A transgression? (on Tolstoy and ahimsa)

Yaroslav V. Vassilkov yavass at YAVASS.USR.PU.RU
Mon Feb 2 19:10:03 UTC 1998

On Feb. 1 Jan E.M.Houben wrote:
<... "pre- and non-institutional Indology" seems to have
<flourished in pre-Sovjet Russia. One instance of this which struck me
<recently is that the notion of ahimsa/non-violence was adapted
<to Russian literature much earlier than to other European literatures, where
<it became well-known only in the 20'ies of this century, after Gandhi's
<actions in British India. But Gandhi
< "sought his own personal inspiration in Tolstoy..."
< Tolstoy's undertanding of Indian thought in general and of ahimsa
<in particular, incidentally, is said to have been shaped very much
<by Buddhism.
    Yes, Tolstoy seems to be the first eminent writer in European
literature who was so strongly influenced by Indian religious thought.
There is an important article by Alexander Syrkin: The "Indian" in Tolstoy.
- "Wiener Slavistischer Almanach", Bd.23, 1989, pp.85-114 (part one);
Bd.24, 1989, pp.65-85 (part two). Tolstoy even described his own
spiritual crisis and subsequent rediscovery of religion using the
imagery of an Indian parable (of archetypal origin, as I tried to show
in: Parable of a Man hanging in a Tree and its archaic Background. -
"Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature", Calcutta, vol.32, 1994-95,
pp. 38-51, and another version in: SthApakazrAddham. Professor G.A.Zograph
Commemorative Volume. St Petersburg, 1995, pp. 257-268 [I think there is
a copy of this book in the library of the Kern Institute]).
        Tolstoy used mostly Western translations and interpretations of
Indian texts but benefited also from the books by and personal contacts
with the founder of the Buddhist studies in Russia, Th.Shcherbatsky's
teacher - Ivan P. Minayev.

<My triple question to Russian-speaking Indologits on this list:
<Which word was used by Tolstoy to express the notion of ahimsa?
<Did it gain much currency beyond the circle of Tolstoy-admirers?
<Did the term somehow remain in use in a similar meaning in the Sovjet period?

       1) Tolstoy's expression for "ahimsa" was: "neprotivlenije zlu
nasiliem", which means literally: "non-resistance to evil by violent means".
       2) No, but the "circle of Tolstoy's admirers" was very wide,
including maybe tens of thousands of people both from intelligentsia and
common folk, living in communes all over the Russian Empire.
       3) Official Soviet propaganda used it only ironically, making fun
of it. It was used, of course, in the communes of Tolstoy's followers, but
towards the end of the 1920s these communes were closed and their inhabitants
exiled or imprisoned.
         All the best,
                                Yaroslav Vassilkov

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