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The Coffee House of Surat, or The Chinese Pilot

I must confess I haven’t read The Works of Tolstoi yet, which I should do soon, given my weakness for Russian literature.

In any case, this collection, although far from complete, contains some of Tolstoy’s lesser-known works, especially, many of his short stories. And the greatness of his short stories lies in the glimpses they give into his character and beliefs – whereas in his longer novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the reader tends to get swept away with the plot, his short stories address issues he’s concerned with in a much more concise, direct manner. In some ways, they are very similar to the fables of ancient sages – Tolstoy often uses prose to illustrate and explain a moral sentiment.

The story ‘The Chinese Pilot’, also known as ‘The Coffee House of Surat’, is particularly interesting in that it is very telling of Tolstoy’s views on religion. It was well-known that he was a Christian anarchist and a great supporter of non-violence, and was as a consequence one of Mahatma Gandhi’s inspirations. But what is less obvious are Tolstoy’s esoteric beliefs – although he outwardly professed to be Christian, it is likely he believed in ‘the transcendent unity of all religions’, to borrow a phrase from the perennial philosopher Frithjof Schuon.

‘The Coffee House of Surat’ (this is the more common title for this story, although ‘The Chinese Pilot’ is the title in our edition), describes an argument between people of various faiths in a coffee house in India. Each debater believes his faith has a monopoly of the truth, and all our religions are erroneous. The characters in the story include a Persian Shi’ite theologian (who is sort of the protagonist), his pagan slave, a Hindu brahmin, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Sunni Turk, amongst others. Throughout this heated debate, one man, a Confucian from China, remains silent. When he is consulted, he gives an allegory of a Chinese pilot, which eventually leads to the conclusion that all religious discord stems from pride and egotism, and that God is not exclusive to only one group of people.

Here are some quotes from the story:

“It is pride that causes error and discord among men…”

“If you would only look up at the heavens, instead of at the ground beneath your own feet, you might all understand this, and would no longer suppose that the sun shines for you, or for your country alone.”