ARTICLES : Gandhian view on Spiritualism/Religion

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Tolstoy's Thoughts on Religion and Nonviolence

Christian Bartolf


It was in 1884 that Count Leo Tolstoy continued his personal confession in “My Religion” - he found in the principle of non-violent resistance (which he called “non-resistance”) the key to understand the Gospels, a new understanding of his life and of modern society in his age. Non-violence became the ethical basis for his doctrine of Truth Force which has later been developed by Mahatma Gandhi in his “Satyagraha” philosophy and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. in his concept of Soul-Force.

My Religion
“My personal life is interwoven with the social, political life, and the political life demands of me a non-Christian activity, which is directly opposed to Christ's commandment. Now, with the universal military service and the participation of all in the court in the capacity of jurymen, this dilemma is with striking distinctness placed before all people. Every man has to take up the weapon of murder, the gun, the knife, and, though he does not kill, he must load his gun and whet his knife, that is, be prepared to commit murder. Every citizen must come to court and be a participant in the court and in the punishments, that is, every man has to renounce Christ's commandment of non-resistance to evil, not only in words, but in action as well”

And by the examples of the superior court and district court, criminal court and the court of arbitration Tolstoy illustrated the Christian doctrine condemning the State's principle of violent retaliation:

“Christ says, Do not resist evil. The purpose of the courts is to resist evil. Christ prescribes doing good in return for evil. The courts retaliate evil with evil. Christ says, Make no distinction between the good and the bad. All the courts do is to make this distinction. Christ says, Forgive all men; forgive, not once, not seven times, but without end; love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. The courts do not forgive, but punish; they do not do good, but evil, to those whom they call enemies of society. Thus it turns out, according to the meaning, that Christ must have rejected the courts."

Where after Tolstoy pointed out how often Jesus had come into conflict with the political law, because he returned back to the origin of Divine Law. Jesus broke the law of the privileged castes which tortured and finally killed him. The lasting impression of a public execution in France during his trip through Europe was reflected in Tolstoy's words of ethical disgust with the human criminal law in “My Religion”:

“No man with a heart has escaped that impression of terror and of doubt in the good, even at the recital, not to speak of the sight, of the executions of men by just such men, by means of rods, the guillotine, the gallows”.
“Christ says, You have been impressed with the idea, and you have become accustomed to it, that it is good and rational by force to repel the evil and to pluck an eye out for an eye, to establish criminal courts, the police, the army, to resist the enemy: but I say, Use no violence, do not take part in violence, do no evil to any one, even to those whom you call your enemies”.

Tolstoy realized that he would face stern resistance from two groups of people belonging to quite different ideological camps:

“These men belong to the two extreme poles: they are the patriotic and conservative Christians, who acknowledge that their church is the true one, and the atheistic Revolutionists. Neither the one nor the other will renounce the right of forcibly resisting what they regard as an evil. Not even the wisest and most learned among them want to see the simple, obvious truth that, if we concede to one man the right forcibly to resist what he considers an evil, a second person may with the same right resist what he regards as an evil”.

Not the annihilation of evil but the increase of injustice has been the result of the law of violence in the social, political and economical field of human life:

“Not only Christ, but all Jewish prophets, John the Baptist, all the true sages of the world, speak of precisely this church, this state, this culture, this civilization, calling them evil and destruction of men”.

Tolstoy condemned the law of violence. He revealed the law of love, benevolence and conscience. And he appealed to the morality of his readers, to realize the ethical commandments: no more and no longer tortures or executions of more and more victims :

“Who will deny that it is repulsive and painful to human nature, not only to torture or kill a man, but even to torture a dog, or to kill a chicken or a calf? (I know men living by agricultural labour, who have stopped eating meat only because they had themselves to kill their animals.)”
“Not one judge would have the courage to strangle the man whom he has sentenced according to his law. Not one chief would have the courage to take a peasant away from a weeping family and lock him up in prison. Not one general or soldier would, without discipline, oath, or war, kill a hundred Turks or Germans, and lay waste their villages; he would not even have the courage to wound a single man. All this is done only thanks to that complicated political and social machine, whose problem it is so to scatter the responsibility of the atrocities which are perpetrated so that no man may feel the unnaturalness of these acts. Some write laws; others apply them; others again muster men, educating in them the habit of discipline, that is, of senseless and irresponsible obedience; others again -- these same mustered men -- commit every kind of violence, even killing men, without knowing why and for what purpose”.

No analysis could be given more precisely of the fatal system of command-and-obey which characterises the military system. Tolstoy objected to the despotisms of the Russian Tzar and the German Kaiser as harshly as to the dilution of the same principle of power by British parliamentarism. In his writings of confession he testified against the pseudo-security of a complacent bourgeoisie and feudal caste:

“whether to know that my peace and security and that of my family, all my joys and pleasures, are bought by the poverty, debauch, and suffering of millions, -- by annual gallows, hundreds of thousands of suffering prisoners and millions of soldiers, policemen, and guards, torn away from their families and dulled by discipline, who with loaded pistols, to be aimed at hungry men, secure the amusements for me; whether to buy every dainty piece which I put into my mouth, or into the mouths of my children, at the cost of all that suffering of humanity, which is inevitable for the acquisition of these pieces; or to know that any piece is only then my piece when nobody needs it, and nobody suffers for it”.

Tolstoy was right to condemn the reproaches of Christ's doctrine being a chimera by reflecting upon the reality of the real social and political disorder:

“Christ's teaching about non-resistance to evil is a dream! And this, that the life of men, into whose souls pity and love for one another is put, has passed, for some, in providing stakes, knouts, racks, cat-o'-nine-tails, tearing of nostrils, inquisitions, fetters, hard labour, gallows, executions by shooting, solitary confinements, prisons for women and children, in providing slaughter of tens of thousands in war, in providing revolutions and seditions; and for others, in executing all these horrors; and for others again, in avoiding all these sufferings and retaliating for them, - such a life is not a dream!”.

Tolstoy illustrated the lucidity of the Christian doctrine of Non-Resistance, the key to understand the Gospels, with the ancient prophet Elijah to whom God manifested himself not with thunder and lightning but in a smooth breeze blowing from the refreshed leas after the storm:

“The movement of humanity toward the good takes place, not thanks to the tormentors, but to the tormented. As fire does not put out fire, so evil does not put out evil. Only the good meeting the evil, and not becoming contaminated by it, vanquishes the evil. Every step in advance has been made only in the name of non-resistance to evil. And if this progress is slow, it is so because the clearness, simplicity, rationality, inevitableness, and obligator ness of Christ's teaching have been concealed from the majority of men in a most cunning and dangerous manner; they have been concealed under a false teaching which falsely calls itself his teaching”.

Tolstoy learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read and translate the Holy Scripts of Judaism and Christianity in their ancient translations. Before he was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church, he had written “A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology” and “The Gospel in Brief”, and, in addition, Tolstoy later gave an account of Christian doctrines in a version dedicated to children, which actually explained the original meaning of Christ's teachings to all people who could read and listen.

The Kingdom Is Within You

In his famous work “The Kingdom of God is Within You” (1893), Leo Tolstoy laid down his political philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He ostracized in particular the modern slavery of military conscription or compulsory military service which had been introduced in Russia after the army reform of 1874:

“The establishment of general military service is like the activity of a man who wants to prop up a rotten house. The walls are crumbling - he puts rafters to them; the roof slopes inwards, he build up a framework; boards give way between the rafters, he supports them with other beams. At last it turns out that although the scaffolding keeps the house together, it renders it quite uninhabitable”.

It is the same with universal military service, which destroys all the advantages of that social life which it is supposed to guarantee.
The benefits of social life consist in the security given to property and labour, and in the mutual co-operation towards general welfare. Military service destroys all this.

“The taxes levied on the people for armaments and war absorb the greater part of the products of that labour which the army is called upon to protect. Taking away the whole male population from the ordinary occupations of their life destroys the very possibility of labour. The menace of war, ever ready to break out from one moment to the next, renders vain and profitless all improvements of social life”.
“For Governments, general military service is the utmost limit of violence required for the support of the whole system; for subjects, it is the utmost limit of possible subjection. It is the key-stone in the arch which supports the walls, whose removal would demolish the whole building”.
“The time has come when the ever-increasing abuses of Governments and their mutual feuds require from their subjects such material and moral sacrifices, that every man must necessarily hesitate and ask himself: Can I make these sacrifices? And for what am I to make them? they are required in the name of the State. In the name of the State I am required to give up everything that is dear to man: family, safety, a peaceful life and personal self-respect”.

It was quite significant that in the nineteenth century North American preachers gave up their offices within their denominations to found Socialist communities influenced by the ideas of the French Utopian thinker Charles Fourier in order to restore the pioneering spirit of the Pilgrim Fathers in post-revolutionary USA against the expansionist economism of early capitalism. Among those who wanted to revive the revolutionary spirit of the independence struggle against the British colonial power, we find the first secular theorists of Non-Resistance with arguments even for non-believers, atheists or agnostics. In his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You” Tolstoy quoted the voices of Adin Ballou and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who opposed the system of slavery. “The Kingdom of God is Within You” captured young Gandhi's interest as an Indian lawyer in South Africa and won him over to follow Tolstoy's influence.