Sunday, February 09, 2014

Gandhi's brahmacarya was a kind of feminism

by Veena R. Howard (March 1, 2013) 

Even though the scholarship on Gandhi is vast, this book takes a unique approach to understanding his life and methods. Through a comprehensive study of Gandhi's own words and cultural and historical context, this book probes the role of Gandhi's ascetic practices, specifically his unconventional brahmacarya, in nonviolent activism. Since the beginning of his career as a political activist, Gandhi's revolutionary techniques in the field of social and political conflict resolution have drawn the attention of the international community. Despite scathing appraisals of some of his political ideologies and personal idiosyncrasies, Gandhi's life and methods continue to capture the popular imagination through a variety of media—books, films, plays, and a recent opera. Each year popular and academic volumes are added to the ever-expanding literature on Gandhi's philosophy in a number of areas and disciplines. In recent years, many mass movements across the globe confronting religious, political, and social injustice, environmental and food crises, and economic inequality have generated a renewed interest in Gandhi's life and nonviolent methods, affirming their relevance to contemporary challenges.

During one of the seminars on Gandhi that I cotaught at the University of Oregon, Gandhi's frank autobiographical recollections of his “experiments with truth” intrigued the participants. However, the sections on Gandhi's vow of brahmacarya, which exposes his obsessive and antagonistic feelings toward sex, generated a different kind of reaction in the class: a feeling of palpable discomfort, even awe. A wide variety of questions emerged: Why was Gandhi so preoccupied with sexual control? What about love, and, more importantly, what about his wife's feelings and desires? What does a personal sex life have to do with political activism? These inquiries immediately stirred my thoughts, and I realized that these responses are not limited to Western students, but have been part of a worldwide scholarly discourse on Gandhi.

Gandhi's brahmacarya and his views on sexuality continue to draw attention and cause suspicion among scholars who search for the reasons behind his unusual interest in sexual renunciation and its centrality in his political activism. Yet there exists no comprehensive study that systematically explores Gandhi's own explanations and actions—documented in his thousands of pages of writings—for this nuanced practice, which might help us understand the broader questions of the value of sacrifice, discipline, and ritual and mythical performance in activism.

However, in the current era, poetic and artistic expressions of sexuality have taken on new license. The everyday barrage of sexual imagery, the overt obsession with sex by youth and contemporary culture, the fixation on sex exhibited by many powerful adult celebrities (in varied fields from politics to sports), Internet pornography, as well as the ever-growing research on the powerful effect of sex on our daily lives, have overpowered the parallel strand of virtuous self-control that until now was common in human societies for much of history. In this contemporary cultural setting, even a discussion of celibacy seems odd.

Celibacy has come to represent an antithesis of life affirmation: it is viewed as denial of the body and emotions; world-rejecting, unhealthy, the solitary pursuit of a few religious men and women, an oddity, and an impossible expectation. Sex, on the other hand, is perceived as an affirmation of all that exists: central to physical, emotional, and social well-being; the foundation of creativity and constructive behavior; the essence of life and the life of love. Unlike Saint Augustine and Swami Vivekananda, who warned their followers against the snares of sex, modern media gurus, including Oprah and Dr. Oz, recount to the masses the benefits of sex and guide them to experience its power. Against this background of an overtly sex-oriented society, on one hand, and the Indian religions' classic bifurcation between this-worldly aspirations and spiritual goals, on the other, Gandhi's celibacy appears on the surface to be a misplaced fixation, particularly as he advocated its practice for nonviolent social and political activism.
Gandhi's celibacy also appears odd due to modern views on female sexuality, which have been profoundly influenced by the sexual revolution of the West. The sexual revolution, which ushered in the belief in the right to sexual satisfaction for women, altered the psychological landscape of sexuality for both men and women. Conventional perceptions of “normal” sexuality shifted from a view of sex as a simple act of physical fulfillment for men, or a necessity for the production of children. It became, instead, an expression of “free love” and equality between both sexes. These new sexual mores, which notably went hand in hand with the women's liberation movement of the latter twentieth century, exist in the subconscious erotic culture of the Western (and now global) mind. But Gandhi lived in an era when this revolution had not yet taken place. From Gandhi's writings, it is apparent that sexuality in his era fit the more stereotypical model. For Gandhi, the constant need for male sexual satisfaction could be viewed as aggressive and violent. It could be seen as an endangerment to women's lives due to the hazards of childbirth; an obstacle to their well-being; and an impediment to their fuller participation in society and emancipation. In this way, Gandhi's brahmacarya was a kind of feminism.
Gandhian celibacy can thus be viewed as a sexual counterrevolution, of sorts, arising out of his indigenous views of sexuality. This reformulation of existing traditions included an attempt to pacify men and channel their sexual energies toward nonviolent resistance to injustice, while empowering women and liberating them to engage in a more active and activist lifestyle. No doubt, Gandhi was a complex figure, and his celibacy can be studied using different hermeneutical lenses. But if we are to take Gandhi's methods seriously, it is important to trace the self-representation of his austere practices and his cultural context while weighing his intent. It becomes clear that most of the ascetic principles Gandhi utilized for constructing his method—svarāj, satyagraha, and swadeshi, for example—carried both ascetic and political values, and they helped create a coherent narrative for moving the hearts of the masses toward action.
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