The book was impossible to lay aside once I had begun it. It gripped me … I could not get any sleep that night. I was determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.
M K Gandhi
The book that had made such an immediate and profound impact on Gandhi was John Ruskin’s seminal work Unto This Last. Originally a collection of four articles published in the Cornhill Magazine (London) and Harper’s (New York) in 1860, they were later published in book form. A copy of the work was given to Gandhi, as a gift, whilst he was practising law as a young man in South Africa and it led to a deep reassessment of his life.
The focus of Ruskin’s work was on the nature of economic inequality in society which was seen to be morally wrong because it generated, in large sections of the population, deprivation and hardship. The solution, he thought, was a fairer distribution of wealth to alleviate this suffering. “ There is no wealth but life.” Ruskin wrote, and life incorporated everybody, there were no exceptions. Human life itself was the only real value in society.
He also launched a critique on industrialization and its methods of production which were considered to be harsh, unjust and demeaning for the workforce involved. His view was that work should embody spiritual virtues that contribute to the full development of the individual, as well as the intrinsic value of the finished product. The latter of which, should always meet some aesthetic and functional need, not want. With this re-focusing of work (based, to some extent on the medieval craft guilds) a real sense of purpose and meaning would be re-invested in the work place, Ruskin argued, to benefit everyone.
Soon after reading Unto This Last, Gandhi set about establishing the Phoenix community which was based on the values that Ruskin had promoted. Gandhi also published a Gujarati translation of the work so that it could receive wider readership.
What has appealed to me most about Tolstoy’s life is that he practised what he preached and reckoned no costs too great in his pursuit of truth.
Another deep influence on Gandhi’s thinking was the writings of Leo Tolstoy, especially the essay The Kingdom of God is Within You which mapped out Tolstoy’s individualistic interpretation of Christian living. Around 1879 Tolstoy experienced a deep emotional/spiritual crisis in his life. He emerged afterwards with radically different precepts for living, that included … embracing simplicity, undertaking manual work, becoming a vegetarian, accepting pacifism, giving away large amounts of his considerable wealth because he felt no need of it, and publicly dismissing his former literary work as aristocratic art because it failed to touch the lives of ordinary Russian peasants that he had increasingly come to identify with.
Tolstoy felt that the established church of his day had lost its way and that it was incumbent on the individual, through rigorous self-examination, to align themselves to the true message of the Gospels, as exemplified by Christ. The Russian Orthodox Church viewed Tolstoy’s work as a form of spiritual anarchy and eventually excommunicated him. But his reputation grew and he was later offered the Nobel Prize, which he duly turned down because he refused to accept money anymore.
Gandhi was so inspired by Tolstoy’s teachings that he started writing to him in 1909. In 1910, along with his friend Kallenbach, Gandhi started a community settlement where he lived with his family and other community residents. The settlement was named Tolstoy Farm and became an experimentation community living that was to build on the Phoenix experience.
I read Thoreau … I read Walden first … and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence … There is no doubt that Thoreau¹s ideas greatly influenced my movement in India.
In 1845 Thoreau built a log cabin to live in, on the edges of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. It was to be the start of a two year experiment in which he would engage with a simple life of silence and solitude that involved: growing and cooking his own crops, observing nature, reflective study and writing. It was a romantic notion that had inspired him for some time and the fruits of his endeavours were expressed, in what was to become a classic of American literature, Walden.
Thoreau was a Transcendentalist, along with his mentor Emerson, who saw nature as somehow encapsulating a spiritual presence and reality that no temple or scripture could. This feeling for the divinity of nature lies at the core of Thoreau’s writings.
After leaving Walden Pond Thoreau wrote an essay on Civil Disobedience where he advocated the doctrine of peaceful resistance. He thought that if any law was felt to be unjust, or unnecessary, it was incumbent on the individual to refuse to obey that law in any nonviolent way that they could harness. Gandhi felt this essay to be a masterly treatise that had “…left a great impression on me.” However later, Gandhi claimed that the concept of Satyagraha (passive resistance), which he had developed, was not borrowed from Thoreau because this resistance had already been brought into practice during his time in South Africa before he had ever received a copy of Thoreau’s essay. But there is no doubt that this work, along with Walden did come to have a great influence on Gandhi¹s philosophical, political and spiritual development that ultimately contributed to bringing about a peaceful transference of power from a colonial stronghold in India, to its indigenous people.
Gandhi’s life philosophy was, in large measure, nurtured and sustained by these three thinkers, all of whom embraced both radical ideals and committed pragmatism. John Ruskin (an English art critic), Leo Tolstoy (a Russian count) and Henry David Thoreau (an American naturalist/backwoodsman), three apparently very different individuals, each from very different backgrounds, but all sharing similar, interwoven values and beliefs that transcended their obvious differences.
These beliefs and values can be summarised as follows:
A recognition and respect for the sacredness of all life
A commitment to upholding the principle of greater equality for all
A deep appreciation and regard for nature. Working with her in sustainable and
A belief in the individual, not in some abstract notion of the state
An acknowledgement that a mutually reliant community ultimately serves the individual better than any pursuit of ruthless individualism
A desire to engage with simplicity in every aspect of life
An unease about rapidly growing centralized power ¬ a strong feeling that power should be dispersed throughout society to empower the individual
A need to pull away from the industrialized modes of manufacturing, which are considered alienating to the work force, in order to cultivate work that is localised, socially useful and meaningful to the participants
A call for spiritual renewal that unifies humanity in feelings of collective compassion and understanding.
In today’s post-modernist world of technological and commercial innovation (where the major western, political agenda seems to be preoccupied with the issues of globalization and market penetration) the names of Ruskin, Tolstoy and Thoreau seem rather anachronistic and irrelevant. Yet despite their obvious marginalization by modern political commentators, I would argue that their belief systems and values, even in the complexity and diversity of a modern world, are still of relevance and meaning to us.
Gandhi’s lifetime pursuit of truth led him to a wealth of writers who he increasingly came to admire (eg Rabindranath Tagore, Edward Carpenter, Sir Edwin Arnold, Max Mueller, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Henry Huxley, Francis Bacon, Socrates and Plato). He also read, and appreciated, deeply religious works; in particular the Bible, the Koran, and the Hindu classics the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. All of them served to nourish Gandhi’s philosophical and spiritual outlook, yet it was Ruskin, Tolstoy and Thoreau, with their pragmatic idealism, who came to have a special place in Gandhi’s heart.
He wrote to American friends later in life saying:
…you have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished through his essay on The Duty of Civil Disobedience scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa. Great Britain gave me Ruskin, whose Unto This Last transformed me overnight from a lawyer and city dweller into a rustic living away from Durban on a farm … and Russia gave me in Tolstoy a teacher who furnished a reasoned basis for nonviolence. He blessed my movement when it was still in its infancy and of those wonderful possibilities I had yet to learn.
Perhaps we need, more than ever, to revisit these writers and study their works to see why Gandhi was so enamoured of their ideas -¬ ideas that still need, I would argue, fuller recognition and appreciation today.