| THE TOLSTOY FARM:
GANDHI'S EXPERIMENT IN "COOPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH"
Published in South African Historical Journal,No. 7
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) attributes the success of the final phase
of the satyagraha campaign in South Africa between 1908 and 1914
to the "spiritual purification and penance" afforded by the Tolstoy Farm.
He devotes a considerable number of pages in Satyagraha in South Africa
to the discussion of the day-to-day activities on the farm as the experiment
appeared important to him, even though it had not enjoyed much "limelight".
I have serious doubts as to whether the struggle could have been prosecuted
for eight years, whether we could have secured larger funds, and whether
the thousands of men who participated in the last phase of the struggle
would have borne their share of it, if there had been no Tolstoy Farm.
Contrary to the suggestion of political training at the Tolstoy Farm,
there is little description of how life at the settlement specifically
and directly helped to mould political defiance in the individual. Gandhi
chose rather to stress the training of self-discipline which in his view
assisted the individual in his spiritual and moral growth. As in his Sabarmati
Ashram (1916-1933), which must have been uppermost in his mind
when he reflected on his South African experiences, so at the Tolstoy
Farm Gandhi considered the individual's struggle with himself closely
related to his quest for political freedom.
The Tolstoy Farm was the second of its kind of experiments established
by Gandhi. The first, the Phoenix settlement in Natal, was inspired in
1904 by a single reading of John Ruskin's Unto This Last, a work
that extolled the virtues of the simple life of love, labour, and the
dignity of human beings. Gandhi was not as personally involved in the
daily running of the Phoenix settlement as he was to become in his stay
of interrupted duration at the Tolstoy Farm which lasted for about four
years. In part this was because the political struggle had shifted to
the Transvaal after 1906, and he controlled it from its Johannesburg headquarters.
To a large extent Gandhi's more intimate involvement at the Tolstoy Farm
coincided with the heightened tempo of the passive resistance campaign,
and the development of the Gandhian philosophy of the perfect individual
in a perfect new order. This essay will briefly discuss the historical
context within which the Tolstoy Farm was founded, and explore the activities
at the farm which led Gandhi to call the experiment a "cooperative commonwealth".
The satyagraha movement in the Transvaal galvanised around the
Asiatic Registration Act of 1907 and the Transvaal Immigration Act of
the same year. Both were discriminatory. The first act required all Indian
males residing in the Transvaal to register by thumb-prints, and the second
restricted the entry of Indians into the province. The campaign was broadened
later to include other issues as well, most notably the 3 poll tax required
of every member of the indentured family in Natal.
It is incredible that Gandhi should have been able to arouse such a large
number of people to political activism even to the extent of serving jail
sentences. At one stage some 2,500 Indians were in prison at the same
time for deliberately violating the offending pieces of legislation. A
few of the satyagrahis had known nothing but comfort and security
outside the jails. Most had not even seen the inside of a jail before,
and they must have found the hard labour sentences and the squalid conditions
difficult to bear. Yet there was evidence to suggest that the satyagrahis
were infused by a defiant spirit represented in the answer of a hawker
who said, "Mr. Gandhi, he know. If he say go to prison, we go."
Much of this kind of implicit faith in this principled leader had been
inspired by the fact that he had championed the cause of the Indians for
over a decade when he could have opted for the less rigorous chores of
being simply a lawyer. Gandhi's quiet and resourceful simplicity, his
boundless energy, and his incredible staying power further enhanced his
leadership. But it was probably the force of his satyagraha philosophy
that impelled his followers forward. They may not have fully understood
all its revolutionary dimensions, but they realised that it was a new
and potent force as just in its implementation as the causes for which
it fought. They captured its ethos, and were propelled by it in turn.
They understood the clear and simple terms in which Gandhi explained
satyagraha. It was based upon truth, aimed against a clearly
defined wrong, and not against those who directly or indirectly were responsible
for its existence. But those responsible must be persuaded by peaceful
means to eliminate the wrong over which satyagraha had been undertaken.
A just cause, the satyagraha philosophy insisted, required a
weapon untainted by force and falsehood. The removal of the wrong was
not an end in itself. Only if these golden rules were observed would it
be possible for the satyagrahis to suffer the hardships that
would accompany their campaign. They must hold fast even in the face of
Gandhi's followers learnt further that satyagraha was based
upon trust and compromise. When Jan C. Smuts (1870-1950) offered a compromise
in 1908, he was ready to accept the Transvaal leader's word. What did
it matter, Gandhi reasoned, if the Indians had to register by thumb-prints,
something they had previously sworn not to do, if by doing so the law
making registration compulsory were itself eliminated. There was a crisis
of confidence in the Indian's leadership in this matter, and he nearly
paid for it with his life when a disgruntled Pathan, to whom Gandhi's
action appeared contradictory, savagely beat him. But the compromise with
Smuts became a casualty of misunderstanding, and Gandhi's decision to
re-open the campaign restored faith in his leadership. His followers had
learned from this that satyagraha implied give and take, of allowing
the adversary sufficient leeway to realise his error, but of never forcing
upon him unwarranted humiliation. For Gandhi too, it was an object lesson
to be less credulous about political promises.
During the final phase of the campaign when the Tolstoy Farm was established
Gandhi's own growth became noticeable. During his three months of jail
in 1909, first at Volksrust and then at Pretoria, he read about thirty
books. He made further acquaintance of the works of Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910)
and Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862), among others, and of the Hindu religion.
Gandhi had read of Thoreau when he was a student in London, and had summarised
the American's essay on Civil Disobedience in an issue of Indian Opinion
in 1907. Now in jail, he eagerly explored Thoreau further.
But it was Tolstoy's writings that impressed him the most. The Russian's
ideas about renouncing force as a means of opposition were akin to Gandhi's
own thoughts, although he did not share Tolstoy's intense dislike for
organised government. The Indian had read Tolstoy's The Kingdom of
God is Within You in 1894. This had stimulated his search for truth
and non-violence in his own religion. It had set him upon a kind of thinking
that was to mature into satyagraha later. Now in prison, he had
another opportunity to read more deeply into the Russian author's works.
Prompted by his deeper appreciation of the Tolstoyan philosophy, Gandhi
wrote in October 1909 the first of his four letters to the Russian. He
described in it the struggle of the Transvaal Indians, and asked him to
air his views on the subject of morality. In subsequent correspondence
Gandhi sent Tolstoy a copy of Joseph Doke's biography on himself, and
an English translation of a pamphlet, Hind Swaraj (Indian Home
Rule) he had written on board the ship bringing him from London to South
Africa. If Gandhi had hoped to draw the Russian into a full-fledged discourse
on the ideas shared by the two, he was probably disappointed. He may not
have been aware of Tolstoy's deteriorating health and his troubled life
which had caused the Russian to abandon his wife a few days before he
died on November 20, 1910.
It would be misleading to stress the influence of these ideas upon Gandhi
without considering how they affected his own propensities. Gandhi was
a functional reader and he generally selected from the works he read those
aspects that reinforced his own concepts and beliefs. As an Indian he
was aware of his rich cultural heritage, and he felt it to be a matter
of duty to search for truth in the Hindu tradition in which he had been
reared. He belatedly applied himself to the memorisation of the Bhagavad
Gita - incidentally, while daily brushing his teeth - and succeeded
in committing to memory the entire part of the Mahabharata, the
great Indian epic, that forms the basis of modern-day Hinduism. Gandhi
was, as one might have anticipated, attracted by chapters that stressed
selfless action, involvement, duty and discipline, that is karma-yoga,
and raja-yoga (salvation through bodily discipline) and less
by parts that dealt with bhakti-yoga (salvation through devotion),
and jnana-yoga (salvation through knowledge).
Once out of jail, Gandhi proceeded to London to present the Indian case
before the British government, then engaged in deliberations concerning
the formation of the Union of South Africa. He talked to various persons,
including Colonial Secretary Lord Crewe, without knowing whether he had
been successful. Upon his return to South Africa he discovered he had
But a more alarming discovery was that the passive resistance campaign
had slackened most notably in the five months that he had been away. A
combination of factors had brought this about. The Transvaal government
had put fear in the hearts of the Indians by deporting some of them to
India; and it was not freely arresting the satyagrahis - thereby
to further their cause - as it had done earlier. The morale of the Indians
had sagged dangerously low. Barely a hundred of the diehards among the
satyagrahis were willing to court arrest.
The fact that so many satyagrahis had abandoned the campaign
before its stated goal had been attained indicated to Gandhi that they
had to be properly trained in the resolve necessary for satyagraha.
This implied a need for a central place where a corporate sense of purpose
might be instilled into the satyagrahis, and thereby revive the
campaign. Such a centre might further accommodate some practical problems
of running the campaign that Gandhi was then facing. Adult male satyagrahis
worried over the plight of their wives and children in their absence;
the system of relief money that was being doled out to the dependents
of the satyagrahis was unsatisfactory and costly. And there was
also the question of financing the campaign. The monthly expenditure of
300 then, Gandhi explained in his letter to India's nationalist leader
Gopal K. Gokhale, would exhaust the credit balance of 3000 by January
It was under these circumstances that the idea of purchasing a farm near
Johannesburg occurred to him. The farm would not only meet the expenditure
problems as residents would be doing "something to earn a living", but
would provide Gandhi with an opportunity to experiment with a kind of
communal living he had seen in 1895 among the Trappists at the Marianhill
monastery sixteen miles from Durban in the vicinity of Pinetown.
Since the centre of the campaign was in the Transvaal, the farm had to
be close to Johannesburg. Herman Kallenbach, an architect until he became
Gandhi's ardent follower, came to the rescue. A man of some means, Kallenbach
bought a piece of land from Town Councillor Partridge, and officially
placed it on May 30, 1910, at the disposal of the satyagrahis
as long as the campaign lasted. Gandhi praised Kallenbach's action as
one "calculated to bring East and West nearer in real friendship than
any amount of rhetorical writing or speaking".
The distance of 22 miles between the location of the farm and Johannesburg,
one would have thought, was a disadvantage. And yet, Gandhi must have
weighed this against its many advantages: it was but a mile or two from
the nearest railway station of Lawley; on its 1,100 acres of land there
were nearly 1,000 fruit-bearing trees; and water was supplied from two
wells and a spring. True, there were at the time no more than a "shed
and a dilapidated house containing four rooms". But its open spaces -
it was about two miles long and three-quarters of a mile broad - provided
the opportunity for leading a simple life, and its distance from Johannesburg
freed it possibly from "the varied distractions of a city".
The settlement was called the Tolstoy Farm at the suggestion of Kallenbach.
Gandhi stated in his letter to Tolstoy that the former worldly architect
had gone through most of the experiences that Tolstoy had so graphically
described in his work My Confession: "No writing has so deeply
touched Mr. Kallenbach as yours; and as a spur to further effort in living
up to the ideals held before the world by you, he has taken the liberty,
after consultation with me, of naming his farm after you."
The Tolstoy Farm offered him an opportunity to experiment with the implementation
of his ideas. His challenge was the greater because the settlement consisted
of men, women, and children for short, long, and irregular intervals,
who were Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Parsees, white or Indians, people
who spoke one or more from among Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, and English.
Gandhi recalls that there were 70 to 80 residents - 40 "young men", 2
or 3 "old men", 5 women, and 20 to 30 children - although the number must
have varied from time to time in the course of the farm's existence. It
was a heterogeneous microcosm in which his leadership would prepare him
for his role in the macrocosm of his battles in India later.
In running the settlement, Gandhi worked from the basic premise that
the prime goal in an individual's life was the self-realisation that can
come from the search for truth (satya) in specific instances
and Absolute Truth (satya) as an ultimate reality. To reach the
Absolute Truth, or God as Gandhi perceived it, an individual must determine
what truth meant for him and practise it with single-mindedness. Another
way he expressed the concept of truth was that "soul-force" was the power
of good residing in an individual. It could be cultivated to realise its
full potential. The "prolonged training of the individual soul" was necessary,
he wrote in an article just before his departure from South Africa, for
a person to be a "perfect" adult satyagrahi. But such a training
might be most fruitfully undertaken in the education of young children.
In what way, specifically, did the Indian hope to achieve among the farm's
residents the realisation of "soul-force"? I have had to rely largely
on Gandhi's own reflections in his two autobiographies. There is little
description in newspapers that might yield that kind of information, although
some of its activities were reported in Indian Opinion, launched
in Durban in 1903, and by the occasional reporter of a major newspaper
who happened to visit it. I interviewed several persons who spent some
time in their childhood or early teens on the farm. They look upon their
stay with reverence, and were able to relate memorable incidents which
involved them or some of their co-residents. But their memories have faded
in the sixty years and more that separate them from their stay on the
farm, and their young minds were probably unable to absorb then the significance
of Gandhi, the satyagraha movement, or the experiment itself.
Certain moral principles needed to be observed by the satyagrahis
to realise their soul-force. In 1916, he laid down certain principles
that the Sabarmati ashramites had to observe to realise satya.
These were ahimsa (nonviolence), asteya (non-stealing,
non-covetousness), aparigraha (non-possession, non-Acquisitiveness),
and brahmacharya (celibacy), principles which had for ages been
stressed in Hindu religious writing as being necessary for an individual's
moral growth. While there is no evidence to suggest that he formally laid
down such a code of conduct at the Tolstoy Farm, he directed the activities
in the settlement so as to instil into the resident these principles.
Gandhi believed that the principles would encourage among the satyagrahis
the kind of discipline that would make them missionaries of change, the
standard-bearers of a new order he valued and hoped to propagate. He was
concerned therefore that their daily lives should reflect the new order.
An examination of the activities on the Tolstoy Farm suggests that Gandhi
hoped to cultivate in the residents virtues he held high in his own life.
He did not do this, from all the evidence that is available, wilfully,
or by long lecture sessions, but by simply stating their positive aspects.
His personality had enormous sway over all who came into contact with
him, so that where the logic of his argument did not prevail, his charisma
helped it to do so. This self-assured man never demanded of any one tasks
that he himself would not do, which in itself was a cause for embarrassment
for those who felt above doing certain manual duties. He caused awkward
moments among caste Hindus attending the 1901 Congress session in Calcutta
when, with his capacity for doing the unusual, he decided to mop up a
dirty lavatory, a task reserved for the outcast Untouchables. His presence
on the Tolstoy Farm was felt everywhere, for he was, as Robert Payne states,
"the chief judge, the chief sanitary inspector, the chief teacher in the
children's school, the chief baker and marmalade maker" besides being
the "prime minister."
The rural setting was obviously important to Gandhi. His own beliefs
about the virtues of a simple life had made him suspicious about the trappings
of a modern industrialised civilisation. Here, where man lived in close
proximity to nature he might realise his full potential by labouring for
his fruit. The open spaces and the fruit-bearing trees provided the residents
with ample opportunities for farming and gardening. Adults as well as
children daily engaged in agricultural duties which involved picking,
pruning, growing and forest-clearing. The emphasis was upon simple communal
living where individual self-interests had to be curbed for the good of
all, where asteya and aparigraha might be cultivated.
To live close with nature implied striking harmonious relations with
predatory animals and venomous reptiles that might be roaming on the farm.
Hunting was strictly forbidden in accordance with Gandhi's belief in ahimsa.
Mr. Barasarthi Naidoo recalls the occasion upon which a group of the residents
discovered a hunter with a gun in the area. He was promptly brought before
Kallenbach, who, no doubt lectured to him about the sins of hunting. As
for venomous snakes, of which there were plenty in the area, Gandhi's
rule was not to kill them. Kallenbach even attempted "befriending" one
of the reptiles, but as he well knew, and as Gandhi pointed out to him,
there was little love and much fear in the relationship. Indeed, Gandhi
ordered the killing of a snake on one occasion. It was a case of unavoidable
A man given to simple life, especially when related to an agrarian way,
would understandably have great faith in the healing properties of nature's
elements. Gandhi had long been familiar with earth and water treatment
for ailments from the writings of Kuhne, Adolf Just, and others. He had
applied such a treatment successfully upon his second son Manilal when
he became ill in India in 1901. Now on the farm, he was able to experiment
with nature cure remedies on a more regular basis. Seventy-year-old Lutavan
was cured of his asthma and cough by hydropathy, a prescribed diet, and,
not-so-incidentally, by being forced to give up smoking. The station master's
son who was afflicted with typhoid was cured with the help of cold mud
poultices on his stomach, and regulated quantities of bananas, olive oil,
and orange juice in it. At least two of the persons I interviewed recall
how injuries that they had sustained or remember others sustaining during
their stay on the farm had been treated with mud poultices. In later years,
Gandhi was not quite as confident about nature cure remedies as he was
at the Tolstoy Farm.
The satyagraha leader had for long placed great importance upon
self-reliance. It encouraged discipline, self-esteem, and was a meaningful
exercise in labouring for one's own fruit. Within six months of having
started the settlement, the residents were able to complete largely by
self-help three big buildings, two of them 53 feet long and the third
77 feet. One of the buildings served as women's quarters while another
as men's residence complete with laundry and kitchen facilities. A third
building was a combination of offices, workshop, and school.
Self-reliance extended to other aspects of communal living. There was
a "tailoring department" responsible for producing clothes generally suitable
for outdoor life: trousers, and shirts made up of coarse blue cloth. There
was no use for stiff starched shirts, donors were reminded through the
columns of Indian Opinion. As for footwear, Gandhi considered
sandals ideal for the climate. He specially dispatched Kallenbach to the
Marianhill monastery near Pinetown to learn the skill of sandal-making.
Soon after Kallenbach's return, the workshop began producing sandals,
most of which were worn by the farm residents, and a few sold to friends.
Gandhi proudly wrote to cousin Maganlal Gandhi that he had completed 14
pairs of sandals by February 1911.
Gandhi had always been fastidious about hygiene. In a communal setting
he became fanatically so. He insisted that all waste matter be buried
in trenches and covered up. For nightsoil, 1 foot deep square holes were
used; spades were provided to cover up the nightsoil with loose earth
so as to prevent flies and odour. "A small spade," he said "is the means
of salvation from a great nuisance." It is hardly surprising that he should
have been known as a mahabangi (great scavenger) before he was
called a mahatma.
There is evidence of discipline in the daily routine followed by the
residents. Its purpose was to prevent, no doubt, idle time-wasting, and
make them feel that they were being constructively useful. The bell rang
at six in the morning, wrote a Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg)
reporter. After the toilets were completed and the beds made, the residents
ate breakfast. Everybody was assigned a task for the morning. Work was
stopped at 11 a.m. to go for a bath - the bath was postponed for this
hour so as to make good use of the warm sun rays. The midday meal was
served. At 1 p.m. Several classes of school began lasting until 5 late
in the afternoon. The evening meal was taken at 5.30. There would be an
hour of rest. At 7 p.m. the residents would assemble before Gandhi who
would review the day's events, point out difficulties if any, and suggest
ways of preventing their recurrence. The meeting ended with readings from
books on religion and the singing of hymns.
The daily programme reported by the newspaper man may not have been quite
as rigid on all days. The persons I interviewed recall a great deal more
time for fun and games. It is clear, however, that Gandhi retained strict
control on the days that he was at the farm. He was reported to spend
one day - and sometimes three - in the week in Johannesburg whenever other
business did not require longer spells of absence from the farm. In any
event, discipline was exercised by himself when he was present, and by
those to whom he delegated duties when he was not on the farm.
Once his early doubts about vegetarianism had been dispelled - by reading
as a student in London Henry S. Salt's A Plea For Vegetarianism,
among other things - Gandhi considered it to be vital in the moral and
spiritual growth of the individual. His belief in ahimsa ruled
out a non-vegetarian diet as "wanton himsa to the sub-human creation".
The adult residents at the Tolstoy Farm decided to have an exclusively
vegetarian diet out of deference for Gandhi's conviction.
Gandhi's dietary experimentation on the farm was not simply a matter
of what was most nutritional, or essential for existence. He experimented
with a view to "attaining harmony with nature", because "each organ of
sense subserves the body and through the body the soul..." The meals were
to be of the simplest kind. There were to be no condiments, or anything
else specifically aimed at titillating the taste buds. Some of the provisions
were home-made and simple, and, incidentally, money-saving: bread made
from wheat ground in an iron handmill; groundnut butter made from roasted
nuts; marmalade prepared from the supply of fruit on the farm; and cereal
coffee made of baked wheat and water. Such foods assisted the residents,
in Gandhi's way of thinking, in living in harmony with nature and spiritual
endeavours, others had to be avoided for precisely the same reason. Gandhi
prescribed dietary restrictions for himself and others. He abjured cow
milk to assist him in observing his vow of brahmacharya, and
was faithfully accompanied by at least one person - Kallenbach.
Fasting was a matter of spiritual discipline and religious significance
for Gandhi. It helped the individual in attaining the "supremacy of the
spirit over the flesh..." It was, he explained later in India, "the sincerest
form of prayer". Gandhi fasted on days of religious significance, Hindu
as well as Muslim, and urged others to do the same. He fasted to do penance,
the most dramatic instance being the sexual misconduct of some boys at
the Phoenix settlement.
What did Gandhi hope to impart to the young minds in the school he ran
at the Tolstoy Farm? "It should be an essential of real education," he
wrote in 1914, "that a child should learn that, in the struggle of life,
it can easily conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by self-sacrifice."
This is presumably what he had in mind when he stated later in his autobiography
that education should concern itself with the "culture of the heart or
the building of character". His goals in the education of the young minds
were similar to his insistence upon what adults should strive towards
in their lives. What was important to this morally scrupulous man personally
was also important in his educational programme.
Gandhi had little faith in formal education presumably because it did
not concern itself with the building of character. That kind of education
was best given by the parents themselves. If so, was not his own school
on the Tolstoy Farm self-defeating? No so. He regarded the ashram
as a "family", and he the "father". Hence, he decided to live amongst
them "all the twenty-four hours of the day as their father". He meant
this possibly in a figurative sense as he was away from the farm for one
to three days in the week.
The fatherly teacher's programme included both "manual" and "mental"
training. The ashramite children were expected to undertake for
three hours in the morning duties which involved gardening, farming, sandal-making,
or cloth-sewing. Such work was counterbalanced with a programme of lessons
in geography, history, arithmetic, and writing; "bhajans" (hymns)
and "interesting stories" were included in the teaching. No doubt they
were stories with a moral lesson. Gandhi did not consider textbooks necessary.
"Of textbooks...", he said, "I never felt the want." The "true textbook
for the pupil was his teacher," which in this case was Gandhi. Given his
emphasis in education, Gandhi probably felt that instruction based on
the teacher's experience and convictions would carry more weight than
the lifeless pages of a textbook.
Gandhi considered his experiment in co-education as the "most fearless
of its type". His classes consisted of 25 to 50 boys and girls whose ages
ranged from 7 to 20. He allowed them to mingle and move about freely believing
that when sexual innocence (or sexlessness) was given a free rein, the
minds of the children would remain above temptation. Gandhi's experiment
was a reflection of his own status as a celibate. In 1906 when he was
37 years old he had become a brahmacharyi disavowing forever
his "carnal desires". He had explained to the children "the duty of self-restraint",
and allowed them to meet for a bath at the spring nearby. But Gandhi was
not entirely free from anxiety: "my eye always followed the girls as a
mother's eye would follow a daughter," and again, "there was an element
of safety in the fact that they went in a body." Did the Indian's experiment
constitute as Erik H. Erikson suggests, his own attempt "to tie together
the loose ends of [his] restraints in a communal pattern which would provide
a new kind of `order'?"
It would appear so, for, on one occasion a young man made "fun" - apparently
sexually suggestive - of two girls. Gandhi's reaction suggests that he
did not take the incident lightly, for, if apparently innocent young people
were capable of failing in their "duty of self-restraint", did he have
reason to fear his own vow of self-restraint? To remonstrate with the
young offender was not enough. He had to demonstrate by ritual the need
"to sterilise" the sinner's eye. He decided to clip the fine long hair
of the two girls. "I wished the two girls," he stated, "to have some sign
on their person as a warning to every young man that no evil might be
cast upon them, and as a lesson to every girl that no one dare assail
Gandhi's ritualised demonstration reflected the importance he attached
to brahmacharya, for it involved control not only over one's
carnal desires but also over thought, word, and deed. The satyagrahi
could not live both after the flesh and the spirit, for, to do so would
mean surrendering principles like self-control, selflessness, and non-attachment.
If the satyagrahi failed in these principles, he could not very
well discharge his obligations effectively to the campaign, to the experiment
in communal living, or to his own moral and spiritual growth.
Gandhi himself was most firmly in command of his brahmacharya
vow at the Tolstoy Farm. There were some doubts later in his life about
it in his own mind. Towards the end of his life, however, he claimed complete
success. He said: "Sixty years of striving have at least enabled me to
realise the ideal of truth and purity which I have ever set before myself,"
which in effect meant that he was "capable of lying naked with naked women,
however beautiful they may be, without being in any manner whatsoever
The function of religious teaching, as in education, was "to develop
the spirit" so as to build character among the ashram students
and to lead them towards self-realisation, and ultimately to the knowledge
of God. The "exercise of the spirit", he added, "entirely depended on
the life and character of the teacher."
Gandhi's proviso sounded like self-recommendation, and perhaps it was.
If he did not imply that he was the best person qualified for religious
instruction, he was at least spiritually equipped to pass on to the children
the activist and universalist perspective he had acquired in his own experience
and study of religion.
The "Sermon on the Mount" strongly appealed to him because of its activist
philosophy. It was, however, the Bhagavad Gita that supplied
him with the basis of his religious beliefs. In the Bhagavad Gita,
Krishna, an incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu, urges Arjuna to dispel
doubts about his action in battle since his station in life called upon
him to take up his warrior duties. Krishna's message had a profound meaning
for Gandhi: a man must not be diverted by distractions however great from
seeking the truth about his position in relation to the scheme of things,
and thereby realise God. The Bhagavad Gita offered one salvation
through selfless action. Gandhi's personal philosophy about duty and service
combined with social justice coincided with this aspect of Hinduism. It
made him an ardent social activist with religious overtones.
Gandhi's study of other religions had developed in him an acceptance
of the essential universality of all religions, however much he might
dislike aspects in all of them. The man whom he acknowledged as being
influential in this respect was Raychandbhai, a deeply philosophical man
in India, who although only a few years his senior, came closest to being
Gandhi's guru. Rayachandbhai had assured him in his early years
that there was little formulated in other religions that was not to be
found in Hinduism. He agreed with this without, however, accepting such
things as untouchability and blood sacrifices as being essential to Hinduism,
or without rejecting the intrinsic validity of the other religions.
Given these views, the religious teacher's self-proclaimed eligibility
is understandable. He naturally had no use for religious textbooks. As
a teacher, Gandhi respected the various religious affiliations of the
children: the Christians were instructed in the reading of the Bible;
the Muslims in the Koran; the Parsees (Zoroastrians) in the Avesta. As
for the Hindus, he had written out the fundamental teachings of Hinduism,
a document he regarded as representing his own "spiritual progress", but
which he had regrettably misplaced later when he no longer needed it.
He encouraged common respect for all religions by asking the ashramites
to observe the fasts of the others. Non-Muslims joined the Muslims in
their month of fasting during the Ramzan.
Mutual respect and tolerance between Hindus and Muslims assumed an important
role in India at the time that he reflected on his South African experiment
some fifteen years later. Gandhi proudly records that he taught the Tolstoy
Farm residents against "infection of intolerance, and... to view one another's
religions and customs with a light-hearted charity. They learnt how to
live together like blood-brothers".It is not surprising, in view of this,
that he should have remembered his religious experiment as "among the
sweetest reminiscences of the Tolstoy Farm..."
The Tolstoy Farm was in part born out of practical necessity. Funds were
running short, morale was sinking, and the movement missed the benefits
that might accompany the establishment of a centre where its followers
might assemble and coordinate their activities. The Transvaal settlement
accommodated all three. Money was saved, morale was boosted, and the satyagrahis,
according to Gandhi, received "training" that proved to be "of great use
in the last fight."
The training imparted in a modern-day revolutionary camp might mean acquiring
skills in the use of firearms, and learning tactics in attack and self-defence.
On the other hand, the "soldiers" at the Tolstoy Farm trained in the use
of a different kind of weapon, namely, satyagraha. It appealed
to the residents. Gandhi prescribed for them a "mode of life" in which
satyagraha might be assured of becoming fully realised. He believed
that each one of the residents was capable of realising the perfection
of satyagraha by a rigorous spiritual and mental exercise. Gandhi
had no doubt that the "mode of life" accepted by the farm's satyagrahis
proved to be "an invaluable asset" in the campaign, even though there
were probably no more than 60 of them present at any given time. From
among this number came the core of satyagrahi workers who assisted
in the successful operation of the last stages of the campaign. Such was
the case of the eleven "sisters", who, having been "trained" in satyagraha
at the Tolstoy Farm, persuaded the Indian coal miners in Newcastle to
come out on strike at the end of 1913 in support of the general satyagraha
It is important to note, however, that the weapons Gandhi provided had
also supra-political objectives. He hoped that they would assist the residents,
the old as well as the young, in the struggle with life itself. Who can
deny the universality of the benefits to people seeking truth and simplicity
by means of tolerance, hard-work, discipline, and self-reliance? These
were the virtues that Gandhi hoped to inculcate among the participants
of his "cooperative commonwealth," a new order, he hoped, that would spread
to the world without. The message has not been in vain among some of those
who stayed on the farm even as children.
It is difficult to evaluate the significance of the Tolstoy Farm in Gandhi's
development to mahatmaship, and to his political fortunes in India. The
pressures of the campaign caused him to be absent from the farm for long
and short periods of time. The absence possibly made the development of
uninterrupted plans and programmes difficult. Hence, the Tolstoy Farm's
total impact becomes blurred by influences outside its boundaries. And
yet, Gandhi used the farm much as he was to use the Sabarmati Ashram
later in India. One can say that the Tolstoy Farm was a laboratory for
experimenting with problematic issues: diet, nature cure, harmonious living
with nature, brahmacharya, and so on. It also proved to be a
"training ground" - I must add, incidentally - for his leadership among
the people and in the politics of India.