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.

As always with Daniélou, these connections were made at an intuitive rather than academic level. Becoming a Hindu led to his ‘discovery of Dionysus’ as an object of personal worship rather than a figure from a dead mythology, historically interesting but irrelevant to the modern world. He recognised that the Shaivite sadhus were Dionysian in their wildness, closeness to the natural world and in their abandonment of the conventions of work and family. They offered modern Indians a connection to the mysteries of nature, including its latent powers and dangers, in the same way that the Bacchantes had done for the Greco-Roman civilisations. The earth-centred spiritual path of Dionysus was part of a larger pagan tradition that had been interrupted but survived at the subterranean level, like an underground stream. The word ‘pagan’ itself had a rural connotation, derived from the Latin paganus meaning rustic or visitor. Imposed by missionaries of the new monotheistic faith, it implied backwardness, ignorance and distance from the civilisation of the city. From the opposite point of view, the word pagan could be reclaimed to denote an understanding of natural processes that the more ‘civilised’ or ‘cultured’ had lost, including the expression of divine powers in nature (AD 1992).

Such was Alain Daniélou’s vision of ‘Dionysian’ paganism. He sensed the importance of this undercurrent in western society, where alienation from the natural world increasingly affected individual and collective psychological well-being and resulted in the pollution and destruction of the environment. This latter threat to the natural world threatened the survival of humanity as much as other species. From a pagan viewpoint, this was a spiritual as much as an environmental problem. The science of ecology, like nature-centred religion, was concerned with the underlying unity of all living systems. During Daniélou’s lifetime, its conclusions pointed increasingly towards the need to reconcile humanity and rest of nature. In other words, we need to become more Dionysian or more Shaivite.

Shiva and Dionysus were two sides of the same coin or two aspects of the same deity, reminding civilised men and women of their relationship with wild nature – a relationship as important to our physical and mental health as human beings as it is to the welfare of the planet. In his discovery of Dionysus through Shiva, Daniélou was moving from the particular to the universal. Having immersed himself in Indian culture and adopted a Hindu world view, he was able to move outwards to draw more general conclusions about humanity. The religious practices, cosmology and philosophy of life he engaged with so fully in India was, he came to believe, something more than traditional Indian wisdom. Instead, it was better understood as the Indian version of a universal human wisdom that crossed racial and religious boundaries, but took on regional colourations based on cultural and ecological variations. Shiva-Dionysus acted as a divine gateway to the natural world and the creative process beneath it, but there were many other deities, spirits or elemental forces into which humans could tune in if they allowed themselves to do so (AD 1992).

Throughout his writings, Daniélou conveys the impression that he regards Hindu and other deities as ‘living gods’ with an independent existence rather than products of the human imagination or collective unconscious. They were also expressions – aspects – of the dharma or principle of order at the heart of the universe. As such, they were more than archetypes, although they could often be identified with areas of the human psyche as well as natural phenomena and geographical features. Polytheism was therefore a more ‘natural’ form of religious devotion than monotheistic worship. Whereas the latter elevates a single ‘viewpoint’ (one aspect of the universe, or a single area of human consciousness) over all others, the former recognises the variety inherent in nature and the divine form.

In his process of self-immersion in popular Hinduism, Daniélou’s technique resembles those of two of his contemporaries: avant garde filmmaker Maya Deren in Haiti and anthropologist Marcel Griaule among the Dogon people of Mali. Maya Deren’s original aim in the late 1940s was to study and film Haitian folk dances inspired by the polytheistic folk religion of Vodou (also known as Voudoun, Voodoo or Vodun) which has many characteristics in common with the Shaivism experienced by Daniélou. She quickly realised that she could not understand or identify with these dance forms unless she understood Vodou at the level of sensation and intuition as much as academic learning. Therefore, she underwent initiation into Vodou mysteries and eventually wrote a definitive study of the popular religion of Haiti, including its deities, its myths and its integrated view of humanity and nature. That is to say, she abandoned her objective (albeit ‘artistic’) study of one area of Haitian popular culture in favour of subjective immersion and identification with the culture in its totality. As she records her experience:
Today, in September 1951 (four years and three Haitian trips later), as I write these last few pages of the book, the filmed footage (containing more ceremonies than dances) lies in virtually its original condition in a fireproof box in the closet; the recordings are still on their original wire spools; the stack of still photographs is tucked away in a drawer labelled “TO BE PRINTED”, and the elaborate design for the montaged film is somewhere in my files, I am not sure where. … This disposition of the objects related to my original Haitian project – evidence that this book was written not because I had so intended but in spite of my intentions is, to me, the most eloquent tribute to the irrefutable reality and impact of Voudoun (sic) mythology. I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity; I end by recording, as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which has forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations. (Deren 2004, 5-6)

In 1953, Maya Deren published Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Along with Voodoo in Haiti, the comprehensive and erudite work by Alfred Métraux published in 1959, it remains the definitive European study of Haitian folk religion. Alfred Métraux was a Swiss-born anthropologist, ethnologist who made extensive Polynesian and indigenous American as well as African-Caribbean societies. As a member of UNESCO’s Department of Social Science in the 1950s, he became a prominent campaigner against racial and cultural discrimination. Like Daniélou, who was an adviser to UNESCO’s International Music Council a decade later, Métraux was a strong advocate of cultural survival and was worried by the growing trends towards global uniformity in the name of simplistic blueprints for ‘development’ and ‘progress’. He recognised that cultural diversity was a valuable resource, like biodiversity, and in the case of Amazonia he made the connection between the two many years before it was politically fashionable to do so. Again like Daniélou, he was as aware of the hidden connections between human cultures as he was of their unique and distinctive features. Conscious of both, he reaches conclusions about Haitian Vodou that largely mirror Daniélou’s interpretation of Shaivism:
Voodoo gods, in spite of their African names and lore, are under the influence of their environment. Man has always made his gods in his own image and this is strikingly true of Haiti: the loa [deities] have the tastes of modern man, his morality and his ambitions. They are no longer the gods of an African tribe, exotic and remote, but deities who act and think in the industrialized world of today. This is why they are as familiar and as close as to us as the gods of ancient Greece were to the people who worshipped them. The westernization of an African religion has brought to light all the features which it shares with the religions of the ancient world, so that anyone acquainted with the classical universe can easily enter the mysterious world of Voodoo. He feels as though he were among gods who speak his language and behave in a way he can understand.
Voodoo is a paganism of the West. We discover it with joy or horror, according to our temperament or our background. (Métraux 1972, 365)

Métraux approached folk religion from a social and political starting point that differed from Daniélou’s. He believed in secular democracy and progress (which Daniélou tended to reject), but sensed that progress was impeded when defined narrowly or along Eurocentric lines. The Haitian folk religion he studies and catalogued was also different in character from Daniélou’s Shaivism. It was not an unbroken spiritual tradition, but the product of a variety of west and central African religions transported to the New World. More than that, Vodou and its counterparts elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America have developed a complex relationship with Christian theology and iconography, in particular the Catholic saints, which have a symbiotic relationship with deities of Yoruba, Fon and other West African deities.

Many of these ‘correspondences’ arose from disguised worship of African deities in an era when this had to be concealed: the conflation of St Patrick with the Fon deity Danbala (Damballah in Haitian Vodou) is a classic example. Nonetheless, as well as ‘simple’ syncretism – the blending or reconciliation of parallel systems of belief (and their visible symbols) from different sources – there is much evidence of ‘complex’ syncretism: the combination of these parallel belief systems to form something new and distinctive, appropriate to its environment and conditions (Houk 1995, 181). In Trinidad, the Orisha religion, which has strong Yoruba roots, has incorporated popular Hindu deities into some of its rituals and practices, influenced by the Indian presence on the island and the areas of overlap between West African and popular Hindu polytheism (Houk 1995). The latter, as Daniélou realised, was as pragmatic and adaptable as its African and Caribbean counterparts. This pragmatism arose from a supposedly ‘primitive’ interaction with nature and the seasons, yet it gave popular Hinduism the flexibility to survive into the modern world as a living tradition rather than merely a relic. The openness of Hinduism to scientific research and discovery has contrasted with the frequent resistance of monotheist religions and also stems from the pragmatic approach and an acceptance that knowledge, like humanity itself, continuously evolves.

Along with Maya Deren and Alfred Métraux, Daniélou continuously argued that the loss of traditional knowledge had a weakening effect on our ability to think and progress. Knowledge is cyclical, like everything else, and so ideas once dismissed as primitive or superstitious can suddenly become relevant once again or be vindicated by ‘objective’ science. Traditional medicines and herbal remedies are a case in point, which is why in Amazonia (for example) there is a close relationship between cultural survival and environmental conservation (Dobkin de Rios 1992). The destruction of the forest results in the destruction of plants that contain both existing and potential sources of treatment and cure. The destruction of the human cultures associated with the forest means that sources of knowledge are lost that could be of great value to modern scientific research. Pure academic study and cultural cataloguing is unlikely to be enough to enable such connections to be made without the use of intuition, imagination and the ability to think in terms of cycles rather than straight lines of ‘progress’ pointing forwards.

In Mali, Marcel Griaule and his colleague Germaine Dieterlen realised that they could not understand single aspects of Dogon culture in isolation from each other but had to become conscious of Dogon cosmology as a whole. This led Griaule, in particular, to implant himself firmly enough among the Dogon people to experience aspects of their world view not usually revealed to outsiders. This included esoteric knowledge and a highly complex cosmology. Such insights would not have been achieved without immersion in Dogon culture. Griaule and Dieterlen realised that academic study alone, however sympathetic, would almost inevitably have involved viewing the Dogon through the ideological prisms of western ‘civilisation’. Dogon culture was noted then, as it is now, for the beauty and understated intricacy of its wood and metal sculptures. From a western standpoint, however, there were few visible indications of philosophical and technological complexity. Dogon art only provided subtle clues, which led Griaule and Dieterlen to delve deeper. As Germaine Dieterlen herself puts it in her introduction to Griaule’s book, Conversations with Ogotemmêli (originally published as Dieu d’Eau in 1948):
African techniques, so poor in appearance, like those of agriculture, weaving and smithing, have a rich, hidden content of significance. Religious gestures, whether spectacular or secret, and generally uncomprehended by outsiders, show themselves under analysis to be of an extreme subtlety in their implications. The smallest everyday object may reveal in its form or decoration a conscious reflection of a complex cosmology. (Griaule 1970, xii – xiv)

Thanks to Dieterlen, and scholars like her, it is now widely appreciated that even the appearance of Dogon and other African crafts is far from ‘poor’. In the era when she and Marcel Griaule were ‘discovering’ West Africa and Alain Daniélou was ‘discovering’ India, the linear conception of progress was in many ways stronger and less easily challenged or deconstructed than it is today. To reach beneath the surface of another culture, western academics and artists had to go well beyond ‘objective’ research. As such, the work of Deren, Griaule and Dieterlen (and to a great extent Métraux) did much to change the academy’s approach to anthropology and the study of non-western art forms. Their subjective, intuition-based perspectives accorded with Daniélou’s process of ‘becoming a Hindu’. Daniélou’s starting point was intuition, which he augmented with extensive study. Deren, Griaule and Dieterlen, by contrast, began with reason study, which they augmented with intuition. Far from cancelling each other out, these two qualities are complementary and reinforce each other. Pure intuition, without attention to detail, leads to New Age sentimentality, where entire cultures are taken out of their historical contexts and treated as consumer products. Pure reason, and the exclusively academic approach results in dry, decontextualized scholarship, part of the phenomenon that Daniélou satirised as Alpha-Bêtisse-Me (AD 2005, 73-88). The creative play between intuition and reason also characterises the polytheism of the Shaivites and the Anekantavada of the Jains. The former uses intuition to unlock new sources of knowledge. The latter uses reason to work towards an intuitive sense of how the universe works and the role of the human person within it.