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INTERVIEW WITH ALAIN DANIÉLOU: A TASTE FOR THE SACRED
This interview, carried out by Jean-Pierre Joecker and Bernard Turle, was originally published in the French magazine Masques in 1984. The English translation in this issue of Transcultural Dialogues is by Adrián Navigante, revised by Kenneth Hurry. It contains minor changes and amendments with regard to the French text.
Q: In the first pages of The Way to the Labyrinth, you say that everyone lives many parallel lives, which should not be amalgamated. In view of your own life’s itinerary and your movements between India and Europe, what do you understand by that?
A: All civilisations are faced with this problem. For example, Japanese people have been able to perpetuate a typically Japanese way of living and parallel to that they have adapted to the modern Western world. Those who try to integrate into another culture and way of living, without putting aside their own way of thinking and living, will inevitably fail in their attempt. This is true of all people who want to learn from Indian gurus without questioning their own prejudices and convictions, mixing these two worlds with other dissimilar elements. You don’t think in the same way under different circumstances and habits, so you should avoid thinking like a modern scientist when you approach religious conceptions – and vice-versa. Such mixtures lead to absurdities.
Q: You have made a world-tour and many other voyages. How did you manage to integrate so easily into the Indian society of the 1930s?
A: To a certain extent, it is a question of nature. I didn’t believe at all in the Jewish-Christian world. Since my childhood I had been against it, since I didn’t think that it was a proper way of living and thinking for the person I was. I was therefore ready to go elsewhere and adapt myself fully to other cultures. That is exactly what I did in India. For many people that is very difficult to do, since you have to change your conception about many things: what is polite and impolite, what is clean and dirty, what is strange and what is familiar, etc.
Q: But this change was progressive. You didn’t just plunge all of a sudden into the Indian milieu, since at the beginning you spent some time at Rabindranath Tagore’s place, which was fairly westernised.
A: Yes, I did, but I had no intention of reforming it. My sole purpose was to understand and to integrate into the milieu without ever saying “You should do this or that” – which is what most Europeans do, and what makes them so rude.
Q: Didn’t your taste for the sacred make things easier for you? Your family context, with the exception of your father, is impregnated by the Christian religion, and when you left India for Italy, it was also because of your taste for the sacred that you chose Zagarolo, that sacred place of the Etruscans.
A: Yes, that’s true, but I think it was rather Dionysian instinct – even in my childhood. My perception of the mystery relating to Nature, that is to trees, animals and plants, had no connexion whatever with the moral aspect of the Christian world, according to which religion lies elsewhere. For this reason, I felt quite at home when I discovered the Hindu world, where people try to establish subtle connexions with mysterious forces. This instinct had been fostered in my childhood by the fact that I lived quite alone, cut off from my family group, since I was very often sick.
Q: Your introduction to the Hindu world was also easy because you were not married – a wife at your side would have been an obstacle in that traditional atmosphere. You say that your destiny wouldn’t have been accomplished if you hadn’t had the advantage of preferring male love, that for you the cult of love has always been related to the sense of the divine, and that human beings come closer to the gods by loving the divine work in the beauty of the body or the intensity of pleasure and joy – as opposed to Christian masochism, which leads not to wisdom, but to inhumanity, cruelty and hypocrisy. In what sense did your homosexual condition facilitate your integration into Indian society?
A: My mother used to say that a man, regardless of his birth, can integrate himself in any other society, something that a woman cannot do. There are some interesting Hindu texts in which the role of homosexuals is to serve as a link between castes and social groups because they are outside the cosmic logic of biological reproduction. Their role is different. On the one hand, the link between cultures, castes and species; on the other, a certain mediumistic role with the supernatural. This can also be seen in the fact that shamans from different ancient groups often dressed as women, taking a husband and assuming intersexual roles.
Q: In The Gods’ Cattle [Le bétail des dieux], the homosexual is a chosen one, who has his own god within himself. What is the position of the others? Is it only the homosexual that is chosen whereas the others do not have any access to the divine world?
A: From the moment when human beings, tied by marriage to reproduction and society, lose their freedom, they are integrated into a group. Those who do not have this impediment preserve their freedom to explore the rest of the world and other social groups. In India this wandering aspect is much venerated and there is no inherent material problem. If you belong to the strain of wanderers (who are an essential element of society), you will always find in any village somebody ready to nourish you and cover your basic needs. It is not perceived as anything at all strange or bizarre. Even nowadays, true Indian society has not changed in this respect. It has remained the same, with the exception of some urban layers who imitate the Western cultural model.
Q: Do you still reject our society as well as good Indian society altogether?
A: I think there are two kinds of society and hence two kinds of religion. The first one is the Dionysian religion, linked with Nature and mysticism. The second is the religion of the city based on moralism and empty rites, which imprison people. These two forms of religion have always been in conflict with each other, everywhere and from the very beginning. The question is: can we live a Dionysian life in a puritan society? It is not easy and depends on our country. But in spite of manifold persecutions in the Western world, something from the Dionysian tradition has remained alive, and being connected with it is like belonging to a secret society. You can live in your own way and adapt yourself to the context as far as possible without making fundamental compromises.
Q: But is it possible to liberate oneself within the Western way of living?
A: Yes. It is precisely what the hippies are instinctively trying to do, as well as all those people who reject the oppressive ways of living imposed upon them and seek freedom and alternative forms of experience.
Q: In a recent article, you say that for people who go to India, a true encounter is difficult precisely because of the castes. How was it for you and in what sense did being homosexual facilitate an easier integration process?
A: I think we experience the same thing in the West. The problems that Italian or French homosexuals may have are quite different, and in India caste distinction is like a division of people from different origins. It suffices to know what is acceptable and what is not in each group. If you want to have access to the Brahmins – who have many restrictions and must perform purifying rituals of all kinds –, it will be a problem even if they need you. As opposed to that, in the artisanal castes restrictions are minimal, so on a popular level having contact with local people is much easier. You always have to know the problems of others, as if you were dealing with different countries.
Q: When you went to meet Henri de Montfreid in 1934 on the Red Sea, didn’t you already feel attracted to the country?
A: I think that no problem exists anywhere; they appear where one creates them. Wherever I am, I try to adapt myself and understand others. There is no trace of a missionary in my character. For example, I don’t think that I am more civilised than others because I was born in Europe! If we preserve this humble attitude, doors will always open for us. Some French people who have casual sex with young boys in Italy define them as homosexuals and are therefore beaten up. It is like telling somebody who is in business, “You are a Jew”. There is always a question of sensitivity, attention and sympathy that enables us to integrate ourselves into another place. In India it is like having to adapt to twenty or thirty different places at the same time.
Q: When you have an erotic experience, you say that it is the God of Love the mystics speak about. You mention Saadi, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila – all very special characters of the Catholic tradition. How is that link important? Has your tendency to mystical experience rendered your integration easier?
A: While the religious exaltations of certain Christian characters are regarded as acts of semi-madness, Indian civilisation considers that voluptuousness and erotic pleasure brings you closer to the divine state and mirrors it in human experience. What is very interesting for those who have had access to the reality of India is to find an explanation of what they already feel in a more or less subtle way. It is in this sense that India is an enriching and exhilarating country.
Q: Do you think that only some people can feel that, or rather that Hindu thought can have a general influence on Western mentality? Do we have to go to India in order to have that exhilarating experience?
A: I think that at root-level there is no difference between the two civilisations. Their sources are the same. Their evolution has been quite different, but you can always trace the elements. One curious thing about the people who travel to India is that they do not remain indifferent to their experience. Either they feel a sense of repulsion, or they say “It is here that I should have been born”. India shows a continuity that can be traced back to prehistorical times, and that is something that practically does not exist elsewhere.
Q: The movement from West to East was very strong in some English writers who had sound insights into Indian reality. Then came the hippie movement, a considerable mass movement. But today India does not have such a good press, and it is not any longer in vogue…
A: Most people do not really speak about India, but of spiritual tourism related to India, which is quite another – very unrealistic – thing. I know a few people who really have contact with truly “Indian” civilisation. On different levels, they go to charlatans who write only in English and from outside the Hindu reality, or to ashrams where they are shamelessly exploited, or they relate India to drug experiences. In order to have access to a culture, you need in the first place to speak the language. You cannot really study French civilisation if you speak Chinese! It would be ridiculous. I know almost nobody who really makes the effort of learning an Indian language to the point of being able to read texts and practise a doctrine. There have been people like John Woodroffe, who was into tantrism and edited various texts, but such people are very rare…
Q: You talk about a conflict between New Delhi society and the rest of Indian society. Was that one of the reasons why you left India?
A: Of course, because from the very moment you have a foreign government, nothing happens without conflict. Nehru and the anglicised Indians around him hated Hindu tradition and did everything possible to destroy it. They dreamed of introducing romantic English socialism in India, which was the world in which they had been educated. I would have had many problems if I had remained in India, since the new administration wanted to eliminate what really interested me.
Q: Doesn’t political organisation also belong to the structure of traditional thinking in India?
A: That is a strange problem. Until Indian independence, many princely states were very modern, but the first thing the new government did was to destroy them because their structure was hierarchical. Now, they functioned well, and their hierarchical structure was no obstacle to the process of modernization – as is the case with Japan.
Q: What strikes you as so negative in a project attempting to turn a caste hierarchy upside down?
A: In the first place the image made of that social structure. People don’t really understand what it is about. Europe knew corporative societies and their own way of living, with groups from different populations collaborating with each other. The real problem today, particularly in France, is that nobody wants to recognise the different castes. If you said: “North-Africans living here are a caste, so they should have civil rights, their own mosques, specific places to live their lives, learn their language and contribute their share to the balance of the whole”, you wouldn’t have any problem. But it is said they have to be integrated, and that is absurd. They are people belonging to a different culture which has to be preserved. In this sense, caste society is extraordinary, and that is the reason why all oppressed peoples have sought refuge in India. When the Muslims destroyed Persia, India found a place for the exiled Parsees, who are a very powerful organisation and have never had a problem. The Jews have been living peacefully in India since the time of the Phoenicians! The idea is simple: each group collaborates with the others and preserves its own personality, its own way of living, its own laws and beliefs. This builds an ethnic mosaic working for a common purpose, and there is some wisdom in that image.
Pleasure is considered as a kind of mystical experience, and as such an approach to the divine state. Because of this, all forms of sensuality are acceptable.
Q: Wouldn’t you say that there are some underprivileged castes in India?
A: It is not so easy to say. In the West you have, for example, the privileged category of priests, and on quite another level the workers, whose living conditions are far below those of a priest or an archbishop. They are two different social groups. The difference in organisation with regard to the caste system is that in India such differences are hereditary – which was the case in the corporations of the Middle Ages –: in general people follow the family profession. Apart from that, in India stress is laid on the duties that each person has towards his or her own caste rather than on the advantages of belonging to it. The higher you go within the caste hierarchy, the more difficult (and even terrible) the duties become. Brahmins are in this sense the real “untouchable” ones without any right to do most things, such as divorce, drink alcohol, have more than one woman, etc. Due to this very fact, no poor worker wants to be a Brahmin. That is the moral of a story of two people of low caste who were arguing, and one said to the other: “I hope you will be born as a Brahmin in your next life”. For them, belonging to the Brahmin caste is almost a curse. In Europe, for example, people do not choose to be Catholic or Protestant. They follow the religion of their parents. That is a somewhat extended notion of social grouping permitting cohabitation without major clashes. In India you have tribes living according to the world-vision of archaic times, being destroyed by egalitarian politics. They are deprived of their land, compelled to work in the city, condemned to poverty and destroyed as a cultural group.
Q: What do you think is the future of India and of those traditional peoples?
A: When the Aryan invasions took place (around 1700 BCE), a different social system, a new religious canon and a set of foreign habits were imposed on the autochthonous population, and the ancient traditional religion was concealed. Centuries afterwards (between 600 and 500 BCE), Buddhism arose as a reaction imposing a new conception on those already existing. From a theoretical point of view, there is, in the Hindu mind, a certain Dionysian life-conception aiming at true knowledge, which means understanding the role of human beings and their raison d’être in creation. The problem is that people never ask themselves why they are in this world, why they belong to a certain group, and how they can realise their own nature in the best possible way. Precisely this is one of the the strongest points in the Indian conception of life. Assimilationist racism is a very strange and pernicious phenomenon by means of which human diversity is destroyed.
Q: You say that in India there is a taboo concerning procreation, but no taboo at all with regard to erotic relations between people of the same sex. How is that?
A: Pleasure is considered as a kind of mystical experience, and as such an approach to the divine state. Because of this, all forms of sensuality are acceptable.
Q: Is that so only for men, or also for women?
A: In principle it is also valid for women, but there is at the same time the obstacle of procreation. Woman has a double role, as lover and mother. The sexual act aiming at procreation is a rite that has to be carried out with utmost care. Partners are chosen according to caste distinction and astrological correspondences to ensure the best progeny for the continuation of the lineage. Each one is a particular human species genetically transmitted for millennia, and duty requires the continuation of that chain. Mixing groups wouldn’t allow the newly born to be a physical as well as mental bearer of its forefathers’ heritage. If one aims at having pleasure through sexual acts, procreation should be avoided. For both women and men who abandon their social duties, there are two paths: monastic life (which women embrace very often) or divine slavery (that is, temple prostitution, which is an important tradition). Women who intend to devote themselves to pleasure (considered closely related to theatre and the arts) must avoid procreation.
Q: In The Gods’ Cattle [Le bétail des dieux]you describe very natural and even innocent relationships between two men, and an article of yours mentions massage sessions where sexual intercourse takes place in a natural way. Is that really natural in India?
A: Homosexual relationships are quite natural. In Hindu religion, there is fundamental harmony and unity between body and spirit. Human beings possess certain faculties that are part of their bodies. Thinking with your brain is an example of that. If you cut off part of your brain, you lose everything that is there. However, within the conception of human personality, there is a certain element identified with a form of consciousness that is present in all other life-forms. This type of interconnection is now starting to be confirmed by science.
1. We have employed an English etymological cognate of the term used by Daniélou in French: “volupté”, which in the context of his thought makes reference to the Sanskrit term ānanda. While this term is usually translated as “bliss”, Daniélou emphasises the erotic and even sexual aspect of the experience of the divine, which is not separate from the spiritual dimension.