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Alain Daniélou’s Understanding of Polytheism

Adrián Navigante, Director FIND Intellectual Dialogue

Pashupati Seal of the Indus Valley Civilization, which Alain Daniélou related to the most ancient form of polytheistic religion.Pashupati Seal of the Indus Valley Civilization, which Alain Daniélou related to the most ancient form of polytheistic religion.

1. The framework of the “polytheism-monotheism” debate

There are endless discussions on relations between polytheism and monotheism, all controversial, most of them infected from the very outset by various prejudices lacking any great desire to clarify the motivations behind the historical antagonism between one and many gods. If we take a closer look at the modern version of this rivalry, it is impossible to overlook a certain disparity. Since the beginnings of colonialism, Western culture has tried to integrate the other into its own systems of thoughts and beliefs with all the arguments it could muster. Hegel’s exposition of the difference between the polytheistic “religion of nature” and the monotheistic “religion of freedom” in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion (1821-1831) is a clear example of how a renowned philosopher applies his own speculative scheme to a domain alien to his sphere of knowledge in order to justify the superiority of modern Western “rationality” over Eastern “imagination”. In Hegel’s view, the Hindu religion demonstrates the defective power of distinction affecting Eastern doctrines in general. It oscillates between imaginative dissipation (expressed in the vertiginous variety of divine personifications) and intuitive fixation (detectable in the conception of transcendent unity as symbiotic fusion) (1). This particular view – at that time considered “universal” and therefore indisputable – had an overwhelming influence on modern Western ideology, basically on two levels: it permeated different theories about the origins and history of religions formulated in the course of the XIX century – from Auguste Comte to Edward Burnett Taylor and James George Frazer –, and it contributed to the belief that monotheistic doctrines achieved a unity and coherence lacking in polytheistic or idolatric (2) religions, not only because of the moral elements inserted in the metaphysical foundations of the monotheistic world view (for example with regard to the idea of God as a moral entity guaranteeing justice), but also owing to the elimination of superstitious cults and blood sacrifices.

2. Alain Daniélou and Polytheism: some general aspects

Alain Daniélou’s understanding of Hinduism clearly goes in the opposite direction: a revival and defence of polytheism against the widespread dominance of monotheistic creeds. This position is not only expressed in his Mythes et dieux de l’Inde (1992, first edition Le polythéisme hindou, 1960), but also in many other pages of his works (Shivaisme et tradition primordiale, Approche de l’hindouisme, Shiva et Dionysos, et al). After a very positive review of the first English edition of Hindu Polytheism in the Bollingen Series (1964) (3), Daniélou’s book became quite successful internationally. His perspective was not however incorporated in academic debate (probably because of his unorthodox exposition and orientation toward traditional oral sources), and in the last few years it has been the subject of a persistent critique based – at least to some extent – on a misunderstanding of the terms under discussion (the antagonism between monotheism and polytheism), as well as the all-encompassing value of the word “polytheism” in the corpus of Daniélou’s writings.

In order to understand this antagonism and its repercussions on Daniélou’s thought, we should note the dynamic aspect of interaction between ‘the one’ and ‘the many’ – which builds one of the key-aspects of Hindu tradition. Many Hindus have emphasized the oneness-polarity of this dynamic reciprocity, probably out of the need to establish legitimacy in the face of global monotheistic domination, but even such an emphasis often takes other forms than that of a very forceful and in some ways ‘imperialistic’ monotheism. The henotheistic tendency (4) is a clear example of how the oneness-pole can be rendered functional and at the same time protected from dogmatic isolation, as Daniélou succinctly explains in Mythes et Dieux de l’Inde with regard to the theory of guṇas as indicating a dynamically consistent multiplicity: “The unity and interdependence of the three fundamental tendencies [sattva, rajas, tamas], considered as one entity, is known as Iśvara, the Lord” (5). Furthermore, Daniélou has no problem in employing the word “God” (of which the Latin word “deus” is related to the Indo-European root *dei- = to shine) in order to designate “the source of the subtle and supramental stages of the physical, mental and intellectual spheres” (6), or in the sense of a life-principle associated with “the boundless form of reality and infinite consciousness [satya-jñānānanta-svarūpa]” (7). A similar perspective can be found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka upaniṣad III, 9.1-9, where a kind of layered articulation of the divine sphere from “three thousand and three and three hundred and three” [trayaśca tr ca shātā, trayaśca trī ca sahastretī]to the “one” [eka]is propounded, ending with the unifying “vital force” [prāṇa, brahma, tyat]as the source of all.

The problem arises when this ‘source’ is taken to be a divine person with the ontological constitution of a singular being. The very conjunction of “singular” and “supreme” demands, among other things, a radical distinction between “creator” and “creation” as well as the common denominator of being “individuated” (God as distinct, separated, other). According to Daniélou, the monotheistic creed has a dangerous component: the mechanism of egocentric projection onto a transcendent sphere determining all processes, interactions and values of world-immanence. This is the reason for his conviction that metaphysical speculation related to the religious sphere (for example the notion of para-brahman and its function of radical transcendence within Hindu soteriology) should be distinguished from the practical application of ideological concepts (such as a God who chooses a specific people and fights with them against others). Indubitably, the ideas expounded by Daniélou may well be discussed and part of their formulation may sometimes need further precision (especially in the context of systematic and comprehensively advanced versions of the monotheistic faith), but first of all it is necessary to know what he really said and the context in which he formulated such considerations.

Daniélou’s critique of monotheism was aimed particularly at the relentless (and sometimes even fundamentalist) (8) demand that one personal god should be praised and taken as the very foundation of all individuated existence, to the detriment of any other conception envisaging a plurality and diversity of cult and creed. Although this is only one aspect within the very complex sphere of monotheism, it is very difficult not to subject it to critique and acknowledge its structural importance, especially on the level of human relations. Today’s ecological crisis is not only due to the effects of modernity on social life, but also – and mainly – to how relations between human (as “created”) beings and the divine sphere (as that of the “creator”) are conceived. In this sense, one of the main consequences of monotheistic religion is that it severs human beings from the immediate power of the natural environment in order to insert another (unreachable) locus of the divine beyond the field of archaic religious experience, in which the sacred cannot be separated from the powers of nature. In the case of monotheism, the construction of a sphere of radical transcendence goes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of a divine will emanating from that locus. Asiatic religions have kept the (non)-locus of transcendent source utterly impersonal, mainly to avoid human appropriation and hence a shift from a metaphysical doctrine to an ideological mechanism of domination.

3. Religion of nature: masculine and feminine

This last point may lead us to another very complex debate on the relationship between the religion of nature and the (archaic) feminine, which – if treated in all its complexity – would deserve a separate essay. The inattentive reader might think that Daniélou purposely left aside the subject of the great Goddess within the frame of Hindu religion owing to his one-sided emphasis on the cult of the phallus and his personal motivations for doing so. Regardless of how far he went into that problem and whether some of his formulations on Shivaism can be viewed from the perspective of Shaktism, an undeniable fact remains: Daniélou mentions the cult of the Goddess as one of the three pillars of what for him constitutes the pre-Aryan civilization, the other two being Shivaism and Tantrism (9). In Hindu Polytheism he takes the universal Mother or supreme Goddess as the symbol of the highest degree of reality, that which surpasses all (limited) knowledge – entirely in consonance with the Sanskrit terms ajñeyā and śūnya in the Devī Upaniṣad 26-27 (10). As stated above, many parallels can be drawn between certain aspects of Kuṇḍalinī manifestation in Shaktism – including its mythological background – and what Daniélou emphasized from the Shivaitic dimension of the cult of the phallus; this remains a very important task if a certain openness of mind is to be preserved. In addition, it should be borne in mind that the liṅga cult can be viewed as an Indian variant of aconism, insofar as references to the śivaliṅga are indexical and indicate a kind of sacred emptiness (that is, a sign of the deity as being devoid of all form: pararūpa) (11). Although Daniélou’s hermeneutics of Shivaism and his reconstruction of its place within Hindu tradition is provocative and largely contradicts both the established opinion of many Western indologists and some aspects of Brahmanic orthodoxy, it certainly deserves to be discussed with a proper approach and not simply an a priori condemnation that fails to do justice to its valuable insights and implications.

4. Polytheism and Eros

Another point that may well lead to misunderstandings is the rather immediate and superficial association of any polytheistic religion – for example Hinduism, or more precisely Shivaism according to Daniélou – with some kind of erotic excess and the dangers of relating the spiritual dimension of human beings with a pseudo-deification of sexuality. Needless to say, although a detailed exposition of eroticism in the thought of Daniélou would far surpass the scope of this text, a very succinct exposition of one central aspect may help clear up this unfortunate misunderstanding. When Daniélou translates ānanda as “voluptuousness”, he emphasizes a specific perspective in considering the mode in which the Absolute is manifest that is closely related to the Tantric tradition. In actual fact, the question of pleasure (in the semantic field of the very far-reaching and complex association of ānanda-bhoga-kāma [bliss, pleasure, desire]), since it is subject to the degrees of perception developed by the adept in the course of his ritual and spiritual practice, can hardly be understood unless related to will/desire [icchā/kāma]and passion [rāga]. The meaning of these two concepts and especially the use of the latter in the Tantric tradition do not refer to the pleasure of the individual as an isolated being, but rather to an ontologically structuring force surpassing the parameters of individual existence (12). From this point of view, no expansion of consciousness can occur unless the perceptual and cognitive faculties are involved in experiencing the whole process, and in this sense any suppression of sexuality would be rather detrimental to the scope of liberation (13). It should be clarified that this aspect is not only expounded in abstruse and marginal treatises of Indian tradition. Indeed, if we take a look at the cosmogonic function of sexuality and its ritual derivations, we find that it can be traced back to canonical texts like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.3 and, despite Brahmanic efforts at domestication, transgression plays a central role not only in the ritual but also in the scriptural tradition of Hindus. Daniélou’s emphasis on the erotic aspect of Indian religion may help open doors that are sometimes meant to be kept closed as a result of a certain image-construction based on the primacy of moral standards – some of them even alien to Hinduism, or at least not entirely compatible with its richness and complexity. Such “moral standards” relate rather to a history of “manipulated perceptions”, since many elements of what is today repeated and preached in mainstream Hindu religion are closely related to Western perceptions of Hinduism in the XVIII century. Such aspects survive nowadays not only passively: their permanence leads to a drastic delimitation or rather a reduction of the general horizon of experience and thought. One of the most famous reformers of Indian religion, Ram Mohan Roy, insisted on the role of Vedic monotheism against the impurities of the bhakti movements, Puranic literature and various other expressions of a dangerous polytheism threatening the unity and coherence of the most ancient world religion (14). According to this picture, polytheism appears as a danger because it introduces an uncontrollable heterogeneity into the extensive religious domain of Hinduism. It is, however, perhaps this very heterogeneity that dynamizes institutionalized conceptions with its own body of doctrines (for example, what is now understood as the advaita vedānta according to Shankara) and also a very broad area of sacred practices from divers origins, aiming at different results. Certain ritual practices like those appearing in the Toḍala Tantra (XIV century CE), or the attempt to surpass the classical antithetical view of puruṣa and prakṛti in the medieval compendium Śakti-samgama Tantra – where prakṛti is equated with the unique source and origin of all without resorting to puruṣa (15) –, or the role of female deities or mahāvidyā (all of them sexually powerful) ruling the energy centres in Swāmī Pūrṇānanda’s treatise Ṣaṭ-Cakra-Nirūpaṇa (XVI century CE), show us that emphasis on a plurality of deities (especially female ones) is by no means a sign of fragmentation or dispersion, but rather of an intensifying movement belonging to the very core of Hindu religion. Without the Puranic heritage, such a transformative movement within the Indian tradition is barely imaginable, although the power of these trends is the object of unending efforts to reintegrate it into the mainstream – that is, of clearly observable attempts either at domestication or at moral condemnation and repression.

The roots of Daniélou’s defence of polytheism are connected with this Tantric vision, in that each aspect of manifested reality can be lived intensively and consciously, in consonance with its divine aspect. He expresses this thought quite clearly in Shiva and the Primordial Tradition: “Tantric rites and practices, open to all without restriction of caste, gender or nature, are meant to permit anyone to draw closer to the divine through these three passages, on the level of existence, consciousness and sensual pleasure. Tantric practices are many, because there is no aspect of the created, no form of action that is not an image, a reflection, an expression of the nature of the divine being” (16). In this sense, polytheism means the possibility of conceiving each aspect of creation as divine and living accordingly. It shows that the substance of the created world and the substance of the creator are the same, and that each aspect of this manifold nature develops according to its transcendental inscription in the very source to which it belongs.

(1) A clear example of this prejudiced approach is Hegel’s affirmation that in Indian religion “the overflowing interiority impregnates the outer existence without any bearing, and the interpretation of the Absolute belonging to this world of imagination is nothing other than an unending dissolution of the one in the many and a chaotic whirl destroying all contents” (G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesung über die Philosophie der Religion I, Frankfurt 1986, p. 338).
(2) Identifying polytheism with idolatry is in fact a product of the imagination of the first Western voyagers in India. It has to be borne in mind that back in the XVIII century – when the first Indian monuments were discovered and the first Sanskrit texts translated – the only way in which Europeans could explain non-Christian religions was by means of the aniconic/idolatric dichotomy, which implied a very strong judgment of values. This distinction permeated not only the imagination of the European population of the period but also the minds of Indian people and their own perception of the Hindu view of the world (cf. Catherine Weinberger Thomas. “Le crepuscule des dieux. Regards sur le polythéisme hindou et l’athéisme bouddhique”, in: Francis Schmidt (ed.). L’impensable polythéisme. Études d’historiographie religieuse, Paris 1988, p. 225).
(3) The book review was written by Jamshed Mavalwala of the University of California in 1966. The positive character of the review is beyond any doubt, confirmed by the final judgment at the end of the review: “The style [of the book]is lucid; the lack of polemic is particularly attractive. The total result is a volume that is a pleasure to behold and an invigorating experience to read. Anthropologists interested in any aspect of India can hardly fail to ignore this decisive work on its religion” (American Anthropologist No. 68, 1966, p. 242).
(4) That is, the tendency to emphasize one God [hénas theós]as the highest among many others without excluding them.
(5) Alain Daniélou. The Myths and Gods of India, Rochester: Vermont 1991, p. 36.
(6) Alain Daniélou. Ibidem, p. 37.
(7) Alain Daniélou. Ibidem. (quotation modified according to the French version: Mythes et Dieux de l’Inde, Paris 2007, p. 71).
(8) Cf. supra, Note 2.
(9) Cf. Alain Daniélou, Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, Rochester: Vermont 2007, p. 7.
(10) Cf. Alain Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India, p. 32.
(11) A very interesting study of aconism in the Western Semitic context can be found in Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, Aconism. A West Semitic context for the Israelite Phenomenon?, in: Walter Dietrich/ Martin A. Klopfenstein (ed.). Ein Gott allein?, pp. 159-178.
(12) Basing his analysis on Abhinavagupta’s comment on the īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā and Rāmakantha’s comment on the Matangapārameśvarāgama, Raffaele Torella shows quite clearly that the meaning of rāga should not be limited to the sphere of individuated feelings [pratyaya]or even unconscious imprints [vāsanā], and that its ontological significance is central to an understanding of Tantric tradition (cf. Raffaele Torella, Il Tantrismo Hindu, in: Giuliano Boccali/ Raffaele Torella. Passioni d’Oriente. Eros ed emozioni in India e Tibet, Torino 2007, pp. 61-92, especially pp.74-75).
(13) This does not mean that Daniélou deliberately ignored the ascetical way of self-realization. His book Yoga. Method of Re-integration (1949) provides sufficient evidence that he approached the subject of Indian asceticism in no superficial way.
(14) In this sense Partha Mitter’s study of the Rammohun Roy case contributes to the analysis of further elements related to the conflict between monotheism and polytheism, cf. Partha Mitter, “Rammohun Roy et le nouveau langage du monothéisme”, in: L’impensable polythéisme. Études d’historiographie religieuse, Paris 1988, pp.257-297.
(15) For information and treatment of these two texts, see Sanjukta Gupta. “The Worship of Kālī According to the Toḍala Tantra”, in: David Gordon White (ed.). Tantra in Practice, New Jersey 2000, p. 463-488.
(16) Alain Daniélou. Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, p. 39.