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.

The Jains call their doctrine of many-sidedness Anekantavada, sometimes rendered as Anekantvada or simply Anekant. Anekantavada means literally ‘non-one-sidedness’, or the absence of Ekant. The absence of one-sided viewpoints that lead to fanaticism and intransigence implies an awareness of multiple viewpoints, all of which are fragments of the whole. The process of interpreting reality can therefore be likened to the archaeologist piecing together shards of an antique pot. There will inevitably be pieces missing, but an overall impression can be created and conjectures may be made about the absent parts which can be revised when new evidence arises. Jains themselves often use the analogy of looking at an object, usually a pot or a jar, from different angles and Daniélou makes similar comparisons when he describes Shaivite polytheism. There is a sense in which a ‘doctrine of multiple viewpoints’ is in itself a paradox. This is why Anekantavada is defined in negative terms, by what is absent rather than what is present or what is left ‘unsaid’ rather than what is stated explicitly. A subtle doctrine, it is based on an understanding that knowledge and insight are precious gifts that men and women must use wisely and approach with humility (Mardia and Rankin 2013m 46-58). Anekantavada is closely linked with the central Jain tenet of Ahimsa, the doctrine (also defined negatively) of non-injury, non-violence or the absence of harm. It is an intellectual exercise in Ahimsa, a ‘non-violence of the mind’, for Jainism does not recognise the distinction between thought and action. A negative or ‘one-sided’ thought is still a violent act even if it does not result in an act of overt harm (Rankin 2006, 159-193).

In general, Daniélou’s attitude towards Jainism was one of respectful rejection coupled with distaste. Writing of the eighteenth century French cleric, scholar and missionary to India Jean-Antoine Dubois, he notes that the Abbé ‘shows a certain esteem for Jainism, which he deems to be the most ancient religion of India and whose extreme puritanism he appreciates’ (AD 2005, 66). In another context, he recognises Jainism as one of two parallel strands of Indic thought that have arisen from the same ancient root:
Since prehistoric times, India has known two great religious traditions. The first, Shaivism, is a nature religion, which seeks to perceive the divine in its works and become part of them. The second is Jainism, a humanistic religion, dealing essentially with ethical and social values. Aryan Vedism gradually incorporated the concepts of these two ancient traditions, at many contradictory levels, resulting in what is now known as Hinduism, whereas Shaivism and Jainism [as distinctive traditions] have continued down to our own times in parallel with Hinduized Vedism. (AD 2007, 6).

Daniélou also describes Jainism as ‘that moralistic and atheistic religion representing an ancient autochthonous tradition’ (AD 2007, 9) and blames it for the negative attitudes towards homosexuality in official or ‘establishment’ Hinduism (AD 2007, 43-44). This puritanical approach, exacerbated by Mughal and British colonial influence, contrasts with the more realistic, earthy tolerance he attributes to Shaivism, which views homosexuality as ‘a constant that can be observed in any society … [a] part of the reality of the created world and … thus a manifestation of one aspect of the divine’ (AD 2007, 43). He cites the cult of Skanda, one of Shiva’s sons, who ‘has no other spouse but the army’ and is ‘the male deity worshipped by homosexuals and transvestites, who go in crowds on pilgrimage to his sanctuary’ (AD 2007, 43).

This tension between the ascetic and puritanical aspect of Indic spirituality and its nature-centred, life-affirming counterpart continue into the twenty-first century and influence political debate, not least in the area of gay rights and social attitudes towards same-sex relationships. Today, conservative and nationalistic Hindus are often the strongest upholders of a little-used colonial law against male homosexuality similar to the one that was used against Oscar Wilde in England in 1895. The irony of their position would not be lost on Daniélou and would seem to confirm his view of the western-educated elite and the puritanical, Jain-influenced ‘wing’ of Hinduism. However, he does not fully take into account the tradition of tolerance and pluralism at the heart of Jain doctrines, the corrective offered by Anekantavada to the puritanical rigours that characterise so much of Jain teachings and practice.

Having committed himself to the Shaivite popular religion, with its rich variety of forms and doctrines, Daniélou perhaps felt little need to explore in detail the parallel tradition of Jainism, for its austere outward surface held little personal appeal. Jainism itself, although influential in the wider Indian society and the Indian diaspora, is followed by only a small minority of the population. Like the Shaivism experienced by Daniélou, it is primarily a hereditary tradition. Rather than urging others to ‘become Jains’, it encourages a subtle dissemination of its doctrines. There is, however, another irony that he would probably notice in today’s political landscape, although it would be likely to surprise him. Pressure for liberalisation of homophobic colonial laws, along with the emancipation of homosexuals, has come in large part from western-influenced, secular Indians whilst homophobia retains a strong popular base. In the same way, Daniélou was attracted by the concept of a ‘Third Nature’ consisting of those who fell outside the reproductive norm and encompassed – in western terms – male homosexuals, lesbians and transgendered people. The Third Nature idea that he encountered in popular Shaivism is now reflected back at Indian society through the ‘LGBT’ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) movement of secular, western-led activists, although the assimilation of these disparate ‘identities’ remains problematic for all concerned. This form of political activism is, in turn, labelled colonialist by ‘orthodox’ and puritanical Hindu nationalists, whose ideology was given shape by the experience of colonisation and foreign rule.

The division between the two branches of Indic spirituality – the nature-centred and the ascetic – is multi-layered, although the original duality still exists. Daniélou appeared to have a heightened awareness of duality because of his upbringing. Throughout his life, he remained profoundly influenced by the creative tension between his intensely Catholic mother and his secular-rationalist father, whose ‘republican values’ were in some ways just as strict and doctrinaire. Even their sense of time was different, with his mother adhering to the clerical calendar and his father to that of the town hall (AD 1987 [The Way to the Labyrinth], 9-50). In France of the Third Republic, such family divisions were unusual but by no means unique. It was a society divided over the role of religion, specifically Roman Catholicism, and its place (if any) in the public sphere, a division in French society that has by no means disappeared.

For Alain Daniélou, the personal was always political. Throughout his works, he is acutely aware of the alternately creative and destructive power of dualism. This is reflected in his emphasis on the primal division between ‘Jain’ and ‘Shaivite’ branches of Indic spirituality. The Shaivite branch, to which he clung, had many features in common with the folk Catholicism he encountered in his Breton childhood. Both emphasised saints and visionaries, preferred visual images to words, instilled a love of myth and storytelling and valued direct experience over dogmatic precepts. The puritanical tradition in Indian culture, which Daniélou attributes to Jain influence, has some parallels with the austere republicanism of his father’s family. Puritanism, he observed, is ‘the endemic disease of Vedic Brahmanism and all other State religions’ and this extended to nontheistic state ideologies like French republicanism (AD 1982, 18).

The position adopted by Daniélou towards Indic religious practice does not in any real sense conflict with his forceful repudiation of Catholicism. His opposition was directed against the hierarchs and scholars of the Church rather than its less educated followers, just as in India he contrasted the Vedic ‘establishment’ unfavourably with the popular beliefs, rites and practices he found enriching. One of his main objections to the Jain tradition was that it was atheistic, or more accurately it denied the presence of a divine First Cause. For Jains, the universe, like energy itself, can neither be created nor destroyed, although it is not fixed or ‘permanent’ because it is constantly changing, evolving and reinventing itself in cyclical movements. While Daniélou also emphasised the importance of cosmic cycles (as does Shaivite Hinduism), he regarded the Jain-derived view of the universe as mechanistic, a criticism he also levels at the doctrine of transmigration and the theory of samsara (the cycle of birth, death and rebirth) which took place without the involvement of divine agency or ‘grace’ (AD 1987, 97).

In summary, the Shaivism with which Daniélou closely identified was a popular, devotional form of spirituality which emphasised direct experience over scholarly interpretation and intuition over doctrine. It was rich in symbolism and colour and close to nature, conscious of solar, lunar and seasonal cycles and the overwhelming power of natural forces over humanity. This power was an aspect of the divine power underpinning all of reality. Like that divinity, it had multiple aspects and could be approached, placated or worshipped in many different ways. The definition of ‘natural’ was all-embracing, rather than proscriptive as it has often been in western cultures where Judaeo-Christian moral precepts are transferred onto nature. The ‘Third Nature’ cited by Daniélou is an example of this inclusive approach (AD 2007, 40-45). Nature was identified with an infinite variety of forms, each one distinctive but all of them intimately connected or part of larger than themselves.

These parallel principles of multiplicity and organic unity are reflected in social organisation as well. Daniélou was conscious of the connection between traditional Shaivism’s diversity and the existence of hereditary professions and castes, especially those of the artisans and craft workers which could be compared with the medieval guilds of Europe. Daniélou defended these social and professional divisions as guarantors of human diversity and cultural variety. He opposed attempts to abolish or level out these caste distinctions, whether in the name of social equality or the industrialisation that reduced independent craftsmen and women to a faceless mass of ‘workers’. Thus his Hinduism, although rooted in the popular castes, was not egalitarian from the standpoint of western liberalism. Nonetheless, like craftsmanship it is founded on the oral tradition and practical training, with knowledge transmitted from master to disciple. This means that spiritual development is open to all and is not restricted by the absence of formal education. Indeed, as Daniélou frequently argued, orally transmitted knowledge in the (closely related) spheres of religious practice and craftsmanship meant more than academic training, which tended to be artificial and stultifying (AD 2005, 1-7, 16-33, 73 -88).

The alternative ‘puritanical’ branch of Indic spirituality was not exclusively Jain, but shaped by Jain influences. Often – and especially in the case of ‘pure’ Jain doctrine – it emphasised egalitarianism, with enlightenment and Moksha (liberation) open to all, regardless of caste, social status or (sometimes) gender. Instead of a life-affirming acceptance of nature in its variety, there was an emphasis on ascetic practices, sexual restraint (including monastic celibacy), strict vegetarianism and increasing withdrawal the natural world. The belief in equality was, from Daniélou’s perspective, cancelled out rather than reinforced by the emphasis on education, imposing a form of knowledge based primarily on literacy and book-learning and asserting the primacy of academic over other forms of knowledge. The puritan ‘Jain’ ethos elevated the individual conscience above the accumulated wisdom of the communities to which individuals belong. At the same time, it denied or downplayed the power of individual experience through its imposition of abstract and often arbitrary regulations of individual conduct. The fate of the individual ‘soul’ in future incarnations was determined by behaviour during that individual’s life span.

To Daniélou, this doctrine imposed on the universe – and all forms of life within it – a framework that was at once moralistic and mechanical, a cosmic form of process-driven bureaucracy. Lacking divine agency, it also lacked the concept of divine grace at the heart of Shaivite teachings, which while at times capricious could also be compassionate and generous. From the perspective of Shaivism, the continuity of individual life through reincarnation is less important than the continuity of life itself (AD 1987, 97). As with many other popular religious traditions, Daniélou’s popular Hinduism was more this-worldly than other-worldly. It was more concerned with the persistence of the life cycle than individual transcendence of that cycle. The life cycle included humans, other animals, plants and the entire ‘web of life’. It can include the survival of families from one generation to another and the survival of knowledge and skills which are transmitted between generations.

In the same way as he shows little or no awareness of the Jain doctrine of many-sidedness, Daniélou does not pay close attention to the Jains’ reverence for nature. Like Anekantavada, this strong ecological consciousness came from a perspective that differed radically from that of Shiva’s devotees. It is based, ultimately on transcendence of the natural world rather than full participation in it. Nevertheless, the ecological perspective of the Jains is closely linked to Anekantavada in that it derives from the idea that every species, every being has its own distinctive ‘viewpoint’ that is worthy of respect. Mahavira proclaimed that ‘Non-violence and kindness to living beings is kindness to oneself’, an ethical stance based on the idea of multiple viewpoints and the interconnectedness of all life. Popular Hindus had the same concept of interconnectedness, but arrived at it through intuition and lived experience rather than ethical codes, through attachment to the world rather than withdrawal from it. Daniélou showed little interest in these aspects of Jain doctrine because he was less interested by ‘real’ Jainism as the effects of Jain influence, as he saw it, on Indian society, especially its emerging ‘educated’ and mercantile classes (AD 2005, 90-92).