Tolstoy Marathon # 3: The Coffee House of Surat

coffeehouseIt is now my third Tolstoy’s short story, I have noticed that most of the themes of his stories  mainly deal with  religion. In fact, atheists and religious apologists have still been debating whether Leo Tolstoy is considered theistic or agnostic, or probably atheistic. Perhaps they deduce their standpoints from Tolstoy’s ‘literary writings.   In this short story, although abstract, it could be interpreted that he was agnostic.

A learned Persian theologian ended up perplexed about his religious conviction that there was no higher Reason controlling the universe after a long period of studies about the nature of  Deity  and reading and writing books.  Subsequently, he was banished from Persia when The Shah heard of this.

 The  central story began in a coffee shop when the theologian asked his slave whether there is God, which provoked  passionately heated  arguments at a time of some guests  with different religions in the same coffee house upon hearing the theologian’s opinion. But all the rage in the story is the tale of a Confucius student.

When you read it, perhaps, what Tolstoy wanted to imply in this story is that whenever a person comes to the point that he questions about the hypothetical question whether God exists or not  by virtue of idle curiosity brought about by extensive studies, reading and writing, he is bound up in agnostic views. In addition, the story simply puts that when it comes to religion, people with different religious convictions have different tongues . In other words,   there   could be many truths.

In harmony with  the story,   Richard Dawkins, the author of the best selling non-fiction,  God Delusion,   put it  bluntly, that the world is deluded with  diverse religions, here  are the excerpts from the  story above   pictures how people with completely different  convictions  tend to be at sword’s points :

A  Brahmin, on hearing the words spoken by the slave who believed that he feels the presence of God in his girdle , turned to him and said:

“Miserable fool! Is it possible you believe that God can be carried under a man’s girdle? There is one God–Brahma, and he is greater than the whole world, for he created it. Brahma is the One, the mighty God, and in His honour are built the temples on the Ganges’ banks, where his true priests, the Brahmins, worship him. They know the true God, and none but they. A thousand score of years have passed, and yet through revolution after revolution these priests have held their sway, because Brahma, the one true God, has protected them.”

So spoke the Brahmin, thinking to convince everyone; but a Jewish broker who was present replied to him, and said:

“No! the temple of the true God is not in India. Neither does God protect the Brahmin caste. The true God is not the God of the Brahmins, but of Abraham,

Isaac, and Jacob. None does He protect but His chosen people, the Israelites. From the commencement of the world, our nation has been beloved of Him, and ours

alone. If we are now scattered over the whole earth, it is but to try us; for God has promised that He will one day gather His people together in Jerusalem. Then, with the

Temple of Jerusalem–the wonder of the ancient world- -restored to its splendor, shall Israel be established a ruler over all nations.”

So spoke the Jew, and burst into tears. He wished to say more, but an Italian missionary who was there interrupted him.

“What you are saying is untrue,” said he to the Jew.


 “You attribute injustice to God. He cannot love your nation above the rest. Nay rather, even if it be true that of old He favored the Israelites, it is now nineteen

hundred years since they angered Him, and caused Him to destroy their nation and scatter them over the earth, so that their faith makes no converts and has died out

except here and there. God shows preference to no nation, but calls all who wish to be saved to the bosom of the Catholic Church of Rome, the one outside whose

borders no salvation can be found.”

So spoke the Italian. But a Protestant minister, who happened to be present, growing pale, turned to the Catholic missionary and exclaimed:

“How can you say that salvation belongs to your religion? Those only will be saved, who serve God according to the Gospel, in spirit and in truth, as bidden by the word of Christ.”


Such  discourse showing  one’s zealous devotion reminded me of the other novels  which  such indelible scenarios  I have read such as in Life of Pi by Yann Martel:bookcover lifeofpi

The priest broke it when he said , with pride in his voice, “ Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon.”

His parents , the pandit and the imam looked surprised.

“ You must be mistaken . He’s a god Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qu’ran is coming along nicely.” So said  the imam.

His parents , the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.

The pandit spoke. “You’re both wrong. He ‘s a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darsham and performing puja.”

My  parents, the imam and the priests looked astounded.

“ There is no mistake ,  “ said the priest. “ I know this boy. He is Priscine Molitor Patel and he’s a Christian.”

“ I know him too and I tell you he’s a Muslim. “ asserted the imam.

“ Nonsense! “cried the pandit. “ Piscine was born a Hindu, lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!

The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving.


And this is how each brainwashed  perplexed Piscine:

Piscine, can this be true?” asked the imam earnestly. “ Hindus and Christians are idolaters . They have many gods.””

And Muslims have many wives, “ responded the pandit.

The priest looked askance at both of them.

“ Piscine, “ he nearly whispered , “ there is salvation only  in Jesus.”

“ Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion, “ sad the pandit.

“ They strayed long ago from God’ path, “ said the imam.

“ Where ‘s God in your religion?” snapped  he priest. “ You don’t have a single mirace to show for it.  What kind of  religion I sthat, without miracles?” 

“ It isn’t a circus wth dead people juping out og tombs all the time, that’s what! We muslims stick to he essential miracle of existence. Birds flyin, rain falling, crops growing- these are miracles enough for us.”

“ Feathers aan drain are all very nice,  but w elike to know that God I strully with us.”

“ Is that so ? Well, a whole lot of good it did God to be with you- you tried to kill him! You bagged  him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet? The prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him- brought us the word of God without any undignifies nonsense and died at a ripe old age.”


And in this part on how each  slandered one another”

“ God is universal,” spluttered the priest.

The imam nodded strong approval. “ There is only one God .”

“ And with their one god Muslim are always causing troubles an provoking riots. The proof of how bad Islam is, is how uncivilized Muslims are, “  pronounced the pandit.

“ Says the slave-driver of the  calf lovers. They kneel before cows, “ the priest chimed in.

“ While Christians kneel before a Whiteman! They are the flunkies of a foreign god. They are the night mare of all non-white people.”

“ And they eat pigs and are cannibals. “ added the imam for good measure.

What it comes down to, “ the priest put out with cool rage , “ is where Piscine wants real religion- or myths from a cartoon strip.”

“ God – or idols, “ intoned the imam gravely.

“ Our gods- or colonial gods, “ hissed the pandit.


Admit it , the two scenarios  above usually occur in a place and among people  with different religious convictions.

Since it is now my third Tolstoy marathon, the longer I read his other short stories, the more it comes to me that Leo Tolstoy’s religious viewpoints, probably suppressed by his restricted atmosphere then, were sublimated through writing novels, novellas, or short stories. Thus, I may infer ,  in my humble opinion, that probably Tolstoy was an agnostic.

Rating: 3/  5 stars


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