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)

Such worship is based on personal experience, even personal emotions or mood, way of life or local customs and traditions, often shaped by environment or ecology. Castes and occupations, villages and towns, great cities, families or tribes all have their tutelary deities. These represent both an aspect of the divine and a human insight into the ‘world principle’ or ultimate reality. Therefore, Daniélou acknowledged no strict delineation between religion and folk custom. He was interested in popular religion, including cults of local saints in Europe, because the glimpses of ultimate reality these provided were unmediated by theory and unclassified by scribes. For the same reason, he opposed academic approaches to popular religion, whether these took the form of external ‘objective’ scholarship or internal codification by priests and scribes who seek to impose dogmas or standardise rituals. In that sense, his thinking bears some resemblance to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who insisted that theism was something subjective and personal and that unlike other areas of philosophy fell outside the usual rules of argument, evidence or proof:

Sometimes in the privacy of my study, with my hands pressed tight over my eyes or in the darkness of the night, I am of the opinion that there is no God. But look yonder: the rising of the sun, as it scatters the mists that cover the earth, and lays bare the wondrous glittering scene of nature, disperses at the same moment all cloud from my soul. I find my faith again, and my God, and my belief in Him. … I believe in God as strongly as I believe any other truth, because believing and not believing are the last things in the world that depend on me. (Russell 1972, 691-692)

The god that Rousseau acknowledged was a Supreme Being, at once a transcendent force and an immanent presence in the natural world. As such, he might have identified with Daniélou’s perception that ‘God is all. God is everywhere, or God is nothing’ (AD 2007, 5). For Daniélou, ‘God’ was not so much an identifiable being with a name and visible qualities, but a force that lay beyond the qualities and attributes identifiable to human beings. His recognition – or more accurately worship – of the divine was guided by the idea of a cyclical relationship between unity, duality and multiplicity. These principles were mutually dependent and each was equally important to the worshipper. Unity, identified with God or the ‘world principle’, was not oneness, as in the monotheistic religions, but was ‘outside the world’ and therefore ‘beyond number, impersonal, indescribable and unknowable’ (AD 2007, 4). Duality was identified with the creative tension between Prakriti, the ‘substance of the creative world’, identified with the female principle, and Purusha, the ‘notion of an archetypal plan’, identified with the male principle (AD 2007, 3). These two forces, in turn, are personified as Shakti and Shiva, the divine female and the divine male. Their interaction is expressed in a recognisable physical form through the cult of the phallus or conjoined lingam and yoni. The word lingam or linga means ‘shaft of light’ in Sanskrit and is ‘the male principle from which comes forth the semen containing the genetic code, the plan of the living being, which manifests itself in the substance, in the egg contained in the female organ’ (AD 2007, 3).

Thus the interplay between Shiva and Shakti, the cosmic couple, represents the creative process that pervades the universe and on which all forms of life depend. Beyond Prakriti and Purusha, linga and yoni, Shakti and Shiva, ‘lies the barrier that separates the created from the non-created, the non-existent’, the ultimate reality which is simultaneously ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’. The constant fluctuations between Shakti and Shiva are analogous to the workings of Yin and Yang in Chinese thought, as Daniélou acknowledges: the Yin principle corresponds to Prakriti, the Yang to Purusha. In many religious traditions, including those of the Americas, there is a strong tendency to connect a dynamic, abstract ‘masculine’ principle with the sky or air and the passive or receptive ‘feminine’ principle with the earth, the body, solid substances and water. The first is the creative principle, the second that which is created. Contrary to frequent western misunderstanding, this does not mean (in Daniélou’s Shaivism at least) that one is subordinate to the other. The earth is not inferior to the sky and nor is the created inferior to the creator. Both principles are linked by the process of creation. They are, in this sense, aspects of the divine.

The Prakriti-Purusha duality opens the door to multiplicity. Because the world principle is impersonal and invisible, it is represented by two interconnected forces that give life to everything in the universe. These twin forces also have manifold features and characteristics that we may view from many angles. Thus Shakti and Shiva have many aspects, which are also aspects of the unknowable divine power:
We can look at a sculpture from different angles. We grasp its whole form only when we have observed the front, the back, the profiles. … The more insights we can get, the more aspects of the divine we can perceive. (AD 1991, 5)

Divinity is ‘that in which opposites coexist’ and has as many forms as the universe it brings forth. Thus when we worship one of these forms, we are worshipping it in a literal, isolated sense, but looking towards the ‘nonbeing’ or universality beyond it. The world principle can be worshipped only ‘in its manifestation, its works’. Therefore it follows that:
Whatever aspect of the world we envisage, we see in a veiled form an aspect of the divine plan. The divine work is, however, of an infinite variety. We can recognize the divine in whatever aspect of its work we choose as its image, in whatever we like most. Such an image may be a tree, an animal, a man, a woman, a bird, a stone, a symbol or an idea. This is why the gods are without number. (AD 2007, 4)

When we worship a powerful life-giving force within nature, such as the sun or the moon, we are not being superstitious or literal-minded. We are approaching the divine from both a reasoned and an intuitive perspective, derived from what we know and what we experience or feel:
The sun, the centre of the world we live in, giver of light and life, is for us the very image of the godhead. It is equally possible to envisage spirits that have no other substance than thought, like characters in a dream. We can conceive of gods that correspond to the powers of action, personifying strength, courage, justice, love, friendship, as well as destruction and death. (AD 2007, 3)

There are echoes here of Rousseau’s divine sunrise. The role of the sun as a reflection of the divine is chronicled by another contemporary of Daniélou, Jean Herbert, in his exploration of Shinto polytheism in Japan. In Shinto, the sun is identified with the mother goddess, Amaterasu, progenitor of humanity and personification of the creative process. As in folk Hinduism, it is not the sun itself that is being worshipped. Nor is it even the solar deity, Amaterasu or the god Surya respectively. It is the solar power, which acts as a light-giver and a life-force but can also scorch the Earth and ultimately devour it. As such, it brings to life the concept of the divine as something which is within human experience and understanding (Herbert 1967, Rankin 2015). Similarly, Daniélou quotes from the Shiva Purana, which he translated into French:
It is not the phallus itself that is worshipped, but he of whom the phallus is the sign, the Progenitor, the Cosmic Being. The phallus is the emblem, the sign of the person of Shiva, of whom it is the image. (AD 2007, 28)

This method of looking beyond the literal image to the power behind it is characteristic of polytheistic religions. It was, for example, experienced by Maya Deren in Haiti:
The Haitian – or, more properly, his African ancestor – observed the universe, both nature and man as part of nature, and, in its operation, discerned certain major and recurrent principles; that he distinguished between the principle of the thing and the thing itself and remarked that the material objects are transitory or destructible and singular, whereas the principles themselves are persistent and pervasive, or immortal and universal; … The loa [Vodou deities] are supernatural in the same sense that a principle is super-natural or abstract. … Moreover, there are certain physical phenomena in which the principle is so dramatically manifest that there has been almost no dissociation between the divinity and the physical manifestation. This is the case with major elemental forces such as the sea, which alone, as a physical phenomenon, adequately expresses its own complex and primordial principle. Yet the distinction remains explicit in Voudoun (sic): it is not the sea that is sacred; it is Agwé, the spirit of the sea, who is divine. To worship the loa is to celebrate the principle, not the matter in which it may be momentarily or permanently manifest. (Deren 2004, 88-89)