Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom

The principle characteristic of the Eternal Religion (Sanātana Dharma, or, as it is known in the West, Perennial Philosophy) is that each Revelation represents a metaphysic quite true within its position in the greater metaphysical context, and that each also provides access — through its esoteric essence — to  that Truth which lies behind all of them. It is not true, as many today claim, that “all religions are equally true”, as each primarily addresses different problems. It is also not the case that “all religions are one”, at least not at the varying levels to which each one belongs. Ultimately, all valid paths do lead to the Summit, but — as Frithjof Schuon makes clear in his magnum opusThe Transcendent Unity of Religions — the unity of religion is quite real only relatively close to that Summit, below which they are as distinct as the cultures and individual souls who require them. This is not a question of superiority and inferiority, but of relative value in approaching the Absolute and, it must be said, of the Absolute approaching us.

It would take a great deal of space to conduct this analysis for every one of the revelatory traditions, so I will limit myself here to generalities, mentioning specific faiths insofar as they present important illustrations or exceptions. Useful categories can be built according to the respective “theisms” discussed in modern academia. Let it be first understood, though, that these are not absolute categories; they are only meaningful insofar as they helpfully permit us to discuss metaphysical positions. The “theisms” under discussion we will call: monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, and nontheism.

We in the West largely assume — based in academic hypothesizing, rather than any actual facts — that monotheism is somehow a natural evolution of all “prior” religious thought, somehow bringing humanity out of an intellectual dark age and toward the light of reason. This line of reasoning — not to mention the dubious and murky “light” attributed to it! — is bankrupt insofar as it prefers imperialism over reality. It is true that, historically, monotheism is a later development in human thought, but it is hardly more advanced for it. This sort of thinking opens the door for three things, all of which are realized and entrenched today: the deprecation and attempted destruction of other metaphysics (often in the guise of “scientific” anthropology); atheism leading to reductionism (as in the clever-without-content quip that monotheism is an improvement over polytheism, while atheism goes “one step better”); the loss of contact with the truly metaphysical current underlying Western religion and, thus, the occultation of esoterism. It ought to be mentioned in passing that the assumptions which have brought this situation about have also given birth to an increasingly shallow “neopaganism” (used broadly, here, to include everything from Wicca to Punk-Zen to “yoga for sexy abs”) intended to rectify the situation by way of an invented or “reconstructed” pseudo-esoterism, and also to an absolute reductionism which feels completely justified in arrogantly telling men, women, and children of all backgrounds that “consciousness” is nothing but “user-illusion” thrown-off as an unnecessary byproduct of physical-chemical processes. The aforementioned neopaganism leads otherwise sincere seekers of the Spirit so far off of the rails with promises of worldly powers-seldom-delivered and freeze-dried enlightenment-never-delivered that God only knows how long it will take them to return to course, while materialist-reductionism is grounded so deeply in its circular and self-defeating logic that it is shocking when anybody succeeds in digging themselves even partly back out again (such as the former-atheist philosopher Antony Flew managed to do, to the consternation of the Dawkinses and Dennets of the world).

Thus, it is quite possible to view monotheism’s fall into excess and say, with Alain Daniélou, that

Monotheism is therefore a metaphysical error, since the world principle, which is outside the world, is beyond number, impersonal,  indescribable, and unknowable. Above all, monotheism is dangerous because of its consequences, since it is a projection of the human “self” into the divine sphere, replacing love and respect for the divine work as a whole with a fictitious character […] Intolerant, the so-called “only god” is, in fact, only the god of one tribe. Monotheistic religions have served as an excuse for persecutions, massacres, and genocides; they fight each other to impose the dominion of their heavenly tyrant on others. (Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, 2007, Inner Traditions, pg 4)

We must recognize this, however, as only part of the story. What we call monotheism did, indeed, begin as a “tribal religion” belonging principally to whom we now call Jews — a worldwide faith and culture who began their history as heterodox Middle Eastern polytheists led out of a polytheism in decay by the supreme grace of Revelation. The newly-formed monotheism has remained a “tribal” religion, though it carries a universal mission. Judaism has never been a proselytizing faith, but it has always accepted converts, which have included other Middle Eastern peoples, Germans, Celts, Slavs, and even Greek and Roman citizens who were drawn by Judaism’s focus on the Divine’s insistence on moral responsibility (something rather alien to the main stream of Greek and Roman polytheism). Though tribal, it was this universality of message that allowed for Christianity and Islam to spread monotheism much further afield and more deeply into other tribal matrices.

It remains to say, though, that in none of the three Abrahamic monotheisms is “monotheism” absolute. It can’t be. As Daniélou points out (ibid. pg 4 – 5), humans do not worship an impersonal Absolute directly; we do so through symbols. Even in Islam and Judaism, wherein the making of divine images is expressly prohibited, diagrams, geometric figures, and even the written text of revealed Scripture are all used to refer to God and, more to the point, to God’s saints and angels. This is all without having to go deeply into the practices of Catholic and Orthodox Christians (let alone Gnostics) involving the veneration of saints and certain Archangels. The only notable attempts, then, of “pure monotheism” among the Abrahamic faiths are the failures of Protestantism which, to once again use Daniélou’s language, are little more than “political fictions” without religious content, except insofar as they are forced to turn attention to the person of Jesus — an act which immediately transforms a neat-but-inconsistent monotheism into a violently unacknowledged duotheism. Christianity requires the Trinity, in one form or another, for the very core of its metaphysic to remain intact and for its spiritual method to be efficacious.

It is true that Jews and Muslims do not worship their saints and angels — least of all the djinni and demons! — but the acknowledgement of their presence is enough to give the lie to “pure monotheism” as anything but metaphysical ideal. And it is an ideal to which Muslims, especially, try to adhere; that, too, is a requisite of their metaphysic. If a Muslim ceases to proclaim that “God is greater” and that “There is no divinity but the Divinity” (which may be metaphysically transposed to “There is no divinity outside of the Divinity”), he is no longer a Muslim at all. But this brings us to the so-called “polytheisms” of Hinduism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Shinto, the aboriginal traditions, and so forth. Are these truly any more “polytheistic” than Christianity? Are they less “monotheistic” than Islam?

Hinduism — composed as it is of four principle sects, each sect containing a panoply of traditions, lineages, and sub-faiths — is what has been termed a “henotheism”. In fact, the term was coined specifically for Hinduism. Being something of an academic abstraction, though, henotheism carries only so much explanatory value. It essentially refers to any “theism” which acknowledges the existence of multiple divine beings, but which places supreme importance upon only one of them (either one at a time, or one over all). While a useful “middle ground” between monotheism and polytheism, we quickly find that the definition is not accurate. As such, for our use, we will have to redefine it thus: for the span of this article, henotheism refers to a religion in which the Divine is beyond name and number, but which reveals Itself within the Creation in a myriad of ways. To the Śaiva, God reveals Himself all throughout Nature, and in all of those regions and layers which we refer to as “supernatural”. That is to say, there is nowhere and nothing which does not reveal something of God and which, with the correct knowledge, cannot be used as a springboard back to Him. Each person will have her Īṣṭa Devatā (“chosen deity”), a deva (celestial or angelic being), Mahādeva (Great Deva, something like an Archangel), or rarely a devatā (minor deity such as a local, tribal, or nature spirit). (A Mahādeva is more easily referred to as a God, while the other two categories might be designated as “gods” generally, in order to provide an easy English translation as established in the English works of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami.) This God or god becomes the principle focus of one’s devotional life and daily worship, but is not therefore held to be the “only” deity. It is as if one were to claim Saint Michael as the one, true god, forgetting for Whom Saint Michael works; this is a mistake a Hindu simply would not make! Of course, there have been (since British colonial involvement) decadent “liberal Hindus” who fall into this error under the Western academic mistake of believing gods and spirits to be “mere symbols” of purely sub-personal, subconscious psychic elements within the individual, but they are an aberration rather than representatives of Hinduism properly so-called.

God manifests for each person as, in, and through their Īṣṭa Devatā; at the same time, the Īṣṭa Devatā is an entity unto itself. There is no contradiction, here, for each entity’s reality is its very foundation in God. It is as meaningless to say that one’s Īṣṭa Devatā is “merely a symbol” as it is to say that one’s mother is “merely a symbol”; in fact, it is the greater of the two errors, for one’s mother is (without getting into the divine archetypes to which any human role attaches) a mortal woman, while the Īṣṭa Devatā is a more direct conduit of God’s grace. It is therefore not idolatry to pray at the feet of a statue of Ganeśa, because the Hindu understands that Ganeśa is not limited to this little statue. Ganeśa is the manifest AUM, and the statue is the Word of God given visible form. We extend this concept by saying that Ganeśa is Śiva’s first-born son, which is to say that He is Śiva’s emanation-as-Word given purposeful autonomy in what medieval Scholastics called the Great Chain of Being.

The metaphysic of our henotheism, then, is the very root and trunk of Perennial Philosophy. It is the metaphysical matrix in which other metaphysics exist, and from which they subsist. This is the reason why Schuon and Guénon made Hinduism and Islam the bookends of religion in their writings: because God has done so already. It is not going too far to say that Hinduism and Islam are the most universal of all revealed traditions or, to be more precise, the most universal upwellings of the Eternal Religion. To return to tree imagery, the henotheism of Hinduism is the root and trunk, while the as-pure-as-possible monotheism of Islam is the widest extent of the canopy.

This is the true polytheism. The religion of classical Egypt (discounting the aberrant cult of the Aten) was a henotheism in our sense, with the unmanifest Godhead behind the numerous other deities and spirits. The higher forms of Greek philosophy were pure metaphysics, with Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, and the post-classical Hermetists (all influenced to some degree by Egypt and, to lesser extent, India) establishing thoroughly henotheistic approaches. Most of the so-called “aboriginal” people of the world, whether in the Americas, Australia, Siberia, or anywhere else they are still to be found, have a well-developed metaphysic along these lines. The Dreamtime of Australian aborigines is extraordinarily similar to the Paradise of esoteric Judaism and Islam, the Kingdom of Heaven of Christianity, and the realm of ancestors in both Shinto and Confucian-Taoist perception; that is to say, it is a return to Primordiality wherein the individual moves as one with the Consciousness beyond ordinary space-time, merging into the “stream of ancestors” stretching all the way back to the First Ancestor — God. Black Elk Speaks — one of the most important expressions of any form of genuine Native American spirituality — is the recounting of a lifetime lived according to this experience; so-called “shamanism” is, in its purest expression, oneself becoming the walking embodiment of Primordiality.

Buddhism and Jainism are accused — or, depending on one’s audience, praised — in the West for being “atheistic”, but we have to be cautious. Of the Buddhist doctrine, Frithjof Schuon has to say:

The not infrequent employment, by the Buddha, of terms proper to Brahmanical theism clearly shows that the Buddhist perspective has nothing in common with atheism properly so called. “Extinction” or the “Void” is “God” subjectivized; “God” is the objective “Void.” If Buddhism — except in their perspectives of Mercy — do not objectivize the Void or the Self, this is because they have nothing to ask of it, given their own anti-individualist point of view; if nevertheless there are certain “dimensions” where things appear otherwise, this is because the “objective aspect” of Reality is too much in the nature of things to pass unperceived and without being turned to account on occasion. (Treasures of Buddhism, 1993, World Wisdom Books, pg 19 note)

This applies equally to all forms of Buddhism, but is most especially clear with Theravada and Zen. When we examine Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism), Amidhism (Pure Land), and the cults of the Bodhisattvas, we find ourselves back in the realm of henotheism, wherein the gods, spirits, and Bodhisattvas provide avenues to Nirvana. The Tirthankaras of Jainism serve an identical function; as “ford-crossers”, they provide not only examples to be followed, but also subjects of veneration as vessels of grace.

Each of these traditions — and each of these perspectives which we have called by various “theisms” — presents an avenue for grace by devotion and work.

It is the Grace of God which carries you from the lowest point to the highest point. You are automatically carried after you cross the boundary of māyā; however, His Grace has been with you throughout the whole of your journey. His Grace is always there in the background for if it were not there you could not do anything. (Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme by Swami Lakshmanjoo, 2007, Universal Shaiva Fellowship, pg 60 note)

Vitally, each of these revelations, and their attendant religious superstructures, first and foremost represent methodological approaches appropriate each to a different “world”, and not mere sets of beliefs to be accepted or rejected at whim or out of either fear or fanaticism. Such is Grace that the Way which is both straight and narrow is not so straight as to be without scenery of tear-drenched beauty, and not so narrow as to exclude any soul — in principle and, in the fullness of time, in fact — from Divine Embrace.

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5 thoughts on “Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom

  1. Pingback: The Metaphysics of Polytheology | Peace Profound

  2. Thank you. Wonderful! Lots of excellent points. This point about the development of thought in the West seems crucial, viz. that the loss of contact with the metaphysical current has led to the ‘occultation of esotericism.’ It seems spot on, and I will be stealing this phrase. (Although the spelling as it appears above seems odd to me)

    I’m not sure yet how it’s done, but may I repost this on my blog?

    • Following from Frithjof Schuon and Huston Smith, I use the term “esoterism” rather than “esotericism” intentionally. Esoterism refers, at least in the literature of Perennialism and Traditionalism, to the inward-turned contemplative and metaphysical kernel of religion, over against exoteric formalism. This dichotomy only obtains, of course, in religions which separate these facets, such as the Abrahamic faiths. Esotericism, on the other hand, refers to the purely modern phenomenon of a sort of formalized religious occultism. It is similar to the distinction made by Antoine Favre between Hermetism (classical Hermetic religion) and Hermeticism (Western alchemy, occult ritual magic, etc.). Thus, esoteric Freemasonry, AMORC, BOTA, the Golden Dawn, and so forth, constitute examples of esotericism, while contemplative Christianity, Platonic theurgy, Sufism are examplar esoterisms. I hope that this clarifies my choice of spelling.

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad that you enjoy my posts. Per your request to share this post on your own blog, I would ask that you link to it instead of reposting the whole thing; feel free to include a short excerpt by way of a “teaser”, if you like. Also, may I have a link to your blog? I’d like to read some of your stuff!

  3. Ah. Thank you for explaining this. I’d missed this subtlety in the use of these words. I will start following the same convention. I’ll do as you say about links.

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