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  • Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action by Veena R. Howard
  • Douglas Allen (bio)
Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action. By Veena R. Howard. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013. Pp. xx + 289. isbn 978-1-43-844557-1.

Veena R. Howard’s Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action is an impressive example of meticulous scholarship. Well written and well documented, it offers innovative interpretations that will both inform and challenge the views of most readers. It is an important contribution to our understanding of Gandhi’s theory and practice of truthfulness, nonviolence, and ascetic renunciation and of how Gandhi regarded religious asceticism as necessary for his worldly, political, and social [End Page 981] goals to achieve India’s freedom and independence and overcome such injustices as untouchability, the oppression of women, and communal violence.

The titles of the six chapters, following a very substantial Introduction, offer a good overview of the contents: “Challenging the Philosophical Presupposition: Gandhi’s Unconventional Synthesis of Asceticism and Activism”; “Gandhi’s Alternative Paradigm: From Traditional Principles to New Political Purposes”; “Traditional Roots of Gandhi’s Brahmacarya; “Gandhi’s Unorthodox Brahmacarya: Reinterpreting Private Religious Practice for Public Service”; “Gandhi’s Embodiment of Legendary Heroes and Ascetics: Toward a Coherent Narrative for Nonviolent Activism”; and “Conclusion: Gandhi’s Dynamic Synthesis of Renunciation and Social Action.”

The documentation is remarkable for both its extensiveness and its focus. There is much citation of secondary sources on topics related to brahmacarya, but the major focus is on Gandhi himself. The four longest chapters average more than 150 notes each. Howard often includes the interpretations of both Gandhi sympathizers and critics from historical, psychological, biographical, and other sources, but she emphasizes that her main concern is with Gandhi’s own writings. She wants to document Gandhi in his own words, how Gandhi himself understood his ascetic activism and related principles and practices. She often uses the term “hermeneutical,” and her hermeneutical approach could be described as phenomenological, in the sense of suspending one’s own value judgments and explanations and allowing Gandhi to speak for himself and share his own understandings and justifications.

Howard describes her book as a comprehensive study of Gandhi’s controversial practice of brahmacarya. Brahmacarya is integrally related to the wide range of Gandhi’s ascetic practices involving renunciation, self-control, self-sacrifice, and self-realization. Most think of brahmacarya in terms of sexuality, with a focus on celibacy, continence, chastity, and the need for renouncing and controlling sexual desires and acts. However, in most of his writings, Gandhi does not want to restrict brahmacarya to sexuality, but instead emphasizes complete physical and mental control of all aspects of sensual experience. For Gandhi, total control of the senses, including sexuality, was integral to his activist methods and was necessary for the ethical and spiritual transformation both of oneself and of the world.

Gandhi’s extreme asceticism, and especially his writings and practices focusing on the vow of renunciation and his experiments with brahmacarya in relation to sexual matters, has been the source of widespread bewilderment, controversy, and attack. This was true during Gandhi’s lifetime and continues to the present day among a wide variety of Gandhi supporters and critics alike. Gandhi’s ascetic activism, with emphasis on brahmacarya as essential for social and political action, confused and was rejected by a wide range of India’s spiritual and political leadership. Aurobindo, Tilak, Nehru, and many others felt that Gandhi’s mixing the ascetic religious path with politics was both inappropriate and irrelevant. Throughout her book, Howard formulates the confusion and controversy surrounding brahmacarya and related issues in terms of the traditional framework of nivrtti and pravrtti. In traditional India, nivrtti refers to ascetic renunciation, withdrawal from the world of karma, through the practice of brahmacarya and other ascetic disciplines. The goal is to realize absolute [End Page 982] spiritual reality and thereby attain final spiritual freedom and liberation (moksa) from the cycles of birth and rebirth. Pravrtti, in traditional terms, refers to worldly engagement for those at the householder stage, those engaged in social, political, and economic concerns, and those not at the stage of ascetic...