Dr. Veena Howard brings conference to Fresno State as part of Gandhi’s 150th birthday events

Fresno State Religious Studies Professor Dr. Veena Howard

To learn more about Gandhi’s Legacy International Conference and the other events Fresno State is hosting around Gandhi’s 150th birthday, visit fresnostate.edu/gandhi150.


On June 19, 2019, Fresno State Religious Studies Professor Dr. Veena Howard took the stage in a massive ballroom filled with over a thousand people from all over the world sitting around dozens of white draped tables stretched out in front of her as dim shadows behind the glaring lights. A blue backdrop segued into an oversized video screen, one of several in the room, so people in the back could see the speakers. As part of the opening plenary, “What we Believe,” at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies in Singapore, Howard was the only Hindu representative to speak. She was one among only a few invited scholars from the United States, which included an eminent scholar of religion, Karen Armstrong. 

The event encompassed political leaders, scholars, and activists. Later that day, the local television stations dedicated nearly their entire newscasts to the event. The next day, Howard, along with the panel she shared the stage with, was featured on the front page of the largest newspaper in Singapore. The Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, organized the conference, and the keynote speaker was King Abdullah II of Jordan. 

For Howard, the past year and a half has been a blur of accolades and events, as she moves in global circles with the world’s leading experts on peace, interfaith dialogue, Asian religious traditions and the philosophy of Gandhi. After receiving the Fresno State Provost Award for Promising New Faculty, Howard was the 2019 Fresno State faculty nominated and selected by the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society committee for an honorary membership. 

In 2018, Howard served on the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a conference in Toronto, Canada, in which over seven thousand people from dozens of religions and many countries gathered. Howard brought five students from Fresno State along for the experience and participated in several panels. 

“Dr. Howard brings fresh energy to the teaching of world religions.  She is an approachable, highly published, and world-renowned scholar who strives for excellence in and outside the classroom,” said Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Fresno State.

Opening plenary panel, “What we Believe,” at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies in Singapore.
Dr. Veena Howard in the plenary panel, “What we Believe,” at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies in Singapore.

This year, as people around the world celebrate the 150th birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Howard’s next project is hosting Gandhi’s Global Legacy International Conference at Fresno State. 

“I’m very excited that we are bringing the message of peace, equity, justice, care for the others, and non-violence to our community here in Fresno,” said Howard. “It’s not just simply Gandhi’s teachings we will talk about; it’s Gandhi’s legacy. What impact he has made on the global community, and in turn, what we can do.” 

The conference will gather prominent nonviolence leaders, scholars, students, and community members.

“I’m looking forward to celebrating Gandhi’s 150 birthday, because it marks the beginning of a deeper appreciation of each other’s humanity,” said Jiménez-Sandoval.

As the world celebrates the landmark birthday of Gandhi, the university will host a series of events to mark the occasion. All events are free and open to the public. Parking is $5 from the daily parking permit dispensers. For additional information or if you require special accommodations, please contact the Fresno State Department of Philosophy at 559.278.2621.

Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th Birthday Celebration

9 a.m., Oct. 2 in the Henry Madden Library Ellipse Gallery

Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro will speak at a ribbon cutting event opening an exhibition of lives of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Daisaku Ikeda and Cesar Chavez. The exhibition will remain open during library hours until Oct. 12.

6 p.m., Oct. 2 in the Peace Garden at Fresno State

The event will include a garlanding and flower ceremony, speakers, classical dances, mediation and candlelight vigil. 

Gandhi’s Global Legacy International Conference

Oct. 10-11 with events in the Alice Peters Auditorium (PB 191), the Peace Garden, Satellite Student Union and Wahlberg Recital Hall.

Gandhi's Global Legacy International Conference keynote speakers Rev. James Lawson Jr., Dolores Huerta, Nipun Mehta, Mary Elizabeth King and Ramsey Jay Jr.
Gandhi’s Global Legacy International Conference keynote speakers Rev. James Lawson Jr., Dolores Huerta, Nipun Mehta, Mary Elizabeth King and Ramsey Jay Jr.

Keynote speakers include Rev. James Lawson Jr., a prominent Civil Rights Leader and California State University, Northridge professor; Dolores Huerta, civil rights activist; Nipun Mehta, servicespace.org founder; Mary Elizabeth King, professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the United Nations affiliated University for Peace; and accomplished Fresno State alumnus and leader of the California State University, Fresno President’s Southern California Council, Ramsey Jay Jr. The conference will also feature an evening of Indian classical music.

The conference is generously supported by and JP and Renu Sethi Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies. Visit fresnostate.edu/gandhi150 for conference schedule and registration. 

Ela Gandhi –  “Gandhian legacy and challenges ahead in 21st century: personal perspectives”

Oct. 14 in the North Gym

Peace activist, former Member of Parliament in South Africa and Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela Gandhi will speak at the invitation of Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor, professor emeritus of social work education at Fresno State. 

Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley

Oct. 14 in the North Gym.

In celebration of the United Nations annual “Human Rights Day” commemoration, speakers include Dr. Clayborne Carson, Stanford University and Assemblyman Ash Kalra, Chair of the CA Assembly Committee on Labor Relations and Employment. The event is co-sponsored with the Human Right Coalition of Central California and other community partners.

Dr. Veena Howard with Fresno State students at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Toronto, Canada.
Dr. Veena Howard with Fresno State students at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Veena Howard was born and raised in India as the sixth of seven siblings. She grew up listening to her parent’s stories of pain and resilience.

“My grandmother, father, and mother were forced to leave their homes in the then newly formed Pakistan and became refugees. After India’s independence, India was divided into two nations — Pakistan and India. In Colonial India, they witnessed Gandhi’s movement and recalled their memories of his nonviolent mobilization of the masses for securing freedom and his violent assassination.  

While growing up, Gandhi’s legacy surrounded Howard—”his statue stood on the city square and his photos adorned most state and school offices,” she recalls. As the “father” of India, his birthday was celebrated in schools and his likeness was seen around the country. 

Howard excelled in school, and when it came time for her parents to arrange her marriage, she had other ideas. 

“I persuaded my parents, of course, by “love-force,” to let me continue my education as at the time in Indian traditions, young ladies are supposed to get married around age twenty. My parents valued education, and I attribute my success to my parents and many teachers along my long journey.”

Howard was selected to participate in an interreligious youth service project in Italy, and from there she came to the United States, where she pursued her M.A. in philosophy at the University of South Carolina and also another M.A. in eastern classics at St. John’s College in New Mexico.

A few years later, Howard was teaching at the University of Oregon and preparing to start her Ph.D. program focusing on a Sanskrit text when a professor asked her to co-teach a class on Gandhi. After protesting that she didn’t know very much about Gandhi, he convinced her that she knew about the Indian texts which Gandhi studied. She agreed to co-teach the course.

“Through this seminar, I learned about Gandhi and realized how much I didn’t know about his life, philosophy, and history. So it triggered my interest in Gandhi. The fact that Gandhi struggled and persisted in his person and public life and used unconventional methods, inspired me,” said Howard. 

The experience changed the course of Howard’s scholarship. She decided to join Lancaster University in England to pursue her Ph.D. in religious studies. It was there that she was able to immerse herself into studying the life of Gandhi, his teachings, and his philosophy. She is the first person in her family to achieve a doctorate degree and only one to work in academia.

Since that time, Howard has written dozens of articles, an edited volume, Dharma: Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh Traditions of India, a book titled “Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action,” and an Oxford Bibliography on Mahatma Gandhi

Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor, professor emeritus of social work education and peace and conflict studies speaks next to the bronze memorial of Mahatma Gandhi in the Fresno State Peace Garden.
Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor, professor emeritus of social work education and peace and conflict studies speaks next to the bronze memorial of Mahatma Gandhi in the Fresno State Peace Garden.

In 2014, Howard was looking for a full-time tenure-track position, and during her on-campus visit she found herself at Fresno State walking to the Starbucks inside Henry Madden Library to meet with a colleague for a spot in the Philosophy Department. 

“As I was walking, I looked up and I saw the Gandhi statue. I had just finished my book on Gandhi, and I wondered, ‘is this a sign?’ How many universities have Gandhi statues?” said Howard. “So thanks to Dr. Kapoor for his vision for his efforts to create the Peace Garden. I really took it as a sign that this campus is dedicated to peace, equity and diversity… all these issues that I believe in.”

As she continues her work organizing Gandhi’s Global Legacy International Conference, that connection to Fresno State has emboldened and inspired her. 

“I think the Valley is the right place to have it,” said Howard. “At Fresno State, we have the Peace Garden, we have our mission statement, we have commitment, and our leaders are so excited and supportive. This is our project, our university project.” 

Howard said she is grateful to campus leaders for their support. The conference is generously supported by and JP and Renu Sethi Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies

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Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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