Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – Multiple Viewpoints

Multiple Viewpoints

For Daniélou, one of the strengths of Hindu polytheism was that it did not view the deities as atomised ‘individuals’ to be worshipped in isolation, but saw them as interconnected parts of the ‘world principle’. Each deity had multiple aspects, reflecting seasonal changes, the transition from night to day, regional differences, occupations and crafts. The ten forms of Maha-Vidya (Superior or Transcendental Knowledge) were identified with ten goddesses: ‘female principles’ or aspects of the Mother. Briefly summarised, their interaction reflects the connections between polytheism, cyclical thinking and the physical environment. The cycle in question is the day-night cycle, with each manifestation of the goddess associated with a moment in the transition from night to day and back again.

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Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – The Coexistence of Opposites

The Coexistence of Opposites

Shaivite philosophy, as Daniélou interpreted it, was more interested in questions than answers, more concerned with diverse aspects of reality than the ultimate truth behind them, although that truth was still acknowledged and revered. Most importantly, perhaps, it was more concerned with lived experiences than abstract concepts:
We worship the Mother Goddess, the Earth Mother who appears in caverns. We worship different symbols, prophets, heroes, saints and holy places. (AD 2007, 4-5)

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Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – Cultural Immersion and the Living Gods

Cultural Immersion and the Living Gods

Central to Shaivite spiritual practice was return to the source, the divine origin of the universe. This meant not only the reintegration of opposite or complementary principles – such as masculine and feminine – but the piecing together of fragments of knowledge to form a whole. Human knowledge being necessarily fragmented, this process could not be completed in an individual lifetime. However, meditation, visionary experience and flashes of insight could lead to an intuitive understanding of the universal order. For Daniélou, this search for unity beneath diversity and polarity mirrored his inward journey. He absorbed from Indic thought, the idea of the universe, including individual human life, as a series of cycles or spirals that ultimately returned to their source. As such, he used his time in India to ‘reinvent’ himself as a Hindu. Rather than detaching him conclusively from his own western heritage, this process ultimately reintegrated him with the west. Through ‘becoming a Hindu’, he learned to connect with aspects of western culture concealed beneath the Christianised and secular-rational surfaces.

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Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – Divine Androgyny

Divine Androgyny

While Daniélou’s family background made him acutely aware of the important (positive and negative) role of duality in human affairs, his experience as a homosexual heightened his sense of the importance of variety, diversity and the acceptance of different perspectives. He emerged to manhood in a country where homosexuality was legal but not socially accepted and homosexual relationships were neither recognised nor valued. Neither the moralism of Catholic France nor the puritanical machismo then associated with the republican ideal allowed much of a social space for the ‘Third Nature’. Furthermore, Daniélou grew up in a family where heterosexual marriage was valued for the social connections it brought and where the only alternative to marriage was the priesthood, a path taken by his esteemed brother, Cardinal Jean Daniélou. In this restrictive milieu, Alain Daniélou had difficulty establishing himself socially and intellectually. His journey to India was part of a quest for self-acceptance, which he found through immersion in a tolerant folk tradition. In the Shaivite teachings he absorbed, the homosexual man or woman, like the transgendered person, has a sacred aura because of their association with Ardhanarishvara (‘The Lord Who Is Half-Woman’), depicted as an androgynous union of Shiva with his consort the goddess Parvati, also known referred to as Devi or Shakti (AD 2007, 42). They are part of a primordial hermaphrodite heritage, which represents the original cosmic unity or undifferentiated ‘Whole’ from which all of life arose. From this perspective, it follows that:
Any sexually ambiguous being [human or non-human] is of a sacred nation, whether they are physically or only instinctively intersexual. Every bisexual being can be considered as an emanation of the god’s transcendent aspect. The hermaphrodite, the homosexual, and the transvestite thus have a symbolic value and are deemed to be privileged beings, images of Ardhanarishvara. (AD 2007, 42)

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Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – An Improbable Alignment

An Improbable Alignment

Alain Daniélou’s emphasis on many-sidedness also brought him into an even more improbable alignment with Jainism, a branch of Indic philosophy he opposed. This alignment was most likely to have been the product of coincidence or synchronicity. Daniélou and the Jains were asking the same questions in different ways and approaching the same problems from different perspectives. The quotation from Mahavira cited above expresses succinctly both the differences and the similarities between Alain Daniélou’s interpretation of many-sidedness and that of the Jains. At one level, there is the emphasis on tolerance of multiple viewpoints without denying the existence of an ultimate truth. In other words, the multiple viewpoints represent aspects of the ultimate truth, or means by which that truth can be at least partially discerned. This conclusion accords well with Daniélou’s philosophy of life and spiritual practice, although it is arrived at by very different means. In contrast to this position is the strong element of austere moralism and karmic ‘retribution’, the implications of which Daniélou refused to accept (AD 1987, 22, 97). Indeed he is one of the few western thinkers attracted to Indic philosophy who is uninterested by and sometimes overtly hostile to the idea of karma as a universal law of cause and effect that impacts on individual lives.

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Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread

“Whenever he carries any form of experience to its farthest limit, man has a glimpse of an unknowable ‘Beyond’ which he calls divinity. This divinity cannot be grasped nor understood, for it begins where understanding fails, yet it can be approached from many sides; any attempt at understanding its nature can merely be called a ‘near approach’, an Upa-nisad. We can only point to the necessity for a substratum, we never experience it directly, although it is ever near; for, at the limit of each form of experience, we apprehend some aspect of it. The more we can seize of the different aspects of the phenomenal world, the more we come near to a general, a ‘real’ insight into the mysterious entity we call God.”
Alain Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India (1991)

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Polytheism and Anekantavada: The Many-Sidedness of Alain Daniélou – Introduction

This monograph was written as the result of a grant from FIND – Foundation for India-Europe New Dialogues. In 2014, I received the Alain Daniélou Research Award. This enabled me to research unexpected parallels between ‘popular’ Hindu religious forms that emphasise polytheism and diversity, and the tradition of Jain philosophy that emphasises pluralism and ‘Many-Sidedness’.


Alain Daniélou (1907-1994) was a French musicologist and Indologist, a polymath whose appetite for knowledge stretched well beyond conventional academic fare and remained insatiable throughout his long life. That life, which spanned most of the twentieth century, began in a country whose divisions were reflected in his family home. Alain’s mother, Madeleine Clamorgan, came from an aristocratic Norman lineage and was a devout Catholic who founded a religious order for women teachers, the Order of Sainte Marie. His father, Charles Daniélou, was a Breton politician with anti-clerical views and a staunch supporter of the secular Third Republic. These political and social fault lines profoundly affected the young Alain Daniélou and his siblings. His brother Jean (1905-1974) followed their mother’s faith and eventually became a Cardinal, although as a Jesuit teacher, historian and theologian he proved that he had inherited his father’s capacity for free thinking. As a cleric, he was interested in prison reform and a pioneer in championing the cause of people who were socially and economically disadvantaged, or belonged to groups traditionally stigmatised by the Church, such as unmarried mothers and homosexuals, for whom he conducted a special Mass. Jean Daniélou served as an expert consultant to the progressive Second Vatican Council, otherwise known as Vatican II (1962-1965).

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