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Books: 'Gandhi's Teachers: Henry David Thoreau' by Satish Sharma

The social work professor's fourth and final book on the thinkers who shaped the world leader's pacifism and civil disobedience.

Research  |  May 5, 2015  |  By Todd Peterson
Satish Sharma

UNLV Social Work Professor Satish Sharma. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

Satish Sharma says some of his earliest memories are related to the idea of nonviolence.

"I have always favored pacifist tendencies and orientations, and practiced them," says Sharma, a UNLV social work professor.

book cover for Gandhi's Teachers: Henry David Thoreau

With this orientation, it was only a matter of time before he became interested in the life of Mohandas Gandhi, the father of Indian independence and a worldwide model for pacifism and nonviolent civil disobedience. Sharma recently completed Gandhi's Teachers: Henry David Thoreau, the last of a four-volume series on thinkers who influenced Gandhi.

In his collected writings and speeches, Gandhi noted several modern thinkers who had influenced his ideas. They include Rajchandra Ravjibhai Mehta, an Indian philosopher; Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy; English intellectual John Ruskin; and American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

By drawing a straight line from Gandhi to these other men and showing how the Indian leader's philosophy developed, Sharma hopes to get people thinking about Gandhian principles.

"You have to pay attention to peace and pacifism," Sharma says. "You have to believe that without peace and pacifism your lives are going to be miserable, and nations' lives are going to be miserable, too."

We can see this on a daily basis, he says, as more people and nations take combative routes to end their differences.

"That may solve the problems partially in the short term," Sharma says. "But in the long run, those problems keep on emerging again and again." Real change comes through discussion, not through aggression, he says.

The Gandhi's Teachers series will add to this discussion. Although much has already been written about Gandhi and the other men individually, Sharma says there wasn't significant work connecting Gandhi's thinking to those who influenced him.

After obtaining degrees at Panjab University and later at the University of Iowa and Ohio State, Sharma continued studying Eastern and Western pacifists, which eventually led to this series.

He began the series in 1999. Of the four men, Sharma says, Mehta was the one most mentioned by Gandhi. Despite that fact, Sharma explains, he was the least known, both in India and among international scholars. That prompted Sharma to explore Mehta's influence in the first volume of the series.

After completing the Mehta volume, Sharma moved on to Tolstoy, then Ruskin and Thoreau. It has kept him busy for a decade and a half.

"You devote 15 years of your life only if you are totally committed to something," he says.

While his research on Thoreau didn't reveal any particular surprises, there were challenges reconciling Thoreau's embrace of direct action to end slavery with Gandhi's nonviolence, Sharma says. Thoreau, for example, was willing to accept violence in certain situations, specifically John Brown's bungled attempt to incite a slave insurgency in Virginia.

Sharma devotes an entire chapter to Thoreau's writing and statements about Brown, the abolitionist militant whose 1859 attack on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry dramatically heightened tensions in a nation already deeply divided by slavery. Thoreau wrote several essays defending Brown and his use of violence.

Gandhi found this troubling, as does Sharma. "[Thoreau's] subscription to violence under certain circumstances did disappoint me," Sharma says.

Still, he adds, Thoreau's admirable traits are legion. Sharma was "deeply impressed" by Thoreau's simplicity, humility, frugality, will power, and forbearance, all virtues that mirror Gandhi's fundamental values.

Elsewhere in Thoreau, Sharma details prominent aspects of the American writer's contributions, perhaps chief among them, Thoreau's 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government" (or "Civil Disobedience"). Gandhi encountered the essay in 1907, after launching the Satyagraha, "soul force," movement in South Africa on behalf of that country's Indian immigrants.

Sharma says exploring the ideas of Gandhi's spiritual and intellectual influences was not an obvious choice for scholarly attention. But exploring the antecedents of Gandhi's thinking is critical to fully appreciate the lasting influence of his ideas.

"Ultimately, the world is to be guided not by political leaders, but by visionaries. Ideas are much stronger than policies and planning," says Sharma. "Ideas make the world go around. And only if they are peaceful ideas are they going to work."

Pacifism is personal for Sharma. Even while excitedly discussing his latest project -- Sharma is currently at work on a book-length study of Quakerism and its effects on Gandhian thought -- he radiates calm and peacefulness. A similar peaceful capacity is available to all of us, he says. We simply need to learn how to use it.

Teachers such as Gandhi and Thoreau can help.

"People know how to obtain peace on a daily basis. They can do the same thing for the nation," Sharma says. "This series is more like awakening the conscience of the people. That is what I'm trying to do."

UNLV Innovation magazine, 2014