The following review was initially published in Sacred Web 24. The case of Swami Karpatri is a good illustration of the complexity of the theologico-political question in India.
Swami Karpatri, The Linga and the Great Goddess, prefaced by his Holiness Jagadguru Shankaracharya Swami Swarupananda Sarasvati, introduction and edition by Jean-Louis Gabin, translation by Gianni Pellegrini, Girish Chandra Tiwari and Vimal Mehra.
Indica Book has published a new translation of two treaties by the 20th century Advaitin sage Swami Karpatri. This book represents a collective work. The introduction was written by Jean-Louis Gabin who was also the editor. The translation itself was made by Gianni Pellegrini, Girish Chandra Tiwari and Vimal Mehra. The preface is by his Holiness Swami Sri Swarupananda Sarasvati Ji Maharaja, the Shankaracharaya of Badrinath and Dwaraka, one of the most important traditional authorities in contemporary Hinduism.
The name of Swami Karpatri may sound familiar to some American and European traditionalists who have read Alain Daniélou. Swami Karpatri was born on September 11th 1907 at Bathani in Uttar Pradesh in a traditional Brahmin family. He received the name of Hari Narayana Ojha. At a young age, he felt an irresistible attraction for ascetic life and, at nineteen years old, after a brief married life, he became a disciple of Swami Brahmananda Sarasvati, the future Shankaracharya of the Jyothispitha. After studying Sanskrit grammar, philosophy and metaphysics at Narwar, Karpatri began a solitary life of tapasya on the banks of the Ganga, living several months alone in the Himalayas. When he returned to Narwar, he was recognized as a paramahamsa, a liberated sage and was initiated as a sannyasi at the age of twenty-four by Swami Brahamanada, receiving the name of Swami Hariharananda Sarasvati. A famous scholar and a revered Hindu sage, Swami Karpatri became politically active during the years preceding the independence of India, founding a newspaper Sanmarga, a periodical Siddhanta, a cultural organization (that still exists) the Dharma Sangh and a political party the Ram Rajya Parishad. In 1941, he restored the Northern Sankarian matha of Jyothispitha (near the holy city of Badrinath) who had remained inactive for more than a century and half and his guru, Swami Brahmananda Sarasvati was named Sankaracharya of this pitha. Swami Karpatri revivified also many Hindu traditions including pilgrimages, mahayagnas (great sacrifices), Sanskrit schools and orders of ascetics such as the Dandi Swamis. He wrote more than 40 books in Sanskrit and in Hindi (none of them were translated in English) and hundreds of articles, some of them being compiled under the title of Bhakti Sudha. He passed away in Banaras in 1982 but the memory of Swami Karpatri is still alive more than twenty years after he dropped the body.
What was the need for a new translation of some of Karpatri’s articles that Daniélou had already translated? In his autobiography The way of the Labyrinth, Daniélou explained how while living in Banaras, he came into contact with Swami Karpatri. He recalled how Karpatri asked that he and his friend Raymond Brunier were initiated into Hinduism. Daniélou received the name of Shiva Sharan. It appears however that Daniélou was far from being a reliable exponent of Karpatri’s thought.
As he explains in his introduction, Jean-Louis Gabin was initially hired by the Daniélou Foundation to edit the essays of Alain Daniélou. In 1988, Daniélou himself had suggested that Jean-Louis Gabin collected his translations of Swami Karpatri in a single volume later published under the title Le mystère du culte du Linga. In 2004, while living in Banaras, Gabin discovered that Daniélou had mistakenly presented Karpatri as the founder of the Jana Sangh, the political branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in his autobiography and in his Brief History of India. The RSS is an extreme right paramilitary organization, founded in 1924 by Hedgewar and influenced by the crypto-fascist ideology of the Hindutva developed by Savarkar. Today, the RSS remains associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party that has succeeded the Jana Sangh and with the Vishva Hindu Parishad, its religious emanation. As Gabin discovered, Karpatri created in 1948 a traditionalist party, the Ram Rajya Parishad that not only competed in elections against the Jana Sangh but also radically opposed its hyper-nationalist, xenophobic and anti-traditional agenda. In 1970, Swami Karpatri published a book, Rastriya Svayamsevaka Samgha aur Hindu Dharma that demonstrates that the RSS does not respect the Hindu Dharma. In another text, Vicarapiyusa (Nectar of Thoughts) he refuted the nationalist agenda of Golwalkar and Savarkar. The RSS and its allies in the Sangh Parivar were influenced by European nationalism and Fascism as well as by modernist ideas brought by western Orientalists. They seek to reform Hinduism to favor the emergence of a modern national consciousness based on the unity of culture, language and religion, stigmatizing Christians and Muslims as threats to the Hindu self. Karpatri was a conservative Hindu traditionalist but he preserved good relations with the other religious communities of India. He disagreed with Gandhi on a variety of issues like the partition or the caste system but contrary to the RSS, Karpatri saw him as a political adversary not an enemy, publicly expressing distress after his assassination by a Hindu nationalist.
When Karpatri created the Dharma Sangh and later the Ram Rajya Parishad, his goal was to restore the mythical Kingdom of Ram, his ideal a traditional India governed by the Dharma and in which religious communities and animals would live in harmony. It goes without saying that Karpatri’s appeal to the symbolism of Ram was purely traditional and had nothing to do with the campaign initiated after his death by the Hindu nationalists to “liberate” Ayodhya, the legendary birth place of Vishnu’s avatara, on which a mosque had been built. Its destruction in 1992 triggered the worst inter-religious conflicts between Hindu and Muslims since the partition. Karpatri’s vision seems to be in line with that of Guénon in Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power. If one may discuss how realistic his project may have been, given the challenges for India after independence, one should easily see the gap between the modern nationalism of the Jana Sangh and the religious traditionalism of the Ram Rajya Parishad that combines spiritual, socio-political and ecological concerns.
The tragic confusion between the two was not however the only problem with Daniélou’s presentation of Swami Karpatri. Gabin also discovered substantial discrepancies between various translations published by Daniélou at different periods of his life. With the help of Dr G. C. Tiwari, he also began to compare Daniélou’s translation with Karpatri’s original. As Gabin explained, they soon realized that Daniélou had systematically distorted Karpatri’s thought. One may be tempted to argue, in a very post-modernist way, that the subjectivity of the translator is necessarily engaged in the act of translation and that a translation is always interpretative. But what they discovered was much more concrete: systematic mistranslations, transpolations and omissions. Daniélou omitted passages refuting grossly sexual interpretations of the linga or insisting on the inseparability of Siva and Shakti. He also censured the last five pages of the Lingopasana rahasya because they totally contradicted his own idiosyncratic theories about Saivism being the esoteric dimension of Hinduism and the pre-Aryan origin of Siva. Daniélou is also the author of The Myths and Gods of India: Hindu polytheism and has celebrated polytheism as superior to a monotheism that he intensely disliked, in part because of his unhappy youth in a conservative catholic family. Unfortunately for Daniélou, as revealed by this new translation, Karpatri had developed other views. He understood the various gods of the Hindu pantheon as different names for the same divine Reality. In a sentence omitted by Daniélou, Karpatri claimed, echoing most of the Hindu tradition, that “Monotheism (ekesvaravada) is universally accepted.” This new translation not only establishes that Daniélou was not a reliable exponent of Karpatri’s thought but also ends us calling into question Daniélou’s authority at a whole. In fact, it seriously undermines the most original and personal theories developed by Daniélou about Hinduism, topics with which he often disagrees with traditionalists like René Guénon: the esoteric-exoteric structure of Hinduism, his characterization of the pre-Aryan inhabitants of the Indian peninsula as the true keepers of the Sanathana Dharma identified exclusively with Saivism, the celebration of Hindu polytheism and its irreconciliability even at the level of the Principles with Abrahamic monotheism, the superiority of Tantrism over Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta etc…
More important, it is a totally different (and much more interesting) portrait of Swami Karpatri that emerges from these new translations. Karpatri was a traditionalist Advaitist who adopted an all-embracing approach to the Sanathana Dharma in which the various theistic practices find their justification as preliminary steps on the path leading the realization of the Non-dual Reality. Contrary to other 20th century Vedantists who are sometimes looking for a shortcut to the Absolute and underestimate the need for a traditional and ritual environment, he integrated karma, bhakta and jnana. In the words of his Holiness Swami Sri Swarupananda Sarasvati in his preface of this book:
Though he expounded the dictum of the first Sankaracarya that brahma satyam jaganmithya (brahman is real, the world is false) he would nevertheless propagate devotion toward the saguna (having attributes) sakara (having forms) aspects of God in his aspect of Rama and Krsna. In the context of devotion, his definition of mithya (illusion) was brahma sattvapeksaya kimcinnyunasattakam mithyatvam (Compared to the Supreme reality of brahman, the level of the reality of mithya is somehow inferior). (9)
Interestingly enough, Karpatri stands closer to Guénon and Schuon who understood Maya as “relative reality” than to other late advaitists like Swami Satchidanandendra, the author of the influential and controversial Method of Vedanta.
The translation presented here is composed of two articles and each reflects the inclusive perspective of Karpatri. The first analyses the symbolism of the linga. The second is a treaty on the Goddess. In both cases, Karpatri offers the insight of an advaitist on the myths and rites of Hinduism, bringing the erotic symbols of the scriptures back to the metaphysical Principles. In the case of the linga and the yoni, he wrote:
If prakriti, who gives birth to infinite universes, is the universal yoni, so also the Supreme Spirit who rules over these infinite universes is the universal linga. (…). The jalaharis and the lingas made of stone or metal are copies of these. For shortsighted, ignorant beings, the sexual embrace (maithuna) of lover and beloved appears as the highest of all worldly pleasures. Therefore, even the Vedas (shruti) show this example to describe the infinite supreme joy of Brahman and prakriti, the essence of which is bliss itself. Sometimes, the bliss of the individual soul (jiva) which unites with the Supreme Being (brahman) is shown to be comparable to this pleasure.” (73)
The second treaty on the Goddess should be of particular interest for any student of Schuon. Daniélou himself had only offered a partial translation of it. In addition to interpreting the traditions about the descents of the Goddess throughout the yugas, the text, now restored in its integrality, contains a philosophical debate between the nyaya (the Hindu logic) and the Purva Mimamsa (the ritualistic exegesis of the Vedas) about the status of the shakti.
The second treaty also illustrates the historical link between the Goddess tradition and Advaita Vedanta. Shaktism sees in the multiple vedic and non-vedic female deities of the Hindu pantheon different manifestations of a single Goddess Mahadevi, complementary but sometimes superior to the male gods. Shaktism took shape in the Puranas, at the confluence between Advaita Vedanta, Tantrism and Vaishnavism. In shaktic scriptures like the Devi Gita, that acknowledges the authority of the Vedas, Shankara’s notion of a non-dual Supreme Reality has been assimilated but a dimension of devotion and beauty associated with the merciful form of the Goddess was added, producing an original synthesis of feminine monotheism and supra-theist metaphysics.
Advaita Vedanta itself seems to have been influenced by Shaktism. Western students of Advaita as well as Hindu modernists, eager to present a rationalist image of Hinduism, have often treated evidence of that connection as late superimpositions on the message of the “historical” Shankara. The traditions kept in the Sankarian monasteries tell us a different story however. Contemporary Advaitists associated with the mathas describe how the first acharya himself placed each of them under the patronage of a particular form of the Goddess and they attributes to Shankara the composition of Tantric hymns like the Saundarya Lahari.
Karpatri had himself mastered a particular goddess tradition, the Sri Vidya, and in passages that will remind traditionalists Schuon’s vertical identification of the Virgin with the Divine Essence, Karpatri distinguishes between Bhagavati in her outward aspect as the cosmic illusion (maya) and in her inner aspect as the Shakti of the Absolute, if not as the form of That which is devoid of any form, the Nirguna Brahman.
Even though it is free from all gender, be it feminine, masculine or neuter, it is Bhagavati who is the same supreme consciousness, beyond the scope of thought (acintya), beyond expression, self illuminated (svaprakasa), whose nature is Being, Knowledge and Bliss (saccidananda), due to the relation with a particular body or with an entity who gets expressed as atman, purusa, brahman and so forth. (137)
We should be thankful to the scholars who have worked on this landmark translation for reestablishing the truth about Swami Karpatri and for finally presenting the true face of a sage who is still referred to as “Emperor of dharma” in traditional circles of Northern India. Karpatri was a foremost exponent of the Sanathana dharma in the 20th century and his life and work deserve the full attention of those interested in contemporary Hinduism.
BHATT, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. Berg Publishers.
DANIELOU, Alain. 1987. The Way to the Labyrinth, Memories from East and West. Translated by Marie-Claire Cournand. New York: New Directions.
________________. 1991. The Myths and Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism. Rochester: Inner Tradition International.
________________. 1993. A Brief History of India. Translated by Kenneth F. Hurry. Rochester: Inner Traditions.
PUJYASRI CANDRASEKHARENDRA, Swami. 2001. Sri Sankara Bhagavatpadacarya’s Saundraryalahari. Mumbai: Bhavan’s Book University.
SATCHITDANANDENDRA SARASVATI, Swami. 1989, 1997. The Method of Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
The Devi Gita: The Song of the Goddess: A Translation, Annotation, and Commentary. 1998. Edited by Cheever Mackenzie Brown. New York: SUNY Press.