After strange gods

“Hinduism recognizes for each age and each place a new form of revelation, and for each man, according to his stage of development, a different path of realization, a different mode of worship, a different morality, different rituals, different gods.”

The quote is from Alain Daniélou (1907–94), the great French Indologist, musicologist, and convert to Shaiva Hinduism. He was curiously enough the brother of Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou (1905-74), the French Jesuit, Cardinal, historian of early Christian doctrine, and author of extraordinary books including Scandaleuse Vérité (translated as, The Scandal of Truth, 1962). For much different reasons, I admire both men; the latter as likely a saint, and certainly one of the finest minds of the twentieth century. But let us leave him for some other day.

Alain Daniélou is, paradoxically, also an advertisement for Catholic or Western civilization, though he removed himself from it. The book from which I lifted the billboard quote was, Hindu Polytheism (1964), remarkable for both its range and penetration of Hindu mythology and iconography. It is not an apologia for Hinduism, quite, though the account is sympathetic; it uses all the methods of Western scholarship and inquiry to explain these products of the Indian mind. It is among the triumphs of that “Orientalism” which today is categorically condemned by the jackboot academic establishment, in the wake of the famous tract by Edward Said. (I allude to Said’s opus magnum of 1978, a “modern classic” of pig ignorance, and malicious lies.)

Perhaps too sympathetic, in light of Daniélou’s conversion. I think he lost his moorings (“went bush” as they used to say in the diplomatic corps) in a way that I can understand.

Though never even slightly tempted to become the adherent of an “Eastern Religion,” in my own footloose pre-Christian youth, my memory holds the experience of watching a loin-clothed Hindu adept, immersed to the waist in the mud waters of the Ganges, uttering his prayer towards the rising sun. It was beautiful, and I can reconstruct the moment in which I, too, felt at peace and in sympathy with myself and all India — an India not intelligible to, for instance, the Western hippies then on the road, reaching for superficial things. For this was not superficial.

I was witnessing a response to a religious calling, that was entirely sincere, entirely self-giving, entirely free of the smug puerilities that offended me, even then. I had nothing but respect for it; for this man standing in the heart of the sunrise. Yet all I could do was to take him in: to observe the integrity of another soul. Whom Jesus loves, as we can know for certain.

Even supposing we shared a language, to argue with him would have been impossible. To confront him from another intellectual, theological or philosophical position, would be to begin at the wrong place; for here was a “faith” that was undeniable, and obtuse to Western reasoning. To my mind then, and perhaps now, I was witnessing the religious impulse prior to the Judaic focus in monotheism; prior to that extraordinary “dialogue” that is represented in the Hebrew Scriptures, between God and His chosen people — different in kind from all the other religions of the ancient Near and Farther East. In other words, I could be watching a scene that had happened thousands of years ago, in Ganges, Indus, Euphrates, Nile; … Tiber, Thames.

Yet “Hinduism” (the very term is too confining) has its own reasoning genius, and as Daniélou explained in this book and several others, the ancient Indian philosophical teachings — which contain much moral wisdom, and theological insights that even a Catholic will recognize, and reasoning of an indisputably universal kind — are woven into the poetry of an incredibly complex, organic tradition. The “Vedanta” is not naive or primitive. It is often extremely sophisticated, and has repaid patient study.

Daniélou bought into it at a high level, both intellectual and aesthetic. It provided, for him, a different answer to the questions his brother also faced, the one in obedience to, and the other in rebellion from, the same upbringing. It was a very Western rebellion, complicated, in Alain’s case, by what seems like an innate homosexuality, from which he was also running. A brilliant man, and good and kindly from what I know, he was engaged, I believe, in a “great game,” of hiding from himself.

We should remember, however, by our own lights of Christian faith, that thinking cannot save us; that reasoning merely runs behind, even Krishna’s chariot. Christ alone can save; but when we say this we are not actually contradicting the truths in other faiths. For Christ is man and God. He is not a rational construct. His “being” lies infinitely deeper than that, and yet extends all the way to our surface. Presented not “rationally,” but instead as Son of God and Son of Man, He is the fulfilment not only of the Hebrew prophetic, but of all other religious traditions.

Looking back, it seems to me that there is a sense in which I glimpsed Christ standing in the Ganges — in something primaevally purified, and human. Something not looking back, but somehow leading forward to Christ standing in the River Jordan. In his own way, from some such experience, probably in the plural, I think this is what must have provided a “revelation” to Daniélou — looking, as it were, for Christ, in all the wrong times and places.

(Cardinal Jean, incidentally, said innumerable Masses for his brother Alain, and for all homosexuals; as well for pimps and prostitutes and all the “low life” of the modern city; for all those in flight from themselves, led astray by mysterious forces. His “liberal” enemies in the Church used this to tar him with scandal. His reputation was finally clouded when he happened to die, suddenly, while delivering money from his own pocket to a poor, forlorn, aging prostitute, who needed it urgently to bail her lover out of gaol. And brother Alain came volubly to his defence when the French tabloid press went to town with this, barracking the late Cardinal as a “found in.” Forty years later, the record still needs setting straight, in a world still full of pig ignorance, and malicious lies.)


So much for comparative religion, today. It is full of shoals, full of dangers. The man who does not know himself will be quickly lost in those waters. Even at that time, on the steps at Benares — I was then eighteen years old — I could not doubt that I was Western. Though not yet a Christian, I knew at least that I was formed, “culturally,” in a matrix unmistakably Christian; and there was much I could not surrender without also surrendering myself to incoherence, to madness.

That was then, this is now. I have come to realize that, even among people older than I, and arguably even some elderly Catholic bishops, this “mooring” has slipt off. It is more of a puzzle, looking back, that I still kept it. Much of my childhood was spent in Asia; my parents were post-Protestant lapsed. My “European” heritage was already “evolving” into something post-Christian, rapidly through the ’sixties and ’seventies; its finest achievements, disowned. The appeal of Eastern Religions to my hippie contemporaries spoke of this. Many were going to ashrams in India, unaware they were leaving “ashrams” behind, from our own Christian monastic past. They sought to replace something of which they’d been deprived by their own parents and schools and society: their own religious roots. Truly they were blowing in the wind, seeking the profound in the merely exotic.

Sometimes, they were even told by their gurus: “Go home. Learn your own religion, before you try to hash-smoke your way into mine.”

In trying to understand the immense catastrophe now overtaking the West, and within the Catholic Church that formed it, I return to the same scenes. We have lost not only the liturgical order that explicated Eternity to us, but also the reason that ran up behind it. We see everything we had, or rather, everything we were, outwardly dissolving around an irreducible core.


Return we then to that billboard quote. It was meant, by Alain Daniélou, as a brief, summary, rational explanation of the Hindu conception of the world; of how to live and what to do for those who are living. One might quibble with it, but in the broadest terms it might serve, too, as an explanation of other very ancient, polytheist, religious traditions. It is, to my mind, a description of a natural, plausible response to “the cosmos”; a way to be in harmony with it.

Indeed, this book by Daniélou provides a point of entry. One could read it and imagine how a “traditional,” unwesternized Hindu might account for our common world; how with as much native intelligence as we have — as any human has — he can “make sense” of it, from many successive angles.

Yet I also quoted it by way of trying to understand the demands now made in that “dictatorship of relativism” that Pope Benedict spoke to us about. It reads almost as a shopping list for the post-modern man, who does genuinely want religion, but wants it on his own terms. For I cannot believe that the “liberals” who insist on tampering with the teaching of Christ and His Church are insincere, in their longings for the “comforts” of religion; any more than they are insincere in their desire to avoid the discomforts of obedience. They only ask to have things both ways.

Positions of the Catholic Church, shared in the main by the Protestant congregations through the last five centuries (particularly on such vexed current issues as divorce and homosexuality), are not their current positions, alas; they want the teachings “mercifully” adjusted to their own passing requirements. The alternative would be to adjust themselves — unthinkable from the post-modern, consumerist point of view.

Yet for all I know, some of these are kindly and good men, by the reasonable standards of this world; and many appeal not for themselves, but for what they imagine to be the good of others. What can we do to please them?

The answer to this is, plainly, nothing — beyond quiet prayer, and works of charity invisible to the sarcastic crowds. The Catholic Church is what she is, and what she has been through the last twenty centuries. She is hardly going to be changed now; and her settled faith is not in the power of any synod, council, or pope, to alter. The “reformers” appeal to the wrong authorities; as men, only to their fellow men.

Perhaps these can be twisted; perhaps the “pastoral practice” corrupted, as it has been many times before. But only for a time, and never to ruination. The real dispute is of men, with God and nature. Even from the view within recorded history, they beat their heads against the Rock.

And yet they have an alternative: to leave the Church. We may not have free markets for goods and services, in the West any more; but we surely have a free market for religion.

There are other religions that may cater to their needs; that will let them have all that they desire, and without the “sticker shock” of Catholicism — new revelations for each time and place; new accommodations for each person, changing as they “grow”; new paths to “self-realization”; new moral schemes, and new rituals, as wanted; and whenever and wherever there is market demand, strange new gods and idols. Why complain about the prices in this shop, when the dollar store of spirituality is in such easy walking distance?

By all means, show them out with this promise: that everything they want is just down the street. And all over the world, too, for when they go on holiday. And everywhere: cheap, cheap, cheap!

And there is one more thing that in Love we can promise: that after they have had their adventures, they may always come home.

For this wasn’t a candy shop, after all; it was the domicile of Christ. And there will still be His Catholic Church, miraculously preserved without them.