Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a small coastal town in northwest India. His father, Karamchand Gandhi, was a local politician, serving as prime minister to a number of local Indian princes; his mother, Putlibai, was Karamchand's fourth wife, married when her husband was already in his forties. Neither of his parents was well educated: his mother was illiterate, and his father, Gandhi wrote later in life, "had no education save for experience." Nevertheless, they were well-to-do by the standards of the rural region in which they lived, owning several houses in Porbandar and the neighboring towns of Rajkot and Kutiana, and they were able to afford a nurse and a good education for the young Gandhi.
The year of Gandhi's birth fell in the midst of the Victorian era, when the British Empire was approaching its apogee. A clever journalist had observed in 1817 that "the sun never sets upon the British flag," and by the latter half of the 19th century, that bold declaration was true. In addition to their vast domains in India, the British controlled both ends of the Mediterranean; they held key positions in the South Pacific at Malaya and Singapore; they dominated an entire continent with their hold on Australia and New Zealand; and they ruled the Dominion of Canada, which made up half of North America. In addition, during Gandhi's youth, British adventurers such as Cecil Rhodes were busy bringing most of Africa under Queen Victoria's rule as well.
This vast realm was held together by a peculiar mixture of commercial greed, missionary zeal, and rivalry with other Europeanpean powers, along with the frequently expressed notion that Britain had a unique "civilizing mission" embarked upon for the benefit of the rest of the world. It was, in a sense, an informal empire, having no official standing under the English constitution, and the British public was remarkably ignorant about the administration of their realm. But it held together remarkably well, and by the 1870s, the British governed a quarter of the world's land and population, more than the Roman or Spanish Empires at their height.
India was the "jewel in the crown" of Victoria's Empire. British rule in India, referred to as the Raj by the men who built and sustained it, had begun with the penetration of the continent by the British East India Company in the 18th century. At that time, the subcontinent was governed by a decaying Islamic dynasty, the Mughals, whose power had declined to such a degree they had difficulty enforcing their rule beyond their capital of Delhi. Largely to secure their trade routes, the English traders used private armies to expand their political control, and by the time the British government took over from the East India Company in the 1860s and established a regular system of Imperial rule, the British had replaced the Mughals as overlords of the entire region. For Britain, the benefits of the Raj were obvious–Imperial administration provided a wide and fertile field of employment for their young men, control of the subcontinent gave them geopolitical dominance over a wide arc of territory, and exports of Indian raw materials helped offset the trade deficit that a small industrialized island like Great Britain accrued. For the numerous Indian peasantry, deeply religious, bound to the land, and tied down by the strictures of the caste system, the change of rulers made little practical difference–it is important to remember that the idea of the "Indian nation" is essentially a modern invention, and that before the arrival of the British, the vast subcontinent had neither a common language nor a history of democratic self-rule. For most Indians, the British conquest was merely a matter of trading a corrupt ruling class for a more efficient one.
Even at the height of Imperial Britain's dominance, however, only two-thirds of India was governed directly from London. The rest was held by a collection of traditional Indian potentates, princes, and rajas, some corrupt, others forward- looking, who had sworn allegiance to the British Crown and were allowed a reasonable degree of autonomy in local affairs. It was in one of these princely states that Gandhi was born, educated, and–at the age of thirteen–married, to a local girl of the same age named Kasturbai. Child marriage was–and still is, in some regions–an accepted facet of daily life in India, and while later in life Gandhi would attack the practice as cruel and inhumane, he seems to have welcomed the wedding, and, in his words, "I lost no time in assuming the authority of a husband . . . (she) could not go out without my permission." Needless to say, the adolescent couple went through quarrelsome stretches, often not speaking to one another for long periods of time.
Gandhi was a shy and fearful child. Short and spindly, he shied away from athletics, and his lack of physical prowess was matched by his difficulties in school. Though in later years he would read the Bible, Tolstoy, and the Bhagavad-Gita with great enthusiasm, the young Gandhi labored over the multiplication tables and never rose above academic mediocrity. His religious imagination, which would inspire observers around the world in years to come, was also decidedly limited in his childhood years. His household was a remarkable center of religious diversity: his mother was a devout Hindu, and his father's friends, a diverse group that included Muslims, Parsis, and Jains, often debated religious and philosophical matters in the house. (Given Gandhi's later philosophical convictions, it is noteworthy that Jainism was particularly strong in his region, since that movement preaches the preciousness of all life, and the necessity of avoiding the killing of any living creature, however small.) But while many of the ideas that percolated around the young Gandhi found their way into his religious convictions later in life, as a young man he had no religious convictions at all–the subject bored him, in his own words, he found the "glitter and pomp" of Hindu temples distasteful, and if anything, leaned "somewhat toward atheism."
In 1885, Karamchand Gandhi passed away, and his relatives decided that the young Mohandas was his most likely successor as head of the family. With that in mind, they agreed that the young man should go to England and study for the bar there–with an English law degree under his belt, they assumed, Gandhi would have no difficulty following in his father's footsteps as a local politician. But a journey to Europeanpe was a significant step, and his mother Putlibai worried about the corrupting effect that England would have upon her son's morals. To calm her fears, Gandhi swore an oath to avoid wine and meat (both proscribed by the Hindu faith) while overseas, and after the family had gathered enough money, he made his way to Bombay to sail for Southampton in England.
In Bombay, a remarkable event occurred: The elders of Gandhi's caste, the Modh Banias (a merchant caste, neither as high as the priestly Brahmins nor as low as the shunned untouchables) learned of the proposed trip and objected. No member of their caste could go to England, they solemnly declared, because such a trip would inevitably involve impurity, and Hinduism could not be practiced in Europeanpe. By this point, however, Gandhi was determined to go, and so he allowed himself to be expelled from his caste. For the remainder of his life, he would be "out-caste", an appropriate condition for a man who labored hard to put an end to caste divisions in India. All obstacles now removed, Gandhi sailed for England in September of 1888, at the age of nineteen. Among the loved ones he left behind was his three-month-old first child, a boy named Harilal.