Satyagraha's American Roots:
An Exploration of H.D. Thoreau's Influence on M.K. Gandhi
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet—in short, to see themselves as Satyagraha experts.
Satyagraha was written by Americans, and its third act credits Gandhi’s influence on the American Martin Luther King, Jr. But Gandhi acknowledged his own debt to the ideas of an earlier American: Henry David Thoreau. Addressing “American friends,” Gandhi once 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.”
Thoreau published “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” in 1849. The essay would become a classic not only for its engaging style and its challenging political argument, but for the story Thoreau told there of the night he himself spent in jail in Concord, Massachusetts: he had refused to pay an annual tax. It is sometimes reported that Thoreau was expressing his objection to the United States’ war on Mexico; he did oppose that war, but he wrote in “Civil Disobedience,” “It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.” So where Gandhi acted in response to specific acts of oppression, Thoreau acted on a rather more abstract principle.
To explore Thoreau’s position, and to compare it with the idea of satyagraha, students can find a highly accessible version of “Civil Disobedience,” annotated with conversational study notes, online at www.vcu.edu.
The essay swiftly draws readers into the mind and experience of the personable Thoreau, who raises just the sort of ethical questions appealing to many adolescents.
After reading the essay, students can examine Thoreau’s reasoning:
Is it right for a citizen to “stand aloof” from the country in which he lives?
Could satyagraha, as depicted in the opera, be described as “standing aloof”?
Would it have made a difference if Thoreau had attributed his tax boycott to opposing the Mexican-American War, rather than the more general intention to “withdraw and stand aloof”?
What if he had refused to pay taxes as a protest against slavery, which was still legal in the U.S. and regulated by its governement in 1849?
Should people today refuse to pay taxes when they disagree with government policies? Why or why not?
Gandhi actually discovered Thoreau during the period depicted in Satyagraha—in 1906, the year of Act I, Scene 3 (The Vow) and Act II, Scene 2 (Indian Opinion). In November 1907, Gandhi’s Indian Opinion announced an essay contest: readers were invited to comment on works that inspired satyagraha. “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” was singled out.
Having read Thoreau’s essay and seen Satyagraha, your students may enjoy “entering” the contest that Gandhi’s newspaper held more than a century ago. They can write their own essays, responding both to Thoreau’s American civil disobedience and to the philosophy embodied in Philip Glass’s opera.