Leo Tolstoy and India – Y.Chelyshev, A.Litman (1985)
LEV TOLSTOY AND INDIA
Chapter from a 1985 book by Yevgeni Chelyshev & Alexei Litman
TRADITIONS OF GREAT FRIENDSHIP
Tolstoy is one of the most familiar European names in India, his works enjoy the widest popularity,” noted Jawaharlal Nehru. Rabindranath Tagore called Tolstoy a teacher of humanity Tolstoy was also highly valued by Premchand, a Hindi and Urdu classic. Chekhov is badshah of the short story, Turgenev is imbued with sympathy for the people, Gorky is the working-class writer but Tolstoy towers over all-a true shahinshah of letters. As it was 25 years back, so it is today”.
The 150th anniversary of Tolstoy’s birth in the autumn of 1978 was marked in India as a national holiday: an extensive programme was carried out by a national committee and a network of committees in the states. Memorial sessions, scholarly conferences, and meetings were held all over India and covered in the press. Books, brochures and special issues of journals on Tolstoy were published in several Indian languages. They all bore witness to Tolstoy’s growing popularity m India to the interest in his works, to the regard and affection of the millions of Indians who link his name with the ‘father of the nation’ Mahatma Gandhi. “Tolstoy was the greatest of the men Mahatma Gandhi happened to meet... Tolstoy’s works, his outlook and personality had a great influence on the ideas of the Indian national liberation movement,” said B. S. Page, a well-known Marathi scholar, at the memorial session in Bombay on 9 October, 1978.
One might cite many more Indian writers and public figures who spoke of Tolstoy’s influence on the spiritual life and literature of 20th-century India. As Romain Rolland once predicted, “Tolstoy’s impact on Asia will be of more importance in its history than his impact on Europe.”
Tolstoy’s advent to India at the turn of the 20th century coincided with an upsurge in the national liberation movement. At that time, a new literature which served the aims of social progress was emerging in the country. As a humanist and champion of the working people, Tolstoy was deeply concerned by the plight of the colonies and dependent countries, and gave his heartfelt sympathy to their liberation struggle. His “Letter to a Hindu” and “Message to the Chinese” and “I Cannot Keep Silent” pamphlet met with a global response and inspired the Oriental peoples with new hope for freedom. “In his diatribes”, writes K. N. Lomunov, “Tolstoy took to task not only the Russian tsars, but also the American President, the German Kaiser and the Japanese Mikado and struck fear into their hearts”.
The English colonial administration and the Indian upper crust of bourgeoisie and landowners also feared his influence and hampered the spread of Tolstoy’s works. “But perhaps the most powerful factor that endeared him to us was that he was one of the first persons in the Western world to express his sympathy and support for our struggle for freedom and justice, and to raise his powerful voice in support of it,” writes Bhisham Sahni, Secretary General of the National Federation of Progressive Writers of India.
The ideas of liberation and democracy were promoted in India by Tolstoy’s correspondence with the immediate participants in that movement, people of various views and creeds, yet with a common desire for support from the Russian writer in their struggle against social and colonial oppression.
One the of first to approach Tolstoy was A. Ramazeskhan, a writer and public figure, editor of a Madras journal The Aryan. In his letter to Tolstoy, he described the plight of his country and asked the writer for a word of encouragement to his compatriots in their struggle for national liberation. Tolstoy’s reply of 25 June 1901 was a message to the Indian people, speaking out in their defence against the colonial oppressors. The letter was published and evoked a wide response in the country.
In 1905-1907, Tolstoy exchanged letters with the philosopher and public figure Baba Premchand Bharati, living in emigration in Los Angeles and publishing the journal, The Light of India there. Tolstoy disagreed with Bharati’s chauvinist and racist views and urged him to adopt the ideas of unity, love and friendship between people to bring about a peaceful and happy life for humanity.
For a number of years, Tolstoy corresponded with a Madras political writer, D. Gopal Chetti, editor of the journal New Reformer The latter published one of the first Indian books on Tolstoy in Madras in 1909, Count Tolstoy, His Life and Teachings.
After Tolstoy’s famous pamphlet “I Cannot Keep Silent” was published in 1909, and evoked worldwide response, his Indian correspondence grew even livelier. He received a number of requests to speak out in protest against the crimes of the British colonialists in India. Reflections over those letters, among them one from journalist Taraknatha Das with an issue of his magazine Free Hindustan containing calls for a revolutionary fight for freedom, led Tolstoy to the publication of his article “A Letter to a Hindu”.
In Tolstoy’s extensive correspondence with India, his exchanges with Mahatma Gandhi stand out in particular. Gandhi wrote about Tolstoy in 1921, “I am Tolstoy’s admirer and follower and owe him a debt of gratitude”.
“Tolstoy’s ideas for Gandhi were like a breath of fresh air,” writes prominent Hindi novellist, Vishnu Prabhakar, “they helped shaoine his new outlook.”
The Tolstoy-Gandhi relationship as an important subject for research has long interested both Indian and Soviet scholars. Some of its aspects were treated by Alexei Litman and Alexei Shififmann. It can be stated, without going too deeply into the matter, that India saw Tolstoy primarily as a moral teacher, which is largely explained by his friendship with Gandhi.
Yet they were close in spirit not only in terms of their religious and ethical teachings but also because in their striving for freedom and human welfare; in the words of Indian scholar Bhisham Sahni, they were both humanists: love of freedom, abhorrence of oppression coloured all their works; they were both champions of peace, against imperialism and colonialism.” “Both Gandhi and Tolstoy opposed the rich and powerful few oppressing the working people. They fought for peace, justice and social progress,” notes Indian writer Vishnu Prabhakar.
Indian progressive intellectuals equally embraced Tolstoy’s uncompromising stand against the autocracy, the orthodoxy and hypocrisy of the Russian state and church. That was fully appreciated by those Indian freedom fighters who sought a major social, political and spiritual renewal for the country along the lines of religious reforms. Gandhi s criticism of orthodox religion echoes Tolstoy’s exposure of the reactionary Russian church as an ally of the monarchy and servant of the ruling classes, “...there are things which are commonly done in the name of Hinduism, which I disregard... The division, however, into innumerable castes is an unwarranted liberty taken with the doctrine... It is, I hold, against the genius of Hinduism to arrogate to oneself a higher status or assign to another a lower...
I have never been able to reconcile myself to untouchability. I have always regarded it as an excrescence.”
Noteworthy is the support given to Tolstoy by the Indian religious reformers after his excommunication. Gandhi’s follower K. K. Kalelkar interpreted this disgraceful act of the Russian clergy thus, “Tolstoy was excommunicated for his revolutionary ideas”.
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Tolstoy’s works, outlook and personality are to this day the subject of heated debates in India. What is his chief message? What makes him dear to the Indian people of today? What can he teach modern Indian writers? These questions find various answers, and Tolstoy is evaluated in various manners from different standpoints. “So multifarious is Tolstoy,” writes Bharatbhushan Agrawal, that when Jainendra Kumar or Devraj speak of him, it seems they mean two different writers. The former is influenced by the Rishi (wise man) who is spiritually close to the Indian way of thinking, absorbed in religious quest for the truth, renouncing worldly riches. The latter is under the spell of Tolstoy the artist and admires his immortal War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
It is significant that writers of widely varying ideas and aesthetic creeds draw upon Tolstoy. Thus, major Indian realist Yashpal owned his allegiance, of all foreign writers, to Tolstoy and Turgenev. And Hindi traditionalist, Kumar, in the words of Agrawal, “harks to Tolstoy’s creative credo more than to anyone else’s.”
One should also bear in mind the evolution of India’s appreciation and treatment of Tolstoy going alongside the evolution of the Indian audience, which reflected the complex political, economic and spiritual development of the country. Tolstoy’s complex multi-faceted creations were not fully understood at once, at first the soil was not quite fertile, the green shoots few.
First of all Tolstoy appealed to the Indian reader with his tales, fables, and parables, with their artless manner, homely wisdom and moral content. The Indian public was particularly receptive to that aspect of Tolstoy’s writings. It wasn’t by chance that Gandhi translated into his native Gujarati several works of that kind.
Tolstoy’s novellas “Family Bliss” and “The Kreutzer Sonata became a sort of revelation for Indian society, still in the grip of medieval customs. In his article, “The Book That Changed My Life , Telugu writer Bucchibabu tells of the turmoil caused in him by “The Kreutzer Sonata” which, as he said, “Along with Tolstoy’s other works, stamped all my writings”. The story was translated into Sindhi by well-known writer A. J. Uttam in 1962.
The Great October Socialist Revolution created a new interest in Russian life and culture in India. Tolstoy’s heritage was seen in the light of the revolutionary upheaval, and again attracted the Indian writers working for social progress and national dignity, protesting against colonial slavery and spiritual degradation. Premchand, for one, dreamed of national writers of Tolstoy’s stature, capable of inspiring the masses. If the working people of Russia were able to make their Revolution, he wrote in 1919, the Indian people, too, could throw off the yoke. “We must prepare the people for it, influence them in the way of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky.”
In 1924 Premchand published a book in Hindi of Tolstoy’s stories in a series of propaganda against collaboration with the colonialists. “Tolstoy’s tales are very popular with the swaraj intellectuals, i. e., among its rather wide circles striving for political independence,” wrote A. P. Barannikov in his paper on Premchand in 1927. “So the Indian authorities look on the book as seditious. In Premchand’s drama The Struggle there is a scene in which the police search the house of a swaraj landowner and arrest him for possessing a copy of Tolstoy’s tales.”
A true understanding of Tolstoy in India was promoted by Lenin’s works, which found their way to India during the 1930s, with the upsurge in the mass anti-colonial movement, the spread of communist ideas, and the consolidation of progressive literature. Lenin defines the social and historical position of Tolstoy thus: “...the uniqueness of Tolstoy’s criticism and its historical significance He in the fact that it expressed, with a power such as is possessed only by artists of genius, the radical change in the views of the broadest masses of the people in the Russia of this period... Tolstoy’s criticism is marked by such emotional power, such passion, convincingness ... fearlessness... just because this criticism really expresses a sharp change in the ideal of millions of peasants...”
Lenin helped the Indian public set Tolstoy’s works in the context of the liberation struggle and sort out what belonged to the past and what was part of the future.
They also served the Indian writers as a theoretical basis for the evaluation of their own cultural heritage and for the development of a new democratic culture. In October 1969, when the 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth was celebrated, a prominent member of the Indian communist movement, S. G. Sardesai, speaking at the Gandhi symposium, said that Lenin’s articles on Tolstoy helped clarify Gandhi’s role in the Indian national liberation movement, point out the sources of his contradictions, and define his strong and weak points. Well-known Indian Marxist literary critic, Prakash Chandra Gupta, once noted that “fora good understanding of Tulsidas (a great medieval poet) our researchers had the help of Lenin’s articles on Tolstoy, in which he analysed the dual character of the great Russian writer’s outlook... After reading those articles we see better what in Tulsidas belongs to the past and what to the future.”
Many Indian writers and public figures were able to appreciate Tolstoy’s true stature on the basis of Lenin’s works. In the 1930s, Ramchandra Shukla protested against a one-sided view of Tolstoy’ stressing his humanism and realism. In October 1978, speaking at
the celebration in honour of the 150th anniversary of Tolstoy’s birth, Ali-Sardar Jaffri, a progressive Urdu poet and critic, said that Tolstoy was not only a guru and a prophet, but also a great realistic writer who pictured the lives of the Russian people with great artistry and feeling.
The first translations of Tolstoy appeared in India at the turn of the 20th century. The quality of translation gradually improved from relating the story in an Indian setting, free renderings with omissions and additions, to faithful translations preserving the original characters,ideas and style. Among the translators were some major literary figures: Premchand, B.B.S. Jyer, Jainendra Kumar, Banarasidas Chatturvedi, Mulk Raj Anand, A. J. Uttam and others. “There is hardly an Indian language into which Tolstoy’s works have not been translated,” writes Yashpal. “Our famous writer Premchand translated 23 stories by Tolstoy into Hindi. Mahatma Gandhi, impressed by Tolstoy’s ideas, translated two of his stories into Gujarati-“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and “Ivan the Fool” . Several Indian translators of Tolstoy’s works have received the Nehru Prize. Speaking of translations of Tolstoy in India, one cannot ignore the work of the Soviet Union’s Progress and Raduga Publishers. Their experience in the field, is invaluable to Indian and Soviet scholars alike.
Now, which of Tolstoy’s creative insights have been most stimulating for the development of Indian literature?
Initially, modern Indian literature was more influenced by Western Europe. Yet with the growth of social and political activity and national awareness, the Indians were increasingly attracted by classical Russian literature. “The works of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and other Russian writers recreate life in full blood and variety. They have profoundly influenced contemporary world literature by their sincere, alert, disturbing intonation,” writes I. Joshi, a well-known Hindi novellist. Remarks of that kind bear witness to the new Indian writers’ search for, and finding of a beacon to follow in the Russian classics. Tolstoy, on the other hand, saw himself as a spokesman for Russian literature, “friendly towards other literatures, disinterestedly sharing its spiritual wealth.”
It would not be an exaggeration to say that of all Russian writers none influenced the literary and spiritual life of India as much as Tolstoy. “His sincere sympathy for the poor and the lowly much affected our writers. His humane ideas moved and inspired my compatriots,” senior Indian writer Banarasidas Chatturvedi said at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1960.23 As Hindi authoress Vijaya Chauhan rightly notes, “Like Premchand’s characters in his novel
Love-Nest, many more Indian writers’ characters are Tolstoian in spirit. That might be a subject for literary research.”
Reflecting the needs, interests, and trends of their literature and their public, Indian writers were learning Tolstoy’s raw, naked realism: “Tolstoy was a pioneer among those who gave a social orientation to literature. A realist to the core, he saw the individual in the context of his relations with others, his role in the community and consequently he took into view the contradictions in society, exposed fearlessly the cant, the injustices and the cruelties perpetrated in it,” wrote Bhisham Sahni, “We in India too were turning towards social realism at that time, the problems of our society being very similar to those obtaining in Russia. Tolstoy’s powerful voice, ringing with sincerity and a sense of concern for suffering humanity, found an immediate response in our hearts.”
The Indian critic Prabhakar Machwe finds Tolstoy’s influence in the stories for children by Sane Guruji and didactic tales by V. S. Khandekar (Marathi language); in the stories of Jainendra Kumar, Sudarsan and Kaushik (Hindi), RamnarayanPathak (Gujarati), and Anandasankar Ray (Bengali). Besides, Prabhakar Machwe finds that Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and the story “The Kreutzer Sonata” made their mark on the novels of W. M. Joshi (Marathi), Jainendra Kumar (Hindi), Saretchandra Chattopadhyaya and Probodh Kumar Sanyal (Bengali), Mulk Raj Anand (English), and others.
Many important Indian masters learned Tolstoy’s rich laconic form, which was much wanting in the early stages of their development. “Tolstoy likes to speak simply and directly,” notes Jainendra Kumar. “The Indian novellists were influenced by Tolstoy’s style, especially when they dealt with moral and ethical problems or the mores of society,” notes Prabhakar Machwe, quoting as examples Premchand’s Arena, Anand’s The Untouchable, K. Ch. Panigrahi’s Matira Manisa and Khandekar’s Ulka.
The Indian writers learned from Tolstoy’s insights into the inner workings of the psyche, the “dialectics of the soul”, Tolstoy’s distinctive method of psychological analysis. Tolstoy’s realistic tradition bore the best fruit for those writers who sought to link moral and psychological problems with social ones and to use psychological analysis for creating well-rounded characters set against the complex background of the world around them.
“In Tolstoy’s works we feel our own heartbeat,” said Vishnu Prabhakar. “Though he was born in Russia, and belongs to the whole world, we sometimes feel that he is our, Indian writer, that his books were conceived on Indian soil.” “The more we read Tolstoy the closer to us in spirit he seems to be. His characters feel and behave just like the Indians,” remarks well-known Indian journalist D. P. Chatturvedi.31 Speaking at the celebration of Tolstoy’s 150th birthday in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, President of the Indian Academy of Literature Umashankar Joshi said, “With the exception of Russia, there is hardly any other country that took Tolstoy to heart more than India.”
One could quote many more statements to that effect. They all bear witness to the Indians’ acceptance of Tolstoy into their fold, and, on the other hand, to the objective similarity of the two spiritual and artistic traditions.
“War and Peace is a spectacular instance of a novel in which the Indian readers find, as it were, a description of their own life and values,” writes Ramchandra Prasad. “It seems we are not faced with Russian but Indian reality ... the peasants, squalor ... the superstitions, etc., remind of the Indian village, the accursed misery of the Indian peasants. In the Resurrection it seems to be the Indian society’s vice and corruption that Tolstoy mercilessly exposes.”
Indian writers are also impressed by the epic sweep, profound generalizations, and exceptional power of Tolstoy’s images. S. Gangadharan writes that for him, Tolstoy’s works “are imbued with great moral conviction, an imaginative vision and realism that have no parallel in the world of literature.” Ramchandra Prasad finds “the source of Tolstoy’s ethical depth in the writer’s unalienable community with his people.”
The character particularly dear to the Indian writer’s heart is an upper-class truth-seeker rejecting his own environment and becoming aware of his affinity to the common people. The hero of The Drop and the Ocean, a novel by the Hindi writer Amritlal Nagar is Sadjan, an artist of aristocratic birth, who under the influence of a hermit preacher, Ramaji, is cleansed of his bourgeois rot and breaks away from his class to settle in the poor men’s quarters. He sacrifices comfort and wealth for selfless toil in the name of a better future for the downtrodden. His purification and moral renewal is sometimes compared to the “resurrection” of Nekhludov or Pierre Besukhov, and Ramaji is paralleled with Platon Karatayev.
This trend has evolved somewhat differently among the Marxist writers. Characteristic is the awakening shown in the novels by progressive Hindi writer, Yashpal, Comrade Dada and The Traitor, and especially Party Comrade (1940s). The writer repeatedly acknowledged Tolstoy’s who in the characters of Maria Pavlovna Shchetinina and Novodvorov pictured revolutionaries of upper class descent, Yashpal, in his novel Party Comrade, tells the story of a bourgeois young man who becomes a Communist. His heroic death is conceived as an expression of the main idea of the novel: Communists fight for the freedom of India to the end.
Rural India was especially interested in Tolstoy’s “village stories with, in Chernyshevsky’s words, “a peasant outlook”. Those works of Tolstoy’s met with particularly lively response among the democratic Indian writers of the 1920s and 30s who strove to draw public attention to the hard lot of the peasants. “Of Russian writers, Tolstoy exercised
most influence on the Telugu writers”, notes Shatavahan, “for in his works he created authentic lifelike people and credible, memorable scenes of peasant life, so that the predominantly agricultural Telugu people saw their own image in them.” The prominent Hindi writer and journalist Jagdish Prasad Chatturvedi writes to the same effect: “All his life Tolstoy was trying to fathom and to resolve the causes of the virtually enslaved peasants’ misery. So, his views on the peasant problem seemed to the Indians rooted in the Indian reality.”
Immensely attractive for the Indian writers was Tolstoy’s love of folklore, as they, in their turn, drew from their own folk culture. Among the democratic writers interested in the peasant life Prabhakar Machwe points out Shivarama Karanth (in the Cannada language), Sane Guruji, V. S.Khandekar, and Mama Varerkar (Marathi), Sarathandra Chattopadhyaya, Tarashankar Banerji, and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (Bengali), Nanak Singh and Devendra Satyarthi (Punjabi), Vunnava Lakshminarayan (Telugu), Kalki (Tamil), Meghani and Darshak (Gujarati).
Bathuk Desai, a veteran of the Indian liberation movement tells of his taking up Tolstoy under Gandhi’s influence: “Mahatma Gandhi called him (Tolstoy) his teacher. I was also attracted to Tolstoy because he depicted the life of Russian peasants, their ruthless exploitation by landed gentry and the Czar’s bureaucracy, and as a village youth I could see the same ruthless exploitation of landless labour, Harijans, and secluded tribes in my village and around. Tolstoy raised these issues on an almost purely individual ethical basis. How can life be arranged in a way that men should not ruin themselves by exploiting the labour of others? This pose attracted idealist youth to his writings in those days. We sought an answer to this in elimination of alien rule. It took us a decade more to realise that this was not enough, and a change in the social system was the remedy.” “Though Tolstoy depicted mainly the peasant revolt of Russia in the period 1861-1905, how is it that we in India were attracted to him?” asks Desai, and answers: “The hideous tyranny of the oppressors and the utter helplessness of the victims is deeply and universally true, and that not only attracts us but people all over the world.”. Gangadharan writes that Tolstoy “upbraids property which in truly revolutionary fashion he describes as the root of all evil and all suffering... It was Tolstoy’s bitter attacks on wealth, his tirade against property and his exposure of the feudal, corrupt and impoverished structure of the tsarist Russia that revolutionized the Russian masses which in turn paved the way for the establishment of communism.”
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“Tolstoy’s great historical merit lies in the organic combination within his work of subtle psychological analysis and broad epic
narration,” writes M. B. Khrapchenko. “The Tolstoyan ‘dialectics of the soul’ is something completely new in literature, and his synthesis of the epic and the psychological opened up vast new potential for the aesthetic discovery of reality through literature”. Premchand once emphasized how important it was that Indian writers should acquire that feature of Tolstoy’s creative method: “War and Peace is a novel about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Yet that is not the main thing. Tolstoy’s greatest merit is that he was able with wonderful skill to blend his characters’ lives with the historical events, and show them in development, not externally, but as it were from inside.”
The national awakening, the upsurge in the liberation struggle brought forth a new literature capable of showing Indian life in all its multifarious complexity. Hence, the interest in War and Peace. “I believe that he towers above many of his contemporaries,” asserts Mulk Raj Anand, “because ... he is the author of War and Peace, a monumental, intricate and encyclopaedic history of Russian society of the early 19th century .” The same idea is developed by S. Gangadharan: “War and Peace is much more than a novel. Grand in conception and epic in scope, it is a panorama of the political and social life of Russia during the turbulent period of Napoleonic wars, a tapestry as vast and varied as the Russian heartland itself, a mosaic of human emotions and a fascinating study of the interaction of the historical and philosophical processes as well as the transformation of the former through the influence of the latter so that it becomes symbolic of the whole activities of mankind.” Indian writers also value in this immortal novel the heroism of the people. Mulk Raj Anand considers War and Peace an anti-war message echoing in all peace-loving hearts.
The Indian writers speak of the great impression made on them by Tolstoy’s epic, of their turning to it as a source of artistic mastery.
The rise of the epic novel in India owes a great deal to War and Peace. Like Tolstoy, some Indian writers try to comprehend then- national history, to visualize the masses during crucial periods and to picture the complex variety of life. War and Peace served as a model in that sense. Thus, the main character of Mulk Raj Anand’s trilogy The Village, Across the Black Waters, and The Sword and the Sickle, is an ignorant downtrodden peasant, Lalu Singh, who after his experiences as a soldier and prisoner-of-war becomes the leader of a peasant uprising. Tara, the heroine of Yashpal’s two-part novel False Truth, develops from a submissive victim of domestic tyranny into a freedom fighter during the tragic Hindu-Moslem clashes of 1947 and the partition of the country.
The Indians repeatedly draw parallels between some of their best novels and War and Peace. Krishna Kripalani writes about Tagore’s Ghora: “Though not so vast in its scope and sweep of events nor so rich and varied in its gallery of portraits, it is to Indian fiction what Tolstoy’s War and Peace is to the Russian.”45 B. B. Agrawal in the above-mentioned book compared War and Peace and Yashpal’s two-part novel False Truth. Speaking at Tolstoy’s 150th anniversary celebration in the Bolshoi Theatre, Umashankar Joshi compared War and Peace with the Mahabharata'. “For India, Tolstoy’s epic novel is the closest a modem work can come to the Mahabharata in portraying human life and in opposing the unquenchable sacred light of justice to the inhumanity of war.”
Tagore is often compared to Tolstoy in India, for he, too, spoke against colonialism, imperialism, racial discrimination, and the moral degradation of Western civilization, which was a symbol of capitalism to both writers. Like Tolstoy in Russia, Tagore in India was the voice and the conscience of the people; that is, the spokesman of the democratic public, a champion of truth and justice. There is ample ground for this comparison. Indeed, Tagore’s criterion for perfection and truth is, as with Tolstoy, nature and human closeness to nature. Tagore’s Santiniketan, like Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana, was a source of progressive ideas. Noteworthy is the parallel between Tolstoy and Tagore drawn by Ramchandra Prasad in his article “Tolstoy in World Literature”: “Tagore’s work is as great in its way as Tolstoy’s, both being literary cornerstones of their time. Both writers made great contributions to their respective national literatures. Both painted epic pictures of their peoples’ lives as they knew it. Besides creating scenes of remarkable realism, both aspired to sublime spiritual values. Both strove to bring all people on earth together. Both passionately loved their countries and castigated their vices, both worked for a better future not only for their nations, but for all mankind.”
As Tagore in his novel Ghora criticized the obsolete Hindu traditions incompatible with modern life, so Tolstoy criticized Russian church for its rigid, senseless, antiquated dogma and ritual. As Tagore in The Home and the World and The Four Parts gave a life-like panorama of public life and political struggle in Bengal of the early 20th century, so Tolstoy in his works showed the plethora of Russian life of his time. Both writers in their works attempted to create just social relations on earth.
Sundri Uttamchandani in his above-mentioned work “Lev Tolstoy and Sindhi Literature” refers to Mangharam Udharam Malkani “who compared Tolstoy with Gurudev Tagore whom he considers the successor of Tolstoy”.
In the finest traditions of the Russian intelligentsia with its characteristic internationalism, Tolstoy studied and popularized Indian culture with great enthusiasm.
Tostoy took up his Indian studies in 1870-80s in connection with the publication of a series of books on the Oriental thinkers.
He began with literature on Buddhism, seeking the ideas of peace, goodness and love so cognate with his humanistic outlook. He was drawn to Buddhism by its idea of equality, of men as children of omniscient mother-nature, its denial of god as a supreme being ruling the world and controlling the destiny of man. On the other hand, the Buddhist conception of man’s passive acceptance of suffering was alien to Tolstoy’s buoyant love of life. In his essays in the popular almanac, Family Reading Tolstoy gave an accessible interpretation of ancient Indian moral teachings. He stood in awe of the sages of Indian antiquity who made such significant contributions to world culture.
Tolstoy said that he found the ethics of the Vedas close to his own views and emphasized its positive, constructive character. He considered the Vedas a masterpiece of world literature “expressing the highest emotions”.
Tolstoy included many quotations from the Vedas and Upanishads in the collections, Family Reading, World Wisdom and some others. In Mahabharata and Ramayana Tolstoy emphasized the ideas of industriousness, peacefulness, modesty, and scorn of worldly riches. He particularly loved Bhagavadgita’s teaching that “man ought to use all his spiritual power for doing his moral duty”. Tolstoy’s collections also included fables and legends from Panchatantra and Hitopadesha, Puranas, Kurals, from the book of Buddhist ethics Dhammpada, Buddhist sutras and other wonderful creations of the Indian genius. Tolstoy made adaptations of Indian tales and parables to give them a Russian flavour. He substituted Russian folklore characters for the Indian ones. He used the ancient Indian ethical and moral ideas in his own stories and tales for popular audiences.
In medieval Indian philosophy, Tolstoy was attracted first of all to the teaching of Shankara: his protest against caste and religious strife, against war, the idea of universal love, rejection of wealth and luxury. Tolstoy was intensely interested in modern Indian philosophy and social thought. In Iris later years, he studied Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda. Without sharing Ramakrishna’s mystic ideas, Tolstoy supported his concept of man’s spiritual essense, of the equality of all religions, and his high moral principles. He included some of his maxims in collections of ancient wisdom.
Vivekananda appealed to Tolstoy with his patriotism, rejection of bourgeois society’s injustice, his leaning on peasant moral values, and his defence of the peasants’ interests. Tolstoy’s activities undoubtedly promoted mutual enrichment of the two cultures.
“There is another aspect to Tolstoy’s thought which synchronized with the thinking of many an Indian thinker and writer,” notes Bhisham Sahni. “If we study the literature of the second half of the last century we find there a growing mistrust of what is known as Western civilization, and of the Western way of life. This mistrust and dislike persisted right up to Tagore and Premchand and even later... Tolstoy had a similar mistrust of the bourgeois Western culture and
expressed it in no uncertain terms. And like many an Indian thinker, he too put forward idealistic solutions.” In that respect Tolstoy’s conception is similar to that of religious and social reformers and progressive writers of India, who resorted to their cultural heritage in the struggle against the blight of both the middle ages and the bourgeois civilization, which, in Tolstoy’s opinion did not liberate the working people from slavery but only camouflaged their state of oppression.
Tolstoy is seen in India as a model writer committed to civil and public duties. There are frequent calls for learning from Tolstoy, following his example, and doing one’s duty by the people. Speaking at the 1978 memorial conference on Tolstoy in Delhi, Punjab novellist K. S. Duggal said that Tolstoy believed literature had a mission: ministering to man’s progress. Progressive Indian writer Sh. Chauhan pointed out that Tolstoy was urging the writer to participate in public life, in the struggle for social progress, for peace, for disarmament, for socialism. “How many writers are there today capable of such sincere sympathy for the poor as Tolstoy had? ” asks J. P. Chatturvedi.
“Tolstoy is great above all as a man of exceptional vitality,” wrote Anatoly Lunacharsky. Tolstoy’s love of life, unshakable faith in man, in the triumph of truth and justice help the Indian writers keep their optimism and find their bearings under the degrading flood of existential philosophy and bourgeois decadence.
More than any other Russian writer Tolstoy built up links of friendship between Russia and India, helped millions of Indians come to know, love, understand, and trust the Russian people. “Through Tolstoy we came to know and love Russia, with which we are now linked in friendship,” said Banarasidas Chatturvedi. “The Indians bow to Tolstoy and revere his memory not only as a great writer, but also as India’s sincere friend,” insists Prabhakar Machwe. “Thus, we revere and honour him not only as a consummate artist, a great humanist, a pilgrim in quest of truth, a great public figure who raised his powerful voice for justice, but also as a great friend of India whose views and principles almost directly influenced the course of events in our country when India was setting out on its struggle against the British authority,” writes Bhisham Sahni. “But his interest in Indian philosophy and religion is only one side of the story. His concern for the contemporary situation in India, the life of the people, the persecutions suffered by them under the British regime, their hunger and poverty, and their struggle against oppression and for freedom and justice, was equally great.”
Tolstoy’s voice still rings out loud and clear in today’s independent India. Authors come to him for moral support, for lessons in writing, patriotism, and courage.
Tolstoy is close to millions of Indians in his call to fight colonialism and imperialism, racial discrimination and all kinds of war. “Tolstoy’s voice in the modern world has not lost its power,” writes Bhavaniprasad Mishra, “in his assertion of life, criticism of war, protest against debasement of individuality which is being turned into a cog in some mechanism.” According to Shivdan Singh Chauhan, “In our time, all the more important is Tolstoy who urged the young people to deliver the world from the curse of wars, imperialism, and exploitation and to seek truth, love, beauty, peace and humanism.”
Years, decades, and generations pass, but Tolstoy’s fame in India does not fade. In today’s independent India, as in the years of struggle for national liberation, Tolstoy’s word inspires the millions, filling their hearts with faith in mankind and a better future, asserting the ideals of peace, friendship and progress.