Thoreau, Gandhi and King

Henry David Thoreau’s writings influenced both Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. In 1931, Gandhi told American reporter Webb Miller, “Why of course I read Thoreau . . . I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906,” said Gandhi, “and his ideas influenced me greatly.”

Thoreau had read the Hindu Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Miller noted that “Gandhi, a Hindu mystic, adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British empire. It would seem that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau.” [1]

Martin Luther King, another admirer of Thoreau, said that non-violent resisters could learn from Gandhi’s example, since Gandhi helped win India’s independence from the British empire “by using only the weapons of truth, noninjury, courage and soul force.” King added that nonviolent resistance provides an effective channel for discontent.

“This discontent is sound and healthy,” said King. “Non-violence saves it from degenerating into morbid bitterness and hatred. Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul. Psychiatrists are telling us now that many of the inner conflicts and strange things that happen in the subconscious are rooted in hate. So now they are saying, ’Love or perish.’ This is the beauty of nonviolence. It says you can struggle without hating; you can fight war without violence. We must never succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, for if this happens, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” [2]

Gandhi also spoke about revolution without hatred or violence. He urged Hindus and Muslims to treat one another kindly “remembering that the same Divine Spirit inhabits whether it is the Hindu body or Muslim body.” On Hindu-Muslim conflict, Gandhi said at a public meeting in Madras, “The more you try to undo the tangle [of conflict] the more knotty it becomes, and a wise spinner leaves his tangle aside for a moment when he has lost his temper.” [3]

Just as King and Gandhi were rightly outraged by the injustices they battled, Thoreau was outraged about our government’s allowing slavery and about U.S. involvement in the Mexican War of 1846. In Civil Disobedience Thoreau said, “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”

As King and Gandhi later did, Thoreau recommended nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of revolution. Thoreau said that as an act of civil disobedience abolitionists should withdraw support “both in person and property” from the government of Massachusetts. He said, “I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.”

For Thoreau, King and Gandhi, nonviolent resistance was a state of mind as well as a method of activism. The three men founded their nonviolent philosophies on thoughtful reflection. Through the method of thoughtful contemplation, they transformed their rightful outrage from reflexive anger into reflective passion [or love] for justice and love of humanity.

They did this by emphasizing thoughts of love for justice and their fellow man rather than dwelling on thoughts of rage. This contemplative, loving basis for their resistance made all the difference in the quality of the resistance and gave their protests popular appeal.

Four years before Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience, he spent time living in a cabin near Walden Pond, studying nature and doing some writing. Thoreau said his time at Walden sharpened his physical senses and mental awareness. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” he said, adding, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.”

Thoreau said he learned at Walden that “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams . . . he will put some things behind; will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex.”

Thoreau, King and Gandhi weren’t always virtuous in a traditional sense. Thoreau could be cantankerous, Gandhi’s temper flared from time to time, and King reportedly had extra-marital affairs. So what? Traditional morality isn’t always on target.

What the three had in common was political astuteness rooted in contemplative wisdom. They had strong self-awareness and social awareness. They all practiced thoughtful reflection that brought them to the shared conclusion that political action is most effective when based on conscious, loving passion for justice and for fellow human beings instead of on reflexive anger, hatred or mental and physical violence.

Thoreau, King and Gandhi left us with their great gifts: beautiful life-examples for effective ways to think about and practice politics. They all believed that how we walk down the road to justice is as important as getting to the end of that road.


1. Gandhi, A Life by Yogesh Chadra.

2. A Testament of Hope, Edited by James M. Washington, Harper Collins.

3. Gandhi’ s Passion, The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert.

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