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DEMISE OF THE CROWN: A ‘SHAIVITE-ORIENTED’ REFLECTION ON THE CHALLENGES OF NATURE AND HUMAN ALTERNATIVES
This essay, written by Adrián Navigante at Zagarolo in the period from March 10 to 25 (the worst moment of the Corona crisis in Italy), attempts a broader horizon of reflection concerning our experience of this pandemic, bearing especially in mind Alain Daniélou’s “Shaivite-Dionysian” attitude as a kind of existential guideline. If viewed as an interruption of “normal life” (with the wish to return to it as soon as the critical moment is over), nothing will have been learned from the Corona crisis, since the criterion of normality many people long for is an essential part of what produced the worldwide emergency: predatory environmental politics and an utter disregard for Nature as the most concrete and never-fully-understood source of Life.
Ever since the Corona crisis broke out, it has not been easy for people to find an orientation: how to think and what to do about it. Any middle way seems impossible between the morbid sensationalism of some (whether factually- or fake-news-oriented) newspapers or TV chains and the negationist tendencies of several protagonists-antagonists of the social media – some of them with a strong inclination to conspiracy theories. We have witnessed the promotion of Dean Koontz and Bill Gates to the rank of prophets; how Giorgio Agamben insisted on shifting attention from the factual core of the problem to conceptual categories with practically no bearing on the present situation1; how Slavoj Žižek celebrated Corona’s Kill-Bill-esque blow to capitalism and the possibility of a communist renaissance2; how some virologists like Wolfgang Wodarg transformed an objective fact (the expansion of Covid-19 among different populations across the globe) into a mere subjective state (generalised panic without any clearly identifiable referent in reality) of the European population3; how controversial doctors like Didier Raoult tended to transgress the prudent requirements of a scientific community and its business-oriented pharmaceutical counterpart with a good dose of prophetism (the chloroquine case)4. We have seen an amazing scapegoat dynamics in the attempt to trace the expansion of the virus back to a partial or conclusive ‘cause’: for a moment, the Chinese became a miasma in Italy, afterwards Italians became a miasma in Europe, subsequently Europeans became a miasma in America, Africa and India. Donald Trump’s metonymic shift in one of his public declarations (‘Chinese’ instead of ‘Corona’ virus), which he deemed a justified response to a previous accusation by the Chinese, triggered further conspiracy arguments in China as to a possible implantation of the virus in Wuhan by US soldiers. In the meantime, horror-images are circulating in the printed and virtual media of massive numbers of people dying without decent treatment or even proper burial. Time will reveal the pitfalls and virtues of each (regional or national) government in dealing with this sanitary emergency. The fact that the sphere of politics is usually run with an entrepreneurial mentality is already a sign of the direction inquiries should take to reveal the possible “mistakes”.
On a popular level, the toilet-paper crisis in Germany (already referred to by some psychologists as a compensation mechanism in situations of overstress) and the case of an American citizen called Matt Colvin (who cornered more than 1700 bottles of disinfectant in order to make a profit) are not promising signs about the repercussions of the illness on the behaviour of city dwellers, but these are of course the ostensible things emphasized by the media. The most important aspects of this story remain invisible: there is little or no mention of doctors and nurses facing a war-like situation in the different hospitals, or of volunteers taking humanitarian action to ease the shock and mitigate the suffering. This is not only because such positive aspects are minority, but also because they don’t help feed mainstream emotion – something that needs to be expanded further and further, as a kind of apotropaic measure emptied of its own content. We hold the head of the Gorgon without knowing what to do with it. It does not divert evil, but intensifies all possible phantasmatic variants within us. It is precisely the opposite of what was done in ancient cultures, where obtaining the name or an image of the unknown and threatening agency meant gaining control over it. The indigenous Wiwa people of the Sierra Nevada in Columbia, quite aware of the global character of the threat, on March 18 published a letter5 calling their members to a joint effort to deal with the problem, avoiding naming the illness itself. This is not escapism of any kind, but a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of human agency and its disadvantages when it comes to global repercussions on the part of non-humans (in this case, a virus).
Socio-Political Urges and Non-Human Teaching
Almost every time I have mentioned – of course carefully avoiding any apocalyptic undertones –the factual problem posed by Covid-19 for the human genre, some Corona-sceptic acquaintances of mine have come up with the number of casualties related to car accidents, tobacco consumption and other habits or diseases whose quantitative death-toll exceeds by far what Corona has caused so far (I am writing this essay in March, I have no idea of what the situation will be when this text gets published). Much as I understand the importance of re-framing dramatic impressions using relativity principles, I wonder how such disparate comparisons might help us understand or provide any solution to the problem we are facing. The number of people dying of air pollution is a thousand times higher than the meagre number of Europeans killed by Islamic terrorism. Should we therefore avoid security measures where terrorist attacks are concerned? Most probably such exercises of relativity are a good way of temporarily banishing the fear of death, but there is no point in insisting on that kind of relativity as if the immediate fact has no importance, because it has.
Some people already think that China should receive an international sanction for its voluntary ignorance regarding bromatological conditions in the city of Wuhan, as well as its obligation to report the Corona outbreak immediately to the rest of the world. Others think it should be commended for helping severely affected European countries when the US and non-severely-affected European countries have turned their backs and closed their doors (which will probably be repeated when the financial post-Corona crisis breaks out, not without corresponding predatory interests). Whatever the course of time reveals, the main point is another: questions about the intentional or non-intentional human origin of the illness are irrelevant, because the illness is becoming a global problem. In the face of this much more complex factual issue, it is vital to attempt a proper way of thinking in searching for the right (and not only immediate but also future) reaction. Quite pragmatically, one could say: at a time when there is a lock-down in almost all countries affected by Coronavirus, the only thing to do is wait patiently until the restrictions are over. And rather than think, we should hope to get through this ordeal in the best possible way and celebrate when the crisis is over. Is that all? What is actually the thing we should celebrate?
I would like to propose an ‘extended pragmatics’, based on wider observation and reflection. For this purpose, a coupling of present and future is necessary, which will disclose another dimension of the past. To the best of my knowledge, the real challenge of this situation is not what we are experiencing right now on a human level, but what will happen on the level of interaction – not only between humans, but more particularly between humans and non-humans. The real challenge is future consideration of what we call “Nature”, even before we think about how the inter-human realm will look. Such consideration demands going back to a point of time far beyond what attracts attention today: the transfer-point of Coronavirus into the human realm. This other past concerns a world-configuration from a distant past and/or place, which nevertheless potentially pervades every human attitude – even today – when it comes to dealing with non-human agency (animals, plants and viruses, to which we could add: spirits and gods). If I may re-frame the situation: Coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) is an unknown entity from the non-human realm of viruses irrupting into the world of humans and causing a drastic change in their behaviour owing to the threat it represents. Its unknown status is due to the impossibility of science’s getting hold of it. In this sense, human fear is the recognition of radical impotence when it comes to dominating non-human agency (hence the false prognoses of some renowned epidemiologists and virologists leading people astray, simply because they cannot say – especially before a TV camera – “I don’t know”), and the whole point is precisely there: in the dominance patterns exercised by humans. It is by considering those patterns that we can learn what Nature is trying to teach us, but in order to consider those patterns in such a way, we need a real change of perspective.
What follows is a consideration from quite a different point of view, which is one of the reasons why the mere attempt to get this message across to readers is a risk. For the parameters of our post-modern, secular and globalised context, Yuval Noah Harari is right in affirming that, in times of crisis, we face two particularly important choices: between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, and between national isolation and global solidarity6. This is doubtless one of the crucial aspects that inter-human action will have to face when the financial crisis sets in after the Corona epidemic (we will see that the financially-related apocalyptic scenario could become even worse than the images circulating today in the most sensationalist newspapers). However, his diagnosis presupposes a line of development in human history based on the Western idea of ‘progress’, which places (in a perfect continuum with monotheistic religions and their split between Nature and Spirit) human beings at the centre of creation. We are the ‘crowned species’, we decide on the life and death of all other beings, and that is the way it should be. Such is our horizon of perception, its interactions and expectations reduced to the human sphere – irrespective of the fact that the category of ‘human’ in former centuries did not extend to the indigenous folks of America and sub-Saharan Africans. Indeed, we have even taken it upon ourselves to detach humans from Nature to the point of affirming that not only can we produce a second (urban and mechanical), but also a third (virtual and intelligent) Nature. This implies systematic deforestation, intensive animal farming, urbanisation and habitat fragmentation with the logical consequence of zoonotic and other non-human-related diseases passing over to the human sphere. We seem to have exhausted our God-complex to the point of no return upon the forms of Life we are essentially related to, that which we call ‘biodiversity’. This is why we cannot see what Nature is trying to teach us, even with a clear picture before our eyes: human beings in a state of reclusion, and Nature capable, for the first time after centuries of systematic destruction by human agency, of breathing again. This consideration, crazy as it may seem from the optics we are used to, is in fact more urgent and central than the socio-political questions mentioned by Harari.
Let’s put it this way: it is as if the forces of Nature had woven a gruesome hit-back strategy, taking air from our lungs through the action of Covid-19 to re-establish a shared breathing-rhythm with the other species of this globe. The results are visible: skies and waters are becoming clear, the air is regaining some of its pristine purity, the urban cosmos is being emptied of its human content, reduced as it were to the connotative image of a buried earth. The message becomes slowly intelligible despite our obnoxious blindness: we cannot bury the earth without burying ourselves. Culture, which could be defined as the prolongation of Life on the level of the Spirit, can also become the tomb of a Spirit forgetful of its Life-roots. It is high time for us to understand that learning is not only a human self-referential process, but is integrated within a very complex and interconnected realm where it is necessary to learn unfamiliar means of communication and codify experiences in another way.
The real challenge of this situation is not what we are experiencing right now on a human level, but what will happen on the level of interaction – not only between humans, but more particularly between humans and non-humans.
Reverse-Side of Certainties
In his book Shiva and Dionysus (1979)7, Alain Daniélou, who had long lived and learned in another culture (Hindu dharma before the independence of India) the basis of what he considered an alternative world-configuration (Shaivism), ventured some unexpected reflections on what for him was the only form of life-philosophy that may prevent human self-destruction. This life-philosophy was built – upon Daniélou’s return to Europe – from elements of the Shaivism he had learned in India, that is, mainly from oral transmission and within complementary parameters of scholastic Pundit-related teachings and local (marginal and restricted) Tantric sampradāya. What seems to be the book’s weak point, that is, the extension of Shaivism beyond the Indian subcontinent (which is scholarly untenable), its relationship to the Dionysian cult in ancient Europe (an old-fashioned form of religious comparatism), and an opening of the horizon from the restricted setting of orthodox (initiation-based) transmission to a trans-culturally oriented religion of Nature (which can be easily related to superficial New-Age movements), is in fact a visionary aspect that needs to be emphasised beyond any possibility of distortion. Shiva and Dionysus, as Daniélou himself writes, is not a treatise of comparative religion, but the result of a life-long experience. Many of Daniélou’s theses on Shiva find support in Tantric and Purāṇic literature, but most important of all is the fact that the God he found in the 1930s in Benares – Shiva – was already known to him from his childhood in the woods of Brittany. Shaivism, says Daniélou, is a religion of Nature. Shiva is an ambivalent God humans must deal with by developing extraordinary intellectual and practical abilities: an appreciation of beauty without ignoring gruesomeness as an essential part of it; an acceptance of violence without contributing to its expansion; a relativisation of human knowledge to step outside our own self-infatuation and learn from other forms of Life; and a realistic appreciation of social life with all its contradictions and challenges.
According to Daniélou, variants of this religion of Nature are found all over the world, and humans need to return to that religion as the unique source of whatever cultural (or spiritual) expression comes afterward. Daniélou wrote Shiva and Dionysus in the hope that humans would not become oblivious of Nature – which they bear within themselves, albeit on a conscious level fully detached and alienated from it. Rather in the programmatic line of Mircea Eliade (despite many conceptual differences), he declares the possibility and the urgency of a new humanism, the main condition for which is of fairly difficult realisation: humans must renounce the conviction that they are the crown of creation if they wish to gain true wisdom. A return to Nature is something very different from the superficial forms of eco-sophical community-thinking or shallow and individually-oriented spiritual surrogates of institutional religions. For Daniélou this means regaining forms of wisdom related to cultures unsevered from the powers of Nature and the operative knowledge to deal with them in the best possible way. This is why the Shaivism of Daniélou is a construct, but a faithful and promising one. It is the result of knowledge and experience transplanted from an Indian to a European setting, opening itself to the rest of the world (through a new form of humanism). The key issue today is neither the metaphysical quest for the transcendent unity of phenomena (which is in most cases a self-sufficient veil of ignorance rather than a transparent expression of elite-knowledge), nor a scientific and technical quest for the unlimited extension of human power over all forms of Life (which reveals among other things a self-destructive tendency, at present concentrated on the project of trans-humanity), but the reintegration of human agency in a context of inter-relatedness, including many other forms of Life with which humans can communicate.
The certainty of truth-dogmas (monotheistic creeds), of metaphysical categories (potentially refined in a few schools of philosophy, utterly crass in almost every esoteric group or institution), as well as of science and technology (in their devious and dangerous amalgamation of method and content), share a common presupposition as to the place of human beings in the world. These intrinsically different trends (from which different world-perspectives have historically arisen) affirm the superiority of spirit over nature due to a qualitative difference between the interiority (and profoundness) of the human and the exteriority (or shallowness) of so-called ‘natural life forms’. Daniélou affirms, on the contrary, the inter-relatedness of humans and non-humans, the non-duality of body and soul, as well as the presence of an energy-source encompassing all Life forms – not as a reductive unity, but as a self-expansive diversity. The expression ‘body of Shiva’, which Daniélou uses in Shiva and Dionysus, is in this sense to be seen as a never-fully-grasped field of forces – a small part of which we know; a great part of which we don’t know. What is the message of Shiva and Dionysus? Humans should make a humble but vehement effort to understand, as far as possible, this immanent field of forces before jumping to any other (abstract and often quite irrelevant) level of reflection aimed at reducing this same field of forces to something secondary, irrelevant or illusory. In this respect, the lesson of the XX century was given by quantum physics, since this science shows that the objectifiable category of matter (and therefore also of spirit as homogenous subjectivity-pole) is relative, and that its variability depends rather on the pragmatic function we can extract for human life than on any fixed (that is, meta-physical) parameters of cognition. The lesson of the XXI century belongs without doubt to the field of anthropology, since we are witnessing (at the end of the previous and beginning of the present century) the far-reaching results of serious research on non-European cultures, inevitably leading to a modification of our own world-view. What we thought of as ‘universal’ (the truths of our own culture) turned out to be merely local; what we thought of as ‘primitive’ (tribal religions and shamanic knowledge) was revealed as elaborate and complex; and what we saw as mere ‘objects’ (natural beings) are in fact pluridimensional subjects requiring another kind of attention and treatment. Our knowledge of Nature should not be reduced to modern scientific methods and a technologically-oriented determination of life (as useful as they may be for our pragmatic existence) but should open itself to variants that usually find expression in marginal or repressed movements of our society. This is what Daniélou terms “the animistic attitude”8. It is no argument to point to an incompatibility of different world-views, since in each world-view there are potentially many other variants, and in our globalised world practically no corner remains untouched by the permanent interaction of all the others. Forgotten and valid traditions aim at saving life forms – preserving the bond with the ultimate source of Life – from human blindness, ignorance and greed.
(photo by Valentina Barnabei)
Final Cut and Challenging Coming-to-Life
Modern authors long thought that prehistoric peoples did not provoke environmental change and degradation. Now, however, it is proven that anthropic erosion existed at a time on which our technological mind has mainly projected either good savages in a natural paradise, or troglodytes ruled by atavistic instincts. The Munda epic Asur Kahani, popularly known as Sosobonga, speaks of the iron technology of the Asurs and their infatuation with it to the detriment of the environment (hence the analogy of iron smelting and black magic)9. In 1986 French anthropologist Philippe Descola wrote a book called La nature domestique, which put an end to the simplistic determinism still accepted by scholars dealing with the concept of ‘adaptation to the environment’10. Based on fieldwork on the tribal culture of the Achuar (on the border between Peru and Ecuador), Descola showed the complex interaction of this tribal culture with its non-human neighbours of the Amazonian forest. He demonstrates that humans do introduce (at every stage of their cultural development) strong mediation in dealing with their environment, the opposing poles of which are a feeling of being devoured by the mighty powers of nature and an increasing will to expand human control with its ensuing reduction of the field of living presences to an array of dead objects. The turning point of modern technology lies in the shock wave of innovation and the massive exploitation of natural resources. What makes this turning point a potential point of no return is – before even considering the material devastation of what we call ‘Earth’ – that the condition making massive exploitation possible is the extinction of any link with natural forces that preserve the aspect of ‘living presences’ related to non-human agency. The problem for modern man has been falsely posed in terms of religion or atheism. This is not the problem, however, since the basis of the major religions that have made their way into modernity is the same as that of atheism: the elimination of any modality of being-in-the-world that contemplates inter-connectedness with non-human agency (pagan religions do not sever gods and spirits from plants and animals). Once this complexity of life-forms has vanished from human perception (and any concrete cognition elaborated from it, as found for example in Shamanism11), our world-view tends to cut itself off from the source of Life from which any meaningful idea of the Divine may arise. Daniélou expresses a similar idea in these words: “Due to a strange and evil perversion of values in the modern civilizations and religions […]man has renounced his role in the universal order embracing all forms of being or life”12. Kali yugānta, that is, the limit point of the age of conflicts, is the period of the final cut, the point of no return.
If we meditate on the status of a virus, the question of life poses itself. Viruses are purported to come to life in the host organism they cling to and seek to destroy. The link or connection between the non-living and the living, the coming-to-life and growth of microorganisms to the detriment of the host cell’s mechanism seems to be the reverse of the process I have called the ‘final cut’ in the attitude of humans towards their life source. Anyone watching pictures of the city of Wuhan can immediately associate it with nightmarish landscapes of dystopic films about the end of the world. Wuhan was a landscape of devastation already, before the irruption of Covid-19 among the population, for reasons that, according to accounts by different indigenous traditions, lead to the kind of pandemic reaction we are experiencing at present: humans’ absolute disregard of Nature, which also means disregard of themselves. I am not saying that Coronavirus is a divine punishment for our actions, since that would be an excuse to introduce moral precepts veiled in theological categories of the type that may ensue from the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament – or the way Islamic fundamentalists behave today when they speak of a punishment of God on the infidels. My purpose is to show that the type of threat that Coronavirus represents today is intrinsically related to the destiny of a world-configuration in which life is taken to the limit point of its own extinction, and that this world-configuration assumed a universal character in the historically-proven continuum of imperial ‘evangelisation’, colonialism and global capitalism. The problem is not the irruption of a virus that is now attracting the world’s whole attention, but the lengthy environmental devastation process leading to it, the roots of which lie in the loss of an essential human bond with the deepest forces of Nature.
It is as if the forces of Nature had woven a gruesome hit-back strategy, taking air from our lungs through the action of Covid-19 to re-establish a shared breathing-rhythm with the other species of this globe.
It is also easy to misinterpret the conception of Nature that can be deduced from this text, which makes us rely on Alain Daniélou precisely to emphasise the fact that Nature is neither good nor bad, and that it is misleading to think in those terms. Nature is the only source of Life we have and are immediately aware of, with all its ambiguities and contrasts, and it must be our ethical pledge to deal with it in the best possible way, creating an art of transformation. The most important aspect of this art of transformation does not lie in measures stemming from the very ideology that is destroying life on the planet. It lies rather in human capacity to open itself to the entire field of natural forces, extracting the best out of them, that is, learning from them through a relativisation of the modern, technologically and profit-oriented world-conception. One way of doing that – the way I am concerned with – is by means of an unprejudiced dialogue with traditional cultures13. In this sense, the irruption of Coronavirus (with all the economic, political and social consequences it will have on the human sphere) and the inevitable battle we are consequently forced to embark on can be seen as a challenge to rethink and reshape the destiny of humans on this planet.
Re-Extension of the Animated
In the last part of Shiva and Dionysus, Daniélou speaks of a possible return of Shaivite conceptions in the Western world. If we consider his own particular view of Shaivism as the integration and re-enactment of an ancient religion of Nature in a ‘de-natured’ context, the main point does not lie in the (re-)creation of esoteric groups claiming to possess ultimate Gnosis by means of (pseudo-)initiation-chains, but rather in re-educating perception beyond the sphere of what has been built by humans to isolate themselves from other living entities. “The instinct of survival in a threatened world”, writes Daniélou, “can be seen in spontaneous trends such as ecology, the rehabilitation of sexuality, certain Yoga practices, and the search for ecstasy through drugs”14. Survival strategies on an instinctual level take place even when the practices mentioned by Daniélou are not monitored by well-delineated traditions with the specific knowledge required to re-educate mind and body in that direction (just as Daniélou himself became the witness of Shaivism). Without denying their risks, we should say they are in any case more promising that artificial reconstructions of so-called traditional lineages (which are usually the product of phantasmatic projections rather than of any inner affiliation), because what is artificial is ultimately detached from life forces. Behind ecology, there is a profound philosophy of Nature that can be re-enacted, from tribal religions in India (the Munda and Dravidian groups mentioned by Daniélou, which are being increasingly considered and integrated into the complex picture of Indian culture) to Amazonian shamanism (which has been forced to step out of the forest owing to the threat of industrial expansion in their territory). Behind sexuality (in the vulgar sense of genitally-oriented intercourse) lies the whole tradition-line of sacralised eroticism – for example in the Greek, Sumerian and Indian cultures –, whose heterogeneous dynamics reveal specific ‘technologies of the self’ leading humans to discover an expansive indwelling cosmogonic power (the real scandal is that instead of delving into research on such sources most people resort to so-called ‘sexologists’). As to Yoga, we live in times when serious research on the subject could finally attract people’s attention beyond the commonplaces of wellness, fitness and individualistic spirituality, to a way of life based on a systematic enhancement of natural powers – conceived as divine entities – in the practitioner and their expansion on a collective level. The search for ecstasy is perhaps the most interesting topic mentioned by Daniélou to change attitudes towards animism, not only in Shiva and Dionysus, but also in other essays such as Les divinités hallucinogènes. In the latter, Daniélou explains how ritualised use of psychotropes may help human beings connect with invisible entities, thus broadening the scope of knowledge: “profound awareness of the continuity between the subtle world of spirits and their incarnation in living entities is the basis of Shamanic knowledge”15. Just as the transcultural challenge for the Western spirit in the XX century was the importation of Hindu Neo-Vedānta, the main challenge of the XXI century seems to be Neo-shamanism. The reason is simple: the message of Neo-Vedantic gurus revolved around the possibility of finding and realising God within ourselves, that is, without the mediation of an institution (the Church) that had lost much of its binding spiritual power for most followers. Neo-Shamanism is mainly the reception of indigenous traditions in the context of an uprooted and eclectic spirituality. But its scope includes the new efforts of Western science (from ethnology to psychiatry) to change its parameters of understanding and action through an open dialogue with tribal cultures. Both aspects of this phenomenon have been triggered by a collective perception of the terrible situation in which human beings find themselves after being completely severed from all forms of wisdom based on knowledge of and relations with the non-human environment (from plants and animals to spirits and gods). If the spiritual ideal of the XX century was that of mokṣa (release from the constraints of human existence and finitude), that of the XXI should be saṃbandha (connection) or anonya (one-another-ness), the integral vision of the inter-connectedness of all beings. If the spiritual ideal of the XX century ended with a proliferation of self-proclaimed illuminati and the invention of initiatic chains, that of the XXI century should begin with a thorough combination of shared learning and experiencing, enabling us to change our perception and understanding of Nature (around us and in us).
This vision of inter-connectedness is in no way equated either with the famous ‘all is One’ (shared by vulgar metaphysicians and commonplace spiritualists), or with the abstract postulate of a harmonic order of being in which the forces of Nature should ultimately respect our cosmic centrality (whatever we do). The order and the dynamics of Nature cannot be fully grasped, but if human beings develop – as Daniélou proposes – an embodied and relational spirituality (which he calls an ‘animistic attitude’), they will be able to avoid the unnecessary chain of reciprocal damage caused by the drastic discontinuity between human and non-human agencies, at the same time gaining other means of tackling so-called natural calamities instead of technological development. At this time of Covid-19, we must clearly realise that if we sit and wait for science and technology to deliver us from this epidemic through vaccination, without taking other measures already known by our ancestors (for example: strict physical isolation to prevent the spread of the disease), the whole world will be infected and there will be millions of deaths. If humans advance more and more in their re-education of perception, as Daniélou points out, awareness of the forces of Nature will extend to the domain of non-human subjectivity on interaction levels: for the post-modern, ultra-secular and seriously benumbed man this would seem to belong to the realm of phantasy and fiction. In reality, interaction with Shamans, or even reading ethnographic material about such interactions, would suffice to reconsider such prejudices and open to us another dimension of perception and sensitivity. An extraordinary example illustrating my point is that of Davi Kopenawa and the xapiri, the testimony of which is contained in the book La chute du ciel (2010).
For Daniélou, a return to Nature means regaining forms of wisdom related to cultures unsevered from the most archaic powers and also the operative knowledge to deal with them in the best possible way.
the alienating masks of human beings (photo by Joao Luno)
La chute du ciel is not only the documented exchange between a Western ethnologist, Bruce Albert, and a Yanomami Shaman, Davi Kopenawa, but also the testimony of the Yanomami ‘ethnologist’, Davi Kopenawa, on his (Shamanic) interaction with another culture16: the milieu of invisible, micro-corporeal and humanoid entities of the forest, which he calls xapiri. Why is this testimony so important? Because it shows the need to manage relations with the forces of Nature in tribal cultures and the consequences of doing so. Kopenawa speaks of the possibility of understanding the universe of the xapiri, of learning from them and being accompanied by them – mainly through ritualised use of entheogens. But he also stresses their ambivalent character, the possibility of ontological predation and the measures taken to avoid it. It is this permanent exercise of interaction with non-human forces that prevents humans from detaching themselves from their Life source and makes them face its complexity on an individual and collective level. For this reason, Kopenawa’s exchange with the xapiri is also the premise for a possible look from the outside at the intelligence of the ‘white man’. Kopenawa’s denunciation of one-sided and almost obsessional concentration on technical growth and production of merchandise characterising the modern Western project goes hand in hand with his defence of the local cultural forms that are being progressively devastated – precisely as ‘natural resources’, that is, their whole non-human and intelligent life. Kopenawa insists on Western destruction of indigenous populations, not only through forced evangelisation and systematic deforestation, but also by means of epidemics. They carry abstract religion, alienating urbanisation and an army of invisible entities within themselves. Such entities relate essentially to the context of devastation, a kind of perverse mutation of life-forms which eventually turn against their own carriers. Since the latter fully ignore the subjective mechanisms of these micro-entities, they rely exclusively on external measures corresponding to a technocratic (shallow, external and mechanical) understanding of such ‘alien cultures’. This can only lead to a regular, cyclic repetition, with intensifying repercussions, since the solution lies not in any technical means employed to counteract the irruption from outside, but in an understanding of the complex dynamics of such beings from the inside – as well as the ensuing change of attitude restituting true relationality.
In the short story Tagès, published in the book Les contes du labyrinthe (1990), Alain Daniélou relates the encounter of his alter-ego, Gwen, with the spirit of an Etruscan oracular prophet, Tages, at the ancient village of Zagarolo. It is Gwen’s unusual imagination that opens the door through the image of a fountain towards a parallel world reputed to have existed in a distant past, whose forces guide his thoughts, actions and decisions. The short story is part of Daniélou’s own foundational myth of the Labyrinth, the place where he spent the last decades of his life, trying to dig out the forgotten strata of Pagan culture in the Italic peninsula and relating it to his Shaivite philosophy. Daniélou’s character experiences a re-education of perception and a re-enactment of his active imagination, to the point of condensing entire layers of historical chronology within his own private experiential field. A natural setting reveals itself as ‘souled’ and deeply transforms the humans involved in that process of discovery. It is in this context that the Etruscan ancestor (for Daniélou a bridge to Dionysus and Shiva) announces a kind of Shamanic reversal of certainties: “Gwen, I am your friend and I would like to free you from absurd beliefs veiling the spirit of humans at present”17. The ‘absurd beliefs’ of humans in Daniélou’s short story reflect the same attitude denounced by Davi Kopenawa in La chute du ciel. If the (magic of the) earth is devastated, the sky will fall. This is an image of asphyxia, which translates not only the present threat of Sars-CoV-2, but its immediate correlate: the increasing narrowness of view concerning the living world around us. It is high time human beings renounced their self-proclaimed ‘crown’ and began to breathe again, following the rhythm of their source. •
- Basically in three articles written on 26 February (L’invenzione di una epidemia), 11 March (Contagio) and 17 March (Chiarimenti), in which he deems the Covid-19 an utter invention and warns against a possible excuse to declare a state of exception beyond any limit (26 February), he doubts the factual danger of the virus and denounces the transformation of each individual in a potential incubus (11 March) and finally (having accepted that the virus is a fact) he condemns the reduction of freedom as a security reason of state – due to the measures taken by the Italian government. These texts can be consulted at Quolibet: https://www.quodlibet.it/una-voce-giorgio-agamben
- In an interview in The Spectator/USA on March 14: https://spectator.us/like-about-coronavirus-slavoj-zizek/
- The first video that attracted attention was shown on February 10: https://www.globalresearch.ca/video-how-dr-wolfgang-wodarg-sees-current-corona-pandemic/5707298, but he sticks to this opinion bis dato, cf. https://www.wodarg.com
- Cf. the following presentation of his case: https://www.lefigaro.fr/sciences/chloroquine-l-infectiologue-didier-raoult-genie-incompris-ou-faux-prophete-20200323
- Cf. Yuval Noah Harari: the world after Corona virus, published on March 20 in the Financial Times online: https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75
- I shall opt for the literal translation from the French (Shiva et Dionysos, as was done in the first English edition of 1984) in mentioning the title, although my quotations will be based on a later edition, the title of which has been changed to Gods of Love and Ecstasy.
- Alain Daniélou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionyisus, Rocherster: Vermont, Inner Traditions, 1992, p. 26.
- Cf. K. S. Singh, The Munda Epic: An Interpretation, in: Indian International Center Quarterly, Vol. 19, N° 1-2, pp. 75-89, here p. 82-83 and 87.
- Cf. Philippe Descola, La nature domestique, Paris, Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2019, p. 8.
- Concerning this topic, see among others Charles Stépanoff, Chamanisme : rituel et cognition, Paris, Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2014.
- Alain Daniélou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy, p. 14.
- An unprejudiced dialogue implies in this sense giving up both the superiority complex of Western epistemic thinking and the blind idealisation of the ‘other’, typical of post-modern spiritual movements (both of a progressive and a traditionalist kind).
- Alain Daniélou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy, p. 234.
- Alain Daniélou, Les divinités hallucinogènes, in : Yoga, Kâma : le corps est un temple, Paris, Kailash, 2005, pp. 121-125, here p. 122.
- Cf. in this respect the remarkable article by José Antonio Kelly Luciani, “Kopenawa Davi et Bruce Albert, La chute du ciel. Paroles d’un chaman yanomami (traduit par Philippe Erikson)”, in: Journal de la société d’américanistes, 97-1, 2011, pp. 1-17.
- Alain Daniélou, Tagès, in: Les contes du labyrinthe, Monaco, Rocher, 1990, pp. 13-65, here p. 59.