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The World of Sadhus according to Alain Daniélou

Adrián Navigante – FIND Intellectual Dialogue

The five-faced Shiva (the fifth face invisible at the back) from the Mandi court of Punjab, 1727. Source: Debra Diamond (ed.) Yoga: The Art of Transformation, Smithsonian Books, 2013, p. 111

It may escape some people’s notice that Alain Daniélou was not only a very talented musician and painter, but also a writer. His literary production could be qualified in general terms as “prose of content”, bearing traits similar to the fiction of Mircea Eliade, especially as a result of being in radical opposition to exacerbated experiments of form (not at all devoid of merit) like those of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Both Eliade and Daniélou poured their own life-experiences into their fictional prose and enriched the contents with complementary reflections on different aspects surpassing the mere autobiographical register. This is not only the case of Eliade’s major literary achievement, The Forbidden Forest (1955), where subjects like the fracture of time, the conflictive relationship between eroticism and marriage and the question of destiny as a puzzle for the individual are of central importance, but also of Daniélou’s literary publications: The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales (1983) and The Tales of the Labyrinth (1990) (1). Each one of these works represents a significant moment in the development of Daniélou’s thought and practical philosophy of life: the first is related to his discovery of the Hindu tradition through his immersion in Indian society; the second has to do with the European period after his return from India, a time in which he decided to explore the most ancient strata of pre-Christian religions in Europe in order to draw possible parallels with the main aspects of what he defined as Dravidian Shivaism. What’s more, the reader can find in each of these collections of short-stories a kind of fictional counterpart to what Daniélou wrote theoretically and more systematically in his non-fictional works. Perhaps the main parallel that can be traced would be to take the Gangetic Tales as a Shivaitic book and the Labyrinth Tales as its Dionysian counterpart (2) in order to draw the similarities between these two poles. Indeed, Daniélou expressed an articulated figure of the main parallels between Easter and Western chthonic religiosity in essay form when he wrote Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysos.

Since each single work is a universe with its own complex diversity, we would like to focus on the Shivaitic book The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales, but not without applying a second type of reduction consisting of a search for a specific topic that could articulate the whole fictional dimension: the sadhus of India. Indeed, The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales could be read as a richly articulated extension of the motif of sadhus presented in the preface of the book, and the preface in turn as the theoretical caption of both the frame and the core of the tales. One more thing to notice is that Daniélou began his incursion into Hinduism taking Guénon’s traditionalism as his initial theoretical support (3), but he didn’t fully abandon Guénon after this first period. He corresponded with him between 1947 and 1950, translated one chapter of The Crisis of the Modern World for the Indian review “Kalyan Kalpataru” and also touched upon some Guénonian subjects in his later writings. The preface to The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales dates back to 1974. At that point Daniélou was living in Berlin. He had intellectually digested his Indian experience in a number of writings articulating different aspects of what he had learned directly from Indian pandits and sannyasins. However, this didn’t prevent him from resorting to some ideas of Guénon’s book The King of the World – the French version of which had been published in 1958 –, especially the question of a secret transmission of traditional knowledge during the Kali-Yuga and the organization of initiatic chains in order to preserve the connection of (at least some) human beings with a spiritual center of the whole world (4). In The King of the World Guénon analyzes the motif of an initiatic center designated by the name of Agarttha and portrayed indirectly in three literary works: Saint-Yves d’Alveydre’s Mission de l’Inde, Louis Jacoliot’s Les fils de Dieu and M. Ferdinand Ossendowski’s Bêtes, hommes et dieux. This fictional production dating from the period between 1910 and 1924 served Guénon as an indirect source in order to expound his own considerations on the archetypal significance of the “king of the world” – a figure identified with Manu and ultimately related to the cosmic intelligence and the structuring principle called dharma – and the problem of transmitting and preserving perennial wisdom in the context of the Kali-Yuga (5). In The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales, Daniélou inverts the modus operandi: he recovers non-fictional motifs (developed by Guénon) and inserts them into his own narrative treatment of a much more general problem concerning hidden knowledge and social survival in the dark age. The figure of the sadhu appears in place of Guénon’s Brahmin and points to a somewhat different reality like that of sacerdotal power organized around an oriental structure similar to that of the Catholic Church (6). Daniélou’s emphasis on the integration of spiritual life and sexuality, which constitutes one of the main topics in the The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales, should also be seen as one of the main differences between his approach to Hinduism and that of Guénon. However, the figure of the sadhu presented by Daniélou also differs from the scholarly way of dealing with the topic of world-renunciation and the question of oral transmission of knowledge in India. His approach to the phenomenon of world-renunciation and spiritual subtraction from the social structure of the Hindus is in this sense quite singular.

How does Daniélou present the sadhus in the preface to his short-story? First of all as “errant monks” who inhabit a “parallel world” (7). If we take into account the ethnographic data on ascetic itinerancy and the sectarian factors determining the organization of this group of people, Daniélou’s definition seems to be right and his descriptions appear to correspond to the accepted view on the organization of religious centers to which sadhus make pilgrimages. However, it cannot be denied that the frame provided by him for his description of these holy men is a very special one, first of all because he amalgamates the figure of the sadhu with that of the Brahmin and even of the rishi; secondly because he reconstructs the context of the sadhu’s education and initiation by means of his own metaphysical reflections on sanātana dharma, and lastly because he tries to introduce a radical distinction between two terms that are perceived as a unit: “sadhu” and “ascetic”.

Concerning the first and the last aspects, Daniélou ascribes to the sadhus not only very special power surpassing human talents and dispositions, but also prodigious knowledge, transmitted according to the level of understanding of the recipient: “a great part of this knowledge remains secret. However, sadhus have the obligation to teach wherever they are – even in the humblest village – the precepts that are necessary to keep the religious and moral traditions” (8). This definition implies a conscious delimitation of a type of sadhu from the manifold groups that constitute the ascetic population in India. The diversity of sadhu-sects can be established empirically through fieldwork in the Indian territory, but it is also founded “mythologically” on a later Vedic text, the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 1, 23. In this text the God Prajāpati performs austerities [tapas]and from his flesh arise three different types of ascetic: Aruṇas, Ketus and Vatāraśanas (9), each with specific characteristics. Of these three groups, the Vatāraśanas would theoretically fit Daniélou’s description, since these sadhus are also called ūrdhvameḍhras (“one whose penis is erect”) and their connection to Shiva in the form of Lakulīśa is undeniable. In fact, Lakulīśa, being the tutelary deity of the early Pāśupata sect, led to iconographical representations of the liṇga as an erect sexual organ, something also confirmed in the Māhabhārata 13.7.46, where Shiva is referred to as ūrdhvaliṇga (“the one with an erect organ”) (10). The first delimitation would therefore be that of Shivaitic sadhus among whom asceticism and eroticism are not fully distinguished from each other. This aspect is very important with its consequences going beyond a very well-known debate in Hindu tradition: the conflict between saṃnyāsa (renunciation of everything) and svadharma (individual duty to social obligations). If we take a look at the mythology, Shiva appears as a combination of ascetic discipline and erotic force. The interrelation between asceticism and eroticism seems thus to exist already on the level of the divine power permeating the whole of creation and at the same time transcending it. If we bear in mind the etymology of the word “sadhu”, we are confronted with the Sanskrit root sādh-, the meaning of which is “to accomplish”. A sadhu would thus be someone who follows a certain sādhana and accomplishes a degree of perfection similar to that of the mythical sages called ṛṣis. The perfections [siddhis]of a sadhu are not in all traditional sources primarily identified with abstention from sexuality, but rather with a highly ritualized life (manifested in different concepts like śanta bhava = “peaceful attitude”, śaraṇagati = “complete self-surrender”, and pavitra loka = “sacred world”) and a very special kind of knowledge – related to that of the ṛṣis – going beyond “mundane blurredness” [tamasyaḥ pāram]. According to Daniélou, the qualification of the sadhu has nothing to do with abstention from sexuality, but rather with the transmutation of energy: “According to the Tantric doctrine, mental power and sexual energy stem from the same nature” (11). Along this path of transmutation, experience of the erotic side of self-realization is necessary in order to fulfill all stages of ascension without falling back as a result of psychological symptoms of repression. This is one of the reasons why Daniélou resorts to the Tantric path (12) in order to make his point clear: “Abstinence is one of the causes of mental unbalance […]. It is part of the Yoga techniques and does not have any value if the vital energy is not really employed, together with complex physical and mental exercises, with the purpose of developing the intellectual and spiritual powers of human beings” (13).

The second aspect is the one in which Daniélou most clearly seems to approach Guénon, especially because of his emphasis on a hierarchical organization of sadhus culminating in “this impersonal and mysterious being sometimes called ‘the king of the world’, who is impossible to identify or locate” (14). The reference to Guénon’s The King of the World is quite explicit here, since the latter associates the figure of the king of the world with Manu, “the primordial and universal legislator”, which can ultimately be traced back to the “cosmic intelligence reflecting the pure spiritual light and imparting the law [dharma]” (15). If we translate this perennial discourse into ethnological vocabulary, we could say that Daniélou privileges initiated sadhus who are members of a sectarian community [sampradāya]and identifies them with the guardians of sanātana dharma. It is true that Guénon would at this point speak of Brahmins and not of sadhus, but even these two rather contrastive figures can be at least partially amalgamated through the use of sacred Hindu literature, for example the hymn to the long-haired ascetic [keśīn]in the Rig Veda 10.136.17. In this hymn the keśīn is identified with the munīs, who are presented as a variant of the ṛṣis and at the same time associated with the Vedic counterpart of Shiva: Rudra. Of course, not all sadhus are members of a sampradāya and therefore only some of them are initiated into a structure like the one described by Daniélou and Guénon. According to ethnological data, initiated sadhus with sectarian affiliation should be distinguished from siddhas, that is, advanced yogis who have not been initiated [dīkṣā]into a sect but nevertheless possess respectable powers. They are usually called “independent [svantantra]sadhus” and receive initiation from a guru, for which reason they remain outside any formal sampradāya (16).

Daniélou’s selectivity in his treatment of the world of sadhus may have personal reasons. Toward the end of the preface he seems to give a portrait of himself and his guru, Swāmī Karpātrī. The self-reference appears when he explains that “sadhus employ lay agents who receive an initiation and acquire limited knowledge. Their task is to expand – when it is regarded as useful – certain concepts to ameliorate the conditions of the present world and offer solutions to the problems of humanity” (17). This statement coincides with the way Daniélou considered his own life after returning to Europe: he had something to transmit, but he always refused to be taken as a guru. On the other hand he emphasized the negative aspects of the new tendencies in India after independence in 1947, since these tendencies did not aim at recapturing the traditional teachings of sanātana dharma handed down from generation to generation over millennia, but rather at implanting European institutions on the Asian subcontinent in the conviction that this transformation was part of an evolutionary process. It is precisely at this point that Daniélou mentions the appearance of certain “emissaries of the world of sadhus who organize cultural, religious and even political movements” (18). This description does justice to the following epithet applied to Swāmī Karpātrī: sanātanadharmoddhārakāḥ, “the reorganizer of the eternal religion” (19), since it emphasizes the multifaceted nature of this man who was not only a sannyasin, but also a learned sage – among other things culturally engaged in a very polemical restoration process taking place in modern India. Needless to say, it is a great challenge for anyone who wants to venture into the heritage of such a character to find an unprejudiced way of dealing with a very complex background and a still more complex history of effects surrounding a topic that cannot be treated only by means of a textual reduction or a biased political position from the very beginning, since such attitudes very often contribute to obscure the subject rather than shed precious light upon it.

When it comes to evaluating Daniélou’s treatment of the sadhus, one should not forget his analysis of the monastic communities and orders in India contained in the fifth part of his book While the Gods Play. There he provides his own interpretation of the Rigvedic keśīn as a Shivaitic vrātya [excluded from society]and traces a continuity between this figure and some Sadhu sects that appeared at a later period, for example the Pāśupatas, the Kāpālikas and the Kālāmukhas. At the same time he connects the world of the Shivaitic sadhus with some practices that became very controversial (and sometimes even distorted beyond the point of recognition) in the Western reception of Hinduism: Tantric ceremonies, bhāṅg consumption, Siddha yoga and ritualized sex as a way of approaching the divine. The treatment of sadhus in While the Gods Play is also peculiar inasmuch as Daniélou also deals with issues like human sacrifices within the frame of a general economy of creation (20) (something that may shock the modern Western mentality) and the relationship between love and death from the perspective of a theory of passages (especially among the Kāpālikas). It demands not only an unprejudiced attitude on the part of the reader, but also the ability to go beyond the fixed patterns of feeling and understanding that constitute the dominant mentality in the Western world of today.


(1) For the sake of clarity and in order to simplify our exposition, we take the novella The Cattle of the Gods, the first to be published in book form (Le Bétail des Dieux, Buchet/Castel 1962), and the collection of short stories The insane of the Gods [Les Fous des Dieux, Buchet/Castel, 1975]as a thematic unity, something that Daniélou himself did when he decided to publish both of them later on under the title The Cattle of the Gods and other Gangetic Tales [Le bétail de dieux et autres contes gangétiques, Buchet/Castel, 1983].

(2) Even if the book deals stricto sensu not only with Dionysian religion but also with Etruscan gods and Mithraic mysteries.

(3) As he declares himself in an interview reproduced in Le mystère du culte du linga.

(4) René Guénon. Le roi du monde, Paris, Gallimard, 2009, p. 68.

(5) ”If we quote M. Ossendowski and even Saint-Yves, it is only because what they said can turn out to be a starting point for considerations that have nothing to do with what the one or the other thought, but rather with something the range of which goes far beyond their individualities“ (René Guénon. Le roi du monde, p. 11).

(6) That was a point of divergence between Daniélou and Guénon, since the former provides a clearly pagan background to his treatment of the sadhus – something that enabled him to delve later on into the religious heritage of pre-Christian Europe and draw some interesting parallels –, whereas the latter insisted that initiation [dīkṣā]requires a living religious institution as the only valid support for the effectiveness of that ritual – something that led him to privilege an institution like the Roman Catholic Church over all kinds of pagan alternatives.

(7) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 1994, p. 7.

(8) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 1994, p. 7.

(9) […]tasya yanmaṁsamāsīt / tato’ruṇāḥ ketavo vātaraśanā ṛṣaya udatiṣṭhan.

(10) For detailed information about this topic cf. Robert Lewis Gross. The Sadhus of India: A Study of Hindu Asceticism, Jaipur: New Delhi, Rawat Publications, 1992, pp. 21-22, and further D. R. Bhandarkar. Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Varanasi, Indological Book House, 1965, pp. 43-45 and G. S. Ghurye. Indian Sadhus, Bombay, Popular Prakshan, 1953, p. 13.

(11) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, p. 10.

(12) We mustn’t forget the meaning of the Sanskrit root tan-, “to expand”, from which the word Tantra derives. Daniélou compares the Tantric way of realization through the inclusion of forbidden elements to the restricted Vedic and Brahmanic religiosity. This opposition dates back from Kullūka Bhaṭṭa’s dichotomy of revelatory forms: vaidika – tāntrika, as expounded in his commentary on the Mānavadharmaśāstra 2. 1.

(13) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, p. 10.

(14) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, p. 8.

(15) René Guénon, Le Roi du Monde, p. 13.

(16) Cf. Robert Lewis Gross, The Sadhus of India, p. 113.

(17) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, p. 9.

(18) Alain Daniélou. Le Bétail des Dieux et autres contes gangétiques, p. 9.

(19) Gianni Pellegrini (ed.). L’uomo e il sacro in India. Svāmī Karapātrī, Venezia, VAIS, 2009, p. 11.

(20) Human sacrifices are nowadays still ascribed to some members of the Aghori sect in India. One should not forget Daniélou’s treatment of this issue in his book Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysos (especially pp. 168-169).