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"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.
"Christ gave us the goal, and Gandhi the tactics."
The Father of India, and arguably its most famous son.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma is a Sanskrit title meaning 'Great Soul', and was given to him by the famous Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore) is synonymous with non-violent resistance and the Indian struggle for independence against the British Empire. Gandhi pioneered the idea of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authorities without resorting to violence, principles that would later go on to inspire Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
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. Considering what he achieved, he may be a Real Life example of Rule One: "Do not act incautiously while confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men!" A strict vegetarian, Gandhi went on long fasts both as a means of self-purification and achieving his political aims.
Gandhi was 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 in the family. After his father died when Gandhi was fifteen, it was decided he would go to England to study law. He went three years later 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 England that Gandhi first read the classic Indian text the Bhagavad Gita, which would influence him for the rest of his life.
He then moved to South Africa to practise law, where his ill-treatment was made famous in the 1982 Ben Kingsley film. Although he had a first class ticket for the train he was forcibly thrown out, and while arguing a case in court he was ordered to remove his turban. Gandhi decided to conduct a civil rights campaign on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, who were working as labourers for miserable pay in terrible conditions.
Gandhi is heavily criticised by modern scholars for his controversial opinion of the black population of South Africa. He was fighting for Indians not to be given the same treatment as the native Africans, since they had a longer relationship and history with the British Empire. He even raised a unit of Indian stretcher-bearers and medics to help the British in the Boer War. Gandhi's views on race changed with time however, and the difficulties he faced in negotiating with the British soured his loyalty and belief in the Empire and kick-started his struggle to win independence for his native India.
Returning to India and allying himself with the newly formed Indian National Congress, he organised a series of strikes, civil disobedience campaigns, and boycotts aimed at the British. He remained committed to his philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (soul/truth force), going so far as to ask his followers not to raise a hand to defend themselves even when being attacked by the police. His most famous campaign was the 1930 Salt March, where in protest against the British tax on salt he walked 390 kilometers to the coastal town of Dandi to make salt from the sea. Gandhi would travel to Britain several times to negotiate with British leaders, and was something of a media celebrity, even taking tea with King George V.
When World War II rolled around, Gandhi launched the Quit India movement, which demanded full independence for the country at the end of the war. The shock election of Clement Attlee instead of Empire diehard Winston Churchill paved the way for the British to grant India its independence in 1947. Gandhi wanted a united India, but his decreasing influence meant that Muhammad Ali Jinnah was allowed to partition off a bit of the country to form the new nation of Pakistan. Eventually Bangladesh would also break away from Pakistan and gain independence.
Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, an extremist who held Gandhi responsible for certain concessions made by India to Pakistan. Today Gandhi is famous worldwide as a symbol of non-violence, and revered in India.
Tropes associated with Gandhi
- Actual Pacifist
- Against My Religion: Violence, obviously, as well as sex and eating meat, to him.
- Badass Grandpa
- Badass Pacifist: Although Gandhi technically wasn't a pacifist, he viewed pacifism as defeatist and his concept of ahimsa was to actively work to counteract violence.
- Bald of Awesome
- Beam Me Up, Scotty: A lot of quotes have been attributed to him, some reliable and some not.
- Beware the Nice Ones
- Celibate Hero: Another of Gandhi's principles was brahmacharya, achieving spirituality through celibacy. Gandhi would never forget that he was having sex with his wife at the exact moment his father died, which caused him horrible guilt. At the age of 36 he became celibate while still married, and would remain so for the rest of his life.
- Church Militant: A rare positive version; his chief inspiration was not nationalism but religion.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: The British did not take him terribly seriously early in his campaign, which turned out to be a big mistake.
- Death by Irony: A peaceful and devout Hindi ... violently murdered by a Hindu extremist.
- Determinator: His struggle for Indian independence took literally decades, during which he was beaten and imprisoned countless times.
- Disappeared Dad: Gandhi rarely had time for his four sons, even neglecting their formal education. His estranged first son Harilal became a vagrant and died an alcoholic.
- Good Old Ways: His love of rural India and distrust of industrialization.
- Heroic Sacrifice: His hunger fasts, as always, a peaceful version of the trope.
- This was invoked again when he learned of the Holocaust. Gandhi thought that the Jews still should have used non-violent resistance even though they were being deliberately murdered, although he did allow that commitment to his philosophy required a supreme act of courage and self-sacrifice that not everyone possessed.
- How Much More Can He Take?: The press reported daily on his legendary fasts, including some in which he came close to death.
- Moral Event Horizon: Doesn't believe in them. When asked by reporters what he would do to Hitler if they met, he replied that no one had considered the possibility that Hitler could be redeemed. To be fair it was in the middle of WWII and knowledge of Hitler's atrocities were unknown at the time. But it shows how committed Gandhi was to compassion.
- Pint-Sized Powerhouse: For such a short, skinny guy, he sure could take a beating (see Determinator).
- Principles Zealot: Absolutely refused to compromise on issues like nonviolence, Indian sovereignty, etc.
- Reasonable Authority Figure
- The Rival: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and first Pakistani head of state, was arguably this. Although they had allied together against the British, Jinnah would bitterly oppose Gandhi's dream of a united Indian subcontinent. Winston Churchill may also qualify, fighting with everything that he had to keep the Raj in the Empire in order to keep the Empire together.
- B. R. Ambedkar, an influential activist from an "untouchable" caste, who managed to beat the odds and become a Doctor of Law, amongst other things (and among those other things we include "primary author of the current Constitution of India"). He really did not like Gandhi all that much. Despite the fact that Gandhi came from a middle caste on an absolute scale, he was still far higher up the traditional ladder from the "untouchables", and consequently Ambedkar he felt patronised the "untouchables". Both wished for an end to untouchability, but Gandhi saw the solution as social education and stressed the importance of rural life; Ambedkar wanted the Caste system criminalised in law and thought rural India was the most bigoted against "untouchables" of the lot. Ambedkar was also a strong advocate of industrialization and was suspicious of most religions on principle (seeing them as a way for dominant groups to control those weaker than them), although he reserved his strongest vitriol for Hinduism, which he saw as the origin of the caste system that kept the "untouchables" down in the first place. Gandhi did not want to abolish the Caste system but stressed that its rigid contemporary form was essentially a British invention.
- And then there is Subhas Chandra Bose, a radical opposed to peaceful protest. To undermine the British he was ready to ally with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy, leading to accusations that he was a Fascist. He actually preferred the Soviets, but he wasn't able to get their support. He was briefly President of the India National Congress (pseudo-devolved Indian government) where he clashed with Gandhi regularly, and soon after his terms were up World War Two broke out. With assistance from Japan he formed a short lived rebel force called the India National Army and launched doomed assaults against the British. He favoured a degree of authoritarianism and was obviously a militarist, though he fell a bit short of Fascism or Leninism.
- Science Is Bad: Gandhi was wary of the changes the Industrial Revolution made to Indian society, viewing them as sources of corruption and pollution. He advocated a return to the simple rural life, most famously hand-spinning thread on his charkra even while talking to reporters.
- Smart People Wear Glasses
- Velvet Revolution: Type 3, and the original. Although there was still a lot of violence, particularly the British massacre of civilians in Amritsar and Hindu-Muslim violence when Pakistan was being partitioned, Gandhi and his followers never resorted to violence themselves in their quest for independence.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Common criticisms of him nowadays have to do with his earlier views on race in South Africa, as well as his difficult relationship with his son. His quote about the Jews is often brought up out of context, too.
Gandhi in fiction
- Clone High: An animated show that depicted a high school full of the clones of famous individuals, with the Clone Gandhi portrayed as a hyperactive, irreverent complete opposite of his namesake. It caused an uproar in India, to the point where members of the Indian parliament were criticising it.
- "If there's one thing Mahatma Gandhi stands for it's revenge!"
- UHF gave him a Historical Badass Upgrade, showing him beating up people and requesting steak at a restaurant.
- Gandhi: The 1982 film that Sir Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for.
- "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. For whatever reason the programmers give Gandhi a bit of an obsession with nuclear weapons. "Gandhi is a notorious liar and cheat! Deal with him carefully!"
- 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.
- In retrospect, some Pakistani intellectuals are willing to accept Gandhi's position that the fact that Jinnah was more than just a little bit of a jackass had to do with it, as well.