A Letter to a Hindu; Leo Tolstoy

On the day after the ban (or perhaps the correct word is recall?) of a book on Hindus in India, I read the very small book — A Letter to a Hindu, by Leo Tolstoy. This is the first book by Leo Tolstoy I’ve ever read. I emphasise the word book because 20-odd pages doesn’t a book make; further, it is actually a letter, that was published as a book. Well, if Goodreads is willing to call it a book, I have no qualms. [You can download a PDF version of the book from here]

The letter was written over a hundred years ago, by Leo Tolstoy to Tarak Nath Das, in 1908, “in response to two letters sent by Das, seeking support from the famous Russian author and thinker, for India’s independence from British colonial rule. The letter was published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan.” [Link] Mahatma Gandhi, who later published this letter, and wrote the foreword, warns that:

One need not accept all that Tolstoy says—some of his facts are not accurately stated […]

but

[…] his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavours to practise what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.

And while it is easy to assume that there is some form of treatise of Hinduism in the book; there isn’t. The letter is addressed to a Hindu; but talks of a world that has just recovered from religious superstition and plunged itself into scientific superstition. This is 1908. I checked and double checked. It is uncanny that a letter is as relevant to today as it was a hundred years ago; makes you believe nothing has changed. The letter explores the nature of enslavement – the context was the British rule:

A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand people, not athletes, but rather weak and ordinary people, have enslaved two hundred millions of vigorous, clever, capable, freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that not the English, but the Indians, have enslaved themselves?

Physical and social slavery are but weaker manifestations of the slavery archetype — of the belief system. The contradictory belief system, according to Tolstoy, that humans around the world have employed in different forms needs to be re-evaluated:

[…] the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.

As the Mahatma says in the foreword, the logic is unassailable and he commands attention. This letter is time-proof, as is evidenced by current affairs. Slavery is rampant, the nature of superstition has changed.

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