Essay on Gandhi Civil Disobedience

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Developed in the early nineteenth century, transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that arose to pose objections to the general state of spirituality and intellectualism. As fathers of the transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson endorsed principles of morality predicated upon higher spiritual laws. They argued that in order to experience personal liberty, one must align themselves with moral truth, as doing so would allow one to identify the masters within themselves. Both Emerson and Thoreau promoted that living by a higher moral truth has implications on our minds, the way we give our time, and the way we use our love. Through transcendentalism, Thoreau and Emerson revealed a prevailing paradox: being a free citizen does not equate to having freedom within the individual. The idea of such crude liberty inspired political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in changing the face of politics in the years to come.

The United States of America is symbolically described as the land of the free, but what exactly does this freedom adumbrate? Thoreau cleverly establishes a difference between the political and moral freedom that exists within the individual. While the first deals with governmental influences, the latter concerns the individual. Although political freedom may exist, prejudice or social judgments on character traits result in the socially-binding slavery of any person. Furthermore, Thoreau maintained the idea that “…that government is best which does not govern at all” (Mehta 254). Going beyond the recognized political freedom, Thoreau attempted to salvage individual and spiritual freedom from social prejudice.

As passionate abolitionists, Thoreau and Emerson perceived African American slavery as an abstract concept pertaining to individual souls and their forces. Their opposition to slavery sprung from ideological influences like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who postulated the importance of individual freedom. Thoreau and Emerson argued that meanness proceeds to slavery whereas nobleness results in freedom. One must construct his soul to stay noble and avoid submitting to the common infrastructure of the encompassing society.

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During the mid-nineteenth century, when Thoreau and Emerson were writing, abolitionism emerged as a forerunning issue. Transcendentalists extended harsh images of slavery to color the reality of each citizen who willfully submits to the institutions of civilization without transcending the human form. Civilization, from a transcendentalist perspective, refers to a socially structured body of people who dedicate their values to a governmental sovereign rather than to individual moral guidance. Thoreau and Emerson identified various binding traps wrought throughout the infrastructure of society and constructively provided various means to transcend these personal constraints to freedom. The term ‘society’ within this context refers to a similar social infrastructure wherein cultural expectations commission thought.

Regarding governance, Thoreau does not condemn the government itself, but the mass of men who “serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies” (Levine et al. 904). These men are not individuals, but a “mass.” Instead of assuming the role of the painter or sculptor to make one’s body and soul into a masterpiece, “they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well” (Levine et al. 904). In contrast to Thoreau’s image of an individually created work of art, the man enslaved to the government does not use his materials to the extent of his potential, and, instead, allows the system to mold him into a mass production, replacing his life with “wood and earth and stones” (Levine et al. 904). The first way to assert one’s individual freedom is to recognize the materials that he or she has been given and to see the potential for construction within that bodily facility. Thoreau writes in the conclusion of Walden that “things do not change; we change, whereby we must have the courage to improve” (Levine et al. 993). Ultimately, transcendentalists frowned upon the false society of man which neglects heavenly comforts for the sake of earthly greatness or social acceptance.

In comparison to Thoreau’s view of the individual as a creator and artist of the self or the soul, Emerson advanced a process of reshaping, necessary for change within the individual, by taking the surrounding society and government into perspective. According to Emerson’s conception of democracy, the value lies within the “ability of all persons to shape their lives through thinking and thus to exercise their capacity for self-government” (Von Rautenfeld 184). For an individual to experience truth, both Emerson and Thoreau agreed that it is necessary to identify what is false, as falsity enslaves the individual into an illusory notion of truth and purpose. The blind follower, as the transcendentalists put it, does not know the truth, and the figurative bindings of society around his heart and mind are invisible. Thoreau and Emerson both used light imagery to identify the illumination of truth, and the obscurity of fallacy to further explain truth and falsity. Thoreau described the current state of America as “a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity” (Levine et al. 904). The imagery symbolizes the darkness of fallacy, an established societal way of living made to imitate truth for individuals. Rather than capitulating to the darkness, Emerson argued that humanity should shine with real light and not with the borrowed reflection of light to further explain how shadow does not illuminate, and, therefore, would not inspire individuals.

The transcendentalists argued that every human is equipped with the means to achieve truth through an individual relationship with a Higher Power wherein moral development is possible. When the individual does not develop potential internally, that person lives as a shell of the virtue that is possible. They have settled upon the definition of a free man as a man first, and a countryman second. Thoreauvian ideologies teach men that outward freedom is in the measure of the inner freedom he has attained, and absolute freedom, as distinguished from mere political freedom, is in the identification of the moral and spiritual. When individuals attempt to conquer and learn to rule themselves, government, in the publicly-accepted sense of the term, will not be necessary at any cost.

Even though the transcendentalist movement only lasted ten years, it influenced society from a global perspective. Transcendentalist thought has directly influenced the New Thought Movement, a spiritual movement that promoted similar ideas, like intelligence within minds and essences of spirits, with the ideology that the mind has the capacity to overdrive matter. Not only did it influence the New Thought Movement, but it also affected how people approached politics, religion, and philosophy. These ideas were passed down and greatly influenced different religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism. Thoreau and Emerson immensely impacted the thinking of individuals, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. People believed that the civil disobedience campaign by these leaders could greatly affect the existence of the government structure. By conducting rebellious soul force and non-violent actions, a stage could be reached in which government loses the power to govern its citizens and people could rule themselves instead of relying on a system to do so, which aligns with Thoreauvian theories.

Inspired by Hindu texts like the Bhagavat Gita and the Upanishads, Thoreau articulated his beliefs through spiritual ideas of nature and soul. As seen in his accounts, he was an iconoclast and bore no religious stamp to his name; however, Thoreau found ample confirmation in the Laws of Manu, one of the most authoritative books of Hindu code, that favored ascetic rule and defiant individualism, which he was a strong supporter of. Thoreau was no yogi, nor a Buddhist or Hindu priest, but he was closer to these religious ideals than anyone else in mid-nineteenth century America, and not many people recognize the importance of that influence.

Inspired by Eastern religious texts and ideas, Thoreau constructed his essays, out of which, his two most influential pieces, “Civil Disobedience” and “Walden,” stood out the most as masterpieces of American literature. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau argued that citizens must disobey the rule of law if those laws prove to be unjust. His essay on Civil Disobedience quickly became a “bible for the satyagrahis in South Africa,” and the teachings from Thoreau were used by Mahatma Gandhi, The Father of India, for the “uplift of the down-trodden millions of Indian workers” (Mehta 256). Like Thoreau, Gandhi viewed the Bhagavat Gita as a “charter for liberation for all manner of humanity and hence for liberation from caste and colonialism” (Friedrich 56). These religious influences had driven both Gandhi and Thoreau into achieving moral satisfaction.

Gandhi and Thoreau both employed the method of civil disobedience for protest by exerting sole force and expressing their concern about the law in hopes of maximum cooperation with all people and institutions. The protest was hoped to range from “defiance on the part of the people all the way up to resignations from their offices on part of the officers” (Mehta 256). Mahatma Gandhi had seen a “practical man willing to practice his beliefs” in Thoreau (Hendrick 471). When asked about reading Thoreau’s works at the Second Round Table Conference in London, Gandhi responded that he “read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906” and how Thoreau’s ideas influenced him greatly. Gandhi even adopted some of Thoreau’s ideas and recommended the study of Thoreau to all his friends who were helping in “the cause of Indian independence” (Hendrick 463). The amount of indebtedness that Gandhi had for Thoreau was clearly seen in his 1942 appeal “To American Friends,” in which he wrote, “you have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa” (Hendrick 462).

In hopes to gain independence from the British in India, Mahatma Gandhi referred to his form of nonviolence or civil disobedience as Satyagraha, meaning “truth force” or “love force.” Satyagraha meant that a person should follow seeking truth and love while refusing to participate in something he/she believes is wrong through nonviolent resistance. Using this principle, Gandhi guided his activism against the British empire and led India to independence on August 15th, 1947. As a Hindu mystic, Gandhi had adopted “the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire” (Hendrick 463). In doing so, both Thoreau and Gandhi were kindred souls who sought truth, followed Hindu Brahmin literature, and “strove to save the struggling humanity” (Mehta 257).

However, Gandhi’s arguments and methods went deeper and expanded more across the nation than those of Thoreau. While Thoreau focused on exercising civil disobedience on an individual scale, Gandhi tried it on a very mass scale. Thoreau was more focused on arguing that “if 1000, if 100, if 10 men, - ten honest men -if one honest man in this state ceasing to hold slaves were to withdraw from his copartnership and be locked up in jail, it would be the abolition of slavery in America” (Mehta 256). On the contrary, Gandhi took inspiration from Thoreau’s words, but transformed it into a non-violent movement in which complete civil disobedience is “rebellion without the least element of violence in it” (Mehta 256). Gandhi protested through defiant non-violent marches with huge masses of those “down-trodden millions of Indian workers” (Mehta 256). He expected Britain to grant India independence after World War I; when it did not happen, Gandhi called for strikes and other acts of peaceful civil disobedience. The British sometimes struck back with violence, but Gandhi insisted Indians remain non-violent. Having been jailed many times for protests, Gandhi’s humble opinion was always that non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. Therefore, freedom is the freedom for “attaining the ideal not for pursuing fleeting passions” (Mehta 254).

Although many might think 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,” the theories eventually made their way back to the United States, just better and more refined (Hendrick 463). Martin Luther King Jr., one of America’s most famous civil rights leaders, was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and heavily drew upon the Gandhian principle of non-violence in his own civil rights activism. King was already familiar with peaceful civil disobedience through writers like Thoreau, but he found heavy interest in Gandhi’s idea that oppressed people could use truth or love as weapons in their struggle for justice. Although he was inspired, King didn’t have a practical application for how to execute it until he was involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956 in which he credits India’s Gandhi as the guiding light of the technique of nonviolent social change.

Martin Luther King Jr. had clearly laid out all the principles of nonviolence that he had employed during the Montgomery Boycott in his 1958 book “Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” King carried forward Gandhi’s commitments and Indians supported King in his endeavors because both shared common values, common strategies, and common struggles. Throughout most of the 20th century, Indians and African-Americans supported each other because Gandhi first struggled for social justice in South Africa where he “protested peacefully against discrimination against Asians as well as Africans” (Rao). Like Gandhi, King used civil disobedience as a means of effectuating government change. It took the form of mass, non-violent refusals to obey government commands. When invited to visit India to meet with leaders and discuss issues, King accepted the invitation and felt as if it was a “revelation in many ways, as if ‘the spear of frustration had been transformed ‘into a shaft of light’” (Rao).

In future years, Gandhi and King continued to inspire the leaders of nonviolent freedom struggles and political movements, from Gene Sharp to Nelson Mandela. Their lives and legacies as well as King’s journey to India still offer new paths to global peace and human progress. Transcendentalism not only affected the growth of other movements or religions, but it also impacted the behavior of American citizens. Although the beliefs of transcendentalism did not quickly change the thoughts of Americans, it helped them to build a stronger foundation on the idea of judging people based on morality instead of determining whether they are right or wrong. Modern movements like “Black Lives Matter” and the “Me Too” movement reveal that Thoreau’s theories of individualism and non-conformity are still prevalent to this day. Therefore, transcendentalism changed the face of politics and gave birth to a new era of autonomy within society.

Works Cited

  1. Levine, Robert S., et al. The Norton Anthology of American literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. Print.
  2. Mehta, Usha. “GANDHI AND THOREAU.” The Indian Journal of Political Science, vol. 23, no. 1/4, 1962, pp. 252–257. JSTOR,
  3. Von Rautenfeld, Hans. “Thinking for Thousands: Emerson's Theory of Political Representation in the Public Sphere.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 49, no. 1, 2005, pp. 184–197. JSTOR,
  4. Hendrick, George. “The Influence of Thoreau's ‘Civil Disobedience’ on Gandhi's Satyagraha.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, 1956, pp. 462–471.,
  5. Friedrich, Paul. “Walden's ‘Political Thoreau.’” The Concord Saunterer, vol. 16, 2008, pp. 45–58. JSTOR,
  6. Rao, Nirupama. “Gandhi's 'Light' Guided MLK.” POLITICO, 8 Mar. 2013,
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