ALAIN DANIÉLOU (1907-1994): A Photographic Dossier

A critical reclamation of the polyhedric scholar, who, through his intense connection with the experiential, guides us into the post-anthropocene world

Alain Daniélou’s relationship with India was intense and immersive. Spending nearly twenty of his prime, youthful years in India, Daniélou developed a deep understanding and connection with the country’s intellectual and experiential offerings. Early on, he met poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and developed a close, creative relationship with him, even serving as the Director of the School of Music in Santiniketan. Through this time, he came to engage with several important and critical thinkers from both lands, and later retired in Benaras, where he continued to train in Indian classical music. As a dancer, musician, philosopher, Indologist and painter, Daniélou had a profound understanding of culture and an immense ability to immerse into the praxis of thought. It was this ability that allowed him to relearn and reconcile his Western trainings with Indian traditions. His explorations expanded into the paganistic cultures of the Tantra, and revealed to him the many layers of Indian thought that was fast disappearing (being erased) in a modernising India. As the nationalist sentiment that drove this effort served its purpose of unifying the people of India, Daniélou became closely aware of the critical loss and injustice of such a broad sweep.

Through his experience in India, he had broken out of the Euro-centric attitude prevalent in his time, and was able to connect Indian and European thought, towards arriving at a praxis much needed in our world today.

It is this, transcendental, inclusive, Renaissance praxis that we aim to reclaim by re-introducing Daniélou to the anthropocentric, and increasingly categorised and hierarchised world. His focus on the ‘Religion of Nature’, as detailed in Adrian Navigante’s essay, reveals the path already paved by thinkers like him, for our ecologically disturbed, crumbling world. The need of the hour is not a separation from nature, but understanding ways in which the human culture remains integrated with it. Alain Daniélou provides this way…


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Alain Daniélou and Swāmī Parvatikār in Vārāṇasī. Swāmī Parvatikār was a wandering monk and musician under a mawna vow. Two human beings from different walks of life meet beyond words, in the resonance of sacred music. “The universe is called in Sanskrit jagat (that which moves) because nothing exists but by the combination of forces and movements. But every movement generates a vibration and therefore a sound that is peculiar to it. Such a sound, of course, may not be audible to our rudimentary ears, but it does exist as a pure sound” (Extract from Daniélou’s musical treatise Music and the Power of Sound, Rochester: Vermont 1995, pp. 3-4). Photo by Raymond Burnier, 1942.

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Alain Daniélou indoors at Rewa Koṭhi, Vārāṇasī, where he spent fifteen years learning music, philosophy and religion in the company of musicians, yogis, pandits and wandering monks who stayed in the lower rooms of the palace. “One of them, a young man from the south, stayed nearly two months. We used to take flowers to him for his puja; he would go out and beg for his food. One day he came to me and said: ‘I am too attached to worldly goods. I give you all that I possess. He offered me a coloured image representing a god and a copper chandelier shaped like an AUM, the sacred syllable. Then he put his blanket on the floor, dropped the saffron-coloured piece of cloth that was his only clothing, and left completely naked towards his spiritual destiny” (Extract from Daniélou’s autobiography: The Way to the Labyrinth. Memories of East and West, New York 1987, pp. 126-127). Photo by Ella Maillart, 1942.

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View of the Ganges from Rewa Koṭhi, where Alain Daniélou lived. The Vārāṇasī landscape of the 1940s is almost unrecognisable due to the massive changes on the level of urbanisation, overpopulation and pollution that are saturating that ancestral city to a point of no return.
“Benares is the heart of the Hindu world. It is a sacred and mysterious city, a sanctuary for great scholars, and a meeting place for wandering monks who pass on the traditions of a civilisation many thousand years old. […] I found myself immersed in a society whose conceptions of the nature of man and the divine, of morality, love, and wisdom were so different from those I had learned in childhood that I had to make a clean sweep of everything I believed I knew, all my habits, all my patterns of thought” (Extract from Daniélou’s autobiography: The Way to the Labyrinth. Memories of East and West, p. 136). Photo by Alain Daniélou, 1942.


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Alain Daniélou at Zagarolo working on the first complete translation of Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra, (published for the first time in French in 1992). This translation was a titanic work of Alain Daniélou’s later years, settled at Zagarolo without any virtual research tools type available to translators today. At that time, Daniélou’s physical forces were declining, but his discipline and dedication from former years remained untouched and permitted him to complete that work with the invaluable aid of Jacques Cloarec. Photo by Sophie Bassouls, 1991.

Portrait of Alain Daniélou by French painter Édouard Mac Avoy (1905-1991), which discloses a dimension of Daniélou’s personality and existence that might be called “Tantric”: expansive, secret and intense, transgressive – in the sense of challenging every limitation – and at the same time self-contained and wise. The painting dates back to 1978.

Alain Daniélou at the Labyrinth, during one of his moments of connection with the sacredness of Nature. “The Labyrinth is one of those places where the spirit seems to breathe, and peace prevails. The mysterious hand of the gods had led me to a friendly, favourable place where I felt that I could live and work. […] Zagarolo and its Labyrinth, along with Praeneste (now called Palestrina) had once been the most sacred site of the ancient [European] world” (Extract from Daniélou’s autobiography: The Way to the Labyrinth. Memories of East and West, p. 232). Photo by Jacques Cloarec, 1984.

This photo essay is part of our feature reclaiming Alain Daniélou as an important thinker for today. To read about his ideas and philosophy, and the answers they might provide to our current problems, read Adrian Navigante’s essay, The Forgotten Past as a Future Alternative, here.

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