The Perennial Philosophy Revisited

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. []

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