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).

Unlike his elder brother, Alain was unable to find solace in his mother’s religion and nor was he drawn to the secular pieties of his father’s republicanism. He rebelled against both, although he was drawn strongly towards the folklore and customs of his Breton heritage, such as the belief in farfadets or benign sprites. Alain Daniélou’s attraction to those ‘pagan’ traditions which have managed to survive despite urbanisation and the rise of linear thinking was to become the leitmotiv of his work. This was equally true in India, with his personal journey into Hinduism, and in the Europe of his later years, where he connected his Hindu practice with ancient Mediterranean and Celtic varieties of polytheism, the spirit of which he sought to revive. In his exploration of these nature-centred religions, he discovered within himself an ecological consciousness that encompassed the survival of distinctive cultures, including their artistic and musical forms. Cultural survival was as important to Daniélou as the protection of the environments that sustained cultural variety, for he realised that one was impossible without the other.

Alain Daniélou escaped the internal and external conflicts of his life in Europe for India, which he first visited in 1932. From 1935-1960, the subcontinent became his permanent home. Through immersing himself in Indian culture – or more accurately, India’s many and varied cultural forms – he acquired a new sense of purpose, along with a new maturity and confidence as a thinker. In Hinduism, he found a spiritual system that appealed to him aesthetically and emotionally as well as on the intellectual plane. Initiated as a Shaivite or disciple of Shiva, he was given the name Shiva Sharan (Protected by Shiva); this remained the core of his identity for the rest of his life.

The Hinduism that attracted Daniélou was one that was overlooked by most western scholars of the mid-twentieth century and held in low esteem by the colonial rulers and the elite of ‘Europeanised’ Indians. The latter group sought to impose a centralised version of the Hindu Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Tradition, Universal Order), which resembled the monotheist creeds of the west and ‘Near East’ and sometimes reflected the concerns of secular political ideologies including socialism, liberal capitalism and nationalism. From Daniélou’s perspective, this so-called modernisation was the latest phase in a struggle between the established Vedic interpretations of Hinduism, based on scholarship and central authority, and the popular religion of the great majority of Indians. It was with that popular religion that Daniélou came to identify himself closely, and in which he was to find personal and spiritual liberation. Popular Hinduism was (and to a very large extent remains) highly localised, decentralised and polytheistic. It is for the most part transmitted orally in a non-literate society and is reliant on stories and images rather than moral strictures or commandments.

Founded on devotion in place of academic study, popular Hinduism emphasises the many deities – goddesses and gods alike – as a way of reflecting on and understanding the divine principle. Through contemplating diversity and variety, the devotee understands that everything in the universe is interconnected. This method of meditation and reflection is distinct from those of the monotheistic creeds, which tend to be concerned with obedience and to dismiss divergence from the norm as heresy. The Hinduism of the elite similarly tends to emphasise the ‘authority of the Vedas’ as interpreted by a priestly caste. In popular Hinduism, Alain Daniélou discovered a tolerance and openness to ideas that was lacking in those whose formal education was shaped by rationalist conceptions of linear, uniform progress. He regarded progressive ideologies of both ‘right’ and ‘left’ as continuations of monotheism by other means.

In the Hinduism of the villages, market towns and historic cities (as opposed to modern conurbations shaped by colonial power and global economics), Daniélou found a realistic, literally down-to-earth spirituality that was in tune with the seasons and as flexible as it was timeless. He identified especially with the cults, rites and deities of the artisan castes. The version of Hinduism he embraced revolved largely around devotion to Shiva, who represented universal wisdom and compassion, the cycles of existence and the creative force in the universe. Shiva the male principle was balanced (and completed) by Shakti, the female principle who represented the subtle earthly powers. Their union, symbolised in sculpture though the Lingam and Yoni respectively, is the divine spirit that is the basis of all life. Shaivism is the name that Daniélou usually gives to this ancient form of Hindu devotion when he captures it in writing. Along with ‘popular Hinduism’ and ‘Hindu polytheism’, it is the term used most frequently below.

Through Shaivism, Daniélou recognised that reality cannot be narrowly defined but must instead be seen from many sides or angles. This brought him into alignment with a very different philosophical school, that of the Jains, whose religion was non-theistic, rationalist and austere. Daniélou regarded Jain doctrines as the antithesis of Shaivism’s life-affirming insights, although he acknowledged that both had equally ancient roots. However, the Jain concept of ‘Many-Sidedness’ or multiple aspects of reality ran parallel to Shaivism’s worship of many deities in order to reach the divine source. The two traditions, one abstract and conceptual, the other visual and intuitive, can be seen to complement each other. Jainism begins with the intellect and embraces the imagination. Shaivism begins with colourful images and moves towards complex ideas and scientific speculations. In the same way, Daniélou immersed himself in popular Hindu culture because he identified with it emotionally and understood it at the intuitive level. This immersion led him to intense study, unfettered by western academic preconceptions. His spiritual practice, which came from the heart, was complemented by the body of knowledge and wisdom he accumulated and which he which he later offered to a Europe that had, in his view, lost its internal balance. Alain Daniélou was truly a man of many sides. This is why he understood the cultures of India so deeply and why they spoke to him with such clarity.