INTRODUCTION TO FIND’S FORUM 2021 ON ALAIN DANIÉLOU “LABYRINTH TRACES”
The following text reproduces Adrián Navigante’s introduction to FIND’s Forum “Transcultural Encounters 2021”, focused on the work and thought of Alain Daniélou. FIND’s Forum 2021 gathered researchers from different disciplines, from Indology and Tibetology to Philosophy, Anthropology and Musicology. Its main purpose was to reflect on the aspects of Alain Daniélou’s thought that can be an inspiration for the XXI century both on an intellectual and artistic level.
The twisted path of knowledge
“The path of knowledge is twisted [vakra]1”, writes Alain Daniélou in Shiva and Dionysus. The reference to Bṛhādaraṇyaka-Upaniṣad is easy to recognize2, but – as usual – Daniélou plays with it: he explores its semantic limits and introduces a perspectivist shift. The Upanishad says that knowledge of Brahman (the highest form of knowledge) is of the kind of ontological identification: aham brahmāsmi. The first one who realized that type of knowledge was Brahman itself: an act of cosmogonic self-recognition; an act out of which the world arose. The moment Brahman realized the equation of its own identity (or being) through non-identity (or becoming), each instance of difference (that is, each individuated being in the world of multiplicity) was automatically capable of realizing ‘I am Brahman’ [aham brahmāsmi], since the latter is – in the context of the early Upanishads – the core of reality to which they are all related and the totality they all compose. Now, for Daniélou, the full identity of Brahman became unreachable from the very moment in which multiplicity arose as such. In place of identity, connection – in the sense of ‘tie’ or ‘bond’ [pāśa]– prevails, and the gods desire to protect that order of interconnectedness, which is why they don’t want humans to gain knowledge [brahmavidyā]: if they did, they would know the whole, they would lose perspective. The twisted path, vakramārga, is at the same time the emergence of the triangle of the Goddess (Vakrā) out of the bindu: vakramārga (twisted path) as vakrāyāmārga (path of the goddess). What is brahman without its ontologically creative self-awareness? What is the self [ātman]without a corresponding body of energies [adyāśakti, primal force]? The “twisted path” is for Daniélou the experience of Life, where the “twisting” is combined with the “(un-)folding”: it is a Labyrinth. Nothing can make its deployment retroactively implode, nothing can spare us deviations, detours and roundabouts along the path(s). The fact that human beings can neither eliminate the dimension of mystery nor entertain the illusion of grasping it first-hand accounts for the reciprocity between “divine fantasy” and “human adventure”.
Picking up the (Labyrinth) traces
The twisted path of knowledge consists of different elements brought together in a logic of integration. In order to understand Alain Daniélou’s life and thought, one has to read them – and re-read them, many times – with cartographic attention, picking up the traces he left and trying to put them together, rethinking at the same time their validity in our present context. This includes also a study of the reception of his thought, mainly of two opposite trends which I may term “scholarly” and “esoteric”. In a way, Daniélou himself called for that type of reception, since on the one hand he did scholarly work (translations and interpretations of classical Hindu texts, fieldwork and theoretical insights into traditional Indian music, research into the history and pre-history of South Asian culture, etc.), and on the other hand he was influenced by authors related to the Perennialist trend, mainly by René Guénon, whose prescriptive Hinduism (in the usual form of “universal Vedanta”, not very different from Radhakrishnan’s Hindu View of Life3) was diametrically opposed to the procedures of modern and secular research. For the scholarly reception, Daniélou did not have a really substantiated knowledge of Indian culture, because he did not share the epistemological tools and methods of the Western (and Westernized) university elite: the most flagrant example is his interpretation of Shaivism as a pre-Aryan, ecstatic religion of Nature with animistic basis. In the esoteric field, he was repudiated because he showed aspects of the Hindu tradition quite opposed to its spiritualized reception, such as the relationship between eroticism and the divine, some transgressive aspects of Tantric rituals and a critical attitude towards a certain fetichism of initiation and an overemphasis on soteriology (as opposed to the restricted role of mokṣa in the context of the puruṣārthas).
Neither the scholarly nor the Perennialist elements of his work provide the key to grasp the complex and evasive character of Daniélou’s thought. In fact, they can even be misleading, especially if used as an exclusive criterion to decide on the objective validity4 of his ideas and statements. Daniélou operated in different registers (music, philosophy, religion, literature, etc.) and displayed a perspectivist view of the phenomena he dealt with. To render things more complicated, he did not reject the type of approach that replaced critical distance by empathic identification. He did not only write about Shaivism, also (and mainly) as a Shaivite, but his Shaivism was at the same time permeated by a profound awareness and a constructive use of his mleccha-status. If we thoroughly examine his life, the status of mleccha (foreigner, stranger) began already in his childhood in Brittany and persisted not only in India but also after his return to Europe during the last period of his life5. What he mainly owed to India was a protean reeducation of perception and cognition, encompassing a broad spectrum from exchanges with pandits on Upanishadic, epic and Shastric Literature to oral teachings of ritual specialists about Tantric techniques of empowerment as well as traditional learning of Hindustani music. In all this, Daniélou was not mimetic (as he sometimes said he had been), but (re-)creative. He adapted the results of his reeducation – to a greater or lesser degree – to new contexts, availing himself of the main elements he had elaborated for his own life. In this sense, it is useless to expect a reconstruction of those contents, for example the contents of Shaivism, exclusively based on objective standards of epigraphy, history and philology. Scholarly reconstruction is led by a “will-to-truth” whose condition of possibility is the exclusion of every trace of subjectivity. For Daniélou, subjectivity is essential, not as a sign of impulsiveness and arbitrariness, but rather as an opening to levels of understanding inaccessible to objective vivisection. “Objectivity”, for its part, is no neutral position of universal validity, but a culturally conditioned way of constructing reality, and in many cases a strategy of domination.
In his book on Afro-American religions Petersilie (1976), German ethnologist and writer Hubert Fichte declared that the discipline of ethnology should be “poetically set free”6. This is no romantic or naïve affirmation. Quite the contrary, Hubert Fichte followed a programmatic initiative carried out decades before by French sociologist Roger Bastide, whose work is built on a fertile logic of tension between the poetic and the scholarly. In 1946 Bastide wrote an essay in Portuguese A propósito da poesia como método sociológico, in which he introduces poetic intuition as a tool to bridge the cultural distance between the observer and the phenomenon being studied. Bastide’s attitude is not a mere rejection of positivistic standards, but a plea for transformation of hermeneutic parameters, since poets are – at least in modern societies – incarnations of displaced thought and habits regarding the dominant standards of cultural identity. There is a dimension of subjectivity in which impressions, perceptions and feelings encroach on the collective dynamics of the foreign culture, especially when the researcher blurs the limits between his own mechanisms of world-configuration and those of the other culture7. The result of this process is not the end of scholarship (it suffices to read Bastide’s best-known book Le Candomblé de Bahia to attest the quality of his work), but a reframing of it or, more precisely, an end to the belief that the world-configuration of the scholar incarnates the neutral parameter and sheds an unprecedented light on the observed phenomenon. Bastide’s monumental book Les religions africaines au Brésil (1960) bears the subtitle “towards a sociology of the interpenetration of civilizations” [vers une sociologie des interpénetrations des civilisations]. His use of the term “interpenetration” does not only refer to the bidirectional acculturation between Africa and Brazil, or to the intricate dynamics and tensions within the universe of Candomblé, but also to a topological transformation of ethnographic research. Through immersion in the culture of “the other”, a change of position takes place in the researcher, and the last bulwark of resistance lies in the intellectual tools the researcher makes use of. Such tools cannot be distinguished from the (unconscious) conviction of the ability to objectively (= unprejudiced) understand the other.
Ethnology and Philology: India and beyond
The ideological dimension of scientific objectivity not only entails domination strategies, but also un-reflected prejudices. Hegel was convinced that the Indian spirit was dominated by “phantasy” as opposed to “reason”8. This position was inherited – among many other authors – by Irish Indologist Vincent Smith (1843-1920), whose views on India’s lack of political unity and historical awareness went hand in hand with the conviction of Indology as a “natural science” (a conviction shared, among others, by Max Müller). The basic idea is that “nature” (in the singular) is the realm of objectivity discovered by Western science, which would ensure the spread of universally valid knowledge as opposed to the particular, fragmentary and changing habits of non-European “cultures” (in the plural). This is quite clear in Sir Monier William’s Religious Thought and Life in India (1883), a book from which one could extract a schematic classification of prejudices towards Indian traditions – basically on three levels: 1. Brahmanism as impersonal monistic pantheism, 2. Hinduism (Vaishnavism and Shaivism) as personal dual theism and 3. Local traditions related to Shakta cults as a form of disease “which is best expressed by the term of demonophobia”9.
The ideological dimension of scientific objectivity not only entails domination strategies, but also un-reflected prejudices.
Monier-Williams’s scheme seems far from the exercise of Indology today. However, Roland Inden (from the University of Chicago), in his book Imagining India (1990), expresses his conviction that we cannot so easily walk away from the naturalist discourse of the XIX century. Humanist dissenters, writes Inden, “have justifiably claimed that the subjectivity of others has to be taken into account […]. Yet, their challenge has been less formidable than it might first seem. Most have taken a position that supplements or complements the absolutist position of the naturalists rather than replacing it”10. Scientific objectivity not only dies hard but may surprisingly flourish in non-European contexts to the detriment of autochthonous traditions. From Brajendranath Seal’s The Positive Science of Ancient Hindus (1915) to the nationalists’ attempts of today to prove that the “scientificity” of the Vedic tradition equates the insights of Albert Einstein or Werner Heisenberg: the drastic and violent reduction of the manifold world-configurations in the Indian Subcontinent to a homogeneous naturalism with metaphysical appendices shows rather a history of Indian submission to the modern Western spirit than strategies and politics of resistance. At the same time, metaphysical conceptions prove to be impotent against intellectual colonialism the moment they become functional for a comfortable exercise of comparatism. Classical Chinese and Hindu culture – that is, the urban and written culture of socio-religious elites – could very easily be integrated into a general law of spiritual progress – the peak of which was European Christianity. In this sense, Brajendranath Seal’s notion of Hinduism as a guide to the regeneration of universalist (European) values and Sarvepalli Radakrishnan’s idea of Vedanta as philosophia perennis amalgamating the ultimate meaning of East and West also follow a logic of submission.
What I described earlier with regard to ethnology, namely the discipline’s internal critique of its own presuppositions and certainties, has barely reached the philological field in South Asian Studies. Texts are palimpsests of historical and geographical layers, not only of different contexts but also of different world-configurations. What is the point in reconstructing the meaning of a text using the world-configuration of the interpreter (let’s say as “methodological desideratum”), if the interpreter does not work on the assumptions turning his own position into an unquestionable parameter of neutrality? Alain Daniélou rejected the use of the prefix “ethno-” because, in his time, it was the mark of an asymmetrical relationship between the researcher and its object, or in other words: the delimitation of particular values (of foreign cultures) from the universal value of the judgements (of European researchers) about “the foreign” or “the other”. Today, the status of the prefix “ethno-” is precisely the opposite. At the end of the XX century, ethnology reached the point of questioning not only the methods to be applied in the field of research, but also the lens through which the other is experienced before it is analyzed and described. This was called the “ontological turn in anthropology”, from which emerged the awareness that modern Western scholars are as “ethno-” as the others (non-Western, non-scholars), but without knowing it11. Daniélou’s Labyrinth can be seen as an indirect anticipation of that turn.
In the light of the massive transformations brought about by scholarly self-critique – especially since the “ontological turn in anthropology” –, Daniélou’s vocabulary may seem imprecise and rather old-fashioned; his radical anti-Western position may appear as a one-sided, context-bound reaction against a project of global dominance; his approximation to Perennialism becomes acceptable only as a counterbalance to his defense of the scientific method in the face of fundamentalist dogmas. But Daniélou’s insights and ideas went far beyond his vocabulary as well as his polemic declarations and reactions. Almost everything one may think about Daniélou at face value proves to be inadequate in taking his own “labyrinth traces” seriously. He praised classical Brahmanical orthodoxy, but he was quite heterodox in his intellectual modus operandi, which extended to non-Aryan, even marginal or tribal cultures of the Indian subcontinent. He declared himself a Shaivite, but Shaivism was for him no theistic trend within Hinduism; it was rather a hermeneutical tool providing access to world-configurations alien to the Western cultural complex of “monotheism-enlightenment”. The conceptual pair “Shaivite-Dionysian” provides evidence of the risks he took in his own exercise of “transversality”. In the last period of his life, not only did he amplify the horizon of his research to include African traditions (in the 1970s and 1980s) and Amerindian local cultures (in the 1990s), but he also radicalized his shift from the past towards the future. He wanted not only to reconstruct the values of different cultures he thought necessary to rethink ours, but also and particularly to incorporate a modality of experience susceptible of modifying our own world-configuration. He didn’t want to renounce the dignity of actively opposing a uniformed Weltanschauung and rescuing the necessary elements so as to account existentially for the diversity and richness of the manifested world. For Daniélou, the world does not exist as a complete whole that can be discovered by a sudden metaphysical insight or progressively by objective science. On the contrary, the world actualizes itself through different modalities of being, each one of which is fully complete, consistent and reasonable. It is that gesture that FIND Intellectual Dialogue intends to pursue, mainly because it is now becoming a call for another kind of humanism, in which not only the frontiers of the West are surpassed, but also the idea of the human that has prevailed so far – also involving a redefinition of the non-human and the hierarchy of beings and relations. Those are the aspects that I would like to emphasize in our discussion during the Forum, far beyond the certainties that each one of us carries within the immanence of our own field. This Forum about Alain Daniélou aims at recovering his transversal dignity, which for him was much more essential than his intellectual certainties.
For Daniélou, the world does not exist as a complete whole that can be discovered by a sudden metaphysical insight or progressively by objective science. On the contrary, the world actualizes itself through different modalities of being, each one of which is fully complete, consistent and reasonable.
- Alain Daniélou, Shiva et Dionysos, Paris 1979, p. 155.
- Eṣām [devānām] tan na priyam yad etan manuṣyā vidyuḥ [aham brahmāsmi], literally: “to those [gods] it is not pleasing that humans should know this [= I am Brahman] (BĀU 1.4.10).
- “The Vedānta is not a religion, but religion itself in its most universal and deepest significance”, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life London: New York 1954 (first edition 1927), p. 23.
- An empirical objectivity in the case of scholarship, and a metaphysical objectivity in the case of Perennialism.
- The discovery of the divine was for Daniélou closely related to the forces of Nature (in the woods of Brittany) as opposed to the Catholic religion of his mother (cf. Alain Daniélou, Le chemin du labyrinthe, Lausanne 2015, pp. 13-14). In India, Brahmanical orthodoxy was his main referent, but his emphasis on the pre-Aryan origins of Shaivism and his inversion of colonialist commonplaces about the religion of rural areas was quite heterodox and triggered another movement of thought (cf. Alain Daniélou, Approche de l’hindouisme, Paris 2005, p. 35, Shivaïsme et tradition primordiale, Paris, p. 43, Shiva et Dionysos, Paris 1979, pp. 17-19). Daniélou’s project of a “return to paganism” in the last twenty-five years of his life distinguished itself both from Christian mainstream ideology as well as from the neo-pagan right-wing initiatives related to the supremacy of European identity, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s (in this respect see among others Karla Poewe, Scientific neo-paganism and the extreme-right then and today: from Ludendorff’s Gotterkenntnis to Sigrid Hunke’s Europas Eigene Religion, in: Journal of Contemporary Religion 14:3, 1999, pp. 387-400).
- Hubert Fichte, Petersilie. Die Afro-Amerikanischen Religionen: Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Miami, Grenada, Frankfurt 1976, p. 363.
- Bastide’s book Images du Nordeste mystique en noir et blanc (1945) is a clear example of a combination of poetical and sociological registers to avoid a science that – in his own words – “smells like insecticide” (cf. Roger Bastide, A propósito da poesia como método sociológico, in: Cadernos, n. 10, 1.a série, São Paulo 1977, pp. 75-82, quotation p. 77).
- Cf. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, Frankfurt XXXX, pp. 339, where Hegel employs adjectives like “baroque, wild, horrible and disgusting“ to define the essential determination [Hauptgrundbestimmung] of this form of religion and mythology.
- Sir Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, London 1883, p. 210.
- Ronald Inden, Imagining India, Oxford 1990, p. 19.
- This corresponds to Bruno Latour’s view of ethnocentrism as the ignorance of one’s own particularity disguised in the ambition of universal validity (cf. Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. Essai d’anthropologie symétrique, Paris 1991).