Is Tolstoy a humanitarian? – Jeyamohan [Translation]

Translation – தல்ஸ்தோய் மானுட நேயரா? – ஜெயமோகன்

Part 1: Humanism


Why do we read literature? Early in life, we may read because reading creates an imaginative fantasy,  an escape from life as we know it. Then, we may read to satisfy our idealistic aspirations. At some point, readers read because they want to understand their own lives. Fiction allows them to see their own lives as if in a mirror. The reader then develops a voracious appetite for experiencing all the facets of life, and reads work after work, trying to catch a glimpse of all the little nuances, inside and outside, that make up the human experience. A reader may then become someone who is interested in only exploring novel forms of expression. However, reading literature merely with a taste for novelties of form  is like wandering around a desert. Only the reader who is able to make his way back and see literature as a reflection of the whole of life itself, as a statement on the entirety of life, and is thus able to gain insight into life as his lives and sees it, can truly appreciate literature in its best possible sense. That is the mark of a truly fine reader.

Thus, a good reader reads in order to understand life both in its subtleties and in its entirity . He seeks works that can show him life in all its multifaceted glory, but also show him, with a burst of insight,, a sense of what life essentially, really, is, what it all means. The reader may fan out and read  a variety of books in the beginning. All kinds of imaginative literature, experiences, travelogues, biographies. Fiction in all possible formal modes. But at one  point, his focus narrows. He realizes that he wants  a vision of the essence of life, like the vision of the plains and rivers and cities from a mountain peak. There is very little place on a peak for a man to stand. But he can see everything from there.

It is in the fourth stage of development as a reader that many readers come to encounter Tolstoy, when they seek to understand all the subtle aspects of life. Tolstoy is a master at this. He shows aspects of the human personality and relationships that the reader may have never encountered in their lives. Especially, if they are a young reader used to looking at life and relationships through  a sentimental, romantic lens, Tolstoy’s unsparing realism may leave them gasping for breath. Every incident he depicts is plainly factual and uncompromising, without even a little bit of compensatory softening that Dostoevesky or Chekhov may afford us. He delivers blow after relentless blow to shatter our illusions. At one point, the reader understands that this is, after all, the nature of life. Then he is able to view his own life the same way. He is able to stay slightly detatched from everything, watch the carnival of life pass by with a compassionate smile on his face. From there, the reader can travel onward to understand Tolstoy’s insight into life as a whole, an outlook that Tolstoy obtained   from his unsparing realistic view of life.

I remember the shock I received when I read War and Peace for the first time in 1987, when I came to the part where Natasha decides to throw everything  precious to run away with with Anatole. I felt like I had been betrayed by the whole world, by god. I flung the book acroos the room. . It took me ten days before I could pick it up again. But later, when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Lolita, the depictions did not shock me. I felt like I had already lived through these experiences earlier. That is what Tolstoy does to you. 

One can read through the library, stack after stack. But when one comes back to Tolstoy, there is always something new to be discovered. That is the hallmark of great literature. Today, I am able to find moments of tender romanticism in Tolstoy. For example, in the way he shows how the plain Marya Nikolevna starts to appear beautiful in the eyes of Nikolai Rostov, with the gentle touch of a sparrow feather floating through the air. This is very different from the urgent romanticism  of youth,  of physical beauty.  

Readers of Tolstoy seldom reread him, but his novels are always in their thoughts. Many critics mention this curious aspect of his fiction. This is because, Tolstoy has the ability to rise up from the pages of the book and become a part of our life. We feel that  his novels are episodes from our own lives. Every time we think of the novels, we relive them. Happenings from our own life echo with incidents from Tolstoy, keeping his novels as immediate as our own life. I would say that no author before and since has succeeded in making his fiction a part of the reader’s life.

As I write this essay, I feel that I should write it only on the basis of my recollections of Tolstoy’s works. I last read him in 1998, for the second time. I have not touched his books since then, and not a day has passed when I don’t recollect them. I want to see what has stuck with me.

But it is also true that he has evolved with me. In these twenty years, he has mellowed in me, aged with me. Today when I write about Tolstoy, I find that all of his celebrated aspects – the uncompromising realism, the various sides of life he portrayed, his depiction of historical time, his moral ideas – have all receded to the background.

Today, I am preoccupied with the question of Tolstoy’s philosophy of life – , more precisely, his personal spirituality. It is on that basis that I wish to understand him.


There are many practical difficulties in endeavouring to understand a creative writer’s philosophical and spiritual foundations . Most commonly, the individuals who engage in such exercises propose a general philosophy or ideology in the form of a few ideas associated with it, and claim that the writer’s works are a faithful representation of those ideas. Usually, such ideas tend to be older than the works themselves. In the past, the proposed influence was usually religious in nature. After the twentieth century, it was some form of Marxism or Western liberal ideology.

This happens all the time in academia. Academicians do their best to slot a creative writer into an ideological mould. Politicians use this approach as a rhetorical tool. But the truth is, beyond providing a way to ‘grasp’ a work the way you would grasp a saucepan by its handle, it is not very useful. It is certainly not useful if we want to understand the full scope of a creative writer’s vision. It will only end up in a limited, false understanding of the author. No writer can be slotted into any ideological system in a simplistic way. It will be the death of the writer if we attempt it.

For example, Maxim Gorky can be read as a ‘Marxist writer’ but that does not improve our reading of Gorky. On the contrary, he is reduced to a simple, one-dimensional caricature. DH Laurence is often read as a liberal thinker who spoke in favour of liberal sexual mores. But that is also a simplification. We will lose DH Laurence by reducing his work to a single ideological framework. A reader who is satisfied with such a reductionist reading of DH Laurence will never appreciate his ultimate philosophical view – a view that centred the salvation of the individual in the individual alone. 

But it is also true that individual ideas can only be understood in the context of a few mainstream ideas that form the zeitgeist of that era. Our 3000 year intellectual history is largely made up of a few such great ideas, that flow like rivers through time. Millions of streams and tributaries emerge and pour into the mother river, but it is the mother river that has left an impression, a riverbed in time. The tributaries rise from each other, they contradict and cancel out each other, and they can be seen as a part of history. It is not possible to understand a literary work without having a basic understanding and appreciation of this intellectual history. Nobody can be a philosophical or spiritual island unto themselves.

For example, it is impossible to read (the great 12th century Tamil epic poet) Kamban forgetting the context of the Bhakti movement, that took root in the south of India and fanned out all over the subcontinent. It is impossible to understand the Bhakti movement without contextualising it in the human-centred religious movements that arose in all the world religions from the 10th century onwards.

But it would be foolish to make any kind of a final statement that Kamban was simply a fruit of the Bhakti movement. Kamban did come out of the Bhakti movement, but there were also elements of the previous heroic age in his work. Thus, it would do justice to a creative writer only if we adopted the following strategy: first placing him in the intellectual tide of his times, but immediately dissemble that image to point out where he differs from and contradicts those ideas. Only a synthesis borne out of these contradictions will be an honest attempt to understand the artist in all his roundedness. Critical theorists on the other hand, are mostly preoccupied with ‘catching hold’ of the writer with brute force. 

Aesthetic criticism is a mode of examining a piece of art like a butterfly – the reader must lightly touch its wings with their fingers, but let go almost immediately. The powdery wingcolours should absolutely not be disturbed. No statement can be said with absolute finality about a creative work. Any such interpretation should be contravened immediately. Even synthesis of various statements is not truly possible, for the work itself is greater than any synthetic interpretation. My attempt to understand a creative writer’s philosophical and spiritual outlook is not to slot him into a particular shelf for once and all. It is only to better understand the writer, and to be able to further enter his world and go towards him. 

I wish to understand Tolstoy philosophically, spiritually, in my own view. However, the difficulty with trying to obtain a fresh perspective on a writer like Tolstoy is that many many pages have already been written about him. To understand him, for ourselves, on one’s own terms and for one’s own needs, is a very challenging task. In the one and a half centuries since he wrote his great novels, Tolstoy has been interpreted in the light of all possible political, aesthetic and spiritual lines of thinking. My mentor Sundara Ramasamy used to say that one could write a social and cultural history of Europe just from the mountain of Shakespeare criticism available from the past four hundred or so years. This also applies to Tolstoy.

“So much has been written. What is left to write?” asked asked a good friend of mine when I told him I was writing this essay. Perhaps. But there is always something new to be investigated, particularly if one changes the perspective of inquiry. I quoted (the Malayalam writer and literary critic) M.Govindan, whose litmus question when faced with any new idea was – “Alright, so what does it mean for my little town of Ponnani?” What does Tolstoy mean to me today, in Nagarcoil, in these times? In what shape and form has he survived in me in all these years?


There are various ways of classifying the changes in human thought down the ages. They can be classified based on historical epochs, or on the basis of shared ideas and features. I think that very very broadly it is possible to group them into t five epochs.

  1. Triumph of Man

This idea is characteristic of the Heroic Age. It recognises the heroic aspect in man, and extolls his lordship over nature and victory over evil. Man, in such a framework, is shown as being able to surpass himself and the will of the gods. This idea had the greatest sway in pre-historic and early historical times, for man was in constant struggle with nature and fellow man then. Man’s enduring survival, in fact, depended on this idea. This idea became embedded in the philosophies and spiritual doctrines of the time.

  1. Common Ethics

As Man moved from the tribal, hunter-gatherer stage to the civilized, agricultural stage, there was a need to move from family – and clan-based ethics to a common ethics that would apply to people regardless of their birth clan or occupational status. In fact, if it is at all possible to make a reductive statement about the Mahabharata, it is that it was a great endeavour to formulate a common ethics from the various clan-based ethics previously prevalent in the Gangetic plain.  Clan-based ethics were commonly practiced, a common frame of ethics were an ideal dream. In any society, it takes some force and a lot of work to go from the practical to the ideal.

  1. Liberation of the Soul

Many streams of human thought have been independently, and repeatedly, invigorated by the central idea of the liberation of the soul. This goes by various names. Mukti, nirvana, veeduperu, all these names refer to the same idea. They refer to liberation or freedom either directly or indirectly. All the world religions refer to some form of liberation. In a lower level, it may be characterised as heaven. But even heaven something to be attained after a release from this world. it is a wholesome world, without strife or suffering.

Liberation, release or freedom, is liberation from everything here. All of the world’s sufferings. Everything that binds man as if in a prison. As long as man is in the world, his association with everything around him drags him down, makes him miserable. Liberation is a release from all that, a state of wholeness. Different religions have different conceptions of what it means to be liberated. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the story of a journey to liberation. Jeevakan’s journey in Jeevaka Chintamani is the story of another kind of journey to liberation. Despite the differences, the common vision is astounding. 

The idea of triumph of man that was popular in the first phase of history thus becomes symbolic in the context of liberation. We see this idea in all the great epics of this age. The journey of the hero becomes the quest for knowledge. Homer and Virgil speak of the perilous journeys undertaken by man – Ulysses, or Aeneus – in the quest of some goal. But these are also journeys with a symbolic philosophical meaning. It is the journey from Varthamana, a tirthankara, to Mahavira, the great hero, ever non-violent.

  1. Naturalism

The idea that the world operates on naturalistic principles, and there are no forces or god outside nature itself, has been a significant stream of thought in the West from the 16th century onwards. The basic form of the idea is, that man is just a simple elemental part of nature, and that everything man seeks to know is in nature itself.

This idea became popular through the works of the British Romantic poets, in particular Wordsworth. Its philosophical instantiation can be found in Emerson’s transcendentalism. This idea held great sway over modern thought. Very few modern writers exist without direct or indirect influence of Thoreau.

Naturalism is commonly understood as a part of the Romantic Movement today, but it gained new form in the rise of modern ecological studies. Man is defined simply as an element of nature. This idea stands in opposition to humanistic idea, where man is envisioned as having special status within nature.

  1. Humanism

Briefly, humanism can be defined as a view that holds that man is the centre of the universe. It is a very natural way of thought for man. From that dawn of man, he could not help but think otherwise. Any school thought in human history willy nilly has man at its focus. The early idea of Triumph of Man arises from such a view. Humanism can perhaps be called a stage of philosophical refinement of the same idea. This idea is also called by other names, such as love for man, humanitarianism etc.

Humanism can only be defined loosely, this has been the case throughout human history. There are many differing points of view about the best way to define humanism. Since the 17th century, many facets of humanism emerged in Europe. Ideas like moral responsibility, free will and reason characterised humanism in this period. All of these ideas led to the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.

    5.1 Moral responsibility

Humanism envisioned man as an entity with a personality of its own, with his own particular thoughts and choices. Thus it argued that man is morally responsible for all the happenings in the world around him. If in a society an individual is deemed untouchable, then the whole of that society has to take responsibility for that. An individual cannot say that he he was not aware of it, or that he does not share responsibility in it. By virtue of his sense of reason, his ability to think and ability to exercise his will, he also inherits the responsibility to use those powers well. It is only when a man takes moral responsibility for his surroundings that he becomes a political entity. Only then does he live up to the true spirit of ethics. Social ethics depends on the individual acts of such men.

The truth is, this idea is the gateway to modern democracy as we know it today. In the beginning, it evolved as a response to the Catholic church, the endless power wielded by the hegemony of church and state. Then it grew to become a powerful idea in its own right. Today, when I see the arguments from the orthodoxy defending the Manu Smriti, I am convinced deeply that we as a society have still not fully internalised the notion of moral responsibility that forms the basis of a civil democracy. Any orthodoxy that does not share the spirit of basic moral ethics is simply morally wrong. No orthodoxy that persists in viewing a section of humanity as ‘lesser beings’ will lead one into any kind of spiritual elevation. 

    5.2 Doctrine of Free Will

The doctrine of free will states that man has the right to choose what is right and good for himself. There is nothing that is determined or fated, for example by a god in heaven. Man has the ability and right to change his world by exercising his choice. This is the idea of free will. The influence of this idea on Europeon thought is staggering. The idea of modern democracy rests on the idea of free choice. The various democratic constitutions that emerged in nation after nation in the 20th century all record their faith in the rights and ability of man to make a free democratic choice. 

The basic right to vote for all is enshrined in the Indian constitution. When this statement was incorporated into that text, it was this very idea that the makers of the constitution examined. Does a tribal man, or a woman from the slums, who has no education, no cultural training, no contact with the outside world, have the qualification to decide who will rule the whole country? Can we give them the right? The response was, such rights are not ‘given’ or ‘bestowed’. That is because, they said, the right to choose is not dependent on any external trapping like education  or culture or knowledge of the world.

No, the right to choose is a fundamental right and a fundamental ability of man. He has free will. By virtue of his inherent sense of reason and intuition, every man has the right and duty to make a free choice. It is a moral imperative.

    5.3 Doctrine of Reason

The doctrine of reason follows and shadows the ideas of moral responsibility and free will. Man should make his choices rationally. Not on the basis of faith, or the dictates of tradition, or on the basis of empty emotions. Even if it is based on intuition, man should be able to reason it out to himself. There is a fine line of difference between reason and rationality (‘meyyarivu’ and ‘pagutharivu’ in Tamil1). Reason includes intuition and poetic insight. Rationality only accepts external logic.

1 Translator’s note: This distinction is relevant to the Tamil intelligentia. Pagutharivu is often associated with the rational minded justice movements of the early 20th century championed by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy and others. This ideology is noted for its non-recognition of poetic and spiritual intuition as a valid means of knowledge. Meyyarivu is often associated with the Kural (5th century CE). 

ஐயுணர்வு எய்தியக் கண்ணும் பயமின்றே 

மெய்யுணர்வு இல்லா தவர்க்கு.  (குறள் 354)

“All five senses, though present, are useless

For he who lacks intuitive reasoning” (Kural 354) 


I can’t help but think when I see the course of events in India today that these fundamental ideas that shaped the course of modern western civilisation were introduced very very superficially in India. Some of the voices that rise in defence of honour killings in India make me wonder whether ideas like the right to choice or reason have even been introduced in India. There are educated upper caste males in Tamil Nadu who advocate for child marriage in their discussions online. Such ideas are unfortunately gaining traction today.

The truth is, when such modern ideas entered India, they came in through the educated elites and became part of our constitution, while completely bypassing the general public. Even today, these ideas are pushed into public discourse from above, through laws, through the courts, through journalism, through literature. The idea of free political choice in India exists only because the right is enshrined in the constitution and pushed by the law. If this push is challenged or opposed in any form, then I fear it might send India back to a dark, pre-humanistic past very very soon.


The introduction and entrenchment of humanistic thought may be regarded as the forement event in the last 150 years of Indian history. It created a very deep impact on India’s collective mind. It was the basis for the great socio-religious reform and political movements of India, and paved way for the emergence of the nation as a modern democratic republic. Today, India is one of the liberal societies of the world thanks to the influence of humanistic thought.

There are two branches of humanistic thought influential today. One is western liberalism, other other is marxism. Although they have many significant differences, they share common ground in their beliefs – man’s central place in nature, the equality of all men and man’s basic rights. Western liberalism is founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Liberty includes freedom of worship, speech and faith.

All the dominant waves of thought washed up on the shores of various lands all over the world roughly around the same time. “Triumph of Man” was never a popular or central thought in India, as our literary works reveal. Perhaps we could have found them in ancient heroic ballads of the past. We find its traces in folk songs and stories. The folk songs of Mayandichaami, Sudalaimaadan and the Vadakkan songs of Kerala are all stories of the heroic triumph of man. The Ramayana, to some extent, can be claimed as a story of heroic triumph.

But it was the quest for common ethics in India that created our epics. Many of the kavya literature in India share that spirit, all the way down till the Kamba Ramayana. Parallel to this was the quest for liberation and transcendence. The goal of the later Vedantic schools including Advaita was liberation. The Bhakti tradition that evolved subsequent to this era was also motivated by the goal of liberation, although it had elements of human equality in it.

Around the time when India came under British rule, the dominant wave of thought that held sway over India was still Bhakti. Great exponents of traditional Indian music including Thyagaraja, Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramadas belonged to this period, the 17th century. They were the last offshoots of the Bhakti era. After this point, the influence of the modern schooling system pioneered by the British in India took over. We started moving towards modern European thought.

At the end of the 18th century, naturalism and humanism reached India from Europe. But naturalism was not very popular in India, and did not exercise a large influence, except on some litterateurs. It found common ground with some ideas related to asceticism already prevalent here. 

But humanism came to India with the force of a thunderbolt. The Hindu Renaissance movement could be described as an attempt to interpret traditional Indian ideas in the light of the new ethics proposed by European humanistic thought.

A great movement originated from this synthesis. It included the contribution of pioneers like Rajaram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, Aurobindo, Vallalar etc. The Hindu Renaissance movement gave birth to reform movements throughout India. Reformers including Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali, Iyothee Thaas Panditar, M C Raja, E V Ramasamy, Mahatma Phule, Gandhi and Ambedkar all emerged under the influence of humanism. For a hundred years, the course of Indian literature was charted on the waters of humanism.

When humanism came to India, it was first translated as manithabhimanam, love for humanity. The word was translated into all Indian languages and came into widespread use starting from the 1880s. It was Tamil, it was later translated as maanuda neyam, concern for human welfare, or humanitarianism. These words associated humanism with a philanthropic outlook. Humanitarianism became the basic requirement of a modern thinker. 

Observe the phrases that captured the public imagination in the past century. “Whatever be the religion, it is good if man becomes good” [Narayana Guru], “I wilted for every wilted sprig” [Vallalar] etc. The word ‘human’ became synonymous with ‘humanitarian’. The greatness of humanity was discovered even in Kamban – “Man triumphed!” All the thinkers of the preceding age, like Thirumoolar, were found to have ideas that were profoundly humanistic in character.

Today, there is an attempt to find humanistic expressions in all the important thinkers in our history. Humanism has become the greatest ideal of our age, the idea that has wielded the maximal influence. That is natural. Democracy is the political expression of humanitarianism. 

Even when naturalism, that is fundamentally antithetical to humanism, became popular, it was understood in terms of humanism. That is, man, who is considered part of nature, should take pains to conserve nature – not because man is not more important than nature, but because because man’s future depends on nature remaining conserved. Thus modern ecology, which stems from naturalism, is also interpreted under a humanistic framework. Man is given the “responsibility” of taking care of nature. David Attenborough keeps repeating how man is but a part of nature, and in order to realise that, man should let go of his perception as a special, privileged creature that has ownership over nature – but there is no room for such thought today. Religious individuals, from any religious background – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – cannot digest the naturalistic idea of Man being “a vain insect” – he is after all the seat of the soul, an image formed in God’s own mould.

Thus the idea of naturalism – where man’s special status as the centre of the universe simply does not exist – never formally became a part of modern Indian thinking. Even naturalism was interpreted in terms of what it meant for man, his welfare. Privileging “human welfare” is just another way of stating “human superiority”.

Humanism and human welfare have captured the imaginations of all writers in the past century. Once can even claim with some liberty that modern writers have written nothing except for humanism; indeed, it is the philosophical ground on which any modern literary work is written. One of the goals of literary criticism written over the past hundred years  was to find humanistic ideals in literary works – either liberal or marxist ideas, or instances where the story reveals a love of man, human rights and humanitarianism.

Humanistic discourse in Tamil literature usually operated under one of two modes. The first was a general love of mankind, maanuda neyam or humanitarianism. The greatness of man, his rights of man and his equal status to all men were its tenets. Many of the forereunner writers in Tamil, including Pudhumaiputhan, Ku.Pa Rajagopalan, Thi.Janakiraman, Na.Pichamurthi, Ku. Azhagirisami and Sundara Ramasamy, had such ideals which find expression in their works. Their acclaimed stories, including Mahamasanam, Raja Vandhirukkirar, Silirppu, Prasadham are fine examples.

The other mode is Marxist. It is called murpokku – forward thinking, progressive – in Tamil. Marxist aesthetics and humanism are related to each other. Human centrism is the philosophical basis of Marxism, and Marxist art extols the greatness of man.  “Man! What a great word!” exclaimed Maxim Gorky. In Tamil Nadu, Marxism was always synonymous with humanitarianism. “Love for man is progressive” wrote Tho.Mu.Si.Ragunathan, a pioneer of the movement in Tamil Nadu.

Thus humanism was inseparable from humanitarianism, love of man and philanthropy. Humanism holds that (1) Man has a central position in the universe (2) He is the focus of all human efforts and activity, and everything in the world belongs to him (3) He has moral responsibility for his surroundings. Humanitarianism and philanthropism are its idealistic expressions. However, the two are synonymous in everyday practice.


As I organise my thoughts in this manner, I feel it may be necessary to add a caveat. Many people have written extensively about these ideas already. Generally, they are discussed as a part of philosophy and the history of ideas. Philosophers have their own academic language, and generally approach these ideas much more sharply, whether they are placing them in history, or analysing their relationships to each other. That level of detail is not necessary for a reader of literature, nor should they attempt to bring those debates in their entirety into a discussion on literary aesthetics. It is not only unnecessary, it may also lead to wrong ways of thinking.

That is because the precise, detailed approach is the way of philosophy. Philosophical discussions consist of internal arguments, sharp, thin, focussed, one contradicting the other and itself being contradicted by the next, leading to a vast scape of arguments and counterarguments. Only a serious student of philosophy with a keen logical mind can follow it all. 

Literature does not, cannot take those endless, subtle, internal contradictions and branches into consideration. It sees that massive wall of ideas, but relates to it intuitively, emotionally. The endless internal debates of philosophy are not of much use when it comes to understanding literature.

Thus, in order to place literature in context of a broader intellectual framework, the progress of human thought needs to be understood. But literary criticism can engage with these ideas only to a certain extent. How is literature influenced by intellectual history? the critic asks. And then he engages with intellectual history only so far as it helps him answer this question. Literary criticism thus puts aside technical philosophical language and razor sharp distinctions, and handles these ideas in the context of, and with the motivation to, understanding literature.

1 thought on “Is Tolstoy a humanitarian? – Jeyamohan [Translation]

  1. Pingback: Is Tolstoy a humanitarian? – Jeyamohan [Translation] | ஆகாசமிட்டாய்

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