Mahatma Gandhi – Bertrand Russell

(This article focuses on the early life of Gandhi and what moulded him into the person he later became. Though Gandhi was not tall and well built his indomitable will made him a man few would think of opposing. His desire for justice and equality for people of all castes and creeds made him popular with the masses. The poor and simple folk identified with him due to his simple lifestyle. His honesty and belief in loving the enemy, even at the cost of his own life, endeared him to his friends and foes alike. His non- violence brought him international recognition and followers).

[Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), later Earl Russell – prominent British philosopher and mathematician – served six months in prison in the First World War for his pacifism. He renounced his pacifism in 1939, after the rise of fascism, but from 1949 led the movement for nuclear disarmament. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. This article is from Atlantic Monthly, Boston, December 1952.]


Mahatma Gandhi was unquestionably a great man, both in personal force and in political effect. He moulded the character of the struggle for freedom in India, and impressed his own ideals upon the new governing class that came into power when the English went home. There is, at the present day, a general awakening throughout Asia, but the spirit and policy of India, thanks largely to Gandhi, remains very different from that of any other Asiatic country.

Gandhi, like some other great men, developed slowly. Quite extraordinary psychological acumen would have been necessary to discern his future in the shy youth who studied law, first in India and then in England. His autobiography contains a picture of him as he was in his early days in England, and there is nothing in it to suggest the future loincloth; on the contrary, his costume is faultlessly correct and would pass inspection by the “Tailor and Cutter” without any criticism.

Some of the characteristics that he displayed throughout his life were already in evidence at this time. He had a wide and unsectarian interest in religion, and listened to Christian teaching without hostility, though without acceptance. He had already that scrupulous honesty which later distinguished him. He had been married, as was the custom of this country, while still a schoolboy, but when he came to England he left his wife in India and was not generally known by his English friends to be married. He believed, rightly or wrongly, that a certain young lady was becoming interested in him, and he therefore wrote a long letter to her chaperone explaining his matrimonial position. He had been brought up to be a vegetarian on religious grounds, but his brother, who wanted to become “modern,” induced him on a few occasions to taste meat. He found it made him ill, and he disliked the deceiving of his parents that was involved. He therefore reverted to strict vegetarianism before his journey to England. All through his life he attached an importance to questions of diet which it is a little difficult for most modern Europeans to understand. But although in England he observed as far as he could the customs in which he had been brought up, he did not become in any degree a rebel, and did not apparently encounter the kind of treatment by which rebels are created.

After a year or so in India, he went on professional legal business to South Africa, and it was there that events soon pushed him into the career which made him famous. He landed at Durban and had to travel to Pretoria. The incidents of this journey are treated vividly and precisely in his autobiography. He took a first-class ticket at Durban, and apparently the railway authorities had no objection to selling it to him. But after he had been in the train for some time, a railway official insisted that however much he might have a first-class ticket, he must travel in a third-class carriage. Gandhi refused to yield voluntarily, so he was pushed out of the train, which went on without him. He sat throughout the night in the station waiting-room, shivering with cold, because his overcoat was in the luggage of which the railway company had taken charge, and he would not ask of them the favour of being allowed to get it out.

“I began to think of my duty,” he writes in his autobiography. “Should I fight for my rights or go back to India; or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was only superficial. It was only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardship in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice. So I decided to take the next available train to Pretoria.”

A part of his journey had to be done by stage-coach, as there was at that time no railway from the Natal frontier to Johannesburg. He had a ticket for the journey by coach of which the validity was not questioned, but as he was a “coloured man,” the conductor of the coach considered that he could not be allowed to travel inside.

For a time he was allowed to sit next to the driver while the conductor sat inside, but presently the conductor decided that he wanted to smoke, and ordered Gandhi to sit on the floor of the roof. Gandhi describes the incident: “So he took a piece of dirty sackcloth from the driver, spread it on the footboard, and addressing me, said, `Sammy, you sit on this. I want to sit near the driver.’ The insult was more than I could bear. In fear and trembling, I said to him, `It was you who seated me here, though I should have been accommodated inside. That insult I put up with. Now that you want to sit outside and smoke, you would have me sit at your feet. I refuse to do so, but I am prepared to sit inside.’ As I was struggling through these sentences the man came for me and began heavily to box my ears. He seized me by the arm and tried to drag me down. I clung to the brass rails of the coach-box and was determined to keep my hold even at the risk of breaking my wrist-bones. The passengers were witnessing the scene – the man swearing at me, dragging and belabouring me, and I remaining still. He was strong and I was weak.”

It is difficult to guess how this scene would have ended but for the intervention of some of the passengers, who apparently had some inkling of humanity. Thanks to them, Gandhi was allowed to remain where he was, and a Hottentot, who had been sitting on the other side of the driver, was made to vacate his seat for the conductor. The feelings of Hottentots about this incident remain for a future page of history.

He had some further adventures on the journey, but of a less dramatic sort. No good hotel would give him lodging, and it was only with some difficulty that he procured a first-class ticket from Johannesburg to Pretoria. This he did by writing a long letter to the station master, and then appearing at the station so faultlessly dressed that the station master observed, “I see you are a gentleman.” If he had met Gandhi in later life, clad in his loincloth, he would not have been able to say this.

At this time, as Gandhi’s reflections show, although he was outraged by the colour prejudice that he encountered, he had no conception of general human equality. He was aware of himself as an educated man, a man whose family in their own country had a certain social prominence. He was rendered indignant by the fact that all Hindus in South Africa were called “coolies,” however little they might work with their hand. He had not yet thought of Negroes as having the same right to equality as he was claiming for himself, and at first he was not particularly interested in the wrongs of Indian indentured labourers. It was only step by step, through a number of years, that his outlook on human affairs developed to the point where the untouchables became his main preoccupation. I think, however, that the indignities which he suffered on this first journey in South Africa were what first awakened him to the intolerable humiliation to which classes and nations which are deemed “inferior” are subjected by the insolence of their “masters”. I should therefore judge that it was this journey which was the turning point in Gandhi’s life.


Gandhi returned to India in 1896, and while in India he gave large publicity to the bad treatment of Indians in South Africa. What he had to say on this subject was quoted in many Indian newspapers and brought him into contact with Indian leaders. This agitation had repercussions in South Africa, where the white population became filled with fury against Gandhi. His Indian friends in South Africa telegraphed to him to return to that country, which he did. All sorts of measures were adopted to prevent him from landing. First the ship on which he had come was kept in quarantine for a long time, without any medical justification. Then he was warned not to land with the other passengers, but to slip ashore surreptitiously after dark. He would not do this. His refusal nearly cost him his life. His own account in his autobiography is so vivid that it must be quoted:

“The number of persons present about the wharf was not larger than what is to be usually seen there. As soon as we landed some young lads saw us. As I was the only Indian who wore a turban of a particular type, they at once recognized me, and began to shout, `Here’s Gandhi! Here’s Gandhi! Thrash him! Surround him!’ and they came up towards me. Some began to throw stones. Then a few older Europeans joined the boys, and gradually the party of rioters began to grow. Mr. Laughton thought that there was danger in our going on foot. He therefore beckoned for a rickshaw. Up to now I had never sat in a rickshaw, as it was thoroughly disgusting to me to sit in a vehicle pulled by human beings. But I then felt that it was my duty to use that vehicle. Five or six times in my life I have experienced that one whom God wished to save cannot fall even if he will. If I did not fall at that moment I cannot take any credit for it to myself. These rickshaws are pulled by Zulus. The older Europeans and the young lads threatened the rickshaw puller that if he allowed me to sit in his rickshaw they would beat him and smash his rickshaw to pieces. The rickshaw boy therefore said `Kha’ (No), and went away. I was thus spared the shame of a rickshaw ride.

“We had no alternative now but to proceed to our destination on foot. The mob followed us. With every step we advanced, it grew larger and larger. The gathering was enormous when we reached West Street. A man of powerful build caught hold of Mr. Laughton and tore him away from me. He was not therefore in a position to come up with me. The crowd began to abuse me and showered upon me stones and whatever else they could lay their hands on. They threw down my turban. Meanwhile a burly fellow came up to me, slapped me in the face and then kicked me. I was about to fall unconscious when I held on to the railings of a house near by. For a while I took breath, and when the fainting was over proceeded on my way. At that time I had almost given up any hope of reaching home alive. But I remember well that even then my heart did not arraign my assailants.”

He was saved from further injury, perhaps even from death, by the wife of the Superintendent of Police, whose name was Mrs. Alexander. She had been a friend of his before, and insisted upon walking beside him so that the mob, even with the worst will in the world, could not injure him much without injuring her too, which they did not wish to do. Finally the police heard what was happening, and escorted him to the police station. From there he reached his destination without further injury.

It was not until many years later that Gandhi became in any general sense a rebel against authority. At the time of the Boer War he did war work for the British, and justified his doing so on the ground that Indians owed something to British protection. He argued at this time that “the authorities may not always be right, but so long as the subjects own allegiance to a State, it is their clear duty generally to accommodate themselves, and to accord their support, to acts of the State.” He did not think that arguments as to the injustice of the British case in the Boer War justified a British subject in disobedience, or even in an attitude of passivity. Many things are surprising in Gandhi’s development, and this is certainly one of them.


Gandhi possessed every form of courage in the highest possible degree. We have already seen his courage in facing the Durban mob. He showed another sort when, shortly after the end of the Boer War, the pneumonic plague broke out. The pneumonic plague, as everyone knows, is even more deadly and even more infectious than the bubonic plague, but without a moment’s hesitation Gandhi devoted himself to the care of the victims, and did everything in his power for them until the outbreak had been adequately coped with. He was not under any kind of official obligation to do this work. I think that few men would have behaved with the wholehearted and immediate devotion which he displayed on this occasion.

The Boer War and its aftermath give more occasion for cynical disillusionment than most events in British history. The war was brought on by the intrigues of money grubbing financiers, who spread a network of corruption that descended far down in the social scale. It was fought by the British, first with incompetence and then with inhumanity. It was in this war that concentration camps were invented. Boer women and children were taken to these camps, where they died in large numbers of enteric fever, brought on by the sanitary carelessness of the authorities.

Throughout the war two arguments had been used by the British Government to mitigate its imperialistic character. It was said that the Boers treated non-Europeans very much worse than the English colonists, and it was said that when the war was ended, British miners would find lucrative employment in the mines of South Africa. The British Government, however, decided that Chinese indentured labour would be cheaper than the labour of British miners. A great wave of popular indignation swept out of power the Government which had introduced Chinese labour. Those who had voted for the Liberals imagined that a victory had been won. The Chinese, it is true, were sent back to China, but the place was taken by Indian indentured labour. At the same time legislation was introduced to make the position of Indians in South Africa worse than it had been. At first the British Government refused to sanction this legislation, but very soon it granted self-government to the Transvaal, a measure which was universally hailed as a “noble gesture,” and as allowing to the brave Boers the enjoyment of that liberty for which they had fought so well.

The brave Boers immediately saw to it that only they should enjoy the blessings of liberty. The oppressive measures which the British Government had refused to sanction were immediately carried, and the British Government no longer dared to use its legal power to veto. The country had been made safe for mine owners and slave drivers, and the vanquished had been generously granted permission to persist in their slave-driving. This was the situation with which Gandhi had to contend.

The Transvaal Government was faced with a dilemma which generally confronts governments in such a situation. On the one hand cheap coloured labour was very convenient, while on the other hand there was a general hatred of Asians, and a desire, so far as possible, to have no non-Europeans except Negroes. With this end in view, acts were passed to compel a sifting of Indians with a view to diminishing their numbers and to reducing those who remained to a much more subservient condition. Gandhi led the opposition, and it was in this campaign that he first developed the method of Satyagraha.

The essence of this method, which he gradually brought to greater and greater perfection, consisted in refusal to do things which the authorities wished to have done, while abstaining from any positive action of an aggressive sort. If the police could be provoked into brutalities, so much the better, but those who were brutally treated were to submit to the treatment with complete passivity. The method always had in Gandhi’s mind a religious aspect. He came gradually to object more and more to violence, while at the same time preaching, with ever greater emphasis, the duty of not resisting violence with violence. As a rule this method depended upon moral force for its success. The authorities found it intensely repugnant to persist in ill-treating people who did nothing whatever in self-defence.

The method was, however, subject to two limitations. One of these, which led Gandhi to what he called a “Himalayan blunder,” was the likelihood that excited crowds would be carried away and would forget to observe the limitations that Gandhi endeavoured to impose. On some occasions in India Europeans and policemen were killed by the infuriated mob – occasions when the first impulse had come from Gandhi, but he was unable to restrain the subsequent fury. The other limitation to which the method is subject is one which did not arise either in South Africa or in India, but certainly would have arisen if the method had been employed against Nazis or Russian Communists. If the authorities are sufficiently brutal, they can exterminate nonviolent resisters without experiencing that moral repugnance from their acts which in the end paralyzed the British in India. During the Second World War, for example, disciples of Gandhi would lie down on the rails of railways and refuse to move. English drivers would not run over such men, and the result was that railway traffic was paralyzed. I cannot think that if the drivers had been Nazis and the men on the rails had been Jews, the result would have been the same. But in the circumstances with which Gandhi had to deal, his method was capable of bringing successes that probably no other method would have brought.

Take, for example, the “battle” which occurred during the campaign against the salt tax, which was described by an eyewitness, Webb Miller, in an account of which the following is a summary: “The raid which Gandhi had planned on the salt-pans at Dharasana was now carried out by 2,500 volunteers, led by his second son, Manilal. Before they advanced, Mrs. Naidu led them in prayer and appealed to them to be true to Gandhiji’s inspiration and abstain from violence. `You will be beaten, but you must not resist, you must not even raise a hand to ward off blows.’ Round the depot a barrier of barbed wire had been erected and a ditch dug. As the first picked column of the volunteers went forward, police officers ordered them to disperse; they still advanced in silence. Suddenly scores of police fell upon them and rained blows on their heads. Not one man so much as raised his arm to fend off the blows. Soon the ground was carpeted with the prostrate bodies of men writhing in pain, with fractured skulls or broken shoulders, their white clothes stained with blood. Then a second column advanced, without wavering, knowing well what awaited it. There was no struggle; the volunteers simply marched forward until they, too, were struck down. Now the tactics were varied. Groups of twenty-five men advanced, sat down and waited. As they sat, the enraged police fell upon them, beat them on the head and kicked them in the abdomen or the testicles. Some were dragged along the ground and thrown into the ditches. Hour after hour this went on, while stretcher-bearers removed the inert, bleeding bodies. Over three hundred casualties were taken to hospital with fractured skulls and other serious injuries: two died. Mrs. Naidu and Manilal Gandhi were arrested.”

This sort of thing filled every decent English person with a sense of intolerable shame, far greater than would have been felt if the Indian resistance had been of a military character.

There was, of course, also an opposite effect. The police and some of the British authorities in India were rendered furious as a reaction from their own shame, and became more brutal than they would have been against less passive opponents. But this was not the effect that was produced at a distance by those who read of what was being done. English people who were not familiar with India, and had no direct financial interest in maintaining the British raj, felt that something must be done to put an end to such atrocities. General Dyer, who at Amritsar ordered soldiers to fire for ten minutes upon a packed, peaceful mob, unable to escape, killing many and wounding many more, was recalled, and a Conservative Government even went so far as to deprive him of his pension. It is true that he had a number of admirers who presented him with a large sum of money and a Sword of Honour, but this did not represent average British feeling. People who were neither exceptionally rich nor exceptionally brutal began in the end to feel that if British rule could be preserved only by such methods, then it was not worth preserving.

But all this belongs to the later stages of Gandhi’s career. To return now to South Africa, the next large campaign in which he was involved concerned the three-pound tax which was imposed upon indentured labourers when the period of their indenture terminated. Very few of them possessed three pounds, and if they were unable to pay the tax, it was remitted on condition of their serving a new period of indentured labour. This meant in practice for most of them that they had unintentionally and unwittingly incurred a life sentence. The conditions of indentured labour were semi-servile, and by means of this tax it was transformed by a trick from being temporary to being probably permanent. The agitation which Gandhi conducted against the poll tax was spectacular, and had the political merit of bringing the indentured labourers into the campaign. Gandhi induced them to strike and to undertake a long march, in the course of which he himself was arrested. The movement was so successful as to produce a state of economic paralysis which compelled the Government to capitulate. After this the South African authorities behaved with a modicum of decency and enlightenment until Gandhi was dead.


Gandhi’s successes throughout his career depended upon a combination of deep religious conviction and astute political insight. He was immovable when he was certain that one of his many moral principles was involved. He was flexible whenever there was negotiation within the limits of his principles. When his followers got out of hand and practiced violence that he could not countenance, he would punish himself by a fast. And as his devoted adherents imagined him becoming daily more emaciated and risking death on account of their misbehaviour, they inevitably repented and, like naughty children, promised not to do it again. His motive in all this was religious, but the effect was to reveal his power upon the whole movement that he had created. Who could venture to disobey a revered and beloved leader who would inflict upon himself suffering, and perhaps death, in expiation of the sins of others? It was a perfect technique, but it was perfect because in his own mind it was not a technique, but obedience to the dictates of duty.

Gandhi’s moral sense had various aspects that are strange to most modern Europeans. Matters of diet had an importance to him which is a little puzzling. In the midst of events of the most enormous importance, it would occur to him that he ought not to eat salt or pulse, and he would feel about this with the same earnestness that he felt about the fate of India. For example, he took a vow against milk, but once, when he was very ill, the doctor said he would die unless he took milk. His wife pointed out to him that the word he had used in his vow applied only to the milk of the cow or the buffalo, and did not include the milk of the goat. It was therefore permissible for him to drink goat’s milk. He was aware that his death would be a loss to India, and on this ground he allowed himself to accept his wife’s argument, although it appeared to him somewhat sophistical.

His own account of this matter is as follows: “The will to live proved stronger than the devotion to truth, and for once the votary of truth compromised his sacred ideals by his eagerness to take up the Satyagraha fight. The memory of this occasion even now rankles in my breast, and fills me with remorse and I am constantly thinking how to give up goat’s milk. But I cannot yet free myself from that subject of my temptations, the desire to serve which still holds me.”

Many modern Europeans will have difficulty in understanding his motives for the vow of complete chastity in marriage which he made at a time when he was trying to help the Zulus who were being persecuted for what the Government chose to call a “rebellion”. He felt so he tells us, that he could not be wholehearted in his work, or have all the strength of endurance that it demanded, unless he gave up the joys of family life. This attitude was common in the early Church but now, to a European, feels somewhat strange. Probably for him the decision was a right one. He did and endured things which it is very difficult to do and endure. In spite of bad health, he continuously risked his life by fasts and other hardships. It may be that no less than absolute devotion would have enabled him to achieve the great measure of success which he did finally achieve. As to this no one except himself could be the judge. However that may be, it is impossible to understand him psychologically so long as we think of him in purely modern terms. To build him up psychologically from European ingredients we must make a combination of early Christian saint with mediaeval ecclesiastics, adding to both, however, something of the sweetness of St. Francis.

For India, which is not a modern country, his character and his religion were what was needed. A more modern-minded man, for example, could not have been nearly so successful in the campaign on behalf of the untouchables. But while his memory deserves to be revered, it would be a mistake to hope that India will continue to have the outlook that to him seemed best. India, like other nations, has to find her place in the modern world, not in the dreams of a bygone age. His work is done and if India is to prosper, it must be along other roads than his.

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