194: Ruskin in Sri Lanka: Stories and Reflections in Celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st Birthday


Today, October 2, is the 151st anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. With John Ruskin he had much to do.

During a fine fall semester now nearly twenty years in the past, in the equally fine company of about two dozen other faculty, I found myself teaching a group of nearly 500 university undergraduates enrolled in a program called “Semester at Sea.” Then based at the University of Pittsburgh (and now affiliated with Colorado State University), its wonderful idea was to circumnavigate the globe in an ocean liner emblazoned with a wonderfully appropriate name, “The USS Universe.” Over the course of its hundred day traverse, it would put in at ten of the world’s major ports. In their classes and a large class all students took entitled, “Core,” the faculty, all of whom were specialists in their own academic fields, would teach these assemblies about the new and different places in which their students would soon find themselves (The Universe would spend an average of four to five days in each), a series of experiences which would add incrementally to the university’s desire to make them, when their sailing days ended, citizens of the world. (It worked surprisingly well.)

On the voyage in question, we departed from Seattle, and then, teaching every day while we navigated the North Pacific, made our way toward the first port, Kobe, Japan, that experience to be followed by dockings in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Saigon, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Chennai, India, and then, after a rather thrilling negotiation of the Suez Canal, to Alexandria in Egypt, Casablanca in Morocco, and Cadiz in Spain. All this followed by an intrepid brooking of a wintry, wavy North Atlantic en route to our final destination, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Readers of these posts will not be surprised if I report that, it wasn’t long after Seattle drifted below the horizon on our stern, I began teaching my charges some things about John Ruskin, presenting him as a world thinker of major stature. Most, I am happy to say, were impressed with what they heard, and, as a result, it wasn’t long before, word getting quickly out, I was having chats with other faculty about Ruskin, about whom, also not surprisingly, most had never heard a thing.

As the voyage neared the half way mark of the semester, our next port was to be Sri Lanka, the (relatively) small, tear-drop shaped, island not far from the southeastern coast of India: one of the most beautiful, not to mention, for a few recent decades, one of the most troubled, places in the world. As we approached the capital, Colombo (western side of the map, about one third of the way up), everyone, faculty and, in many cases, their families, and almost all the students, were to be found lined up at the Bursar’s office purchasing tickets for the excursions which would bring them to some of the most important of the island’s dozens of World Heritage sites (Sri Lanka is where, tradition has it, the Buddha became enlightened while meditating under an immense Bodhi Tree in the ancient town of Anuradhapura (map center, upper third) in the eleventh century BCE, a city where one can also find one of the most beautiful of the country’s hundreds of Buddhist temples, Lovamahapura, towering above the town. 

Panorama of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Temple with a Sacred Bodhi Tree, rising above the building, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Lovamahapaga Temple Anuradhapura

At all events, there I was, in line, minding my own business, when one of the other faculty members, Ted Solis, a marvelous world ethnomusicologist who now teaches at Arizona State University in Tempe, eased up behind me and whispered jokingly in my ear: “John Ruskin was never in Sri Lanka!” It was, of course, true. Ruskin had never even made it to the United States, refusing invitation after invitation from friends living there because he said–it was a matter of principle!–that he would never visit “a country where the Almighty is regarded as a piece of paper,” not to mention a country where, as a matter of another, more dubious, principle, no one would ever be found attired in trousers outfitted with “glass pockets” (Post 193).   

But, reflecting, I soon came to the conclusion that teasing Ted’s soft remark wasn’t quite as simple as I initially thought. As a result, when next I saw him, I told him that he had been wrong: John Ruskin had been in Sri Lanka, and, in a way, he still was. 

Near the beginning of Richard Attenborough’s brilliant film, “Gandhi,” we are introduced to a young version of the man who, before long, will be spoken of around the world (as US Secretary of State George Marshall described him not long after his assassination in 1948) as “a symbol for the conscience of all mankind.” In the scene, Gandhi is newly arrived in the British Colony of South Africa, and, as the scene develops, we see him sitting alone in a first class compartment on a train bound for the capital, Pretoria, where, as the traveler will soon explain, given that he is a lawyer, he will soon be making argument before one of the highest courts in the land. He is reading a book intently. A black custodian who serves the train’s compartments is engaged in putting the passenger’s valise on the rack above the seats. Gandhi glances up from his book and asks the man if he ever thinks about hell. No comes the immediate reply. Nor do I, Gandhi says, then continuing: “But the man who wrote this book, who is a Christian, says that it exists…” At which point, an extremely well-dressed white man, accompanied by a white porter, puts his head into the compartment and angrily enquires what a black man is doing in a first class compartment. Gandhi explains. To which knowledge, the man furiously responds that “there are no black lawyers in South Africa.” Gandhi reports that he was educated in England, and was accorded his status after passing all exams and meeting all requirements at the High Court of Chancery in London, which means, he says (with some satisfaction in his voice), does it not, that there is a least one black lawyer in South Africa?  “Bloody cheeky kaffir,” the man fumes, after which, as he storms down the passageway, he instructs the porter to throw the insolent fellow off the train at the next station “if he won’t go back to third class where he belongs.” 

In the next scene we see Gandhi crashing ignominiously onto the platform at that threatened next station. He has hit his head. As he slowly raises it, he sees on the otherwise deserted platform that, with him, are an older Indian man and what looks to be his daughter. Both are heart-wrenching in their poverty and palpable misery. A second later, the porter hurls Gandhi’s valise onto the platform, where it springs open spilling some of the well-tailored clothes inside. (Good symbolism given what is to come.) Then lastly, with an unceremonious thud, arrives the book which Gandhi had been so sedulously reading: Ruskin’s Unto this Last. 

Gandhi as a young man

Actually, in the scenes just described, a bit of dramatic license is afoot (as there is in my description of them). The train trip that Gandhi took where Unto this Last made such a deep impression would not occur until eleven years later, in 1904. As well, the film never tells us what the book was which the young lawyer was scrutinizing with such intensity. The clues that it likely was Ruskin’s great book are Gandhi’s comment to the compartment aide that the author was a Christian who raised the question of the possibility of hell existing on earth, and Gandhi’s later, and exuberant, story recounting how, during an overnight train trip from Durban to Johannesburg, Unto this Last had transformed his life (a recollection we will read shortly). 

Born in India, Mohandas K. Gandhi returned there after gaining his law degree in Britain. Some years later, he made a decision to emigrate to South Africa partly because of a series of political disagreements he had had with local British authorities and significantly because his law practice was failing. During his years in South Africa, he would become modestly successful. But his work had another and fateful consequence as, throughout that time, he witnessed at first hand and repeatedly the excessively harsh and prejudicial treatment meted out by white authorities on the poor generally and the colony’s Indian population in particular. As a means of protest and in hopes of initiating serious debate about such injustices, using his own funds, Gandhi began publishing a journal, The Indian Opinion. While it garnered its share of supporters, the magazine was never far distant from financial failure. To discuss the matter of whether it could survive, the editor had written, asking Gandhi to train to Natal for a face-to-face meeting. As he boarded for the trip, in the lawyer’s pocket was a small book, a gift from a dear friend, H. S. L. Polak, Unto this Last.

Ruskin Self-Portrait 1861

Once he began reading it, Gandhi would recall, it found its pages

impossible to lay aside. [Ruskin’s essays] gripped me. I could not get any sleep that night. It brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation [because in it] I found some of my deepest convictions reflected. [Finishing,] I determined to change my life in accordance with [its] ideals…

The “deepest convictions” alluded to, he recalled in his summary of Ruskin’s principal points, were

(1) That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all;
(2) that a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work;
(3) that a life of labor, i.e., the life of a tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto this Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third principles were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice. 

He had been, he said, particularly moved by the essay’s final paragraph:

And if, on due and honest thought over these things, it seems that the kind of existence to which men are now summoned by every plea of pity and claim of right may, for some time at least, not be a luxurious one, consider whether, even supposing it guiltless, luxury would be desired by any of us, if we saw clearly at our sides the suffering which accompanies it in the world. Luxury is indeed possible in the future—innocent and exquisite. Luxury for all, and by the help of all. But luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant. The cruelest man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold.

Many others, as we know from previous posts, who also read Ruskin’s last paragraph, had been anything but impressed, given its threat, it they were to take it seriously, to their commitment to becoming as rich as humanly possible so that they and theirs could consume the most expensive things the world had on offer. Nor were such readers dazzled by arguments they encountered in the pages that preceded that offending paragraph. (For one instance of this reaction and a portrait of one whom  Ruskin surely thought belonged in his category of the “cruelest men living,” see, Post 103: The Fairbanks of Bradford and Post 104: An Embarassment of Riches; for more on this paragraph–including a portion not reproduced here–see Post 62: “And if, on Due and Honest Thought Over These Things…” )

But Gandhi had been much impressed and, in the wake of his reading, proved as good as his word. Deciding that his true work lay in India, he returned to the subcontinent in 1915 only to be received there as The Great Voice which would be needed if India was to gain “Home Rule” and full independence from Great Britain. Arriving, he jettisoned  all the manners of his prior middle class way of life and, so that he could live and look like the millions whose cause he now shouldered, set all his Western accoutrements aside, as had been foreshadowed by his valise spilling his fine shirts and ties on the train platform years before. After which, he began to lead, for all intents and purposes, the life of a peasant and mendicant. To help others understand the most important things he had learned from Ruskin, he created a paraphrase of Unto this Last and published it in his native language, Gujarati, under the title, “Sarvodaya,” “The Advancement of All,” adding not long after that, an English version so that he communicate Ruskin’s central ideas using the bridge language all educated people in India, whether they were Gujarats, Muslims, or Hindus, knew. 

Gandhi's Translation of UTL in Gujarati

For the next thirty-two years, the struggle for Indian independence continued. Led principally by Gandhi and a coterie of others, the movement finally gains its goal on August 15, 1947 when the British relinquished what remained of their control. Five months later, on the last day of January, 1948, in New Delhi, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu radical who was furiously opposed to Gandhi’s insistence that a and free new India would be a place where all races, creeds, and colors could live together in peace. 

Arjun Jain lives near New Delhi. A Companion of Ruskin’s Guild of St. George, he has been a follower of this site for some time and frequently sends valuable comments on its posts (the two he sent regarding our last entry, Post 193, on the necessity of adopting “glass pockets,” give a fine example of his thoughtfulness: you can find links to them in the right hand column of this post). Arjun’s story of how he came to Ruskin is not unusual. Like Gandhi, he had first read, also by chance, Unto this Last, discovering in it an inspiring and hopeful antidote the crass materialist focus of modern Indian economic thought. Reading Ruskin, he told me, “is like admiring the night sky,” because, like that sky, his works are “almost infinite,” infusing everything he examines with light and human significance. From the first, he reports, he knew Ruskin was telling him the truth of how the world really worked, was showing him truths (again like Gandhi) that, all his life, he had known, but dimly. From Ruskin’s influence came a determination not to abandon India (as many of his cohort have been doing), but to instead do something that would help mitigate its current crisis. Of particular concern, he says, was the rampant destruction of India’s beautiful, and once bounteous, natural environment. And so, with this chiefly in his mind, Arjun opened a business focused on sustaining and reintroducing the things that makes for a salubrious environment, a business to which he gave the name, “The John Ruskin Manufactory.” (You can read more about it here: and contact him here: arjunjain@johnruskinmanufactory.co.in.)

In India, reminders and praises of Gandhi greatness are almost omnipresent. And so, when he learned that the man whom his nation revered as “Mahatma” (“Great Soul”), had always counted Ruskin among his greatest teachers, Arjun began thinking of them, respectively, as his intellectual Grandfather and Father, which led to a decision to find out in detail how and why it had come to be that the son of a privileged English wine merchant had come to have such a profound effect on the man who had been principally responsible for freeing India from British rule. The result is a fine essay, Gandhi and Ruskin.  To whet your appetite for a reading of your own, I’d like to highlight two of its passages, each of which will prove helpful as we move the present post toward its conclusion.

One: Of the life-altering effects Unto this Last had on Gandhi we know. What is less well- known is that, for the rest of his life, Gandhi hungered to read more Ruskin, not an easy desire to satisfy given Ruskin’s unceasing and often scathing critiques of the powers that held sway over the Britain in his era, views which were as much anathema to the elites who managed its colonies as to those who controlled most matters of substance in the UK (see Posts 103 and 104: referenced above).

A special wish was the chance to read what Ruskin had written after 1870, a period when, as we know from previous posts, he was in the process of creating The Guild of St. George and writing monthly letters to the working people of Britain called Fors Clavigera (for one instance see Post 156: The Purpose of Fors). But in India, the letters were nowhere to be found. Finally, after much searching, success came, as Gandhi told his nephew, Nāraṇdās Gāndhī, in a letter sent in March 1932: 

John Ruskin was a great writer, teacher and religious thinker… In 1871, he started writing monthly letters addressed to factory workers. I had read praise of these letters in some article written by Count Tolstoy, but I had not been able to secure them… So, [at last,] I wrote to a woman disciple of Ruskin in England… Being a poor woman, she could not send me the volumes where these letters appeared… [And so] this good woman sent my letter on to a friend of hers who was, comparatively, in better circumstances. This friend was the editor of The Spectator journal [and he] sent me the four volumes in which the letters had been published.

I have been reading the first part. The thoughts expressed in these letters are beautiful and resemble some of our own ideas, so much so that an outsider would think that the ideas which I have set forth in my writings and which we try to put into practice in the Ashram [Gandhi’s community]…

Ruskin has discussed many matters [in the letters]. Here I will mention only a few… He says that it is a sheer error to suppose, as is generally done, that some education, however little or however faulty, is better than no literary education at all. It is his view that we should strive for [useful] education alone. And then he says that every human being requires three things and three virtues. Anyone who fails to cultivate them does not know the secret of life. These six things should therefore form the basis of [all] education. Every child, whether boy or girl, should learn the properties of pure air, clean water and clean earth, and should also learn how to keep air, water and earth pure or clean and know their benefits. Likewise, he has mentioned gratitude, hope and charity as the three virtues. Anybody who does not love truth and cannot recognize goodness or beauty lives in his own self-conceit and remains ignorant of spiritual joy. Similarly, he who has no hope, who has, in other words, no faith in divine justice, will never be cheerful in heart. And he who is without love, that is, lacks the spirit [which allows him to] look upon all living things as his kith and kin, will never know the secret of living.

Ruskin explained these ideas at great length in his wonderful language. I hope I shall be able to write about them sometime in a language which all the [people of] the Ashram can understand. Today I rest content with the brief precis given above. But I will say one thing, that what Ruskin has explained in his finished and cultivated prose with English readers in view, is practically the same ideas which we discuss in our rustic language and which we have been trying to put into practice… I cannot hope to equal Ruskin’s mastery of language. But a time will certainly come when the love of our language will have become universal and we shall have writers like Ruskin who will have dedicated themselves heart and soul to it and will write as powerful Gujarati as the English of Ruskin.  

Two: Some years earlier, on the 27th of October 1927, Gandhi, by this time famed across Asia and, increasingly, the world, was in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka (then still known by its British transmogrification, “Ceylon”). He had been invited so that he might further explain an idea he had originally taken from Ruskin, an idea to which he had given the name “spiritualization,” a determination to place the health and well-being of everyone at the center of life’s endeavors. Among the most important of which endeavors, of course, he said, would be the spiritualization of the legal profession. How could such a thing happen, his Sri Lankan sponsors had asked?

I am glad you have put this question. For, I may say that if I cannot speak on this subject with authority, no one else can. For, throughout my career at the bar I never once departed from the strictest truth and honesty. Well, then, the first thing which you must always bear in mind, if you would spiritualize the practice of law, is not to make your profession subservient to the interests of your purse–as is unfortunately but too often the case at present–but to use your profession for the service of your country.

There are instances of eminent lawyers in all countries who led a life of self-sacrifice, who devoted their brilliant legal talents entirely to the service of their country although it almost spelt pauperism for them. In India you have the instance of the late Mana Mohan Ghose. He took up the fight against the indigo planters and served his poor clients at the cost of his health, even at the risk of his life, without charging them a single pie for his labors. He was a most brilliant lawyer, yet he was a great philanthropist. That is an example that you should have before you. Or better still you can follow Ruskin’s precept, given in his book Unto This Last: “Why should a lawyer charge fifteen pounds for his work,” he asks, “whilst a carpenter, for instance, hardly gets as many shillings for his work?” The fees charged by lawyers are unconscionable everywhere. I confess, I myself [once]  charged what I would now call high fees. But even whilst I engaged in my practice, let me tell you I never let my profession stand in the way of my public service.

Given the particulars of this response and the location of where it was uttered, in other words, we now have proof positive that John Ruskin, at least in a profound ideational form, had been in Sri Lanka, brought there as a result of the reverence in which he and his works were held in the mind and life of Mahatma Gandhi. Or, to put it another way , together, even though they were working in different countries at different times, Mahatma Gandhi and John Ruskin changed the world, for Good.

Last year, the year of the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, Andrew Hill, an editor at The Financial Times of London, published his book, Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes our World (highly recommended). Hill’s principal thesis manifests in his subtitle. Although Ruskin’s is not a household name, as is, to mention an instance at random, Gandhi’s, his influence for good throughout the world has been and remains vast. In which light,  one case more is worth mentioning.

While, as noted earlier , it is true that Ruskin never set foot in America–in general despising it because he persuaded himself (perhaps a little too securely) that no one who lived there would ever ask their tailor to make trousers sporting glass pockets because of their wrong-headed allegiance and subservience to the piece of paper they frequently referred to as “Almighty,” he did pay a profound visit, if only, as in Johannesburg, Colombo, and New Delhi, in ideational form. 

Above, I reproduced a photo of the title page of Gandhi’s translation of Unto this Last into English. For years, I had heard rumors that the Reverend Martin Luther King had read Ruskin, and, like Gandhi, had been very much influenced by the reading. Never however, despite a number of serious attempts, was I ever able to verify the rumors. Then, not so long ago, one of the very best of my many fine former students, Jenn Abrams, was in Atlanta. An admirer of Doctor King, she made it a point to visit the National Landmark bearing his name which is located there. As so often is the case at such honorific places, there were rooms displaying items that had been either King’s personal property or which had played important roles in shaping his thought as he made his way down the difficult path which he hoped, at its end, would ensure the end of racial discrimination in America. In one display case, Jenn saw this little book:

   Gandhi's Translation of UTL in English--King National Landmark Atlanta

Not very far away, in another case, she found a drawing acknowledging Gandhi’s well-known influence on King, particularly on his unswerving commitment to creating meaningful social change by non-violent means.

Gandhi and M. L. King at the King National Historical Landmark Atlanta (Jenn Abrams)

Which makes it clear that, however surprising the fact might appear to be, Ruskin had been not only in Sri Lanka, but in America. Knowing this, it seems appropriate to reproduce one of Dr. King’s famous challenges:

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is “What are you doing for others?”

Which sounds, does it not, when you think about it, a lot like something Ruskin would say. As does this, an aphorism which Gandhi used to guide his own life:

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

Thinking over Gandhi’s life, Albert Einstein said: “In generations to come [few] will scarce believe that such a one as this ever walked on this earth.”

And so, on this day, a day marking the 151st anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, we are duty bound to acknowledge our enduring gratitude to “such a one.”

Gandhi and Ruskin (Arjun Jain image)

(Thanks to Arjun Jain for sharing this fine composite photo.)

Until next time.

Please continue well out there.


P.S.: There is, to my knowledge, only one full-length study of the relationship between the principals featured in this post. Written by Professor Elizabeth T. McLaughlin of Bucknell University, Ruskin and Gandhi (1974) remains a read worthy of your valuable time. 

P.P.S.: As mentioned above, the Semester-at-Sea Program, now located at Colorado State University, is still alive, even though in these presently sequestered times, it is docked. Over the decades, I have done my professorial work on four voyages and can state without equivocation that it remains one of the great educational experiences of life. Even better, given that many reading this post may not be members of SAS’s largest passenger group–undergraduates–it is useful to  note that on every voyage (each year, one sails forth in the fall semester, another in the spring semester), space is allocated to a number (no more than 35, I believe, but it’s best to check) of adult passengers, who are not only given state rooms of their own, but who can take, indeed are encouraged to take, any of the courses being taught while the watery miles slide disappear astern; following which edifying experiences, these same older and wiser passengers can, without ever having had to take an exam, enjoy the ports at which the ship puts in at much more informed levels. If you are interested, you can read more about SAS here: Semester at Sea.

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2 Responses to 194: Ruskin in Sri Lanka: Stories and Reflections in Celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st Birthday

  1. Michelle Lovric says:

    Wonderful story, so engagingly told! thank you!

  2. David Lustgarten says:

    Thank you, Jim, for relating this thorough review of the lineage from Ruskin to MLK. Without doubt it is one of the more important aspects of Ruskin’s legacy for us today, and one which needs to be widely disseminated especially in the U.S., for it provides the much needed broader perspective of MLK beyond racial disparity in getting to the heart of the matter, namely socio-economic injustice. Thanks for sharing it, and also thanks for answering the very same question I had had in my mind concerning a more direct connection between MLK and Ruskin, which previously had only been via Gandhi’s influence. The photo of that edition of “Unto This Last” in that bookcase was really terrific to see!

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