Discerning the West

This post is part of a series, beginning here.

“I have a question regarding Schuon’s claim that Vajrayana (or Kashmir Shaivism) is incompatible with the Western psyche. Isn’t it the case that Tibetan Buddhism ultimately derives from an Indo-Aryan spiritual current, mixed though this is with some of Tibet’s own Bon tradition? Such a tradition thus finds itself within the range of Indo-European religiosity and understanding of reality, like the Hinduism it is very similar to, and it is by extension related to archaic Greco-Roman traditions and to the Druids among the Celts, who as I’m sure you know are the equivalent of the Brahmins, shared a similar cosmology, and—according to Caesar—professed belief in the indestructibility of the soul (Atman) and transmigration.

“The various Indo-European pagan religions seem to all stem from a common Proto-Indo-European tradition, of which the Vedas are the earliest record but likely represent an oral tradition extending much further into pre-history, possibly as far back as 8000 B.C., according to certain theorists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Whether we accept such a notion or not we are still left with a very archaic spiritual tradition. Of course tantra is a much later development, but leaving aside the heterodox left-handed forms, tantra is still quite similar to preceding forms of Indian metaphysics, seeing itself as an adaptation to the needs of the men of the Kali Yuga, who in their spiritual constitution are quite different from the men of earlier ages.

“All this being so, why should the Eastern survivals of this form of spirituality be incompatible with the Western psyche when such traditions were once theirs as well and for a much longer time than the devotional Semitic faiths that have since replaced them? Christianity and, especially, Islam deny cyclical time, ignorance or avidya as the cause of the ‘fall’, and transmigration, while professing a doctrine of eternal heaven or hell, all of which doctrines are incompatible with the Indo-European view. Why should these traditions be too ‘heavy’ or ‘complex’ when the West has produced its own difficult metaphysics, as one finds for example in the Enneads of Plotinus, which went on to influence both Christian and Islamic mysticism? Is Schuon suggesting that only the more simplistic, devotional, or ‘bhaktic’ paths that place an emphasis on a heaven or ‘Pure Land’ are suitable for Westerners? If this is truly the case, are there no exceptions to this rule?”

In lauding the antiquity of the “Indo-Aryan spiritual current”, this inquirer seems to lose sight of the fact that age alone is no guarantee of truth, let alone spiritual practicality. The relative youth of the Christian and Islamic revelations, far from being a limitation, is a proof precisely of their cyclical providence, since the entire reason for these revelations was to provide the optimum spiritual means for mankind’s needs and problems in the current phase of the Kali Yuga.

It’s true, of course, that there is a certain Aryan inheritance in the Western psyche, but one shouldn’t confuse the “intellectual hypertrophy” typical of the modern Western mind with the metaphysical contemplativity characteristic of the traditional Brahmanical mentality; although neither is Semitic, they’re nonetheless worlds apart. This “Aryan inheritance” is something Schuon himself was certainly sensitive to, as he expressed in a letter:

“My insistence on my Aryan character means in fact that I feel that I share a visceral solidarity, from an intellectual point of view, with the Vedantists and the Neoplatonists and that I feel the monotheistic theologians to be very foreign; I say theologians, not men of prayer as such. As for India, my affinity does not end with the Vedantic doctrine, of course; it encompasses all the aesthetic symbolism and transformative contemplativity that are specific to the Brahmanical universe, whence my fundamental esoterism and my refusal to betray it.”

At the same time, whatever the ancient “Indo-European” roots of the Western psyche might be, one must not forget that this psyche has now been irrevocably shaped by two millennia of Christian civilization. When Jesus told His disciples to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19), was He not in effect proclaiming the providential abrogation by Christianity of the decadent Greco-Roman branches of the Indo-Aryan tradition? A similar point could be made in the case of Persia, a civilization with even deeper Indo-Aryan “roots” than Europe, but one which has been shaped far more by the growth, over the course of twelve centuries, of an Islamic “trunk” and “branches”, to the point that today Zoroastrianism—its ancient civilizational inheritance—has become thoroughly marginal in the psyche of the Persian people.

As for their eschatological doctrines, if Christianity and Islam do not detail eschatological realities in the same way one finds expounded in the doctrines of samsara and karma, this is for upayic reasons having as much to do with the individualism of modern Westerners, for whom these revelations were destined, as with the passional literalness of the Semites, to whom they were initially given. When modern men of the West are confronted with such ideas as transmigration, it’s all too easy for their delight in novelty and desire for adventure to blind them to the terrible fate of enduring perhaps eons of deaths and rebirths; instead they begin to fantasize about reincarnation in ways that enhance, rather than deflate, their egos’ desires and pretensions. In any case it’s a mistake to suppose there’s a contradiction between Eastern and Western eschatologies. As Schuon has shown, the doctrines of Hell, Purgatory, the two Limbos, and Heaven in fact set forth—no doubt in a highly elliptical, but nonetheless theologically sufficient, way—the full range of transmigrational possibilities (see the chapter “Universal Eschatology” in his Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism; also included in Splendor of the True: A Frithjof Schuon Reader). The differences between the Eastern and Western points of view on this subject are a matter of “saving stratagem”; indeed, there can be no intrinsic contradictions between the great revelations since they’re all God-ordained.

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