Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – Multiple Viewpoints

Multiple Viewpoints

For Daniélou, one of the strengths of Hindu polytheism was that it did not view the deities as atomised ‘individuals’ to be worshipped in isolation, but saw them as interconnected parts of the ‘world principle’. Each deity had multiple aspects, reflecting seasonal changes, the transition from night to day, regional differences, occupations and crafts. The ten forms of Maha-Vidya (Superior or Transcendental Knowledge) were identified with ten goddesses: ‘female principles’ or aspects of the Mother. Briefly summarised, their interaction reflects the connections between polytheism, cyclical thinking and the physical environment. The cycle in question is the day-night cycle, with each manifestation of the goddess associated with a moment in the transition from night to day and back again.

They reflect the environment in which their worship evolved (including the hot climate that affects much of India for at least part of the year) and display a detailed knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics derived from observation and intuition:

  1. Kali, the Power of Time ‘representing the principle that presides over the destruction of worlds … the eternal unconditional darkness of absolute knowledge, way beyond all light’. Corresponds to midnight.
  2. Tara, the Power of Hunger, ‘the devourer, the star that reigns over the night hours preceding dawn’. ‘Fire devours fuel, sun devours its substance’ and so Tara ‘represents this aptitude to devour, this cosmic hunger, the principle of which necessarily precedes all physical existence’. Corresponds to the small hours.
  3. Shodasi, the ‘girl of sixteen’ representing ‘all the beauty of created form, the harmony of the spheres’. Corresponds to ‘the exquisite moment of dawn’.
  4. Bhuvaneshvari, ‘sovereign of the worlds’, a morning goddess ‘in the full force of her femininity’ who represents ‘the power of knowledge in its fullness’. Corresponds to the hours of morning light.
  5. Chinnamasta, ‘the decapitated one’, represents the universe as a ritual, a sacrifice’, of which all our lives, thoughts and deeds are an integral part. Chinnamasta is ‘associated with the virtue of courage, the bravery of the soldier who gives his life’. Associated with the hour before midday.
  6. Bhairavi the Terrible, representing ‘the power of death’, the ‘secret, sweet power … that begins its insidious work in all beings, in all things, from their very birth’. Bhairavi’s hand ‘guides us through life’s labyrinth and helps us understand the perpetual reality of death’. Corresponds to the ‘hot midday hour’.
  7. Dhumavati the Smoky, associated with the time ‘when the destroyed universe is no more than smoke’. She is portrayed as a widow, ‘having reduced the corpse of the world, her husband, to ashes’. In this instance, interestingly, the feminine power is represented as pure energy or spirit, while the masculine ‘husband’ is linked to the material world. Dhumavati ‘delights’ in deserts, famines, impoverishment and mourning. She has a ‘yellow’ fleshless face’. Corresponds to afternoon.
  8. Bagala appears after Dhumavati to represent all that is ‘perfidious’ and ‘the instinct … to destroy every other living being but herself, which is latent in all beings and secretly guides many of our actions’. Bagala is associated with poison, negative forms of magic, suffering and torture. Corresponds to late afternoon.
  9. Matangi, the ‘Power of the Elephant’ represents the ‘taste for power and domination’. A queen of the night, she ‘incarnates royal virtues and dispenses justice’. She ‘incarnates royal virtues and dispenses justice’, but the order and peace she establishes is ‘in actual fact only a mirage’. ‘Shining on her golden throne, [Matangi] reigns over the night of illusion’. Corresponds to sunset and nightfall.
  10. Kamala, the Lotus-girl, represents ‘splendour’ and ‘wealth’ and ‘protects the world of appearances’. Associated with merchants and ‘the power of wealth’, she is the ‘source of stable power’, established rites and ‘social peace’. Corresponds to the early hours of the night. (AD 2005, 50-53)

Kamala in turn gives way to Kali as the cycle of night and day, ignorance and knowledge, light and darkness continues into the indefinite future. Each of these goddess images represents an aspect of reality. By meditating on them, devotees acquire a greater understanding of themselves and their place in the universe. The goddess cycle also illustrates the immense esteem in which the divine feminine power was held in popular Hinduism. Ultimately, Shiva was helpless without Shakti.

The multi-faceted view of reality instils a sense of proportion. The devotee is reminded that his or her knowledge is limited but always evolving. Polytheism should therefore encourage a position of calm, equanimity and tolerance, in contrast to the ‘monotheist error’, as Daniélou categorised it, which produces religions that ‘fight each other to impose the dominion of their heavenly tyrant on others’. In popular Hinduism, no deity cancels another out, and no cult of devotion to a deity seeks supremacy over others. Ironically, this decentralised, subjective system encouraged objectivity and the ability to consider new possibilities. In explaining the many-sided nature of polytheist worship, Daniélou uses the analogy of a mathematician looking for aspects of a curve:

This would [be] impossible through one point of view, one approach only’.

The theory of polytheism ‘is based on a similar attempt’ to the mathematician’s:

It is only through the multiplicity of approaches that we can draw a sort of outline of what transcendent reality may be. (AD 1991, 5)

Scientific creativity arises from the ability to acknowledge multiple viewpoints, but it also stems from the intuitive faculty, the ‘Eureka moment’:

Scientific discoveries … are inspired. Their starting point is intuition, an inner light that resembles clairvoyance. Rationalization only takes place later on. (AD 2007, 105)

This is why Indic philosophy does not draw a clear demarcation between the scientific and spiritual realms. They are points on a continuum and not rival or opposed forces, as has frequently been the case in monotheistic and particularly Christian cultures. Hindu polytheism (as embraced by Daniélou) and the Jain concept of Anekantavada can also be seen as points on a continuum rather than opposed and irreconcilable philosophies. The Jain doctrine is predicated on the value of multiple viewpoints in perceiving the world and the universe. Whereas Hindu polytheism or Shaivism arises from emotion, aesthetic sensibility and popular culture, Anekantavada arises from a tradition of intellectual speculation and scholarly debate. From intuition and popular religious consciousness, Shaivism moves on to a sophisticated cosmology and a capacity for profound intellectual speculations. The phrase ‘moves on’ is deliberately chosen here in preference to ‘progresses’, which implies a hierarchical rather than cyclical relationship. Equally, Anekantavada moves on from the intellectual and speculative to the intuitive level of consciousness. Kanti Mardia, a leading Jain scholar and scientist, prefers to speak of ‘Jainness’ rather than Jainism. The latter has ideological implications, while the former implies a state of being. Jain-ism is an integrated religious and philosophical system, but Jain-ness is a sensibility, a disposition, a way of looking at the world:

For Jains, the thought or intention behind an act can be at least as important as the act itself. In the same way, the thought processes from which Jain doctrines have arisen can be at least as important as those doctrines. … We shall understand [the Jain] sensibility as ‘Jain-ness’. Jainness gives rise to and evolves along with the body of knowledge, understanding and teachings known as Jain-ism. …

Jainness is concerned with reconciling continuity and change, possibility and limitation. It offers the opportunity for spiritual liberation and self-knowledge, while accepting the mental and physical limits of the human form, the so-called ‘mortal coil’. More than that, it provides a welcome and much-needed corrective to the dogmatic and absolutist systems of ‘knowledge’ (be they religious or secular, scientific or political) in which so many obvious cracks are appearing today. Rather than asserting or seeking to impose its own truth, Jainism asks us to look inside ourselves, find our own [truth] and continuously question it. Jainness is the disposition of frame of mind that enables us to begin this process. (Mardia and Rankin 2013, 25-26)

Professor Mardia also explicitly likens the spiritual journey of the Jain to the process of scientific research:

The individual must ultimately find the truth for himself as no priest or scripture is believed to have all the answers. The principles are intended to be self-serving so that the follower discovers the truth for himself rather like a research worker in a laboratory. (Mardia 2002, 4-5)

The sensibility of Jain-ness and the process of finding or researching the ‘truth’ are closely related to Anekantavada. Like polytheism, this Jain approach to many-sidedness encourages a mood of tolerant equanimity and the acceptance of opposing viewpoints as long as these are not imposed by force. Both seek to reconcile or transcend superficially opposed ideas (or devotion to different deities) by focussing on the ‘truth’, the ‘unknowable’ or the ‘ultimate reality’ beyond these differences. The relationship between Hindu polytheism (as experienced by Daniélou) and Anekantavada can be likened to the relationship between the Yin and Yang principles of Chinese – especially Daoist – philosophy and also closely corresponds to Shakti and Shiva. The emphasis of Anekantavada is abstract and objective (Yang, Shiva), whereas that of Hindu polytheism is earth-centred and subjective (Yin, Shakti). Another approach is to view Anekantavada as representing the verbal and conceptual ‘argument’ for many-sidedness, whereas polytheism presents images and illustrations to contemplate. Thus the Jain doctrine is primarily verbal and the polytheist disposition is primarily pictorial.

Jain philosophy starts with the jiva, the ‘soul’ or life monad, which begins as a unit of pure consciousness, above and beyond the material universe. Subsequently, through its movement or ‘vibration’, becomes embedded in karmic matter. Karma, for Jains, is more than an abstract, universal law of cause and effect, but a substance made out of minute particles of subtle matter that adhere to the jiva and trap it in the samsaric cycle of continual incarnation. As in other Indic philosophies, karma is equated with action. The more activities in which the jiva engages, the more karmic particles it accumulates. Some of this karma is ‘light’ or ‘positive’ (punya) and can be sloughed off with relative ease, but some karma is ‘heavy’ or ‘negative’ (papa) and so is harder to delete. Positive karma points towards a more auspicious rebirth and movement towards Moksha (spiritual liberation through enlightenment). Negative karma points towards a less auspicious rebirth and a greater struggle to acquire wisdom. Moreover, the accumulation of karma is held to limit the jiva’s capacity to see, in much the same way as layers of dust can darken a window. Vision is identified with perception and knowledge. The incarnated jiva struggles to see and know itself, as well as understand the world (and universe) around it. (Rankin 2006, 75-123)

The definition of karma as a material substance is probably an indication of Jainism’s archaic roots. The concept of positive and negative karma had moralistic overtones, which led Daniélou to identify Jain doctrines as puritanical and blame their influence for the repressive aspects of established Vedic Hinduism. He also rejected the seemingly automatic identification of the material world with imperfection, suffering and Avidya (ignorance) and the radical separation of spirit (life energy) and matter (karmic obstruction) that Jain teachings implied. These reminded him of the ‘vale of tears’ of Judaeo-Christian tradition and he preferred Shaivism’s identification of nature and the earth as positive forces to be celebrated and revered. (AD 2007, 9-10)

Another aspect of Jain teachings, more pertinent to Dani lou’s thought, is that the whole of the Lokakasa (inhabited universe) is teeming with life units, jivas in contact with karma. Even the most elementary forms of life (plankton for example) contain this animating principle. Each of these life forms has its own unique individual self and hence its own viewpoint; this is the basis for Anekantavada. At the same time, all beings and living systems are united by the existence within them of jiva. Individual jivas evolve (or regress) through the whole evolutionary spectrum. Human beings have the advantage of a highly evolved capacity of knowledge, insight and self-awareness, qualities that point towards increased enlightenment. However, their intelligence also gives them more destructive powers than any other species as well as greater capacity for one-sidedness (Ekant) and Mithyattva or Mithyadarshana, a distorted worldview based on passion, fanaticism and a refusal to acknowledge other possibilities.

Mithyatva is one of the ‘heaviest’ and most negative forms of karmic influence and has two main manifestations. The first of these is associated with the oppression imposed by fanatical ideologies and fundamentalism, both religious and secular, or the dogmatic certainties of (to use modern parlance) the ‘left’ and the ‘right’. Fanatical or one-sided thought induced by Ekant leads, quite logically, to oppressive actions. The belief in the superiority of one version of ‘civilisation’ to others, or the inferiority of certain ethnic groups, inspires and used to justify imperial conquest, enslavement and in some cases genocide. Similarly, the belief that humanity is ‘superior’ to everything else in nature inspires and justifies the despoliation of the environment and encroachment on the habitats and lives of other species. Jain doctrine makes clear connections between all these forms of oppression, which is why Jains are enjoined to be careful at all times in protecting the environment and take into account the interests of all forms of life. (Rankin 2010)

The second principal manifestation of Mithyatva is one of blasé indifference to what is true or false (Ajnana) or extreme scepticism and relativism (Samsaya). The premise behind Ajnana is essentially that if the truth or ultimate reality is so hard to find, then why bother? These two positions, cynicism and extreme scepticism, are distinct from Anekantavada, which accepts multiple viewpoints as aspects of a larger truth, much as Shaivite polytheism regards each deity as an aspect of the divine. Ajnana and Samsaya represent a denial of the existence of ultimate reality, or an indifference to it. Superficially, these positions might seem to be the opposite of Ekant. In practice, they provide an ideal background for fanaticism and fundamentalism to take root unchallenged and for the resulting oppressive actions to take place without resistance or challenge.

In Jain doctrine, because each jiva (living entity) has its unique viewpoint or aspect of the truth, the principles of Anekantavada (many-sidedness), Ahimsa (non-injury) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) are intertwined. The theme of Aparigraha, for example, is living lightly on Earth rather than regarding the planet as a resource to be plundered. This attitude of restraint means that the natural world is treated with reverence and non-injury – a natural world that includes other species and fellow humans. It also reminds us that we cannot ‘own’ an idea, either as individuals or as members of a human group. By clinging onto an idea as if it were exclusively ‘ours’, we move quickly towards one-sidedness and the destructive actions that follow from it. Monotheists often make this mistake, as do followers of secular totalitarian ideologies. A non-possessive attitude towards ideas allows us to stand back from our own favoured viewpoint and consider the merits (and demerits) of others, even those we instinctively condemn.

Anekantavada is a process of mental meditation that enables us to throw off our attachment to favoured ideas at the same time as we look beyond our exclusively material ambitions and develop a sense of perspective. When describing Anekantavada, Jains speak of climbing a mountain using different paths, some straight, some winding, but all leading eventually to the same summit. They also liken the mental process involved to viewing a gemstone through different facets, all of which filter the same light. This is part of the mental discipline that can lead, eventually (and almost always after many rebirths) to an individual becoming a Jina, which means Conqueror or Victor. The conquest in question is the victory over samsara, but this is achieved through conquest of the self and part of this process is accepting that other points of view can be as valid as one’s own. By conquering themselves, they are releasing their true selves and returning to their point of origin. The Jinas are revered but not worshipped by Jains because they have broken the cycle of rebirth and become aware of the ultimate reality once again. Like many of the deities of popular Hinduism, they began their lives in mortal human form. (Rankin 2010)

Alain Daniélou opposed the idea of reincarnation from the perspective of traditional Shaivism, which emphasises the continuity of life rather than the continuity of the individual, the ‘permanent “I”’. The migration of the Linga-Sharira (Transmittable Body) takes place through the transmission of hereditary characteristics from one generation to another, not through the ‘rebirth’ of an individual in another form. Daniélou caricatured the samsaric process as ‘the adventures of an individual being wandering from species to species’. In Shaivism, the survival of the ‘I’ was considered peripheral in comparison to the continuity of life itself. This position resembles the traditional attitude of Shinto polytheism, the indigenous spirituality of Japan. Shinto has always been more concerned with the living than the dead, but focusses on the organic continuity of life rather than the survival of the individual. A tree that grows to maturity above or near a burial site represents that continuity of life, which is more important than the fate of the individual identity or soul. Daniélou’s Shaivism also rejected the idea of conduct in one’s lifetime influencing rebirth or destiny in ‘the next life’. This was partly because of its moralistic implications, but mainly because it was a negation of Prasȃda, the principle of divine grace which connected all living beings and determined their destinies:

All that exists in the universe depends upon the whim, the grace, of Shiva. This is why Shaivism orients people to devotion, Bhakti, and not towards moralism. (AD 1987, 97)

Prasȃda at first glance seems capricious and it certainly contains a strong element of the arbitrary or random. That is partly because most Shaivite devotees were people who lived close to nature and understood that it could be both merciless and benevolent, without any clearly explicable reasons. Lives can be cut short, harvests can fail and changes in weather patterns can bring droughts or floods which devastate communities. Likewise, it can bring forth abundance and contentment. Nature is both Dhumavati and Kamala. Whether it is in a predictable or capricious cycle, nature must be worked with and yielded to and at best can only be contained, not subdued. Attempts to dominate or escape from nature were hubristic and therefore dangerous, while pollution of the environment by humans always becomes a threat to human life and even survival. The effect of Prasȃda, therefore, is to give humanity a sense of perspective, a sense that other forces in the universe are of equal or – in the case of the divine power – superior importance. Working with the grain of nature becomes a practical form of worship, which is why acts of formal worship and the deities themselves are so often connected to the natural cycle. Prasȃda, in other words, should induce a similar state of mind to Anekantavada, an opening of the intellect and the senses to multiple possibilities and hence an enhanced awareness of reality.

The Jain doctrine of Many-Sidedness is, like Jainism itself, non-theistic, although it is worth noting that many Jains take part in ceremonies and festivals in honour of local Hindu gods and goddesses and that some deities are highly esteemed in Jain culture (Jain 1993). Sarasvati, for example, the goddess associated with learning, the search for self-knowledge and the benevolent healing power of water is revered by Jains as much as Hindus (von Glasenapp 1991, 50). Reverence for deities is part of Anekantavada, each deity being a facet of the truth. There is a therefore a place for deities in the Jain universe, as aspects of reality rather than glimpses of the ultimate creative power. Whereas Shaivism is theistic and intuitive, Anekantavada is a process of understanding reality by rational deduction and exploration of ideas. In this sense, they complement each other, somewhat like the right and left hemispheres of the brain or the principles of Shiva and Shakti discussed above. At the same time, devotees of Shaivism practise highly intricate forms of reason and bring to that practice a spirit of scientific inquiry. Jain practitioners of Anekantavada become aware of the limits of the academic approach and the value of the subjective, unfettered imagination. The two ancient branches of Indic thought turn out to be virtually parallel to each other instead of pointing in opposite directions.

Alain Daniélou would probably have resented the suggestion that he ‘thought like a Jain’ in any respect. His negative view of Jain doctrines and values was influenced by the dualism of his upbringing, which produced strong internal conflicts. Furthermore, his attitude to Jainism was coloured by his rejection of the puritanical moralism of the Third Republic, which aspects of the Jain tradition called to mind. During his time in India, he did not look significantly beyond the austere surface of Jain teachings and the public actions of self-denial undertaken by some Jain ascetics. Had he done so, he might have discovered a sensibility – ‘Jainness’ – that in most respects matched his own. Anekantavada, the doctrine of many-sidedness, reflected Daniélou’s concern with the value of diversity and variety, without which the underlying unity or the divine principle could not be discerned.