Tolstoy, Thirukkural, Gandhi and S Ramakrishnan
Date: 1/31/2012 5:12:00 AM
The origins of this controversy lies in a speech given by S Ramakrishnan in Chennai about Gandhi as a writer. SRa made a comment that Gandhi asked Tolstoy about the book that inspired him and Tolstoy replied that he learnt a lot of his philosophies from Thirukkural.
A reader got irritated with this unsubstantiated statement and wrote a harsh letter. (I don't have that link). SRa replies with a couple of links - from yahoo answers. The ego burster of Tamil literature Maamallan, poked fun at SRa's links. Maamallan's contention is that the link says that Mahatma Gandhi said in a speech in 1943 that he was inspired by Thirukkural. However Gandhi was under arrest from 1942 - 44, so this could not have been possible. The other link SRa gave is an article from Newstoday, an eveninger from Madras. Maamallan asks SRa why not go to the source, the letters between Tolstoy and Gandhi and prove his assertion.
Due to my curiosity I started digging around. Initially I found the correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi. There was only one mention about Indian Philosophy in general, with no reference to Thirukkural. So I shot a mail to Maamallan immediately.
After a little more digging, I found "A letter to A Hindu" written by Tolstoy to Tarakdas, the editor of Free Hindustan in reply to Tarakdas letter to him. In this letter Tolstoy elaborates on why this oppression of majority Indians by a handful of Englishmen happened. This letter is written in chapters, and before each chapter he quotes Indian scriptures - Vedas, Upanishads, Krishna (I think he meant Gita) and Hindu Kural (his words). That is the extent of the link between Kural and Tolstoy. Gandhi got a typed copy of this letter, and as a conscious editor verified with Tolstoy about its veracity and published it with his own introduction.
Nowhere did Gandhi ask Tolstoy about the books and scriptures that inspired him nor did Tolstoy mention Kural. But a simple search of "Tolstoy, Kural, Gandhi" throws up a lot of links claiming the same.
So I did a datewise search and the results were hardly surprising. Till 2005 there is no mention in Google about Tolstoy telling Gandhi about Kural. In 2005, there was a Valluvam conference on Thirukkural, where in a research paper was submitted saying that Valluvam inspired Mahatma Gandhi. (PDF link). The author gives references of Gandhi praising Kural (which is entirely possible) and drops in a line "Gandhi was inspired by Ruskin, Thoreau and Tolstoy".
From 2008 onwards links start sprouting claiming that Tolstoy told Gandhi about being inspired by Kural. I can't pinpoint who started this, but a reasonable guess is Prof. Aranga Nedumaran whose speech is quoted by many. So from there, SRa seems to have derived his fact.
I had sent a couple of mails with these facts to Maamallan, but then found the topic juicy enough for me to revive my blog.
Isn't it basic common sense to question why should Gandhi learn about Kural from Tolstoy? Gandhi worked with Tamils of South Africa, so that might be a more logical place for him to learn about Thirukkural rather than a couple of letters from a Russin writer.
I do accept that there is a chance that there is a correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi just like what SRa said. If so, point me to the original correspondence and I will take back this post. Do not give links to he said so, she said so posts.
Since the Tamil literary world / blogs are split into camps I put up these disclaimers.
1. I do not know Maamallan or SRa or any other writer personally.
2. I do think that SRa excels in exaggerated romanticisation of the mundane.
3. I do think that facts are of utmost importance.