Gandhi was inspired by Leo Tolstoy

In case you were wondering what a post on Ghandi is doing on a raw milk blog, it’s because farmer Michael Schmidt has said that Mahatma Ghandi was an inspiration for his work on the food rights issues around raw milk in Canada. From Jennifer Hunter in the Toronto Star:

Author Ramachandra Guha, seen in Toronto, says Gandhi was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy. Photo: BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR

“When Mahatma Gandhi was a young man, he was like many other young men: eager to earn a suitable living and support his family. It was his experiences in the world outside India — studying law in London, practising as an attorney in South Africa and cultivating friends from all walks of life and religions — that profoundly influenced his philosophy of passive resistance and transformed him into a globally important, if austere figure. Gandhi’s formative years are the subject of Ramachandra Guha’s book, Gandhi: Before IndiaGuha was visiting Toronto from his home in Bangalore, India….”

Who and what were some of the influences on Gandhi’s thinking?

Gandhi was shaped by his years in the diaspora. Had he lived and worked in India he would never have been exposed to such a range of influences. He would never have forged relationships with people beyond racial and religious backgrounds.

Take vegetarianism. He was born into a community where vegetarianism was custom. In London he became vegetarian by conviction. He joined the Vegetarian Society and made English friends. This gave him a chance to expand himself. It also gave him an understanding of organizational activities.

Then he goes to Johannesburg, a city undergoing a boom because of the gold discoveries. People from all over the world are coming there: Jews, Christians, Theosophists, dissidents.

In Europe and elsewhere, at the time, people were reading Leo Tolstoy and discussing his ideas. Tolstoy preaches a kind of pacifism and Gandhi is hugely impressed by this.

He started reading Tolstoy in South Africa in about 1883 or 1884. He didn’t read Tolstoy’s novels, he read his philosophical and social tracts: The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

Tolstoy becomes a distant mentor. Gandhi gets from him the idea of passive protest.

How did his stay in South Africa shape his vision for India?

I think he acquired confidence in his leadership abilities. That he could mobilize people. In India at this time there was opposition to the British, to colonial rule. Among middle-class, educated young men there was a yearning for political independence. These early nationalists adopted one of two methods: either they appealed and petitioned the British or they indulged in assassination….”

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