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- » A Talk with Alain Daniélou: Shiva-Dionysos Among Us
A Talk with Alain Daniélou: Shiva-Dionysos Among Us
The following interview, conducted by Arnaud d’Apremont, appeared for the first time in the magazine Le Monde Inconnu, N° 118, July-August 1990 (pp.10-15) under the French title “Rencontre avec Alain Daniélou: Shiva-Dionyos parmis nous”. It was republished in the French volume Approche de l’Hindouisme in 2007 with some minor changes under the title Shiva, Dionysos, Mithra.
It is interesting to see a text written in 1990 anticipating certain social and religious processes and events that without a doubt have become a problem over the past twenty-five years. While Alain Daniélou’s style is never devoid of a certain taste for polemic and his point of view should in many ways be re-adjusted to the present-day context, both content and message are surprisingly instructive, especially his emphasis on respect for creation, the need to perceive the inner aspect of things and the possibility of regaining our experience of the sacred beyond any abstruse search for gurus or tendency towards sectarian initiation – something that is a sign of weak personality rather than of progress in the spiritual life. The reader may decide which aspects of the interview can serve as an orientation for the most urgent cultural problems of our century.
The present text has been translated by Adrián Navigante, and revised by Ken Hurry.
Alain Daniélou could have devoted his life to his natal Brittany, but it was India that appealed to him. “Shiva Sharan” (such was his Hindu name) spent thirty years in that country, living among Indians on the banks of the Ganges in Benares. He has done his utmost to make Indian thought known in the West. Living nowadays in Italy, he occasionally comes to Paris, where we interviewed him.
– Why did you leave India, a country so dear to you, which even now remains the focus of your activities?
AD: I would say that it was India that left me when it fell into the hands of people who tried to reject their own tradition. It became clear to me that I had nothing else to do there, that it was time to leave the country. Nehru himself told me “You are interested in everything we want to destroy”.
– Didn’t you become persona non grata there anyway?
AD: No. I could have returned for short sojourns, but what is the point of doing that? When I lived in Benares, I led the life of a Hindu, I was immersed in that atmosphere. To what purpose should I see that country again from the room of a Hilton or Sheraton hotel, or even become a Hindu once more, just for fifteen days or so?
– It is said that the intelligence service agent who tailed you in India was the same one who took charge of Gurdjieff’s case.
AD: Exactly, right after she (the service agent was a woman) finished with Gurdjieff she was told to tail me. This woman was responsible for Gurdjieff being barred from Great Britain, but in my case she saved me from prison. After she was given the task of tailing me, a relationship gradually grew up between us. With friends of mine, we had fun removing letters from her name. She was called Juliette, so once it was Jules, another time Iette, or even Uliet. She even helped me during the Second World War. At that time French nationals were regarded as spies, so the British would have sent me to a concentration camp – of course, a very civilized one, but this woman avoided that.
– You left the riverbanks of the Ganges more than three decades ago. Today you live in Rome, and Italy is also the focus of your last book, Les contes du labyrinthe. The title of your biography was The Way to the Labyrinth. Do you have the impression that you somehow got lost in it? Or have you found a way out of that Labyrinth?
AD: Quite the contrary. I am right inside it. After looking for a home in Italy, I found out that the place of my choice was called from time immemorial ‘the Labyrinth’. It was a halt where Etruscan pilgrims stopped on their way to the temple of Praeneste dedicated to the goddess, whose priestess was the sibyl Vegoia.
– In your work, especially in your last book in which you express yourself most freely, you glorify ‘pleasure’ as the sole momentum that brings us close to the divine. Elsewhere, in Les contes du labyrinthe, you refer to artwork as a means of approaching the gods. After all, isn’t aestheticism rather than pleasure the real impetus to the divine?
AD: Aren’t pleasure and aestheticism two sides of the same coin? In the Indian texts, it says that aestheticism gives pleasure to the eye. There are other feelings as well. Ultimately, perception of the divine seems to me a profound sensation and experience of the supernatural.
– In Les contes du labyrinthe you are very critical towards monotheism and its view of creation. Does the problem lie in the fact that the monotheistic God is not manifest whereas a god should always be manifest?
AD: Monotheistic religions worship a vague and unreal entity. Instead of perceiving the multiplicity of worlds, they reduce the world to a kind of company director without employees. This simplification leads to the absurdity of amalgamating a human image with an unknowable principle. That is a remarkable muddle. For the rest, it is not the god’s manifestation that matters, but his representation made by man in order to apprehend that divine power.
– You advocate a tolerant and non-proselytizing religion. Don’t you in any way fear you may shock members of these so-called monotheistic religions?
AD: I do shock them, without a doubt, but I can’t stop doing it, because I speak about what I know. Nowadays we are witnessing a very dangerous time when the pyres of the inquisition are being lighted once more. People are burned because of their opinions. On my own rather humble level, I try to express the conception of life that I learned in India. This leads me to say, for example, that the gods are an unquestionable reality. It suffices to look for them in order to find them.
– What exactly would you advise people seeking that kind of thing?
AD: Try to feel the inner life of things. If you start realising that there are forces behind plants, climates, animals and minerals, you will discover that a kind of consciousness orders all things, and you may finally even become acquainted with it. In fact, it is not about ‘consuming’ the object through your five senses, but rather about paying attention to how it is made. In order to find the gods, you have to worship them through their creations, their images and their symbols. One of the first steps is without a doubt going into a deep forest to revitalize and get closer to the realities of nature. Those who do that today are few and far between. Ecology, which has become a main trend today, might be a good start, although it doesn’t produce the expected effects because its aim is not research into the reality of the world, but to profit from it.
– When you speak of deep forests, do you have any specific sacred places in mind that you can recommend?
AD: It is a matter of sensitivity. A sacred place is one where you perceive a certain presence and where you feel good. Some special places are sacred due to particular manifestations there. It is remarkable that a sacred place preserves its character from one religion to another. Most of them are quite well-known, perhaps even too well-known…
– Do you mean that if someone who is badly or not at all prepared for such an experience visits that kind of place, they get desacralised just like religious texts in the wrong hands?
AD: Absolutely. It is a serious matter when knowledge is conveyed to unprepared persons under inappropriate conditions. It is impossible to instruct the whole world on that level, and this trend indicates a dark future. Isn’t that the meaning of Kali Yuga? Nowadays we witness a dangerous proliferation of fake gurus. Lots of people of good faith fall into the hands of unprepared individuals preaching the most extravagant practices, and simultaneously worrying about what they are going to do that very evening or the day after. That is not serious at all.
– Do you need to go to the other side of the world to apprehend the divine?
AD: No. French seekers would get as much of the divine in the depths of the forest of Saint Germain as they would in any place in India, and perhaps even more so, because it is a place they feel familiar with, it is part of their own universe.
– Why did you go so far yourself?
AD: I wasn’t seeking anything. I was interested in music and little by little I discovered a prodigious civilization. Much later I left India simply because I was told that I would be much more use explaining the Hindu tradition to the rest of the world. The tradition of India is fundamental, because it is the only tradition of the ancient world that has remained alive. But as I said, it is not essential to go so far, because if you feel destined for the religious life, the divine reality is present wherever you are. And we mustn’t forget that you don’t have to look for a master, because it is the master who finds you when he needs a disciple to whom he can transmit his knowledge. In the meanwhile, just communicate with things and seek essential values wherever you are, whether in the forest or on the mountain. Perception of profound realities arises from contemplation of the beauty of the world, of an inner transformation, produced by this change in looking at reality.
– You affirm that the place is not so important, but do you feel that religiosity is expressed in the same way in the East and the West? In other words, have you met Westerners who are authentically and profoundly religious?
AD: Religions are one of the most foolish inventions of the human race. They belong to the domain of the absurd. Fortunately we can be religious in spite of religions. The religious impulse is in the first place a personal search: we have to worship the creator through his tangible creation. In this sense, all research leading to a deeper comprehension of nature and the beauty of the world is a personal experience and at the same time a religious one. The wonder of the artist, the discoveries of the scientist, the experience of pleasure, aesthetics, all that is religion. You can call it Shaivism, Dionysism, Mithraism or otherwise. After all, the name is not essential. Shiva, Dionysos, Mithras are aspects of the same principle, whose symbols, feasts and rites reveal the unity of a very ancient heritage. I have found in Shaivism signs common to all other religions. Only their myths and symbols differ. One of the main principles in India is to resist any form of proselytism, because it is impossible to indicate a path that suits all people. In the first place it is impossible because not everyone is at the same level of spiritual development. We have to give up dogmas and fixed structures, although that does not mean giving up all beliefs and not having any guiding principles. For Hindus, the swastika expresses this very idea. The central point of the swastika stands for fundamental and intangible unity, but its approach is not direct, because human beings are incapable of reaching that unity, and if they rigidly follow such unitarian logic, they get lost. So we have to know where to stop.
– You say we don’t need rigid structures, but when you take a look at monastic orders, don’t they seem to you a stronghold against present decadence?
AD: In a certain way, yes. In fact, everything that remains of the Shaivite tradition in India has been kept by the akhārā-s, or fraternities of warrior-monks. We shouldn’t forget that we have to be contemplative and active at the same time. In fact, the monks of many orders tend to forget the second aspect. Contemplation is something that belongs to the last phase of life, and there is also the question: Contemplation of what? This fundamental point is usually ignored because in most cases people have been unable to discover and understand life and the world.
– With regard to the Shaivite tradition that has been preserved, you recall in most of your books what Indian tradition teaches, that is, that we are moving towards the great cataclysm, the end of the present cycle. Why do Shaivites try to halt what according to their conception is inevitable?
AD: In the first place because we can always postpone a deadline, but most important of all because the attempt should prepare us for survival. The end of a cycle does not mean the last cycle and therefore the end of humanity. There will once again be a golden age, and we can try to take a certain number of things with us.
– What would in your opinion be worthy of being transmitted?
AD: The music of Schubert, the paintings of Turner. That would be wonderful! More seriously: we must always cherish the hope that something will remain of this universe.
– Even the gods are going to die?
AD: The principles they represent are immortal, it is only their personification that is mortal.
– Isn’t it amazing to find an exaltation of death, an acceptance of the killing of animals and plants in an author so closely linked to Hinduism? On the contrary, one would tend to imagine a vegetarian, who respects nature. Some years ago, you shocked Jacques Chancel when you declared that there are wars because human sacrifice was forbidden, that sacrifice is indispensable.
AD: Yes, that is true. We have to offer the gods the best we have, and it is possible to destroy life out of love. In India, war is the basis for the initiation of kṣatriya-s and warrior-monks, and there is nothing surprising about it. Life is, by the dynamics of nature, nothing more than destruction. Just open your eyes and look at the world. It is all life and death, alternating perpetually, ineluctably. Above all, we must not replace eternal laws with sentimental ideas. Dying may be sad, but it is necessary and contributes to the order and thus to the beauty of the world. Reducing religion to morality is generally speaking an obstacle to knowledge of the universe, but that is the problem with religions that focus exclusively on human beings instead of understanding the totality of the universe.
– Aren’t you actually an anti-humanist?
AD: Perhaps I am. The worst sin of human beings is arrogance. If we found a moral law going beyond man, we could come closer to reality as it is. But we have always tended to focus only on human society and to fence it off from the rest of the universe by means of rules against nature. That is the main problem with religions nowadays.
– The India you admire so much, this living tradition, was one of the first atomic powers. How does an ecologist like you react to that fact?
AD: India is in a crisis imposed by a social, religious and political system that is contrary to its spirit. For those who really know India, however, all that is very superficial. There have always been and will always be people who build up terrible destructive forces, just as there are wise men who lose their sense of responsibility. This also happens in very traditional societies, even in the Golden Age – which is what ushers in the second age.
– In the meantime, your latest work seems a little unfaithful towards India, because it is centred on Italy and evokes hidden realities, a parallel world of genius, beyond time and space, and it speaks of Mithras and of the Sun.
AD: The sun is the centre of everything in Mithraism – not only the culmination, but also the source. Human knowledge is limited, but these limits can be surpassed and we can then discover a hidden reality: the ancient gods are in this sense a reality, they never went away. Today certain branches of science are attempting once more to reach the fundamental cosmological principles, and action is gradually being reconnected with knowledge. In the ancient world, Christianity replaced Mithraism; it has taken over a world conception that was universal. Jesus Christ is a very agreeable figure and his message of love very appealing. But this message was distorted afterwards.
– So you have rediscovered the European path. Have you considered that the origins of European tradition are regarded as oral? You emphasize that Indian tradition was saved by the akhārā-s who preserved the secret texts. Do you confront oral and written tradition?
AD: Written tradition poses a problem. It is a dangerous phenomenon. In India, for example, written transmission is relatively recent, and stress is laid on what has been heard and remembered. It is dangerous to regard any written form as truth. Writing is destructive: for example, in Africa, there are brilliant people, but their knowledge is considered useless because of their oral tradition. So only those whose knowledge is very restricted but who know how to write have access to important functions. There is a terrifying form of superstition and imperialistic policy related to writing. The religions of the book were established according to the notions of a certain period, but with time they became distorted and lapsed, of course. The Hindus say that language is formed in four degrees: first, one has an idea; second, one finds a form for this idea; then one circumscribes it with approximate words; and, lastly, one expresses the sound and the word. If we return to the origin of the word, we tend to reach the universal.
– A language transcending languages could be astrology, which has an important place in your Contes du labyrinthe. Do you think that the modern world is likely to understand the true message of astrology, beyond all its mystifications?
AD: We are part of one of the cells in this universe with all its planets, and all the structures of this whole are found in everything the universe contains. Time is divided into cycles, which for humanity are four. Each one of these ages is in its turn divided into four parts and so on and so forth. From macrocosm to microcosm, everything mirrors the same structures. It would be illusory and even dangerous if what affects the upper levels were not to affect the lower in the same way. It is interesting therefore to delve into this kind of relationship. We should, as usual, be careful not to fall into any kind of dogmatism, and that is the real problem. Astrology might be an aid, and we should try to understand its laws. But who can claim to understand all these laws and is capable of imposing them on other individuals? It is this slipping of astrology into religion and its petrification that turns out to be dangerous.
– In The Way to the Labyrinth you evoked your own story more than twelve years ago, but you have accomplished much more: you have created libraries and institutes of comparative musical studies in Berlin and Venice. Have you achieved the goal of your existence? Is there anything you regret?
AD: I was interested in music, and that was the first thing that attracted me to India: the musical aspect of its culture. But I spent my life shifting from one subject to another, finding connections between different domains, and I enriched myself with each acquisition in order to deepen the focus of my research. Each time I attained relative proficiency in an art, I had to abandon it: piano, singing, Indian music, painting and other forms of artistic expression. I could have made a profession out of each one of them, but I was destined to be something else because each time I was sidetracked from my object of study and research. In this sense, I have some regrets, yes. But it is insignificant when I see everything I have done and how important this experience has been for me.
– Haven’t you ever wanted to teach what you learned?
AD: I have no right to do so, and that was the condition on which I received what I learned. I belong to a caste that cannot teach. In a certain sense, and as far as I know, that was René Guénon’s problem. He too received teachings from an Indian master when he was young. After that he took himself for a prophet, which is why his school is mediocre.
– And what about Julius Evola? He also attempted to bridge East and West and was very interested in subjects quite close to yours, such as Tantric yoga.
AD: Many aspects and intuitions of Evola are stimulating, but everything written in Western languages is alien to me.
– To conclude: if tomorrow a young man comes up to you and asks you to recommend a centre where he can be initiated, a true traditional centre where he can find part of that ancient knowledge transmitted by real masters, or, more simply: if he is European and asks you to tell him where he can find a Mithraic school after the fashion of the main character in your short-story Le don du soleil in Les contes du labyrinthe, what would you tell him?
AD: Nothing, since – I am sorry to say – I don’t know of any such place.
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