Siddartha Gautama was (624–544 BC according to Sinhalese tradition; 563?–483? BC according to most modern scholars) later known as the Buddha ("the enlightened one"). Born in what is now Nepal, he spent much of his life in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, propounding the philosophical doctrines that were later to become Buddhism. Contemporary with the Buddha was Vardhamana (599?–527 BC ), also known as Mahavira ("great hero"), a saintly thinker of Bihar from whose teachings evolved Jainism. Some of the noteworthy religious and political leaders were Chandragupta (r.321?–297? BC ), founder of the Maurya Dynasty; Asoka (r.273–232 BC ), who made Buddhism the religion of his empire; Chandragupta II (r. AD 375?–413), whose era marked a high point of Hindu art and literature; Shivaji (1627?–80), a hero of much Hindu folklore; Nanak (1469–1539), whose teachings are the basis of Sikhism; and Govind Singh (1666–1708), the guru who gave Sikhism its definitive form. Akbar (1542–1605) greatly expanded the Mughal Empire, which reached its height under Shah Jahan (1592–1666), builder of the Taj Mahal, and his son, the fanatical emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707).
Sanskrit grammarian Panini (5th?–4th? cents. BC ), wrote the first book on scientific linguistics. The Bengali educator and reformer Rammohan Roy (1772–1833) has been called "the father of modern India." Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), founder of the nonsectarian Ramakrishna Mission and a great traveler both in India and abroad, did much to explain the Hindu philosophy to the world and to India as well. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), a leading 20th-century Hindu scholar and philosopher, also served as president of India from 1962 to 1967. Another revered religious philosopher was Meher Baba (1894–1969). The rising position of India in science and industry is well exemplified by Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata (1822–1904), founder of the nation's first modern iron and steel works as well as many other key industries; the physicist Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937), noted for his research in plant life; Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1919), an amazingly original, although largely self-taught, mathematician; Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888–1970), who was awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize for research in physics; Chandrasekhara Subramanyan (1910–1995), also a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, and Vikram A. Sarabhai (1919–71), the founder of the Indian space program. Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, 1910–97, in what is now Yugoslavia) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her 30 years of work among Calcutta's poor.
In modern times no Indian so completely captured the Indian masses and had such a deep spiritual effect on so many throughout the world as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948). Reverently referred to by millions of Indians as the Mahatma ("the great-souled one"), Gandhi is considered the greatest Indian since the Buddha. His unifying ability and his unusual methods of nonviolent resistance contributed materially to the liberation of India in 1947. A leading disciple of the Mahatma, Vinayak ("Vinoba") Narahari Bhave (1895–1982), was an agrarian reformer who persuaded wealthy landowners to give about 600,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) of tillable land to India's poor.
Gandhi's political heir, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), had a hold on the Indian people almost equal to that of the Mahatma. Affectionately known as Chacha (Uncle) Nehru, he steered India through its first 17 years of independence and played a key role in the independence struggle. Indira Gandhi (1917–84), the daughter of Nehru and prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984, continued her father's work in modernizing India and played an important role among the leaders of nonaligned nations. Her son Rajiv (1944–91) succeeded her as prime minister and, in the 1985 election, achieved for himself and his party the largest parliamentary victory since India became independent.
A classical Sanskrit writer in Indian history was the poet and playwright Kalidasa (fl. 5th cent. AD ), whose best-known work is Shakuntala. In modern times, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the great Bengali humanist, influenced Indian thought in his many songs and poems. Tagore received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 and through his lifetime wrote more than 50 dramas and about 150 books of verse, fiction, and philosophy. Another Bengali writer highly esteemed was the novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94). Tagore and Chatterjee are the authors, respectively, of India's national anthem and national song. The novel in English is a thriving genre; notable modern practitioners include Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayan (1906–2001), Bhabani Bhattacharya (1906–88), and Raja Rao (b.1909) and Khushwaut Singh. Influential poets of the last two centuries include the Bengalis Iswar Chandra Gupta (1812–59) and Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949), known as "the nightingale of India," a close associate of Gandhi and a political leader in her own right.
Modern interpreters of the rich Indian musical tradition include the composer and performer Ravi Shankar (b.1920) and the performer and educator Ali Akbar Khan (b.1922). Zubin Mehta (b.1936) is an orchestral conductor of international renown. Uday Shankar (1900?–1977), a dancer and scholar, did much to stimulate Western interest in Indian dance. Tanjore Balasaraswati (1919?–84) won renown as a classical dancer and teacher. Preeminent in the Indian cinema is the director Satyajit Ray (1921–1992).