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How Tolstoy Influenced Mahatma Gandhi

Updated: May 1, 2022

The One-Year Correspondence That Would Change the Course of History


After the reports of the atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol, I had a hard time processing my relationship to Russian literature. The more I thought of it, however, the more I realized that while Russian literature cannot explain or forgive the war crimes committed by Vladimir Putin and certain Russian soldiers, we must not forget the Russians who stand for something different. Russians do not speak with one voice any more than Americans or Indians do, and canceling all Russian voices is to risk becoming more like the thing we despise: prejudiced, hostile toward a group of people born in a certain place, to a particular group. Literature opens our eyes to worlds and perspectives and helps us overcome our separations. It increases our capacity for empathy. I can think of no more important voice right now than Leo Tolstoy, whose message of love and nonviolence transformed a young Indian activist and, in doing so, changed the face of civil disobedience and arguably altered the destiny of millions.

Mohandas Gandhi, 1906
Leo Tolstoy, 1910

On December 14, 1908, two days after the 39-year-old Mohandas Gandhi was released from South Africa’s Volksrust prison for refusing to carry the certificate of registration required of all Indians living in the province of Transvaal, Leo Tolstoy would get his Letter to a Hindu published in the journal Free Hindustan. It would take another eight months before Gandhi would read it.

Gandhi was then in London to speak with British officials about the discriminatory policies imposed on the Indian communities of South Africa and was increasingly frustrated by the lack of support he was receiving. Other Indians he met with believed violent resistance was the only way to end the oppression in South Africa and break free of British rule.

A friend handed Gandhi Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu from his copy of Free Hindustan. In it, the 80-year-old Tolstoy urged the journal to rethink its position that resistance to aggression is not simply justifiable but imperative. Tolstoy argued that love and love only is the way to rescue Indians from enslavement.

“Forcible resistance to evil-doers involves such a contradiction as to utterly destroy the whole sense and meaning of love,” Tolstoy wrote.

It was a message that Taraknath Das, the editor of Free Hindustan, found hard to accept as he believed that passive resistance was futile, but the message resonated with Gandhi.

Gandhi had already been dramatically influenced by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. Gandhi described the change he underwent in a speech in 1928 commemorating Tolstoy’s death.

“At that time, I was skeptical about many things… I was a votary of violence. I had faith in it and none in nonviolence. After I read this book, lack of faith in nonviolence vanished.”

After reading Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu, Gandhi was inspired to write to the ailing 80-year-old at his home in Yasnaya Polyana.

An epistolary exchange would begin that would continue until Tolstoy’s death on November 20, 1910. Their correspondence would help further define and shape Gandhi’s views about ahimsa, the Hindu doctrine not to cause harm to any living thing.

Leo Tolstoy, 1910. Photo by Vladimir Chertkov.

Gandhi’s first letter to Tolstoy arrived on October 7, 1909.

It was a busy time for the elderly and ailing Tolstoy. It was then four years after the Russian Revolution of 1905 that brought concessions from Nicholas II, including a manifesto that promised a national legislative assembly, the abolition of censorship, religious tolerance, and permission to form political parties. It meant that all of Tolstoy’s banned works could be published. His most recent essay was his reaction to the hanging of twenty peasants for attempted robbery. In his essay I Cannot Be Silent, Tolstoy condemned not only the death penalty and the government that uses it, but also the society that tolerates it.

In his letter, Gandhi informed Tolstoy about the racial oppression facing British Indians in South Africa and their efforts to follow Tolstoy’s principle of nonviolence.

British Indians, before whom the position was fully explained, accepted the advice that we should not submit to the legislation, but that we should suffer imprisonment, or whatever other penalties the law may impose for its breach. The result has been that nearly one-half of the Indian population that was unable to stand the heat of the struggle, to suffer the hardships of imprisonment, have withdrawn from the Transvaal rather than submit to a law which they have considered degrading. Of the other half, nearly 2,500 have, for conscience’s sake, allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times. The imprisonments have varied from four days to six months; in the majority of cases with hard labour. Many have been financially ruined.
At present, there are over hundred passive resisters in the Transvaal goals. Some of these have been very poor men, earning their livelihood from day to day. The result has been that their wives and children have had to be supported out of public contributions, also largely raised from passive resisters.
This has put a severe strain upon British Indians, but in my opinion, they have risen to the occasion. The struggle still continues, and one does not know when the end will come. This, however, some of us at least have seen most clearly, that passive resistance will and can succeed where brute force must fail.

Gandhi then asked for permission to translate Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu into his native Gujarati and reprint it in his South African publication Indian Opinion.

Tolstoy would respond quickly on October 7, 1909.

Just now I have received your very interesting letter, which gives me great pleasure. May God help all your dear brothers and co-workers in the Transvaal. This fight between gentleness and brutality, between humility and love on one side, and conceit and violence on the other, makes itself ever more strongly felt here to us also — especially in the sharp conflicts between religious obligations and the laws of the State expressed by the conscientious objection to render military service. Such objections are taking place very frequently.
I am very pleased to have [A letter to a Hindu] translated [into Gujarati].

On October 11, Gandhi received Tolstoy’s letter and replied immediately. He included a book written about his activism in the Transvaal region and asked Tolstoy to use his influence to popularize the movement.

If [the movement] succeeds, it will be not only a triumph of religion, love and truth over irreligion, hatred and falsehood, but it is highly likely to serve as an example to the millions in India and to people in other parts of the world who may be down-trodden, and it will certainly go a great way towards breaking up the party of violence, at least in India. If we hold out to the end, as I think we would, I entertain not the slightest doubt as to the ultimate success; and your encouragement in the way suggested by you can only strengthen us in our resolve.
The negotiations that were going on for a settlement of the question have practically fallen through, and together with my colleague, I return to South Africa this week and invite imprisonment. I may add that my son has happily joined me in this struggle and is now undergoing imprisonment with hard labour for six months. This is his fourth imprisonment in the course of the struggle.

Gandhi would not receive a response from the ailing Tolstoy and would write again on April 4, 1910.

Mohandas Gandhi, South Africa, 1906

You will recollect my having carried on a correspondence with you whilst I was temporarily in London. As a humble follower of yours, I send you herewith a booklet which I have written. It is my own translation of a Gujrati writing. Curiously enough, the original writing has been confiscated by the Government of India. I, therefore, hastened the above publication of the translation.
I am most anxious not to worry you, but if your health permits it and if you can find the time to go through the booklet, needless to say, I shall value very highly your criticism of the writing.
I am sending also a few copies of your Letter to a Hindu, which you authorised me to publish.

Tolstoy would write on May 8, 1910.

I have just received your letter and your book, Indian Home Rule.
I read your book with great interest because I think 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.
I could not find your former letters, but came across your biography by J. Doss, which too interested me much and gave me the possibility to know and understand your letter.
I am not quite well at present and therefore abstain from writing to you all what I have to say about your book and all your work, which I appreciate very much, but I will do it as soon, as I will feel better.

Leo Tolstoy would write one more time to Gandhi on September 7, 1910, just two months before his death.

I received your journal, Indian Opinion, and was glad to see what it says of those who renounce all resistance by force, and I immediately felt a wish to let you know what thoughts its perusal aroused in me.
The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what, in my opinion, is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words, the striving of men’s souls towards unity and the submissive behaviour to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts. This law was announced by all the philosophies — Indian as well as Chinese, Jewish, Greek, and Roman...
Most clearly, I think, was it announced by Christ, who said explicitly that on it hang all the Law and the Prophets. More than that, foreseeing the distortion that has hindered its recognition and may always hinder it, he specially indicated the danger of a misrepresentation that presents itself to men living by worldly interests — namely, that they may claim a right to defend their interests by force or, as he expressed it, to repay blow by blow and recover stolen property by force, etc., etc. He knew, as all reasonable men must do, that any employment of force is incompatible with love as the highest law of life and that as soon as the use of force appears permissible even in a single case, the law itself is immediately negated … And if once the law of love is not valid, then there remains no law except the right of might. In that state Christendom has lived for 1,900 years.

Tolstoy described the story of a girl in a Moscow girls’ school where an archbishop asked the girls whether it is always forbidden by the law of God to kill, and one girl spoke up and responded “always.” Despite the teacher and the archbishop explaining that it was permissible in war and at executions, the girl held fast and said that to kill is under all circumstances forbidden even in the Old Testament and explained that Christ has not only forbidden us to kill, but in general to do any harm to our neighbour.

The archbishop, for all his majesty and verbal dexterity, was silenced, and victory remained with the girl...
Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest and supplies the most weighty practical proof, in which the world can now share, and not only the Christian but all the peoples of the world can participate.
I think it will please you to hear that here in Russia, too, a similar movement is rapidly attracting attention, and refusals of military service increase year by year...
In the confession of Christianity — even a Christianity deformed as is that taught among us — and a simultaneous belief in the necessity of armies and preparations to slaughter on an ever-increasing scale, there is an obvious contradiction that cries to heaven, and that sooner or later, but probably quite soon, must appear in the light of day in its complete nakedness. That, however, will either annihilate the Christian religion, which is indispensable for the maintenance of the State, or it will sweep away the military and all the use of force bound up with it-which the State needs no less. All governments are aware of this contradiction, your British as much as our Russian, and therefore its recognition will be more energetically opposed by the governments than any other activity inimical to the State, as we in Russia have experienced and as is shown by the articles in your magazine. The governments know from what direction the greatest danger threatens them and are on guard with watchful eyes not merely to preserve their interests but actually to fight for their very existence.

Two months later to the day, on November 7, 1910, Tolstoy would die of pneumonia at Astapovo train station.

Gandhi in his speech commemorating Tolstoy in September 1928, would define nonviolence as Tolstoy defined it:

Nonviolence means an ocean of compassion; it means shedding from us every trace of ill-will for others. It does not mean abjectness or timidity or fleeing in fear. It means, on the contrary, firmness of mind and courage, a resolute spirit.

Gandhi said of Tolstoy:

Tolstoy was the very embodiment of truth in this age. He strove uncompromisingly to follow truth as he saw it, making no attempt to conceal or dilute what he believed to be the truth. He stated what he felt to be the truth without caring whether it would hurt or please the people or whether it would be welcome to the mighty emperor…I know no one in India or elsewhere who has had as profound an understanding of the nature of nonviolence as Tolstoy had and who has tried to follow it as sincerely as he did

He then describes what can only be his approach to what he learned from Tolstoy.

We cannot live on inherited wealth. If we do not continue to add to it, we would be eating it away.

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