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A Theory of Polytheism

By Alain Danielou

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While conversing about PolyTheology, an intelligent and scholarly Neopagan friend of mine recommended Alain Danielou's description of Polytheism as found in his book The Gods of India, also published as Polytheism. It is excellent and, i think, describes polytheism beyond its relation to Hinduism. Although given in a Hindu context, it can be used to describe polytheism in general and religion in an inclusive way, even fitting monotheism within it. Hinduism is in fact Pagan and Polytheistic, although there have been attempts to make it sound somehow essentially monotheistic, especially since contact with Islam and Christianity, and even more so during English occupation and the rest of the 20th century. I think Danielou's commentary applies well to contemporary Neopaganism in general.

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Chapter 1: The Theory of Polytheism

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The Language of Symbols

(p. 3) In Hindu cosmological theory, symbolism is conceived as the expression of a reality, as a search for the particular points where different worlds meet and where the relation between entities belonging to different orders of things may become apparent.

According to the Hindu view, all the aspects of the manifest world spring from similar principles - have, we might say, a common ancestry. There is of necessity some sort of equivalence between sounds, forms, numbers, colors, ideas, as there is also between the abstractions of the subtle and transcendent worlds on one side and the forms of the perceptible universe on the other.

...True symbolism, far from being (p. 4) invented by man, springs from Nature itself. The whole of Nature is but the symbol of a higher reality.

What we picture as the aspects of divinity are essentially the abstract prototypes of the forms of the manifest world. These must, by their very nature, have equivalents in all the aspects of the perceptible universe. Each divine aspect thus may appear to us as having affinities with some particular form, number, color, plant, animal, part of the body, vital energy, particular moments of the cycles of the day, of the year, of aeons, particular constellations, sounds, rhythms, etc.

The conception of the Hindu pantheon and its iconographical theory are based on the belief that such affinities exist. Thus an aspect of divinity can be represented and worshiped in forms which are extremely diverse and yet strictly equivalent, such as a mental figuration, a geometrical diagram (yantra), an anthropomorphic image (murti), a spoken formula (mantra), a particular human being (mother, teacher, etc.), a particular fruit, an animal, a mineral, etc. Any of these forms can be used indifferently as a support through which ritual or meditation can reach the Principle of which they are the images, the manifest aspects.

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The Representation of the Transcendent

All religions, all religious philosophies, are ultimately attempts at finding out the nature of the perceptible world - and of ourselves who perceive it - the process of the world's manifestation, and the purpose of life, so that we may discover the means of fulfilling our destiny. All mythologies are ways of representing transcendent or suprahuman states of Being conceived as deities or perceived as symbols.

Some ancient Hindu sages discovered that, through the diversity of our facilities and of our senses, and according to the postulates or methods we are ready to accept, we can find different channels through which to conduct our investigation into the extrasensorial world. Each of these channels, leading into distant spheres, has narrow limits, has its own distinct charcteristics and methods. Each may bring us to conclusions that appear different from those arrived at through other channels.

(p. 5) ...Whenever he carries any form of experience to its farthest limit, man has a glimpse of an unknowable "Beyond" which he calls divinity. This divinity cannot be grasped nor understood, for it begins where understanding fails, yet it can be approached from many sides; any attempt at understanding its nature can merely be called a "near approach"...We can only point to the necessity for a substratum, we never experience it directly, although it is ever near; for, at the limit of each form of experience, we apprehend some aspect of it. The more we can seize of the different aspects of the phenomenal world, often apparently contradictory, through which the Divine may be approached, the more we came near to a general, a "real," insight into the mysterious entity we call God...

...The apparent contradiction between the transcendent forms glimpsed through the diverse means of approach is really the key to the comprehension of the "Immense" reality, which can never be grasped as a whole. Thus divinity has been defined as "that in which opposites coexist." The more insights we can get, the more aspects of the Divine we can perceive, the more we see of divinities beyond the different aspects of the universe, the more elements we can assemble to build up some conception of the origin of things, of the destiny and purpose of life, the nearer we are to understanding something of what divinity is.

...It is only through the multiplicity of approaches that we can draw a sort of outline of what transcendent reality may be. The multiple manifested entities that underlie existing form alone are within the reach of our understanding. Any conception we may have of something beyond will be a mental projection, an imaginary link established between various perceptible data.

(p. 6) Hindu philosophy studies the mystery of the universe from three main outlooks. They are: (1) the experimental outlook ... and its corroborating method, logic, ... which envisages the "impermanent" or destructible form of things; (2) the cosmological outlook... and its corroborating method, direct supramental perception, [such as] Yoga, which studies the "enduring" or permanent laws of things; and (3) the metaphysical outlook...and its corroborating method, the dialectic and semantic study of language, which tries to grasp the nature of the changeless substratum of all forms and laws. ...when studying the nature of the Cosmic Being, ... these three approaches refer to the three orders of manifestation: the "Destructible [Being]"... or the perceptible universe, the "Indestructible [Being]"... or the body of permanent laws which which rule manifestation, and the "Changeless [Being]"... , the unmanifest substratum of existence beyond cause and effect.

It will make us ponder over the nature of transcendent reality to discover that, according to their own logic and their means of proof, some of the "points of view"... must be atheistic, others pantheistic, others deistic, moralistic, mystical. Yet we should not hastily conclude that these are the conflicting beliefs of philosophers. They are only the logical conclusions drawn from the premises and reached through the methods acceptable to each approach, each "point of view." Each one is real within its own field and aims toward the utmost limit of the reach of our faculties in a particular direction...

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The Nondual Principle

A supreme cause has to be beyond number, otherwise Number would be the First Cause. But the number one, although it has peculiar properties, is a number like two, or three, or ten, or a million. If "God" is one he is not beyond number any more than if he is two or three or ten or a million. But although a million is not any nearer to infinity than one or two or ten, it seems to be so from the limited point of view of our perceptions. (p. 7) And we may be nearer to a mental representation of divinity when we consider an immense number of different gods than when we try to stress their unity; for the number one is in a way the number farthest removed from infinity.

...To speak of the manifest form of a unique God implies a confusion between different orders. God manifest cannot be one, nor can the number one apply to an unmanifest causal aspect. At no stage can unity be taken as the cause of anything, since the existence implies a relation and unity would mean existence without relation.

Though, in its manifest form, divinity is of necessity multiple, in its ultimate essence it cannot be said to be either one or many. It cannot be in any way defined. Divinity is represented as that which remains when the reality of all that can be percieved has been denied...nothing the mind can know or words can express. We cannot say that it is one, yet we can say that it is not-one, not-two, not-many ...a non-dual principle ...existing beyond all the forms of manifest divinity...

Nonduality, the essence of the unmanifest, cannot exist on the manifest plane. Although the doctrine of nonduality is kept as the goal of our efforts toward realization, this goal is ever beyond our reach. It is on a plane different from that of existence and is in no way real from the point of view of manifestation. We cannot imagine, we cannot name, we cannot describe the nondual Immensity... It is a mere abstraction which cannot act nor be experienced or propitiated. It can therefore have nothing whatever to do with any form of worship, of religion, of morality, or of mystical experience.

Existence is multiplicity. That which is not multiple does not exist. We may conceive of an underlying, all-pervading continuum, but it remains shape-(p. 8)less, without quality, impersonal, nonexistent. From the moment we envisage divinity in a personal form, or we attribute to it any quality, that divinity belongs to the multiple, it cannot be one; for there must be an entity embodying the opposite of its quality, a form complementary to its form, other deities.

Whenever we imagine a god, personify him, picture him, pray to him, worship him, this god, of necessity, is but one among many. Whenever we call him "the one God" we do not raise his status, but merely blind ourselves to other realities. We do not come in any way nearer to the nondual Immensity... In that sense, any form of monotheism takes man away from the path of knowledge and realization, substituting a simple but inaccurate postulate for the attempt to understand the divine multiplicity.

The gods are but the representations of the causal energies from which each aspect of the subtle and visible worlds is derived... Each of these [deities] manifests itself in a particular aspect of the perceptible universe, or if we start our investigation from the perceptible end, each deity appears as a subtle entity presiding over the functioning of one aspect of the universe.

In truth, these divine aspects, which, from the point of view of man, seem more or less remote, may appear, from the point of view of divinity, as the mere modalities of the same essence... from the point of view of existence it is the divine multiplicity, not the unity, which is the source of the universe and the source of knowledge as well as the means of reintegration.

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Monotheism and Polytheism

In our time monotheism is often considered a higher form of religion than polytheism... (p. 9) Individual monotheistic worshipers, however, usually worship a particularized form of their god and not his causal, unmanifest, formless aspect. There is a nearness, a response, in the formal aspect which is lacking in the abstract conception. But a causal, formless, all-pervading divinity, cause and origin of all forms, cannot be manifest in a particular form and would of necessity be equally at the root of all types of form. Divinity can only be reached through its manifestations, and there are as many gods as there are aspects of creation. The gods and the universe are two aspects - the conscious powers and the unconscious forms - of an indefinite multiplicity.

In the polytheistic religion each individual worshiper has a chosen deity... and does not usually worship other gods in the same way as his own, as the one he feels nearer to himself. Yet he acknowledges other gods... He knows that ultimate Being or non-Being is ever beyond his grasp, beyond existence, and in no way can be worshiped or prayed to. Since he realizes that other deities are but other aspects of the one he worships, he is basically tolerant and must be ready to accept every form of knowledge or belief as potentially valid.

From the vast and solid basis for experiences formed by the multiplicity of divine manifestation the polytheist can rise toward the goal beyond reach that is nondualism and toward the illusion of an ultimate identification. At every step he finds within the multiplicity a lesser degree of differentiation suitable to his stage of development as he travels from the outward forms of ritual and morality toward the more abstract aspects of knowledge and nonaction. These are outwardly represented by different groups of static symbols, that is, deities, and active symbols, that is rites. The seeker chooses at each stage the deities and rites which are within his reach as he progresses on the path that leads toward liberation.

During the pilgrimage of life he goes from one temple to another, adopts different forms of ritual, different modes of living, and various means of self-development. He is constantly aware of the coexistence of different approaches to divinity, suitable for people at stages of realization different from his own.

It is considerably more difficult, within a monotheist creed, for an individual to establish the hierarchy of his attitudes to divinity at different stages of his de-(p. 10)velopment; and it is almost impossible for him not to mix planes and methods, for relative truth is different at each stage and yet its thorough understanding is essential if a particular stage is to be outgrown.

Since he cannot see clearly side by side, illustrated in different symbols, in different cults or philosophies - and in the attitude of their followers - the different stages of his own development, past as well as future, any attempt at looking beyond the limits of his creed makes the monotheist lose his balance. It is because of this precarious equilibrium that, in monotheist creeds, we find so little room between proselytizing and irreligion, so little place for tolerance, so little respect or mode of thought, or worship, or behavior different from the "norm." The monotheist, as a rule, confuses the religious and the moral planes, conventional practices with self-development. He mixes up faith with proselytism, mystical emotion with spiritual progress.

The man who finds himself at a stage of development different from that for which a given [monotheistic] system was devised has hardly any alternative but to abandon it, which often means, if he has no contact with other religious forms, abandoning religion and spiritual search altogether or devising some system of his own unlikely to lead him toward modes of thought and understanding of which he has not already an idea.

Monotheism is always linked with a culture, a civilization. It is not through its forms but in spite of them that gifted individuals may reach spiritual attainment ... monotheism is the projection of the human individuality into the cosmic sphere, the shaping of "god" to the image of man. Hence the monotheist commonly visualized his "god" as an anthropomorphic entity who shares his habits, patronizes his customs, and acts according to his ideals. Religion becomes a means of glorifying his culture or his race, or of expanding his influence... We can see all monotheistic religions fighting to impose their god and destroy other gods as if God were not one as they claim. Monotheism is basically the absolute exaltation of the worshiper's own deity over all other aspects of the Divine, all other gods, who must be considered false and dangerous. The very notion of a false god is, however, an obvious fallacy. If there is an all-powerful, all-pervading divinity, how can there be a false god? How can we worship anything that is not Him? Whatever form we try to worship, the worship ultimately goes to Him who is everything...

(p. 11) Monotheism thus appears to be the opposite of nondualism, which might as well be called nonmonism, and which leads to the conception of an all-pervading - that is, from the point of view of our perceptions, an infinitely multiple - divinity.

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Nondualism and Monism

The term "nondualism" has proved, in many instances, to be a dangerous one, since it can easily be thought to rest on a monistic concept. The Hindu philosophical schools which made an extensive use of this term opened the way for religious monism, which is always linked with humanism that makes of "man" the center of the universe and of "god" the projection of the human ego into the cosmic sphere...

In the general picture of later Hinduism an exaggerated importance has been attributed to some philosophical schools of monistic Hinduism which developed mainly under the impact of Islamic and Christian influences and which aim at reinterpreting Vedic texts in a new light.

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The Equivalence of Religions

The classification of the basic energies, of which the cosmological pantheon is an expression, is not an arbitrary creation of the mind but a rational effort to define the component elements of existence. As is the case for any form of knowledge, the classifications first chosen in a particular country or time may have been inadequate, they may constitute a first working hypothesis which can be perfected through deeper insight or later experience, or they may have defined all the essentials from the start. The only important thing, how-(p. 12)ever, is the nature of the permanent realities that these classifications try to represent. This is the story of every science, of every philosophy, of all the ancient religions...

Hindu mythology acknowledges all gods. Since all the energies at the origin of all the forms of manifestation are but aspects of the divine power, there can exist no object, no form of existence, which is not divine in its nature. Any name, any shape, that appeals to the worshiper can be taken as a representation or manifestation of divinity...

Many of the deities worshiped by the Hindus are not mentioned in the Vedas under their present names, and many Vedic gods are today known mostly to scholars. But it would be wrong to see a change in religion or a deviation from the Vedic idea of divinity in what is merely a matter of fashion, a way of representing the Divine that suited a particular time or country, a particular set of habits, or a dfferent conception of the universe. The gods are universal principles; they are all pervading realities. The words or forms we use to represent them are mere approximations, which can vary like the words of different languages used to represent the same object or like the different symbols used to represent the same mathematical facts.

All religions are based on the recognition of the existence of a suprasensorial reality. Very rarely can we find in any religion a positive assertion which is not to some extent justifiable. Error and conflict arise from exclusion, from negative elements. They appear whenever the door is closed to new discoveries, to the "revelation" of a new age. A religion reduced to a faith centered around fixed dogmas and refusing to equate its data with those of other creeds is... (p. 13) the mere practical utilization of some elements of knowledge accidentally assembled and used more for social supremacy than for real [understanding]. This remains very short of the total search for the whole of truth. Thus, in many countries, the man of science, if he be true to himself, finds he has had to choose between reason and faith. This dilemma does not arise for the *Hindu*, for *Hinduism* does not claim any of its discoveries to be more than an approach. It rejects all dogma, all belief that reason and experience cannot justify; it remains ever ready to accept new and better expressions of the universl laws as they can be grasped through individual experience...

...the principle of a multiple approach, the recognition of the fundamental rights of the individual to follow his own gods, his own code of behaviour and ritual practice, has spared *India* so far the standardization of beliefs which is by its very nature the greatest obstacle on the path of Divine discovery.

[*NOTE*: "Neopagan" and "Neopaganism" can substitute for "Hindu" and "Hinduism" in the penultimate paragraph, and "Neopaganism" for "India" in the last paragraph, because i think that Danielou's description suits contemporary Neopaganism, for the most part.]

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Excepted from:
The Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism by Alain Danielou
Chapter One, The Theory of Polytheism, pp. 3-13
Inner Traditions International Ltd. New York: 1985
Text and translation copyright 1985 by Alain Danielou
First published as Hindu Polytheism by Bollingen Foundation, New York 1964
ISBN 0-89281-101-3

And you can visit a website devoted to Alain Danielou and his spiritual, philosophical, and musical work
in French
in English
in Italian

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To Other Polytheology Pages:
* Polytheology Part One: Introduction to Theology and Ethics
* Polytheology Part Two: A Few Definitions - Paganism, Animism, Pantheism, Polytheism, and more
* Polytheology Part Three: Mythology - What It Is and What It Does
* To Polytheology Part Four: The Deities and How We Find Them

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