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A Letter to a Hindu

"A Letter to a Hindu" was a letter written by Leo Tolstoy to Tarak Nath Das on 14 December 1908. The letter was written in response to two letters sent by Das, seeking support from the famous Russian author and thinker for India's independence from British colonial rule. The letter was published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. The letter caused the young Mohandas Gandhi to write to the world-famous Tolstoy to ask for advice and for permission to reprint the Letter in Gandhi's own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion, in 1909. Mohandas Gandhi was stationed in South Africa at the time and just beginning his lifelong activist career. He then translated the letter himself, from the original English copy sent to India, into his native Gujarati.In "A Letter to a Hindu", Tolstoy argued that only through the principle of love could the Indian people free themselves from colonial British rule. Tolstoy saw the law of love espoused in all the world's religions, and he argued that the individual, nonviolent application of the law of love in the form of protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance were the only alternative to violent revolution. These ideas ultimately proved to be successful in 1947 in the culmination of the Indian Independence Movement.


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„The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words.“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), III
Context: The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life — for home use, as it were — but that in public life all forms of violence — such as imprisonment, executions, and wars — might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love.

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„What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood.“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), VI
Context: What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.

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„A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean.“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), V
Context: A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?

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„The inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), VI
Context: The inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favourable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man. But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.

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„People saw more and more clearly, and now the majority see quite clearly, the senselessness and immorality of subordinating their wills to those of other people just like themselves, when they are bidden to do what is contrary not only to their interests but also to their moral sense.“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), III
Context: In former times the chief method of justifying the use of violence and thereby infringing the law of love was by claiming a divine right for the rulers: the Tsars, Sultans, Rajahs, Shahs, and other heads of states. But the longer humanity lived the weaker grew the belief in this peculiar, God-given right of the ruler. That belief withered in the same way and almost simultaneously in the Christian and the Brahman world, as well as in Buddhist and Confucian spheres, and in recent times it has so faded away as to prevail no longer against man's reasonable understanding and the true religious feeling. People saw more and more clearly, and now the majority see quite clearly, the senselessness and immorality of subordinating their wills to those of other people just like themselves, when they are bidden to do what is contrary not only to their interests but also to their moral sense.

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„Such are the scientific justifications of the principle of coercion. They are not merely weak but absolutely invalid, yet they are so much needed by those who occupy privileged positions that they believe in them as blindly as they formerly believed in the immaculate conception, and propagate them just as confidently.“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), IV
Context: These new justifications are termed "scientific". But by the term "scientific" is understood just what was formerly understood by the term "religious": just as formerly everything called "religious" was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called "scientific" is held to be unquestionable. In the present case the obsolete religious justification of violence which consisted in the recognition of the supernatural personality of the God-ordained ruler ("there is no power but of God") has been superseded by the "scientific" justification which puts forward, first, the assertion that because the coercion of man by man has existed in all ages, it follows that such coercion must continue to exist. This assertion that people should continue to live as they have done throughout past ages rather than as their reason and conscience indicate, is what "science" calls "the historic law". A further "scientific" justification lies in the statement that as among plants and wild beasts there is a constant struggle for existence which always results in the survival of the fittest, a similar struggle should be carried on among human­beings, that is, who are gifted with intelligence and love; faculties lacking in the creatures subject to the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Such is the second "scientific" justification. The third, most important, and unfortunately most widespread justification is, at bottom, the age-old religious one just a little altered: that in public life the suppression of some for the protection of the majority cannot be avoided — so that coercion is unavoidable however desirable reliance on love alone might be in human intercourse. The only difference in this justification by pseudo-science consists in the fact that, to the question why such and such people and not others have the right to decide against whom violence may and must be used, pseudo-science now gives a different reply to that given by religion — which declared that the right to decide was valid because it was pronounced by persons possessed of divine power. "Science" says that these decisions represent the will of the people, which under a constitutional form of government is supposed to find expression in all the decisions and actions of those who are at the helm at the moment. Such are the scientific justifications of the principle of coercion. They are not merely weak but absolutely invalid, yet they are so much needed by those who occupy privileged positions that they believe in them as blindly as they formerly believed in the immaculate conception, and propagate them just as confidently. And the unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these "scientific truths" are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications; and it continues to submit to the present holders of power who are just as hard-hearted but rather more numerous than before.

Leo Tolstoy photo
Leo Tolstoy photo
Leo Tolstoy photo
Leo Tolstoy photo

„These new justifications are termed "scientific". But by the term "scientific" is understood just what was formerly understood by the term "religious": just as formerly everything called "religious" was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called "scientific" is held to be unquestionable.“

—  Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to a Hindu

Source: A Letter to a Hindu (1908), IV
Context: These new justifications are termed "scientific". But by the term "scientific" is understood just what was formerly understood by the term "religious": just as formerly everything called "religious" was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called "scientific" is held to be unquestionable. In the present case the obsolete religious justification of violence which consisted in the recognition of the supernatural personality of the God-ordained ruler ("there is no power but of God") has been superseded by the "scientific" justification which puts forward, first, the assertion that because the coercion of man by man has existed in all ages, it follows that such coercion must continue to exist. This assertion that people should continue to live as they have done throughout past ages rather than as their reason and conscience indicate, is what "science" calls "the historic law". A further "scientific" justification lies in the statement that as among plants and wild beasts there is a constant struggle for existence which always results in the survival of the fittest, a similar struggle should be carried on among human­beings, that is, who are gifted with intelligence and love; faculties lacking in the creatures subject to the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Such is the second "scientific" justification. The third, most important, and unfortunately most widespread justification is, at bottom, the age-old religious one just a little altered: that in public life the suppression of some for the protection of the majority cannot be avoided — so that coercion is unavoidable however desirable reliance on love alone might be in human intercourse. The only difference in this justification by pseudo-science consists in the fact that, to the question why such and such people and not others have the right to decide against whom violence may and must be used, pseudo-science now gives a different reply to that given by religion — which declared that the right to decide was valid because it was pronounced by persons possessed of divine power. "Science" says that these decisions represent the will of the people, which under a constitutional form of government is supposed to find expression in all the decisions and actions of those who are at the helm at the moment. Such are the scientific justifications of the principle of coercion. They are not merely weak but absolutely invalid, yet they are so much needed by those who occupy privileged positions that they believe in them as blindly as they formerly believed in the immaculate conception, and propagate them just as confidently. And the unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these "scientific truths" are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications; and it continues to submit to the present holders of power who are just as hard-hearted but rather more numerous than before.

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