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Alain Daniélou’s Idea of “Tradition”

Adrián Navigante: FIND Director of FIND Research and Intellectual Dialogue

I. Alain Daniélou and Tradition: Preliminaries

The eternal interaction (and tension) between the solar and the chthonic.The eternal interaction (and tension) between
the solar and the chthonic. Source: Loltun Cave, Yucatán.
Source: Paul Devereux. Der Heilige Ort, Baden: München 2000.

Ever since the movement called “Integral Traditionalism” (1) or “Perennialism” (2) attained the necessary degree of codification to reach a certain visibility in the history of human ideas, a radical opposition between “Tradition” (with a capital) and “modernity” seems to have established itself to the point of dismantling a priori every attempt at a reconciliation of opposites. In fact, it is not so much a question of opposition, as a matter of conflictive incommensurability. If we were to summarize the conflict, we could say that with regard to Traditionalism what is being affirmed has an absolute value and its validity (as a result of its absoluteness) proves irrevocable. In addition to this, the value referred to (or more precisely: the “metaphysical Truth”) goes hand in hand with the process of its own affirmation: it gets transmitted, and even if transmission [trāditiō]itself presupposes the entrance of that absolute into the realm of time (and hence relativity), it ultimately undergoes no loss. Hence transmission moves in a double direction: not only horizontally (along a time-chronology), but also vertically (as a permanent irruption of the absolute within the realm of the relative). Last but not least, transmission dynamics implies a double limitation, in terms of the condition of vertical reception (Tradition is not transmitted to everyone but only to a select few) and of horizontal visibility (Tradition is concealed in history and is therefore necessarily “esoteric”). On the other side (modernity), the matter looks altogether different: affirmations have only a relative value, and universality has to be constructed, not deduced from a priori (revealed) principles. Knowledge, being human and therefore relative, is always fallible and at each stage of its development must be accessible to all – which is precisely the engine of progress in all spheres of human action. Verticality (crystallized in mythological, symbolic or religious values) has no other correlate than psychological projection; in other words, there is no transcendence (identified with the sacred, God or some absolute revealing itself), but only worldly immanence with its cognitive and emotive modalities of apprehension – all of them as imperfect and fragmentary as the individuals producing and receiving them. As to “truth”, it is not to be written in capital letters, since the term refers to the semantic value of propositions related to specific contexts and states of affairs (never to the whole of existence or reality). Any other prescription of truth beyond this limited sphere would come immediately under suspicion of ideological manipulation.

The first contact Alain Daniélou had with the idea of Tradition was not in India and did not come from any paṇḍit or saṃnyāsin, but from a Western author who made a lifelong effort to erase every trace of his Western provenance, sources and background from his own work: René Guénon. “When I first became interested in the religion and philosophy of India”, writes Daniélou, “the only works I found useful were those of René Guénon. I had carefully read all his books and subscribed to Le Voile d’Isis, a review published under his patronage, later called Études Traditionnelles” (3). Daniélou’s correspondence with Guénon between 1947 and 1951, his fragmentary translations of some of Guénon’s writings into Hindi for the review Siddhanta, as well as a certain (and in the case of Daniélou somewhat surprising) recurrence of the motif of sanātana dharma in a manner not exactly akin to orthodox Hindu discourse (where paraṁparā or even saṁpradāya are preferred) (4) account for Guénon’s lasting influence on Daniélou in spite of the latter’s awareness of their unbridgeable differences. The mere fact that one of Daniélou’s most important books containing speculations about what he termed “orthodox Hinduism” is called Shiva and the Primordial Tradition seems to include him within the galaxy of traditionalists like René Guénon, Julius Evola, Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy, all of whom agree (in spite of the specificity of each one of their approaches) without any doubt on the basic assumptions and main features characterizing Perennialism (as explained above). Beyond that mere fact, there are other processes and experiences, such as his deep assimilation of pre-Colonial Hindu culture (music, philosophy and religion), his initiation into Shaivism under the guidance of Swāmī Karpātrī and his undeniably critical view of the Western world (5). However, this is not enough to attribute to Daniélou the convictions of the Perennialist school, since there are essential points at which his views differ considerably from those of the one who initially inspired him to approach the Hindu world: René Guénon. In order to understand what we would like to call a “differential” model of Tradition (corresponding to Daniélou’s views, as opposed to Guénon’s “identity” model), a special type of reconstruction is required that is usually very difficult to find in the reception of the authors in question. Radical as both of them were (each in his own way), the usual reactions are either full admiration of and blind faith in their knowledge and message, or total rejection of their conceptions and modes of thinking. In either case one misses the point and falls back into commonplaces – perhaps because commonplaces (in the form of absolute affirmations or negations) are the easiest tool to keep unsubstantial convictions alive.

II. René Guénon (Re-)Contextualized: Light and Shadow Effects

Letter extract of René Guénon to Alain Daniélou.
FIND Archive, Zagarolo.

In speaking about René Guénon, the first challenge is not to get entangled in the dual axis “attraction-rejection”, especially if we wish to do justice to the remarkable and complex figure he was. Between the out-of-hand dismissal of a Jacques Lacan, who considered him among the lowest specimens within the bunch of mentally retarded seeking initiation (6), and the grotesque imitatio Guenonis of so-called traditionalists who mechanically repeat neo-Vedantic formulae about the One (as highest metaphysical Truth) and the trans-rational knowledge of it (which they claim to possess), we are confident that a middle way is possible if we try to reconsider at least some aspects of his thinking in the light of today’s context, especially with regard to the kind of influence he exercised on Alain Daniélou, in which the understanding of Hinduism plays a central role.

Few people have been so courageous and radical in following their own convictions as René Guénon. We owe him a singular re-invention of the Orient and its metaphysical Truth, a conception situated at the antipodes both of the mainstream thinking of its time (scientific positivism, from Auguste Comte to the Vienna Circle) and its most common alternative (modern occultism, from Madame Blavatsky to Eliphas Lévi and Papus). But most important of all, René Guénon inaugurated a hermeneutics of religious phenomena in which the analytic dimension is supported by an intuitive and analogical substratum that in a certain way prevents knowledge from becoming fragmentarily specialized to the point of incoherence (7) (a sensation one can experience nowadays in reading scholarly publications). His life-path, from his early engagement with the esoteric circles of the Parisian “Belle Époque” to his later settlement in the traditional milieu of early XX century Egypt (8), is sealed with the authenticity of somebody who – whatever the validity of his position and choices – lived according to a coherent idea of Truth and never deviated from his path. The scholarly reception of religious phenomena limits itself to describing them objectively, that is, from a distance that prevents any form of identification with the kind of experience involved in such phenomena. The scholarly reception of metaphysics ended up eliminating every trace of transcendence from that field, reducing a doctrine of pure (real) being to an internal clarification of the conceptual (purely linguistic) sphere. The way inaugurated by Guénon aims to recover and revivify the meaning of transcendence by a careful consideration of the sacred sphere in terms of a type of knowledge (the highest) that has not been severed from experience. Each religious phenomenon has a surface (temporal) structure of dogma, moral and cult (9), and a deep (a-temporal) structure of metaphysical knowledge; the former varies with each culture, the latter is the same in all religions. This hermeneutics of the sacred, going from isolated religious phenomena in each culture to the core of an eternal Truth uninterruptedly transmitted through esoteric chains, is called sacred or traditional science [science sacrée, science traditionnelle]and is Guénon’s battle horse against Western secularization, as we can clearly see in one of his best-known books, Le règne de la quantité et le signe des temps (1945): “In the present study, we will attempt to show even more exhaustively and in a more general manner the true nature of traditional science and therefore the abyss that divides it from profane sciences – the latter appearing as a caricature or a parody of the former” (10). Even if modern science with its empirical method were to destroy every claim to knowledge on the part of religion and reduced metaphysics to a carcass without content, Guénon declared – already in his first book – that true (that is, Oriental) metaphysics has nothing to do with the whole polemic of secularization. In fact, science and modern philosophy (11) reject a religious view of life that is only the exoteric, external, and sentimental side of what he himself will exhume: the forgotten Tradition, the knowledge of which is “purely intellectual”, that is, “truly metaphysic”. One might ask what legitimates Guénon’s distinction between a true (Oriental) metaphysics and a fake (Occidental) one. The answer lies in the scholastic distinction of universalia. For Guénon true universal knowledge is knowledge of universalia ante rem, the universality of modern metaphysics is based on knowledge of universalia post rem (12). Ante rem (“before the thing”) means that universal cognition needs no empirical basis on singular beings, because it takes place before their existence, that is, in the divine intellect; post rem (“after the thing”) means that universality can only be located in language, that is in concepts constructed out of limited cognition or cognition of singular things. In other words, Guénon is convinced that true metaphysical knowledge is ultimately based on intellectual intuition, the type of intuition that, according to him, represents the point of juncture between the human and the divine intellect. In the case of India (which is paradigmatic for traditionalist cultures), Guénon affirms that this mode of knowledge can be traced back to the Vedic sages or seers [ṛṣi-s]and that it was later codified in mythological and symbolical language (13). The essays collected in his posthumous book Symboles de la science sacrée (1962) bear witness to his hermeneutics of myth and symbol and cover the religious thought of many cultures, while Les états multiples de l’être (1932) is intended as a sort of metaphysical compendium dealing with the “multiplicity of transcendental order […]applicable to all domains constituting the different worlds or degrees of existence” (14) up to the highest principle beyond all degrees of manifestation: non-being or more-than-being (15).

This last aspect introduces the dimension that interests us in order to understand not only the singularity of Guénon’s project but also its limitations and pitfalls. The strong emphasis on metaphysics as knowledge of the primordial One, the transcendent principle that he calls (following the apophatic tradition) non-being in order to avoid any possibility of conceiving a separation, a fragmentation, a tension or even a potential asymmetry in this indivisible unity of the non-manifested (16), has a double root: on the one hand Gnosis, on the other hand the Vedānta/Sufism complex.

The first element is present in Guénon’s life already at an early stage, but it permeates his whole work. Horrified as he was by scientific universalism, he found an alternative in the occult circles of early XX century France, especially because the occultist project consisted of transposing that universalist ideal of science into the spiritual realm (17). After a conflict with the famous French occultist Gérard Encausse (Papus) in 1908, Guénon left the Ordre Martiniste (founded by Papus himself) and entered the neo-Gnostic sect Église Gnostique de France, which had been inspired by another famous occultist, Jules Doriel (18). In spite of their differences, both Papus and Doriel had founded esoteric movements after intensive research on Theosophy, Masonry and Gnosticism, and the key issue was their identification with them and the ensuing need to “realize” the very subject of their own speculations (in the case of Doriel, the Gnostic movement of Catharism). It is symptomatically evident that the foundations of Gnosticism remained deep-rooted in Guénon throughout his life. In fact, although he wrote nothing directly related to the religious movement of Gnosticism in late antiquity, he most surely incorporated it without any feeling of temporal distance. Symptoms of eternity are fascinating but also dangerous, and they lead to what we may call a black-or-white kind of thinking, the main features of which are the following:
1. Rejection of multiplicity as the sphere of the relative and transient, and especially as the mode of being in which the metaphysical Truth becomes fully obliterated.
2. Conception of the whole Western world as anomalous due to the dominance of non-Traditional systems (which, on a geopolitical level, translates the Gnostic motif of the “fallen world” and the location of salvific light in another sphere).
3. Drastic separation from the spiritual and the psychological (like the Gnostic distinction of psyche-pneuma) to the point of believing in the possibility of transfiguring the whole psychic sphere and attaining (in life) a full realization of the impersonal Spirit.
Such convictions led Guénon to modes of behaviour and thinking that to a certain extent cast a shadow on the luminous figure that he was and puts the future of the Traditionalist movement at the risk of a (pseudo-) intellectual exercise of fundamentalism. Guénon actively ignored every philosophical development after Leibniz (to whom he devoted his diplôme d’études supérieures de Philosophie in 1916), especially mathematical reformulations of ontology and metaphysics (from Georg Cantor and Alfred North Whitehead to Paul Cohen) and the paradigmatic change in Physics from the Newtonian model to Quantum field theory. Such developments break with the idea of science he himself criticized. His Western model of thought was and remained Scholastic philosophy (with its distorted interpretation of antique sources and its stubbornness on the question of dogmatic knowledge), which he learned to a great extent from one of the most rigorous Thomists of France, Jacques Maritain. He rejected the aesthetic sphere as a product of arbitrary imagination, for example in Ancient Greece (19), and demonized reason as a form of perverted intellect incapable of true principles (20). Natural religion and polytheism were for him an aberration and showed the ignorance of those practicing it. Worst of all, he suspected many things which did not fit into his scheme of initiatic affiliation [rattachement initiatique]of actively exercising counter-initiation; that nurtured belief in an occult plot in which the forces of darkness permanently threaten those of light. In his autobiography, Julius Evola (also a radical traditionalist) expresses his astonishment at Guénon’s interpretation of his unfortunate accident in Vienna in the spring of 1945, when he was paralyzed during a bombing raid by the Allies: “He [Guénon]asked me whether I did not suspect somebody of having secretly acted against me […]. I explained to him that nothing of that kind could be applied to my case, since if it were so, one would have to think of an extremely powerful kind of magic spell, something that might have determined a whole scaffolding of external circumstances such as the bombing raid, the moment and place of the dropping of the bombs and so on” (21).

The second element in the thought of Guénon found considerable resonance in the reception of his work, especially among traditionalists who contributed to a hagiographic and in many ways regressive reading of it. Guénon’s writings on the esoteric dimension of Hinduism and Islam cannot be understood without considering his Gnostic background, since it is precisely the Gnostic motif that led to his unflinching demonizing of “the West” and his excessive idealization of “the East”. Since (as a matter of principle) Hinduism and Islam belonged, not only geographically, to his idea of “the East”, Guénon made a hermeneutic effort to create a homogeneous whole out of the manifold dimensions of these religions, using the esoteric dimension as his synthetic catalyst. This was not so difficult in the case of Islam, at least theoretically, and Guénon’s reflection on the complementarity of religious legislation [šarī’a]and inner truth [ḥaqīqāh]corresponds to his conviction that everyone (or at least every religiously-minded person) participates in the Tradition – albeit with different degrees of awareness (22). Of course from theory to practice there is usually a big gap. Guénon’s scheme is only valid if we make certain historical abstractions, beginning with the fact that Sufis have been persecuted by Islamic fundamentalists precisely because of their mystic (23) application (and transformation) of the positive religion of Islam. In addition to this, Guénon’s scheme is applicable to Islam and (under ideal conditions) perhaps to monotheistic religions in general, but not to Hinduism with its polytheistic basis (not only in Puranic literature and Sectarian movements, but also in the first period of Vedic religion) and the insurmountable ambiguity of its sacred sphere. His insistence on the Doctrine of Unity [Et-Tawḥîd]shows an utter rejection of the phenomenological dimension of experiencing the divine (as can be seen in early Tantric and Shakta sources), especially when he writes: “There has never been any doctrine that can be really called ‘polytheistic’, that is, a doctrine allowing an absolute and irreducible plurality of principles. This pluralism is not possible but as a deviation resulting from the ignorance and lack of understanding of the masses, from their tendency to attach themselves to the multiplicity of the manifested world, from idolatry in all its forms” (24). This is the reason why his three main works on Hinduism, Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues (1921), L’homme et son devenir selon le Vedânta (1925) and the posthumous Études sur l’hindouisme (1967), can be read as a tenacious operation to build a Vedāntic canon and subsume the totality of Hindu dharma within parameters grounded after the fashion of a doctrine of unity with strictly monotheistic implications. The problem in applying this scheme to Hinduism is that, even if we adopt the Traditionalist view, it is impossible to overlook many different initiatic chains, and especially the fact that Tradition is grounded in a plurality of world-views and modes of religious existence rooted in a highly elaborate ritual and symbolic practice. In this sense, a reduction of the whole to a specific form of metaphysical monism turns out to be impossible (at least if one does not want to betray the Hindu spirit). Guénon tries to justify this approach by homologating the late Upaniṣadic elaboration of Brahmanism with Vedic religion and defining the Tantric tradition as a full emanation of the Veda (25). The problem is that in Vedic religion there is no such thing as brahman in the soteriological sense of Upaniṣadic philosophy (that is, as ultimate and radically transcendent principle of reality), and orthodox Brahmins would never legitimate sacred transmission in terms of “intellectual intuition” (as Guénon does), but rather in terms of technical, ritual and hermeneutic mastery of the codified canon (Śastra literature) going back to the first Seers [ṛṣi-s], with whom they nevertheless do not directly identify (26). The fact that no scholar would ever have taken this interpretation of Hinduism seriously didn’t prevent Guénon from carrying on his work. On the contrary: scholarship (in spite of Guénon’s availing himself of it for his own research) was also the enemy, since it belonged to the domain of profane science. However, he needed legitimation for his judgements, and he found this legitimation in esoteric initiation (27). There is evidence of his being initiated into Sufism (actually by a European, the multifaceted Swedish artist and mystic Ivan Aguéli), but not into Hinduism. However, Hindu dīkṣā is taken for granted because of the type of knowledge he had acquired and also because of the testimony of his biographer and friend Paul Chacornac (28). The important point for us is, as pointed out earlier, the irrevocable affirmation of this type of knowledge and the exonerating function of it. As Jean-Pierre Laurant remarks: “When Guénon affirms having received from Oriental masters the type of knowledge he develops in his doctrinal works, this places him in an infinitely superior position to Western scholarly works or even Indian schools of interpretation going in an opposite sense […]. He found himself ipso facto freed from having to render explanations or justify his position” (29). Of course one can come to the conclusion that Guénon’s knowledge, in spite of his mistakes and excesses, was so outstanding for the period, that he may well have had other sources than mere readings just for the sake of merely understanding Hindu (and per extensionem Sufi, perhaps even Taoist) spirituality, but the real problem is the history of effects, in which the seeds of prejudice and narrow-mindedness of the master (both of them human characteristics!) are infinitely potentiated among today’s (pseudo-)elites of so-called perennialists who cling to such self-immunization strategies (initiation, metaphysical Truth and transcendent knowledge) without the faintest trace of Guénon’s background and intelligence, ignoring altogether the challenge of thinking in Guénonian terms more than half a century after Guénon’s death, that is, in quite another context. Change of context implies the need to re-contextualize the author and his work, and when an author has become the voice of absolute truth, the task turns out to be next to impossible. To use Samuel Beckett’s words: “it is easier to raise a temple than to bring down the worshipped object” (30).

III. Daniélou and the Labyrinth of Tradition

Letter extract of Alain Daniélou (Shiva Sharan, as the signature reads) to René Guénon.
FIND Archive, Zagarolo.

It would be a mistake not to acknowledge that Guénon had not only an episodic but also a lasting influence on Daniélou, but it would also be erroneous to believe that they shared the same conception of Tradition (and ultimately the same world-view). Guénon’s powerful discourse and his skilful construction of authority are two essential factors to monopolize the referential field of Tradition. In fact, the most creative perennialists (Evola, Schuon, Coomaraswamy, Hossein Nasr) – who contributed to an extension of the horizon, and some of whom even criticized some aspects of Guénon’s thought (like Schuon) – ultimately remained within the same framework of thought with their backs turned against the world and their will focused on overcoming nature and realizing the Spirit. It is Daniélou who, speaking within the same semantic field (Tradition and initiation, religion and esotericism, myth and symbol), changes not only the value of those terms, but also opens another dimension for the practical application of traditional wisdom in the life of the individual and eventually of a whole community. This variation in the conception of Tradition interests us especially because it does not appear as a rupture, but rather as an internal turning. Daniélou criticizes many aspects of modern Western culture, he also thinks in terms of cyclic time and world ages [yuga], he questions the so-called universal values (from missionary monotheism to the utopian expansion of European Enlightenment) as an expression of will-to-power, and he insistently points to forgotten layers of wisdom buried in human history as possible instruments to redress the balance in a world adrift. In this sense, he shares fundamental presuppositions with Perennialism which place him on the opposite pole to a man fully integrated in the modern paradigm of secularized life. It is precisely from this very common ground that the differences come into play, and this makes the case interesting, because it is not easy to dismiss Daniélou as somebody who dwells on the opposite shore and presents differences from the outside.

In the first place, Guénon’s Absolute or primordial One appears in Daniélou as the outer limit of experience: “Transcendent reality is, by definition, beyond the limitations that condition our means of knowledge. Yet, even if we cannot understand its nature, we may indirectly conclude that some form of being beyond the sphere of our perceptions must exist […]. 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-niṣad” (31). According to Daniélou, Upaniṣadic philosophy is an attempt to reach the root of the manifest world. But this attempt does not end with a full immersion in Transcendence and an ensuing devaluation of multiplicity. It rather inaugurates the question of “perspectives”, which will reach a differentiated systematization in the six classical schools of philosophy, the so-called ṣaḍdarśana-s (literally: “six visions”): Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, Sāṁkhya and Yoga, Mīmāṃsa and Vedānta. Interestingly enough, Daniélou sees non-dualism [a-dvaita-vāda]and the animistic conception of the divine (which he identifies as the first form of religiosity) as complementary to each other, inasmuch as non-duality, in radical thought, is neither duality nor unity, but rather all-pervading (and therefore goes beyond every limitation in terms of individuation principle and perceptive or cognitive structure). The difference with regard to Guénon’s approach to Hinduism is quite significant. While Guénon, in his exposition of the darśana-s, privileges Vedānta over all other systems as the purest expression of knowledge of the non-manifest, Daniélou points to the symmetrical nature of all perspectives and rejects the centralization of Vedānta. Beyond metaphysical superiority (as affirmed by Guénon) he sees a struggle for religious power: “Identifying the soul, conceived as the centre of the living being, with a non-manifested Absolute is […]a contradiction of terms. Brahman, envisaged by the Samkhya as the prime cause, neutral, impersonal, and unknowable, in actual fact becomes, without it being admitted, an only god, easily personified, close to the Christian and Muslim concept. Under the name of Vedanta, the Uttara Mimamsa, thus tastefully brought up to date, was to become of great importance, almost leading to the elimination of the other Darshanas. Having lost its own critical apparatus, the Vedanta was to become purely speculative. Its apparent rationalism would attract thinkers in the Christian and Islamic world, with the result that it obtained a sort of exclusivity as representing philosophic thought in India” (32). This critical remark can be very well applied to Guénon, who was very close to the most conservative strain of Christianity (although he entertained reflections which should be historically considered heretical) and accepted the positively codified monotheism of Islam as a frame for his traditionalist project (even if the confluence of that dimension of Islam with Sufism was not so easy to harmonize). In fact, Guénon expressed a very hard judgement about all religions of immanence (animism, polytheism and even pantheism), calling them “clearly anti-metaphysic” (33), that is, not only unworthy of the epithet “traditional” but also decadent. For Daniélou, quite on the contrary, there is an undeniable complicity between radical emphasis on a non-manifested principle as the highest reality and a monotheistic conception on the religious level. Both of them deny the very concrete aspect of the divine, which is all-pervading and enables both rituals and beliefs as well as quite elaborate philosophical systems, including institutional organizations in terms of initiatic chains and the construction of a very powerful myth, that of the “immemorial origin” (which legitimizes transmission of the “secret”). Daniélou’s approach to traditional knowledge is therefore not at all based on a Gnostic scheme focused on exclusive patterns of distinction between light and darkness, good and evil, pure and impure, true and false, but rather on an inclusive one, creating internal hierarchies within an articulated whole in which nothing falls out of the divine fabric.

The last point brings us to the core of the problem: Tradition and the role of initiation. Daniélou’s idea of tradition differs from that of Guénon in many ways, even if Daniélou himself sometimes uses the term in a way that might indicate a certain proximity to Guénon’s traditionalism (like his homologation of Tradition with the term sanātana dharma (34)). The way Guénon uses the term and especially the implications of it point to a very problematic construction of origins. Following Guénon’s convictions, one is forced to believe in the existence of a golden age in which the later ideal of jīvanmukta [the liberated in life]was realized by nature and expanded through the whole tissue of society, or in a full realization of the pneumatic dimension of man even before the cosmogonic miracle of consciousness was born from the womb of Nature. This is why the coarsest version of Integral Traditionalism, with its concoction of human history, astrological ages and biblical cosmology, reminds us of grotesque religious theories such as the Creationism of Christian fundamentalists. The interesting aspect in Daniélou is that he affirms Tradition without establishing it as a dogma and without attempting to turn it into an obscurantist stronghold. His idea of tradition is very concrete and has two levels: the first is genetic transmission, which is a natural chain with a mechanism of selection; the other is spiritual or initiatic transmission, which aims at perpetuating the visions of the first seers throughout the generations. Tradition in this sense is called paramparā (35).

If sanātana dharma demands unity, paramparā implies diversity. As Daniélou himself indicates: “the seers’ perception must have occurred when the evolution of the species reached maturity, and when the human being became capable of playing the role of witness. Like a flower that blossoms in due season, perception of the world’s secrets appeared in the seer’s spirit when humankind reached maturity. We may note that, in actual fact, the seers’ perceptions took place simultaneously in various parts of the world, just as nowadays we find the same discoveries appearing at the same time on different continents. At some levels of knowledge, however, aptitude is not simultaneous among all variants of the species, since they are not all at the same level of evolution. The tradition of one group cannot therefore be transferred to another” (36). From this very perspective, which reconciles the notion of evolution in natural history with the tangential movement of cultural decline within the dominance-cycle of the human race, initiation is notably deflated with regard to the mysterious power it has in Guénon (37); it appears as a deconditioning instance to re-situate the “initiated” with regard to their own life and world-view, especially by introducing a new hierarchy of values and customs as well as a specific religious sense of belonging. For Daniélou, Tradition is a concept that bridges the gap between nature and culture and opens the former to a dimension of divinity and infinity through a simultaneous sacralization of the latter. What the initiatic chain preserves and consolidates is the primordial vision of the structure of Nature in terms of universal laws (which is in fact the proper use of the expression sanātana dharma), but the origin of this vision is only relevant within the specific tradition being transmitted. The world-experience of an orthodox Brahmin is not the same as that of a Nepalese Shaman. The Aghoris’ embrace of the pure and the impure as aspects of Shiva’s body is the exact opposite of the religious contemptum mundi of the Gnostic. All these traditions base their transmission of knowledge on initiation, but knowledge is not related to the metaphysical Truth that Guénon deduces from Vedānta and affirms as a transcultural rule of thumb to attain enlightenment. From Daniélou’s perspective, the divine fulguration emits different shades of colours, and Truth is not one, but manifold. Even if the One is the logical result of an exercise of thought in religious approximation, it cannot be affirmed as such, since no human being has the means of doing so. Each sage or spiritual master irradiates one shade of colour within the spectrum of divine manifestation, but the colour disappears the moment he opens the mouth and promulgates a positive truth, when it turns into a black-and-white picture. Within this aesthetic of the Spirit, there is room for critique (which Daniélou does sometimes with a vengeance), but ultimately no exclusion of any instance of the manifest world – even the most obscure aspects – as a potential site to re-enact the human effort toward harmony. This Tantric attitude is quite realistic and dissipates all esoteric fantasies about our race. Ultimately the human effort toward harmony is an attempt to balance the human tendency toward destruction, ever since our role in creation became preponderant.

Alain Daniélou at the Labyrinth, Zagarolo.

There is no doubt that in Daniélou’s eyes our modern Western world presents serious problems. The question is where the root of these problems lies, since an understanding of the root will determine the consequences to be drawn in terms of life attitude, projects and limitations. If we accept the theory of world-ages [yuga-s], Kali Yuga is the age of conflicts. This designation describes the complexity of the thread in which we live, but this thread is not only “modern society”. Already in pre-Socratic Greece Heraclitus used an image that should be borne in mind: πόλεμος πάντων μεν πατήρ ἐστι, πάντων δε βασιλεύς (“conflict is the father and ruler of all things” (38)). Human experience is not qualitatively different from natural phenomena, in the sense that everything revolves around an economy of violence. Taken in a broad sense of the word, violence is an energy quantum that cannot be so easily and harmoniously channelled in a specific collective location, in other words: violence is the problem of individuated existence in context. Conflict is a result of patterned interaction, inasmuch as interaction presupposes a logic of energy channelling, and this logic never reaches an end-stage. Hindu cosmology, both in its mythical and its philosophical form, is a highly elaborated cultural device to deal with this problem, and what Daniélou took from that model of “cosmic history” is its potential for social cohesion and individual development. So the first thing to bear in mind is that Kali Yuga is not the modern age; its duration coincides with the very intricate temporal complex we profanely call “human history” (39). This broadening of the horizon shows that the cosmological viewpoint can be a solution to short-sighted perspectives in which anthropocentric ideas and acts of the individual appear to have the power to change the course of history, in other words: there is an “ideology” of Kali Yuga taking place in its last phase and incarnated in the human conviction that the key to natural and cosmic facts, events and rhythms does not lie in the human capacity to re-connect itself with them, but in a further alienation from that sphere. Guénon’s equation is too radical and (in spite of his profound intuitions about modern alienation) mistaken with regard to a decisive point: Kali Yuga does not appear as the “age of conflicts”, but – as Guénon himself translates – as the “dark age”, that is, an age in which nothing good can come from the products of human reason. His condemnation of Western civilization in toto as anomalous, homologating the “decadent” (from the point of view of human action) with the “dark” (from the point of view of cosmic determination), leads to his actively overlooking very important potentials for change and rediscovery of inner sources. This may not be so serious in the case of Guénon, since he lived in a period in which the signs from science itself to abandon the positivistic paradigm were not so evident, but it can be very serious in today’s followers of Guénon who do not ask themselves how Guénon would think today, but rather apply without much reflection his maxims on modern decadence, ignoring every aspect of the world around. In this sense, Daniélou’s observations on the compensatory logic of world cycles show another approach to the problem: “When the heritage of Traditional knowledge is debased, the human intellect seeks other means to penetrate the world’s secrets. That is why, in our own time, when the prodigious knowledge of shamans, sorcerers, and sannyasis is tending to disappear, we find that astrophysicists or biologists rediscover certain fundamental principles of the nature of the world, such as the relativity of space and time, and the structures of life, which – although obtained with other methods – match the data given by the teaching of the rishis, the seers”. And even further: “The direct view of structures provided by Yoga and the intellectual research of science are two methods aimed at a common goal […]. Science and clairvoyance are two parallel branches of the same effort of knowledge and are not clearly separated” (40). According to Daniélou, we need a refined look at the very complex structure and dynamics of Kali Yuga in order to extract the antidote to our present ailments, since everything is contained in it. In this sense, Tradition is a thread to be followed in order to gain some clarity, but it has to be predicated in the plural. There are “traditions” pointing to different (though ultimately related) modes of experiencing a disentanglement from alienating structures and a binding instance toward an uninterrupted source of meaning for human existence. This plurality is also a kind of Labyrinth, though a one in which (as Daniélou pointed out) one does not get lost, but keeps redirecting itself in a permanent effort toward the centre.

IV. Conclusion: A Tradition for the Future?

Daniélou’s observations on the positive aspects to be found in the evolution of human thought do not exonerate modern society from its irresponsibility regarding the transmission of knowledge, its tendency to potentiate alienation through technological networks based on a blind application of the idea of progress, and the increasing oblivion of the legacy of the past (41); they rather show the root of the problem in a much more differentiated manner. There is a point at which human behaviour, potentially capable of reflecting the divine aspect of Nature (42) in the sphere of culture, detaches itself from the fundamental awareness of its belonging to that cosmic thread and re-directs itself against the source and condition of the possibility of its own knowledge, actions and development. While the esoteric and spiritualist diagnosis consists of saying that materialism is the root of all evil (and ipso facto spiritualism the solution to it), a careful observation of cultural processes (including religion and all its derivations) shows that the problem consists of not understanding what matter really is.

There is no understanding of matter without a clear conception of space and time, of the parameters of Nature (its structure and dynamics) and its correlate in human experience: perception. Daniélou’s polytheistic choice is not only related to a philosophy of freedom and integration of every aspect of the manifest world (with regard to which Perennialists are very sceptical and in general openly hostile), but also to a complex aesthetics of the Spirit that he develops in books like Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration (1948), Hindu Polytheism (1964), and Shiva and Dionysos (1976). Daniélou tries to show that the question is not that of pursuing the direction of the Spirit toward its heights and away from Nature, and he deems that drastic oppositions like reason vs. intellect, or spirit vs. psyche (all of them in some way a heritage of the Gnostic tradition) hide a paradoxical complicity, that the challenge is to recover the lost dimension of Nature with its sacred ambivalence. Human beings cannot achieve a transcendent Absolute by means of perception, but they can expand their perceptive field far beyond the possibilities inherited by the present stage of our collective situation. In this sense, polytheism is a religious attitude that finds transcendence in the immanence of Nature, extracting (like the alchemists) Spirit from Matter and not from any other abstract source of intellectual speculation cut off from the very source of life.

An exposition of what we might call Daniélou’s Shivaitic aesthetics would demand very complex considerations and therefore another whole text, but Daniélou himself summarizes the main aspects of it and offers its corollary in very simple language: “Non-dogmatic, it allows everyone to find his own way. Ultimate reality being beyond man’s understanding, the most contradictory theories or beliefs may be equally inadequate approaches to reality. Ecological (as we should say today), it sees man as part of a whole where trees, animals, men and spirits should live in harmony and mutual respect […]. It leaves everyone free to find his own way of realization, human and spiritual, be it ascetic or erotic or both. It does not separate intellect and body, mind and matter, but sees the Universe as a living continuum” (43). These last words mark a drastic difference with regard to Guénon’s metaphysics of Tradition: the divine is for Daniélou con-substantial with the manifest world, and there cannot be a drastic distinction between the essence and the existence of the universe (44). It is not human beings (not even the elite of sages and enlightened ones) who rule over the cosmos, but the forces of the cosmos always surpass (by far) all human capacity to control processes and experiences. If man attempts to detach pure intellectuality from the life-continuum, the resulting form of Śiva is śava [corpse], that is, Śiva detached from Śakti. Daniélou’s attempt, which surely entails (like every human work) its own defects and imprecisions, has the immense value of shedding light on the question of Traditionalism and prevents its fascinating building of intuitions and ideas from becoming a cultural necropolis.

(1) For an understanding of the whole spectrum of this term, cf. Julius Evola, René Guénon e il Tradizionalismo Integrale, in: Ricognizioni: Uomini e Problemi, Roma 1985, pp. 205-213.
(2) The following remark of Clinton Minnaar can help to summarize and simplify the question of denomination, at least for the purposes of this essay: “The perspective of the ‘traditionalist’ or ‘perennialist’ school of thought has variously been called the philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy), sophia perennis (perennial wisdom), or religio perennis (perennial religion). […]What then is the perennial philosophy? It is both absolute Truth and infinite Presence. As absolute Truth it is the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of mankind“ (Martin Lings, Clinton Minnaar (ed.). The Underlying Religion, Bloomington 2007, pp. xi-xii).
(3) Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth: Memories of East and West, New York 1987, p. 145.
(4) For example, when Daniélou writes: “Tradition, even when it is entirely esoteric and hidden, remains indestructible and operational. Invisible initiates from far off inspire the forms of knowledge” (Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, Rochester: Vermont, 2007, p. 106, translation slightly modified to accord with the French original), or when he identifies sanātana dharma with an impersonal source of light (cf. Swami Karpātri, Alain Daniélou. Le mystère du culte du linga, Robion 1993, p. 18). In the words of John Savos, the expression sanātana dharma can be said to be a “signifier of amorphous homogeneity” (John Zavos. “Defending Hindu Tradition: sanatana dharma as a Symbol of Orthodoxy in Colonial India”, in: Religion (2001), 31, pp. 109-123, here p. 109) inasmuch as it refers above all to a self-representation of Hinduism growing out of the encounter and (colonial) conflict with the West (cf. Wilhelm Halbfass. India and Europe: An Essay in Philosophical Understanding, Delhi 1990, p. 344). Daniélou’s view of Tradition appears quite clearly in the following passage: “[…]in human society, in parallel with genetic transmission that perfects the physical body, the habitat of knowledge, a further, initiatic transmission takes place, thanks to which the visions of the seers of those early ages have been perpetuated through the generations. This transmission constitutes what is termed Tradition (paramparā)” (Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, p. 100).
(5) Cf. Alain Daniélou. The Way to the Labyrinth, Chapter 19: A Hindu’s View of the Western World, pp. 307-329.
(6) Jacques Lacan. Joyce le symptôme. Conférence donnée à la Sorbonne au 16 juin 1975, in: L’âne 1982, N° 6.
(7) According to Guénon, the incoherence lies in the absence of guiding principles, the highest of which is of a metaphysical nature and prevents empirical confusion not only of particular sciences but also of social organization: ”Having suppressed pure intellectuality, each special (and contingent) domain is regarded as independent […]everything is mixed up and confused in an inextricable chaos” (René Guénon, Orient et Occident, Paris 2006, p. 149).
(8) With regard to Guénon’s life-path, we have to point to the remarkably exhaustive, very well-documented and instructive reconstruction of his life and thought by David Bisson. René Guénon: une politique de l’esprit, Paris 2013.
(9) Cf. René Guénon. Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, Paris 2009, p. 90.
(10) René Guénon. Le règne de la quantité et le signe des temps, Paris 1972, p. 12.
(11) The essential link between science and modern philosophy is expressed quite clearly by Guénon himself: “If we consider modern philosophy as a whole, we can say that, in general terms, its viewpoint does not prove to be essentially different from that of science” (René Guénon. Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, p. 124).
(12) Cf. René Guénon. Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, pp. 95-96.
(13) In this respect cf. Titus Burckhardt: “[…]ancient cosmogonies seem childish when one takes their symbolism literally – and this means not understanding them” (The Theory of Evolution, in: Martin Lings, Clinton Minnaar (ed.). The Underlying Religion, p. 55).
(14) René Guénon. Les états multiples de l’être, Paris 2008, p. 9.
(15) “Non-being is […]more than being, or, in other terms, superior to being” (René Guénon. Les états multiples de l’être, p. 26).
(16) Already at an early stage, in his article “Le Démiurge” (published by the review Gnose in 1909), Guénon writes quite clearly: “the non-manifest is superior to the manifest, of which it is the principle, since it potentially contains the whole of manifest being” (La Gnose. Édition Intégrale 1909-1912, Paris 2009, p. 9).
(17) This is something Guénon himself was to criticize later on: ”The problem with these so-called spiritualistic doctrines is that they are nothing other than materialism, only transposed onto another plane, since they want to apply to the domain of the spirit the methods employed by ordinary science to study the hylic world” (René Guénon, Mélanges, Paris 1990, p. 176).
(18) Detailed information about this period can be found in David Bisson. René Guénon: une politique de l’esprit, especially pp. 30-31.
(19) “Among the Greeks in particular, rites and symbols, which are the heritage of the most ancient and already forgotten traditions, lost their original meaning. The imagination of these eminently artistic people, whose expression followed the individual imagination of their poets, had veiled them almost out of recognition” (René Guénon. Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, p. 82).
(20) Cf. René Guénon. Orient et Occident, chapitre II: la superstition de la science, pp. 41-73.
(21) Julius Evola. Il Cammino del Cinabro (third revised and augmented edition). Roma 2014, pp. 330-331.
(22) René Guénon. Aperçus sur l’ésoterisme islamique et le Taoïsme, Paris 1973, p. 14.
(23) We refer to Sufism as a mystic dimension of Islam even if Guénon rejected the identification of Sufism with mysticism (Cf. Aperçus sur l’ésoterisme islamique et le Taoïsme, p. 24), and we do it for the following reason: Guénon’s distinction is based on his wish to legitimate his transcendent metaphysics with the highest degree of knowledge, therefore any association with “irrationality” (like mystic experience) had to be eliminated. Apart from the fact that the etymological sense of the adjective “mystic” or the noun “mysticism” does not distinguish but rather homologates this word with the experience of initiation (since the Greek adjective mystikós is related to mystés: initiated), there are many examples of initiation within mystical doctrines. In India trika Shaivism and the bhakti philosophy of the Gaudiya Vaiṣnava tradition are two clear examples of this phenomenon.
(24) René Guénon. Aperçus sur l’ésoterisme islamique et le Taoïsme, p. 38.
(25) Cf. René Guénon. Le cinquième veda (originally published in Études traditionnelles, 1937), in: Études sur l’hindouisme, Paris 1989, pp. 87-94.
(26) The reason is simple: “intellectual intuition” means direct access to the ultimate Truth, and that is something that Brahmanic orthodoxy cannot allow, since it would mean homologating the Brahmanic elite with any other group that might claim possession of a transcendent revelation. The problem with Guénon was that he tried to explain social and political reality out of metaphysical principles, and that is not possible if we consider reality as the complex (and contradictory) whole it is, in which the question of power unmasks the nature of metaphysical foundations.
(27) David Bisson is quite right when he says that the initiatic sphere appears as the last pole of resistance against modernity (cf. David Bisson. René Guénon: une politique de l’esprit, p. 146).
(28) “Guénon had a Hindu master (or perhaps more than one). It was impossible for us to get even the slightest precision on the identity of this person (or these persons). All we can say with certainty is that it was a representative of the school of Vedânta Adwaita” (Paul Chacornac. La vie simple de René Guénon, Paris 1958, p. 42).
(29) Jean-Pierre Laurant. Tradition et Transmission. Guénon face à la critique historique, in: Connaissance des Religions, N° 69-70: Vivre et transmettre la tradition, Paris 2003, p. 159).
(30) “Il est plus facile d’élever un temple que d’y faire descendre un objet de culte”. Samuel Beckett, L’innommable.
(31) Alain Daniélou. The Myths and Gods of India, Rochester: Vermont 1991, p. 5.
(32) Alain Daniélou. Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, pp. 19-20.
(33) René Guénon. Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, p. 261.
(34) Cf. Swami Karpâtri, Alain Daniélou. Le mystère du culte du linga, p. 31.
(35) Alain Daniélou. Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, p. 100.
(36) Alain Daniélou. Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, p. 101.
(37) “Initiation is a way of integrating you into a system, that’s all” (Swami Karpātri, Alain Daniélou. Le mystère du culte du linga, p. 25).
(38) Hermann Diels, Walther Kranz (ed.), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Berlin 1961, p. 162. Fragment 53.
(39) That is, the period going from 3606 BCE to the present age and – following Puranic calculations – even further until 2442 CE. “The fourth age or ‘age of conflict’, Kali Yuga […]lasts 5,046 years, and its dawn and twilight each lasts 504 years, totaling 6,048 years” (Alain Daniélou. While the Gods Play, Rochester: Vermont 1987, p. 198).
(40) Alain Daniélou. Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, p. 105.
(41) Cf. Alain Daniélou. The Way to the Labyrinth, p. 314.
(42) Written in capitals to give it the sense of “creating matrix of the manifest world” (prakṛti).
(43) Alain Daniélou. Letter to Michael Audy, December 7, 1977 (Daniélou Archive, Zagarolo). For a complete version of the letter with explanatory notes, see Adrián Navigante, Sarah Eichner. Alain Daniélou: Why I am Hindu, in: Cahiers de la Fondation N° 7, Feburary/April 2015.
(44) Cf. Alain de Benoist. Comment peut-on être païen ? Paris 1981, p. 46. Also very inspiring is the following comment (in the same book) on the indirectness of universal values in paganism as opposed to (Biblical) monotheism: “the thought of the Bible is totalising and all-subsuming. Going from the universal to the particular, it proceeds by deduction from a revealed absolute, instead of proceeding by induction from the lived experience. […][w]hereas the pagan discourse is a particularity that may achieve the universal through the particularity itself. […]. It is clear that, because of its very dynamics, the universalizing process of the Bible tends to reduce diversity, while the opposite process [of paganism]makes out of this diversity the basis of all kinds of knowledge” (Ibidem, p. 139)