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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Leo Tolstoy to Dada Abdulla, the international influences on the Mahatma

Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birth Anniversary: Gandhi was a global citizen much before his time.

Written by Seema Chisti | Updated: September 30, 2019 11:52:33 am
Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm in South Africa.

The accolades that Mahatma Gandhi received in death have few parallels in modern history. King George VI in London said that mankind had suffered an irreparable loss. Albert Deutsch, a columnist from New York, said there was still hope for a world that “had reacted as reverently as it did to the death of Gandhi.”

While Gandhi’s influence has been recognised by towering figures like Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi too, in turn, was shaped by much that was not Indian. The South African boast — “You gave us a lawyer and we gave you a Mahatma” — pointed to a deep truth: Gandhi’s ability to absorb ideas from everywhere and synthesise them in the unique laboratories of his mind and practice.

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The student Gandhi, in London’s Piccadilly Circus in 1888-90, could be spotted with his “top hat and expensive clothes”. BR Nanda’s Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography (1958) mentions his fellow student Sachchidananda Sinha, who found him “more interested in fashion and frivolities than in his studies”. Between that Gandhi and the one who turned up in London to talk to Lord Irwin in 1931, wearing thin, hand-spun cotton, as if it were a summer afternoon in Kathiawad, was a long journey.

Dada Abdulla, a Porbandar domicile settled in Natal who invited him to work in South Africa, was perhaps the first major international influence on his life. While describing the pull of new shores and experiences, Gandhi wrote; “I was fond of novel experiences. I loved to see fresh fields and pastures new. It was disgusting to have to give commission to those who brought me work. The atmosphere of intrigue in Saurashtra was choking to me. The engagement was only for one year. I did not see any objection to my accepting it. I had nothing to lose as Messrs Dada Abdulla expressed their willingness to pay my travelling expenses, as well as the expenses that would be incurred in South Africa and a fee of one hundred and five pounds. This arrangement had been made through my elder brother, now deceased, who was as a father to me. For me his will was a command. He liked the idea of my going to South Africa. So I reached Durban in May 1893.”

The extensive dialogue, arguments, letters and confabulation he carried on with the world made him much more of a global citizen than he is perhaps credited for. In the preface to the English edition of Hind Swaraj (1909), otherwise an exposition as Indian as can be, Gandhi acknowledges the influences of “ (Leo) Tolstoy, (John) Ruskin, (Henry David) Thoreau, (Ralph Waldo) Emerson and others”, besides Indian philosophers. 

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But long before he was proclaimed the Mahatma, Gandhi spoke to the world and absorbed from all kinds of influences. South Africa saw him name his farm Tolstoy Farm. Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), left an indelible mark on him and Tolstoy’s citing of five of the Ten Commandments fortified Gandhi’s belief in the tenet of non-violence and centrality of love. Tolstoy’s letter, published in the Gandhi-edited weekly newspaper Indian Opinion in 1909, led to a chain of correspondence between the two.

Ruskin, a man of art and philosophy, is acknowledged by Gandhi several times. The day after the Pietermaritzburg incident in South Africa, when he is thrown out of the train for being brown, Gandhi undertook a second train journey. When he reached Johannesburg, a friend handed him a book, John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860), from where Gandhi drew the idea of sarvodaya or the welfare of all. In July 1946, while addressing a conference of state industries ministers in Pune, Gandhi recalled the magical spell of that book. To the people who were going to chart the industrial future of a free India, he said, “I saw clearly that if mankind was to progress and to realise the ideal of equality and brotherhood, it must adopt and act on the principle of Unto This Last; it must take along with it even the dumb and the lame… That is not my picture of independence in which there is no room for the weakest. That requires that we must utilise all available human labour before we entertain the idea of employing mechanical power.”

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Gandhi and Herman Kallenbach’s camaraderie is well established. This Jewish South African, who Gandhi called “his soulmate”, made Tolstoy Farm possible with his generous funding of Gandhi in 1910, when he gifted him the thousand-acre farm. When Gandhi was imprisoned, Kallenbach would assist with editing Indian Opinion. Kallenbach also visited Gandhi in India and spent time in his ashram. When he fell ill, Gandhi is said to be among those who buried Kallenbach. His death affected Gandhi deeply.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Fresh fields’

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