A transgression? (on Tolstoy and ahimsa)

John Richards jhr at ELIDOR.DEMON.CO.UK
Wed Feb 4 07:57:39 UTC 1998

-----Original Message-----
From: Erik Hoogcarspel <jehms at GLOBALXS.NL>
Date: Tuesday, February 03, 1998 10:30 PM
Subject: Re: A transgression? (on Tolstoy and ahimsa)

>Op 01-feb-98 schreef Jan E.M. Houben:
> Tolstoy's undertanding of Indian thought in general and of ahimsa
>>inparticular, incidentally, is said to have been shaped very much by
>Could you tell me what your sources are? As far as I know Tolstoy got all
>'compassion' from christianity and his idealism from Rousseau. What
>texts could Tolstoy possibly know?

This is largely true, but not so simple. As is well known, Tolstoy had great
difficulties accepting the current Christian orthodoxies of his time.
(Don't we all?!) He had to rethink it all virtually from scratch for
himself, and cast his net quite wide to do so.

In his private diary (He also kept a less private one that his wife knew of
and used to read) he makes a comment on one occasion, "I am reading a book
on Buddhism. Perhaps it is what I have been looking for all the time!" It is
also well known that he knew and was deeply influenced by the Slavonic
version of "Barlaam and Joasaph", a curious 12th. century work, austensibly
about the Christianisation of India, but actually based on the life of the
Buddha, through Arabic and Georgian sources. For anyone interested there is
a Greek/English copy of this work in the Loeb Classics series - attributed
to St. John of Damascus! In spite of its "Christian" clothing, Barlaam and
Joasaph are very Buddhist in ethos and attitudes - forest ascetics,
continually dwelling on the impermanence of all "earthly" things, etc. It
was very influential throughout Europe for many centuries until about the
17th. century, when it was realised to be spurious, and now one never hears
it mentioned in Church circles. Yet, for example, it was included in the
Golden Legend, and was one of the first works published by Caxton. The
incident of the 3 caskets in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice is borrowed
from it - which indicates how widely known it was. Tolstoy was not alone in
being influenced by it, though he was probably one of the last to be so.

John H Richards
Stackpole Rectory, Pembrokeshire, UK
jhr at elidor.demon.co.uk

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