A 1925 studio photo portrait (age 38).
November 15, 1886|
Blois, Loir-et-Cher, France
|Died||January 7, 1951
|Era||20th century philosophy|
|Region||Western & Eastern
philosophies & esotericisms
|School||Advaita Vedanta, Sufism, Nondualism, Platonism|
|Main interests||Metaphysics, Esoterism, Initiation, Symbolism, Mythology, Gnosis, Religious texts, Freemasonry, Mathematics, History, Society, Social criticism, Comparative religion|
|Notable ideas||Critique of modernity from the perspective of ancient wisdom traditions; refounding of western esotericism based on the still living eastern ones|
René Guénon (November 15, 1886 – January 7, 1951), also known as Shaykh `Abd al-Wahid Yahya, was a French author and intellectual who remains an influential figure in the domain of metaphysics, having written on topics ranging from metaphysics, "sacred science" and traditional studies to symbolism and initiation.
In his writings, he proposes either "to expose directly some aspects of Eastern metaphysical doctrines", these doctrines being defined by him as of "universal character", or "to adapt these same doctrines for Western readers  while keeping strictly faithful to their spirit"; he only endorsed the act of "handing down" these Eastern doctrines, while reiterating their "non-individual character".
He wrote and published in French and his works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
René Guénon was born in Blois, a city in central France approximately 100 miles (~ 160 km) from Paris. Guénon, like most Frenchmen of the time, was born into a Roman Catholic family. Little is known of his family, although it appears that his father was an architect. By 1904, Guénon was living as a student in Paris, where his studies focused on mathematics and philosophy. He was known as a brilliant student, notably in mathematics, in spite of his poor health.
As a young student in Paris, Guénon observed and became involved with some milieux which were, at that time, under the supervision of Papus. Under the name "Tau Palingenius" Guénon became the founder and main contributor of a periodical review, La Gnose ("Gnosis"), writing articles for it until 1922. From his incursions into the French occultist and pseudo-masonic orders, he despaired of the possibility of ever gathering these diverse and often ill-assorted doctrines into a "stable edifice". In his book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times he also pointed out what he saw as the intellectual vacuity of the French occultist movement, which, he wrote, was utterly insignificant, and more importantly, had been compromised by the infiltration of certain individuals of questionable motives and integrity.
Around this time (according to indications reproduced by his biographer P. Chacornac), it is likely that René Guénon became acquainted with Hinduism, specifically via the initiatic lineage of Shankarâchârya, as well as with Taoism. He was also initiated in 1910 into Islamic esoterism, where he obtained the name Sheikh `Abd al-Wahid Yahya. His initiation into Sufism was effected by Ivan Aguéli (Abdul Hadi) and performed in accordance with Sheikh Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir, an important representative of Islam in Egypt at that time, in both its exoteric (outward) and esoteric aspects. Sheikh Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir was the head of the Maleki Madh'hab (one of the major lineages of Islamic jurisprudence) at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Guénon later dedicated his book The Symbolism of the Cross to him.
In 1917, Guénon began a one-year stay at Setif, Algeria, teaching philosophy to college students. After World War I, he left teaching to dedicate his energies to writing; his first book, Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, was published in 1921. From 1925 Guénon became a contributor to a review edited by P. Chacornac, Le Voile d’Isis ("The Veil of Isis"); after 1935 and under Guénon's influence, this periodical became known as Les Etudes Traditionnelles ("Traditional Studies").
Although the exposition of Hindu doctrines to European audiences had already been attempted in piecemeal fashion at that time by many orientalists, Guénon’s Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines advanced its subject in a uniquely insightful manner, by referring to the concepts of metaphysics and Tradition in their most general sense, which Guénon precisely defined, along with the necessary distinctions and definitions of seemingly unambiguous terms such as religion, tradition, exoterism, esoterism and theology. Guénon explained that his purpose was not to describe all aspects of Hinduism, but to give the necessary intellectual foundation for a proper understanding of its spirit. The book also stands as a harsh condemnation of works presented by certain other European writers about Hinduism and Tradition in general; according to Guénon, such writers had lacked any profound understanding of their subject matter and of its implications. The book also contains a critical analysis of the political intrusions of the British Empire into the subject of Hinduism (and India itself) through Madame Blavatsky’s theosophism.
Also in 1921, Guénon debuted a series of articles in the French Revue de Philosophie, which, along with some supplements, led to the book Theosophism: History of a Pseudo-Religion. During the decade 1920-1930, Guénon began to acquire a broader public reputation, and his work was noted by various intellectual and artistic figures both within and outside of Paris. At this time also were published some of his books explaining the "intellectual divide" between the East and West, and the peculiar nature, according to him, of modern civilization: Crisis of the Modern World, East and West. In 1927 was published the second major doctrinal book of his works: Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta, and in 1929, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power. The last book listed offers a general explanation of what Guénon saw as the fundamental differences between "sacerdotal" (priestly or sacred) and "royal" (governmental) powers, along with the negative consequences arising from the usurpation of the prerogatives of the latter with regard to the former. From these considerations, René Guénon traces to its source the origin of the modern deviation, which, according to him, is to be found in the destruction of the Templar order in 1314.
In 1930, Guénon left Paris for Cairo, with the aim of gathering and translating written documents of islamic esoterism. This project was abruptly abandoned after a decision of his editor. Left alone in Cairo, Guénon declined all propositions by his friends that he return to France. Despite his declining financial condition, Guénon relentlessly corresponded with his counterparts from many countries around the world as well as continuing his own writing projects. Although remaining in Egypt certainly exposed Guénon to the cultural ambience of Sufism and ancient esotericism for which he had already demonstrated a strong affinity, his refusal to return to Europe created undoubted hardship for him. As if in compensation for this hardship, Guénon was fortunate enough to meet Sheikh Salama Hassan ar-radi, founder of the Hamidiya Shadhiliya sufi order, which he soon joined. Guénon accompanied the Sheikh until the latter's death in 1938. Around the same time, Guénon also met another Sufi, Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim, whose daughter he married in 1934. This marriage resulted in four children, the last (Abdel Wahed) born in 1951. During his lengthy sojourn in Egypt, René Guénon carried on an austere and simple life, entirely dedicated to his writings and spiritual development. In 1949, he obtained Egyptian citizenship.
Urged on by some of his friends and collaborators, Guénon agreed to establish a new Masonic lodge in France founded upon his "Traditional" ideals, purified of what he saw as the inauthentic accretions which so bedeviled other lodges he had encountered during his early years in Paris. This lodge was called La Grande triade ("The Great Triad"), a name inspired by the title of one of Guénon's books. The first founders of the lodge, however, separated a few years after its inception. Nevertheless, this lodge, belonging to the Grande Loge de France, remains active today.
Guénon's writings encompass a wide range of metaphysical themes, yet these works as whole evince a unity and organic coherence which Guénon always saw as a critical part of his work. As a result, each topic is integrally related to many others. For that reason, in this section is presented an overview, intended at presenting René Guénon's writings to someone discovering them, leaving a detailed exposition to the following sections.
In 1921, Guénon published an Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines. His goal, as he writes it, is an attempt at presenting to westerners eastern metaphysics and spirituality as they are understood and thought by easterners themselves, while pointing at what René Guénon describes as all the erroneous interpretations and misunderstandings of western orientalism and "neospiritualism" (for the latter, notably the proponents of Madame Blavatsky’s theosophism). Right from that time, he presents a rigorous understanding, not only of Hindu doctrines, but also of eastern metaphysics in general. He managed to expose these doctrines to a western public viewed by him as quite unprepared and unreceptive as a whole. He departed from standard scholarship (orientalist) terminology and methods and preferred to expose the doctrines as a simple "easterner", devoid of what he called "western prejudices". For one of the most famous aspects of René Guénon's work is the irreducible difference he describes between the East and the West. René Guénon defines eastern metaphysics and intellectuality as of "universal nature", that "opens possibilities of conception which are truly beyond any limitation". His work comprises:
This partition is not strict and, as we noted earlier, Guénon's works display a coherence and unity making each book integrally related to the others. From that perspective, and according to René Guénon's own words, his work is completely unrelated to any particular philosophical system. He identifies the main difference between profane and sacred knowledge: the former ignores the notion of realization ("moksha" or "delivrance" in the Hindu doctrines), while the latter provides effective means for realizing the Supreme Principle (through initiation, mantra or dhikr recitation, orthodox spiritual lineages).
Guénon defines the modern world as being a degeneration of what he calls "the traditional world". According to him, the real separation between the East and West comes from this degeneration; in other words, it comes from an intellectual standpoint, and is not related to any geographical distinction, but to a doctrinal divergence. Amidst the global period of intellectual confusion and disorder that characterizes modernity according to René Guénon, the East has maintained alive, through uninterrupted spiritual lineages, an intellectual (possibly hidden) elite fully conscious of the original wisdom transmitted to humanity from time immemorial. In some of his books, he states that the present condition of humanity can be explained by the traditional doctrine of "cosmic cycles", as it is described in Hindu doctrines.
He produced a series of articles and books aimed at explaining the modern civilization according to traditional data and, more generally, to the "traditional standpoint". He therein denounces what he calls the "pseudo-initiation", which was, according to him, spreading since the end of the 19th century. He intends to denounce, through a careful examination of the historical origin, the ideological evolution taken by what he calls their "pseudo-doctrines", some "pseudo-spiritual" organisations which, according to him, expose to the West false eastern doctrines or which are counterfeits of regular initiatic traditions (among these "pseudo-spiritual associations" he makes a particular mention of the Theosophical Society founded by Madame Blavatsky in the wake of the modern pseudo-Rosicrucian organisations of the late 19th century).
Guénon exposits a view of Metaphysics which can, according to him "by no means be reduced to scientific or philosophical conceptions" but which is instead "the knowledge (...) of the principles of universal order" ; being "absolutely illimited", Metaphysics "cannot be defined". Metaphysics is seen, according to him, in its etymological sense, while recalling that sense in his books. Such a metaphysics, being by essence beyond any contingency, is necessarily at the source of all orthodox traditions, these latter being considered as direct derivations of the great "primordial tradition" (corresponding to the Hindu notion of Sanātana Dharma, or Manu law).
Metaphysics is not introduced by René Guénon as a branch of philosophy, as it is in western studies. Traditional metaphysics, which is, according to Guénon, beyond any contingency (knowledge of universal principles), lies at the very source of all orthodox and legitimate traditions, making a connection between the heart of these traditions and a unique spiritual origin, the "Primordial Tradition". The study of traditional metaphysics and its relationship with our state of existence, i.e. our world, clears the path inwardly towards the center common and shared by each authentic religion: exoterism bounds an "outside" accessible to everyone, its purpose is to maintain the link with Supreme Principle.
However, the current state of the West, characterized by its voluntary and gradual detachment from his own tradition, Christianity, and the degeneration of major branches of one of his last initiatic organization, freemasonry, makes a restoration somewhat unlikely feasible given that this situation is the result of a long evolution through Western history, which according Guénon, follows even a predetermined plan. Incidentally, in the esoteric domain, René Guénon says that two dates mark historically the fundamental spiritual degeneration of the West: first, the destruction of the Order of the Knight Templars in 1314, which defines precisely what René Guénon called "modern deviation", and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which severed, in the historical and "outer realm", the link between West and what René Guénon defined as the "Supreme Centre".
At multiple occasions in his books, René Guénon insisted that the most important, in metaphysics, was properly inexpressible:
[...] it should be agreed, for not altering the truth by a partial, restrictive or systematized exposition, to keep always the part of the inexpressible, ie the part which cannot be emprisonned in any form, and which, metaphysically, is really what matters most, we can even say that represents the most essential part [...]
According to the doctrine exposed by Guénon, the "spiritual realisation" leads to the effective identification with the states of being that are superior to our transitory human state, and ultimately to the "Supreme Identity" with the Supreme Principle or Absolute Reality. He firmly states the necessity of being fastened to an authentic and living tradition which has kept alive and made available the initiations that were existing in that tradition since its inception. Such living traditions (such as Hinduism, Islam, or Taoism) are characterized by an inspiration (ex. the Vedas), or a revelation (ex. the Qur'an). He insists on the notion of "intellectual intuition" (supra-rational or spiritual), "awakened" by concentration and meditation on symbols, either in visual form (yantras) or auditive (mantras or, in Islam, dhikr).
Guénon's writings make use of words and terms, of fundamental signification, which will receive a precise definition throughout his books. These terms and words, although receiving a usual meaning and being used in many branches of human sciences, have, according to René Guénon, lost substantially their original signification (e.g. words such as "metaphysics", "initiation", "mysticism", "personality", "form", "matter"). He insisted notably on the danger represented by the perversion of the signification of words seen by him as essential for the study of metaphysics; for that reason, we recall, in this section, the definition given by René Guénon to some of the words used extensively in his works.
|Term and/or idea||Definition and/or remarks|
|Identity of the knowing and being||
|Initiation and mysticism||
|Paramâtmâ, individuality, personality||
|Universal and individual||
|Manifestation and non-manifestation||
Note: in another text, René Guénon will identify what is called here formless manifestation, or formless states of being, with certain angelic states, as they are called in religious (exoteric) formulations.
|The human state of being||
|Samâdhi and ecstasy||
|Form, matter, essence and substance||
|Matter and the principle of individuation||
The exposition of metaphysical doctrines, which forms the cornerstone of Guénon's work, consists of the following books:
The book, published in 1921, some topics of which will be included in the lecture he will give at the Sorbonne, December 17, 1925 ("Oriental Metaphysics"), consists of four parts.
The first part (« preliminary questions ») exposes the hurdles that prevented classical orientalism from a deep understanding of eastern doctrines (without forgetting that René Guénon had of course in view the orientalism of his time): the « classical prejudice » which « consists essentially in a predisposition to attribute the origin of all civilization to the Greeks and Romans », the ignorance of certain types of relationships between the ancient peoples, linguistic difficulties, and the confusions arising about certain questions related to chonology, these confusions being made possible through the ignorance of the importance of oral transmission which can precede, to a considerable and indeterminate extent, the written formulation. A fundamental example of that latter mistake being found in the orientalist's attempts at providing a precise birth date to the Vedas sacred scriptures.
The « general characters of eastern thought » part focuses on the principles of unity of the eastern civilizations, on the definition of the notions of "tradition" and "metaphysics". René Guénon also proposes a rigorous definition of the term "religion", and states the proper differences between "tradition", "religion", "metaphysics" and "philosophical system". The relations between "metaphysics" and "theology" are also explored, and the fundamental terms of "esoterism" and "exoterism" are introduced. A chapter is devoted to the idea of « metaphysical realization ». The first two parts state, according to René Guénon, the necessary doctrinal foundations for a correct understanding of Hindu doctrines.
The third part: "the Hindu doctrines" introduces some of the most fundamental ideas in Hindu doctrines: the traditional signification of the word "hindu", the notions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy contemplated from the metaphysical perspective (in comparison with their religious or theological counterparts), an exposition of the main sacred texts in Hinduism, the notions of "darshana", Manu law, Sanâtana Dharma, the Vêdantâ, the Upanishads etc.
The fourth and last part exposes what René Guénon calls the erroneous western interpretations. He describes some currents born in India under the conjugated influence of the British Empire, Anglo-Saxon missionary protestantism and H. P. Blavatsky's theosophism: the Arya Samâj, the doctrines of Dayânanda Saraswatî and Vivekananda etc.
The Introduction to the study of the Hindu doctrines had, among its objectives, the purpose of giving the proper intellectual basis to promote openness to the study of eastern intellectuality. The study of Hindu doctrines is continued in his book Man and his Becoming according to the Vêdantâ by taking the specific viewpoint of the human being's constitution according to the Vêdantâ: René Guénon states that his goal is not to present a synthetic exposition of all vedic doctrines "which would be quite an impossible task", but to consider "a particular point of that doctrine", in that case the definition of the human being, in order to contemplate afterwards other aspects of metaphysics.
The book begins in precising the nature of the Vêdantâ, its profound signification as the "end of the Vedas", and the traditional signification of Shruti and Smriti scriptures:
[...] the distinction between shruti and smriti is, fundamentally, equivalent to that between immediate intellectual intuition and reflective consciousness; if the first is described by a word bearing the primitive meaning of 'hearing', this is precisely in order to indicate its intuitive character, and because according to the Hindu cosmological doctrine, sound holds the primordial rank among sensible qualities.
The fundamental texts called Mimânsa (Pûrva-Mimânsa, Uttara-Mimânsa), the Upanishads, the Brahmâ-Sûtras, along with Hindu cosmological texts are listed, and the notion of "intellectual function" associated to their origin is proposed, as opposed to the profane notion of "author".
The general considerations of the "Self", the "Unmanifested" and the universal "Manifestation" are then introduced: the "universal Manifestation" is all that exists and its development is constantly being in progress, towards destiny. The "Unmanifested" is all that is beyond universal Manifestation, so that it can only be designated by negation. The second chapter also establishes the fundamental distinctions between the "Self" and the ego, or "personality" and "individuality", the first being the only One that is "absolutely real". These ideas are declined in different denominations depending, for a first part, on the different degrees of reality considered, and also from the "transcendent" and "immanent" point of views that can be contemplated: Ishwara is the "Divine personality" or the Principle of universal Manifestation. It is unmanifested, for the Principle of Manifestation cannot be Itself manifested (this is in relation to the symbolism of "black heads": Ishwara has Its head in "darkness"). Atmâ, Paramâtmâ, Brahmâ: the realization that the Self, "in relation to any being whatsoever, is in reality identical to Atmâ", constitutes the heart of the Hindu doctrine of "delivrance" or "moksha", and that doctrine is absolutely identical to what islamic esoterism calls the "Supreme Identity" (that is to say, expressed in Hindu terms, the identity of Atmâ and Brahmâ):
[...] the 'Supreme Identity', according to an expression borrowed from Islamic esoterism, where the doctrine on this and on many other points is fundamentally the same as in the Hindu tradition, in spite of great differences in form.
If the "Supreme Identity" (or "moksha" or "delivrance"), is made possible, through realization, it is because at the very heart of the human being (not to be confused with the heart organ of the corporeal envelope) is found what is called Brahmâ 's journey, or Brahmâ-pura.
What resides at the center of the human state is Purusha, or Brahmâ considered "inside" (or "at the center" of) the human being. Purusha, in order that manifestation may be produced, must enter into correlation with another principle, although such a correlation is really non-existent in relation to the highest (uttama) aspect of Purusha, for there cannot in truth be any other principle than the Supreme Principle, except in a relative sense. The correlative of Purusha is then Prakriti, the undifferentiated primordial substance, a passive principle represented as feminine, while Purusha, also called Pumas, is the active principle, represented as masculine; and these two are the poles of all manifestation, though remaining unmanifested themselves. It is the union of these complementary principles which produces the integral development of the human individual state, and that applies relatively to each individual.
From there, all different degrees of individual manifestation can be described and named, and in particular the tanmatras, the mind or manas in its role of coordinator of internal and external faculties, the five vayus, the different prânas, and the distinctions between the waking state, the dream state, and the deep sleep state.
The book ends with a description of the reabsorption of the individual faculties, either in the posthumous conditions, or in the spiritual process of realization, up to the "final delivrance" or "Supreme Identity", which is the ultimate goal of any true spiritual path.
The Symbolism of the Cross is a book "dedicated to the venerated memory of Esh-Sheikh Abder-Rahman Elish El-Kebir". Its goal, as Guénon states it, "is to explain a symbol that is common to almost all traditions, a fact that would seem to indicate its direct attachment to the great primordial tradition". To alleviate the hurdles bound to the interpretations of a symbol belonging to different traditions, Guénon distinguishes synthesis from syncretism: syncretism consists in assembling from the outside a number of more or less incongruous elements which, when so regarded, can never be truly unified. Syncretism is something outward: the elements taken from any of its quarters and put together in this way can never amount to anything more than borrowings that are effectively incapable of being integrated into a doctrine "worthy of that name". To apply these criteria to the present context of the symbolism of the cross:
[...] syncretism can be recognized wherever one finds elements borrowed from different traditional forms and assembled together without any awareness that there is only one single doctrine of which these forms are so many different expressions or so many adaptations related to particular conditions related to given circumstances of time and place.
A notable example of syncretism can be found, according to Guénon, in the "doctrines" and symbols of the Theosophical society. Synthesis on the other hand is carried essentially from within, by which it properly consists in envisaging things in the unity of their principle. Synthesis will exist when one starts from unity itself and never loses sight of it throughout the multiplicity of its manifestations; this moreover implies the ability to see beyond forms and an awareness of the principal truth. Given such awareness, one is at liberty to make use of one or another of those forms, something that certain traditions symbolically denote as "the gift of tongues". The concordance between all traditional forms may be said to represent genuine "synonymies". In particular, René Guénon writes that the cross is a symbol that in its various forms is met with almost everywhere, and from the most remotes times. It is therefore far from belonging peculiarly to the Christian tradition, and the cross, like any other traditional symbol, can be regarded according to manifold senses.
Far from being an absolute and complete unity in himself, the individual in reality constitutes but a relative and fragmentary unity. The multiplicity of the states of the being, "which is a fundamental metaphysical truth", implies the effective realization of the being's multiple states and is related to the conception that various traditional doctrines, including Islamic esoterism, denote by the term 'Universal Man': in Arabic al-Insân-al-kâmil is at the same time 'Primordial man' (al-Insân-al-qâdim); it is the Adam Qadmon of the Hebrew Kabbalah; it is also the 'King' (Wang) of the Far-Eastern tradition (Tao Te King chap. 25). The conception of the 'Universal Man' establishes a constitutive analogy between universal manifestation and its individual human modality, or, to use the language of Western Hermeticism, between the 'macrocosm' and the 'microcosm'.
From these considerations, the geometrical symbolism of the cross, in its most universal signification, can be contemplated: most traditional doctrines symbolize the realization of 'Universal Man' by a sign that is everywhere the same because, according to Guénon, it is one of those directly attached to the primordial tradition. That sign is the sign of the cross, which very clearly represents the manner of achievement of this realization by the perfect communion of all states of the being, harmoniously and conformably ranked, in integral expansion, in the double sense of "amplitude" and "exaltation". In fact, this double expansion of the being may be regarded as taking place horizontally on the one hand, that is, at a certain level or degree of existence, and vertically at the other, that is, in the hierarchical superimposition of all the degrees. Thus, the horizontal direction represents "amplitude", or integral extension of the individuality taken as basis for realization, and the vertical direction represents the hierarchy, likewise and a fortiori indefinite, of the multiples states. Furthermore, the symbol of the cross can also be considered in two basic ways, so-called horizontal and vertical, as it appears in the double consideration of a first cross obtained, in the ecliptic plane by joining the equinoctial and solstice points, and a second cross, orthogonal to the first, defined by the equator and the line going through the poles. The tridimensional cross obtained that way is linked to the six directions of space and the centre of the cross, through a symbolism that appears notably in the Hebraic kabbalah in relation to the "mystery of unity", and also in Clement of Alexandria, and the Hindu doctrines as well. Then, the symbol of the cross may develop according to different points of view: "union of the complements", with the vertical line representing the active principle and the horizontal line the passive principle, hence establishing an application of the general consideration of Purusha-Prakriti; "resolution of the opposites", symbolized by the central point which corresponds to what Islamic esoterism calls the "Divine station", namely "that which combines contrasts and antinomies" (al-mâqam lillahi huwa mâqam ijtima 'al-diddâin): this station (mâqam), or degree of the being's effective realization, is attained by al-fanâ', that is, by the "extinction" of the ego in the return to the "primordial state"; such "extinction", writes René Guénon, even as regards the literal meaning of the term denoting it, is not without analogy to the Nirvâna of the Buddhist doctrine. Beyond al-fanâ', there is still fanâ al-fanâ', the "extinction of the extinction", which similarly corresponds to "Parinirvâna". In the Far-Eastern tradition, the central point is called the "Invariable Middle" (Ching-Yin) which is the place of perfect equilibrium, represented as the center of the 'cosmic wheel', and is also, at the same time, the point where the 'Activity of Heaven' is directly manifested. This center directs all things by its "actionless activity" (wei wu wei), which although unmanifested, or rather because it is unmanifested, is in reality the plenitude of activity, since it is the activity of the Principle whence all activities are derived; Guénon notes that this has been expressed by Lao Tzu as follows: "The Principle is always actionless, yet everything is done by It". This "Invariable Middle" is also the locus of "Peace in the void", corresponding to what Islamic esoterism calls the "Great Peace".
That 'peace' that dwells at the central point, brings to another symbolism, namely that of war, and a well-known example of that symbolism, writes René Guénon, is found in the Bhagavad-Gitâ. The same conception, writes René Guénon, is not specific to the Hindu doctrine, but is also found in the Islamic, for this is the real meaning of the 'holy war' (jihâd): "[...] war represents a cosmic process whereby what is manifested is reintegrated into the principal unity; that is why, from the viewpoint of manifestation itself, this reintegration appears as a destruction, and this emerges very clearly from certain aspects of the symbolism of Shiva in the Hindu doctrine". Another aspect of the symbolism of the cross identifies it with what various traditions identifies as "The tree in the Midst", one of the numerous symbols of the "World Axis". This tree stands at the center of the world, or rather of a world, that is a domain in which a state of existence, such as the human state, is developed. In the biblical symbolim, for example, the 'Tree of life', planted in the midst of the terrestrial paradise, represents the center of our world, and René Guénon studies its relationships with another biblical tree, the 'Tree of Knowledge of good and evil'. Besides, the horizontal cross is directly in relation with the "polar symbolism" of the swastika, "a truly universal symbol" which represents, particularly in India, the action of the Principle on the manifestation, and which is in no way related to "the artificial and even anti-traditional use of the swastika by the German `racialists` who have given it the fantastic and somewhat ridiculous title of hakenkreuz or `hanked cross` and quite arbitrarily made it a symbol of antisemitism". Then René Guénon goes "as deeply as possible into the geometrical symbolism which applies equally both to the degrees of universal Existence and to the states of each being, that is, both from the `macrocosmic` and the `microcosmic`standpoint".
These considerations lead to an interpretation of the symbolism of the weaving: in sanskrit sûtra means "thread" and it is "a least curious to note that the Arabic word sûrat, which denotes the chapters of the Koran, is composed of exactly the same elements as the Sanskrit sûtra; this word has in addition the kindred sense of `row` or `line` and its derivation is unknown". René Guénon then contemplates many aspects related to the geometrical representation of the states of the Being: the representation of the continuity of the modalities of one and the same state of the being, the relationship between point and space (a question related to the infinitesimals), the ontology of the burning bush in the old testament, the universal spherical vortex, the Far-Eastern symbol of the Yin-Yang, the tree and the serpent etc.
This book expands on the multiple states of the Being, a doctrine already tackled in The Symbolism of the Cross, leaving aside the geometrical representation exposed in that book "to bring out the full range of this altogether fundamental theory" . First and foremost is asserted the necessity of the "metaphysical Infinity", envisaged in its relationship with "universal Possibility". "The Infinite, according to the etymology of the term which designates it, is that which has no limits", so it can only be applied to what has absolutely no limit, and not to what is exempted from certain limitations while being subjected to others like space, time, quantity, in other words all countless other things that fall within the indefinite, fate and nature. There is no distinction between the Infinite and universal Possibility, simply the correlation between these terms indicates that in the case of the Infinite, it is contemplated in its active aspect, while the universal Possibility refers to its passive aspect: these are the two aspects of Brahma and its Shakti in the Hindu doctrines. From this results that "the distinction between the possible and the real [...] has no metaphysical validity, for every possible is real in its way, according to the mode befitting its own nature". This leads to the metaphysical consideration of the "Being" and "Non-Being":
If we [...] define Being in the universal sense as the principle of manifestation, and at the same time as comprising in itself the totality of possibilities of all manifestation, we must say that Being is not infinite because it does not coincide with total Possibility; and all the more so because Being, as the principle of manifestation, although it does indeed comprise all the possibilities of manifestation, does so only insofar as they are actually manifested. Outside of Being, therefore, are all the rest, that is all the possibilities of non-manifestation, as well as the possibilities of manifestation themselves insofar as they are in the unmanifested state; and included among these is Being itself, which cannot belong to manifestation since it is the principle thereof, and in consequence is itself unmanifested. For want of any other term, we are obliged to designate all that is thus outside and beyond Being as "Non-Being", but for us this negative term is in no way synonym for `nothingness` [...].
For instance, our present state, in its corporeal modality, is defined by five conditions: space, time, "matter" (i.e. quantity), "form", and life, and these five conditions enter into correlation with the five corporeal elements (bhutas of the Hindu doctrine, see below) to create all living forms (including us in our corporeal modalities) in our world and state of existence. But the universal Manifestation is incommensurably more vast, including all the states of existence that correspond to other conditions or possibilities, yet Being Itself is the principle of universal Manifestation.
This involves the foundation of the theory of multiple states and the metaphysical notion of the "Unicity of the Existence" (wahdatul-wujûd) as it is for instance developed in Islamic esoterism by Mohyddin Ibn Arabi. The relationships of unity and multiplicity lead to a more accurate "description" of the Non-Being: in it, there can be no question of a multiplicity of states, since this domain is essentially that of the undifferentiated and even of the unconditionned: "the undifferentiated cannot exist in a distinctive mode", although we still speak analogously of the states of the non-manifestation: Non-Being is "Metaphysical Zero" and is logically anterior to unity; that is why Hindu doctrine speaks in this regard only of "non duality" (advaita). Analogous considerations drawn from the study of dream state help understand the relationships of unity and multiplicity: in dream state, which is one of the modalities of the manifestation of the human being corresponding to the subtle (that is, non-corporeal) part of its individuality, "the being produces a world that proceeds entirely from itself, and the objects therein consist exclusively of mental images (as opposed to the sensory perceptions of the waking state), that is to say of combinations of ideas clothed in subtle forms that depend substantially of the subtle form of the individual himself, moreover, of which the imaginal objects of a dream are nothing but accidental and secondary modifications". Then, René Guénon studies the possibilities of individual consciousness and the mental ("mind") as the characteristic element of the human individuality. In chapter X ("Limits of the Indefinite"), he comes back to the notion of metaphysical realization (moksha, or "Suprême identity"). A superior signification of the notion of "darkness" is then introduced, most notably in the chapter entitled "The two chaoses", which describes what is happening during the course of spiritual realization when a disciple leaves the domain of "formal possibilities". The multiples states of the Being is essentially related to the notion of "spiritual hierarchies", which is found in all traditions. Hence is described the universal process of the "realization of the Being through Knowledge".
"Perspectives on initiation", first published at the close of World War II in 1946, extends a series of articles on the central subject of initiation originally written between 1932 and 1938 for Le Voile d'Isis (later renamed Etudes Traditionnelles). Initiation is introduced as the transmission, by the appropriate rites of a given tradition, of a 'spiritual influence'. Related articles were later published, in 1952, in the posthumous collection "Initiation and spiritual realization". While the notion of initiation is introduced in the most general setting, it is impossible, writes Guenon, to write a complete and comprehensive book on the subject "for an indefinite number of questions could be raised - the very nature of the subject resisting any set limit -". However, the subject of initiation being contemplated from a general point of view, the goal of René Guénon goes beyond an introduction to the subject, and, doing so, to make clear distinctions between what is relevant to initiation and what is not, according to Guenon. First, in particular, he insists on clarifying his position on the essential differences between "mysticism" and initiation so that, to him, initiation is, by its very nature, incompatible with mysticism:
In the case of mysticism the individual simply limits himself to what is presented to him and to the manner in which it is presented, having himself nosay in the matter [...] In the case of initiation, on the contrary, the individual is the source of initiative towards 'realization', pursued methodicaly under rigorous and unremitting control, and normal reaching beyond the very possibilities of the individual as such.
In his book Perspectives on initiation, Guénon clarifies the signification given by the ancient Greeks to the classical names of lesser and greater mysteries: "they are not different "types" of initiations, but stages or degrees of a same initiation".
Lesser mysteries lead to the "perfection of the human state", in other words to "something traditionally designated by the restoration of the "primordial state", a state that Dante, in the Divine comedy, relates symbolically to the "terrestrial paradise". On another hand, "greater mysteries" refer properly to "the realization of supra-human states"; they correspond to the Hindu doctrine of "delivrance" (Moksha) and to what islamic esoterism calls the "realization of the Universal Man": in that latter tradition, "lesser" and "greater" mysteries correspond exactly to the signification of the terms "el-insân el-qadîm" and "el-insan el-kâmil". These two phases are related to an interpretation of the symbolism of the cross with the notions of "horizontal" and "vertical" realization. They also correspond respectively to what is traditionally designated in western hermeticism by the terms royal initiation and sacerdotal initiation:
Pure metaphysical knowledge relates consequently to "greater mysteries", and the knowledge of traditional sciences to the "lesser mysteries". From an historical perspective, the "lesser mysteries" being merely a preparation to the "greater mysteries" [...] ultimately one has to go back beyond the very origin of humanity, and this is why a question such as an "historical" origin of initiation appears to be devoid of the least signification.
The traditional sciences whose knowledge provides restoration of "primordial state" are known under the name of cosmological sciences: among them, one can quote alchemy, astrology, the science of letters, and more generally what is referred under the name Hermeticism. In the West, the Brothers of the Ross-Cross were beings that had effectively achieved the completion of lesser mysteries, and Rosicrucian initiation inspired by them was a particular form linked to Christian Hermeticism. René Guénon writes moreover that this Rosicrucian initiation is lost today and is completely unrelated to the various modern organizations bearing that name Rosicrucian, as they belong to modern fallacies falling under the general denomination of pseudo-initiation given by Guénon to them - more on this later -. That word 'Hermeticism' indicates a tradition of Egyptian origin, afterward clothed in a Hellenized form, and in the Middle Ages transmitted in this form both to the Islamic and Christian worlds, and, to the second in great part by the intermediary to the first (something which relates to the relationship that Rosicrucianism had at its origin with Islamic esoterism), as is proven, writes René Guénon, by the numerous Arabic or Arabized terms adopted by the European Hermeticists, beginning with the word 'alchemy' itself (al-kimya). 'Hermeticism' designates a doctrine related to Hermes "insofar as the latter was considered by the Greeks to be identical with the Egyptian Toth". Hermeticism cannot be regarded as constituting a traditional doctrine complete in itself, "for here we are dealing with knowledge that is not of a metaphysical order, but is only cosmological [...]". Hence, Hermeticism was later incorporated into Islamic esoterism where it was rooted into a purely metaphysical doctrine, as it is shown for instance with Mohyddin Ibn Arabi who is both designated as the Seal of Saints and The Master of Red Sulfur, that latter designation referring to a very high degree of the initiatic hierarchy.
Guénon introduces some preliminary aspects of a particular (and extremely complex) cosmological science: the Hindu doctrine of cosmic cycles, for instance in the article "Some remarks on the doctrine of cosmic cycles". He writes that giving an overview of this theory and its equivalents in different traditional forms is merely an impossible task "not only because the question is very complex in itself, but specially owing to the extreme difficulty of expressing these things in an European language, and in a way that is intelligible to the present-day Western mentality, which has had no practice whatsoever with this kind of thinking". All that is possible in this respect is to clarify a few points with remarks "which can only raise suggestions about the meaning of the doctrine in question rather than really explaining it".
In the most general sense of the term, a cycle must be considered as "representing the process of development of some state of manifestation, or, in the case of minor cycles, of one of the more or less restricted and specialized modalities of that state". Moreover, in virtue "of the law of correspondence which links all things in universal Existence, there is necessarily and always a certain analogy, either among the different cycles of the same order or among the principal cycles and their secondary divisions". This allows to use one and the same mode of expression when speaking about the cycles, although this must often be understood only symbolically, and this allude here especially to the 'chronological' form under which the doctrine of cycles is presented: since a Kalpa represents the total development of a world, that is to say of a state or degree of universal existence, "it is obvious that one cannot speak literally about its duration, computed according to some temporal measure, unless this duration relates to a state of which time is one of the determination, as in our world". Everywhere else, this duration is only purely symbolic and must be transposed analogically, for temporal succession is only an image both logical and ontological, of 'extra-temporal' series of causes and effects.
Inside a Kalpa, the Manvantaras, or eras of successive Manus, are 14 in number, forming two septenary series of which the first includes both past Manvantaras and the present one, and the second future Manvantaras: the present humanity is in the seventh Manvantara of the Kalpa. These two series can be linked with those of the seven Svargas and the seven Patalas, "which, from the point of view of the hierarchy of the degrees of existence or of universal manifestation, represent the states respectively higher and lower than the human state [...]". Another correspondence concerns the seven dvīpa (devnagari: वीप) or 'regions' into which the world is divided. Although according to the proper meaning of the word that designates them these are represented as islands or continents distributed in a certain way in space, one must be careful not to take this literally and to regard them simply as different parts of present-day earth: Guénon writes that they 'emerge' in turns and not simultaneously, and only one of them is manifested in the sensible domain over the course of a certain period. If that period is a Manvantara, one will have to conclude that each dvīpa will have to appear twice in the Kalpa or once in each of the just mentioned septenary series, which correspond to one another inversely as do all similar cases, particularly the Svargas and the Patalas, one can deduce that the order of appearance for the dvīpa will likewise have to be, in the second series, the inverse of what it was in the first: this is matter of different 'states' of the terrestrial world rather than 'regions' properly speaking. The Jambudvīpa really represents the entire earth in is present state (not only in its corporeal modality), and if it is said to extend to the south of Meru, the 'axial' mountain around which our world revolves, "this is because Meru is identified symbolically with the North Pole, so that the whole earth is really situated to the south with respect to it. To explain this more completely it would be necessary to develop the symbolism of the directions of space according to which the Dvīpas are distributed, as well as correspondences existing between this spatial symbolism and the temporal symbolism on which the whole doctrine of cycles rest".
This way of envisaging the dvīpas, writes René Guénon, is also confirmed by concordant data from other traditions which also speak of 'seven lands' particularly Islamic esoterism and Hebrew Kabbalah. Thus in the latter, even while these 'seven lands' are outwardly represented by as many divisions of the land of Canaan, they are related to the reigns of the 'seven kings of Edom' which clearly correspond to the seven Manus of the first series; and all are included in the 'Land of the Living' which represents the complete development of our world considered as realized permanently in its principal state. "We can note here the coexistence of two points of view, one of succession, which refers to the manifestation in itself, and the other of simultaneity, which refers to its principle or to what one could call its 'archetype'; and at root the correspondence between these two points of view is in a certain way equivalent to that between temporal symbolism and spatial symbolism to which we just alluded in connection with the Dvīpas of the Hindu tradition".
"In Islamic esoterism, the 'seven lands' appear, perhaps even more explicitely, as so many tabaqāt or 'categories' of terrestrial existence, which coexist and in a way interpenetrate, but only one of which is presently accessible to the senses while the others are in a latent state and can only be perceived exceptionally and under special conditions"; these too are manifested outwardly in turn, during the different periods that succeed one another in the course of the total duration of this world. On the other hand, each of the 'seven lands' is governed by a Qutb or 'pole', which thus corresponds very clearly to the Manu of the period during which the land is manifested; and these seven Aktab are subordinated to the supreme 'pole' just as the different Manus are subordinate to the Adi-Manu or primordial Manu; but because these 'seven lands' coexist, they also in a certain respect exercise their functions in a permanent and simultaneous way. "It is hardly necessary", writes Guénon, "to point out that the designation of 'Pole' is closely related to the polar symbolism of Meru [...]". Meru itself has in any case its exact equivalent in the mountain of Qāf in Islamic tradition. And the seven terrestrial 'Poles' are considered to be reflections of the seven celestial 'poles' which preside respectively over the seven planetary heavens; "and this naturally evokes the correspondence with the Svargas in Hindu doctrine, which shows in sum the perfect concordance in this regard between the two traditions".
The Yugas are the divisions of the Manvantara, and they are four in number, which correspond, in the spatial symbolism, to the four cardinal points. There is an obvious equivalence with the four Yugas and the four ages of gold, silver, bronze and iron of the Greco-Latin antiquity. Guenon writes that the figures given as durations of the Yugas in various Indian texts are to be taken symbolically, their actual exact determination needs in-depth and specific knowledge as these numbers are often written, for various traditional reasons, with an undetermined number of zeros added to their transcription. Guenon gives indications for the determination of the Yuga's durations: if the total duration of the Manvantara is represented by 10, then the durations of the four Yugas are:
so that the division of the Manvantara is carried out by the formula: 10 = 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 which is, in reverse, that of the Pythagorean Tetraktys. This last formula corresponds to what the language of Western Hermeticism calls 'the circling of the square' and the other to the opposite problem of 'squaring of the circle' which expresses precisely the relation of the end of a cycle to its beginning, that is, the integration of its total development. Guenon writes: "We are presently in an advanced phase of the Kali Yuga".
Guénon writes that while the science of nirukta unveils inner meanings in Vedic sacred scriptures, in Islam, the science of letters is central in islamic esoterism, where exoterism and esoterism are often compared to the 'shell' (qishr) and the 'kernel' (lubb) or to the circonference and its center. On the subject of esoterism, and its relations with the islamic doctrine, he refers to the Arabic words tariqah and haqiqah (means and end), and notes that the general meaning of "esoterism" is designated by the term taṣawwūf. According to Guénon, that latter term can only be translated precisely as 'initiation'. And while 'taṣawwūf' refers to any esoteric and initiatic doctrine, he questions the [derivative] term 'sufism' to designate Islamic esoterism. Guénon writes that this term "has the unfortunate disadvantage of inevitably suggesting by its 'ism' suffix, the idea of a doctrine proper to a particular school, whereas this is not the case in reality, the only schools in question being the turuq, which basically represent the different methods, without there being any possibility of a fundamental difference of doctrine, for 'the doctrine of Unity is unique' (at-tawhidu wahid)". ·  According to Guénon, the derivation of the word sūfi is undoubtedly unsolvable, "the word having too many proposed etymologies, of equal plausibility, for only one to be true". For him, the word is a purely symbolic name, which, as such, requires no linguistic derivation strictly speaking: "The so-called etymologies are basically only phonetic resemblances, which, moreover, according to the laws of a certain symbolism, effectively correspond to relationships between various ideas which have come to be grouped more or less as accessories around the word in question."
But, given the character of the Arabic language (a character which it shares with Hebrew) the primary and fundamental meaning a of word is to be found in the numerical values of the letters; and in fact, what is particularly remarkable is that the sum of the numerical values of the letters which form the word sūfi has the same number as al-Hikmatu'l-ilahiya, 'Divine Wisdom'. The true sūfi is therefore the one who possesses this Wisdom, or, in other words, he is al-`arif bi' Llah that is to say 'he who knows through God', for God cannot be known except by Himself, and this is the supreme or 'total' degree of knowledge or haqiqah.
Guénon then introduces the symbolism used in taṣawwūf about the numerical significaton of Arabic letters:
The divine 'Throne' which surrounds all worlds (al-Arsh al-Muhit) is represented by the figure of a circle. In the center is ar-Rūh [the Spirit], and the 'Throne' is supported by eight angels positionned on the circumference, the first four at the four cardinal points and the other four at four intermediary points. The names of these angels are formed by various groups of letters arranged according to their numeric values in such a way that , taken together, the names comprise all the letters of the alphabet. The alphabet in question has 28 letters, but it is said that at the very beginning the Arabic alphabet had only 22 letters, corresponding exactly to those of the Hebrew alphabet; in doing so, the distinction is made between the lesser jafr, which uses only 22 letters, and the greater jafr, which uses 28 and conceives of them all with distinct numerical values. Moreover, it can be said that 28 (2 + 8 = 10) is contained in 22 (2 + 2 = 4) as 10 is contained in 4, according to Pythagorean Tetraktys: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10, and, in fact, the six supplementary letters are only modifications of the original six letters from which they are formed by a simple addition of a dot, and to which they are restored immediately by the suppression of this same dot.
|ā/' ا||1||y/ī ي||10||q ق||100|
|b ب||2||k ك||20||r ر||200|
|j ج||3||l ل||30||sh ش||300|
|d د||4||m م||40||t ت||400|
|h ه||5||n ن||50||th ث||500|
|w/ū و||6||s س||60||kh خ||600|
|z ز||7||` ع||70||dh ذ||700|
|H ح||8||f ف||80||D ض||800|
|T ط||9||S ص||90||Z ظ||900|
It will be noticed that each of the two groups of four names contains exactly half of the alphabet, or 14 letters, which are distributed respectively in the following fashion (when considering the first four angels at cardinal points, and the second group of angels at intermediary points):
The numeric values of the eight names formed from the sum of those of their letters are, taking them naturally in order:
The values of the last three names are equal to those of the first three multiplied by 100, which is clear enough if one notices that the first three contain the numbers from 1 to 10, and the last three the hundred from 100 to 1000, both groups being equally distributed into 4 + 3 + 3.
The value of the first half of the alphabet is the sum of those of the first four names: 10 + 18 + 27 + 140 = 195. Similarly, that of the second half is the sum of the last four names: 300 + 1000 + 1800 + 2700 = 5800. Finally, the total value of the entire alphabet is 195 + 5800 = 5995.
"This number 5995 is remarkable for its symmetry: its central part is 99, the number of the 'attributes' of Allah; the outside numbers form 55, the sum of the first ten numbers, the denary being in turn divisible into two halves (5 + 5 = 10); besides, 5 + 5 = 10 and 9 + 9 = 18 is the numerical value of the first two names". Connections with the general symbolism of al-Qutb al Ghawth [the Supreme Pole] are then contemplated.
The doctrine of five elements, which plays an important role in some Vedic texts, in Advaita Vedanta, Islamic esotericism, the Hebrew Kabbalah, in Christian Hermeticism, and other traditions, is partially exposed by René Guénon in two articles: one entitled The conditions of corporeal existence, published in 1912 in the journal La Gnose (Gnosis) (reprinted in the book Miscellanea) and another, published much later, in 1935: The Hindu doctrine of five elements (reprinted in the book Studies in Hinduism). A missing part of the first article was never published but René Guénon announced several times (The symbolism of the cross, The multiple states of the being) his intention to write a more complete study on this issue. Some aspects of the doctrine of five elements and conditions are used at many occurrences in all his work: in The symbolism of the cross, The principles of infinitesimal calculus, The Great Triad (on the vital condition), in the first two chapters of The reign of the quantity and the signs of the times (on the notion of form) etc.. However Guénon never wrote a comprehensive introduction to the subject, something that prompted comments from some authors.
In these two articles, he exposits the doctrine of elements and "the conditions of corporeal existence", starting from the considerations taken from Samkhya of Kapila. The five elements or bhutas are the elementary substances of the corporeal world. The names given to them in the Latin language ("fire", "air", "water" etc.) are purely symbolic and they should not be confused with the things they designate: "[...] we could consider the elements as different vibratory modalities of physical matter, modalities under which it makes itself perceptible successively (in purely logical succession, naturally) to each of the senses of our corporeal modality [...]". The five bhutas are, in their order of production (which is the reverse of their order of resorption or return to the undifferentiated state):
Due to the manifestation in our world of the duality "essence-substance", these five bhutas are in correspondence with five "elementary essences" "which are given the names 'tanmatras' [...] signifying litteraly a 'measure' or an 'assignment' delimiting the proper domain of a certain quality or 'quiddity' in the universal Existence. [...] these tanmatras, by the very fact that they are of subtle order, are in no way perceptibles to the senses, unlike the corporeal elements and their combinations; they are only conceivable 'ideally' [...]". These five essences are associated with the elementary sense qualities, as well as some organic faculties: auditive or sonorous quality shabda (शब्द), tangible sparśa (स्पर्श), visible rūpa (रूप) ("with the double meaning of form and color" ), sapid rasa (रस), olfactive gandha (गन्ध). There is a correspondence between the five elements and the five senses: to ether corresponds hearing (śrotra); to air, touch (tvak); to fire, sight (cakṣus); to water, taste (rasana); to earth, smell (ghrāṇa). "Each bhuta, with the tanmatra to which it corresponds, and the faculties of sensation and action that proceed from the latter, is resorbed in the one immediately preceding it in the order of production in such a way that the order of resorption is as follows: first, earth (prithvî) with the olfactory quality (ghanda), the sense of smell (ghrāṇa), and the faculty of locomotion (pada); second, water (ap) with the sapid quality, the sense of taste (rasana), and the faculty of prehension (pani); third, fire (têjas) with the visual quality (rūpa), the sense of sight (cakṣus), and the faculty of excretion (payu); fourth, air (vâyu) with the tactile quality (sparśa), the sense of touch (tvak), and the faculty of generation (upashta); fifth, ether (âkâsha), with the sonorous quality (shabda), the sense of hearing (śrotra), and the faculty of speech (vach); and finally, at the last stage, the whole is resorbed in the 'inner sense' (manas) [...]".
The five bhutas combine with the five conditions of corporeal existence which are:
In the article "The conditions of corporeal existence" he develops, for the first two bhutas, how they are related to the measurement of time and space, and in "The Hindu theory of the five elements", the predominance of the three gunas or essential qualities coextensive with the universal manifestation in each of them serves to define the geometric representation of the "sphere of the elements".
'Naturalistic' tendencies never developed and took an extension in India as they did in Greece under the influence of physical philosophers. In particular, atomism (not in the modern sense of "atoms" and "elementary particles", but in the classical signification related to the existence of indivisible items from which the entire corporeal world is supposedly built) is a conception formally opposed to the Veda, notably in connection with the theory of five elements. Classical atomism states that "an atom, or anu, partakes, potentially at least, the nature of one or other of the elements, and it is from the grouping together of atoms of various kinds, under the action of a force said to be 'non perceptible' or adrishta that all bodies are supposed to be formed". The error of atomism comes from the fact that these atoms are supposed to exist within the corporeal order whereas all that is bodily is necessarily composite "being always divisible by the fact that it is extended, that is to say subject to the spatial condition" (although in the corporeal domain, divisibility has necessarily its limits).
[...] in order to find something simple or indivisible it is necessary to pass outside space, and therefore outside that special modality of manifestation which constitutes corporeal existence.
In its true sense of 'indivisible' writes Guénon, an atom, having no parts, must be without extension, and "the sum of elements devoid of extension can never form an extension", so that "atoms" cannot make up bodies. Guénon also reproduces an argument coming from Shankaracharya for the refutation of atomism:
[...] two things can come into contact with one another either by a part of themselves or by the whole; for atoms, devoid as they are of parts, the first hypothesis is inadmissible; thus only the second hypothesis remains which amounts to saying that the aggregation of two atoms can only be realized by their coincidence [...] when it clearly follows that two atoms when joined occupy no more space than a single atom and so forth indefinitely [...].
The issue will be included in The principles of the infinitesimal calculus in relation to the concept of a whole understood as "logically prior to its parts" as well as in the conditions of corporeal existence and The symbolism of the cross. In that latter book, he speaks of "the elementary distance between two points" and in The principles of infinitesimal calculus he states that the ends of a segment are no longer in the domain of extension. Applied to the corporeal world, this leads to introduce the "limits of spatial possibility by which divisibility is conditioned" and to consider the "atoms" not in the corporeal world (which is properly the concept designated as classical atomism). The process of "quintuplication" of the elements being universal and coextensive to the whole manifestation, a universalization is contemplated in The conditions of corporeal existence:
[...] the point in itself is not contained in space and cannot in anyway be conditionned by it, because on the contrary it is the point that creates out of its own 'ipseity' redoubled or polarized into essence and substance, which amounts to saying that it contains space potentially. It is space that proceeds from the point, and not the point that is determined by space; but secondarily (all manifestation or exterior modification being only contingent and accidental in relation to its 'intimate nature'), the point determines itself in space in order to realize the actual extension of its potentialities of unlimited multiplication (of itself by itself) [...] [so that] extension already exists in the potential state in the point itself; it starts to exists in the actual state only when this point, in its first manifestation, is in a way doubled in order to stand face to face with itself, for one can then speak of the elementary distance between two points [...]. However one must point out that the elementary distance is only what corresponds to this doubling in the domain of spatial or geometric representation (which only has the character of symbol for us). Metaphysically, the point is considered to represent Being in its unity and its principal identity, that is to say Ātma outside of any special condition (or determination) and all differentiation; this point itself, its exteriorization [...] and the distance that joins them while at the same time separating them (a relationship that implies causality [...]) corresponds respectively to the three terms of the ternary that we have distinguished in Being considered as knowing itself (that is to say in Buddhi) [...], terms which [...] are perfectly identical among themselves, and which are designated Sat, Chit, and Ananda.
In particular and in relation to these matters, The Reign of quantity and the sign of the times develops against the theories of Descartes about the nature of time.
While it is presently acknowledged that symbolism refers to something very different than a mere 'code', an artificial or arbitrary meaning, and that "it holds an essential and spontaneous echoing power", for René Guénon, this 'echoing power' goes immensely farther than the psychological realm: symbolism is "the metaphysical language at its highest", capable of relating all degrees of universal Manifestation, and all the components of the Being as well: symbolism is the means by which man is capable of "assenting" orders of reality that escape, by their very nature, any description by ordinary language. This understanding of the profound nature of symbolism, writes René Guénon, has never been lost by an intellectual (i.e. spiritual) elite in the East. It is inherent in the transmission of initiation which, he says, gives the real key to man to penetrate the deeper meaning of the symbols; in this perspective, meditation on symbols (visual or heard, dhikr, repetition of the Divine Names) is an integral part both of initiation and of spiritual realization.
For René Guénon art is above all knowledge and understanding, rather than merely a matter of sensitivity. Similarly, the symbolism has a conceptual vastness "not exclusive to a mathematical rigor": symbolism is before all a science, and it is based, in its most general signification on "connections that exist between different levels of reality ". And, in particular, the analogy itself, understood following a formula used in Hermeticism as the "relation of what is down with what is above" is likely to be symbolized: there are symbols of the analogy (but every symbol is not necessarily the expression of an analogy, because there are correspondences that are not analogical). The analogical relation essentially involves the consideration of an "inverse direction of its two terms", and symbols of the analogy, which are generally built on the consideration of the primitive six-spoke wheel, also called the chrism in the Christian iconography, indicate clearly theconsideration of these "inverse directions"; in the symbol of the Solomon's seal, the two triangles in opposition represent two opposing ternaries, one of which is like a reflection or mirror image the other and this is where this symbol is an exact representation of analogy.
This consideration of a "reverse meaning" allows René Guénon to propose an explanation of some artistic depictions, such as that reported by Ananda Coomaraswamy in his study "The inverted tree": some images of the "World Tree", a symbol of universal Manifestation, represent the tree with its roots up and its branches down: the corresponding positions correspond to two complementary points of view that can be contemplated: point of view of the manifestation and of the Principle. This consideration of "reverse meaning" is one of the elements of a "science of symbolism" in which Guénon refers to, and used by him in many occasions. Thus, in his book The Great Triad, mainly dedicated to the explanation of some symbols belonging to Far Eastern tradition, the general symbols of Sky and Earth are linked, from the point of view of cyclical development, with the "sphere" and the "cube", while their meeting point is identified with the skyline because "it is on their periphery, or their most remote confines, that is to say, the horizon, that Sky and Earth are joining according to sensitive appearances"; the consideration of the "reverse meaning " surfaces here in the reality symbolized by these appearances because "following that reality, they unite on the contrary by the center". From there comes, according to Guénon, an explanation of the symbolism of the "ventral side" that Heaven presents to the "cosmos", and correspondingly of the "backbone" side shown by the Earth. This symbolism explains the shape of the ancient Chinese currency, which are drilled in the center by the figure of a square (see picture). Similarly, among the symbols of Anima Mundi, one of the most common is the snake, which is often figured in the circular shape of the Ouroboros: "[...] this form is appropriate for the animic principle inasmuch as it is on the side of essence with respect to the corporeal world; but of course it is on the contrary on the side of substance with respect of the spiritual world, so that, depending on the point of view from which it is considered, it can take the attributes of essence or of substance, which gives it so to speak the appearance of a double nature".
The importance of symbolism in the works of René Guénon arises because symbolism is, in his own words, "the metaphysical language at its highest"; it may be used to link concepts with different formulations in different traditions. Among many other examples found in his works, symbolism is used in The Great Triad to connect the "Operation of the Holy Spirit" in the generation of Jesus Christ to the "non-acting" activity of Purusha or "Heaven", and Prakriti or the "Universal Substance" to Mary of Nazareth, Christ henceforth becoming identical, according to this symbolism, to the "Universal Man". His book The Symbolism of the Cross also connects the symbol of the Cross with the data of Islamic esotericism.
Guenon was critical of modern interpretations regarding symbolism which often rested on naturalistic interpretations of the symbol in question which Guenon regarded as a case of the symbol of the thing being mistaken for the thing itself. He was also critical of the psychological interpretations found in the likes of Carl Jung.
In the East, writes René Guénon, symbolism is above all a matter of knowledge. He therefore devotes a substantial number of writings in an exhibition of traditional symbols. Most of these articles have been collected by Michel Valsan in the posthumous work Fundamentals symbols of Sacred Science which proposes, in a remarkable synthesis, numerous keys aimed at interpreting a considerable number of symbols, especially prehistoric symbols of the "Center of the World", the Baetylus, the axial symbols, symbols of the heart, of cyclic manifestation etc. According to Guénon, the existence of identical symbols in different traditional forms, remote in time or space, would be a clue to a common intellectual and spiritual source whose origins dating back to the "primordial Tradition".
René Guénon exposits, in several of his books and articles, what he calls the "spiritual degeneration of the West", and proposes an explanation on the one hand by placing it in a general cyclical and natural process of "postponement from the principles", which applies to the entire human world without distinction, and which is an inevitable "estrangement" proper to any process of manifestation, and on another hand partly in response to specific influences, which he specifies the nature, designed to induce an "action of dissolution" in the same human environment and which, for historical circumstantial reasons, first manifested themselves in the West during the last two cycles of this manvantara. (The Crisis of the Modern World, East and West, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power,The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the times, Initiation and counter-initiation, The Wild Boar and The Bear etc.).
In his book Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, he introduces the "functions of the priesthood and royalty", and the respective powers (resp. sacerdotal and royal powers) involved by both functions, bound by him in a more general manner to "knowledge" and "action". These two powers appear sometimes in opposition "in one form or another among almost all peoples", because such an opposition "corresponds to a general law of human history, relating moreover to the system of 'cyclical laws' that we have frequently alluded to [...]". In particular, such an opposition is not peculiar to the West, as it can also be found for instance in India, in cycles anterior to our present Kali Yuga, in the form of the revolt of Kshatriyas against Brahmins, "to which, according to the Hindu tradition, Parashu-Rama put an end", referring to the sixth avatara of Vishnu, that is to say to a period anterior to the beginning of the present Kali Yuga, as reported by the Hindu tradition in the puranas (among other Hindu sacred texts).
But, in the chapter "The Revolt of Kshatriyas" from his book "Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power," René Guénon writes:
Almong almost all peoples and throughout diverse epochs - and with mounting frequency as we approach our times - the wielders of temporal power have tried [...] to free themselves from all superior authority, claiming to hold their power from themselves alone [...]
This revolt, writes René Guénon, is manifested by an inability to know all the implications of pure transcendence, a knowledge specific to the spiritual authority; it marks the birth of particular naturalistic tendencies to varying degrees, by the inability to recognize superior principles to the natural laws of manifestation. This gives rise to a deviated doctrine and an attitude "- condemnable though it may be as regards the truth - not altogether devoid of a certain grandeur [...]" and
[which] could be characterized quite exactly by the designation 'Luciferianism', which must not be confused with 'Satanism', although there is doubtless a certain connection between the two: 'Luciferianism' is the refusal to recognize a superior authority whereas 'Satanism' is the reversal of normal relationships and of the hierarchical order, the latter being often a consequence of the former, just as after his fall Lucifer became Satan.
In the West, the birth of what Guenon designates, strictly speaking, as "the modern deviation", is manifested historically by the occurring event of the destruction of the Templar Order in 1314 "starting point of the modern era", which resulted, due to the importance of the Order in the initiatic geography of the West, a more complete and hidden reorganization of the initiatic lineages in the West, closely with islamic initiatic organizations; "the true Rosicrucians were the actual instigators of this reorganization". But there came a time where "because of other historical events, the traditional link (...) was finally broken for the western world, what happened during the seventeenth century".
Guenon denounced the Theosophical Society, many pseudo-Masonic orders in the French or Anglo-Saxon Occult scene and the Spiritist movement as devoid of any worth or knowledge. They formed the topic of two of his major books written in the 1920s, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion and The Spiritist Fallacy. He denounced the syncretic tendencies of many of these groups, along with the common Eurocentric misconceptions that accompanied their attempts to interpret Eastern doctrines along with what he saw as sheer charlatanism on behalf of central figures in the scene such as Madame Blavatsky who he regarded as having compromised any potential worth it might have had in order to further their own agendas.
René Guénon especially develops some aspects of what he refers to as the manifestation of "antitraditional" currents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His first book on that subject is devoted to a detailed historical examination of Madame Blavatsky's "theosophism": Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion. Guenon examines the role and intervention that played in that movement organizations that are described in more detail in "The reign of quantity and the signs of the times", as under what he called the "pseudo-initiation"; in particular what he calls "pseudo-Rosicrucian" organizations holding no affiliation with the real authentic Rosicrucians: Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia founded in 1867 by Robert Wentworth Little, the "Order of the esoteric Rose-Cross" of Dr. Franz Hartmann etc. He also studied the role played by "the question of "Mahatmas", which holds an important place in the history of the Theosophical Society [...] Indeed, this question is more complex than one would normally think [...]". He denounces the syncretic nature of theosophism, its connection with the theory of evolution in "The Secret Doctrine" (Madame Blavastky's main work); he also examines the role and relationship that the Theosophical Society had with multitude of "pseudo-initiatic" organizations among others, the O.T.O. founded in 1895 by Carl Kellner and propagated in 1905 by Theodor Reuss, the Golden Dawn, to which belong large number of key figures of Anglo-Saxon's "neo-spiritualism" of the early twentieth century etc. Sometimes there will be, writes Guénon, collusion with political action related to "British imperialism" and Protestant Anglo-Saxon's missionarism. In India in particular, he studied the marked connections that theosophical organizations have had during in the nineteenth century in the creation of movements such as the Arya Samaj. He also examines the role played by Annie Besant, who succeeded H. P. Blavatsky at the head of the organization after the death of the latter, in the Krishnamurti affair (chapter 21: "The trials of Alcyone"). René Guénon concludes that theosophism can not claim spiritual linkage to any authentic oriental organization, contrary to its pretensions, and in particular what theosophists call "The Great White Lodge" is just "a parody of an initiatic center", a mere production of modern Western neo-spiritualism. In the article "F.-Ch. Barlet and the initiatic societies" (F.-Ch. Barlet was a notable figure of late nineteenth century Parisian occultist milieux), an article that originally appeared in 1925 in The Veil of Isis, René Guénon reproduced the opinion Peter Davidson has had with respect to the Theosophical Society, and it relates that opinion with the departure of F.-Ch. Barlet from the Theosophical Society to join another organization of a more secret nature: the H.B. of L. or Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.
These are precisely some members of the "inner circle" of the H.B. of L., to which belonged Emma Hardinge Britten, who would have produced the phenomena giving rise to spiritist movement that is to say, another "antitraditional" current born in 1848. To support this assertion, he relies on statements from Emma Hardinge Britten herself, which will be confirmed much later, in 1985, by the publication from French publishing house Editions Archè of the documents the H.B. of L. This organization would have received in part the legacy of other secret societies, including the "Eulis Brotherhood", to which belonged Paschal Beverly Randolph, a character designated by René Guénon as "very enigmatic" who died in 1875.
He seeks to dismantle all aspects of spiritism, including the theory of reincarnation, whose foundations are false because, he said, involving "a limitation of the universal possibility", similar to Nietzsche's theory of the "eternal return". In other words, there is no repetition in the universal manifestation, and a being never returns twice the same state. He distinguishes the theory of reincarnation from ancient doctrines about "metempsychosis", and opposes the possibility of "communicating with the dead", by introducing an explanation of the phenomena totally independent of any spiritist interpretation; he also explores the relationship of the latter with French occultism (a word introduced after Alphonse-Louis Constant alias Eliphas Levi), and warns against the dangers of spiritism.
He denounces "the confusion of the psychic and the spiritual" and especially the psychoanalytic interpretation of symbols, including the Jungian branch of it, which he condemned with the greatest firmness, seeing in it the beginnings of a reversed - or at least distorted - interpretation of symbols. This aspect is reflected in some studies, especially in a book published in 1999 by Richard Noll who incidentally speaks of the role played by the Theosophical Society in Carl Gustav Jung.
In his book "The reign of quantity and the signs of the times", as well as in some other articles, René Guénon describes in what sense one can identify a "source" to the influences of dissolution that must be exercised to the maximum in the human realm before the onset of a new cycle. This "source", which he describes as "the most redoutable of all the possibilities" included in the cyclic manifestation, is related to the Koranic nomenclature of "awliyâ esh-Shaytân" (literally "Satan's saints"), most notably explained by Mohyddin Ibn Arabi; it refers to the existence of a counter-hierarchy "apparently opposite" to the true spiritual hierarchy (called "awliyâ er-Rahman"). Guenon introduces the term 'counter-initiation' to describe it:
'counter-initiation' [...] cannot be regarded as a purely human invention, such as would be in no way distinguishable by its nature from plain 'pseudo-initiation'; in fact it is much more than that, and, in order that it may really be so, it must in a certain sense, so far as its actual origin is concerned, proceed from the unique source to which all initiation is attached, the very source from which, speaking more generally, anything in our world that manifests a 'non-human' element proceeds; but the 'counter-initiation' proceeds from that source by a degeneration carried to its extreme limits, and that limit is represented by the 'inversion' that constitutes 'satanism' properly so-called.
About the historical origin of counter-initiation, he carries on writing:
[...] however obscure the question of its origin may be, there is some plausability in the idea that it may be connected with the perversion of one of the ancient civilizations belonging to one or another of the continents that have disappeared in cataclysms occurring in the course of the present Manvantara.
while making the precision in a note: "The sixth chapter of Genesis might perhaps provide, in a symbolical form, some indications relating to the distant origins of the 'counter-intiation'". In order that the imitation by inverted reflection may be as complete as possible, centers are likely to be established to which the organizations appertaining to the 'counter-initiation' will be attached. Guenon writes that these centers will be "of course purely 'psychic', like the influences they use and transmit, and in no sense spiritual, like the centers of initiation and of true tradition, but they will be able [...] to assume up to a point the outward appearance of spiritual centers, thus producing the illusion characteristic of 'inverted spirituality'". These centers are depicted, in symbolical form, in ancient eastern legends such as the legend of "the seven towers of the devil". The awliyâ esh-Shaytân, by the constitution of these seven centers, claim to oppose the influence of the seven Aqtâb or "Poles" subordinate to the "Supreme Pole", although such an opposition "is illusory, the spiritual realm is necessarily closed to the 'counter-initiation'".
Guenon distinguishes two phases in the action of 'counter-initiation', the first being purely negative and devoted to the destruction of everything authentically traditional in the human realm, a phase that culminated in the kind of materialism that could be called 'integral'. But that latter phase is only a preparatory one, destined to be followed toward the setting up of something that can more appropriately be called a 'counter-tradition', which is yet to come before the end of the Kali-Yuga. These two phases are contemplated by Guénon using the symbolism of "solve & coagula" taken from alchemy. In the 'counter-tradition', the role to be played by the 'counter-initiation' is referred to by Guenon in the following terms: "after having worked in the shadows to inspire and direct invisibly all modern movements, it will in the end contrive to 'exteriorize', if that is the right word, something that will be as it were the counterpart of a true tradition, at least as completely and as exactly as it can be so within the limitations necessarily inherent in all possible counterfeits as such". About "false spirituality", the term refers also to beings involved in the 'counter-initiation' and engaged in 'inverted realization' and who lose themselves in a way that can only end, in the extreme cases, at last in the total 'disintegration' of the conscious being and in its final dissolution, "thus realizing the inverse of the effacement of the 'ego' before the 'Self', or, in others words, realizing confusion in 'chaos' as against fusion in principal Unity [...]". A finality so conclusive represents only an exceptional case, which is that of awliyâ esh-Shaytân, but the goal of 'counter-tradition' will be to divert as many as possible from true spiritual path. 'Neo-spiritualism' and the 'pseudo-initiation' proceeding from it were only, writes Guénon, "a partial 'prefiguration' of the 'counter-tradition'", notably in their utilization of elements authentically traditional in their origin, "perverted from their true meaning". But this perversion "is only a move in the direction of the complete reversal that must characterize the 'counter-tradition'".
This "false spirituality" should be expressed, according to René Guénon, even in the social field through the establishment of a "counter-order" opposed to the traditional notion of "Sanctum Regnum" (whose motto is "Ordo ab Chao"), and run at unprecedented scale in human history according to traditional data. When such a counter-order will be about to appear, Guenon writes that modern social concepts for human organization inherited from the first phase of the antitraditional action such as "egalitarism" and other similar ideals will be abandoned in favor of the setting up of a "counter-elite" and the reintroduction of "counter-values" which will form the social basis for the 'counter-tradition'. Symbolism itself will be subverted by the counter-initiation through subversion of inherent double meanings of its constitutive elements, according to a complex notion exposited in chapter 30 of The reign of quantity and the sign of times. He identified, in some undercurrents manifested from the seventeenth century and continued throughout nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the premises of this final phase of dissolution. The reign of the 'counter-tradition', writes Guenon, is identical to the traditional notion designated by the 'reign of the Antichrist', whichever way this latter symbol is understood, either as an individual or a collectivity. In a certain sense it could be both, as there will be a collectivity that will appear as the 'exteriorization' of the 'counter-initiatic' organization itself when it finally appears in the light of day, "and there must also be a person who will be at the head of the collectivity, and as such be the most complete expression and even the very 'incarnation' of what it will represent, if only in the capacity of 'support' to all the malefic influences that he will first concentrate in himself and then project onto the world". Guenon precises that he can therefore be regarded as the chief of the awliyâ esh-Shaytân, it can be said that he will be as it were their "seal" (khâtem), according to the terminology of islamic esoterism. He will be an 'imposter' (this is the meaning of the word dajjal by which he is designated in Arabic), since his reign will be the 'great parody' in its complete form, the 'satanic' imitation and caricature of everything that is truly traditional. The Antichrist can adopt the very symbols of the Messiah, "using them of course in an inverted sense". In the same way, "there can be and must be a strange resemblance between the designations of the Messiah (El-Mesîha in Arabic) and of the Antichrist (El-Mesîkh) ". Here, writes Guenon, there is an untranslatable double meaning: Mesîkh can be taken as a deformation of Mesîha, by the mere addition of a dot to the final letter; but at the same time the first word means 'deformed', which correctly expresses the character of the Antichrist.
A commentator of René Guénon, Charles-André Gilis, has published a book in 2009 which proposes some insights and developments of the idea of 'counter-tradition' introduced by Guenon, based on Mohyddin Ibn Arabi's writings ("The profanation of Israël in the light of Sacred Law").
Guénon's work has influenced many both in his era and ours. Many who read his work undergo profound life changes. The Traditionalist School considers him one of its founders, but he disclaimed any connection to a "school" or "movement", and not all of Guénon's readers are part of the Traditionalist community. George Santayana compared him to C.S. Lewis. The religious scholar Huston Smith acknowledges a debt to Guénon and the Traditionalist School while remaining outside the school as an academic. He also had a great influence on the Italian Gruppo di Ur, moving thinkers like Julius Evola away from spiritualism and closer to orthodox traditions. Evola and Guénon both informed the work of Mircea Eliade, another influential religious scholar.
(ordered by first publication date):
New English translation, 23 volumes, Sophia Perennis (publisher)
Published at Sophia Perennis:
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