IN THE BEGINNING WAS A GOOD TIME
A Review of GODS OF LOVE AND ECSTACY: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus
by Alain Daniélou
Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions
Review Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
According to the famed Orientalist Alain Daniélou, all religions have their foundations in the worship of life's primal creative force. That force, which manifests in our human experience as magical power, transcendental spirituality, intoxication, and ecstatic sexuality, was originally some time around the sixth millenium B.C.E., in the Neolithic Age called Shiva. Shivaism then evolved as the chief codification of a far more primitive animism: a belief system in which animals, rivers, trees, and other natural phenomena such as the wind, rocks, and the Earth itself were imbued with innate souls.
No one can say for certain exactly where Shivaism began because its rites and symbols including animal sacrifices, whirling dances, snakes, the labyrinth, the swastika, enormous megalithic representations of penises and vulvas, a specific Great Mother Earth Goddess styled the Lady of the Mountains, and horned gods such as men with the heads of bulls and rams who often had hugely erect penises appear in the mythic and archaeological records during the same general era more or less throughout the world, incorporating, borrowing from, or replacing other animistic myths in what we now think of as Egypt, Crete, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Rumania, Sweden, Denmark, the British Isles, Cambodia, China, Java, Bali, and just about any other place the author looks.
Much of the hard evidence of Shivaism's historical path existed in the forms of perishable artifacts and nature shrines that have long since returned their molecules to bubble in the cosmic melting pot. But the Indian myths seem earliest, and the next earliest tales are encapsulated in the seminal Greek stories of Dionysus, which are essentially identical to the Indian myths of Shiva: place-names pertaining to the religions honoring them both are easily recognizable linguistically; Greek texts from the period have Dionysus traveling to India on a specific mission, while parallel Indian myths speak of Shivaism spreading to the West, toward Greece; and rituals and symbols are especially similar, as we can tell because what we now call Dionysiac rites are still performed by Shivaite cults in India, pretty much as they seem to have been in prehistoric times.
As an animistic religion, Shivaism is based in a perceived harmony among all beings: lakes, forests, deer, lions, birds, storms, and people all have their places; every entity has its own particular spirit; rituals are devised around communing with those spirits; and trouble is a consequence and evidence of disharmony.
Okay so: If Shivaism is based in nature's harmony, and if it is the root of all religions, how come the world we live in appears to be so disharmonious and out of balance? How come the enlisted man's military acronym SNAFU (situation normal: all fucked up) has become a word in the American Heritage Dictionary? What went wrong?
In cosmic terms the answer is simple: we live in the fourth Great Age of Shiva's vast repeating cycle. Ours is called Kali Yuga, or the Age of Iron, or the Age of Conflicts. It is specifically the period in which people no longer live in close communion with nature. Seeking to live outside our assigned role in the great theatre of creation, human beings have become the enemies of the gods, and the enemies of creation.
Yes, folks, it's just as you suspected: we're in the midst of engineering our own destruction, which will be nearly but not entirely complete. From the small remainder of humanity that survives the flood or the fire or the plague or whatever other miserable form of havoc we wreak upon ourselves will arise the founders of a new Golden Age, or Age of Truth, the Satya Yuga, and so the cycle will repeat itself over and over until a larger-scale destruction occurs and matter, energy, space, and time itself all disappear into the timeless not-even-emptiness of no-thing. More no-thing than a black hole full of black holes under major surgical anesthesia. Check it out.
But don't hold your breath. The Kali Yuga has a way to go and you are on the bus. According to the ancient Linga Purana text one of the six most important of 36 somewhat Bible-like books that tell the stories of creation and evolution long before Adam was a gleam in Jahweh's eye this is a time when "Upright men shall withdraw from public life. Pre-cooked food is sold in public squares.... The rainfall will be erratic. Merchants will be dishonest. Those who beg or seek employment will become more and more numerous.... Men without morals preach virtue to others. Censorship reigns.... Water will be scarce as well as fruit...." And so forth. Sound familiar?
In human terms the answer is a bit more specific, because things happen in a time-frame we mortals can sort of grasp. According to Daniélou human society is divided into nature religions and city religions. Nature religions are essentially Shivaite, and are illustrious of the Age of Truth. The religion of the city is the religion of our time, the Age of Conflict, and it's a drag. It
claims to impose divine sanctions on social conventions.... It serves as an excuse for the ambitions of men who seek dominion over the natural world ... claiming for themselves a unique position to the detriment of other species.... Taking no interest except in himself, [its adherant] has become the destroyer of the harmony of creation, the blind, vain and brutal instrument of his own decline.
So this may really be that darkest hour before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, which anyway is Ronald Reagan's sun sign.
In examining the traditions of Shiva and Dionysus, Gods of Love and Ecstasy is an exegesis of the 8,000-year-old traditions that underlie the spiritual origins of your religion and mine, even if we attend different mosques, synagogues, temples, groves, or churches. It documents the way different mystical traditions have adored different aspects of the god of creation, and the way this cycle's greatest organized religions Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and especially Christianity have raped, pillaged, and destroyed all the spirit they could lay their greedy laws on in their monstrous quest for temporal political power.
It also notes the similarities present in the mystery sects that are the left-handed paths of each of these popular world-sized cults, for it is the mystery sects that Daniélou believes carry on the original Shivaite traditions. What distinguishes the mystery arms from the organized forms of the religions that disown and try to destroy them is that they are based in nature and the individual experience of joy, rather than being based in some organizational belief system whose rules are handed down to little you and little me from Big Someone who got it from Bigger Someone who got it from Biggest Someone who read it in a book. Nature and joy are the places all religions get their juice, Daniélou contends: they are the reasons religions get started in the first place, back before the bureaucrats and thugs steal inspiration from the priests and warriors.
Modern goddess worshippers, phallus worshippers, and neo-Pagans seem to be aware that some of what the organized religions fear is what Wilhelm Reich perceived and for which he was hounded to his death: if you control a person's sexuality, you control the person, period. Not only are all the mystery religions ecstatic religions, where adherants get the word directly from the source; they also tend to get the word during intoxication, and specifically during the intoxication of erotic ecstasy. In Shivaism, therefore, drunken orgies in the woods are a preferred method of communing with the Lord, followed by time to reflect on the experience.
In Works and Days the ancient Greek historian Hesiod advises farmers, "Sow naked, plough naked, reap naked ... so that each of [Demeter's] fruits will grow for you...." In the Shiva Purana the great god of creation says, "I am not distinct from the phallus. The phallus is identical with me.... Wherever there is an upright male organ, I myself am present...." As Daniélou observes several times, procreation is an incidental by-product of certain forms of sex; the principal purpose of sex is to make contact with divinity through the ecstasy of sensual pleasure.
Shiva and Dionysus are not only ithyphallic (guys with very big hard dicks), they are also hermaphroditic (have both male and female genitals), bisexual (like male and female sex partners), and sometimes transsexual (change sexes). Plato believed men were first created androgynous, and that Zeus, the chief god of the Olympians, split them into separate parts in a fit of pique. Ever since, the goal of being human has been to reunite the male and female principles in a single life and body. Shivaism can support that notion. As Daniélou says, in Tantrism, a specific form of Shivaism, "The hermaphrodite, the homosexual, and the transvestite ... are considered privileged beings."
For the most part this book concerns phallic ecstasy, and that limit is probably more a consequence of Daniélou's cultural bias than of spiritual history. Even when he writes about sacred prostitution Daniélou sees it as a heterosexual male-centered activity. "Self-realization on the erotic level," he says, "is an essential aspect of the human being's development. Prostitution is a beneficent and sacred profession, since it allows erotic ecstasy to be practiced by the wanderer, monk, poor man, and even the married man whose relations, having a procreative aim, do not have the same value."
All right, but don't women get self-realization too? Dozens of books have documented sacred prostitution as a spiritual practice of enormous importance for the high priestesses of the Great Goddess' religion. Much of Daniélou's research is closely related to the sorts of feminist scholarship that informs Cosi Fabian's work, or studies such as Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman, and reflects a lot of what feminist writers have said in the past decade or so, as they've painted a remarkable picture of spirited, goddess-worshipping, matriarchal nature religions usurped and destroyed by hierarchical, god-fearing, patriarchal bureaucratic religions, beginning at just about the time Daniélou says Shivaism began. But where are they in Daniélou's scheme of things? Why does the goddess culture barely rate a mention here?
In the single 12-page chapter on The Goddess, She is portrayed as a very important being who is, nonetheless, secondary to the creator god. Known most often as The Lady of the Mountain, she "binds the god to the world of living beings." As the White Goddess she dispenses largesse, and as Kali, the Power of Time, she embodies death. But in all her forms, Daniélou writes, she is the intercessor who "checks the god's imagination and his creative or destructive mania.... It is she to whom many must pray," therefore, first as a mother figure, later as a lover figure, and sometimes as feminine principle rather than female in masculine form as Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Ganesha, or the Sun.
Ah! But buried way back in the book, Daniélou offers two more pages; there, almost as a whisper or an aside, he says,
Shivaite society was originally matriarchal. Property, houses, land and servants belong to women. Man is only a fecundator, a wanderer, occupying himself with arts, war, or games, or else dedicating himself to an intellectual or spiritual life. In sedentary, agricultural societies, property usually belongs to women, and is handed down from mother to daughter: the dowry is a survival of this custom. In nomadic societies based on stock-raising the male is predominant, and wives are bought. The main problem of societies stemming from the Aryan invasions lies in the fact that they have become sedentary while retaining the patriarchal system of nomadic society. Women represent property, the material world and the slavery of men.
So women get short shrift again, though that is not a reason to discard Gods of Love and Ecstasy, even for feminists. The book provides other compensatory treats along the way. For instance, Daniélou points out that it is easier to achieve enlightenment during the Kali Yuga than at other times, because the closer we are to the Age of Truth the more we must strive upwards; but during the Age of Conflict we can achieve mastery simply by following the easier downward path, since down is the direction everything's going anyway. He also reminds us of the way some words have come to ambush us with their real meanings. Carnival, for example, derives from carnevale or meat days (carne-vale) reflecting its origin as a celebration of animal or human sacrifice, which had to be consumed.
For the most part, Gods of Love and Ecstasy is a scholarly rather than an academic book. The sources Danilou cites are ancient Sanskrit texts like the Puranas and the Upanishads, third century Tamil poems he has translated himself, the Greeks from historian Heroditus to philosopher Plato to playwright Euripides, and a couple dozen "contemporary studies" ranging across the whole spectrum of 20th century English and French scholarship, and including nothing you will find at Crown, Waldenbooks or B. Dalton. The authors of these sources are more often independent researchers with bugs in their ears, like Daniélou himself, than professors seeking advancement, tenure, or other positions of power in the teaching industry. In that way the book is an exciting journey, down spirited golden roads few of us get to travel in this Age of Iron.
But even though the myths of Shiva and Dionysus are rife with the passions of adventure, war, murder, lust, love, mystery, intrigue, and all the other elements of sexy potboiler romance, Gods of Love and Ecstasy is a profoundly stodgy, two-handed read. Perhaps that is because, even as Danilou inveighs against the audacity of any religion claiming to be the one and only road to enlightenment, he simultaneously says of Shivaism, "There is no other true religion."
So what can a poor boy do? After our book-learning how can we possibly learn the truth about the religion of the spirit? Shall we stop believing in the false gods promulgated by the sere fathers of the city religions? Shall we return to nature? Shall we have orgies? Shall we have revelries till we have revelations? Well, yes. If you really want to learn about ecstasy to paraphrase Scoop Nisker go out and make some of your own.
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