Basile Goudabla Kligueh
IS WEST-AFRICAN VODU “SHAIVITE-DIONYSIAN”? REFLECTIONS ON ALAIN DANIÉLOU AND AFRICA
This text was written in French by FIND Grantee Basile Goudabla Kligueh for FIND’s Forum 2021 shortly before his untimely death on September 6. FIND Intellectual Dialogue had organized a workshop on Vodu as a religion of Nature in June 2021, in which Basile Kligueh exposed aspects of the local traditions of West Africa and discussed their points in common with some religious phenomena in India and in the Pagan Europe Daniélou was interested in. His text for FIND’s Forum was focused on the problem of ethnocentrism, the tension that autochthonous forms of knowledge in non-European cultures implies for the Western scholarly discourse and the identity problem of people who, due to their life-experience, have become cross-cultural bridges and at the same time intellectual outcasts for the very fact of being impossible to “classify”. With Basile Kligueh’s death, FIND Intellectual Dialogue has lost an invaluable dialogical partner in matters of non-European cultures, somebody who was fully engaged in a reading of Alain Daniélou that clearly shows the mistake of those who want to reduce Danielou’s thought to the Indian-Europe axis and read his writings following bureaucratic protocols of classification that have nothing to do with intellectual work. The text is not a finished article, but rather written notes to open a discussion in the context of the Forum. Nonetheless, it has a relevance in the transcultural debate of FIND Intellectual Dialogue and deserves to be published in the form it was submitted. Its publication is also a homage to the indefatigable researcher that Basile Kligueh has been, as well as to his openness of mind and his capacity to listen and help others.
In this talk, I will speak not only as a Vodu priest and doctor of anthropology, but also as a reader of Alain Daniélou and a FIND grantee. I will share with you some reflections on the question of cultural domination (very important, it seems to me, in the thought of Alain Daniélou) and link these elements with a brief presentation of my research project at FIND. I am happy to be able to do so, especially because I see that the Foundation, with this transcultural initiative of Intellectual Dialogue, takes seriously the breadth of the spirit of Alain Daniélou and wants to deepen a current debate whose questions are central for our 21st century.
In his essay Remarques sur la colonisation Culturelle (1986), Alain Daniélou adopts a broader point of view than that of the Indologists. He criticizes the West as a colonial power, and he also refers to Africa and the history of slavery. In dealing with the question of acculturation (or, one could also say, the problematic of assimilation), he says that the West created “collaborators” – I would rather say “endogenous colonizers” – who were used as instruments of domination. It is therefore through the eyes of these “artificial communities” that the West, even today, assesses civilizations other than the West – I have enough experience with the question of Africa, and I think that in the case of India the issue is not that different. According to Daniélou, the West has a false evaluation of other civilizations. He writes: “These artificial communities […] are a remarkable source of false evaluation of civilizations other than the Western one, whether they are social organizations, economic realities, religion, art, philosophy, history, etc.”1. As a result, continues Daniélou, “indigenous culture … is presented as outdated folklore, interesting, at best, for archaeologists looking for vestiges of embryonic cultures long out of date”2. Besides, didn’t the Jacques Chirac Museum at the quai Branly in Paris almost baptize itself “Museum of primitive arts”? The way in which elements of the autochthonous cultures of Africa are presented is changing, but in what way? The intelligentsia may have changed the tenor of the discourse from explicit contempt to subtle condescension, but the question remains whether there is really a dialogue of cultures in this type of institution, and what is the participation of each actor in the process of this dialogue…
In short, for a large majority of Westerners, all cultures that are not-Western are systematically “archaic”. The fact that specialists are capable of reconstructing certain aspects of those cultures with a certain rigor, which in Western parameters amounts to “science”, does not necessarily mean that this knowledge can be legitimized as the truth about the cultures in question. It will only be a partial and legitimate reconstruction for Western parameters. The main question remains: are these parameters universally valid? Daniélou did not believe so. This is why he calls this false assessment “the search for unculture”3. In this regard, he points out – this time in reference to the field of ethnomusicology – that “musical ethnology seeks in Africa, above all, the primitive”4. Personally, I would add that the West, vis-à-vis Africa, seeks the primitive in all areas.
Daniélou continues: “The appearance of man on earth is not new. There does not exist, even among populations who live today in conditions of extreme simplicity, any spoken language which does not represent an extremely long evolution and a complex elaboration allowing the expression of the most abstract ideas.”5. This ignorance led ex-President of France Sarkozy to say, for example, during a stay in Dakar, that Africa has not made enough history. We can laugh and say that this is the ignorance of a politician, but we must remember that some Africanists, even today, are convinced that the only light that can arrive in Africa is that of Western scholars who add a little order in terms of social, political, religious and even artistic intelligibility.
This false evaluation of cultures other than the West, which began with the Western conquest of the world, crystallized in Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 with “the sharing of the African cake”6. It is believed that European thought is far from that today, but it is not. The question of cultural domination is very current and not at all confined to politicians. It is also an academic question. It is precisely this attitude that Alain Daniélou condemns under the terms of concepts of cultural and racial superiority which present themselves today in the form of cultural colonialism, conditioning economic aid, which is a more subtle weapon of domination7.
For a large majority of Westerners, all cultures that are not-Western are systematically “archaic”.
In Daniélou’s autobiography, The Way to the Labyrinth, he writes a sentence that I consider appropriate to the situation of the African traditions that I know: “The foreign occupation […] has deeply divided society. Those who had to collaborate with the invaders, who learned their language and attended their schools and universities, although believing and proclaiming themselves Hindus, have only a very vague idea of Indian science, philosophy, cosmology”8. Of course, the question of economic aid greatly conditions the distribution of knowledge. I know traditional scholars in sub-Saharan Africa who would never have a job at a university, whose teaching is done well alongside the circulation of knowledge “legitimized by Western universities”, and who keep a cautious distance from even moderately well-intentioned ethnologists. This fracture in the transmission of knowledge leads to the production of “Africanist texts” which occupy a dominant position but which, for the most part, fail to convince that they have really penetrated into local teachings without immediately superimposing their own conceptual tools.
If an ethnologist crosses the boundary of participant observation, he or she is accused of “going native”. The logic of discourse remains divided between native knowledge and scientifically legitimized knowledge.
Speaking of Africa, Daniélou expresses his working hypothesis as follows: “to obtain convincing results, we need a global approach on anthropological, linguistic, religious, ritual, mythological and social levels”9, but this approach must absolutely take into account the way in which the world is configured by the actors of the groups studied. The first obstacle presents itself with what French anthropologist Philippe Descola calls “modes of identification” and “modes of relationship”10. How then do we approach, for example, the ritual world of Africa? Is a description external to the rituals valid? If an ethnologist crosses the boundary of participant observation (with the objective distance to exclude any interference from the subjectivity of the individual in the evaluation of practices), he or she is accused of “going native”. The logic of discourse remains divided between native knowledge and scientifically legitimized knowledge. But there is also a second problem: with the specialization of academic knowledge today, it is unlikely that the disciplines Daniélou considers necessary to bring together will really communicate with each other. Does interdisciplinarity exist today? We can organize seminars, but that does not ensure a dialogue. There are many types of analytical skills among scholars, but what type of synthesis could or should be done? Daniélou writes very synthetically, he seeks to link several levels of reflection, but for this reason he is criticized (or ignored) by scholars.
In the essay Relation entre les cultures dravidiennes et négro-africaines (1978), Daniélou offers a synthesis between India and Africa to consider the issue of local knowledge. He writes: “A very great civilization, the vehicle of which was a Dravidian language and the religion Shaivism, is an essential component of all subsequent civilizations of India and the countries of the Mediterranean. It appears that a large part of the African continent must have participated in this vast culture”11. He adds the following proposition: “we should take up all African studies starting from the hypothesis of an African participation in the great protohistoric Dravidian civilization”12.
This working hypothesis is not acceptable in scholarly circles, quite simply because the extension of the Dravidian substrate is not scientifically detectable, even if there are clues which could authorize research of this type. But that is not the question that interests me. Even if we do not accept the Dravidian question as scientifically valid, the question is whether or not we could consider it a starting position in Daniélou to work on parallels and cultural similarities instead of insisting on the progressive fragmentation of knowledge due to increasing specialization? If we accept the possibility of taking this position, we should ask ourselves what type of project Daniélou had in relation to non-Aryan civilizations (not only in the Indian subcontinent, but also in Africa and ancient Europe), and what was his motivation?
The research project I proposed for the FIND 2021 Grant Program fits well with the idea of the rehabilitation of non-Western cultures, which was so important for Alain Daniélou. There are several reasons for undertaking such a project:
N ° 1: At first glance, I would be part of what Daniélou calls “the artificial community” which works to perpetuate the domination of peripheral countries. I have a doctorate in religious anthropology from La Sorbonne University, and I am a certified teacher in a school in France. I must face and further reflect on this challenge.
N ° 2: From a religious point of view, Vodu is one of the best known religions in West Africa. My thesis deals with Vodu, and I defended it at the University of La Sorbonne, but at the same time my approach and my reflections were met with many obstacles among Western Africanists, because I did not adhere to mainstream hermeneutics.
N ° 3: From the point of view of the “globalization of research”, my thesis concerns the whole of the Adza-Tado people who know and practice Vodu. I remain today the only person to have done field research, with an internal knowledge of the area as well as some of the languages of the region from the Nigeria-Benin border, through Togo, to Afiadényigbà, Ghana. All this Adza-Tado territory was divided into three between France and England. I do not confine myself to the Evés, the Fons, the Wemenous or the kingdom of Abomey to extrapolate Vodu to all of West Africa. I want to know how Vodu adapts to time and space across this land of over fifty million people. This is perhaps also a critical point with regard to Daniélou’s ideas on the dynamics of identity.
N ° 4: For a reassessment of research on indigenous cultures, with the collaboration of Africans, I wish to supplement the work carried out by foreigners, both African and Western, with a point of view coming from within, while considering the tensions between outside and inside in the very constitution of the reception of African Vodu in the last centuries. I am not only a researcher in the academic sense of the term; I am also a practicing Vodu priest. This is also the tension that I face.
N ° 5: From a religious point of view, the globalizing basis of Vodu is the Afà geomancy. I am a priest of Afà geomancy. That is, I have a systematic knowledge of mythology and cosmology from the perspective of the ancestors.
N ° 6: My research project for the 2021 FIND Grant Program is entitled: “Africa-India: Towards a recovery of indigenous knowledge following the inspiration of Alain Daniélou ”.
The phrase, “following the inspiration of Alain Daniélou,” is not at all demagogic. Even if Daniélou affirmed himself as “Hindu”, he was not so in a strict sense, because the gap of being born in Europe is essential for his career despite his radical identification with some of the indigenous knowledge of India. This is what interests me. I spoke with Adrián Navigante several times about Alain Daniélou, and I share his conviction that behind the discourse of orthodoxy and the affirmation of an India foreign to Europe, Daniélou was aware of his situation and he was much more heterogeneous than he said. This is not necessarily a contradiction, but a way of adapting his experience and the knowledge learned to the dynamics of his life which did not take place only in India.
Daniélou returned to Europe, and he thought about Shaivism from other perspectives. In my opinion, the meaning of linking Shiva and Dionysus is not a motive that comes from religious comparativism, but rather a way of making one’s own experience consistent. He wanted to remain faithful to his learning while embracing a dynamics of change. So do I, but the other way around. I was born in Africa, I was “assimilated” into the Western world, and now I must make a synthesis, but this synthesis, inspired by Daniélou, takes into account, above all, the asymmetry of cultures. Africa and Europe are not two continents communicating with each other on the same level. There is a relationship of domination, and this aspect cannot remain outside of a research project. To say that these questions are irrelevant because they are removed from the sphere of scientific knowledge is an ideological attitude. The “objectivity” of this knowledge is built on the basis of political and cultural domination.
To the question of the relationship between the Shaivite-Dionysian pairing and Vodun, I cannot provide a clear answer at this stage of my research, but I have the following impression from my dialogues with Adrián and his team: if the conceptual pairing “Shaivite-Dionysiac” wants to rehabilitate a “religion of Nature”, that is to say a type of knowledge linked to religious conceptions that are not characterized by the elements that make up monotheisms (religion of the book, transcendence of the divine in relation to Nature, conception of absolute truth, primacy of history over mythology and of linear time over cyclical time, etc.), I think that the working hypothesis of the late Daniélou found in some writings on black Africa is adaptable to this conceptual framework.
I do not intend nor pretend to sell myself to this audience. I do not claim possession of an unshaken truth. I simply want to say that, through his works, A. Daniélou also reaches out to the rehabilitation of African traditions. And I want to take the example of Vodu and bring this example to a field that Daniélou could not research in detail, because he was not an Africanist. In this sense, I think that the transcultural opening of the Intellectual Dialogue of FIND is a very good initiative to do justice to the breadth of Daniélou’s spirit.
“What if Alain Daniélou is right?”
- Alain Daniélou, Remarques sur la colonisation culturelle, in : La civilisation des différences, Paris 2003, p. 142.
- Alain Daniélou, Genocides culturels en Afrique, in: La civilisation des différences, p. 147.
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, p. 149.
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, p. 148.
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem. Cf. Alain Daniélou, La dictature des scribes: “The greatest part of the cultural heritage of mankind is transmitted orally – even nowadays” (La civilisation des différences, pp. 122-123).
- Basile Kligueh refers to the Kongokonferenz organized by Otto von Bismark in Berlin, which marks the formalization of the “scramble for Africa” (that is, its invasion, occupation, division and colonization) during the New Imperialist period (note of the editors).
- Cf. Alain Daniélou, Les langages musicaux de l’Afrique Noire, where he says that the unique goal of cultural colonization has been “to destroy the originality of Africa in order to assimilate it and reduce it to slavery and exploitation” (Origines et pouvoirs de la musique, pp. 97-98).
- Alain Daniélou, Le chemin du Labyrinthe, Lausanne 2015, p. 136.
- Alain Daniélou, Relations entre les cultures dravidiennes et négro-africaines, in: La civilisation de différences, p. 151.
- Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris 2005, pp. 163-167
- Alain Daniélou, Relations entre les cultures dravidiennes et négro-africaines, in: Une civilisation de différences, p. 151.
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, p. 152.
- Cf. Alain Daniélou, Shiva et Dionysos, Paris 1979, p. 20: “Shaivism is essentially a religion of nature”.