The Forgotten Past as a Future Alternative

Daniélou was capable of reconciling orthodox Hinduism with recent developments in science, and the archaic religion of nature with refined metaphysical systems

Like most (a precious few) unclassifiable authors, Alain Daniélou incarnates a human type and a kind of thought that are difficult to find in our times – a singular light-spark clouded not only by prejudice, fanaticism and ignorance, but also by hermeneutical short-sightedness. I don’t pretend to retell his life in a few pages, nor do I want to fall back on hagiographic accounts. Daniélou was a human being, and like any other human being he had his limitations – of a personal and collective type. He relied much more on the depth of his intuitions than on his power of argumentation; he sought to provoke more than to please, he amplified ideas of his preference at the expense of sacrificing essential nuances, and he tended perhaps to rely too much on paradox and ambivalence, creating uncertainty with regard to his own position. Dancer, musician, philosopher, Indologist and painter at the same time, Daniélou was capable of reconciling orthodox Hinduism with recent developments in science and the archaic religion of nature with refined metaphysical systems. In today’s world, where the rigid discourse of experts helps consolidate a uniform view of our global reality (as well as a symptomatic blindness about its unresolved contradictions), the image of Daniélou working on the threshold of his own impossibilities to expand an experiential vision far beyond personal and cultural limitations is somewhat reassuring and also inspiring.

Alain Daniélou spent almost twenty years (from 1939 to 1958) in India, where he was not only trained in the traditional culture of the Varāṅāsī paṇḍits and sannyāsins but completely re-educated, far from the anglicised milieu and its (British and Indian) intellectual elites[1]. As an initiated Shaivite in the circle of Swāmī Karpātrījī, he learned, among other things, that mythology and science are not conflicting truth-conceptions but different perspectives that can be combined and even integrated; that universities do not have a monopoly of knowledge-transmission (at least, where any living tradition is preserved); and that an unprejudiced understanding of the world is much better than a tenacious will to change it out of abstract preconceptions. Imbued as he was in the ancient values of India, he refused to judge them and used them instead as a critical instrument to reveal the pitfalls of a modernised Indian society oblivious of its own past. Even at the beginning of his stay in India, Daniélou adopted a strong anti-colonial attitude[2], which was drastically accentuated in the context of his philosophical and ethnomusicological activities across the subcontinent. Nowadays, it is easy to celebrate anti-colonialism but difficult to accept that the idea of ‘progress’ (usually reputed as anti-colonial) also generates the imposition of ‘democratic systems’ on other cultures for the sake of power and business expansion. Daniélou’s commitment to the preservation of diversity and difference led him in his later years to an increasing commitment toward so-called ‘primitive’ cultures outside Europe and to a critique of Eurocentric claims of universality to the detriment of the value and the specific reality of local traditions[3]. His ‘Labyrinth’, a property in the Etruscan part of Lazio, Italy, where he spent the last thirty years of his life, is a continuing testimony to this art of living, as well as a clear attempt to re-frame humans within the universal order of being[4].

It was in fact in his later years, after his return to Europe, that Daniélou not only translated classical works of Indian literature[5] but also plunged into the study of pre-Christian and pre-Graeco-Roman layers of the Western religious heritage, reconstructing a philosophy of life based on a cross-cultural religious substratum he called (to the astonishment of both Indologists and Hellenists) ‘Shaivic-Dionysian’. This re-enactment of ‘the forgotten past’ as an alternative for the future aimed at shaping a radically different world-view than that of the industrialised West. Our own world is a saturation of urban chaos, devastation of ecosystems, unbridled economic growth and human impoverishment on many levels, whereas the ancient world of Shaivite and Dionysian values implies a return to Nature in its manifold dimensions and a new socialisation process not only toward humans, but also non-humans (plants, animals, gods). Doubtless Hindus would recognise the god Shiva in Daniélou’s writings, even if how he reconstructs the presence of his iṣṭa devata differs in many ways from the usual theistic divulgation. The fact that he relates Shiva’s origins to the Indus-Valley Civilisation (relying on the image of Paśupati, the Lord of animals), thus linking this god with the ambivalent powers of Nature and his worship with acceptance of both the beauty and the cruelty of his deeds, can only disturb researchers for whom Shiva is solely a term found in scholastic documents. That ‘god of the margins’, that ambivalent and transgressive figure of the Puranic and Tantric literature (erotic and ascetic, benevolent and terrible, transcendent and immanent), is also the most adequate and living metaphor of creation as a Labyrinth in which we have to find ourselves through winding and uneven roads.

There is no doubt that Alain Daniélou was a controversial figure, who didn’t hesitate to unmask the hypocrisy of a dominant ideology by reversing the scale of values and making affirmations far beyond the parameters acceptable to the consensus gentium. His insistence on the religious and spiritual aspect of Hindu eroticism against a diffuse and universal puritanism, his positive revaluation of the caste system as an efficient and totally anti-liberal model of power-distribution, and his defence of traditional (local, self-regulating and non-expansive) identities as a real means of protecting differences from internal erosion are examples that have led superficial or biased opponents to consider him perverse, reactionary or disrespectful. Now, if we seriously consider these issues, they should attract our attention as an attempt to balance out the one-sided view of the dominant trend of his time. For instance, Daniélou’s defense of the caste system in its mythical and cosmological depiction (the varṇa system) should be read as a way of questioning the ‘positive prejudices’ revolving around the idea of democracy, which for him are not only historically arguable but also the mask of neo-colonialist power. Daniélou mainly questions the taken-for-granted assumption that a democratic system (especially the representative variant) in which election processes are anything but neutral and the political elite usually becomes a much more rigid structure than traditional caste-bound power, is a superior form of social cohabitation among different groups only because it formally rejects a hierarchical order. Without denying the historical problems of a caste-bound organisation of social life, Daniélou pleads for a careful consideration of the way it constituted and structured Hindu traditional society, the way it ensured social stability and integration of foreign groups, before attacking it on the basis of democratic principles – the consideration of which is usually detached from their real contextual application.

Anyone who knows Hinduism from first sources can immediately corroborate – as Daniélou pointed out with regard to the early Upanishadic and mediaeval Tantric context – that the power of Eros (kāma) is not separated from magical, cosmological and metaphysical speculative trends in the history of Hindu doctrines[6]. In the same way, post-colonial ethnography has revealed that so-called ‘primitive cultures’ are neither savage and uncultivated (a projection of colonialists), nor egalitarian and innocent (social utopists’ wishful thinking). Almost every traditional society (in the sense of ‘pre-industrial’ social formation with ‘organic’ bonds) is built upon a strong construction of identity, a strong sense of belonging and an active interconnection not only among humans but also with non-human beings. The living tradition of ancient India taught Daniélou not only that European ‘universalism’ is merely a hypertrophic and arrogant form of provincialism, but it showed him that no religious system can be built and preserved if its experiential foundations are lost. These foundations are ultimately found neither in sacred writings nor in institutional authorities, but in the primal interaction of humans and Nature.

Daniélou’s later philosophy is a call for a reconciliation with Prakṛti and its mysterious dimension, which can never be objectified and reduced to observable entities, or exploitable resources. This reconciliation is only possible if we relate the whole subtle elaboration of Shaiva and Shakta doctrines (both of which, according to Daniélou, can be traced back to the foundations of pre-Vedic India) not merely to a theory of elements and its alchemical or soteriological transformations[7], but mainly to an archaic background of religious experience, linked by Daniélou to the animistic world-view of aboriginal cultures and to shamanism with their highly developed awareness and technical mastery of the links between the different levels of beings (spirits, animals, plants, etc.)[8]. It is in this very movement of thought that I see Daniélou’s message for the future in a world ravaged by unyielding human greed and self-destructive power-drive. What he calls “the animistic attitude” is a rediscovery of Nature in its non-objectifiable dimension, meaning the reverse-side of Nature as we know it. This Nature (which I write with a capital letter) preserves its intrinsic sacredness, despite all human intentions to annihilate it. It is a very complex field of forces covering the whole range of manifestation from light to dark, which Indian culture expresses not only in the symbolic couple Shiva-Shakti but also in the figure of the Yakṣiṇīs (personified forest and tree forces), the Grahīs (grasping demons or seizers), the Mātṝkās (a herd of fierce goddesses) and the Yoginīs (intermediate beings with magical powers). The ambivalence of Nature is nothing to be feared so long as humans know how to select, integrate and filter certain elements according to conditions for harmonious coexistence with them. Our world today shows that danger does not lie in the fierce powers of Nature – especially if we have the courage to become familiar with them and build a shaping character (ethos) from that confrontation – but in the cold-blooded calculation of humans to exterminate all other forms of life on this planet so as to further technocratic expansion and economic growth – even if the equation of unlimited growth on the basis of limited resources foreshadows a collective suicide.

There are three typical attitudes of Europeans dealing with India: the colonialist attitude, the spiritualist and/or esoteric attitude and the ‘immersion attitude’. Alain Daniélou belong to the last category: he took ‘the other’ seriously and plunged into its culture, trying to learn as much as he could. The fact that he never took it upon himself to be a ‘guru’ is perhaps the best tribute to the flourishing diversity of the Indian spirit – a diversity still to be accounted for. In this sense, Daniélou stands for a reversal of values that follows the archaeology of India (that is, a return to pre-Vedic sources), coupled with a dissemination principle (determining where the traces of those sources can be found in a world that has forgotten them). “Without a return to respect for Nature and the practice of rituals […] enabling the inner development of human beings and their harmonisation with other living forms, the destruction of the human race will take place without much delay”[9].   

Alain Daniélou’s essay, ‘The Forgotten Values of India’, is a reflective and intimate articulation of his immersion into the culture, people, and life of india – through interactions with thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as the scholars from the holy city of Benaras – and the insights these revealed to him. Read it here. 

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[1] In this respect, see Alain Daniélou, Le chemin du Labyrinthe, chapter 8 : la vie en Inde, especially pp. 136-149, as well as Swami Karpâtri/Alain Daniélou, Le mystère du culte du linga, Robion, Les Éditions du Relié, 1993, Préface, pp. 9-47.

[2] The following examples from his autobiography should suffice to portray his attitude clearly. The first concerns the indigenous population in the USA: “The childish puritanism and pietism of the average American is the mask of a chosen people that remains completely indifferent towards the native Americans and leaves them to die a miserable death in inhospitable, desert-like and unworkable reservations”. The second example refers to the condition of trains in India: “The first class was reserved for Europeans, the second for missionaries and wealthy Indians. Eurasians belonged to the so-called ‘intermediate’ class. The third class, where Indians were piled up, were comparable to cattle wagons. This new caste system was more humiliating than that of the Hindus” (Alain Daniélou, Le chemin du labyrinthe, pp. 72 and pp. 90 respectively. All translations are mine from the original French version).

[3] This process can be clearly seen in two aspects of his musicological pursuits of non-European traditions: the first is the collection of elements from various musical traditions in India, which since 1985 can be found at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice (the collected material consists of 300,000 catalogue entries). The second is the monumental work that Daniélou carried out for UNESCO together with Jacques Cloarec from 1960 to 1963. This work consisted of collecting different corpora of the world’s music with the intention of erasing the boundary between ‘high/classical’ and ‘primitive/exotic’ music. In addition to this, he introduced the world-views from which these musical traditions originate, some of which were completely unknown in Europe at that time. Apart from this, Daniélou’s interest in traditional sub-Saharan African culture and its possible links with Dravidian India can be seen in texts such as ‘Génocides culturels en Afrique’ or ‘Relations entre les cultures dravidiennes et négro-africaines’ (in: Alain Daniélou, La civilization des différences, Paris 2003, pp. 145-150 and 151-166, respectively).

[4] In time the Labyrinth became the headquarters of a cultural foundation whose spirit moves counter to the traditional forms of knowledge reproduction in Western tertiary establishments, and in this sense provides an enrichment of the dominant modalities of cultural transmission.

[5] For example, he rendered the first complete translation of Vatsyāyāna’s Kāmasūtra in European languages (French and English) and started working on Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra short before his death in 1994.

[6] The list of sources would be too large for a single footnote. A brief indication of some (Vedic, as well as mediaeval and modern Tantric) sources should suffice: Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 3. 11. 8. 4 (cosmogonic role of the sexual emission of Prajāpati); Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 10. 3. 2-4 (homologation of a ritual recitation and a sexual union); Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa -9 (sexual union of Prajāpati and Vāc resulting in the creation of the earth, the atmosphere, the heavens and the four directions); Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka 29.127b-128b (transmission of esoteric knowledge by means of sexual emissions); Jñānānanda Paramahaṃsa’s Kaulāvalinirṇaya 5.96b-97b (empowerment by the Goddess through sexual intercourse with Śaktis or female adepts); Kṛṣṇānanda Vāgīśa Bhaṭṭācārya’s Bṛha Tantrasāra, Caṭṭopādhyāya ed. 703 (homologation of sexual pleasure and spiritual bliss with regard to maithuna).

[7] An aspect that is very important, such as the remarkable initiative of Kapilā Vātsyāyan (Prakṛti: The Integral Vision, 5 Vols., Delhi, D. K. Printworld, 1995).

[8] Cf. Alain Daniélou, Les divinités hallucinogènes, in : Yoga, Kâma. Le corps est un temple, Paris 2005, pp. 121-125, especially p. 122.

[9] Alain Daniélou, Shiva et Dionysos, Paris 1978, p. 292 (my translation).

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