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Home » philosophy

The Perennial Philosophy Revisited

Submitted by on July 5, 2009 – 11:08 pm20 Comments

tour-photo-homa-topBy Nitaisundara dasa

Recently on the Harmonist the notion of a perennial philosophy has come up more than once. First, in Bhrigupada’s review of Beyond the Postmoderm Mind, written by famous perennialist scholar Huston Smith, and secondly, in Swami Tripurari‘s article “The End of Philosophy.” The notion of perennialism and the reality of western scholars taking to Vedanta is encouraging, but unfortunately the most well-known perennialists have been decidedly Advaitin, despite their individual adherence to a variety of wisdom traditions. I say unfortunately because Advaita Vedanta is but one of several expressions of Vedanta, one unto itself at that. The majority of Vedantins acknowledge a significant other of whom we are a part, not the whole, and I believe there is good reason why they are a better fit for the idea of a perennial philosophy.

The lure of the perennial philosophy is many-fold. Perhaps more than any other school of thought, perennialism has done a terrific job of articulating the shortcomings of modern progress, reductionism, materialism, and so on, as well as that of mainstream religion and new age imagination. Indeed, perennialists truly shine in this regard. But a more defining characteristic of perennialism, and probably the most alluring to many, is the prospect of equality—a notion that is largely absent in mainstream religion. Perennialism’s very name derives from the fact that it posits an underlying, unified spirituality that appears throughout times and locales. This means that all of the major esoteric spiritual traditions ultimately culminate in and are equally capable of delivering one to a singular spiritual experience, which may or may not be subject to cultural interpretation, but is essentially the same. Sounds good, but is this truly the case?

Perennialists primarily speak of unity amongst the “Wisdom Traditions”: typically esoteric Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. But is it accurate to say that the non-existent soul of Buddhism is the same as the eternal soul of Advaita Vedanta, the reciprocal love of God-the-Father in Christianity and Islam, and the intimate love of God-the-son/friend/lover in Gaudiya Vedanta? While the gulf between the first two is often considered semantic1, the leap from an experience-less transcendence to any degree of dynamic unity with Godhead is not something one can easily gloss over. Most perennialists do so rather clumsily at best, concluding that the monistic mystical experience of the Advaitin is the full face of spirituality and all other mystical experiences are either ways of interpreting this singular reality or simply inferior in quality. Such an interpretation implies that in launching extensive critiques of Advaitin doctrine, Ramanuja, Madhva, the Vrindavan Goswamis, and others did not actually understand it. In other words, these heavyweights of India’s (and the world’s for that matter) philosophical history did not have the intellectual and spiritual standing to understand and yet still disagree with the doctrine of Shankara. Therefore the ‘accommodation’ of popular perennialism is more of a forced homogenization: the different traditions are all equal only after the experiences of major mystics from each are adjusted and interpreted to fit the thesis of Advaita Vedanta. This is uninformed at best and condescending at worst.

Accordingly, the perennialist notion that all paths to transcendence are equally valid comes into question once it is acknowledged that all the transcendent ideals are not themselves equal. For the former to remain true despite the variety of spiritual ideals, we would have to say that any path can give one any goal, and this accommodation seems to move further from reality than popular perennialism’s initial stance. Yet this notion of spiritual equality continues to resonate with us. It feels right in many ways. Is there a unity among mystical traditions in which they are one with each other even while positing somewhat different ultimate states of enlightenment? Can they be seen as a unified voice for a variegated transcendence, and if so would this not be a more dynamic and accurate form of perennialism?

A lesser known name in the perennialist discourse is that of Robert Charles Zaehner. Zaehner’s theory regarding the unity of mystical traditions and experiences radically differs from that of today’s popular perennialism. While he himself formally committed to the Roman Catholic church at age 33, he nonetheless considers there to be three distinct forms of mysticism (within a broader five) that spread across traditions and time: “pan-en-hen-ism” (a term which he made to convey “all-in-one-ism“), pantheism (“all-is-God-ism,” represented in Upanishadic statements such as “tat tvam asi“),  and theism (as conveyed in Christianity, Islam, and devotional Vedanta wherein the soul experiences itself to be “united with God by love”). These concepts were first outlined publicly in his 1957 book, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, which was itself a direct reply to the ideas of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, the book that first defined perennialism in the terms it is most well known by today.

Zaehner is a perennialist in that he does believe that the various types of mystical experiences he identifies appear throughout different traditions, and within the same tradition as well, (although he does interestingly suggest that pantheistic—defined by him above—Sufism may have come from the Advaitin school of the Hindus). I imagine the more well known perennialists would reject Zaehner’s distinctions (and even more so his opinion that the theistic mystical experience is the most developed) as exoteric and thus representing a lower rung of the ladder of divinity. Indeed, in Beyond the Postmodern Mind, Smith illustrates by diagram the preeminent position of Nirguna Brahman over Saguna Brahman, the latter being no doubt what Smith and his associates would consider Zaehner’s theistic mystical experience to be. But again, this in turn relegates all those with similar thoughts as Zaehner (Ramanuja, Madhva, Sri Caitanya and the likes, included) to the realm of ”exotericism”—a dubious inclusiveness at best.

By introducing a oneness-and-difference paradigm to the perennialist discussion, Zaehner has in effect carved out a niche in which Gaudiya Vedanta might find its modern day perennialist representation2.  Like Zaehner, Gaudiya Vedantins acknowledge differences in spiritual experiences. In accord with the variety of perceptions of reality (sambandha), there are corresponding spiritual aspirations (prayojana), and means to attain them (abhideya). The plurality of prayojanas is outlined in the Bhagavat Purana (1.2.11) as Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. While these distinctions do not all correspond exactly with Zaehner’s, Gaudiyas nonetheless acknowledge their existence as attainable levels of transcendence, while at the same time maintaining that the experience of Bhagavan is objectively more charming.

In this world too, Gaudiya Vaishnavism accepts the ability of many spiritual paths to move one towards a specific transcendent ideal. But what must be recognized is that while both the Gaudiya and Perennialist traditions (and all others for that matter) make their case for being the full face of spirituality, typical perennialists do so by subsuming all other traditions with the sweeping claim that once taken to their innermost core they all represent the same ideal. This tactic bestows an appearance of supreme inclusiveness but hinges on inaccuracies that are at times almost offensively dismissive towards spiritual luminaries of past and present.

The essential elements of perennialism, equality and unity foremost among them, are not necessarily sacrificed in the variegated mysticism of Zaehner or Sri Caitanya. In the realm of transcendence, any theistic mystical experience is built on the foundation of the equality of all souls and their dynamic unity with the Godhead, and all theistic traditions also speak of a sort of dynamic unity experienced with the Godhead.

While this stance may not be as attractive as the blanket-equality of perennialism, its superiority derives from its being chaste to the reality of variegated mystical experiences in transcendence. This is where I think popular perennialists have fallen short, while others such as Zaehner have offered alternatives worthy of discussion and exploration.———

  1. Scholar and Buddhist practitioner Robert Thurman has said as much in his publicized discussion with Deepak Chopra held at the Tibet House in New York, and in contemporary spirituality this blurring of important distinctions is common. []
  2. Some scholars have considered Thakura Bhaktivinoda to be a perennialist, although obviously not of the Advaitin persuasion.  And the “perennial philosophy” is often considered to be synonymous with “sanatana dharma,” a term Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada often considered synonymous with Gaudiya Vaisnavism. []



  • Interesting and true for the most part.

    I think it is important to note that the term “perennial philosophy” originally comes from a Catholic, a monotheist.

    Regarding Huston Smith’s Advaita orientation, let me cite him from another book—Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology: “Perhaps traces of self identity will persist [in transcendence]. Perhaps in some kind of everlasting rhythm we will be able to oscillate between total attention to God [oneness] and periodic returns to the realization that it is we, we finite souls, who are attending [difference].” Although I agree that he is personally of an Advaitin persuasion, at least in this quote his demonstrates a willingness to back away slightly if seriously challenged on the nature of transcendence.

    Elsewhere in the same book Smith replies to the the charge that perennialism is lacking in that it posits an impersonal Absolute by explaining (more or less) that the perennialist notion of transcendence could be said to posit a more-than-a-person Absolute, as opposed to an impersonal Absolute. In other words he concedes that the Absolute may be personal but not in the limited sense that we are persons, limited by our environment.

    So I think that there is some openness for discussion and raising the points you have in perennialist circles.

    • Nitaisundara

      It’s interesting to think how the term originated with theists, but I do not think it’s current use is much of a direct development from that. From the Dictionary of the History of Ideas:

      After Leibniz the term seems to go underground,
      only to reappear in different philosophical contexts;
      sometimes in support of the conclusion that a certain
      tradition—for example, Scholasticism—possesses the
      quality of unity, adequacy, and time-transcendence
      which the term implies

      So it kind of seems like the term’s perennial use is to establish one tradition’s superiority in the context of imposing it into other traditions. The same site says the following:

      Simon Foucher, a Paris friend who had revived the tradition of academic skepticism, called Leibniz’ attention to Steuch’s book
      in connection with a discussion of philosophic first
      principles, saying that Steuch’s design seemed to be
      chiefly to adapt the ancients to Christianity, “which
      is indeed very beautiful, rather than to order the
      thoughts of philosophy in their places”

      I am not extensively familiar, but I have yet to encounter a single perennialist since Huxley that does not seem to be an Advaitin to me, whether they overtly practice Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam. Even with statements like Smith’s I am hesitant to think they see much room for any discussion, but certainly there is if it is analyzed objectively. Elsewhere in the same book he equates bhakti with “pietism,” which “did not run deep enough to satisfy [him], to put it mildly.” There is another contemporary perennialist who considers himself a Christian and nonetheless refers to the personal conception of Godhead as a “noble lie.” So I think it can be difficult to sort out exactly where they stand sometimes…

      • But you forgot about Zaehner!

        • Gaura-Vijaya

          I think the reason why people gravitate towards advaita is because there have been so many regional Gods Mayan, Vedic, Greek and their associates described in different literatures;and, each of them will lend claim to their God and associates to be the only “real” heaven. So superficially advaita offers a way to accommodate all of them, albeit confining them to lower realization of a transcendent reality.

          For instance, it is hard to imagine how Goloka retains a feel of small town with zillions of souls in one place and co-operating in lila. Rupa Gosvami for instance will describe Krsna’s close friends, maidservants etc that will amount to a maximum of 300-400 people and hence we feel so connected to the person Krsna with a few people surrounding him. But if Rupa Gosvami spoke about zillions and zillions of souls and their personality and their relationship with each other and with krsna, it will get kind of tedious and completely out of any experience we have. Even a small spiritual sect of GV cannot maintain co-operation in this world with say 10,000 people so it is hard to imagine room for zillion personalities having proximity to krsna and knowing each other. Generally as soon as there are multiple personalities, then if there is a spiritual conception there is conflict. So most people think personality is a problem in harmonizing things.
          So I think actually GV or post-liberated conception is harder to understand than the advaita conception. Obviously when people join GV, they don’t feel need to fill the entire conception in the head and go ahead with their heart and heart is where the truth lies.

          • prajyumna

            Chuckling and painfully laughing out loud to below comment. So true.

            Even a small spiritual sect of GV cannot maintain co-operation in this world with say 10,000 people so it is hard to imagine room for zillion personalities having proximity to krsna and knowing each other.

  • Citta Hari dasa

    This means that all of the major esoteric spiritual traditions ultimately culminate in and are equally capable of delivering one to a singular spiritual experience, which may or may not be subject to cultural interpretation, but is essentially the same. Sounds good, but is this truly the case?

    This brings to mind the old analogy that “all paths up the mountain lead to the top.” But do they really? This idea seems to be most often cited by neo-Advaitins, and while appearing accomodating on the surface upon further investigation reveals an advocacy of the lowest common denominator among the various wisdom traditions. As you’ve pointed out there are objective criteria (brought into play by great thinkers like Ramanuja, Madhva, and Jiva) that can be invoked to determine how far up the mountain a tradition goes.

    • gopala dasa

      Your analogy reminds me that many mountains have “false summits” — peaks that appear to be at the top, but actually loom below the mountain’s full elevation. A hiker without a finer grasp of topography may think he or she has arrived at the highest destination, and happily stop there. Those who instead focus on the actual summit and possess a fuller orientation keep right on moving.

      So it can be said that some traditions peak at such “false summits.”

  • Gaura-Vijaya

    This is one of the best pieces written on this topic from the perspective of GV. Assertive yet not trident and fundamentalist. I hope more people can learn to write like this and stop writing as if they are in Sankara-bashing medieval age in India.

  • Anthony

    I agree that focusing only on commonality creates a system where the lowest common denominator among faiths is all that survives in a quest for inclusiveness, sacrificing rich traditions of spritual nuance and insight that have enlightened countless souls throughout the ages. I think the reason prenneliast viewpoints are attractive is because they allow us to see the common questions, common longing, common ignorance (and our attempts to answer it) across time, culture and circumstance.

    If the whole point is for our wandering souls to return to Godhead, doesn’t that imply a surrender of individuality, a surrender of pride, a shedding of ego? Bickering over the merits of one’s own tradition over others’ (and the inevitable conclusion that one’s own tradition brings one to the “true” pinnacle of the mountain) simply reinforces distinction, pride and ego, so wouldn’t that type of outlook be a hinderance to spiritual advancement? The greatest spiritual accomplishment would be absolute surrender at the lotus feet of Krsna, becoming the ground for him to tread on. Then, even a greater degree of surrender would be not needing to differentiate yourself as dirt in service and just surrender and become one with God, the ultimate humility, ultimate service, ultimate surrender, ultimate fulfillment.

    • Nitaisundara

      The soul’s return to the spiritual realm implies a surrender of individuality only on a lower level. The whole point of theistic Vedanta, and especially Gaudiya Vedanta, is that there is an eternal individuality that comes out as ahankara (false individuality) is retired. When one ultimately surrenders they will see even the dust as their guru, yes, but they will function (out of complete surrender) however Krishna wants service from them. And he likes variety (individuality).

      Regarding making distinctions, is it a fault to “reinforce distinction” when others are ignoring it to a detrimental degree? Are not the commentaries of many Acharyas at least partially intended to refute and distinguish various interpretations of the texts? Fault finding is a hindrance but my whole point (which I thought was rather non-abrasive) is that the typical Perennialist stance is inaccurate and therefore misleading, and that my saying so was not a fault, but a progression towards a realistic assessment. After all, there are differences, and if we are to navigate in the world and progress spiritually—and try to assist others—we have to use our head.

      You write: “The greatest spiritual accomplishment would be absolute surrender at the lotus feet of Krsna.” According to who? Because according to Perennialists that is just your exoteric, parochial world view. So one of my main points was that more than simply claiming their path as the “pinnacle of the mountain,” many perennialists do not seem to respect even the theoretical disagreement of spiritual luminaries. Gaudiya Vedanta, while making a case for being the pinnacle, at least honors some of the other well-reasoned opinions regarding the realms of transcendence.

      I may not have been clear enough in writing also.

      • prajyumna

        Fault finding is a hindrance but my whole point (which I thought was rather non-abrasive) is that the typical Perennialist stance is inaccurate and therefore misleading, and that my saying so was not a fault, but a progression towards a realistic assessment. After all, there are differences, and if we are to navigate in the world and progress spiritually—and try to assist others—we have to use our head.

        I see things a little differently. I don’t think that the perennialist stance is ‘inaccurate.’ It is more incomplete, from a GV perspective.

        We have heard the analogy of brahman realization being like the sun rays and that paramatma and bhagavan realizations are happening at a more intimate level within the sun planet, interacting with the sun god.
        Sticking with a geographical analogy, compared to post-modernism, perennialists and GV are at least in the same continent. They just share a different zip code.

        So I feel that GV agrees with perennialist paradigm to the degree that we both agree that spiritual life is related with the ‘sun.’ We just disagree on the *aspect* of the sun we are focussing on.
        So in that sense, both the perennialist paradigm and GV share a common philosophical vocabulary when we are talking about detachment from the material world. It is because we share a very close common vocabulary that a lot of Gaudia Vaishnava acharyas offer many warnings that it might by confusing to distinguish how the two are different.
        But in our modern era that is primarily dominated my materialistic nihilism, let us not lose sight to how much they are similar.
        I doubt that perennialists and GVs will differ much in both admitting that our nature is spirit and not the body. Where we differ is more about how we express as the ultimate nature of our spiritual nature.

        GV and perennialist paradigm have more similarities than differnces. Looking at the dominant nihilistic and materialistic philosophies that are dominating many aspects of modern life, it is in the best interest for both GVs and perennialsts to strategically seek common ground to fight a common enemy, materialsim, which is threatening to gobble up both. Let us be aware of the differences, but not lose sight of the larger focus and co-operation needed by engaging in divisive hair-splitting.

        • Gaura-Vijaya

          I agree, it is better to align with perennialists rather than fundamentalist Christians. In the recent times devotees have aligned more with Christian groups especially on the points of creationism, homosexuality etc.

    • Citta Hari

      The greatest spiritual accomplishment would be absolute surrender at the lotus feet of Krsna, becoming the ground for him to tread on.

      The people who have done so (like the Goswamis and the guru-parampara) are the ones who originally differentiated Gaudiya Vaisnavism from other paths and who consistently point out the supremacy of bhakti and the flaws of other paths. Of course the distinction between them and ordinary sadhakas is that they did so without any tinge of material ego involved; it was their bhava that motivated them.

  • Gaura-Vijaya

    I don’t think you should forget that Vaisnavism has been equally trident in disrespecting or disparaging mystics from other paths. How do you expect that they will just embrace you with both arms and sit for a discussion if you go with the idea that they are envious snakes as has been done in the past? Where else apart from this one specific article do you find civil discussions between two parties. The main point to note is that it is time for Vaisnavism to move on as it is frozen in time identifying itself with the post-sankara era and fighting for issues in a way that is irrelevant in contemporary society. Do you think you can tell people not to read books from other mystic traditions as they are all false and give them what they already got with fundamentalist Christianity. It will be better now to move to bhagavatam style dialogues where sages from different philosophical systems could come together and listen to sukadeva gosvami. In today’s time there is no such exchange possible. It is not even possible for people outside ISKCON to go and lecture there; where is the possibility of somebody of different tradition to come, lecture and interact with our tradition. Atleast I know yoga groups from advaitic tradition who will allow people from GV to address their audience.

    So first Vaisnavas have to tone down their trident language and then there will some progress in discussion. It is not a war. I have come across devotees who insisted that I should hate people from other traditions to make progress in spiritual life and they are so happy doing so. I never can identify with this.

    • One of the main inspirations for the Harmonist is to address the points you raise, and this would seem obvious to most readers I assume.

      • Gaura-Vijaya

        Yes I agree but I was just addressing Nitaisundara’s point where he says,” perennialists do not seem to respect even the theoretical disagreement of spiritual luminaries. Gaudiya Vedanta, while making a case for being the pinnacle, at least honors some of the other well-reasoned opinions regarding the realms of transcendence.” I think this comment is inaccurate representation of the history of most of the Vaisnava schools including GV.

        • Nitaisundara

          What I meant by that statement is that Gaudiya Vaishnavism acknowledges that there is a path (or paths) to Brahman, to Paramatma, and to various realms of Bhagavan, and there are distinct schools who have these as their spiritual ideal, and we believe they are capable of attaining it. Where perennialism tends to differ in what I think is a more closed-down way, is that they consider the culmination of our tradition to be their ideal. Do you see the subtle difference? It becomes dangerous I think when it is then presented as the esoteric unification of all great religions.

          I was not speaking in a historical context and frankly I don’t think it is wrong for Vaishnavas to be so opposed to monism if their motives are not self-assertion and they can articulate the philosophy underlying it, such as all the prominent Vaishnava acharyas have done. I know there are those out there who bash monists because of a need for an us-and-them faith boost, but should others have to stay silent on their behalf?

  • Gaura-Vijaya

    My point was there has been hardly any cordial exchange on both sides to get anywhere. Devotees do go to places of the monists, yogis to preach but are these people allowed to speak to devotees in our temples. No! So there is a underlying hypocrisy there.
    And yes it is like collective karma. You have to pay for others mistakes according to me.For instance, even if you have not contributed to the environmental degradation you need to be more careful now because of the mess others have made.

    I think we have to take responsibility for the damage done by others and rectify their mistakes. It is impossible to dissociate yourself from people who have represented your tradition. That is just my personal opinion and I know most people don’t agree with it.

  • Gaura-Vijaya

    Another way to think about it is every tradition thinks that their conception of ultimate experience is the best. Even those in jnana marga will acknowledge the path of devotion but they will relegate that dualistic experience to a lesser transcendent experience than the monistic one.
    And devotees like Prabhupada have said that actually people fall from the brahmajyoti and that experience is not permanent. Do you see the similarity? Everyone sees their path and conception as the best ,and they should feel like that or they won’t be practicing. My point is that it is critical to examine one’s own tradition with the same lens as others and then analysis can be more objective.

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