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Photo: Jacques Cloarec
PRE-ARYAN SHAIVITE CULTURE: A TRADITION TO BE RECOVERED INTERVIEW WITH ALAIN DANIELOU
Translation from the French by Adrián Navigante. Revision by Kenneth Hurry
An interview with Alain Daniélou concerning the millenary wisdom of the Shaivite tradition (into which he was initiated by orthodox Hindus in Benares), its relationship with Dionysian religion and the importance of recovering such cultural references today. This interview was originally published in the monthly Aurore in the year 1985, shortly after publication of the first edition of While the Gods Play (French title: La fantaisie des dieux et l’aventure humaine). Now, for the first time, it has been translated into English, with minor adaptations and changes.
Q | La fantaisie des dieux et l’aventure humaine, could you explain the choice of this title?
A | In the Shaivite tradition, the gods are playful beings and the world is the playground of their games and pleasure. It is like a theatre stage where man, much like the other beings, is a kind of spectator. Creation would have no sense without living beings to admire it. The principle of creation needs different perspectives or ‘views’ constituting the audience of the divine play [līlā], and human beings have a particularly important role in this context: they are at the same time spectators and actors. Since they are endowed with a conscious function, they bear a heritage of knowledge that enables them to maintain their role through the different stages of their evolution.
Q | You establish a historical relationship between the Shaivite tradition and the Dionysian when you explain that the origins of the latter can be traced back (at least partially) to the Dravidians. In what way exactly?
A | We didn’t know anything about the Cretans until the beginning of the XX century. Recently we have come to know that this civilisation is apparently linked on the one hand to the Sumerians and on the other hand to the Hindus. Little by little we realise that many things considered Greek were in fact taken from the Cretans. In India, a great part of what we know about the Vedic civilisation, that is, Brahmanism, does not originally stem from the Aryans but from the ancient Dravidian civilisation that the Aryans attempted to destroy. This civilisation had a writing system and a cultural network in various parts of the world. Upon the arrival of the Aryans, the use of stone for building as well as the system of writing completely disappeared and remained absent for a period of about a thousand years. A similar phenomenon took place at that time in other parts of the world: Celtic and Druid civilisations also experienced the Aryan taboo against writing. It is for this reason that nowadays we know nothing about their rituals. From 6000 to 2000 BCE we know nothing of this civilisation except for its survival in India. Indeed, Shaivism persisted in spite of the Aryan domination: its rites as well as its esoteric texts were disguised until the beginning of our era. Once collected and translated into Sanskrit, they provoked a prodigious renaissance that lasted until the Islamic invasions of the XII century. Very few of these texts were translated into European languages. It is also interesting to examine the manuscripts inscribed on clay tablets dating back to between 3000 and 4000 BCE and belonging to a civilisation coupled to the Sumerian. These manuscripts actually serve as authentication for those of the Indus valley and reveal remarkable knowledge of the nature of the universe, the origin of matter and life, astrophysics, biology, evolution and the relationship between thought and language.
Q | In what form have these Sumerian texts come to light and what can we learn from them?
A | They are a cuneiform system of writing. Whole libraries were discovered, but only now have we begun to decipher their meaning. The Hittite versions of the Gilgamesh epic are the only texts we know so far, but there are many others. Their content enables us to establish certain matches with what the Indians had preserved of their own oral tradition. We only possess transcriptions dating back to a much later period. For example, one German scholar has carried out research on the plans of Shaivite temples dating from the beginning of our era and has discovered that these plans are identical to those of Sumerian temples. This culture has been preserved by symbols, so it should be possible to prove its coherence and continuity. University scholars, however, are so overcautious that sometimes their statements produce absurdities. For them, a text does not exist until they find a written document. They don’t consider that in the history of humanity oral tradition plays an essential role, and that most written documents are very recent. Even the Gospels were written a century after Christ’s death, which means that the ‘witnesses’ are not exactly his contemporaries. There is no scripture preserved in its original form. The Sanskrit language was transmitted orally to begin with, through versified and condensed forms. This ensured memorization, transmission and preservation of content and the meaning of the language. Scholars say that the Upanishads date back to that time, but how do they know that? Everything was written down, in both the Vedic and Shaivite traditions, only starting from the 4th century BCE, that is, when the Persians reintroduced a writing system in India, after the Buddha.
Q | Aren’t the Upanishads the product of Vedic culture?
A | The Upanishadic texts are the result of many elements stemming from the Shaivite tradition, which were in turn transformed and given a refined form in classical Sanskrit. The texts of the Shaivite renewal were, on the contrary, the product of a major revolution against Brahmanism and were not written by people who were great men of letters. The language of those texts is a form of popular Sanskrit with no trace of classical refinement.
Q | It would be useful to describe briefly the particularities of Shaivite and Vedic civilization at the time in which they co-habited…
Man has a special role among living species based on his power of knowledge, which makes him a witness of the play of creation and grants him the highest possibilities of development
A | They were two completely different civilizations. The Shaivites were a sedentary people who lived in big cities. They had already attained a high degree of refinement.
Q | Was there any caste system?
A | Most probably there was a caste principle, but the castes were created after the radical division from the nomadic Aryans who destroyed the cities and proclaimed racial superiority. There was a first division and afterwards further divisions were introduced. A social organization was created to allow the different types of population to coexist in Indian territory. The Brahmins, who were actually the Vedic priests, took the place of Shaivite pontiffs. Even today, in great Shaivite temples, Brahmins officiate on certain days and Shudra priests on other days. Shaivite ascetics, who are sometimes also great teachers, must not attach themselves to monasteries or material possessions. This is what enables this esoteric tradition to be preserved: the fact that it is not controlled by public authorities. Shaivite ascetics appear and disappear, and nobody knows who they are.
Q | Through these ancient texts, you remind the reader of a millenary wisdom and emphasize the urgency of understanding the sense of these texts. Why now?
A | Ancient Shaivism has a singular conception of the nature of the world, cosmology, matter, time and space and subtle beings, as well as a theory of evolution and cycles revealing the birth, growth, decline and extinction of living beings. According to these texts, the human species is nowadays under a great threat because it has ceased to play the role assigned to it in the order of creation. If we wish to survive, it is very important to understand the role that we are supposed to play in the cosmic context so that the destruction of the world will not be imminent.
Q | Could you define the role ascribed to man according to these texts?
A | Man has a special role among living species based on his power of knowledge, which makes him a witness of the play of creation and grants him the highest possibilities of development. It is through the eyes of human beings and through the capacity of their brain that the Creator contemplates his own work.
Q | You also say: “the destruction of mankind occurs when the transmission of esoteric knowledge finds no recipient to receive that heritage”. What does the word ‘recipient’ refer to?
A | When a species evolves towards its own realisation, there is not only an intellectual and spiritual knowledge of being, but also a transmission through initiation. A real bearer of knowledge is not merely satisfied with what he knows; he must transmit this knowledge in order to make it evolve. In the same way, one who knows the secrets of nature, the world and the divine is responsible for transmitting this knowledge and ensuring the evolution of his species. That is the role of the guru. But of course, he must only transmit this knowledge to somebody worthy of receiving it. The difficulty of our times is to find spiritual heirs.
Q | You also write that Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet has managed to reincorporate many aspects of Shaivism and thus to integrate itself into an ancestral tradition. This seems reassuring with regard to the preservation of knowledge.
A | Buddhism was originally a rather social and moral religion, a reaction against Vedic religion. After several centuries, it was completely reformed. Viewing the different deities of Mahayana, people say ‘this Buddha is Lakshmi’, or ‘that Buddha is Saraswati’, or ‘that one is an aspect of Shiva’, etc. All these Hindu gods and goddesses were integrated into a Buddhist terminology that perfectly matches ancient Shaivism.
Q | There is still some kind of oral tradition. Is that in your opinion a way to gain access to traditional teachings?
A | Of course. Since the Shaivite renewal, a quantity of important texts – originally transmitted orally – has been transcribed in Dravidian languages and Sanskrit, for example the Puranas, Agamas, Tantras, and also the techniques of Shaivite Yoga. At the same time, a living tradition remains with its rites and customs. Temple builders, for example, still know certain symbols and proportions and when they build a temple, they aim at communication with the supernatural. These things are living realities, but nowadays nobody seems to take any interest in them. I knew certain castes of builders who would complain saying “we are no longer commissioned to build palaces or temples; engineers are now in charge of constructing of buildings on the basis of concrete paving, which won’t even last fifty years”. In Benares, there is a living Shaivite transmission that is kept secret. The monks bearing this esoteric tradition were first persecuted by the Aryans, afterwards by the Buddhists, later on by the Muslims and the British colonisers, and have therefore became very prudent with their teachings. It is not at all easy to access the highest sources of knowledge, but at the same time there is, in principle, no difficulty. You must show that your search is not mere curiosity, and you can become a receptacle of that knowledge. Today, it is terrible to see Westerners who are interested in certain aspects of spiritual culture and life flocking to fake gurus and getting cheated.
Q | In your book La fantaisie des dieux et l’aventure humaine you write: “Man has a double nature, and a double role in creation. On the one hand to transmit and develop the characteristics of the species, on the other hand to hand down the heritage of knowledge, as a result of being endowed with consciousness”.
A | Of course, at a certain level knowledge is perception of another reality and the relationship one can establish with it. At another level, it is the heritage of the progress of that knowledge. These distinctions are very clear in Sanskrit. Each human being is part of a ‘physical chain’, but also part of an ‘initiatic chain’ (which is the same as a chain of knowledge), but individually he/she has to ensure his/her own development and self-perfection. These domains coexist, but they refer to different obligations, sometimes contradictory to one another. If you really feel the need to understand the nature of beings and the world, the initiatic tradition will guide you in a process that can be defined as the evolution of knowledge.
Q | Is an intellectual approach to knowledge through conceptualization sufficient on the level of spiritual search? Isn’t there rather a knowledge that must be ‘experienced’?
A | In order to ‘experience’ this knowledge, one has to encounter a true yogi, but the mere fact of the approach I already mentioned is already very important.
Q | You also say that the heritage of knowledge cannot disappear completely. Can you explain why?
A | Of course. If a certain form of knowledge is part of what human beings must know about the universe in order to assume their own role, it cannot disappear without mankind entirely disappearing with it. The world does not develop just by chance. What bothers geneticists is the fact that the final product is already contained at the moment of birth. In the same way, all elements of the human genre are present from the very beginning of its existence, even if it takes millennia to express them.