Polytheism and Anekantavada: Alain Daniélou – The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread

“Whenever he carries any form of experience to its farthest limit, man has a glimpse of an unknowable ‘Beyond’ which he calls divinity. This divinity cannot be grasped nor understood, for it begins where understanding fails, yet it can be approached from many sides; any attempt at understanding its nature can merely be called a ‘near approach’, an Upa-nisad. We can only point to the necessity for a substratum, we never experience it directly, although it is ever near; for, at the limit of each form of experience, we apprehend some aspect of it. The more we can seize of the different aspects of the phenomenal world, the more we come near to a general, a ‘real’ insight into the mysterious entity we call God.”
Alain Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India (1991)

“I believe that it is not altogether inappropriate to consider that the peculiar and isolated position of the artist in Occidental culture might arise from the fact that he, alone among professionals, does not – by definition – accept certain beliefs which have so long been the premises of Occidental thought. Is it not worth considering that reverence for ‘detachment’ – whether scientific or scholarly – might be primarily a projection of the notion of dualism between spirit and matter, or the brain and the body, the belief that physical, sensory – hence, sensual! – experience is at least a lower form, if not a profane one, of human activity and the moral judgement that the highest, most reliable truths can be achieved only by means of a rigid asceticism? Is it valid to use this means to truth in examining Oriental and African cultures which are not based on such a dualism and are, on the contrary, predicated on the notion that truth can be apprehended only when every cell of brain and body – the totality of a human being – is engaged in that pursuit?
Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953)

“Those who praise their own faiths and ideologies and blame [those] of their opponents and thus distort the truth will remain confined to the cycle of birth and death.”
Mahavira, Twenty-fourth Jain Tirthankara, as quoted in the Sutrakritanga, (4th-3rd Century BCE)

A golden thread that runs through Alain Daniélou’s writing and thought is respect for the value of diversity, multiplicity and variety. All these words he uses with great frequency because they part of a theme to which he constantly returns. In a sense, the idea of variety is one of the few consistencies in Daniélou’s thought. This lack of consistency makes him interesting as a thinker and was, from his perspective, one of the strengths of his thought. In his view, it was both impractical and sterile to cling rigidly to limited or one-sided positions when their limitations became apparent or when greater knowledge prevailed. The quest for knowledge inevitably involved shedding discredited or outmoded ideas without sentimentality, much as a snake sheds its skin. It also involved a readiness to consider the archaic and improbable at least as much as the supposedly logical and modern.

Daniélou’s quest for knowledge was a personal more than an intellectual journey, if we define ‘intellectual’ in terms of the abstract or theoretical thinking on which much of western academic research has been based. In contrast to this approach, Daniélou’s was empirical and experiential. He read and researched extensively in history, philosophy and linguistics in addition to his specialisms of musicology and Indic religion. However he regarded knowledge as relatively unimportant without its practical application. He sought to abolish the distinction between the theoretical and the practical, the practices of ‘learning’ and ‘doing’. It was a view of life that arose from (and subsequently reinforced) his preference for artisans over academics. Initiation into Hinduism was the ultimate example of the way in which Daniélou integrated his researches and interests into the rest of his life. It was not enough for him to acquire knowledge of the Hindu tradition and develop his own at times highly personal interpretation of it, while remaining a sympathetic yet ‘objective’ outsider. He had to feel and experience that knowledge subjectively by becoming part of it. For him, understanding Hinduism meant little in real terms until he was able to say ‘I am a Hindu’.

Thus Alain Daniélou was opposed to ideological rigidity, whether religious or political. He emphasised the union between knowledge and experience, rather than the division between them that the western academic approach (and that of Vedic scholars) tended to favour. From his perspective, there was no difference between the study and application of spiritual knowledge and the apprentice’s study and application of his craft. The relationship between guru and chela (pupil or ‘disciple’) was the same as that of apprentice and master. The process of spiritual initiation was the same as that of mastering crafts such as those of the carpenter or goldsmith. Shaivism, the form of popular Hinduism with which Daniélou identified, took the same view of spiritual development, drawing upon folk custom, accumulated wisdom and personal experience rather than set texts or inscribed dogmas.

Most adherents of this folk religion were illiterate, a fact that strongly influenced Daniélou’s thinking when he contrasted the absence of ‘letters’ with the detailed knowledge and intricate skills that members of India’s artisan castes possessed (AD 2005, 73-88) . Such knowledge was usually transmitted from father to son or mother to daughter. It could be adapted or refined over time, but retained an underlying consistency. This accorded well with Daniélou’s belief that discredited doctrines and practices could be discarded but that there was nonetheless an underlying truth for which all of humanity was searching. This truth was absolute, rather than relative, although unlike the monotheists – or the followers of totalitarian secular creeds – he did not believe that it could be grasped in its entirety, but at best only glimpsed or sensed intuitively. Through the work of the artist or craftsman, or by devotion to a god or goddess, it was possible to acquire wisdom or gain insights into aspects of the truth. Yet to elevate those aspects to an absolute level and present them as the ‘only truth’ was the most dangerous error, from which only oppression, tyranny and destruction could result.

While he often decried the European Enlightenment, Daniélou would therefore have been in partial sympathy at least with the words of Denis Diderot in the Encyclopédie:
There is an infinite number of points of view by which both the real world and the world of ideas can be represented, and the number of possible systems of human knowledge is as great as the number of such points of view. …Everything must be examined, everything investigated, without hesitation or exception. (Diderot 1992, 25)

Daniélou’s sympathy would have been only partial because he would have refused to recognise the division between the ‘real world’ and the ‘world of ideas’. He would also have emphasised far more than the Encyclopédistes the value of continuity, tradition, popular custom and myth, because he regarded these as branches of knowledge more than expressions of unenlightened ignorance. He shared with them nonetheless an understanding of the truth as many-sided. In the twentieth century, this was a position that put him at odds with the prevalent expressions of Judaeo-Christian culture in the west, as well as the secular ideologies of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and the mechanistic or linear thinking that he believed had dominated western thought since René Descartes.