What had truth and vows to do with politics? It was a question which often recurred in Indian politics, and if Gandhi was not confounded by it, it was because, far back in South Africa, he had observed and confirmed the connection. For a man who was no doctrinaire, and whose theory often lagged behind practice, it was a decided advantage that the scene of his early activities should have been one where he was unfettered by political precedents or professionals. Natal and Transvaal were no bigger than some of the smallest provinces of India. The struggle for Indian independence was conducted Gandhi on much larger scale and on much bigger issues, but there were not a few occasions when he derived inspiration from his experience in South Africa.
Not only his politics, but his personality took shape in South Africa. The most formative years of his life had been spent there. His interest in moral and religious questions dated back to his early childhood. but it was only in South Africa that he had an opportunity of studying them systematically. His Quaker friends in Pretoria failed to convert him to Christianity, but they whetted his innate appetite for religious studies. He delved deep into Christianity and other religions, including his own. In his first year in South Africa he read quite eighty books, most of them on religion. One of these was Tolstoys Kingdom of God is Within You. Tolstoy became his favourite author and in the coming years he read the Gospels in Brief, What to do? The Slavery of Our Times, How Shall We Escape? Letters to a Hindoo and The First Step. Tolstoys bold idealism and fearless candour gripped him, his Christian anarchism dissipated the spell of institutional religion. Tolstoys emphasis on the necessity of an accord between moral principles and daily life confirmed his own strivings for self-improvement.
Few men read so little to so much profit as Gandhi did. A book was for Gandhi not a mere diversion for the hour, it was embodied experience, which had to be accepted or rejected. Ruskins Unto The Last drove him with compelling urgency from the capital of Natal to the wilderness of Zululand to practise a life of voluntary poverty, and literally to live by the sweat of his brow. It was in Tolstoys books that we may seek one of the strongest influences on Gandhi. He was, of course, not given to indiscriminate imitation. But in Tolstoy he found a writer whose views elaborated his own inchoate beliefs. It was not only on the organized or covert violence of the modern state and the right of the citizen to civil disobedience that Gandhi found support in Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy: His ideas exercised a profound influence on Gandhi's mind.
Letter dated May 8, 1910 to Gandhi from Tolstoy
While books on Christianity and Islam were easily available in South Africa, Gandhi had to send for books on Hinduism from India. He corresponded with his friend Raychandbhai, whose influence in favour of Hinduism was decisive at a time when Gandhis Quaker friends believed him to be on the way to baptism. The study of comparative religion, the browsing on theological works, the conversations and correspondence with the learned, brought Gandhi to the conclusion that true religion was more a matter of the heart than of the intellect, and that genuine beliefs were those which were literally lived.
Gandhis style of life was also transformed during these years. From the Gita which he described as his "spiritual dictionary", he had imbibed the ideal of "non-possession" which set him on the road to voluntary poverty, and of "selfless action " which equipped him with an extraordinary stamina for his public life. He trained himself as a dispenser in a charitable hospital in order to be able to attend on the indentured labourers, the poorest Indians in South Africa. At Phoenix near Durban, and at Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, he set up little colonies, where he and those who shared his ideals, could find a haven from the heat and dust of towns, and mens greed and hatred, A pen-portrait of Gandhi as he was in his late thirties has been left by his first biographer Rev. Joseph J. Doke of Johannesburg: "A small, lithe, spare figure stood before me, and a refined earnest face looked into mine. The skin was dark, the eyes dark, but the smile which lighted up the face, and that direct fearless glance simply took ones heart by storm. I judged him to be some thirty-eight years of age, which proved correct. He spoke English perfectly and was evidently a man of culture There was a quite assured strength about him, a greatness of heart, a transparent honesty that attracted me at once to the Indian leader. Our Indian friend lives on a higher plane than most men do. His actions, like the actions of Mary of Bethany, are often counted eccentric, and not infrequently misunderstood. Those who do not know him think there is some unworthy motive behind, some Oriental slimness to account for such profound unworldliness. But those who know him well are ashamed of themselves in his presence. Money, I think has no charm for him. His compatriots wonder at him, grow angry at his strange unselfishness, and love him with the love of pride and trust. He is one of those outstanding characters with whom to walk is a liberal education whom to know is to love."