Author: Giuliano Morais.
This article offers a short, but essential, description of René Guénon’s point of view about Hinduism and succinctly points out why his position cannot be considered dharmic, and how he contributed to the “sameness” approach (Malhotra, 2011, Ch. I) and to the digestion of dharmic traditions into Western paradigms.
I – Background
French metaphysician René Guénon (1886-1951), in the first half of the last century, declared that the solution for the “Crisis of the Modern World” was to be found in the East (Guénon, 2001a, p. 156). He wanted that an intellectual elite should be formed by study of Hindu doctrines and “Traditional symbolism” and, ideally, resort to medieval religious formats and the possible collaboration of institutions such as the Catholic Church or Masonry. This elite should try to reestablish traditional order, thus avoiding a possible civilizational calamity. The author eventually seems to have given up on that initial idea and converted to Islam, spending the rest of his life in Egypt, wherefrom he wrote several other books and even collaborated to the creation of a Masonic lodge which is still today operative in France (Sedwig, 2004, Ch. VI).
Hinduism was an essential part of his work. Besides having written two books devoted exclusively to this matter, there is also a posthumous collection of articles called Studies in Hinduism and many minor references scattered throughout his oeuvre. Guénon criticized distortions of oriental doctrines by esoteric organizations of his day, as in that time information on those subjects was normally precarious and occultists’ fantasies indeed prevailed. He managed to stand out as a solid advocate of “traditional knowledge” in opposition to fake spiritualism. His later conversion to Islam was understood by some as a possible solution to the diagnostic he offered to the Western crisis, and many followed him along the same path. He was also indirectly responsible for conversions to Christianity, such as the famous Father Seraphim Rose’s (Damascene, 2014, Ch. IX), who later on became a kind of saint within the Orthodox Church.
Along with Swiss thinker Frithjof Schuon and a few other intellectuals, he comprised what was known as the “Traditionalist” school of thought. The title was given not by themselves, as they were considerably heterogeneous. However, it is appropriate, if for nothing else than to show their overall agreement on criticizing Modernity and their common use of so-called “traditional symbolism” as a tool that allowed them to stand beyond religious exclusivism, propose a transcendental unity between traditions and express their common belief in some sort of “Primordial Tradition”.
The vital message of Traditionalism seems to be that, in spite of Modernity, being “traditional” or even “religious” is possible. Its core ideology did not propagate among the general public, but had considerable importance in silently influencing a couple of generations of notorious intellectuals like Mircea Eliade, Huston Smith, Hossein Nasr and also Philip Sherrard and Kathleen Maine, founders of the Temenos journal, which gave also origin to an academy by the same name, patronized by Prince Charles of Wales, who was himself strongly influenced by so called traditionalist values as he himself demonstrates in the message below:
The work of Temenos could not be more important. Its commitment to fostering a wider awareness of the great spiritual traditions we have inherited from the past is not a distraction from the concerns of every-day life. These traditions, which form the basis of mankind’s most civilised values and have been handed down to us over many centuries, are not just part of our inner religious life. They have an intensely practical relevance to the creation of real beauty in the arts, to an architecture which brings harmony and inspiration to people’s lives and to the development within the individual of a sense of balance which is, to my mind, the hallmark of a civilised person. (Temenos Academy, nd.)
We could also mention some currently active thinkers influenced to different degrees by Traditionalist ideas, such as Russian political analyst Alexander Dugin, Brazilian polemist and thinker Olavo de Carvalho, a key intellectual figure in the emergence of the new Brazilian political right, and even Steven Bannon (Vanity Fair, 2017), who had some participation in Donald Trump’s political trajectory.
The Primordial Tradition and Symbolism
Guénon traces the origin of the Primordial Traditional to the North Pole, and advocates that its purest representation today is Hinduism. In an article on the subject, “Hyperborea and Atlantis” Guénon corrects French astrologer Paul Lecour, who had written that “in spite of his Hinduism” Guénon did accept the Western origin of all traditions, to which Guénon responds:
We should note, moreover, that it is not at all ‘in spite of his Hinduism’ (in using this word Le Cour probably spoke more correctly than he knew), but on the contrary because of it that we consider the origin of the traditions to be Nordic, en even more exactly as polar, since this is expressly affirmed in the Veda as well as in other sacred books.(Guénon, 2001e, p.16)
That is interesting for a start because it manifests very concisely Guénon’s core point of view on the subject of tradition: he considers himself perfectly Hindu, while belonging formally either to Christianity or Islam, which he portrays as equally legitimate manifestations of that Primordial Tradition:
There is, however, a reason why the notion of the Sanātana Dharma appears to be bound more particularly to the Hindu tradition. This is because the latter is, of all the presently living traditional forms, the one that most directly derives from the Primordial Tradition, being somehow a sort of external continuation of it.(Guénon, 2002, p. 97)
Guénon does not present robust evidence to corroborate such claims. His main tool is “symbolical traditional science”, which, according to him, is proportionated to the synthetic “intellect” and not analytic “reason:”
Symbolism, in the strict sense and thereby as it were intuitive, which makes it more apt than language to serve as a support for intellectual intuition which is above reason.(Guénon, 1995, p. 13)
The legitimacy and possible methodology for symbolic science is something to be discussed philosophically, but the curious thing about the Guenonian methodology, as we shall see, is mainly the wide-ranging applications he makes of this science, even before delimiting it clearly. The basis of his proposal, and the basis of his doctrines, rest on the existence of so called Primordial Tradition (as he understands it), and this in turn can be “unveiled” or evidenced by an epistemology of symbolic unity. However, sometimes Guénon states that symbolism can only “suggest” rather than express:
Symbolism, as usually understood, is in much more constant use for the expression of Oriental than of Western thought; and this is quite understandable when it is realized that it constitutes a much less narrowly limited means of expression than ordinary language; suggesting as it does far more than it expresses. It provides the support that is best adapted to possibilities of conception that lie beyond the power of words.(Guénon, 1945, p. 130-131)
And if it seems that symbolism only suggests, he says it is also mathematically exact in its suggestions, which is a peculiar kind of exactness:
Indeed symbolism in which conceptual indefinitude in no wise precludes an absolutely mathematical exactness, thus reconciling apparently contradictory qualities is, as one might say, the natural language of metaphysic.(Guénon, 1945, p. 131)
Not only is symbolism the natural language of metaphysics, but elsewhere Guenon even points out that symbolic implications also have rigorous spiritual efficacy, provided one has intellectual qualifications to receive it:
[…] every symbol, in so far as it must essentially serve as a support to a conception, is also endowed with a very real efficacy ; and the religious sacrament itself, in so far as it is a sensible sign, does indeed play a similar part as support of the “ spiritual influence” which will turn the sacrament into an instrument of immediate or deferred psychical regeneration ; just as in the parallel case the intellectual potentialities included, in the symbol are able to awaken either an effective or simply a virtual conception, according to the receptive capacity of each individual.(Guénon, 1945, p. 133)
According to Guénon, symbols are not only an efficient cause of “revelation,” but they are the somewhat efficient cause of reality itself, as though the whole reality is constituted by a series of symbolic processions. The higher aspects of Being would therefore be reflected (sometimes inversely) in the lower aspects through symbolism, resulting in a complex hierarchical structure of nonhuman origin:
[…]once it be accepted that symbolism has its basis in the very nature of beings and things, that it is in perfect conformity with the laws of this nature, and if it be borne in mind that natural laws are basically only an expression and as it were an exteriorisation of the divine Will—does this not authorize us to affirm that symbolism is of ‘non-human’ origin, as the Hindus say; or in other words, that its principle goes further back and higher than humanity?(Guénon, 1995, p. 14)
We will see that the “once accepted” which Guénon takes as a precondition, cannot be established, and that Hindus do not, in fact, say that symbolism is of non-human origin. This is just one of some important generalizations and misappropriations that Guénon makes in relation to Hindus, as when he peremptorily states that a “statue” (mūrti) is also just a symbol:
Thus according to the teachings of the Hindus, any figure, a statue, for example which symbolizes this or that aspect of the Divinity, must be considered only as a ‘support’, a referent point for meditation. It is therefore simply an aid and nothing more.(Guénon, 1995, p. 14)
Guénon’s statement, if taken absolutely, is incorrect. Hindu understanding is more subtle than that of pure “symbolization for intellectual support;” it also includes, for example, notions such as the prāna-pratistha ritual, which infuses life (prāna) in the mūrti (statue) as Malhotra explains:
[…] the dharmic understanding of the nature and usefulness of these representations may have something to teach the West. The Sanskrit word for sacred image is murti, which means ‘awakened’, ‘real’ and ‘expressive of the Divine Spirit’. ‘Prana-pratishtha’ is the ritual of infusing the image with prana, or divine presence.(Malhotra, 2011. Ch.V)
As we saw above, for the French metaphysician, sensible symbolism, in comparison to discursive language, has the advantage of representing multiple levels of reality simultaneously. Symbols existing in all spiritual traditions around the world such as the “cross” or “heart” emanate and indicate the unity of the Primordial Tradition, which in turn is also referred to as the “axis of the world”. In the end, everything becomes a symbol of this great supra-historical source:
[…] if symbolism in its essence conforms strictly to the ‘divine plan’ and if the Sacred Heart is the centre of the being, both really and symbolically, this symbol of the Heart, in itself or in its equivalents, must occupy a central places in all doctrines issuing more or less directly from the Primordial Tradition.(Guénon, 1995, p. 16-17)
The Symbolism of the Cross and the Multiple States of Being, two of his main books, formed the geometric and metaphysical representation of total reality on top of which stands ineffable Non-Being or Infinity, the absolute lack of all limitation, the Supreme.
It is important here to draw attention to the logical devices used by Guénon while operating his symbolic science: he often makes use of hypothetical reasoning, intending to suggest connections, ambiguously and without definite support, as when he refers to the symbol of the heart both “in itself “and” in its equivalents”- which is curious, since we could even include there symbols different from the heart (whenever he considers them equivalent), emptying the very notion of symbolism; expressions such as “both really and symbolic” are also peculiar, as it is difficult to understand what is the advantage of claiming that the Sacred Heart is both symbolically and “really” the center of the human being, if the sensible image of the heart is the symbol and not the symbolized (as though the symbol could point to a false symbolized?).
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Giuliano Morais is Brazilian translator and teacher, follower of the shakta path, he has been studying Hindu traditions and thought for more than 15 years. He understands that Sanatana Dharma has principles and technologies, View More
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 This point of view was probably reinforced by his acquaintance with the book “The Arctic Home of the Veda” by G.B Tilak. Guénon considered Tilak a model of a “non-westernized Hindu” fighting colonial forces.
 A Shaivist would perhaps notice here that Guénon fails to conceive a clear distinction between sṛṣṭi-śakti (power of creation) and anugraha-śakti (power of revelation) and also tirodhāna-śakti (power of occultation), everything seems to be accomplished by means of some kind of symbolical procession.
1 thought on “René Guénon, Sameness And Digestion Of Dharma – Part 1”
Mr. Morais, I appreciate your enlightening article on this topic.
With regard to Guenon’s view that traditional Christianity and Islam are themselves branches of the Sanatana Dharma, wasn’t this view expressed earlier by the Vedantic saint Ramakrishna? Therefore, wasn’t there a precedent, by Guenon’s time, in the Vedantic tradition for this view?