Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tolstoy, Thirukkural, Gandhi and S Ramakrishnan

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.


radhakrishnan said...

very good

parhti zplus said...

You can also check http://www.valaitamil.com/thirukkural.php if you like. I regularly use this site. It is very easy to use.

vichan hari said...

" There was only one mention about Indian Philosophy in general, with no reference to Thirukkural."

For the above quote from this above article I want you to read my article in my blog

( a bilingual english/tamil)
It is a discussion about both Thirukkural and Bhagavadgita .Some of the verses of kural are reintrpreted to suit the tamil thinking. Philosophy of Peninsular India.

Anonymous said...

Neeya Naana debate lead me here. Here is the proof where Tolstoy quotes Thirukural (referred as Hindu Kural)


Veeramani said...

Kural in his letter only can refer to Thirukural, he Tolstoy does not have any reason to say the word voice in Tamil. And he was wrong calling it's hindu yes as Thirukural does not talk anything about religion!

Veeramani said...

Kural is one type of verse writing with only seven words, like sonnet which is 14 lines verse and kural in literature means only one book which is Thirukural, not the voice of Krishna, don't know what you have against Thirukural but this letter does not mean that it's voice of Krishna!

Veeramani said...

Don't think that we needed Tolstoy's approval for Thirukural! It's only puts him in good light that he learned about Thirukural!

M S Sooraj said...

It was Rettamalai Srinivasan who introduced Thirukural to Gandhi. Nobody talks about Rettamalai Srinivasan for obvious reasons :)