Thoreau to Tolstoy: Five thinkers who helped transform Gandhi to Mahatma 

MK Gandhi was greatly influenced by many western thinkers and writers in formulating his theories and non-violent mode of struggle.

Published: 01st October 2019 06:17 PM  |   Last Updated: 01st October 2019 08:43 PM   |  A+A-

From Left: RW Emerson, HD Thoreau, MK Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin (Facebook Images)

Online Desk

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an advocate of India's Swaraj or home rule - a political state free of foreign interference or authority. However, he was greatly influenced by many western thinkers and writers in formulating his theories and non-violent mode of struggle.

While he was introduced to some of them during his time in England, a few others were brought to his attention during his years in South Africa. Here are some names who immensely contributed to Gandhi becoming the "Mahatma."


Henry David Thoreau (Twitter Photo)

It was during his time in South Africa that Gandhi developed his concept of "Civil Disobedience." It was the time when the Indian population in the African country was fighting the "Asiatic Registration Act" introduced by the colonial government. The law made it mandatory for all Indians over the age of eight to register under it and carry the card provided afterwards all the time - failing which could lead to a fine, a prison term, or deportation. 

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It was while leading his "Passive Resistance" agitation against the apartheid government's new law that he read Thoreau's essay titled On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Written in 1849 at the age of 32, the transcendentalist thinker vouched for deliberate resistance from people against unjust laws enforced upon them.

Gandhi was greatly moved by Thoreau's concept that prison is where a just man belongs under an unjust government and referred to him as his "teacher." He even credited the American thinker with giving scientific confirmation to his non-violent mode of agitation.  


Ruskin (1819-1900) was an English critic of the Victorian era who was a campaigner against industrial capitalism. Gandhi was introduced to Ruskin's Unto this Last (published in 1860) by his friend Henry Polak during a rail journey from Johannesburg to Durban in June 1904. Gandhi said "the great book" influenced him beyond imagination and transformed his life.

In Gandhian society, physical labour is considered superior to intellectual work and the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is considered the life worth living. He adopted this from Ruskin along with the concept that stated that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.


Leo Tolstoy  (Twitter Photo)

Gandhi and Tolstoy have been the two greatest exponents of non-violence as a way of life and means of resistance. According to Gandhi, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893) "left an abiding impression" on him and the Russian's idea of “love as law of life” and care for entire mankind greatly moved him. Gandhi named his second ashram in South Africa after Tolstoy where he experimented with methods of Satyagraha.

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While being taken to the court in handcuffs following an agitation in Transvaal, he carried with him a copy of The Kingdom of God is Within You. Tolstoy's concept of "Bread Labour" was included among Gandhi's "Ashram vows" and resulted in the formation of the Gandhian principle that makes earning a livelihood by the sweat of the brow mandatory for inmates. The duo had exchanged a few letters before the great writer passed away in 1910 at the age of 82.


It was during his imprisonment during the Transvaal agitation in 1908 that Gandhi was introduced to Socrates' "Apology" -- the textual adaptation of the Athenian philosopher's famous speech while facing a trial in 399 BC.

Though in military language, Socrates expressed his willingness to lay down his life for the cause of his belief (the word Apologia means "defence" in classical Greek). Death shouldn't be a reason to back down from one's objective, he argued.

This idea of self-sacrifice inspired Gandhi to formulate his Satyagraha principles and he called the thinker “a soldier of truth." Gandhi published the Gujarati translation of "Apology" as instalments in Indian Opinion immediately after being released from prison.


Ralph Waldo Emerson (Courtesy:

Gandhi was not just an ardent critic of urbanisation but also a strong advocate of rural life. In his ideal Indian society, communities existed as self-reliant villages which used the very minimum resources to meet everybody's "needs" but not anybody's "wants".

Gandhi adopted this principle from the theories of US thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose philosophy revolved around the principle of self-reliance and moral enhancement. He was introduced to Emerson's writings during his student days in England. 


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