The Father of India, and arguably its most famous son.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 — January 30, 1948; Mahatma is a Sanskrit title meaning "Great Soul", and was given to him by the famous Bengali writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) has come to be synonymous with non-violent resistance and the Indian struggle for independence from the British Empire. Gandhi codified the idea of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authorities without resorting to violence. The enduring image of Gandhi is of a little bald elderly Indian man with glasses, wrapped in a peasant's dhoti and leaning on a stick. His actual history and intellectual development however belies that image a great deal, proving to be one of the most intelligent and mysterious figures of his time.
Born in October 1869 in the tiny coastal town of Porbandar in the Bombay Presidency (currently in the Indian State of Gujarat), the youngest child of a middle-class family. His father died when he was still attending middle school, at which point his family decided to send him to England to study law when he graduated from high school. Upon graduating he did just that, and in the course of finding a decent vegetarian restaurant he would meet a group of intellectuals which included writer Henry Salt and Madame Blavatsky. It was in London that Gandhi first read the classic Indian text the Bhagavad Gita, which had a profound and life-long influence upon him. Other influences were the aesthetic theories of John Ruskin, the poetry of Percy Shelley (which he enjoyed quoting all his life), the writings of Henry David Thoreau (from which he derived the idea of Civil Disobedience) and the political-religious writings of Count Leo Tolstoy, who he corresponded with briefly.
His political awakening began when he moved to South Africa to practise law, where being on the personal end of ill-treatment led him to become disillusioned with the Raj and its benevolent empire project (which he and many other Indians of his class had believed in at the time). He took to campaigning for Coloured/Asian (as opposed to Black, White, or pan-Human) rights, where he started to develop much of his protest strategy and political thinking. His advocacy also coincided with serving in the Boer War as part of a medical unit on the frontlines. In his early years, Gandhi believed in reciprocal loyalty, i.e. Indians should prove better citizens and serve the Empire loyally. To that end, he supported the enlistment of many Indian soldiers into the army in the lead up to World War I. Gandhi during this time expressed racist sentiments against the black population of South Africa, an attitude shared by middle-class Indian settlers and immigrants whose anger at their ill-treatment did not lead to expressions of solidarity with native Africans, with Indians feeling that they deserved to be equal with the "Whites" rather than universal equality. Over time Gandhi became rather leery about the whole idea of 'race', not least because it had been disproven as an anthropological concept, and his attitude and optimism towards the British soured his loyalty to and belief in the ideals of the Empire, which he increasingly perceived to be a fiction.
He returned to India after World War I, with his activities in South Africa having won much attention in the liberal press. He allied himself with the newly formed Indian National Congress political party and transformed it, or in the eyes of his critics, polarized it, by taking it in a populist direction. In England and South-Africa, Gandhi would wear Western clothing, but upon returning to India he wore his dhoti, cloth and walking stick ensemble to better connect to the people. Over time, other Indian politicians also wore Khaki and "traditional" clothing, a code of dressing among politicians and public servants that endured decades after Independence and into the present day. Gandhi organised a series of strikes, civil disobedience campaigns, and boycotts aimed at the British, beginning with the Non-Cooperation Movement formed in the wake of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre at Amritsar. He described his philosophy as ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (Literally: Way of Truth). He insisted to his followers that they should not raise a hand to defend themselves even when being attacked by the police, a tactic which created a spectacle of policemen beating defenseless protestors in the eyes of media and other reporters and then making them put these large contingent of protestors into jails in terrible conditions, only exposing how understaffed and weak in infrastructure the Raj was, for any function of government not tied to economic exploitation. Gandhi's single most famous campaign was the 1930 Salt March, where in protest against an increase in salt taxation he walked 390 kilometers to the coastal town of Dandi to make salt from the sea. Gandhi would travel to Britain several more times to negotiate with leading political figures, and was something of a media celebrity — even taking tea with King George V, befriending Albert Einstein and even meeting Charlie Chaplin during his 1935 visit to Londonnote . However, these visits to England during the Round Table Conferences were politically unsuccessful and for the rest of The '30s, as the Congress tried to organize itself, Gandhi's behavior became a little erratic and controversial, most notably playing a key role in removing Subhash Chandra Bose from leadership of the Congress.
With the Imperial Japanese Army advancing into British Burma, the Indian National Congress, under his influence, proclaimed the Quit India movement, a demand for full independence effective immediately. The two of them, and most of the INC, were promptly imprisoned and those riots and acts of sabotage which resulted — with the movement's more peaceful leaders behind bars, many fringe groups turned to violence — were brutally suppressed but it played a part in the eventual success of the Independence movement. Other factors include Franklin D. Roosevelt pushing for decolonization which made Winston Churchill decide to back down from advocating continued governance of India; the fact that the British commitment to total war (especially in the years 1939-1941 before the USSR and USA joined in) had made the colonies more expensive than ever, the defeat of the British at the hands of the Japanese in Singapore, as well as the Azad Hind Fauz, a small Free India Army led by Subash Chandra Bose which despite being neglible in numbers proved itself in ideology and organization, as well as a greater than expected rate of defection from the British Indian Army.
During this final phase of Independence struggle, Gandhi was largely marginalized amidst the Congress deliberations and being personally a community organizer and protestor more than a politician, he didn't really have any say over the shape of India's government. He had no say in the Constitution, the government structure and other important infrastructure building. His economic ideas largely focused on village communities and agrarian societies which was seen as unworkable to the likes of Nehru and others who wanted to industrialize and urbanize India. When the violence of Partition broke out, Gandhi famously marched into Calcutta and managed to pacify and cajole the crowd to halt the violence while he was there. He was absolutely opposed to Partition and the violence that broke out, but ultimately did compromise and decided to work towards building peace. At the time of his death, Gandhi was planning a future visit to Pakistan. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who held Gandhi responsible for the Partition and loss of territory and moreover declared pacifism as alien to Hinduism. His death sparked public mourning, and attendance by millions, and he remains the only Indian leader on the Indian currency, and the only one whose birth is a National Holiday.
Gandhi's ideas were often framed in moral terms rather than social and political terms, and this was criticized even in his time. The Indian Congress were a representative urban elite group, and Gandhi was more or less part of the same class, but to attain independence, he had to get the majority rural population on board. He did this by appealing to religious traditions, or more precisely, reinterpreting religious traditions and ideas, to better get people on board with modern ideas like women's education and religious tolerance, as well as getting rid of the caste system. This Internal Reformist platform did provide basic results but it also made him come off as a Master of the Mixed Message. Alongside his non-violent campaigns and protests, Gandhi organized various moral societies and groups by which he and his entourage would travel across India to many villages to teach the locals by example ideas of moral sanitation, personal hygiene as well as instill them virtues of religious tolerance. These progresses made him perhaps the most widely traveled Indian leader of his generation, but despite living frugally, they were still expensive even with his show of modesty (such as travelling third-class in Indian trains). To pay for his expenses and travel, he got the support of wealthy businessmen such as Birla and Bajaj as well as many textile magnates in Ahmedabad. The Indian poet Sarojini Naidu once joked that it cost a lot of money for Gandhi to be poor, and left-wing politicians and Marxists criticized Gandhi for pacifying strikes by telling workers to call off strikes against the mills run by his backers. His comments about the caste system, such as getting people to call untouchables "Harijans" (i.e. children of God) as a Positive Discrimination was bitterly criticized by B. R. Ambedkar and others who saw it as naive and Dramatically Missing the Point. More importantly while he argued in favor of religious tolerance, this did not coincide with religious freedom, for instance he criticized conversion, even willing religious conversion and generally did have a kind of essentializing stick-to-the-faith-you-were-born-with attitude that tended to mark anyone who changed their faith as Category Traitor, an attitude that more extreme and nonpacific Hindus would later adopt and emulate.
His religious and personal attitudes to hygiene also led to controversial experiments. He had a fetishistic zeal for administering enemas to young girls, and much like other Victorian reformers (such as William Gladstone) became more interested in his "experiments in celibacy"note . In his defense, Gandhi was upfront about this and never tried to hide or deny it, which spared him the charge of hypocrisy at the very least. Internationally, Gandhi's racist attitudes to Africans in his time in South Africa became problematic in light of his influence on antiracist movements such as the Civil Rights Movement.note Unlike African-Americans and other minorities in the Western World who followed his inspiration, Gandhi was a member of the (relatively) privileged caste of Indian society and as noted above, his overtures towards India's minorities (Dalits and Muslims) were mixed; well-intentioned and benign but clumsy and paternalistic. As an international celebrity, Gandhi would pose as a fanatic advocate of non-violence even in circumstances, such as the persecutions of Jews in Nazi Germany, that he was not terribly well-informed about. His own path to non-violence was fairly circuitous, and more or less a function of pragmatism as well as the social circumstance that he was seen as a more acceptable alternative to Left-Wing and communist anti-colonial movements. Nevertheless, Gandhi was important in asserting a method of resistance that humanized the downtrodden, driven by compassion and providing by his own example, a permanent refutation to colonialist propaganda about the White Man's Burden, inspiring several others around the world.
Point of clarification: Mahatma Gandhi is not related to Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, or any of the dozens of other Gandhis (of the so called "Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty") that you hear about in Modern Indian politics. Indira is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she took the last name from her husband Feroze Gandhy (later anglicized to Gandhi), who is not related to Mahatma. "Gandhi" is in fact a common name in Gujarat, among many communities, and actually means (in differing contexts): "grocer"/"pharmacist"/"perfume seller", symbolizing his origins in the Merchant community and typifying his Humble Hero appeal across India.
Gandhi in fiction
- Clone High: An animated show that depicted a high school full of the clones of famous individuals, with the Clone Gandhi rebelling against his predecessor by being hyperactive and irreverent. It caused an uproar in India, to the point where members of the Indian parliament were criticizing it.
- Gandhi: The sprawling 1982 biopic that earned Sir Ben Kingsley an Oscar.
- UHF parodies the Actionized Sequel trope by showing a trailer for Gandhi 2. The humorously clueless depiction of Gandhi turns him into a jet-setting vigilante who beats up hoodlums, drives a Ferrari, orders steak at restaurants, and, you know, isn't dead.
- Water: Set in 1938 India, with Gandhi a major topic of conversation among the characters. He pops up himself in the last scene, in which one of the characters goes to see him give a speech at a train station.
- "The Last Article" is a short story by Harry Turtledove depicting the interactions between Gandhi and the new German governor of India in an Alternate History in which the Nazis won World War II.
- In every installment of the Civilization series Gandhi serves as India's leader - indeed, it was only in Civ IV that Asoka was added as a less contemporary option. In the first game, a programming oversight caused Gandhi to become the most warlike leader in the late game, and his out-of-character obsession with nuclear weapons became a fandom in-joke and a series tradition.
- The short subject Gandhi at the Bat is a mockumentary about Gandhi secretly visiting Yankee Stadium in 1933 and pinch hitting for the New York Yankees.
- Was in Celebrity Deathmatch against Genghis Khan. Due to a malfunction in the time machine, the two switched personalities, causing Gandhi to beat Genghis Khan into a pulp before rampaging through the building.
- Gandhi features in Epic Rap Battles of History, facing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha is based on the life of Gandhi (with lyrics taken from the Bhagavad Gita).
- Gandhi appears as a stand-up comic in a Family Guy Cutaway Gag. He isn't successful.
- In The Simpsons episode "Mountain of Madness", as Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns fall victim to Cabin Fever and are about to fight, Homer asks Burns "You and What Army?", prompting him to imagine a snowman army behind Burns. Homer counters with "I have powers... uh, political powers!", imagining political figures including Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt behind him.
- Stanley Wolpert's novel Nine Hours to Rama depicts the last day of Gandhi's life, focusing mostly on his assassin Godse. It was made into a 1963 film starring Horst Buchholz, Jose Ferrer and J.S. Casshyap as Gandhi.
- A hologram of Gandhi appears once on Star Trek: Voyager, debating spirituality vs carnality with Lord Byron.
- Gandhi is featured during one segment in the history of the entire world, i guess, chronicling in how his pacifism drove the British army away.
Hi, my name's Gandhi and if Britain doesn't get the hell out of India, I'm going to starve myself in public... wow, that worked?