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)

Daniélou also notes that transgendered people in particular, but also homosexual men and women are associated with good fortune in popular Hindu culture and that among many of his contemporaries ‘the presence of a transvestite prostitute is still considered auspicious, particularly at a marriage ceremony’ (AD 2007, 43). He contrasts this view with the rival puritan tradition, which corresponded better with the mentality of the colonial rulers:
In the social ethics derived from Jainism, however, homosexuality is viewed as a deviance. This contrast continues in Indian society. … India is both the land of the Kama Sutra, of erotic temple sculptures, and of the most exacerbated puritanism. Recent invaders, the Muslims then the British, have considerably accentuated this aspect. (AD 2007, 43-44)

In popular Hindu society, by contrast, although heterosexual marriage and reproduction are the norm and guarantee continuity of human life, those who fall outside that norm are valued and have a positive social role. Far from acting in a way that is contrary to ‘nature’, as more puritanical traditions might claim, they represent nature’s rich variety. The Shaivite tradition was not primarily concerned with the immortality of the individual soul and so men and women ‘immortalised’ themselves through their children and grandchildren. At the same time, other forms of ‘immortality’ were recognised, including learning (a largely oral process), or skill and expertise of benefit to the wider community. Spiritual powers and insights – as well as magical powers – fall into all of these categories. A return to primordial androgyny, the union of the Shiva and Shakti principles, was one of the objectives of the Tantric rites in which magical and spiritual practices overlap. Conflating the related but distinctive practices of Tantrism and shamanism, Daniélou quotes the Romanian ethnographer Mircea Eliade:
The final aim of Tantrism is to reunite the two polar principles Shiva and Shakti in our own bodies. … Initiatic androgyny is not always marked by an operation as among the [indigenous] Australians. In many cases, it is hinted at by dressing the boys as girls and vice-versa the girls as boys. … Homosexual practices, witnessed in various initiation ceremonies, can probably be explained by a similar belief, i.e., that the neophytes, during their initiatic instruction, embody both sexes. (AD 2007, 43)

The other conflation made by Daniélou – and perhaps some areas of popular Hindu culture – is that of homosexuals and transgendered men or women. This connection is often disavowed by all parties. Homosexual men, for example, often regard the link between their sexual orientation and effeminacy or cross-dressing as a negative stereotype. Transgendered people sometimes loudly assert their heterosexuality and their difference from the gay male or lesbian communities. Be that as it may, Alain Daniélou became part of a culture that had a more tolerant, flexible approach to sexuality and sexual orientation than the repressive environment he had escaped. The spiritual role of homosexuals and transvestites emphasised their ‘otherness’, but made it positive and life-affirming. However Daniélou was also heartened by the casual acceptance of homosexuality at a popular level, as an element of human diversity:
In modern society, despite the extreme puritanism displayed by the anglicized governing class, homosexual practices traditionally present no problem. (AD 2007, 44)

He also encountered a tradition of popular tolerance for langa dost, a Hindi expression translated by Daniélou as ‘schoolboy eroticism’ (AD 2007, 43). He describes this phenomenon in terms of the homosexual ‘phase’ through which many adolescents pass, including those who are exclusively or primarily heterosexual in adult life. It is worth noting that this refers to a tradition of light-hearted erotic play between adolescents rather than temporary homoerotic relationships with an older man, as in certain forms of shamanic initiation and, more famously, in Athens and other ancient Greek city states. This type of erotic play, accompanied by strong emotional attachments, was a developmental phase in the young men concerned. It was also accentuated by the all-male social and educational experience they experienced in traditional Hindu society. Education, in this context, encompasses apprenticeship and the learning of appropriate cultural and religious practices.

In Daniélou’s experience of popular Hinduism, the division between ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’, so pronounced in western societies (then and now) was largely absent. This meant that homosexual practices and same-sex relationships were viewed merely as a variation from the norm, rather than as a social or religious issue. This attitude of neutrality was accompanied by recognition of powers of individuals who were primarily or exclusively homosexual (or transgendered), powers that might have compensated for the loss of reproductive capacity. Daniélou stresses that Shaivism was primarily a nature religion, in contrast to Jainism and the established Vedic ideology. This meant that it was more concerned with practice than theory and was responsive to natural rhythms, including seasonal cycles, as they impacted on human beings.

Popular Shaivite practice therefore sought to work with the grain of nature rather than seek separation or liberation from it. That said, it was as open as other Indic traditions to speculation about the universe, its structures and workings. Usually, such speculations were pragmatic in origin, with the physical environment as a starting point and with a few to the benefit to humanity that greater knowledge would bring. This implies a scientific approach based on trial and error, without either attempting to transcend nature (as in Jain doctrines) or transfer human-made moral precepts onto it (as in most Judaeo-Christian societies). It is possible that acceptance of non-reproductive sexuality arose from this nature-centred aspect of Shaivism, which included an intuitive understanding that limiting human numbers – population control – could be as important as perpetuating the species. From an ecological perspective, the two principles are not opposed to each other but complementary. At a social level as well, homosexuals and others of the ‘Third Nature’ are outside the conventional, family-based gradations of caste and so they can act as intermediaries between different sections of society and as educators for the entire community. Daniélou cites in particular the itinerant monks, or sadhus, devotees of Shiva whose spiritual wisdom is associated with magic and Tantric rites. He frequently identifies the sadhus as androgynous figures, because they disavow conventional male roles and duties for more universal ideals, which included the union of male and female principles:
Divine androgyny can be evoked as a sadhana, a method of spiritual realization. … A great number of the wandering monks who transmit magic powers are recruited from among those marked with the seal of the hermaphrodite, who by nature are not inclined to procreation. Being outside the caste system, they act as a bond between the various levels of society. A [male] companion-disciple, who is both lover and servant, often accompanies such monks. (AD 2007, 43)