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Alain Daniélou and India: A Path of Integration and Freedom

Adrián Navigante: FIND Research and Intellectual Dialogue

This text is FIND’s contribution to the Swiss exhibition project Sulle vie dell’illuminazione. Il mito dell’India nella cultura occidentale 1808-2017 at the Arts Museum of Lugano, from September 24, 2017 to January 21, 2018. The main aim of the Lugano project is to show the many different ways in which India has fascinated the Western spirit, from the Orientalism of the XIX century to the post-modern appropriation of Indian culture. In this sense, a text on Alain Daniélou is a desideratum that transcends merely theoretical considerations about his ideas, and aims at recapturing that integration of thought and life he carried out as a living work of art at the Labyrinth at Zagarolo.
Alain Daniélou in Paris, 1986. Photo: Jacques Cloarec.Alain Daniélou in Paris, 1986. Photo: Jacques Cloarec.

In his essay Das Seelenproblem des modernen Menschen (Engl. The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man), C. G. Jung points to a paradoxical and epoch-making coincidence in the history of European civilization: at the time of the Enlightenment and the enthronement of the Déesse Raison, a French orientalist, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, translated a collection of fifteen Upanishads, enabling the Western world to approach the enigmatic spirit of India (1). The coincidence is paradoxical because Duperron, like the encyclopaedists and revolutionaries of 1789, was French, yet what he brought to life immediately showed the one-sided rationality of the Enlightenment and disclosed another concept of knowledge (vidyā) at the antipodes of that of modern science (epistêmê) (2). The coincidence is also epoch-making because the door opened by Duperron proved to be a similar but fully antithetical change of paradigm for the Western spirit, just as the French revolution had been regarding the social structure and civil life of the ancient régime. Nothing would be the same in the West after the discovery of Indian metaphysics and spirituality, and the idea of a new Gnosis through the integration of East and West would seize many brilliant spirits (Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, Ananda Coomaraswamy, et al). All this is actually very well known. What still escapes many people is the fact that Duperron didn’t translate his selection of Upanishads from Sanskrit, but from Persian, and that he didn’t translate it into French, but into Latin.

India’s symbolic irruption into Western culture was characterized by the constitutive effacement of both source and target languages. This should be borne in mind not exactly as a deficiency, but rather as the disclosure of a creative, flexible and varied structure of identity formation. The absence of any well-defined and fixed parameters as to what was being received and to what purpose it was transmitted facilitated the proliferation of inventions and reinventions of Indian culture, not only Arthur Schopenhauer’s fusion of Brahmanism and Buddhism (from Duperron’s Latin translation) in his doctrine of the negation of the will, or Hesse’s literary universalisation of Siddharta Gautama (from Eugen Neumann’s German translation of the Pali Canon) in his unforgettable Siddharta, but also Madame Blavatsky’s uses and abuses of Hindu mythology, cosmology and metaphysics in her Secret Doctrine (out of numerous although scattered glimpses into Gnostic, Alchemical and Rosicrucian doctrines), René Guénon’s invention of an eternal Brahmanism (out of the modern Gnosis of French esotericism) and Aldous Huxley’s flirtation with a sober version of Hindu mysticism (out of his experiments with Mescaline and his regular exchanges with the iconoclastic Jiddu Krishnamurti). Some have viewed this proliferation as a deviation from a “norm” (usually identified with the pole of the source language and therefore with the original culture). The problem is to provide the norm so that discourse about it may reach a point of solid conviction as to the importance and the delimitation of the contents transmitted. As early as the XIX century, partly as an attempt to systematize and correct the profound but incorrectly elaborated intuitions of philosophers like the brothers Schlegel and Schopenhauer, German philology sought to provide a scientific norm, which would also serve to distance alienated esotericists from any valid possession of Indo-European religiosity. The recovered source was the Sanskrit language, and the established target was the jargon of the scientific community (as opposed to the existing normal examples of fragmentary translations and elucidations, whether English, French or German). However, even this scientific utopia couldn’t do without an imaginary basis. Friedrich Max Müller, one of the giants of Vedic studies, died without knowing India and (even more surprisingly) without regretting it: he had spared his idea of Indian civilization any confrontation with the reality of the subcontinent (3). But physical distance was not the only problem: even for orientalists who, at the time of the French Revolution, already knew India, like the first great Sanskrit scholar Henry Colebrook, the culture of the subcontinent was only represented by the type of the Brahmanic mainstream that fitted in with the expectations of colonialists. There is no doubt that such selectivity goes hand in hand with an image of “the other” as complementary, compatible, likened and therefore fully subordinated to “one-self”. The scientific construction of India was mainly the result of an idealized basis of highly selective textual evidence, amplified and projected onto the totality of that culture.

In this fascinating history of imaginary appropriation of India, the generation at the beginning of the XX century marked a turning point owing to the specific tenor of its approach. I would like to call it the European diaspora of the 1930s (all residing in the mythical city of Benares). The English poet Lewis Thompson, the Swiss painter and sculptor Alice Boner and the Austrian art historian Stella Kramrisch are some of the figures of this generation who knew India at first hand, adopted it as a homeland and identified themselves very strongly with the cultural and spiritual inheritance of the Indian subcontinent. Among these figures there is, of course, Alain Daniélou, whose profile could not be so easily drawn as in the case of the previous figures. Was Daniélou a musician, a dancer, a painter, an indologist, a musicologist, a philosopher, or a writer? Or perhaps all of them at the same time? Can he be called “French”, although he denied this epithet, having grown up in pagan Brittany (wholly allergic to Catholic France) and having learned almost everything he deemed meaningful in the traditional Hindu context of Benares rather than at European universities? Alain Daniélou left Europe when he was very young seeking a kind of freedom that he could not find in his immediate cultural context: freedom of thought and action, a way of productively and creatively channelling his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding far beyond the small parcel of purely subjective experience and locally inherited identity. However, when he returned to Europe after his long sojourn, he brought an Indian message to the West and, at the same time, he re-discovered India in the most ancient layers of Europe. He was therefore a very special kind of Frenchman, because he could join two poles that, according to Jean Biès, represent the antithetic relationship between France and India: humanism on the one hand, and divinism on the other (4).

The members of the European diaspora in Benares opened another horizon on the incorporation of India into Western culture. Their relationship with India was not the result of a purely subjective fascination or a relentless will to conquer, but rather the consequence of a very strong identification manifesting itself in an interesting combination of disciplined study, mimetic assimilation and creative reconstruction and expansion. Alain Daniélou, as an example, wanted to embrace the very layer of Indian civilization that proved to be farthest from the (colonialist) Europe he knew; this was why he undertook a thorough education of sensibility and intelligence in order to re-create himself: he learned to speak Hindi to the point of doing away with the mediation of English, he learned Sanskrit as a living language out of the oral transmission instead of through philological text interpretation, he studied traditional Indian music with one of the most reputed Vina masters of that time, Shivendranath Basu, and was initiated into Shaivism by a traditional local pundit and sannaysin, Swami Hariharananda Saraswati (better known as Swami Karpatri). He also worked at the Banaras Hindu University collecting, studying and classifying music documents in Sanskrit from all over India (5). For that purpose, he was granted the status of professor, but he always remained very sceptical towards men of learning, especially Westerners, who were “accustomed to interpreting the vestiges of a ‘dead’ civilization” (6). Indian culture, Indian philosophy and religion were for him not only objects of research, but above all living realities with a dynamic and complex transmission process that he had experienced first-hand.

For Daniélou the Indian system was not reduced to yoga and spirituality (which is what has always attracted Westerners), but included every aspect of life, especially social organization and cohesion – hence his very severe opinion on modern reforms: “When the government [after Indian Independence]began to promote changes in Indian society, its main goal was more often to appear modern in the eyes of foreigners than to improve the lives of the Indian people” (7). Despite its undeniable problems, Indian society is, in the eyes of Daniélou, very inspiring because of its ability to structure a dynamic multiplicity of ethno-social-religious-cultural groups and provide them with permanent protection. This also explains the importance of Tradition, as an uninterrupted chain of (sacred) values handed down through specific selectivity criteria and influencing not only the order of society but also of the whole cosmos. Having left the European milieu when he was still young, Daniélou’s identification with the “incommensurable other” of European culture was not motivated by the type of (vague) spiritual attraction towards the figure of a guru (which very often proves to be a compulsive reaction to cover the psychological setbacks of Western development), but rather a profound interest in the huge diversity of the culture and its perspectivistic coherence. His approach was transversal (although he used the metaphor of linear transmission), heretical (although he always proclaimed his commitment to Hindu orthodoxy) and singularly intercultural (although he usually declared himself an outsider with regard to Western culture) (8). He aimed to show the richness of Indian culture to the Western world by approaching various complex subjects with remarkable intuition and deep awareness of the propaedeutic nature of his contributions. Books like Yoga, Method of Re-Integration (1949), The Four Senses of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India (French version 1963, English version 1993), Hindu Polytheism (French version 1960, English version 1964), The Ragas of Northern Indian Music (1968), A Brief History of India (French version 1971, English version 2003) and his unabridged translation of Vatsyayana’s magnum opus: The Complete Kāmasūtra (1994), bear witness to his monumental effort towards the culture he adopted as his own.

Perhaps the most interesting and creative aspect of Daniélou’s approach to India is his interpretation of Shaivism as a religion of Life, that is, a religion that deifies the immanence of nature instead of postulating a transcendent principle, a religion of eros instead of a doctrine of asceticism that rejects emotions, affections and the tension of contraries, and especially a religion in which every being (not only humans) has a place of dignity in creation and should therefore be respected as such. The deification of nature and eroticism shows an aspect of Hinduism that is far from the Vedantic metaphysics imported through Duperron’s heritage, elaborated by Schopenhauer, adopted (with a vague mixture of Gnosticism) by most XX century esotericists, tolerated and even supported by Christianity and popularized by modern Indian gurus, most of whom come to Europe and the United States to make money. In fact, Daniélou traces a contrast between the Aryan civilization, the heritage of which is textually codified in the Vedic canon and ritually exercised by Brahmanism, and the pre-Aryan culture of the Indus valley, out of which two religious attitudes took shape: the phallus cult and the cult of the mother-goddess (9) (nowadays incarnated in autochthonous forms of Shaivism and Shaktism). Both attitudes express a polarity that structures the movement of the cosmos and generates a tangle of oriented movements that come into existence as the multiplicity of the created in a play of interacting forces. Phallus and vulva are no mere anatomical forms, but reveal primordial forces of which human beings can become aware and to which they can reconnect in the exercise of their own potentialities – most of all in sensual delight (10). For this reason, Daniélou translates the Sanskrit term ānanda (which in the Vedantic Tradition is known as “bliss”) as “voluptuousness” and affirms that sexual ecstasy (and not its repression) is what brings us closer to the divine (11). This perspective of self-realization, which materializes the spirit and spiritualizes matter, lead also to other forms of integration even beyond the scope of human action, for example the integration of the whole realm of the non-human in the order of creation. The dignity of creation does not depend on human categories of good and bad, pure and impure, beauty and cruelty, but rather on the proportionate distribution of created beings and the mysterious dynamics of cosmic patterns and processes. Animal instinct is in this sense something to be dignified and admired as much as the movement of the planets, the scent of a plant or the inventions of the human brain. “The entirety of Creation in its beauty, cruelty and harmony, is the expression of Divine thought and is the materialization, or body of God” (12).

Had Alain Daniélou remained his whole life in India, his work and heritage would not be so interesting as they actually are, especially for the challenges of the XXI century. His return to Europe, his rediscovery of India in Europe, or more precisely: his attempt to synthesize Indian and ancient European religion, is the last and most creative step along his path of integration. It shows that his living experience of Shaivism was a step towards a recovery of what in his eyes had been a universal religion of nature and life, an art of living that he associated with the Dionysian cults and other similar trends in pagan antiquity. Daniélou’s active engagement to recapture the animistic substratum of religion and lead human beings back to their own source should not be mistaken for a regressive tendency toward some exotic form of primitive cult. It is a conscious process led partly by an unprejudiced intellectual effort to understand the universe beyond the limitations of modern rationality, partly by artistic imagination expressing itself in many forms such as music, painting, dance, and literature. Daniélou’s legacy to posterity consists not only of divers essays on Hinduism and epoch-making translations from the Sanskrit (like Vatsyayana’s Kāmasūtra), Hindi (Swami Karpatri’s The Inner Significance of Linga Workship, The Mystery of the All-Powerful Goddess and The Ego and the Self) and Tamil (the great epics of Ilango Adigal’s Shilappatikaram and Chithalai Chathanar’s Manimekalai), but also in a collection of water-colours, photographs, musical compositions (including a musical adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems), short stories, plays and his well-known autobiography, The Way to the Labyrinth. The title of his autobiography summarises his whole life journey by means of an ancestral symbol, the Labyrinth, expressing (as Daniélou himself says) a spirally-coiled path along which one does not “lose” but rather “finds” oneself. Finding oneself is the result not only of integrating several elements of different cultures as personal (and collectively functional) myths to fill one’s own life with meaning, but also the result of freeing oneself as far as possible from the inherited constraints of dogmas, prejudices, aversions, envies and inferiority complexes that separate us from the rest of creation and make it impossible to embrace its fullness.

(1) C. G. Jung, Das Seelenproblem des modernen Menschen, in: GW 10: Zivilisation im Übergang. § 175.
(2) The term vidyā expresses a form of insightful (cf. Latin videre) knowledge through which subject and object are coalesced and self-realization is achieved, whereas the modern idea of episteme means full detachment from subjective experience and experimental observation leading to a description of the analyzed phenomenon.
(3) Cf. Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Friedrich Max Müller, in: Axel Michaels (ed.), Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade, pp. 29-40, especially p. 32.
(4) Jean Biès, Littérature française et pensée hindoue, des origines à 1950, Paris 1974, p. 18.
(5) Cf. Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth, New York 1987, p. 149, also Nicola Biondi, A Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Alain Daniélou’s Collection at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, Udine 2017, S. 10-11.
(6) Cf. Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth, New York 1987, p. 248.
(7) Cf. Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 217.
(8) “For someone who had experienced almost nothing of the war, the occupation, or the genocides, Europe made a very strange impression […]. It was very difficult for me to understand the problems, states of mind, and attitudes of the people around me […]. I felt […]like a complete stranger in the land of my birth” (Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., pp. 220-221).
(9) Alain Daniélou, The Hindu Temple. Deification of Eroticism, Rochester: Vermont 2001, p. 7.
(10) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 8.
(11) “The orgasm is divine sensation […]. The ecstasy of pleasure can reveal divine reality to man, leading him to detachment and spiritual realization” (Alain Daniélou, The Phallus. Sacred Symbol of Male Creative Power, Rochester: Vermont 1995, p. 18).
(12) Alain Daniélou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy. The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus, Rochester: Vermont 1992, p. 13.