‘that stood out as the greatest.’ [8.7.1914, CW 12:446] He explained that ‘satyagraha’ means Truth-Force, and ‘Tolstoy called it also Soul-Force or Love-Force, and so it is.’ [IO (Golden No. 1914), CW 12:460] These three terms for ‘satyagraha’ became the refrain of Gandhi after he returned to India in 1915 and led the Indian freedom struggle till the end. 

Gandhi in India (1915 – 1928) & Tolstoy

While explaining Gandhi’s outspoken comments against heavily bejewelled princes gracing the opening ceremony of Benares Hindu University, Annie Besant had written that ‘Mr. Gandhi is a “philosophic anarchist” like Tolstoy - - - they are true mystics, and God within guides them; they need no outside law.’ [1.2.1916, CW 13:565] During the Non-cooperation movement, Gandhi repeated Tolstoy’s assertion in his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ that to get swaraj Indians must get rid of their helplessness, hypnotism and inertia under which they laboured. [22.9.1920, CW 18:270]

Commenting on Tolstoy’s story ‘How Much land a Man Needs’, which he had earlier translated in Indian Opinion,  Gandhi remarked: ‘If Tolstoy had known much of cremation, he would even have allowed much less space and, if the body were to receive scientific treatment of reduction - - then no space at all would be required.’ [17.8.1926, CW 31:305] In a famous statement about wants versus needs, he also referred to Tolstoy: ‘A time is coming when those who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’ - - - Fifty years of brilliant inventions and discoveries - - has not added one inch to the moral height of mankind. So said a dreamer and visionary if you will—Tolstoy. So said Jesus, and Buddha, and Mahomed - -.’ [15.11.1927, CW 35:251] He wrote to his son Manilal and his wife Sushila to read Tolstoy’s ‘What Is Art?, because: ‘What is accepted as art by many experts may not be art.’ [5.12.1927, CW 35:363]

He wrote to Alymer Maude (Hon. Organizing Secretary, The Tolstoy Society, England) that he considered ‘it a privilege to do whatever I can in connection with Tolstoy’s works being popularized in India.’ [18.2.1928, CW 36:32] To John Haynes Holmes (USA), he wrote on Tolstoy Centenary: ‘Tolstoy‘s greatest contribution to life lies, in my opinion, in his ever attempting to reduce to practice his professions without counting the cost.’ [20.4.1928, CW 36:245]

Gandhi in India: Tolstoy’s Birth Centenary (1928)

Tolstoy’s birth centenary fell on 9 September, 1928, and Gandhi delivered a memorable speech on this occasion, which included following main points:

          l   ‘Among his works the one which has had the greatest effect on me is The Kingdom of God Is Within You.’ When he read the book forty years ago, he ‘was sceptical about many things and sometimes entertained atheistic ideas. When I went to England, I was a votary of violence - -. After I read this book, that lack of faith in non-violence vanished.’

          l   He attached importance to two things in Tolstoy’s life. ‘He did what he preached. His simplicity was extraordinary’. Hence, ‘Tolstoy - - - strove uncompromisingly to follow truth as he saw it - -. - - - Tolstoy was a great advocate of non-violence in his age. - - - - no one in India or elsewhere who has - - tried to follow it as sincerely as he did.’

          l   It had been said that Tolstoy had failed to find the ‘green stick’ with many virtues which his brother had advised him to discover. As Tolstoy himself said, anyone who believed that he had realized his ideal, ‘would be lost’, and would start falling. ‘The moment Tolstoy saw this truth clearly - - and started on his journey towards the ideal, he had found the green stick.’

          l   Tolstoy drew people’s attention—through his writings and his life—to the law of “bread labour”, i.e. all must do bodily labour to earn food. Non-observance of this law was the ‘cause of the inequalities we see in the world, of the contrasts of wealth and poverty’. Tolstoy himself used to work on the farm or do other labour for eight hours a day, and ‘after he started doing physical labour his literary work came to have greater life in it’ and he wrote ‘his most important work, What Is Art?

          l   Finally, Gandhi wanted everyone to learn three things from Tolstoy’s life: 1) To choose self-restraint over self-indulgence. ‘Modern’/ Western civilization drew them to ‘the path of self-indulgence.’, though there were ‘some beautiful currents too, like Tolstoy’s life.’ We should ‘learn the lesson of self-control from Tolstoy’s life.’ 2) We should resolve never to ‘give up the pursuit of truth’, for which the only right path is that of non-violence, which again ‘means an ocean of love’. 3) ‘The third thing is bread labour—yajna. - - - It is not enough that we do physical labour; we should live only in order that we may serve others’. [16.9.1928, CW 37:260-8]

Gandhi in India: Tolstoy as Gandhi’s Mentor

Gandhi wrote in An Autobiography: ‘Three moderns have left a deep impress on life, and captivated me: Raychandbhai by his living contact; Tolstoy by his book. The Kingdom of God Is Within You; and Ruskin by his Unto This Last.’ [CW 39:76]

Earlier, when asked in what relation he stood to Tolstoy, he replied: ‘As a devoted admirer who owes much in life to him.’ [Young India (27.10.1921), CW 21:352] He had also written in a letter that there was no doubt ‘that Tolstoy’s writings had a powerful effect on me. He strengthened my love of non-violence. He enabled me to see things more clearly than I had done before.’ While ‘there are fundamental differences between us’, ‘they are of little consequence compared with so many things for which I shall feel ever grateful to him.’ [11.3.1926, CW 30:102] He said in Lausanne: ‘I derive the greatest strength from his writings. But as Tolstoy himself admitted, the non-resistance method I had cultivated and elaborated in South Africa was different from the non-resistance Tolstoy had written upon and recommended.’ And, ‘what I had learned from Tolstoy has fructified a hundredfold.’ [8.12.1931, CW 48:406-7]  Much later, he expressed his gratitude to Tolstoy for being the first to appreciate his movement in South Africa: ‘It was he who had prophesied in his letter to me that I was leading a movement which was destined to bring a message of hope to the downtrodden people of the earth.’ [3.8.1942, CW 76:358]

Gandhi in India: Tolstoy and his Teaching of Non-violence and Satyagraha

Replying to Lala Lajpat Rai that he need not fear that Ahimsa (non-violence) may ‘displace the practice of other virtues’, he wrote: ‘Mahavira and Buddha were soldiers, and so was Tolstoy. Only they saw deeper and truer in their profession, and found the secret of a true, happy, honourable and godly life.’ [CW 13:297]

His ‘Instructions For Satyagrahis’, during the Non-cooperation movement, included the following: ‘(a) The preaching of the cardinal principles of the doctrine of satyagraha, - - - - and, with this end in view, literature such as Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Hind Swaraj, Defence of Socrates by me, Tolstoy’s Letter to Russian Liberals and Ruskin’s Unto this Last should be widely distributed.’ [30.6.1919, CW 15:412-3] He explained how ‘Such satyagraha is often resorted to in families’, but its practice ‘in social and political matters’ by him was ‘a new experiment’, and: ‘The late Tolstoy [vide CW 9:444-6 & 593] was the first to draw my attention, in a letter of his to me, to its being such.’ [16.9.1917, CW 13:531; & 11.9.1919, CW 16:123]

Gandhi often referred to ‘the history of Dukhobors whom Tolstoy has described.’ They had refused to cooperate with the State in its violent activities and had finally migrated to Canada.  [4.8.1925, CW 28:22] While he considered that mere refusal of military service was ‘much more superficial than non-co-operation with a whole system which supports the State’, he agreed that it did provide an effective opportunity: ‘This was the position of Tolstoy.’ [8.12.1931, CW 48:402]

When asked, ‘How can one who has spent his whole life in fighting take to ahimsa with success?’ Gandhi gave two prime examples of Badshah Khan, who had ‘become a soldier of non-violence’ even while ‘In his land the sword and the gun are considered essential’, and Tolstoy who ‘served in the army’ and yet ‘became the high priest of non-violence in Europe. [22.5.1946, CW 84:188] He reiterated that ‘Tolstoy had been a great warrior, but when he realized that war was not a good thing he gave up his life in trying to put an end to war. He has said that the greatest power on earth is public opinion and it is generated by truth and non-violence.’ [10.6.1947, CW 88:124] Gandhi saw no passivity in the New Testament ‘and the meaning became clearer to me when I read Tolstoy’s Harmony of the Gospels and his other kindred writings.’ Hence, Christendom had been responsible ‘for the wars which put to shame even those described in the Old Testament and other records’. [29.11.1947, CW90:129-30] Three days before his martyrdom, Gandhi stated how when a doubt was raised that independent India would not be able to hold power non-violently, he related Tolstoy’s story of Ivan the Fool: ‘Ivan remained non-violent even when he became king.’ [27.1.1948, CW 90:503]

Gandhi in India: Tolstoy and his Teaching of “Bread Labour”, “Getting off the Backs” and Swadeshi

Gandhi was inspired by Tolstoy not only in respect of non-violence and non-violent resistance but also by his idea of ‘Bread Labour’ and its concomitant idea of ‘getting off the backs’ of others including the poor. He developed Tolstoy’s theory of ‘Bread Labour’ into a full-fledged theory of the duty and right to work. [6.12.1924, CW 25:404] In 1930, just before starting on his famous ‘Salt March’, Gandhi wrote a series of four articles on the theme ‘VARNADHARMA AND DUTY OF LABOUR’, in which he explained that Tolstoy did not consider that ‘every person should do all his work himself’. Each one must do ‘as far as it is possible’. As a social being, man’s dependence and independence go together. But everyone must ‘earn their livelihood by the sweat of the brow’. As that is not done, ‘dire poverty has arisen in the world and especially so in India. This is also the main cause of ill health and the immense greed for acquisition of wealth.’

Further, Tolstoy felt that ‘man must earn his bread by manual labour, never by mental work.’ Neglect of this ‘universal duty’ has led to ‘distressing disparities’. ‘Disparities will always be there, but like the several leaves of a tree they will look beautiful and pleasant.’ Society must have professionals but as ‘protectors of society’ and not as ‘parasites’. When asked: ‘If Tolstoy’s duty of labour is universally accepted will it not be difficult for poets like Kabir and Rabindra [Tagore] to live in this world?’ Gandhi replied that manual labour was ‘capable of making the poetry of both more forceful and radiant.’ Kabir had ‘earned his living as a weaver of cloth.’ Nor did Tagore ‘earn his living by writing poetry.’ Jesus and Buddha never used intellect to earn their livelihood. With reference to Tolstoy’s stated words that ‘Money and slavery are one and the same thing.’—Gandhi wrote that, ‘money by itself is not harmful, but greed for it is harmful. As opposed to this, slavery is a sign of greed.’ [CW 42:458, 475-6, 489-90 and 507]

Gandhi had made ‘Bread Labour’ as one of the ‘Ashram vows’. The idea is that ‘every healthy individual must labour enough for his food, and his intellectual faculties must be exercised - - only in the service of mankind. If this principle is observed everywhere, all men would be equal, none would starve and the world would be saved from many a sin. - - - even in South Africa I began to observe the rule to the best of my ability.’ [11.7.1932, CW 50:214-5] He cited Tolstoy’s own example: ‘Tolstoy says that his mind became pure only after he started doing eight hours of physical work every day and only then did his writing become pure.’ [25.6.1937, CW 93:110]

Gandhi often recalled that Tolstoy said, ‘if we would but get off the backs’ of our neighbours the world would be quite all right, and ‘if we can only serve our immediate neighbours ceasing to prey upon them, the circle of unities thus grouped in the right fashion will ever grow in circumference till at last it is co-terminus with that of the whole world.’ [12.5.1920, CW 17:408] During his ‘Discourses on the “Gita”’, Gandhi referred to Tolstoy’s saying that ‘man in his foolishness boasts that he will do this and - - - - relieve the suffering of people in distress and so on. But it will be enough - - if this person comes down from off the backs of the people he is sitting on. - - We are riding on the backs of the poor.’ [18.4.1926, CW 32:166] We serve ourselves when we serve others. [History of Satyagraha Ashram, 11.7.1932, CW 50:217-8]

Gandhi in India: Tolstoy and his Teaching against Tobacco Intoxication

In his critique of Eiffel Tower itself (1889), Gandhi had taken support of Tolstoy’s observation that tobacco was ‘the worst of all intoxicants’ and how it could even induce its consumers to commit crimes ‘which a drunkard never dared to do’. [CW 39:68-9] While in the Indian context, Gandhi waged a lifelong battle for prohibition, apparently in Tolstoy’s Russia tobacco was the prime culprit among intoxicants.

In a speech in Burma, he told how Tolstoy, ‘an inveterate smoker himself’ in his earlier days, had cited examples ‘to show that most deliberate crimes have been committed under the influence of smoke’. [13.3.1929, CW 40:138] While making similar references to Tolstoy in his speeches in Madras (now Chennai) and in Sri Lanka, he had also said: ‘But do not make the mistake that between drink and tobacco, drink is a lesser evil. If cigarette is Beelzebub, then drink is Satan.’  [7.9.1927, CW 34:483; & 18.11.1927, CW 35:268]  In his booklet Key to Health, in the chapter on ‘Tobacco’, he recounted how one of Tolstoy’s characters committed the crime   of murder after a cigar smoke, while he had hesitated to do so after consuming liquor. Gandhi added: ‘I know this argument is not very convincing. All smokers are not bad men. - - What Tolstoy perhaps means is that the smoker keeps on committing minor crimes which generally pass unnoticed.’ [10.10.1942, CW 77:18-9] 

Gandhi in India (1929 – 1948) and Tolstoy

In addition to the foregoing comments covered under specific subjects, Gandhi continued to refer to Tolstoy’s life and teachings till the end. Among the books he recommended for study in his various letters included Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of Heaven Is Within You, What to Do, and Essays of Tolstoy. [[1929], CW92:132; 12.8.1932, CW 50:358; & 26.10.1932, CW 51:299] When asked: ‘In your opinion, what world figure has exercised the greatest and best influence upon the twentieth century?’ he was categorical: ‘Tolstoy. He alone.’ [LONDON, before 5.12.1931, CW 48:387-8] When asked: ‘What is your message to the women of Europe?’ he replied: ‘As Tolstoy would say, they are labouring under the hypnotic influence of man. If they would realize the nobility of non-violence, they would not consent to be called the weaker sex. Tolstoy and Ruskin renewed my faith in things which I had only darkly felt.’ [8.12.1931, CW 48:406-7]

On his way back to India from London in 1931, Gandhi met with Tolstoy’s daughter Sukhotina Tolstoy in Rome. She was a friend of Romain Rolland—‘a believer in non-violence’—but had stopped writing to him due to his apparent sympathy with ‘Bolshevism and Bolshevik method’. At his instance, she agreed to write to him. Gandhi told her that Romain Rolland was ‘the one true and honest man in Europe after Tolstoy. Like your father he is old, worn-out, and unhappy over the tendencies of the present age and he has your father’s childlike simplicity of never taking correction amiss - -.’ Gandhi also wrote to him to ‘write to the daughter of Tolstoy and satisfy her curiosity concerning Bolshevism.’ [13.12.1931, CW 48:422-3; & 20.12.1931, CW 48:429] Gandhi reiterated in a letter that Tolstoy’s ‘greatness lay in the fact that as soon as he realized his mistake, he confessed it and corrected it.’

A correspondent quoted Tolstoy (“There are two Gods. There is the God people generally believe in, a God who has to serve them - -. This God does not exist. But the God whom we all have to serve does exist and is the prime cause of - - all we perceive.”), and asked ‘which of these two Gods Gandhiji believed in’. Gandhi’s reply was characteristic: ‘I believe in both Gods - - - both Gods are of our imagining. - - The real God is beyond conception. He neither serves nor receives service. - - - being - - something dwelling in our heart.’ [15.8.1932, CW 50:376-7] In a Prayer Meeting, Gandhi referred to Tolstoy saying that ‘if man dismissed God from his heart even for a single moment Satan occupied the vacancy.’ [20.4.1946, CW 84:38]

A correspondent wrote to Gandhi that: ‘man is above all an artist and a creator.  He cannot be “simple” as Rousseau, Ruskin, Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Gandhiji would like him to be. War he must have as its necessary corollary which also he has transformed into a great art.’ Gandhi replied that we should ‘beware of that art which has not necessity as its basis. Nor may we dignify every want by the name of necessity.’ There was ‘neither beauty nor art’ in what was going on, and ‘Rousseau, Ruskin, Thoreau and Tolstoy were first class artists of their time.’ [CW 62:309, 311] On Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Romain Rolland wrote that for many he was ‘like a return of Christ’, and for others, ‘a new incarnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and of Tolstoy, denouncing the illusions and the crimes of civilization.’ And, John Haynes Holmes wrote: ‘He ranks with St. Francis, Thoreau, Tolstoy, as a teacher of what the Christian scriptures call “non-resistance,” and better the “love that never faileth.”’ [Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and reflections on his life and work, ed. S Radhakrishnan, Bombay: Jaico Pub. House, 1956:205, 85]


The paper gives a broad review of how Mahatma Gandhi had found in Leo Tolstoy a true mentor. But it was not a one-sided relationship. Tolstoy’s last letter and his entries in his diary indicate that Tolstoy too had greatly admired Gandhi’s work as a unique effort in non-violent resistance.

They have been the two greatest exponents and practitioners of non-violence and of non-violent resistance—‘satyagraha’—in this age. Tolstoy proclaimed the truth of ‘non-resistance’ to stem the tide of mounting violence and greed in Europe around the turn of the 19th century. He was, however, spared the violence and destruction of World Wars I II, and the legacy of nuclear weapons that looms large over the world. Gandhi gave to the world the viable alternative of non-violent resistance and sanctified it with his own martyrdom.                                                                 


    1.  Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi: Publications Division (1958-94), in 100 volumes. ‘CW 39: 68-9’ denotes volume no. 39, pp. 68-9.

    2.  Indian Opinion, the weekly journal started by M.K. Gandhi in South Africa in 1903.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati