This post is part of a series, beginning here.
“I wish to ask why certain traditions are restricted, according to Traditionalist authors. Just for example, let’s say I read the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Tantric literature of Kashmir Shaivism, and I conclude (despite their differences): ‘This is what I believe in; the path outlined by these texts speaks to me, and it is through this, I believe, that I will find Truth/Liberation.’ The Traditionalists, however, respond by saying, ‘No, you can’t follow this path because you can’t convert to Hinduism.’ True enough, I can never become part of the caste system or mainstream Hinduism—not that I’d want to since I am a Westerner after all. But does this mean the teachings, the path, the dharma, and the practices are something forbidden me? Why should this be so? The usual Traditionalist response is to say, ‘Join another tradition and keep in mind what you’ve gained from Hindu spirituality.’ But isn’t joining another tradition with a different theology, different path, and different practices—despite believing in something else—being dishonest, both to myself and to the tradition I’m joining?”
If certain traditions are restricted, this is according to the traditions themselves, a point on which Traditionalist authors are, as it were, simply reporting the facts. There are indeed distinct “sectors” of humanity—not water-tight compartments, to be sure, but sectors sufficiently delineated by history, as guided by the Hand of Providence, for us to see that it wasn’t Guénon or Schuon who invented the notion; they merely took cognizance of what is self-evident. “For each We have ordained a Path and a Law” (Qur’an 5:48).
As for being attracted to Hinduism through its spiritual literature, this of course is very understandable. It’s worth noting, however, that this inquirer’s awareness of such literature is due to the highly exceptional circumstances pertaining to the modern world. Traditionally, such texts as the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras, or Shaivite Tantras would be taught only to—and known only by—Hindus of the proper caste who’d been initiated into a spiritual lineage and only in the context of direct oral instruction under a guru. That Westerners like us have access to such texts may be seen as a kind of spiritual compensation, given the spiritual situation of modernity, but the texts themselves, while extremely precious, can’t on their own serve as sufficient guides.
But what of those who desire to go further than simply reading the books? Admittedly, it’s not impossible for a Westerner to follow a Hindu path in certain exceptional cases. One example that has come to my attention just recently is that of Swami Vijayananda, a French disciple of Anandamayi Ma. Anyone wishing to follow this Swami’s example, however, needs to ask himself three questions: First, what difficulties might I face in trying to find an authentic Hindu spiritual lineage and guru amid the welter of confusion, and no doubt charlatanism, characterizing the contemporary Hindu spiritual scene? Second, supposing I found such a guru, could he be persuaded to accept me, a Westerner, for initiation and guidance, either with or without conversion and admission into a caste? Third, supposing he did accept me, what might I be missing if I were to enter into his teaching lineage while living, effectively, in a religious “vacuum”, that is, without the supports supplied to those who are fully integrated into the larger tradition? It’s true that from a strictly advaitic perspective the larger tradition is irrelevant, but very few people have the strength, intellectual or otherwise, to base their spiritual lives exclusively on this perspective. An instructive study in how easy it is for those who try to do so to deviate from the Truth is provided in Dennis Waite’s Enlightenment: The Path Through the Jungle, which details the limitations of the popular Western neo-advaita or satsang movement, a classic case of Westerners going to India, studying at the feet of a guru—H. W. L. Poonja—then coming back to the West and proceeding to distort the teaching and method, to the point it bore little relation to traditional methods of instruction.
It should be noted, finally, that both René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon—deeply perceptive spiritual individuals—were profoundly attracted to Hinduism and thoroughly familiar with its central scriptures; and yet both of them adopted Islamic Sufism as their path and practice, and not the least of their reasons was that Sufism as a living path was (and still is) far more accessible to Europeans than Hinduism. Needless to say, neither Guénon nor Schuon considered himself “dishonest” in regarding Advaita Vedanta as the pre-eminent expression of traditional metaphysics while nonetheless practicing within the framework of Islam, for they understood both of the traditions in question in the larger context of the philosophia perennis. There’s no “dishonesty” in practicing a non-Hindu religion while meditating on the metaphysical and spiritual principles contained in the Upanishads and other sacred texts mentioned by this inquirer, and this is because equivalent formulations of these same principles can be found, mutatis mutandis, in all orthodox traditions. What matters is not the formulation but the sapiential content, which in the case of pure metaphysics is always the same, whether we’re speaking of Atma and Maya, Nirvana and Samsara, or the Principle and manifestation.