ARTICLES > ASHRAM > The Tolstoy Farm : Gandhi's Experiments in 'Co-operative Commonwealth'
The Tolstoy Farm : Gandhi's Experiment In 'Co-operative Commonwealth'
By Surendra Bhana
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". He wrote:
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 death.
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 summarized 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 not been.
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 1911.
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 Councilor 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-realization 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 practice 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 realization 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 instill 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, willfully, 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 industrialized 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 Naidu 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 himsa (violence).
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 night soil, 1 foot deep square holes were used; spades were provided to cover up the night soil 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 brahmachari 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 sterilize" 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 their purity."
Gandhi's ritualized 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 sexually excited."
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-realization, 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-defense. 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 movement.
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 Mahatma ship, 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 programme 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.