Indian Asceticism

Power, Violence, and Play

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Carl Olson
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Carl Olson’s study on power within Indian asceticism is a treasury on two fronts. First, it amasses a wealth of textual accounts that depict the exercise of ascetic power in a range of cross-religious sources. Second, it engages with a stimulating variety of theoretical perspectives on power drawn from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, sociology of religion, cultural studies, cognitive science, and anthropology. Overall, Olson presents a wide-ranging and sometimes provocative study that works because it combines theoretical explorations with a firm grounding in primary textual sources, and thus stays aloft on the tightrope of applying contemporary theory to culturally specific and mostly premodern material.

The first chapter lays out the topic of power within asceticism in all its variant aspects, including the rootedness of power within tapas (ascetic heat), the marked body as a visual site of power, the relationship between pain and power, the role of narratives in reinforcing (and standardizing) powers, and ascetic power as a form of cultural resistance. The second chapter surveys the development of early asceticism in the Indian subcontinent as charted in literary sources. Olson notes the well-investigated trajectory from Vedic sacrificial cult to asceticism and the non-Vedic quest for liberation from karma (35), both of which are traditions that focus on accruing power via renunciation to achieve their goals.

The third chapter recounts types of powers, and focuses on the Yogasūtra of Patañjali as containing a standardized list against which other textual sources can be compared. Olson argues that ascetic powers are central to the Yogasūtra; powers were part of the cultural milieu in which Patañjali compiled the sūtras, and we should not question his belief in their efficacy. Contemporary research in cognitive science demonstrates that acts of meditation and asceticism release neurochemicals that can induce profoundly altered states of consciousness in which one appears to be exercising extraordinary capacities. Therefore, from an emic perspective, Olson argues, the verity of powers within asceticism should not be doubted (79).

Olson’s core argument is unfolded in chapter 4, in which he asserts that there is an intimate relationship between ascetic power and violence that has been overlooked. According to Olson, violence is “an essential component” of the lifestyle of an ascetic (81). Examples of such violence include the interiorized sacrifice that translates into self-harm and acts of extreme fasting. The irony embedded in the ascetic lifestyle is that the overt vow of non-violence, or ahiṃsā, masks an inherent violence (84). There is a “mirror image” between demonic powers and the powers of an ascetic (206), in that both generate a perception of threat and danger (94-104). This chapter also explores theoretical perspectives on power and violence addressing issues such as the innate nature of violence in humans, the relation of violence to gender, whether ascetic acts turn subjects into depersonalized objects, and how to end cycles of violence.

In chapter 5 Olson picks up on the theatricality of powers. He runs with this idea so far as to assert that ascetic powers constitute a form of terrorism because they are a violent, dangerous, and threatening spectacle within society (115). In accordance with speech act theory, mantras and the curse of the ascetic constitute a performative utterance: “The curse of an ascetic is analogous to a powerful weapon” (130). Having established the inextricability of violence within ascetic power, Olson extends his argument in chapter 6 to assert that the exercise of power also represents a form of play, which emulates the play of divine beings and includes erotic and comic elements. Play is an especially creative act that operates through the subjunctive to articulate and fashion “different ways of classifying reality” (144). As such, power entails violence and play in equal measure. In chapter 7 Olson outlines how miracles differ from ascetic powers, in terms that boil down to the magnitude of the event, its rootedness in transcendence, and its beneficial transformation of society.

In the concluding chapter, Olson critiques Foucault’s theory of power as unhelpful in understanding the ascetic context. For Olson, the Foucauldian model is relational, non-localized, internally constituted, focused on difference over commonality, not concerned with violence (in that “subjectification” entails complicity with domination), and offers no way out. In contrast, Indian asceticism is more certain, individually located, violently constituted, represents discipline with beneficial effects, and leads to a radical form of freedom (195-96). On occasion, the critique of a Foucauldian notion of power resembles a straw man argument in that Olson posits categories such as “spiritual autonomy,” “sacred power,” and “nonpolitical freedom,” which have little currency in Foucault’s analysis.

Olson’s alternative theory uses a Heideggerean frame to advance a poetic description of power as an event (Ereignis) that is characterized in general and abstract terms: power is repetitive, paradoxical, unthinkable, meaningful, and both ontological and spatial. Olson’s final assessment of the unifying feature of ascetic power is that it is “uncanny.” In this sense, his uber-theory somewhat diminishes the localized and context-specific richness of the book’s narrative examples. It is one of Olson’s aims to eschew the heterological approach of postmodernist thinkers such as Foucault in favor of an analysis that identifies commonality or unity. “Ascetics” are thus widely defined as “monks, nuns, seers, mystics, renouncers, saints, or yogis” (26), and when the analysis asserts categories such as “ascetic/yogi” it elides the potential differences between the two lifestyles. Additionally, it might have been useful to introduce a distinction between “Power” (as an “event”), “power” (as a general term defining social, political, economic power, etc.), and “powers” (as a standard set of extraordinary ascetic capacities). I would have liked to hear more about Olson’s notion of asceticism as ‘ontological terrorism’ (206) and to see explorations of contemporary issues such as the power of the guru and its abuses, or the case study of millionaire ascetic Baba Ramdev in relation to commercial power within a neoliberal context.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karen O'Brien-Kop is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl Olson is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Allegheny College. Besides numerous essays in journals, books, and encyclopedias, he has published seventeen books on subjects such as Hinduism, Buddhism, comparative philosophy, and method and theory in the study of religion. His most recent books includeCelibacy in Religious Traditions and The Allure of Decadent Thinking: Religious Studies and the Challenge of Postmodernism both published by Oxford University Press.


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