Believing Versus Being and Living: The Correspondence Between Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Boyd Wilson, Hope College

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Count Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi–a prominent Russian author and a revolutionary Hindu leader–led very different lives, yet they shared remarkably similar beliefs. While Tolstoy spent most of his life breaking away from the strict Christian Orthodox tradition in Russia, Gandhi developed his ontology primarily through Hinduism. They were, however, connected by a powerful spiritual thread: their mutual belief in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as an incontrovertible call to a life without violence. Having read many of Tolstoy’s religious writings on nonviolence, Gandhi looked to the author for guidance on its application in the sociopolitical world. From 1908 until Tolstoy’s death in 1910, the two men engaged in a little-known correspondence. Today, Gandhi is renowned for advocating civil disobedience, which is rooted in the principles of nonviolence discussed in the letters. Scholars credit him with influencing leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., having made civil disobedience an effective method of political protest. Although those claims are valid, they often fail to recognize the importance of Tolstoy and Gandhi’s intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. In my paper, I argue that the similarities between Tolstoy and Gandhi's beliefs in the Judeo-Christian concept of agape love and the Hindu concept of a-himsa were an important part of the history of nonviolent political action. I analyze this in several ways: the background of the two men, their beliefs, and the letters themselves. I then explore the long-term significance of the correspondence as seen through the effectiveness of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, showing that Tolstoy and Gandhi’s combined principles were accessible and practical for the movement.

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