Author: Giuliano Morais.
II- Departing from Dharma
The question of reincarnation
Guénon openly departs from dharmic doctrines sometimes, as in the case of punarjanman (reincarnation), the existence of which he denied. His point of view was also endorsed over the years by also famous Sri Lankan traditionalist Ananda Coomaraswamy, to whom he wrote the following in 1936 comparing the belief in reincarnation to belief in fantastic animals:
[…] the belief in reincarnation can be considered partly due to the misunderstanding of the symbolic meaning of some expressions. Although the approximation may be odd, I’m thinking here of another fact that has exactly the same cause: It’s the belief in existence some monsters and fantastic animals, which are only ancient misunderstood symbols.(cited by “Des Vertues, Un Combat,” 2010)
Supported by his theory of multiple states of being, he not only affirms that reincarnation is metaphysically impossible, but also denies that it had ever been seriously taught in India by any traditional master. When pressed against evidence Guénon would normally assert that reincarnation was purely symbolical. That reincarnation (also translated indifferently as rebirth, metempsychosis or transmigration) is really (not symbolically) taught in shastras is so obvious that no special effort would be required to prove Guénon was wrong, but as it is necessary to establish it beyond doubt, the point of view of a traditional master like Vātsyāyana on the subject might prove useful.
Rebirth or transmigration is connection again with the body, the senses, the mind and cognition. Whether here or elsewhere. The condition of recurrent births and deaths has no beginnig and ceases on the attainment of release
(Gotama, 2003, p.29)
If confronted with the above excerpt, Guénon would probably state, as he normally does, that “metempsychosis” was meant instead, which for him represented mere transmission of psychic residues, without a real being participating in the process. So, we have to put it in a clearer way in the words of Udayanācārya:
This Birth and Death (samsara),—does it belong to the Soul or to the Mind? If by ‘samsara’ you mean the action (of entering and moving off from the bodies), then it belongs to the Mind; as it is the Mind that actually moves, the ‘samsarati’; on the other hand, if by samsara you mean experiencing (of pleasure and pain) [as it really is], then it belongs to the Soul, as it is the Soul that experiences pleasure and pain.(Jha, 1984, p.280)
Guénon would again retort that Nyāya, being a dualistic point of view, does not comprehend the superior non-dual approach of Ātman as identical to Paramātman. Anyway, if what he meant in the first place, was that the Paramātman does not reincarnate, that is an obvious statement for all Hindu darshanas, including nyāya, and the issue could have been sorted out if he had resorted to the concept of Jivâtman (which does not mean mere psychic residues), or to the distinction between vyāvahārika-satya (practical truth) and pāramārthika satya (absolute truth) in the case of Vedanta; he preferred to maintain things ambiguous and obscure when clear
conceptual distinctions were easily available.
No traditional teacher ever implies, as Guénon does, that reincarnation is only symbolically meant, or that it is about transmission of psychic residues with no “real being” behind it, and nobody would suggest that Paramātman reincarnates; so his whole point is senseless, and it is quite strange that Guénon could manage to be so evasive on such a key subject for so many years. To silence all objections, here is the way a Vedantic like Swami Shivananda, following strictly the commentary of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya on the Brahma-Sūtra-s, handles this issue:
The Jiva (individual soul), along with the pranas, the mind and the senses leaves his former body and obtains a new body. He takes with himself avidya, virtues and vicious actions and the impressions left by his previous births.(Shivananda, 2008, p.307)
Guénon is also quite dubious on the technical subject of apūrva, which is understood traditionally as the efficient cause of reincarnation. He seems undecided on whether it is cosmical or individual and curiously seems to imply post-mortem subsistence of individuality:
The apurva can be regarded, on the one hand, as remaining attached to the being which has performed the action, since it is henceforth a constituent element of its individuality considered in its non-corporeal aspect, and will continue to exist as long as the individuality itself; on the other hand, it may also be regarded as quitting the limits of that individuality in order to enter the realm of potential energies of the cosmic order.(Guénon, 1945, p. 274)
Again, had he resorted to traditional sources, he would certainly find a definite answer. As the one given by Vātsyāyana:
[…] To say that the production and destruction of entities constitute pretyabhava [reincarnation] is to deny the moral law according to which one experiences the consequences of one’s own acts. While the doctrine of total annihilation would render the teachings of the rishis meaningless.(Gotama, 2003, p. 288)
Methodological and epistemological issues
Guénon’s work is internally cohesive, almost geometrical in its consistency, but I would say his style and methodology would draw him closer to philosophers such as René Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz than to traditional Hindu masters and their methods of instruction or exposition. When it comes to doctrine, traditional ācārya-s, unlike Guénon, hardly ever put themselves in a majestic impersonal point of view, as if revealing non-human mathematical truths, nor do they refuse to engage in dialectical process, what is widely evidenced by the rich tradition of debate in Indian soil. Even among the staunchest non-dualists, Hindu logic never works with pure ideal realities or symbolical lucubrations, without collaboration of pramāṇa-s.
In the traditional Hindu methodolgy, as Vātsyāyanācārya explains (Gotama, 2003, p.18), each of the five members of Nyāya (logical procedure) corresponds to stages by which supernatural truth is established: śabda, product of supernatural experience, is, as far as reason is concerned, mere possibility. Inference (anumāna) brings this truth to empirically-supported rational domain. Illustration (dṛṣṭānta) offers a proper empirical representation, analogy (upamāna) affirms finally the relation between word and object and conclusion ensues. This acid-washing of siddhānta (doctrine) is generally known as tarka, and that is how manana, or reasoning of traditional doctrines, is accomplished.
Guénon demonstrates a precarious understanding of darśana-s other than Vedānta, of which he also has a very idiosyncratic interpretation. He can make very general and even wrong statements about doctrines of these schools. His own method sometimes was no better than psychoanalytic free association: in The Lord of the World, for instance, he puts forward very bold theories, only supported by symbolical association and unverified legends such as the one, of the alleged existence of the city of Agartha in central Asia. All sorts of non-verifiable associations are thereof made: symbolical correlations between the Grail with Hindu amṛta, Shiva and Lucifer, as well as suggestions of mysteries, supposedly unknown to any “exoteric” authority. Here we have a demonstration of his usual methodology where he rhetorically implies the conformity of Christianity to the Primordial Traditional:
After the death of Christ, according to the legend, the Holy Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Then began to unfold the history and exploits of the Knights of the Round Table […]. The Round Table was destined to receive the Grail when one of the Knights should have succeeded in winning it and bringing it from Britain to Armorica; and this Table was also probably a very ancient symbol, one of those associated with the idea of the above mentioned spiritual centres. The circular form of the Table relates to the ‘zodiacal cycle (itself a symbol which deserves special study) by the presence around it of twelve principal personages, a particularity which is to be found in the make-up of all the centres in question. That being so cannot one see in the number of twelve Apostles one sign among a multitude of others, of the perfect conformity of Christianity with the Primordial Tradition? (Guénon, 1995. p.19)
This is basically the essence of his methodology. When he is criticized, he simply dismisses criticism as mere “profane” perspective and, in his usual majestic plural, he puts himself in a privileged position of interpreting all religions while not being criticized by any:
Being absolutely independent of all that is not pure and selfless truth, and determined to remain so, we simply propose to say things as they are, without the least concern to please or displease anyone; we have nothing to expect from each other, we do not even expect that those who could benefit from the ideas we formulate to be grateful to us in any way, and, moreover, that matters very little to us. We warn once again that we are not willing to let ourselves be shut up in any of the ordinary frameworks, and that it would be perfectly futile to seek to apply any label to us, for, among those which prevail in the Western world, there is none that suits us in reality.(Cited by “Les Classiques des Sciences Sociales”, n.d.)“
Guénon also affirms the existence of the Devil, which is an original doctrine from non-dharmic resources:
The devil is not only terrible, he is often grotesque; let each one take this according to his own understanding. But as to those who may be astonished or scandalized by such an assertion, let them refer to the absurd details inevitably found in every account of sorcery and then relate these to the inept manifestations which spiritists foolhardily attribute to the ‘disincarnate’.(Guénon, 2001d, p.262)
When he does rejects a “personal” or “religious” Devil, it not because this (theological) point of view is considered false, but because it is not his own, metaphysical and symbolical:
These remarks make possible an understanding of what we have said regarding ‘wandering influences’, some of which can truly be taken as ‘satanic’ or ‘demonic’, whether one regards them as pure and simple forces or as the means of action used by certain beings in the proper sense.Either may be true according to a given case, and we must leave the door open to all possibilities. Yet this changes nothing as to the intrinsic nature of the influences in question. This shows to what degree we intend to abstain from all theological discussion, which is not to say that we do not fully recognize the legitimacy of this point of view.(Guénon, 2001d, p. 261)
Every theological truth can be transposed into metaphysical terms; but the reverse does not hold true, for there are metaphysical truths not susceptible of translation into theological terms.(Guénon, 2001d, p.260)
In The Reign of Quantity he adopts frankly apocalyptic tones, associating the rise of Individualism, Modernity and even theories like Vitalism and Psychoanalysis to what he called “counter-initiation”, which is the instrumental procedure for operation of evil in the world. Moreover, he seems to have even some inside information on how those procedures and strategies take place:
It is known that there are in the world a certain number of ‘repositories’ of influences, the distribution of which is certainly no matter of chance, serving only too well the designs of the ‘powers’ responsible for the whole modern deviation;(Guénon, 2001c, p.184)
Much of Guénon’s is based on the expectation of the end of Kali-Yuga and the consequent beginning of a new cosmic cycle, which for him is very near (also differing from classical shastric view on the subject). That is one of the reasons why he emphasizes the major importance of so called “intellectual elite.”
[…]we have in fact entered upon the last phase of the Kali- Yuga, the darkest period of this ‘dark age’, the state of dissolution from which it is impossible to emerge otherwise than by a cataclysm, since it is not a mere readjustment that is necessary at such a stage, but a complete renovation. Disorder and confusion prevail in every domain and have been carried to a point far surpassing all that has been known previously, so that, issuing from the West, they now threaten to invade the whole world.(Guénon, 2001b, p.17)
Guénon’s understanding of the “cosmic cycles” is also very peculiar and serves to show his high regards for Islam in detriment of Hinduism, as when he approvingly cites his traditionalist colleague Schuon in a footnote on the following:
[…]one is within one’s rights to say that the expansion of an orthodox foreign tradition, Islam, seems to indicate that Hinduism itself no longer possesses the full vitality or actuality of a tradition in integral conformity with the conditions of a given cyclic period. This meeting of Islam, which is the last possibility issuing from the Primordial Tradition, and of Hinduism which is doubtless the most direct branch of that Tradition, is moreover very significant and leads to very complex considerations”(Schuon as cited in Guénon, 1995, p.112)
In the same page Guénon endorses the soteriological rule of Islam as the “Seal of Prophecy” which the concept used by Muslims to emphasize the superiority of their own religion.
The fulfillment of a cycle, as we have envisaged it, should have a certain correlation in the historical order with the encounter of the two traditional forms that correspond to its beginning and its end, and which have respectively Sanskrit and Arabic for sacred languages – the Hindu tradition insofar as it represents the most direct heritage of the Primordial Tradition, and the Islamic tradition as “Seal of Prophecy” and therefore the ultimate form of traditional orthodoxy for the present cycle.(Guénon, 1995, p. 113)
One has no choice here but to understand that, for Guénon, Islam was somehow destined “Divine Will” to overcome and supersede Hinduism in its own land, for in Guénon’s Kali Yuga, Hinduism, legitimate as it could be, was already a weakened tradition. That understanding is actually very coherent with his decision to adopt Islam and not Hinduism after all.
Dogma and Sanātana Dharma
For Guénon, dogma was no more than a sentimental expression of a metaphysical truth:
The word “dogma” applies properly speaking to a religious doctrine; without at present going further into the special characteristics of such a doctrine, we can say that though it is obviously intellectual as regards its profounder meaning, it does not belong to the purely intellectual order, for if it did so, it would not be religious but metaphysical. It follows then that this doctrine, in taking on the special form that is adapted to its point of view, must undergo the influence of extra-intellectual elements, ‘for the most part of a sentimental order; the very word “beliefs” which is commonly used to denote religious conceptions clearly reveals this character.(Guénon, 1945, p. 103)
This understanding enables him to adhere, for instance, to any Christian dogma without feeling the need to reject Islamic principles, for instance:
But who would dare to maintain that the eternal Word and His historical, earthly and human manifestation are not really one and the same Christ under different aspects? We touch here on the relationships between the temporal and the timeless, and perhaps it is not appropriate to insist further on this; for these are precisely those things which symbolism alone can express in the measure that they are expressible.(Guénon, 1995, p. 24)
He also believes the term Sanātana Dharma could be used equally to define Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism
In a certain sense, all these various traditional are principally contained in Sanātana Dharma. For they are so many regular and legitimate adaptations of it. […] And in another sense, inverse en complementary to this, they all contain Sanātana Dharma as something most inner and ‘central’ in them. […] This being true for all traditional forms, it would be a mistake to wish to assimilate Sanātana Dharma purely and simply with one among them, whatever that might be. Moreover, even the Hindu tradition, in terms of which it actually presents itself to us.(Guénon, 2002, p. 96).
He observes that there can be a “relative” or “absolute” definition to Sanātana Dharma, but he did not derive all the consequences of that division: if Hinduism is Sanātana Dharma in a primary sense, he should declare that other traditions should align themselves with the principles of Hinduism in order to find their true nature again.
[…] the followers of each of the other traditions could also say, in the same sense and with the same right, that their own tradition is Sanātana Dharma. Such an affirmation would always be true in a relative sense, although it is obviously false in the absolute sense.(Guénon, 2002, pg.97)
Sameness and digestion of Dharma
Guénon’s game-changing interpretation of Modernity contributed to the conversion of not few intellectuals and served to mitigate the Western crisis of religion versus science. He offered a new narrative, powerful enough to justify “being religious” in today’s circumstances. Many readopted their faiths, now reinterpreting them in terms of “traditionalism.” He also contributed to the digestion of Dharma by portraying religions as equivalent branches with the same occult Primordial Tradition roots.
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
 The translator here uses the term ‘Soul’ for Ātman, which is not very appropriate, but I kept his version.
 Muslim Romanian philosopher Michel Vâlsan (Shaykh Mustafa ‘Abd al-‘Aziz) is famously quoted as saying Guénon was the “infallible compass”.
 This word may denote “instrument” of right knowledge or, in wider sense, knowledge itself.
 Darśana is a point of view of a traditional school like Nyāya, Vedānta or even Bauddha.
 Just to give one example, in his in a chapter dedicated to Vaiśeṣika (Guénon,1945) he claims that “samavāya”, a central and unique concept in Vaiśeṣika, is an attribute of “dravya”, which is not the case.
 The books Guénon uses as reference for his illations are Ferdynand Ossendowski (1922). Beasts, Men and Gods and Saint-Yves d´Alveydre Mission de l´Inde (1910).
 It is important to mention here that traditionalist “sameness” is different from the “naive sameness” pointed out by Rajiv Malhotra in his book (2011, Ch. VI). Theirs is a “sameness” supported by esoteric, meta-religious link to Primordial Traditional and supposedly evidenced by universality of symbols in all spiritual traditions.
 Étant absolument indépendant de tout ce qui n’est pas la vérité pure et désintéressée, et bien décidé à le demeurer, nous nous proposons simplement de dire les choses telles qu’elles sont, sans le moindre souci de plaire ou de déplaire à quiconque ; nous n’avons rien à attendre ni des uns ni des autres, nous ne comptons même pas que ceux qui pourraient tirer avantage des idées que nous formulons nous en sachent gré en quelque façon, et, du reste, cela nous importe fort peu. Nous avertissons une fois de plus que nous ne sommes disposé à nous laisser enfermer dans aucun des cadres ordinaires, et qu’il serait parfaitement vain de chercher à nous appliquer une étiquette quelconque, car, parmi celles qui ont cours dans le monde occidental, il n’en est aucune qui nous convienne en réalité.
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