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Yoga and Religion: on Alain Daniélou’s “Method of Re-Integration”

Adrián Navigante – Alain Daniélou Foundation

Alain Daniélou - Zagarolo - Photo Jacques Cloarec
Alain Daniélou – Zagarolo – Photo Jacques Cloarec

Reading Daniélou’s book Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration today is quite a challenge. Not because the book was published in 1949 – since when Western perceptions of yoga have drastically changed from the first half of the XX century -, but rather because its contents and especially the framework of presentation notably differ from well-known treatises available to the ordinary Western reader today. As in other books dealing with the diversity and complexity of the Hindu tradition (such as his monumental Hindu Polytheism, published in 1964), Alain Daniélou does not endorse the scholarly point of view based on a scientific description of the sources, i.e. a strong desire for objectivity that usually forgets – or deliberately ignores – the complex question of what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the “history of effects” [Wirkungsgeschichte](1). He concentrates rather on the not-so-clearly-delimited line between primary written sources and oral transmission. This line depends on a fundamental orientation in thinking and experience; it is thin and diffuse, owing to the essential and paradoxical relation between the variety of historical transmission and the centrality of traditional authority: essential because transmission, being vertical, manifests and codifies itself in history, and paradoxical because the highest authority escapes legitimation. In this respect Daniélou clearly bases his interpretation of written sources on the authority of oral transmission, partly because he himself tackled the contents of Hindu tradition like any Shaivite acolyte (that is, receiving the “stream” of transmission: srota) through direct and permanent contact with paṇḍits and sannyāsins during his Benares period. But it was also because this was the key to proposing a new interpretation of archaic religious sources in Western culture, linking what he deemed a Dravidic substratum of Shaivism with such manifestations of Western religiosity as that of the Sumerian or Minoan heritage and later on with initiatic or mystery cults like the Dionysian in Greece or the Mithraic in Rome. Such topics are not at all alien to his yoga book. On the contrary, they define his understanding of the term “re-integration”, as we will see in the course of this essay and especially toward the end.

The introductory part of Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration consists of an exposition of the framework Daniélou deems necessary for a proper understanding of yoga itself. This framework also marks a particular approach that is initially difficult to grasp owing to the complex way in which it questions mainstream understanding of yoga related to the Vedāntic approach so widespread in Western culture. If we take classical definitions of yoga like that of the Katha Upaniṣad II.3.11: “yoga is the steady restraining of the senses” [yoga sthirā indriya dhāraṇā], the Yoga Yājnavalkya I.44: “Yoga is the union of the individual soul with the transcendental Self” [saṁyogo yoga jīvātma-paramātmanoḥ], or even Patañjali I.2: “Yoga is the coming to standstill of the whirls of consciousness” [yoga citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ], the difference between sense perception (and all modalities of individuated consciousness) and transcendent knowledge (or realization of the pure Self) appears to take the form of a judgement value, rejecting the former as a condition of achieving the latter. Vedāntic explanation of modes of non-knowledge [avidyā]can be easily joined to such yoga definitions just as they are applied to a central passage of one of the Mahāpurāṇas, the Śrīmadbhāgavata (III, 7.2.). In this mediaeval devotional text, the personified Self is said to be completely spiritual [cit-mātra], immutable [avikāra]and unadulterated by manifestation [nirguṇa](2). The whole aesthetic play of Krishna (including, of course, the erotic scenes with the gopīs) is thus justified by the word krīḍā and its opposition to kāma: Krishna – unlike human beings indulging in sensual pleasures – is detached and self-satisfied; he does not need that kind of pleasure because he lacks nothing. In the yoga practitioner the distillation process should therefore re-arrange the constitutive guṇas in order to purify his inner tendencies, his behaviour and lifestyle, since the practice of yoga is oriented toward the realization of the highest Self and not to mundane pleasures (3). Daniélou’s exposition of yoga challenges this assumption without wholly questioning the Yogic path of self-realization as a realization of Self. His exposition is threefold: 1. For him, the Yogic method does not reduce sense perception but amplifies it, leading to experiential knowledge of what is usually called “the supernatural”. 2. His transcendent aesthetics are linked to the type of knowledge identified in Hindu soteriology by the term avidyā. 3. With a Tantric turn based on his own interpretation of Shaivism, he detaches the path of self-realization from any moral imposition leading to drastic oppositions between “good” and “evil”, or between “pure” and “impure”. We will briefly take a look at each of these aspects.

From the very beginning, Daniélou relates the practical philosophy of yoga to an approach to the divine through the senses and not through the intellect. Apart from a critique of Platonic-Christian dualism, such a statement implies drastic modifications as to how classical yoga texts are to be interpreted, and Daniélou is fully aware of that. “The methods of yoga”, he writes, “may appear surprising and even offensive to the Westerner, imprisoned as he is in his conception of the superiority of the intellect, who finds some difficulty in understanding that any form of enjoyment, if not a realization of the Divine, is a first image of it, and that he only needs to go beyond this to find beatitude” (4). The kind of continuity between mundane enjoyment [bhoga]and spiritual union [yoga]may shock not only many a pious Christian but also more than a few orthodox Vedāntins, even when bhoga is assumed to be defined within the framework of viveka [discrimination, and therefore moderation]and is consequently preserved from utterly transgressive practices like those carried out by sects such as the Kapālikas and Aghoris. From Daniélou’s perspective, going beyond the pleasure of the senses does not involve rejecting such experience, but rather taking it to the point where it transcends itself. The main problem lies not in the limitations of the senses (to which one may counter the limitlessness of thought), but in finite modes of experience (that is, individuated perception and thought) with regard to a kind of knowledge free from all limitations yet still located within the realm of experience.

Daniélou retraces the transcendent modality of experience to animistic religion. While many theoreticians have characterized this archaic form of religious experience in a negative way (because the whole past century in the West can be seen as the offspring of Frazer’s The Golden Bough), Daniélou tends to retrieve its particular value, since animism “senses a conscious presence […]in all things” (5). To the secularized consciousness of the West, each thing has an objective status, involving an unbridgeable distance (an absence) between the subject perceiving it and the thing itself. Modern scientific thought proposes a transformation in absentia to compensate this loss by turning the thing into an object of analysis, but this is to the detriment of the natural order of things (the perception of which is, in a world dominated by the scientific attitude, embodied in the “merely subjective” realm of aesthetics). From Daniélou’s perspective, the perception of a conscious presence in each thing discloses a supernatural dimension within the immanence of nature – something that is invisible to the modern eye. Monotheistic religions are a dangerous simplification of the animistic attitude, because “they confined themselves more and more to the elaboration of a comforting fiction […]and to the pretence of issuing divine sanctions concerning man-made institutions” (6). From this passage it is clear that what Daniélou criticizes in monotheistic religions is the loss of any transcendent aesthetics leading to realization of the metaphysical level of existence through direct experience. It is precisely for this reason that he defines yoga as “the total religion” (7). The notion of totality is very important, since its main point is linking rather than severing: the metaphysical level is not separate from the physical; it is a continuation of it and can be achieved through an expansion of perception.

If we approach the problem of the opposition of metaphysical ignorance [avidyā or ajñāna]and transcendent knowledge [vidyā or jñāna], the fact of continuity in terms of degrees of perception does not imply that no specific technique is needed to achieve what Daniélou calls “perception of the divine” (8). Furthermore, the specific technique required to access the hitherto concealed dimension of experience can even be presented as a counter-movement to the perceptual habits of ordinary experience. This is the case of the fifth step in Patañjali’s yoga darśana, called pratyāhāra [withdrawal of the senses]. Daniélou’s explanation is quite clear: “The process of withdrawal consists in disentangling the senses, sight, hearing, etc. from the objects of their natural perception always linked with the opposing tendencies of attachment and aversion” (9). It is interesting to notice that he explicitly mentions two important forms of affliction [kleśa]from the five listed in the classical yoga doctrine: rāga and dveṣa (cf. Yogasūtra II, 3), but the others are implicitly present within the constellation of limited sense perception. If the senses are entangled (by permanent tension varying from attraction to rejection and vice versa) in the partial reality of the objects of their perception, limitation can be easily related to the individuated form of consciousness [āsmita = I-am-ness]that synthesizes experience and causes us to cling to life [abhiniveśa in the sense of mā na bhūvam bhūyāsam = let me not be non-existent]. The notion that explains this permanent limitation is avidyā, the sense of which is a privation of metaphysical knowledge (10), but this privation is for Daniélou a limitation in perception. That is why pratyāhāra is simultaneously the opposition to a habit and the extension of a faculty. What kind of perception can be achieved by disentangling the senses from objective reality? If cerebral activity is “the obstacle”, it is because the brain is the concrete instance of individuated consciousness, a “centripetal organ which makes each one of us the centre of the world” (11). This kind of centralization of experience occurring in each individual actually reveals itself as a fragmentation process in which each being loses its primordial contact with the rest. This primordial contact is the ontological identification that Daniélou aims at in describing the process of re-integration: the method of yoga “enables us to penetrate the most secret forms of matter and the universe, to perceive the nature of mental thought and consciousness” (12). With this last phrase he does justice to a fundamental idea of yoga philosophy: the progressive expansion of perception from limited sense awareness [indriya pratyakṣa]to mystic identification [yogi-pratyakṣa](13). The nature of mental thought and consciousness is certainly not to be found within the sphere of thought or individuated consciousness, but rather in the clear and direct intuition of “the indivisible complex consisting of thought, matter and life” (14). According to Daniélou, this direct intuition is mindful of that instinctive feeling of the supernatural that characterizes the earliest religions, in which “there is no dualism in the form of a distinction between God and the World” (15). In spite of the problematic homologation of the instinctive and the intuitive and the lack of nuanced consideration with regard to different forms of conscious activity and cognition throughout history, Daniélou’s rehabilitation of animism and the continuity line he traces with regard to yogic forms of perception remains a very interesting challenge in rethinking the crisis of modern man in the light of certain attitudes and methods deemed to be part of a distant past or structurally alien to Western development.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Daniélou’s book on yoga is the way he introduces fundamental Tantric variations to the classical conception of it, especially when determining the metaphysical value of yoga philosophy beyond all moral precepts. Many questions may arise at this point, some of which are impossible to answer within the frame of this essay: What does Daniélou understand by “morality” and to what extent is that judgement objective enough? Does he take into account – in his analysis of the classical yoga system – the abstinences [yama]and restrictions [niyama]that enable the sādhaka to follow the yogic path in a serious manner? Why does he isolate morality from other manifestations of cultural relativity preventing, in almost the same way, a radical metaphysical turn in the life of the practitioner? In what way can this turn be considered “Tantric” and what are its main features? Does Tantra, according to Daniélou, mean “utter transgression”? First and foremost, he declares quite clearly that since “the only aim of yoga is total re-integration, any other aim or tendency, be it worldly, religious, moral or intellectual, is […]an obstacle to yoga“ (16). In the practice of yoga ultimately leading to non-differentiation between absolute perception [yogi-pratyakṣa or nirvikalpa]and intuition of the absolute [pratibhā](17), all categories implying cultural distinction (even religion and thought) are to be overcome, and moral precepts fall within that category. Daniélou recognizes the main problem in attachment and the whole related spectrum of human bondage. On the level of human attachment, even pleasure (aesthetically celebrated by Daniélou himself) becomes a serious obstacle (18). However, the problem does not lie in pleasure itself, but rather in the modality of experiencing pleasure that depends on a reduced spectrum of conscious perception. In other words, there is for Daniélou a fundamental continuity in the three forms of life intensification: pleasure [sukha], happiness [prīti]and bliss [ānanda]. In this view, the state of dispassion [vairāgya]does not refer to any suppression of pleasure, but to non-identification with – and therefore non-dependence from – the finite object of perceptual stimulation. Daniélou does not forget that in Hindu mythology the intensity of pleasure acquires cosmogonic dimensions and the highest form of bliss has fundamentally erotic significance: “The state of repose or peace is […]represented by the union of opposites in a kind of continual coitus. Separation of the two poles creates instability, which gives rise to the creation of a universe of movement whose elements aspire toward union” (19). In reading this formulation and relating it to the uses of (detached) pleasure in Yogic practice, it is not difficult to see that we are confronted with some presuppositions of Tantric doctrines, especially the parallel between the microcosmic of the body and the macrocosmic forces of the universe and the tendency to harness desire [kāma]and all its related values to the service of deliverance (20).

Perhaps the clearest feature of Daniélou’s Tantric turn in his interpretation of classical philosophy and the practice of yoga resides in the role he ascribes to Shiva in the scheme of the three guṇas and its relationship with yogic soteriology. At the very beginning of his book, Daniélou paraphrases Patañjali’s well-known definition of yoga: “In order to understand yoga and its techniques it is essential to bear in mind that the incessant movement of cerebral thought forms a mist which conceals the Divine from our perception […]. To go beyond this all that is needed is to overpass the senses so as to perceive the inner harmony which underlies the harmony of the forms” (21). In Patañjali’s Yogasūtra I.2. yoga is associated with citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ, that is with a progressive purification of consciousness by means of which the confusion of identity between the fluctuation of mental processes [vṛtti]and the real state of pure and unlimited consciousness [puruṣa]is eliminated. In the most important exegetic treatise on the Yogasūtra, the reality of consciousness [citta]is characterized in terms of the three guṇas, in which sattva is associated with true knowledge [prakhyā]and has the nature of light [prakāśa](22), whereas tamas (as the opposite pole) is related to dispersion and therefore vice, false knowledge, attachment and a stupefied state of mind devoid of all supernatural insight [a-dharma-a-jñāna-a-vairāgya-an-aiśvarya](23). Thus the practical goal of yoga is seen (in spite of theoretical differences and rivalries) from the point of view both of Vedānta and the old school of Buddhism [theravāda]. Reintegration appears as a counterflow [pratiprasava]or an involution process of the guṇas, or in other words, movement away from the dispersion and numbness of consciousness represented by tamas. The main point is that, within this frame, the central goal can only be achieved by means of a “sattvification” of vṛttis leading to overcoming their effect as factors of affliction and suffering [kleśa, duḥkha]. With his emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of experience, Daniélou introduces another perspective that may very well be associated with vāmācāra, that is, the “contrary way” (or “left-hand practices”) of attaining self-realization, clear from his favourable treatment of desire and pleasure, which in his eyes do not lead to confusion, vice and perdition, but rather to religious voluptuousness as the ultimate expression of the divine (24). Daniélou relates the centrifugal force that disentangles individuals from their limited perception with Shiva, whose nature is not identified with sattva but with tamas. He explains this point very clearly in his book Hindu Polytheism: “Tamas, the centrifugal tendency, the tendency toward dispersion, dissolution, annihilation of all individual, cohesive existence, can be taken as the symbol of dissolution into non-Being, into the unmanifest causal Immensity. It thus represents liberation from all that binds, all that is individual and limited […].” “Tamas is associated with death, evil, inaction where action alone seems to bring results. Yet from the point of view of spiritual achievement, where action is the main obstacle, sattva is the lower state, that which binds with the bonds of merit and virtue, tamas is the higher state, that of liberation through non-action” (25). Such elaborations of Daniélou’s have a double basis: 1. The mode of classification of the genre “Purāṇas” as found, for example, in the Matsyapurāṇa (a work very often quoted by Daniélou), which states that the Purāṇas glorifying Shiva and Agni are those permeated by tamas (26). 2. A subversive line in the conception of self-realization, the sources of which can be found in a number of texts going from the Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad (between III c. BCE and I c. CE) to the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra (XVIII c. CE), in which tamas appears as primordial Non-being (27) and Shiva – as Mahākāla (dissolver of the universe) – is associated with the highest liberation (28).

The Shaivite component in Daniélou’s book on yoga is not only functional in introducing the perspective of self-realization based on the left-hand path as a valid option to the more widely known classical line. The first part of Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration also presents very provocative elements going beyond any immanent treatment of Shaivism within the Indian subcontinent and dealing with a very strong thesis on matters of comparative religion. One clear example of such elements is the affirmation that “the teaching of yoga and the Shaivite conception of the world have survived barbarian invasions and dogmatic religions by resorting to a greater or lesser degree of dissimulation, only to re-emerge whenever mankind turned anew toward the cultivation of true spirituality” (29). The barbarian invasions Daniélou talks about are those of the Aryans (30) and among the dogmatic religions not only Christianity and Islam receive Daniélou’s attention but also Buddhism, Jainism and even Vedism (31). On the other side we are presented with a constellation of Indo-Mediterranean elements pointing to a religion of direct experience that Daniélou identifies (even with some Nietzschean undertones) as “Shaivite-Dionysiac” (32) and puts forward as a possible solution for the crisis of the modern Western world. From this point of view, the meaning of “re-integration” seems to change (or expand) from an individual axis of spiritual liberation to a collective one of cultural regeneration, and it revolves around those religious proto-forms that were never lost but remain at a seemingly unbridgeable distance from the immediate possibilities of our civilization (even within the framework of small communities). Faced with such enigmatic and daring intuitions, the reader desirous of doing justice to the tenor of the book is compelled to embark on a thorough consideration of the intricate link between Tradition, time and the modality of existence of what is called “the supernatural” but ultimately belongs to the unexplored spheres of the immanence of nature. Be that as it may, the amplification method of Daniélou’s yoga book remains a challenge on different levels, far beyond the book’s remarkable technicalities in both analysing and summarising the subject matter.

(1) Cf. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, in: Gesammelte Werke, Band 1, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 1990, pp.305-312.
(2) Nirguṇa literally means “devoid of qualities”. The term guṇa is related to a triad of ontological qualities metaphorically depicted as three colours (white, red and black corresponding to sattva = clarity or light, rajas = agitation or excitement and tamas = darkness or lethargy). This idea can be traced back to the earliest Upaniṣads (for example Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.4. or Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 4.5.) and finds its full expression in the Sāṁkhya philosophy, according to which the guṇas are constituents of the single cause of creation [prakṛti]. It should be pointed out that according to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa “there is ultimately no ontological distinction between the Brahman of the Upaniṣads, the Paramātman of the yogins and the Bhāgawan of the Bhakti tradition” (D. P. Chattopadhyaya (ed.), History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Volume XVI, Part 4: Synthesis of Yoga, edited by Kireet Joshi, Delhi, Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2011, p. lvvii).
(3) A clear example of this is given in the Bhagavad Gīta XVIII, 36-39, in which the division of the guṇas is recaptured on the level of “types of pleasure” [sukha]. Tamasic pleasures like sleep, sloth and distraction, and rajasic enjoyment (related to the senses) have a clearly negative connotation, whereas sattvic enjoyment is the only real elixir – precisely because of its spiritual nature.
(4) Alain Daniélou, Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, London, Johnson, 1973 (fourth printing), p. 3.
(5) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 5.
(6) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 6.
(7) “Yoga is the total religion because it does not separate the metaphysical level from the physical and mental levels“ (Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 9).
(8) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 3.
(9) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 82.
(10) This completes the scheme of Patañjali’s verse on the kleśas: avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśaḥ kleśāḥ (II, 3).
(11) Alain Daniélou, Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, p. 3.
(12) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 10.
(13) The term pratyakṣa is very important because it points to the immediate evidence of perception. Buddhist thinkers of the Vijñānavāda tradition (notably Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti in the VI and VII centuries CE) developed a useful classification of the types of pratyakṣa covering the different spheres of perceptual cognition, most surely with the aim of giving a more precise definition of the term itself.
(14) Alain Daniélou, Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, p. 7.
(15) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 6.
(16) Alain Daniélou, Ibidem., p. 130.
(17) “The Self-consciousness, which is All-consciousness, is Pratibhā in the light of which all things are simultaneously (akramam) and in all their aspects [sarvathāviṣayam]revealed. It constitutes the highest mystic acquisition of the yogin” (M. M. Gopniath Kaviraj, Selected Writings, Delhi, Indica, 2006, p. 18).
(18) As Daniélou himself openly recognizes in his analysis of Yoga Darśana, cf. Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, pp. 130-131.
(19) Alain Daniélou, The Hindu Temple. Deification of Eroticism, Rochester: Vermont, Inner Traditions, 2001, p. 8. Cf. also Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad I, 4.3., also quoted by Daniélou.
(20) Cf. Madeleine Biardeau, Hindouisme : anthropologie d’une civilisation, Paris, Flammarion, 1981, pp. 149-150, cf. Hugh Urban, The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies, London: New York, I.B. Tauris, 2010, p. 19.
(21) Alain Daniélou, Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, p. 3.
(22) Cf. Yogasūtra II.18. and its direct association of sattva with light.
(23) Yogabhāṣya I.2.
(24) “The divine state is a state of joy, of immense happiness and well-being, and it is in sex that our power of enjoyment is concentrated, a power which, for an instant, enables us to partake of the beatitude of the divine state” (Alain Daniélou, Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, p. 14).
(25) Alain Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India. The Classical Work on Hindu Polytheism, Rochester: Vermont, Inner Traditions, 1991, pp. 22-23 and p. 26.
(26) Matsyapurāṇa, 53. 68-69. This passage is commented by Greg Bailey in his essay on the Purāṇas written for Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, see: Knut Jacobsen (ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Volume II: Sacred Texts, Ritual Traditions, Arts, Concepts, Leiden: Boston, Brill, 2010, 134.
(27) “Verily this was first only tamas” [tamo vā idaṁ agra āsīt], Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad, 52. Cf. Mahānirvāṇa Tantra 4.9.
(28) Mahānirvāṇa Tantra 4.30. In a footnote to his translation, John Woodroffe adds, “A Tāmasic form of Śiva as He who dissolves all, under which he is represented as of a black colour of terrific aspect” (cf. John Woodroffe, The Great Liberation (Mahānirvāna Tantra), Madras, Ganesh and Company, 2006, p. 69.
(29) Alain Daniélou. Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, p. 7.
(30) The Aryan invasion thesis is nowadays not only contested by some historians but also virulently rejected by Indian authors attempting a strongly homogenous reconstruction of their own tradition. In the case of Daniélou it has to be borne in mind that his arguments are (like those of the supporters of the migration theory) linguistic in nature and focus on a rehabilitation of a native substratum of Indian culture alien to (and logically older than) Vedic civilization. Klaus Klostermaier is right in saying that “the scholarly debate has largely degenerated into an ideological battle” (A Survey of Hinduism, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 20), so the question (for which there is no substantiating evidence on either side) does not deserve further treatment, at least within the frame of this essay.
(31) There is of course a nuanced consideration of some of them, something that may escape the attention of a reader who remains on the surface of Daniélou’s provocative style. He recognizes the value of Suffism, Vajrayāna or Tantric Buddhism, the teachings of Jesus in the canonical and apocryphal Gospels (on condition of their being detached from the message of St. Paul), and the social stability and coherence of Indian society based on Brahmanic principles.
(32) “The interest, although ill-informed, aroused today by yoga and Indian thought is perhaps an indication of a return to Shaivite-Dionysiac concepts in the disturbed world of our time“ (Alain Daniélou, Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration, p. 7).