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Tolstoy’s Theories & Questions (soooo many questions) September 9, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement. In very ancient times love was proclaimed with special strength and clearness among your people to be the religious basis of human life.”

– quoted from section V of “A Letter to a Hindu” by Leo Tolstoy (dated 12/14/1908)

Consider that if you practice ahimsā (“non-harming” or “non-violence”) and satya (a dedication to “truth”), there are times when telling the brutal honest truth, creates harm. So, the questions become (1) how to mitigate the harm – while also being dedicated to the truth – and (2) how to be honest without telling the truth. Someone who would have strived to find the balance was Leo Tolstoy who, in my humble opinion, sometimes failed miserably to find the balance.

Going by the Gregorian calendar, Leo Tolstoy was born today in 1828. He was born into nobility near Tula, Russia and, in many ways, his story could mirror that of Prince Siddhartha’s story of enlightenment… if it weren’t for those pesky trips to the brothel. Yes, born into wealth and privilege, Tolstoy indulged himself. Then he fell in love and very quickly married the 18-year old Sophia Behrs, the daughter of a court physician. There was a difference in their social status and a 16-year age difference; however, those were not the problems. Their marital strife started before they even got married when, under the guise of full disclosure, Tolstoy forced Sophia to read his diaries – filled with his sexual exploits – the night before their wedding. In a similar vein, he would later tell his favorite daughter Maria, known as “Masha,” that although it was sad that she had experienced another failed birth, “it is clearly a benefit to your spiritual life.”

Yeah, Tolstoy kinda sucked like that.

He was also, by all accounts, incredibly moody.

And, if you only know of Tolstoy as the Nobel Prize nominated author of giant Russian novels that many consider the greatest literature ever written, then my earlier statement about his story mirroring the Buddha’s story may come as a surprise – especially given his interpersonal skills as described above.

I completely understand if, given the above information they don’t want to read anything more. (Especially considering the fact that I don’t think the rest of the story redeems him.) Here’s the thing though: Tolstoy spent much of his adult life in the middle of a spiritual crisis and his efforts to resolve this crisis led him to “start” a spiritual movement that inspired people from all over the world – including Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., & Rev. James Bevel. Gandhi even named a spiritual settlement in South Africa after Tolstoy.

“I believe that such a time has now arrived—not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that 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.”

– quoted from section VI of “A Letter to a Hindu” by Leo Tolstoy (dated 12/14/1908)

But, let’s back up a minute, because I’m jumping ahead. Before we get to the part where Leo Tolstoy was rooted in pacifism and Christian anarchism, we have to go back…even before the brothels.

At an early age, Tolstoy’s teacher wrote him off as not being too smart. Yet, he taught himself twelve languages. His brother suggested that he enlist in the army and also encouraged him to write. The fighting that he saw at the front during the Crimean War, combined with an execution he witness in Paris (1857), and his brother’s death around 1859, caused Tolstoy to question his faith and his place in the world. In particular, he questioned “superstitious belief in progress,” which led to a moral crisis and spiritual awakening.

Part of his questioning led him to the desire to marry and have a family. His marriage with Sophia, while full of conflict, was instrumental in the completion and publication of the novel “1805,” which was renamed War and Peace. Sophia Tolstoya rewrote each revision of the novel by hand. She wrote out the entire novel eight times in seven years, although she had to rewrite some sections 30 times – all while giving birth to four of their 13 children and taking care of the day-to-day operations of their home and business affairs. Despite their personal conflicts (which included Tolstoy’s insistence that she continue having children even after a doctor said it was detrimental to her health), Tolstoya continued to support her husband’s literary efforts throughout their marriage. The couple’s ultimate split occurred after their estate was essentially turned into a de-facto settlement for “Tolstoyans” (who wanted to be closer to their “spiritual leader”) and Sophia Tolstoya demanded Tolstoy sign over control of his publishing royalties (because she feared he would bankrupt the family). The ultimate split between the couple caused quite a public scandal, but that’s towards the end of the story. In between, there were the novels (including Anna Karenina, which Tolstoy considered his “first novel”). The Kingdom of God is Within You (the title of which references John 17:21), a series of short stories collected under the title What Men Live By, and his 1908 “Letter to a Hindu” (addressed to Tarak Nath Das).

“All that exists is One. People only call this One by different names. ~The Vedas

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. ~ 1 John 4:16

God is one whole; we are the parts. ~ Exposition of the teaching of the Vedas by Vivekananda”

– quoted from “A Letter to a Hindu” by Leo Tolstoy (dated 12/14/1908)

All of Leo Tolstoy’s work can come under that heading of “what men live by.” The Kingdom of God is Within You highlights Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek and also questions what Tolstoy viewed as hypocrisy, corruption, and moral contradictions within organized religion. It was banned in Russia; however, it was published in Germany several years after Tolstoy was placed under police surveillance by the czarist government and excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church.  “A Letter to a Hindu” draws quotes from a plethora of sacred text and shows the parallels between religious traditions many people may not realize have shared teachings.

There’s more to the story, of course there is more, but just this little bit brings up the original questions above plus some particular to the author: Was Tolstoy the ultimate hypocrite? Is he the perfect cautionary tale? Did he spend his life becoming/being what he most despised and criticized?

Then are the questions that, perhaps, you have found yourself asking over the last few years: Do we disregard the message/teaching because of the messager’s bad behavior? Should we excuse bad behavior because nobody is perfect, but some people have good intentions? How much should someone be condemned if they are doing their best to work towards a better world, but their bad (suffering-causing) behavior is rooted in years of privilege?

At each point, I think we have to come back to the beginning: ahimsā and satya. At each point, we have to turn inward and ask ourselves: What creates the least amount of harm while simultaneously allowing us to maintain our dedication to the truth?

“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating feelings of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked [ or non-virtuous].”

– quoted from How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (1.33), translated and with commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

“As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence —as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual. Do not resist the evil-doer and take no part in doing so, either in the violent deeds of the administration, in the law courts, the collection of taxes, or above all in soldiering, and no one in the world will be able to enslave you.”

– quoted from section V of “A Letter to a Hindu” by Leo Tolstoy (dated 12/14/1908)

Please join me today (Wednesday, September 9th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom (featuring “Three Questions,” one of Tolstoy’s short stories). Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

“O ye who sit in bondage and continually seek and pant for freedom, seek only for love. Love is peace in itself and peace which gives complete satisfaction. I am the key that opens the portal to the rarely discovered land where contentment alone is found.”  ~KRISHNA.

– quoted from section VI of “A Letter to a Hindu” by Leo Tolstoy (dated 12/14/1908)



1. Eileen O'Toole - September 9, 2020

“At each point, I think we have to come back to the beginning: ahimsā and satya. At each point, we have to turn inward and ask ourselves: What creates the least amount of harm while simultaneously allowing us to maintain our dedication to the truth?”

Thank you for this. Oh, Leo! ❤️

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