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Alain Daniélou and Kāśī: a path of integration

Adrián Navigante: FIND Research and Intellectual Dialogue

The present essay is a lecture that Adrián Navigante delivered at the Alice Boner Institute, Vārāṇasī, on March 5 in the context of the program “Lived Sanskrit Cultures in Vārāṇasī 2019”, organized by the universities of Heidelberg, Würzburg and Banaras. Since the text is published without any modifications, it should be borne in mind that the location of the speaker is Varanasi and all the deictic forms correspond to that location.


Terrace of the Alice Boner Institute in Varanasi. Photo: Adrián Navigante

India and the Western imagination

Alain Daniélou (1907-1994), like many Westerners that at some point in their life came to this country and especially to this legendary city (whatever their ideological orientation and personal feelings), belongs to the long and fascinating history of imaginary appropriation of India. I do not intend to trace this imaginary appropriation back to the origins of imperialism (Vasco da Gama, 1469-1524), or – even more complicated – to the ancient roots of imperial expansion (Alexander the Great). For me, the imaginary appropriation of India becomes interesting if we trace it back to an epochal coincidence that took place in the XVIII century. At the time of the Enlightenment and the enthronement of reason, a French orientalist, Abraham Hyacinthe Duperron (1731-1805), translated a collection of 15 Upanishads, enabling the modern Western world in search of its lost soul (as the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung would put it) to approach the enigmatic and promising spirit of India. Although Duperron, like the encyclopaedists and the revolutionaries of 1789, was French, instead of a reductive epistemic reasoning, he disclosed a metaphysical and spiritual amplification (contained in the Upanishadic corpus he translated): ātmavidyā or Self-knowledge, meaning at the same time “knowledge of oneself” and “knowledge of the Self” (through the identification atman-brahman).

“Daniélou’s Shaivism was closely related to Kasi, where he didn’t exactly discover, but rather re-encountered or re-cognized the god of his childhood”

It is also worth noticing that Duperron didn’t translate the Upanishads from the Sanskrit, but from Persian, and that the published translation was not in French but in Latin1. India’s irruption into modern Western culture was characterized by the constitutive effacement of both source and target languages. We can take that aspect as a symbolic anticipation of what came next: a proliferation of inventions and reinventions of Indian culture: Schopenhauer’s fusion of Brahmanism and Buddhism in the doctrine of the negation of the will; Madame Blavatsky’s concoction of Tibetan Lamanism, Puranic cosmology, Gnostic and Rosicrucian doctrines which led to her famous Secret Doctrine; or René Guénon’s invention of a primordial tradition with its roots in a mythic version of Śaṅkaracārya’s Advaita Vedanta. The line traced by German Indology of the XIX century (which extends to our time) saw such experiments as a deviation from the norm (of course, a norm identified with the source language of the canonical texts), but even the scientific utopia of hard-core philologists couldn’t do without an imaginary basis. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), one of the giants of Vedic studies, died without knowing India (and of course without regretting it). The thing was no better with Orientalists who, even at the time of the French Revolution, already knew India, like Henry Colebrook (1765-1837). For him, the culture of the continent was represented by the type of (reformed) Brahmanism that fitted the expectations and needs of the colonialists.

As I said, Alain Daniélou also belongs to this history, but his story is quite different. We can take the personal equation of somebody to ask ourselves in which way a story belongs to history. I would say that Alain Daniélou belonged to the history of the imaginary appropriation of India in a diametrically opposed way to the authors I have mentioned so far, and I would like, beginning with his story, to show why and how. In doing that, I also intend to say something about his relationship with Kasi and the way the local culture of this city changed his way of understanding the world. But Daniélou’s story is also connected with other stories that are part and parcel of the same “differentially articulated” history.

The European diaspora and Kasi

At the beginning of the XX century, a group of Europeans established themselves in this city and adopted it as a homeland. We find ourselves in an India between the 1930s and the 1940s, that is, far away from the worldwide phenomenon of modernized Yoga and New- Age spirituality that constituted a massive “passage to India” in the last decades of the XX century. It was not a pattern of dominance (like that of the colonialists) that inspired their actions and thoughts, but one of visionary identification. This pattern is quite complex and has nothing to do with any passive fusion with the immediate environment. It consists of disciplined study, mimetic elaboration, selective reconstruction and creative expansion.

The first of these Europeans is the English poet Lewis Thompson (1909-1949), a cultivated British author who baffled both Indian anglophiles and orthodox Hindus with his humble attitude towards Indian life and tradition, as well as with his quite peculiar spiritual search. Thompson was untouched by the commonplaces of colonial racism and sought to insert himself in a tradition of uninterrupted spiritual gnosis going beyond the mediation of books. Before arriving in Vārāṇasī in the early 1940s, he had spent years in Southern India working on the effacement of the ego in poetry in order to reach the “absolute level” of literary practice (which for him coincided with Lila, the divine play). Short after his arrival in the City of Light, he writes in his diary: “The vision-quality of sight has changed”2. And it is a distillation of sight and an increasing vision that he cultivated in Kasi until his untimely death (caused by sunstroke) at 40. The second European of the artistic diaspora in Vārāṇasī is Alice Boner (1889-1981). Unlike Lewis Thompson, her life was not amputated by fate like that of the poet, and she could develop her insights and bring her work to maturity in a long-standing relationship with Kasi, a city which ended up being her home for forty years. Alice Boner could be a subject of a separate talk, especially in this house, but I shall limit myself to saying (in the words of Bettina Bäumer) that her “main aim, both in the practice of art and in its understanding, has been the penetrating vision”3. If artistic creation can be understood as giving form to the formless, or manifesting the unmanifest, Alice Boner’s vision seems to retrace the way up to the ideal space where the full content of life may be experienced. Kapila Vatsyayan related this space with the antarhṛdaya ākāśa of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (VIII-I, 1-3)4. This comparison can be made only if we bear in mind that Alice Boner was – of course with the exception of Stella Kramrisch, who did not reside in Vārāṇasī but in Kolkata – the first modern European artist with a deep awareness of Indian traditional arts and the role of the experiential metaphysics. Her translation of the Śilpa Prakāśa (published in 1965) and of the Vāstusūtra Upaniṣad (1982) are clear examples of this. With the help of Paṇḍit Sadāśiva Rath Sarma she could not only grasp the essentials of Silpa Sastra but realized that Indian tradition is a key to the development of modern artists (both in Europe and in India, since many modern Indians are fully detached from the past).

Alain Daniélou is the third of these figures, on whom I would like to focus this talk. His profile cannot be drawn so easily as in the case of the previous figures. He was known as a musician, painter, musicologist, indologist, philosopher and writer. Which of these epithets could be said to do justice to his life? His detractors say none of them, his supporters say all of them (Daniélou was quite an outspoken non-conformist and his reception is therefore very polarized). I would like to retrace those epithets to a sort of common denominator: Shaivism. Daniélou’s Shaivism was closely related to Kasi, where he didn’t discover, but rather re-encountered or re-cognized the god of his childhood, as he explains in his autobiography: “Shiva is the god of the universe, the ruler of all living things, trees and animals as well as human beings. […]Men built sanctuaries to honor him, but his true temple is nature, especially the forest […]. Here at last was the god I had vaguely sensed in my childhood and had secretly been searching for all my life”5. In 1937, during a walk on the ghāṭs with a Brahmin, he found out that the abode of the Maharaja of Rewa (Rewa Kothi, located only three hundred yards away from Alice Boner’s house) could be rented, and that the price was not higher than what he and his friend, Raymond Burnier, were paying at English hotels. That was the beginning of a fifteen-year sojourn in this city, intentionally far away from the Anglo-Indian culture of that time. It was in this city and in a traditional milieu that Daniélou learned Hindi, Sanskrit, classical Indian music and philosophy6. It was also in the orthodox milieu of this city that he was initiated into Shaivism by order of Swami Karpatriji7 (whom he knew very well), and he was called from then on “Shiva Sharan”. I think that initiation was important, but not in the sense most people today would believe. What I mean is that, in the context of “globalized Hinduism”, the usual attitude in the West is to search for “initiation” (overlooking altogether the question of adhikara) almost as an excuse to become a “guru”, that is, to stop learning and to start imparting. Daniélou might have had some other points we may criticize, but in this respect, he never confused a question of life-changing perspective with a question of empowerment and spiritual enlightenment.

Alain Daniélou and the presence of Shiva

Adrián Navigante’s lecture at the Alice Boner Library. Photo: Prof. Jörg Gengnagel

Daniélou’s initiation was important because it enabled him to understand the logic of a culture from the inside, without falling back on reductionisms of any kind. However, this change did not efface the former Daniélou; it rather integrated him on another level of understanding. Daniélou never saw his dīkṣā as an event, but as a symbol of a whole process that not only re-educated him as a young adult, but also brought back to him a primal experience and transformed it into a vision for the future (not only the future within the framework of his own story, but also that of the history he belonged to). His primal experience is retold in his autobiography under the title “the discovery of the divine”; the setting is a forest in Brittany. Daniélou writes the following: “In one of the farthest corners of my father’s property was a thick wood with trees planted too close together. It was like an abandoned tree nursery, grown wild and as impenetrable as a jungle. I had cleared several narrow paths through the woods and spent long hours nestled among the friendly trees. Here alone, I could sense a mystery far greater than that of the ordinary human world. I created small sanctuaries and adorned them with sacred objects, symbols of the forest gods”8. This early experience of the divine was sometime later destroyed by his parents. His mother, a pious Catholic, gave him a gold cross blessed by the Pope to replace his forest altar, of course with the intention of sealing the end of his pagan tendencies. In view of this attitude, Daniélou concludes: “The religion of humans has nothing to do with the divine reality of the world”9. His vision for the future is something that developed when Daniélou definitively returned to Europe (at the beginning of the 1960s) and, after more than twenty years of immersion in the India of that time, felt himself a total exile10. In fact, he left Vārāṇasī right after Independence and moved to Southern India. Unfortunately, I must limit myself to barely mentioning his fruitful collaboration with the Indian pandit Ramachandra Bhatt, whose exceptional work and the influence he had on Daniélou would deserve a separate lecture no longer focused on Vārāṇasī but rather on Adyar and Pondicherry. It was at that time that Daniélou found in the ancient layers of pre-Christian Europe (Etruscan religion, the Dionysian mysteries, Mithraic cults) parallels to the kind of religion that Shivaism was for him: 1. a religion embracing all levels of reality (from plants and animals to superior beings) as the body of the god, 2. a path of self-knowledge where moral principles do not cloud the process of learning, and 3. a living tradition preventing both the extreme fragmentation of atheistic individualism and the lethal rigidity of religious fanaticism.

While Lewis Thompson and Alice Boner emphasized, through their readings of the Upanishads, the experiential way of the artist back to the space challenging the very ontological constitution of nāma-rūpa, Alain Daniélou (well-aware of the refined metaphysics of transcendence in the Indic tradition) attempted to embrace the disclosure of divine energy in every aspect of the manifested world – the manifested world being the body of Shiva. The disclosure of the divine Shakti is manifold; therefore, Polytheism was for him the logical correlate of radical transcendence, as well as its appropriate phenomenological expression. This means that radical transcendence was ultimately no philosophy of the One but acknowledgment of the non-One (that which is impossible to grasp) and hence the need to understand the divine energy perspectively. That is perhaps the reason why he resorted many times to the Tantric-Puranic phrase ekaśabdātmikā māyā (cf. Karpatriji’s Srī Bhāgavat Tattva, where he quotes the Mudgala Purāṇa11). Embracing multiplicity meant for Daniélou remaining faithful to the different aspects of Shiva and aware of our limited role in creation.

It is impossible to even summarize the inexhaustible corpus of ancient Shaiva mythology in the context of this talk, but it is widely known that if a key-word definition is attempted, one should choose the term “paradox”. It has become a commonplace to say that Shiva is life and death, creator and destroyer, and even to relate his nature to the Latin expression coincidentia oppositorum. But let’s go one step further. For Daniélou, Shiva is also the expression of desire in its most intensive form, hence his ithyphallic character (ūrdhva-meḍra), symbol of the most powerful self-affirmation of Life. This central aspect – even if it can be said to challenge in a certain sense the Vedic condemnation of śiśnadevā12 as well as the negative view of desire propounded by Buddhism (by means of the essential relationship between tṛ́ṣṇā, that is, “thirst” or “craving” and duḥkha) – should not be reduced to eroticism. In the Indian context, ithyphallicism is ambivalent, because it does not only mean priapism (or erotic surplus) but also abstinence – if we leave aside the question of seminal retention in Tantra: vajrolī sādhanā. We should remember that, for example, in Mahābhārata (XIII, 17, 45-46), Shiva is called ūrdhvaliṅga, that is, a raised linga – which does not shed its seed13. Shiva’s desire circulates in all walks of life and enhances each aspect of human existence. What does this mean for Daniélou? His theory of perception is in this respect worthy of attention: in opposition to spiritualist authors, Daniélou tended to emphasize the fact that the divine is located on a higher level of perception, that is, the divine presents not only an analogical character with regard to the immanence of the world and the experience of the senses, but also a character of relative continuity, and this continuity extends not only upwards but also downwards. At the same time, Daniélou was very attentive to what John Marshall wrote in his book about the pre-Vedic civilization of the Indus Valley14 about the (in the meantime “famous”) seal depicting a male god. This god who seats in yogic posture, surrounded by animals and with an erect phallus, was considered a prototype of Shiva. Marshall called him Paśupati and Daniélou used this name extensively to speak about Shiva15; he saw in this iconography the prehistoric anticipation of what he could at the same time read in the mediaeval Purāṇas and learn in the dialogue he cultivated with pandits and Shaivite sādhūs.

“Daniélou found in the ancient layers of pre-Christian Europe (Etruscan religion, the Dionysian mysteries, Mithraic cults) parallels to the kind of religion that Shivaism was for him”

A philosophy of experiential expansion

Alain Daniélou did not reject scholarship altogether, but he never defined himself as a scholar and even warned against the entanglement of the intellect in purely textual knowledge, that is, he saw a problem in the detachment of the intellect from a philosophy of concrete experience. In his autobiography he writes: “The cultural importance of Benares has nothing to do with the university. It depends on the great traditional scholars who teach a few chosen disciples in their homes”16. Of course scholarship has changed and the situation of pandits in the reformed social structure after the Independence of India has also changed, so that many things today should be reconsidered before formulating such a judgement. But Daniélou’s polarization has to be understood in its own context: during the years following the Independence of India, increasing funding by powerful industrialists led to the setting up of modern universities, whose method was totally detached from the kind of traditional learning that Daniélou had seen and experienced in Kāśī. This was for Daniélou the beginning of another civilization that not only ran parallel to the traditional one, but also sought to destroy it.

Of course one may point to two problems: 1. The lack of detailed analysis of complex transformation processes in Indian society and culture from 1948 onwards, and 2. An out-dated view of (at least one part of) Western scholarship, which has proven to be a source of enrichment for the understanding of the religious and philosophical complex called “Hinduism” But we should not forget the perspective from which he was speaking: he had embraced the traditional Hindu world as a source of values he did not consider so simple to replace, especially by a model that cannot be fully separated from certain historical phenomena like colonialism, imperialist wars and totalitarian regimes. Concerning Western scholarship, we have to say that many indologists in France at that time had no contact with the Indian world, and Daniélou was convinced that that branch of European indology (as the discipline of classical text interpretation) would never be able to grasp the complexity and integrality of the Hindu universe, however competent its Sanskrit scholars might be – at least by European standards.

Had Alain Daniélou remained his whole life in India, his work and heritage would not be as interesting as they actually are, especially for the challenges of our 21st century. When he returned to Europe, he took it upon himself to re-discover India in Europe (perhaps in the same way as he had re-discovered Shiva in India). His attempt to synthetize Indian and ancient European religion, is the last and – in my opinion – most creative and interesting step along his “path of integration”, an expression I would actually use to summarize his life. It was his conviction that what he had incorporated and understood as Shaivism had once been a religious complex with different nuances, but similar cultic, ritual and even symbolic patterns. Once perceived and traced, this should become a way of life in the face of the manifold problems of modern (or, as we would say today, “global”) civilization, of which I name only two: the Ecological crisis (the so-called “anthropocene”) and an increasing polarization between nihilistic atheism and religious fanaticism. How he understood his Shaivism in the last period of his life should be emphasized as a closing remark: this was a conscious process led by an unprejudiced intellectual effort to understand the universe beyond the limitations of modern rationality, partly by scientific inquiry, partly by artistic imagination, partly by a religious attitude (where myths and symbols may become realities), including all levels of experience. The title of his autobiography, The Way to the Labyrinth, summarizes his whole life’s journey by means of an ancestral symbol expressing (as Daniélou himself said in an interview at Zagarolo, Italy) 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 also collectively functional)
myths to fill one’s life with meaning, but also the result of freeing oneself as far as possible from the inherited constraints of empty dogmas, prejudices, aversions, envies and inferiority complexes that separate us from the rest of creation and make it impossible to embrace (or at least perceive) its fullness.

  1. Duperron had also made a French version, but it was never published.
  2. Lewis Thompson, Journals of an Integral Poet: 1932-1944, Virginia 2006, p. 386
  3. Bettina Bäumer (ed.), Rūpa Pratirūpa, Alice Boner Commemoration Volume, New Delhi 1982, p. v.
  4. Kapila Vatsyayan, The Indian Arts: Their Ideational Background and Principles of Form, in: Rūpa Pratirūpa, Alice Boner Commemoration Volume, pp. 11-26, here p. 22.
  5. Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth, New York 1987, p. 140
  6. His teachers were Vijayānand Tripāthī (philosophy), one of the great scholars of Vārāṇasī, his son Brahmānand Tripāthī (Indian languages), and Shivendranāth Bāsu (music), known to his familiars as Śāntu Bābū, one of the finest Vīṇā players in Northern India.
  7. The initiation was carried out by Swami Brahmānand Sarasvātī, who later on became (by recommendation of Swāmī Karpātrī) the first Śaṅkaracārya of Jyotir Māṭh.
  8. Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth, p. 5.
  9. Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth, p. 6.
  10. Not only because he was out of sync in Europe, but also because the India of Gandhi and Nehru had nothing to do with the traditional milieu in which he had been immersed back in the 1930s. This would open another long debate about the modern intellectual reform after India’s independence, a debate I cannot and I don’t want to enter in the context of this talk.
  11. Daniélou never commented on that Purāṇa, which dates back to the 11th century (although an exact dating is impossible) and deals with the deity Ganesha. Probably what interested him is that in this text Ganesha is the ultimate reality of the world but his manifestations are endless including eight avatāra incarnations (the motive of avatāra being in this case a way of expressing the idea of a progressive disclosure of the divine in the world and a perpetual asymmetry between the energy and its visual manifestation).
  12. There is a long debate about the translation of the Vedic passage concerning the “phallus worshippers” (śiśnadevā), that is, whether the Sanskrit compound should actually be translated in this way or whether the verse refers to a condemnation of lustful people (in which case it is true that śiśna is not liṅgaṃ).
  13. Cf. Wendy Doniger, Shiva: The Erotic Ascetic, 1981, p. 9. The basic Sanskrit expression for abstinence is ūrdhvaretas (drawing up of the seed) or even ūrdhvagāmivīryaḥ (with his seed moving upwards).
  14. John Marshall, Mohenjodaro and the Indus Civilization, 3 volumes, 1931.
  15. I leave aside the debate about whether that seal depicts a Proto-Shiva or a seated bull (cf. Asko Parpola, Deciphering the Indus Script, 1994), this is not important in considering Daniélou’s expansion of Shaivism.
  16. Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth, p.144.