Development in Huxley’s Thought: Hindu-Buddhist Influences
Hinduism-Buddhism has been making a great impact on the West’s religious thinking. C.E.M. Joad even called it a “counter-attack from the East”. This is a kind of impact however which cannot be measured in terms of “converts”. The influence remains even unacknowledged. But it works nonetheless unconsciously and at a deeper level. “Karma”, “Yoga”, “Experience”, “Consciousness”, “Meditation” and other such intimately Indian concepts are very much current. Fully 23% American young adults believe in Reincarnation. Under this influence, there is less belief in dogmas and official Saviours, but there is more emphasis on an experimental approach, on personal experience and on finding for oneself. The Church is no longer regarded as the sole vehicle of grace except in die-hard circles; on the other hand, there is a new awareness of the spiritual wealth of non-European and non-Christian nations and cultures, a thought quite new to the West’s traditional religion. This new universality and wider appreciation are the best gifts of Hinduism-Buddhism to the West since it discovered the East.
This broadening did not take place in a day. It took more than two hundred years and it began in developments whose results were unforeseen at that time. The initial contact of India with the West was not happy. The Europeans were not curious visitors. They came as conquerors; and soon they developed a contempt proper to their status for the culture and religion of the conquered people. It worked further to the disadvantage of Hinduism when they adopted the views of the preceding Muslim invaders regarding it. Hinduism was idolatrous, polytheist and out of grace with God.
In this mood, the new rulers began to translate Indian religious, philosophical and legal texts. The initial motive was political and administrative, though some scholars did come to their task with genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. The Missionaries had their own approach which is illustrated by William Carey who wanted these translations so that they could show that the Hindu Sanskrit texts are “in reality filled with nothing but pebbles and trash”.
But once these translations were available, they went beyond intended results. They won admirers amongst some of the best minds of Europe. In some cases, they even turned the Christian apple-cart. After reading them, Schopenhauer found them the “solace” of his life and death, and also found his mind “washed clean of an early engrafted Jewish superstitions”. Kant found that the Hindus were “gentle”, that “all nations are tolerated amongst them”. This fact also explained to him why they were “subdued by the Tartars”. These texts in translations won the admiration of Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Romain Rolland, Hermann Hesse, Henrich Zimmer, Sir Edwin Arnold, Yeats, Jung, Toynbee and many others.
The Indian influence was not restricted to some outstanding individuals alone; through Theosophy, it become a popular movement. Theosophy spoke of “ancient wisdom” by which it meant mainly the wisdom of ancient India.
In post-World War II Europe and America, Transcendental Meditation (TM) of Mahesh Yogi has attracted wide attention, and literally hundreds of thousands have attended some kinds of meditation-camps. The two other more important movements are the Krishna Consciousness and the Saiva Siddhanta Church. They offer more than some selected or edited ideas of Hinduism; they represent its mainstream sects in their flesh and blood, in their full-fledged philosophy, symbolism, modes of worship sadhana and even their rituals. The Saiva Siddhanta Church even brings out a monthly journal, Hinduism Today (Hawaii), the first of its kind, which is doing an important work in consolidating international Hinduism.
Aldous Huxley is one of those who enriched the West greatly with the wisdom of the East. Though he came late on the scene, his influence was nonetheless real and deep. Himself a great intellectual, he spoke to the intellect of the West its most effective medium of communication.
Huxley’s initial reaction to India was far from being warm. In fact, he started by rejecting its spirituality altogether and finding it no good to anyone and even to itself. During 1925-26, he visited India but left it quite dissatisfied. He landed at Bombay “hot, muggy and expensive” on 2nd October and left India in early February the following year, “rather glad to escape”. In Jesting Pilate, his travelogue, he says that “one is all for religion until one visits a really religious country”. But he does admit that there are some admirers of Indian ‘spirituality’, whose “admiration actually survives a visit to India”. Elaborating on the theme, he further says: “Admirers of India are unanimous in praising Hindu ‘spirituality’. I cannot agree with them. To my mind ‘spirituality’ is the primal curse of India and the cause of all her misfortune.” He felt that religion is a “luxury”, which India, at least, in its present condition, “cannot possibly afford”. He added that if he were an Indian millionaire, he would leave all his money for an “endowment of an Atheist Mission”. Perhaps discouraged by India’s material problems, he says that “Ford seems a greater man than Buddha”.
Three years later, he repeats his rejection of Indian spirituality through a character in his novel Point Counter Point. “What a comfort it will be to be back in Europe again! And to think there was a time when I read books about Yoga and did breathing exercises and tried to persuade myself that I didn’t really exist! What a fool.”
In due course, Huxley was more than reconciled to India’s spirituality, but physical or geographic India still disappointed him. He visited it briefly in 1961 at the invitation of the Tagore Centenary Celebration, and he found it “almost infinitely depressing”. During mid-twenties, Huxley put the word Indian “spirituality” under quotes to indicate that it was suspect in his eyes and that it needed being warned against. A decade had to pass before he adopted it himself and became its warm admirer and able exponent. The new influence radically changed his views on metaphysics and morality, on life and death, on man and his universe and his norms of conduct and excellence.
What accounts for this transformation? It has to do with Huxley’s own deeper seeking. From his early youth he was a collector of “psychological varieties” (“the only things I have ever thought it worth while to collect”, he says in one of his essays in his Music At Night), world-views and life-views; he was also a critical analyzer and earnest explorer and seeker. He sought to find man’s place, purpose and significance in the universe. In this search, he passed through many terrains and reviewed many philosophies, paths and creeds.
In this search, the first guidance came from the intellectual world in which he lived. This world subscribed to materialism in philosophy; it was positivist in outlook and relativist in morals. It was shaped by Rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries as reinforced by evolutionary and historical theories of the late 19th century. Freud and Pavlov made important contributions. The net result was that the age denied God; it denied the “other world”; it denied any higher purpose and destiny for man. Not excellence or self-exceeding but Benthamite happiness was the Highest Good; not the heightening of the Consciousness to contact a higher order of reality but an adjustment with the sense-world was the admired, scientifically approved and sanctified goal or ideal.
These movements provided powerful influences and they find eloquent formulation in Huxley’s writings of the early period. Their impact was reinforced by his own precocity and the stimulation he received from his immediate intellectual quarters. As a young man, he had occasions to spend considerable time at Garsington, six miles from, Oxford, at the Elizabethan manor, maintained by Lady Ottoline, wife of Philip Morrell, a liberal M.P. The place provided retreat and hospitality to many intellectuals and avant-gardists in moral fashions. It was here that Huxley first met Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and many others. It was here that Russell had his well-known affairs with Lady Ottoline. Sybille Bedford, Huxley’s biographer, tells us that the atmosphere of the place was permissive and “constancy and the loyalties of the heart were looked upon as philistine and a bit ridiculous”.
Huxley’s earlier writings are powerfully coloured by the prevailing intellectual atmosphere. But increasingly he began to find them unsatisfying. The materialist philosophy denied the spiritual dimension; his growing mind refused to take it as the final explanation. He began to reject Freudianism and Behaviourism which made man’s mind a prisoner of its own lower powers. He felt that vague intimations of “another world” could not all be illusory. It was at this stage of his intellectual questioning and seeking that Indian philosophy and religion came to him. In a vague way, they were known to him already, but at this stage they came with a new impact. They opened up new vistas; in them he found answers to his intellectual and spiritual seeking. They provided not only answers but also a method, a praxis. They became interwoven with and part and parcel of his spiritual quest.
Can one trace their course satisfactorily in his life? At what stage did he change from a rational truth-seeker to a seeker of the mystic truth and at what stage did this seeking take on a decidedly Indian turn? In short, when did he become a mystic, become an advaitin? Was the change accompanied by inner conflicts?
Huxley provides no direct answer. He wrote no autobiography. He was reticent and he hated to speak about himself. Even his biography written by Sybille Bedford does not throw much light on this subject in this form. The biographer does give events in Huxley’s life in their chronological sequence, but she undertakes no specific study of Hindu-Buddhist influences as such on Huxley.
However, this omission proves no great handicap. Huxley’s best life consisted in his thoughts and they are lucidly expressed in his novels, essays and letters. If we study them, we find in them an “increasing purpose”, a trend progressively expressing Hindu-Buddhist influences.
Under these influences Huxley’s views on man’s most intimate concerns changed fundamentally. He began to look at the world through different eyes. His ideas on man, morals, life and death were transformed. The subject is large, but we shall take up some illustrations to make the point clear.
Following the new usage of his time, Huxley’s early novels abound in philandering and love-making. He explores, mainly intellectually, sexuality in its various facets: committed and open-ended, dogmatic and experimental, prosaic and romantic, illicit and open, guilty and remorseless, critical and passionate. One does not know where his own sympathy lay for while describing the one he also knew the other. In one of his essays of the period, “Fashions in Love”, he brings out the relativity of love and says that love has its styles, schools and influences. But his aesthetic restraint makes him describe only a few of these fashions in his novels. Each school is an idea on legs; each offers its intellectual justification, the permissive often making a better case for itself.
In his Those Barren Leaves, published in 1925, Huxley depicts the “love of the parallels”; different pairs make love on different terraces of a large villa, each in its own style, the more philosophical types using their philososphies, as birds use their plumage, to attract their mates. A moralist does not like the permissive atmosphere, but Mr. Cardan, a philosopher, counters that “everyone has his own favourite vice”. Another regards love-making as “the best indoor game”.
His Brave New World, published in 1932, leans on Freudian wisdom and makes love-making free, plentiful and compulsory for its citizens in order to create a people who have no knots, no complexes, no emotional and spiritual conflicts, and, therefore, are happy and sociable, and docile and easily governed.
In another novel, Point Counter Point, belonging to the same period, sexual exploration continues. But in his writings of the War and post-War period when he had come under the influence of Hindu-Buddhist tradition where brahmacharya (abstinence) holds a high position, there is less interest in the subject and it takes a different direction. Sexual encounters are retained but they belong to the mundane world, saMsara as it were, and are depicted on the outer walls of the shrine and are kept out of the inner sanctum. In his Ends and Means, he came to regard chastity as a “necessary precondition to any kind of moral life superior to that of the animal”; he began to think of it as “one of the major virtues” for without it, “societies lack energy and individuals are condemned to perpetual unawareness, attachment and animality”. But he also distrusted it if it did not serve the major virtues of charity and intelligence. Associated with and in the service of a lower spiritual ideology, it became merely puritanism which was historically associated with “militarism and capitalism, with war and persecution and economic exploitation”.
In Island,1 Huxley’s last novel published in 1962, we find that love-making does not cease but it is done under and as a spiritual discipline. It is done with awareness, and “awareness transfigures it, turns love-making into the Yoga of lovemaking.”
There was a phase when Huxley believed like so many other thinkers and philosophers of the day that the world was purely physical and had no spiritual dimension. He had no use for “airy assertions” about God and such like things. “God, we psychologists know, is a sensation in the pit of the stomach, hypostasised”, he said. Similarly, he held, in the same vein, that the “Other World” was merely an “invention of the human fancy”. It took him much time, influences of a very different kind and much self-reflection before he changed his views and concluded that the Other World was neither a human invention, nor other or alien but was one’s true home and shelter, but that these truths have to be discovered by each person for himself.
This purely physical and chemical view of the world also gave birth to its own kind of sociology and ethics; it gave us a world which had no meaning, no significance, no morality, no value.2 “It is obvious, there are no moral laws; there are only social customs”, says one of Huxley’s characters. But his ideas changed radically when he embraced Upanishadic thought. In this new phase he asked the question again whether the world as a whole possesses the value and meaning we often attribute to certain parts of it (such as human beings and their works). And his answer is very different. He says that this is a “question which, a few years ago, I should not even have posed. For, like so many of my contemporaries, I took it for granted that there was no meaning.” He gives two reasons for holding this view. One was because he shared the common belief that the scientific picture of an abstraction from reality was a true picture of reality as a whole. But he also confesses to some “non-intellectual reasons”. He says he had “motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning”. Explaining these motives and these non-intellectual reasons a few pages away, he says that for himself, as no doubt, for most of his contemporaries, “the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation”. They objected to morality because it “interfered with our sexual freedom”, he explains. He expounds that similar tactics were adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reason when many thinkers went ‘philosophical’. They preached that people should be “free from prejudices - above all, prejudices of a sexual nature”.3
Now in the new phase, he came to regard the world as supremely good and meaningful and in the process of realizing it he became a regular mystic philosopher. The ultimate reality is “the peace of God which passeth all understanding”, he said and “goodness is the way by which it can be approached”. To realize that the world is good one had himself to be good. “Virtue (Buddhist Sila or yama and niyama of the Patañjala Yoga) is the essential preliminary to the mystical experience”, he said.
But to arrive at this conclusion, Huxley had to traverse a long road. First he had to overcome, in his own, thinking the powerful bias of the age: world’s essential materiality and meaninglessness. He took the first step by recognizing a plurality of dimensions; he thought that the world exists on many planes and in many modes, each on its own, and the problems was to bring these different planes in some sort of unity or at least relationship. In Those Barren Leaves, Calamy, a philosophical character, reflects on his own hands, of course while in bed with Miss Thriplow - perhaps a novelist’s device to make philosophy living and even loving; he speculates that his hand exists in many modes: electromagnetically as a structure of molecules; biologically as part of a larger living organism; amorously as at that moment with power to excite and exhilarate; ethically when it does good and executes evil. “Universe on top of universe, layer after layer, distinct and separate.” In these early novels, Huxley, through his characters, is very much occupied with “bridge-building”, in synthesizing these multifarious universes in one grand philosophy.
After he came under the Indian influence, he saw his universes and his task differently. He saw two orders, saMsara and nirvaNa, as being different and yet the same. There is a Godhead, Brahman, Clear Light of the Void which is the Unmanifest principle of all manifestations, which is at once transcendent and immanent. Both are held together in a mystic vision, in the unity of consciousness, in an act of unitive knowledge. Both are at heart the same. This is also That. The soul is akin to God and it can grow into his likeness.
In his early writings, Huxley had no use for thinkers and moralists who talked of “true” selves and ‘true’ Gods, who preached that men should shape their lives in their image. He opposed the “stoic’s brutal sacrifice of the physical, instinctive and passionate life” and “the ascetic’s self-castration”. He said that aspiration for a “consistent perfection” was “aspiring towards annihilation”. And then praising the Hindus where the praise was not due, he said that they “had the wit to see and the courage to proclaim the fact” that “Nirvana, the goal of their striving is nothingness”. Later on, he had a different view of NirvaNa.
At this time, he held the current scientific view that man was no more than a physical-biological being and the spiritual dimension tended to be neglected or it was equated with the intellectual and artistic faculty. Therefore he came to the eminently reasonable view that a man should be what he really is and should not try to be different. If man was a worm in reality, he should not try to be a butterfly. “Fate has decreed that we shall be worms; so let us resign ourselves to being worms; nay… let us be worms with gusto, strenuously; let us make up our minds to be the best of all possible worms. For, after all, a good worm is better than that nondescript creature we become when we try to live above our station, in the world of wings. No amount of trying can convert a worm into even the worst of butterflies.”
Partly at least, this view was a revolt against so many theologians, moralists and utopians who were around and, who in the name of a “consistent perfection” and an “ideal” society and an “ideal” man, exercised great tyranny. The theologians taught that there was no good in man and yet he should do good4 and then dictated what that good was. Huxley’s ideas on human goodness, aspiration and perfection changed when his view of man changed, when he realized that man is secretly good and divine.
In his earlier novels, Huxley teaches the gospel of “noble savagery”; he wants man to be a “life-worshipper”. Man should learn to live not only mentally but also “viscerally”; he should admit not only the claims of his heart and mind but also claims of “the bowels, the loins, the bones and skins and muscles”.
Huxley’s own constitution was highly intellectual and ascetic. In his essay Squeak and Gibber (Music at Night), he says that he finds the life of pleasure boring and painful, that it has do with his temperament, not any ethical theory. Probably pretty girls attracted him, but he found them boring - nothing wrong morally but spiritually raw, bothersome and uninteresting.5
Therefore, many of his characters even while in the midst of a passionate love-affair find it a “dreary and fatiguing routine”. They remain also aware of another dimension, the dimension of the spirit which they would like to plumb if they were free from their present obsession. However the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. Weak in pain but still weaker in pleasure, they reflect.
Therefore, he developed an ethical theory which had room both for instincts as well as the intellect. He said that man is not one but multiple; He is not one self, but a colony of selves. He must live all his selves and all his parts, and live them not moderately but fully. In his essays on Pascal and Spinoza’s Worm both included in his anthology, Do What You Will, published in 1929, he developed the theory of “balanced excess”. He preached that the life-worshipper of his conception would be “at times a positivist and at times a mystic; derisively sceptical and full of faith”; he will be “by turns excessively passionate and excessively chaste”; he held that “all the manifestations of life are godlike, and every element of human nature has a right - a divine right, even - to exist and find expression.” He said, quoting Pausanias in the Symposium of Plato, that “all the Gods ought to have praise given to them.”
Plato had also described such a man who was sensualist and ascetic alternately, who fasted one day and gormandized the other. But according to him, this life was chaotic and it belonged to one who had no metaphysical and moral standards left, and whose soul was heading for a tyrannical life.
Under the influence of Indian religion and philosophy, Huxley also radically changed his view-point. He gave up the doctrine of the “multiple man” and embraced the one of the “higher man”. Probably he still remained a “life-worshipper”, but under a very different definition. Life now meant life of the soul, higher life, immortal life. He came to believe that “enlightenment is the supreme end of man”, the highest purushartha of Hindu thought. In Ends and Means, an early work written under Hindu-Buddhist influence, he said that “the ideal man is the non-attached man. Non-attached to his bodily sensations and lusts. Non-attached to his craving for power and possession. Non-attached to the objects of these various desires. Non-attached to his anger and hatred; non-attached to his exclusive loves. Non-attached to wealth, fame, social position…”
Spirit and Body
On purely materialist principles, a life even when lived “fully” - as the word is understood - has little meaning. Its best accomplishments are a mere vanity and vexation of the spirit. There is even less to justify the lives of the poor. Huxley once shared these views. Like the rest of his intellectual community, he believed in one life. No after-life, no rebirth, no resurrection. While in India in the mid-twenties, he asked himself the question - to what end millions upon millions of people are born and painfully live? He was honest enough to admit that it is hard enough to find a reason anywhere, West or East. But in India, he thought, there was no conceivable answer to the question, at any rate in terms of the present existence. And therefore, he added, “Metempsychosis had to be invented, and the doctrine of karma elaborated with a frightful logic, before the serried, innumerable miseries of India could be satisfactorily accounted for.” The explanation was in the spirit of sciences of the day.6
Huxley was never a thorough denier. He recognized the Spirit and its life, but he identified it with Intellect, or with aesthetic or with art. It was also thought to be at the mercy of the body. “Sooner or later every soul is stifled by the sick body; sooner or later there are no thoughts, but only pain and vomiting and stupor.. The Spirit has no significance; there is only the body”, says a philosophical character in Those Barren Leaves.
Here again, Huxley follows the lead of Western Science. In it, the fact of pain and death is used to deny immortality, the body is used to deny the soul; but in India, the facts of human sickness, old age and death led its sages to seek a status of the soul where “there is no old age, no death, no sorrow” (vijro vimrityurviSoko), to put it in the language of the Upanishads.
In Western thought, the body holds the soul; in Indian thought, the soul holds the body. After Huxley adopted the Indian view, the body and its death lost their primacy. They were seen as accidents in the larger life of the soul. In 1955 when Maria, his wife and companion of thirty-five years, was dying, he was guiding her on her next journey according to the teachings of Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He continued whispering into her ears that her essence was love and light, that she should now forget her body and the time in which that body had lived, that she should leave her old memories behind, that regrets, remorses, apprehensions - all these were barriers between her and the Light. “Peace, Joy, Love”, he kept on whispering into her ears. In 1963, when Huxley was himself dying, Laura, his second wife, provided him similar guidance.
In Hinduism, dying is an art. In the higher reaches of Yoga, one can choose at will when to quit and where to go. Under certain circumstances, voluntary death - prayopaveSaNa, sallekhana or santhara - is admitted. The art of dying however is the same as the art of living. Noble life and noble death go together. In the Mahabharata, Arishtanemi, a tapasvin, sings; “Death holds no sway over us, for we have lived a noble life.”
One conquers death by ceasing to cling to life. In Island, the inhabitants, who are “Buddhists or Shivaites” when they are not “Tantrik agnostics”, are taught, among many other sciences, the science of thanatology, “the ultimate science”; it consists in dying in awareness. It is different from the ordinary, modern-day dying which is described by Huxley in his Time Must Have A Stop: “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma. Thoroughly sensible, humane and scientific, eh?” It is this kind of dying, in its still more scientifically organized form, that takes place at the “Park Lane Hospital for the Dying”, described in the 14th chapter of the Brave New World, the scientific utopia.
The premise of the new mode of dying - dying in awareness is different. It is based on the vision of an “immortal” life. In Hinduism, Immortality has its own connotations; here it does not mean prolongation of an unregenerate life in time but rather a life lived in Gods and in eternity. Huxley adopted this view and presented it ably in his After Many A Summer, published in 1939. In another still later novel, he says that man’s problem is not Black Death but the Grey Life - a life without aspiration and experience of divine life.7
Huxley always distrusted monotheism from the earliest days of his intellectual life. And even when his views changed radically, monotheism was no beneficiary of this changed outlook. In an article ‘One And Many’ written in an early phase he says that “monotheism, as we know it in the West, was invented by the Jews”. Living in a desert, they found nothing in the surrounding bareness to make them suppose that the world was richly diverse. And their belief in monotheism “prevented them from having any art, any philosophy, any political life”, and that “except for a little literature, the Jews and Arabs produced nothing valuable until they left their deserts, and came into contact with the polytheistic races and absorbed their culture”. He said that Christian God was a “magnified and somewhat flattering portrait of Tiberius and Caligula”.
When Huxley accepted the spiritual view of life, his opposition to monotheism remained and in fact deepened. He could not be reconciled with the Christian God, the Father and a habitual whipping father too - the wholly other. He sees sadism in this God. In Island, a very late work, one of his character says: “Somebody ought to make a historical study of the relations between theology and corporal punishment in childhood. I have a theory that, wherever little boys and girls are systematically flagellated, the victims grow up to think of God as - ‘Wholly Other’… A people’s theology reflects the state of its children’s bottoms. Look at the Hebrews - enthusiastic child-beaters. And so were all good Christians in the Age of Faith.8 Hence Jehovah, hence Original Sin and the infinitely offended Father of Roman and Protestant orthodoxy. Whereas among Buddhists and Hindus education has always been nonviolent. No laceration of little buttocks - therefore Tat tvam asi, thou art That, mind from Mind is not divided.” Continuing he mentions Augustine and Martin Luther, as the “two most relentlessly flagellated bottoms in the whole history of Christian thought”; and how their flagellation-theology is carried to its logical conclusion by Calvin and others. “Major premise: God is Wholly Other. Minor premise: man is totally depraved. Conclusion: Do to your children’s bottoms what was done to yours, what your Heavenly Father has been doing to the collective bottom of humanity ever since the Fall: whip, whip, whip!”
No Sudden Conversion
All these changes took a period of gestation to mature. Even at an early stage, Huxley had read Jakob Boehme and William Blake (who had read Charles Wilkin’s translation of the Bhagvadgita) with “fascinated interest”, though also with a “good deal of scepticism”.9 He was also aware in a broad way that to receive intimations from the higher world, one must have the mind wide and open. He knew that our sublime thoughts are “gracious visitants”, but our intellect uses its “rattling” and “noisy cleverness” to scare away these “wide-winged birds from settling in the mind”.
But at this stage all this was tentative and experimental. The spiritual view was one of many views, and unlikely to be a true one in the scientific sense. At best, he was neutral between these many views and entertained them all as philosophical and literary occasions demanded. But when the Hindu-Buddhist influence matured, the spiritual view became the foremost and he became its ardent champion. The change came without any dramatic conversion, accompanied by no apocalyptical vision. The new influence worked silently, benignly, by suggestions and hints as it were. At no stage was there a sudden, offensive and unwanted intrusion, no taking of heaven by force,
One notices a definitive turn in Eyeless In Gaza, published in 1936, the change becoming irrevocable in After Many A Summer, published three years later. Here Huxley begins to speak of the need to get beyond personality, “beyond this piddling twopenny-halfpenny personality, with its wretched little virtues and vices, all its silly cravings and silly pretensions”; he begins to see “I am not my body, I am not my sensations, I am not even my mind”; his God also “is not absent from anything, and yet is separated from all things”.
In these works, he also quotes Buddha’s repeated instructions on Mindfulness for an aspirant for higher life: “Constantly retain alertness of consciousness in walking, in sitting, in eating, in sleeping”. It is a variant of the Gita’s instruction on the same subject: “Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, moving, sleeping, breathing, one should remember that I am not the doer.” In Grey Eminence, a work of great erudition, published in 1941, when Huxley’s spiritual thoughts had greatly deepened, he tells us that a “totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane”.
Huxley wrote all his future works under this new influence, which gave him a new orientation, a new power and purpose. Time Must Have A Stop, which belongs to this period, is probably his best novel and certainly the one which, as he himself says, he “most enjoyed doing”. Here he depicts a character, Bruno, who is the most moving and transforming. He is compassionate and understanding and speaks of the “unutterable weariness, the silly and degraded horror, of being merely yourself, of being only human”. He teaches impersonality and believes that man is more than human.
He also teaches self-understanding. The lower life too has its unity. According to the Patañjala Yoga, attachment, anger, craving, Ego and Nescience go together and support each other. Following this teaching, Bruno says that the “shortest distance between two cravings is violence”, that the “square on lust is equal, so to speak, to the sum of the squares on vanity and idleness”.
Therefore when someone commits an offence, it is useful to draw up not so much its balance-sheet of merits and demerits, but its “genealogy”, its family tree. One should trace its ancestors, its collaterals and its descendants, its antecedents and its necessary consequences. An eminently Yogic way of dealing with moral problems.
In this novel, Huxley reestablishes God and says that Humanism is not enough. “To the surprise of Humanists”, he says, “the abolition of God left a perceptible void. But Nature abhors vacuums. Nation, Class and Party, Culture and Art have rushed in to fill the empty niche.” He had already learnt to see that “painting, music, literature, thought - they’re not enough”. They may take you for a time to the “other world” as he says in Eyeless in Gaza, but it “isn’t other enough”; he now wants something still “heavenlier, something less human”.
The Perennial Philosophy
During the same period, came The Perennial Philosophy, the Sanatana Dharma of the Hindus. It is an important book on an important subject with an important message and, therefore, needs a special mention. In this book, Huxley discusses the “minimum working hypothesis” of a truly spiritual and tolerant philosophy and its various supporting ideas. The very first chapter is on the Upanishadic message: That Thou Art; other chapters discuss Immortality and Survival, Non-attachment (anasakti), Self-Knowledge (atma-jñana), Religion and Temperament (svadharma), all peculiarly Hindu concepts.
It is a fashion to think that the Perennial Philosophy has no form and face (svarupa) of it own, that it is compatible with all kinds of dogmas, belief-systems and practices, that it rejects nothing and makes no spiritual demands and calls for no change in belief or orientation and nobody need to give up anything in order to follow the tenets of Perennial Philosophy. But Huxley does not seem to agree; he thinks that the Perennial Philosophy has quite a face of its own and it makes great demands and is incompatible with many belief-systems. Discussing the problem concretely, he finds that both in its spirit and deeper conceptualization, the Perennial Philosophy is opposed to and is also opposed by the so-called “revealed religions” which make salvation and God’s truth dependent on a unique and single revelation in history, dependent on an authorized mediator, and makes it a privilege of a particular church or ummah. Perennial Philosophy recognizes no such historical fatality, no priviledged intermediaries, no surrogates, no authorized proxies. Spiritual life is a lawful process, not a lucky accident or piece of history, a happenstance. Salvation is man’s assussured possession, not a chance windfall. God is not a pie in the sky who appeared from nowhere at a particular time and became operative in human affairs; he has been active from the beginning. The great spiritual life resides in the heart and its truths are open to all sincere seekers. Man has known, possessed and lived those truths long before “revealed religions” were heard of.
However, Huxley tries his best and closely looks at Christianity and Islam for elements of Perennial Philosophy. In the process, he discovers that it is difficult to reconcile them with any developed form of mysticism. According to him, the difficulty arises, taking Christianity as an example, “because so much Roman and Protestant thinking was done by those very lawyers whom Christ regarded as being peculiarly incapable of understanding the True Nature of Things”. So under the circumstances, what does Huxley do? He meets the situation partly by leaving out these lawyers altogether; which has meant leaving out almost all the Popes, the Church Fathers, the Church Councils and most Church theologians. He has also to leave out all the Church dogmas: Sin, the historical Jesus, the Vicarious Atonement, the Missionary Vocation of the Church, and many such things. He quotes Paul but to prove the ‘not-1’ of Jesus, that is, for opposing the claims of a historical Jesus, which is unpardonable heresy according to all branches of mainstream Christianity.
The other expedient Huxley adopts is that he quotes from unrepresentative mystics like Eckhart or he quote the unrepresentative statements of orthodox mystics like St. John of the Cross.10 Eckhart, for example, is the most quoted Christian mystic (32 times). But it is well known that his death saved him from the clutches of the Inquisition and that Pope John XXII had condemned him after his death for many of his sermons which contained “error or the blot of heresy”. We are assured by A. Pouplain, a Catholic theologian and author of The Graces of Interior Prayer, that the Church never reckoned Eckhart “amongst her mystics, or even amongst the mystics”.
Huxley realizes his difficulty. He knows that mysticism is not native to Christianity and has been an uneasy implant from outside. In his Grey Eminence, he shows how through “neo-platonism and along with it, at several removes, the most valuable elements of Hindu religion,11 entered Christianity and became incorporated, as one of a number of oddly heterogeneous elements, into its scheme of thought and devotion”. In a lecture, Man and Religion, delivered in 1959 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he goes over the subject again and shows the incompatibility of Christianity with mysticism. He says that religion as a system of beliefs is a profoundly different kind of religion, and it is the one which has been the most important in the West. He adds that the two types of religion - the religion of direct acquaintance with the divine and the religion of a system of beliefs - have coexisted in the West, but mystics have always formed a mino-rity in the midest of the official symbol-manipulating religions, and the relationship has been a rather uneasy symbiosis. The members of the official religion have tended to look upon the mystics as difficult, trouble-making people. They have made even puns about the name, calling mysticism ‘mystischism’ - a foggy, antinomian doctrine, which doesn’t conform easily to authority. He also quotes from a letter of Abbot John Chapman, a well-known Benedictine monk, in which he speaks on the “great difficulty of reconciling - not merely uniting - mysticism with Christianity”.
In this lecture, Huxley also relates how mysticism acquired a “tolerated position” in Western Christianity by an early “pious fraud”. About the sixth century, a Neoplatonic writer, a convert to Christianity, wrote a book on Mystical Theology under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite, who was mistaken for one Dionysius who was the first disciple of St. Paul in Athens. Under this mistaken identity, the book was well received. In the ninth century, it was translated by John Scotus Erigena12 and thereafter it entered into the tradition of the Western Church. It was not until recent times that the fraud was recognized for what it was, but by then it was too late.
Huxley says that “in one of the odd, ironical quirks of history, this curious bit of forgery played a very important and very beneficent part in the Western Christian tradition”.
According to Huxley, St. John of the Cross was the last great representative of the Dionysian tradition of mysticism who was also orthodox.
Huxley faces the same difficulty with Islam. It is strange that in a book containing hundreds of quotations (“about 40% is not written by me”, says Huxley about this book), there is not a single quotation from the Quran in support of the Perennial Philosophy. He only quotes from Rabia, Bayazid, Abu Sa’id and Rumi who do not properly represent even the sufi silsilas, the mainstream Islamic Sufism.
Are All Religions the Same?
Huxley was looking for elements of Perennial Philosophy and he acknowledged them wherever he found them. But in all his wide-faring and conscientious research, he found nothing to lead him to conclude that all religions are expressions of a Perennial Philosophy and therefore they are basically one.13
On the other hand while discussing Christianity and Islam, he found in them a great deal which was opposed to Perennial Philosophy, and he said so in so many words on many occasions.14
He finds these religions exclusive and dogmatic; he finds their cosmology and theology unsatisfactory and God-eclipsing. He finds that they are obsessed with time and events and values of the time and there is very little of the eternity-principle in them. This makes them intolerant and violent and Huxley is forced to refer on many occasions to the spirit of persecution that characterizes them. He observes that while historical religions have been violent, eternity-philosophies like “Hinduism and Buddhism have never been persecuting faiths, have preached almost no holy wars and have refrained from that proselytizing religious imperialism, which has gone hand in hand with the political and economic oppression of the coloured peoples.”
Huxley tells us how the time-worshipping Catholicism institutes Inquisition and how it “bums and tortures in order to perpetuate a creed, a ritual and an ecclesiastico-politico-financial organization regarded as necessary to men’s eternal salvation”; he tells us how “Bible-worshipping Protestants fight long and savage wars, in order to make the world safe for what they fondly imagine to be the genuinely antique Christianity of apostolic times”.
In his Grey Eminence, Huxley wishes that Catholicism knew Buddhism properly for in its teachings it “would have found the most salutary correctives for its strangely arbitrary theology, for its strain of primitive savagery inherited from the less desirable parts of Old Testament, for its incessant and dangerous preoccupations with torture and death, for its elaborately justified beliefs in the magic efficacy of rites and sacraments. But, alas, so far as the West was concerned, the Enlightened One was destined, until very recent times, to remain no more than the hero of an edifying fairy tale” - the reference is to the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, a garbled version of the life of Buddha in the person of a legendary Barlaam who becomes a Christian saint.
Huxley also notices “Islam’s black record of holy wars and persecution - a record comparable to that of later Chidstianity”.15
Huxley continues to speculate on reasons that made Christianity and Islam violent and persecutory. One reason of course is because they are time-philosophies; another reason often mentioned by him is their belief in a personal God who is considered as “the Lord of hosts”, or a “commander-in-chief”. Illustrating the point he says: “The Moslems who invaded India brought with them the idea of a God who was not the order of the army of being, but its general. Bhakti towards this despotic person was associated with wholesale slaughter of Buddhists and Hindus. Similarly bhakti towards the personal God of Christianity has been associated, throughout the history of that religion, with the wholesale slaughter of pagans and the retail torture and murder of heretics.” Huxley adds “that it is the business of the rational idealist to harp continually upon this all-important fact”, so that “the evil tendencies which history shows to be inherent” in “belief in a personal deity” could be mitigated.
Huxley repeats this idea often enough in his writings. At one place he says that much of the “folly and wickedness” of those who follow the Bible can be traced back to its “mistaken view of the world”. He says that “The Hebrews of the Bronze Age thought that the integrating principle of the universe was a kind of magnified human person, with all the feelings and passions of a human person. He was wrathful, for example, he was jealous, he was vindictive. This being so, there was no reason why his devotees should not be wrathful, jealous and vindictive. Among the Christians this primitive cosmology led to the burning of heretics and witches, the wholesale massacre of Albigensians, Catharists, Protestants, Catholics and a hundred other sects.”16
Huxley finds that it is no good to anybody to have Religions of the Book. -Writing to his brother, Julian Huxley he says: “One sees the immense good fortune of Buddhists in not being cursed with a sacred book or an impossible dogma”.
A sole sacred book is undesirable for two reasons. First it sets up an external authority when the real authority is man’s reason and his own deeper spiritual intuition. Secondly these so-called holy books contain much that is undesirable. Huxley says that the early Christians made the enormous mistake of burdening themselves with the Old Testament, which contains, along with much fine poetry and sound morality, the history of the cruelties and treacheries of a Bronze-Age people, fighting for a place in the sun under the protection of its anthropomorphic tribal deity… Ancient ignorance had been sanctified as a revelation… Those whom it suited to be ignorant … could find in this treasure house of barbarous stupidity justifications for every crime and folly. Texts to justify such abominations as religious wars, the persecution of heretics, breaking of faith with unbelievers, could be found in the sacred books and were in fact used again and again throughout the whole history of the Christian Church…”
Another reason advanced is that they lack a pluralist view of God, man and his nature or what the Hindus call the “doctrine of vocation”. This makes all the difference. According to this doctrine, “the Indians admit the right of individuals with different dharmas to worship different aspects or conceptions of the divine. Hence the almost total absence, among Hindus and Buddhists, of bloody persecutions, religious wars and proselytizing imperialism.”
Huxley notices the same difference in the treatment of the animal kingdom by the two philsophies. He says that while great eternity-philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism have taught a morality inculcating kindness to animals, time-philosophies like “Judaism and orthodox Christianity taught that animals might be used as things, for the realization of man’s temporal ends. Even St. Francis’ attitude towards the brute creation was not entirely unequivocal. True, he converted a wolf and preached sermons to birds; but when brother Juniper, a beloved disciple of his, hacked the feet off a living pig in order to satisfy a man’s craving for fried trotters, the saint merely blamed his disciple’s intemperate zeal in damaging a valuable property.17 It was not until the nineteenth century, when orthodox Christianity had lost much of its power over European minds, that the idea that it might be a good thing to behave humanely towards animals began to make headway.18 This new morality was correlated with the new interest in nature which had been stimulated by the romantic poets and the men of science. Because it was not founded upon an eternity-philosophy, a doctrine of divinity dwelling in all living creatures, the modern movement in favour of kindness to animals was and is perfectly compatible with intolerance, persecution and systematic cruelty towards human being. Young Nazis are taught to be gentle with dogs and cats, ruthless with Jews. That is because Nazism is a typical time-philosophy, which regards the ultimate good as existing, not in eternity, but in the future. Jews are, ex hypothesi, obstacles in the way of the realization of the supreme good; dogs and cats are not.”
Some may regard the dietic question too lowly and think that it should not rub shoulders with such sublime concepts as brahman, Sunya, God and Soul. But in Indian spirituality, it holds a high place. Dietary is more than gastronomy; it involves fundamental attitudes and views. Vegetarianism also represents a great cultural and religious value of India and it has found emphasis wherever Indian religious influence has gone. “Vegetarianism is one of the priceless gifts of Hinduism”, as Mahatma Gandhi says. Today under this influence, it is already making an appeal in the West on more than health grounds. It stands high in the spiritual discipline of all those movements which follow Indian inspiration.
Following the Indian lead, Huxley finds a “correlation between religion and diet”. He even sees a close link between the Semitic “personal God” and what His followers cat. In his Eyeless In Gaza, Huxley says: “Christians eat meat, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco; and Christianity exalts personality… teaches that God feels anger and approves the persecution of heretics. It’s the same with Jews and the Moslems. Kosher and an indignant Jehovah. Mutton and beef and personal survival among the houris, avenging Allah and holy wars. Now look at the Buddhists. Vegetables and water… They don’t exalt personality; they try to transcend it… What worlds away from Jehovah… ! The fact is, of course, that we think as we eat.”
Huxley says through the mouth of a doctor of Buddhist persuasion that frozen meat, by being widely available, has become the “greatest enemy of Christianity”. It has filled the Christians with “scepticism and despair”, so that only “the most violent stimuli will rouse them to purposive activity, and what’s worse, the only activity they undertake is diabolic”. The doctor tells Anthony Beavis, his meat-eating patient, that the latter’s “intestines are ripe for fascism”.
Hindu art has been incomprehensible to most Western critics, particularly of the colonial era and they often used harsh epithets like ‘barbarous’, ‘ugly’, etc., to describe it. But it was not so with Huxley. He found much in Indian art to appreciate even while he used Western standards of judgement. He could also see though obscurely that Indian art was in some radical way different and it was trying to express another feeling, another dimension. But at this stage, he had no proper comprehension of this dimension and also no intellectual sympathy with it. Therefore, after going about in India, it confirmed him even further in his European standards. He tells us with great self-satisfaction that a visit to India “makes one realize how fortunate, so far at any rate as the arts are concerned, our Europe has been in its religions”. He said that while in its Pagan traditions, the Olympian deities were men made gods, in its Christian tradition, the Saviour was God made man. But in neither the artist was asked to go beyond the boundaries of real and actual human life. However, it was different in Hinduism, which though it permitted the representation of the human, thought that “the human is not enough”. Hinduism, he said tried to represent the superhuman and the metaphysical and, as a result, “Hindus have evolved a system of art full of metaphysical monsters and grotesques”. Carrying on the discussion, he concluded that the “Hindus are too much interested in metaphysics and ultimate reality to make good artists. Art is not the discovery of Reality - whatever reality may be… It is the organization of chaotic appearance into an orderly and human universe”.
But all this was changed when he accepted the spiritual dimension. His definition of “Reality” changed; his understanding of what is “human” changed. He developed different standards and different criterions of judgement. He developed a new eye for Hindu-Buddhist art. He also began to look at European art, music, and literature from a new angle; for example, now he began to notice the absence of a “detached character” in Shakespeare. Similarly, he began to see that the higher transcendental dimension which he had now begun so much to value was either missing or was at least very inadequately expressed in European art tradition. This point becomes clear when we read, for example, his essays on ‘Variations on a Baroque Tomb’, or ‘Variations on El Greco’ contained in his Themes And Variations published in 1950. Discussing baroque art of the seventeenth century, he speaks of its failure to find an adequate artistic expression for the mystical experience, even when its artists were rendering saints in ecstasy who were often shown gesticulating and swooning under an epileptic fit; they were often represented not with God, but with their physiology in a state hardly distinguishable from that of sexual enjoyment. He points to Berini’s statues of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and the more celebrated St. Teresa in ecstasy and his failure to deal with the subject.19 At the end, he concludes that “no fully adequate rendering of the contemplative life was ever achieved in the plastic arts of Christendom”.
According to Huxley one great symbol through which, in the past, the spiritual life has been most clearly and powerfully expressed is landscape painting. He observes that from time immemorial deity has been associated with the boundlessness of earth and sky, with the longevity of trees, rivers and mountains, and space and time on the cosmic scale have been symbols of the infinity and eternity of Spirit. He points out that the first artists to concern themselves with the spiritual significance of Nature were the Taoist landscape painters of China, and that when long after landscape painting was discovered in Europe, the artists had no philosophy to explain and justify what they were doing - that work was left to poets like Wordsworth, Shelley and Whitman. To show the contrast between the Western and the Far Eastern approach to nature, he quotes from the handbook on painting by Cennino Cennini whose recipe for mountains is: take some large jagged stones, arrange them on a table, draw them and, lo and behold, you will have a range of Alps or Apennines good enough for all the practical purposes of art. Huxley observes that in China and Japan mountains were taken more seriously. The aspiring artist was advised to go and live among them, to make himself alertly passive in their presence, to contemplate them lovingly until he could understand the mode of their being and feel within them the workings of the immanent and transcendent Tao.
Huxley also says that another form in which man has expressed his deep spiritual vision is a human figure. In fact, a human figure in response is the best symbol of life in God or even of God himself. But this presupposes a very different understanding of man and divinity than the one found in Semitic religions. In this approach man in his innermost being is divine (not sinful as in Christianity), and Indian art has tried to express this being, this inner divinity as best as it could. This however presupposes a great science of contemplation and a developed art of inner exploration. In Indian art-tradition, when Gods are rendered into visual art-forms, they must first be contacted on subtle planes through meditation. The sculptor undergoes a strict regimen of fasting and meditation until he is ready to “receive” their transcendental-form or forms; the forms thus revealed in meditation (dhyana-rupaNi) are then translated into visible forms (vyakta-rupaNi). Christianity has no idea of an inner-man, or of man’s inner depths; and therefore there is nothing to search or find there. As a result, in the Western art-tradition, the problem has been very much simpler and it hardly caused any complication. According to John P. Lundy, author of Mounumental Christianity, God the Creator is often represented by Jesus; in Venetian Mosaics, a young and beardless young man is breathing into man the breath of life, or handing to Adam a little spirit with butterfly wings; in illumined Bibles of the fifteenth century, he is shown with cruciform nimbus creating the world. In these representations he is often shows with a beard and about thirty years old. In the sixteenth century, he is often replaced by the figure of Pope. The Pope is shown in full canonicals creating Eve or appearing to Job seated in clouds and holding the globe in his hands and also embodying the Trinity. W.E.H. Lecky tells us that in Christian art, when the Father began to be painted, in “Italy, Spain, and the ultramontane monasteries of France, He was usually represented as a Pope; in Germany, as an Emperor; in England, and, for the most part, in France, as a King”.
Christianity treated its other ‘pious’ subjects with no greater vision. The depiction of Jesus passed through many artistic styles and followed many fashions into which we need not to go here, but a few salient facts may be mentioned. In early representations, Jesus was sometimes rendered as a chubby and sunny youth in imitation of Greek Gods who had beautiful forms. But precisely for that very reason in order to oppose and spite them, Jesus was also painted ugly and deformed. Many important Christian theologians taught that Jesus was “the ugliest of the sons of men”; others taught that Jesus was a “man of sorrow”, a man who never laughed. Even so, however, inadequate in conception, some of these early depictions were devout and succeeded in expressing piety and solemnity of a sort. But, eventually, Christian art settled for expressing suffering, cruelty, horror and loathsomeness. It specialized in portraying the legends of martyrs, the agonies of the lost, the hot fires in which the heretics burned. Jesus himself was often shown as a tortured figure hanging on a cross with a crown of thorns pressing on his brow and the wounds on his side dripping blood. All this had little spirituality in it but it appealed to a perverse imagination and a morbid mind.20
According to Huxley, though peace that passes all understanding was often sung and spoken in the writings of such mystics as Eckhart, Tauler and Ruysbroeck, but it failed to find expression in Christian art. He notices that nowhere there are “equivalents of those Far Eastern Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who incarnate, in stone and print, the experience of ultimate reality”.
Is this omission accidental or has it deeper causes? Huxley does not discuss this question directly, but, I think, his answer is clear. In one sense and on its own plane, Christian artistic performance was not unimpressive. Christian artists were talented and innovative; they performed all the tasks set for them by their religion and fulfilled all its needs for what they were worth. They portrayed a sky-god, thrones, clouds and winged angles; and with equal profusion they portrayed devils who had their own iconography; they portrayed the Virgin and the Apostles; they portrayed the Day of Judgement and the resurrection of the martyrs clamouring for revenge; they painted hell-fire with great conviction and fervour; they portrayed the blessed and the damned and the joys of the former at the sight of the agonies of the latter. That there is little spirituality in all this is another matter. Similarly, they discovered important techniques like perspective and foreshortening by which they could portray the third dimension, and render horizons and depths in space. But this did not help them to render the spiritual dimension, the spiritual horizons and depths of man’s being. That required a different kind of preparation and Christianity gave them no guidance in that direction.
The fact is that Christian art failed at a deeper level. It failed not in execution but in conception and vision, and this failure was at bottom failure of Christian theology in which mysticism is rudimentary and peripheral. Christian theology has no concept of transcendence, non-attachment, recollectedness, equality (samata), liberation (moksha), the vast (bhuma) and the infinite (ananta), compassion (kuruNa), of cosmic action emanating from restfulness at the centre; therefore, it felt no call to try to convey them in its art-forms. A deeper iconography needed the support of a deeper theology and vision.
This explains why Christian art has no equivalents of Far Eastern Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as Huxley notices. The Eastern tradition was shaped by Hindu religious thinking and sensibility. Hindu art tried to portray the inner man: the Man behind the man, the Eye behind the eye, the Seeing behind the seeing, man’s inner praNika or life-currents, the nodal points in his subtle body where the individual meets the cosmic. It portrayed man’s inner physiognomy. Christian theology knew nothing of this inner physiognomy, and it remained unportryed in its art. Christian artists were often great anatomists and they painted attractive figures of lovely curves with draperies tastefully arranged; they studied and understood the structure of human body and rendered it in various postures and motions with their muscles and sinews. But they portrayed the external man; there was no portrayal of the inner man, the luminous man, the transcendental man.
The idea behind Hindu-Buddhist art was to convey inner realities through figures and symbols. The underlying idea of Christian art was to narrate Biblical stories or to propagate a creed or dogma through picture-forms. In this task, it succeeded very well.
Very little can be said about Muslim art, at least in the sense in which we understand the word. Much of it is funerary art. In India, Huxley saw many specimens of Muslim architecture and he thought that as a whole “Mohammedan art tends … to be dry, empty, barren, and monotonous”. Huxley also visited the Taj at Agra and he was much disappointed. He found the building expensive and picturesque but architecturally uninteresting. He thought that it was elegant but its elegance was of a “very dry and negative kind”, and its classicism came not from an “intellectual restraint imposed on an exuberant fancy”, but from “an actual deficiency of fancy, a poverty of imagination”. He compared it with contemporary European buildings in the neo-classical style of the High Renaissance, and he found it inferior in comparison. Comparing it with Hindu architecture, he said: “The Hindu architects produced buildings incomparably more rich and interesting as works of art. I have not visited Southern India, where, it is said, the finest specimen of Hindu architecture are to be found. But I have seen enough of the art in Rajputana to convince me of its enormous superiority to any work of the Mohammedans. The temples at Chitor, for example, are specimens of true classicism”. According to him, its fabulous “costliness is what most people seem to like about the Taj”, and that because it is made of marble. But “marble”, he say, “covers a multitude of sins”.21 Its costliness makes up for its lack of architectural merit.
It could be said that art is not Islam’s forte as it repudiates it and, therefore, it has not developed it. But there is a another and even more important side of the question. The fact is that Islam also did not need much in the way of art. It had little to convey or communicate in the way of deeper spiritual truths. Its God was best satisfied with demolition of the shrines of “other Gods”, and it was in that direction that Islam found its best self-expression, both religious and artistic. In this, it was not alone. It shared this passion of demolition with other iconoclastic religions including Christianity - we forget what it did in its heyday. But the facts cannot be kept under the carpet for all time. The question is opening up again and the iconoclastic ideologies are under interrogation.
For more than a decade, Huxley had been preaching a mystical view, the presence of another world beyond the veil of the mind. But his empirical mind still sought verification of the world of which his deeper intellect was already assured. This came in 1953 when he took mescalin. It brought to him some wonderful visionary experiences.22 Later, he experimented with LSD and Marijuana (about ten times in all). In the experiences induced by them, a deeper dimension was added. He saw the “togetherness” of all things and their essential “alrightness”. He described his visionary experiences in his The Doors of Perception, and discussed the problem of visions in a larger theoretical framework in his Heaven And Hell. Unfortunately, these books provided intellectual support to the psychedelic drug movement that enveloped America and Europe in the sixties. Drugs could not have done much harm to Huxley, for he was already internally prepared; but the story was different with thousands of young men who came under the sway of the drug movement.
Huxley had always some use for drugs in influencing the mind. In his Brave New World, citizens use Soma to suppress any suggestions of a higher reality and ideal; in his Island, Moksha-medicine is used to provide occasional glimpses into higher reality, “an hour or two, every now and then, of enlightening and liberating grace”. The rest depends on you whether you choose to “cooperate with the grace”, or continue to behave like “silly delinquents”. Habitual meditation is one of the ways in which one cooperates with those gratuitous graces. It helps in cultivating a state of mind where dazzling ecstatic insights become a permanent and assured possession. It helps man to know himself to the point that one is not “compelled by one’s unconscious to do all the ugly, absurd, self-stultifying things that one so often finds oneself doing”.23
That Huxley held to this view till the end becomes obvious from his posthumous work, Moksha, edited by M. Horowitz and C. Palmer, where the story is told through his letters, extracts from his previous works, his addresses to learned societies, and his articles in journals, both scientific and popular.
In many cultures, some people do resort to drugs for heightened and out-of-the-way experiences, but higher Indian spirituality disfavours it. It prescribes only the method of yama, niyama, Sila, tapas, samadhi and prajña for higher aims of liberation. Godly life is holy ground; there should be no gate-crashing here, no short-circuiting. The path has it own lessons and beauties and the destination itself is in the path.
East and West
European soldiers, traders, missionaries - later on ably assisted by its colonial ideologies and scholars - opened up the East to the influences of the West. But Huxley belonged to that small group of European thinkers and seekers who opened up the West to the influence of the East - a more arduous task and in the long run perhaps more important too. He did not seek this role, it was merely a bye-product of his search for truth.
Huxley was one of the finest products of Europe - of a new Europe seeking its old roots, of a Europe no longer satisfied with mere technology and science and rationality but seeking a new dimension of the spirit, a Europe self-critical and in search. He was also a profound student of Europe’s various traditions, religious, literary and artistic, and he discusses them with great knowledge, insights, authority and intimacy. In his hands, cultural Europe becomes alive. A critical discussion of Europe by such a sympathetic insider is meant to help, to fecundate; it can do no harm but will only help Europe in its spiritual rediscovery. In opening up to India and China, it would merely be opening up to an ancient tradition which was lost by her but preserved and developed in India and China.
Mahabharata and Ramayana
Though Huxley came late but his name stands high on the list of those who have opened up the West to the philosophies of the East. He however spoke to a highly intellectualized audience. Perhaps it was necessary at that stage; Europe had to be approached through its intellect. But now a different channel of communication is needed. The message too has to have a more vital clothing.
I believe that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata fill the bill. They represent embodied spirituality and reveal the higher dimension when it becomes dynamic in life; they give us “life-creations” of the Vedanta philosophy on which Huxley wrote so much (sixteen articles for Vedanta for the Western World and ten for Vedanta for Modern Man).
We all, whether in the East or the West, need their message. Not only do they offer the highest yogas, and the highest spiritual wisdom, they also offer the great social ideals, which we need badly today. At present, our social relations - filial, parental, fraternal, conjugal, civic - are tending to become empty. They revolve round a mere utilitarian nexus and have lost the higher dimension and therefore, they bring no fulfilment. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata can help in restoring this lost dimension.
It is Huxley’s Utopia situated in an island in South-East Asia and called Pala by him. It had the luck of never having been a colony. It had no harbour, and therefore it escaped “an Arab invasion in the Middle Ages”, and its people could stay “Buddhists or Shivaites”. Later on, it escaped the “infestations” of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English. “No Dutch, no English, and therefore no planters, no coolie labour, no cash crops, no systematic exhaustion of our soil. Also no whisky, no Calvinism, no syphillis, no foreign administrators. We were left to go our own way and take responsibility for our own affairs”, explains one inhabitant of the island. ↩
The philosophy of meaninglessness did not embody one single idea; it was made up of many ideas all psychologically interlinked. Generally those ideas went together but each idea had also its special appeal and one could choose and reject according to one’s temperament. Huxley roughly summarizes them in the following language: that life is without significance, that values are illusory and ideals merely the inventions of cunning priests and kings, that sensations and animal pleasures alone possessed reality and were alone worth living, that there was no reason why anyone should have the slightest consideration for anyone else, that those who find rape and murder amusing, rape and murder are legitimate activities for them. ↩
He also explains that in some ways the philosophy of meaningless was a reaction to Christian ethics which found meaning in most abominable things they did. “Christian philosophers have found no difficulty in justifying imperialism, war, the capitalist system, the use of torture, the censorship of the press and ecclesiastical tyrannies of every sort, from the tyranny of Rome to the tyrannies of Geneva and New England. In all these cases they have shown that the meaning of the world was such as to he compatible with, or actually most completely expressed by, the iniquities I have mentioned above… In due course there arose philosophers who denied not only the right of these Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world, but even their right of find any such meaning whatsoever… One unscrupulous distortion of the truth tends to beget other and opposite distortions.” ↩
There are other variations on this theme. For example, Albert Schweitzer holds that though from the view-point of scientific thought, there is no good in the universe yet man should do good by an act of self-will. In his My Life and Thought he says: “My knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.” He was lucky. Not many can live with their mind and heart so irreconciled and be good on their own without invoking some principle of godliness and goodness in man and the world. ↩
Some yogic practices prescribe that to keep a woman at bay one should meditate on her body (and also on one’s own) as heap of bones, as a bag of impurities. Perhaps, Huxley had already practised some of these meditations in his previous life. Even before he turned to Indian Yoga, he thought of women under some other general ideas though not of the same old type but some modern and sociological ones which were equally effective and kept him away from them. For example, in the twenties, after a bout of illness, he visited a sea-side resort in the Mediterranean and went into a hotel to stop there “for weeks, if necessary”. In the evening, at dinner, he found at the table perhaps forty guests - all English, and all except himself and an English clergyman, women. He saw spinsters and widows, widows with daughters who had been once pretty but were now fading into a definite unmarriageableness, widows with daughters who had never been pretty at any time Huxley contemplated the scene and found the spectacle of so much age and virtue and ugliness, so much frustration and refinement, so much middle-class pride on such small fixed incomes, so much ennui and self-sacrifice.. painfully distressing and grotesque. And then suddenly it occurred to him that the whole Riviera, from Marseilles to Spezia, was teeming with such women. “In a single appalling intuition I realized all their existences. At that very moment, I reflected, in all the cheap hotels and pensions of the Mediterranean littoral, thousands upon thousands of them were eating their fish with that excessive middle-class refinement which makes one long, in the Maison Lyons, for the loud bad manners of provincial France or Belgium. Thousands upon thousands of them trying to keep warm, trying to keep well through the winter, trying to find in foreign parts distraction and novelty and cheapness… The only distraction is the chat of other women of their kind. The only novelties are the latest things in semi-evening dresses and semi-precious beads… Income remains irrevocably fixed - and so do morals and intellectual interests, so do prejudice, manners, and habits.” In the midst of this contemplation, the Anglican chaplain, the only other man around, tried to get into conversation with him. “Beautiful evening”, he said to him. “Beautiful”, Huxley agreed. “Staying long?” he asked. “To-morrow. Have to make a very early start”, Huxley said. ↩
He was not so indifferent to the question of life after death as it would appear here. He took interest in the findings of Psychical researches like C.E. Broad and M. Rene Sudre who believed in the survival of a “Psychic factor”. In one of his essays, Sqeak and Gibber, published in 1931, he says that probably the dead survive “but only fragmentarily, feebly, as mere wisps of floating memories.” In Time Must Have A Stop, published in 1944, he describes the “after-death experiences” of Eustace Barnack in terms of these floating memories. His drama The World of Light published in 1931 deals with the same subject though in a somewhat different way.
But his interest in “survival” or even of repeated incarnations ceased when his spiritual interest deepened. He was now interested in liberation, in immortality, in “participation in the eternal now, not persistence in one of the forms of time.” In his The Perennial Philosophy, he quotes Yoga VaSishTha which says: “Troubled or still, water is still water. What difference can an embodiment or disembodiment make to the liberated? Whether clam or in tempest, the sameness of the ocean suffers no change” ↩
Here one may also mention Huxley’s idea of modern medicine. He says that it has marvellous antibiotics but absolutely no method for increasing resistance. Similarly, fantastic operations but nothing in the way of teaching people the way of going through life without having to be chopped up. Good for patching up when one is falling apart, but bad for keeping him healthy. And of course it knows nothing of integrated treatment as it knows nothing of integrated life. It knows nothing of the higher and positive consciousness and therefore there is no attempt to help a man to “open himself up to the life force or the Buddha nature”. ↩
When Europeans reached the American continent, the Red Indians were astonished to find that white people whipped their little children. They thought it cruel. Not long ago, London had shops where parents who could not themselves whip their children could go and hire professionals to do it for them. Guprun Dimmbla Hangantysdottir, sagely author of Odsmal, tells us that after Iceland was taken over by Christianity, kids began to be regularly whipped on Good Fridays, that they were so terrified by this threat that “some went off and hid, only to be found dead later on”. ↩
Of these sentiment, “fascinated interest” was the more important and seminal; scepticism, and even suspicion, were expected at this stage as something had yet to open up in Huxley before the Gita became a great scripture for him. The two negative attitudes were pretty visible when during his tour of India he visited the Ghats of the Ganges at Benares. There he also saw, among many other things, men in meditation, men sitting cross-legged with closed eyes, with their hands dropped limply and palm upwards communing with their deity. There was nothing unusual in the sight or the posture; it is a traditional and quite common way of worship practised in private as well as in public by many in India as a daily routine. But to Huxley at this stage the sight was incomprehensible and he saw in those worshippers merely “nose-gazers”, contemplating “the brown and sweating tips of their noses”. However, as he had read his Gita with care, he easily recalled that this “mystic squint” is prescribed by it (5.27 and 8.10); and his reaction not unexpectedly was characteristic of the stage of his spiritual development at that time. He said that “Lord Krishna… knew all that there is to be known about the art of self-hypnotism”. It was only later on when he had reflected more deeply and developed a new insight that he began to look at these things in a new light. ↩
Huxley often quotes St. John of the Cross (1 9 times) whom he regards as the last great representative of the Dionysian tradition of mysticism and who is also orthodox. But about him Abbot John Chapman, a Benedictine monk and a spiritual director of the early part of this century, says that he “is like a sponge full of Christianity: you can squeeze it all out and the full mystical theory remains. Consequently, for fifteen years or so I hated St. John of the Cross and called him a Buddhist. I loved St. Theresa and read her again and again. She is first a Christian, only secondarily a mystic. Then I found that I had wasted fifteen years so far as prayer was concerned.” ↩
E. Hermann says that the Neo-Platonic doctrine of via negativa “from Dionysius onwards took an Asiatic rather than a Greek from”. She does not explain what its Greek form was and how it differed from its “Asiatic” (Indian) form. ↩
He was born between 810-815. He is reputed to have travelled to Greece, Asia and Egypt. When he becomes first known, he was at the court of king Charles the Bald. He translated On the Heavely Hierarchy and other works of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. They were Neo-Platonist in approach and considered bad influences. He wrote a book on Eucharist in which he denied the real presence of Jesus Christ. Another work of his, Divisions of Nature, earned for him the accusation of pantheism. Pope Nicholas I complained to the king in 867 and Erigena had to leave his court. He retired to a monastery in England where, it is said, he was “pieced with the iron-pens of the boys” and died. Though he died in disgrace, he left behind important influences which lasted for many centuries. Four hundred years later, during the Albigensian crusades, Pope Honorius III condemned his works and ordered them to be burned publicly (1255). ↩
“Unity of all religions” has been a special infirmity of the Hindu mind. It has its doctrinal and historical reasons. Brought up in his own religious tradition, a Hindu could not even conceive that a religion could teach persecution. And though its continuing victim for a thousand years, he thought there was a mistake somewhere and its perpetrators had not understood their own religions. In this state of mind, he began to paint for himself and for those who would take him seriously a picture of these religions quite different from the one which their own followers knew and practised. It was a self-deceiving picture but it satisfied him and he wanted to go no further into the matter.
There is also a historical reason. Christianity and Islam have been great and systematic attackers and persecutors of various cultures and religions in various parts of world. In Greece, in Rome, in Egypt, in Europe, in Syria, in Persia, in Central Asia, old cultures and religions were almost completely wiped out. The Hindu culture too has been under a similar attack but it withstood it. However, though it survived, its body and psyche were badly damaged. It survived by lying low, by submission, by deference, even by self-denial and self-repudiation, by having no word to say about itself, by making no claims for itself - in fact it made all the claims for its persecutors and their religious ideologies. The old habit continues and has become a part of the Hindu psyche. ↩
Huxley rejected some of the most cherished dogmas and fondest rites of Christianity. He rejected the Biblical God and the Biblical Saviour; he rejected as violent and even “obscene” the Christian doctrine of man’s redemption by the death and blood of Jesus. He notices that there is no blood in Buddhism. Gautama lived till eighty and died from being too courteous to refuse bad food. Violent death always seems to call for more violent death. “If you won’t believe that you’re redeemed by my redeemer’s blood, I’ll drown you in your own.”
Similarly, he had already rejected the Catholic Eucharist even during his rational days. He had written how the “Holy Ghost comes sliding down”, and how “His hosts infect Him as they rot; the victims taking their just revenge”. When he accepted a spiritual view of life, he felt no need to revise his older view and rehabilitate the Eucharist.
In the same way, he also rejected the Protestant doctrines of the man’s total depravity, predestination and salvation by faith and grace alone. He has a lot to say about Luther and Calvin in his novels and essays. ↩
At one place in his Ends and Means, Huxley says: “It is an extremely significant fact that, before the coming of the Mohammedans, there was virtually no persecution in India. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, who visited India in the first half of the seventh century and has left a circumstantial account of his fourteen-years stay in the country, makes it clear that Hindus and Buddhists lived side by side without any show of violence. Each party attempted the conversion of the other; but the methods used were those of persuasion and argument, not those of force. Neither Hinduism nor Buddhism is disgraced by anything corresponding to the Inquisition; neither was ever guilty of such iniquities as the Albigensian crusade or such criminal lunacies as the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” ↩
Huxley is unnecessarily harsh on a “Personal God”. There is nothing wrong with this concept as such but it becomes mischievous like any other concept when it represents an inadequate spirituality, when the Personal God is non-yogic and is projected by an impure psyche, when he forms part of a fanatic theology, or is himself a fanatic idea rather than a spiritual being. According to the Upanishads, self-purity is the first requirement. A God who does not represent the purity of the Self becomes a Moloch and his worshippers become his sacrificial and draught animals. Huxley is aware of this and, at one place quoting William Law, he speaks of the mischief of those who turn to God without turning away from themselves. Such people, he says, perpetrate abominations “which nature, left to itself, would be ashamed to own”. Huxley sees the continuity between these religious crusaders and the modern secular ones. In the past, they committed their wickedness in the name of their ‘God’ or ‘the Church’, or ‘the True Faith’; today they kill and torture and exploit in the name of ‘the Revolution’, or simply ‘the Future’. ↩
In his essay ‘Francis and Grigory’, Huxley gives a fuller version quoted from Francis’ biographies. On the request of a sick Brother who wanted a pig’s trotter to eat, one Brother Juniper, highly thought of by Francis, went out, took a knife, fell upon a feeding pig, cut off its foot leaving it maimed, cooked it and gave it to the sick man who ate it greedily. When the owner of the pig protested, Juniper did not understand “why should he be so disquieted, seeing that this pig, whose foot I cut off, is rather God’s than his”. St. Francis’ objection was why Brother Juniper should have given “so great a scandal”. Huxley adds that the “fact that Francis called donkeys his brothers and bull-finches his sisters is not enough in itself to prove that he lived in any kind of fraternal communion with his adopted family”. ↩
W.E.H. Lecky reaches the same conclusion. Discussing the problem in his History of European Morals, he finds that while the ancient Greek and even the classical and late Roman world had great teachers life Pythagoras, Empedocles, Xenocrates, Apollonius of Tyna, Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius, Juvenal, Epictetus, Porphyry, Plutarch and many others who practised and taught kindness to animals, there is “no adequate parallel … in the Christian writings for at least seventeen hundred years”. Man was too special to his creator and any notion of duty to animals was “dismissed somewhat contemptuously, as an idle sentimentalism”. ↩
He repeats this idea on several occasions in his writings. For example, in his Ends and Means, he says that in rendering the ecstasies of the saints “baroque art is hysterical, almost epileptic in the violence if its emotionality”, that these ecstasies “are represented … as being frankly sexual”, and that from “this orgy of emotionalism and sensationalism Catholic Christianity seems never completely to have recovered”. ↩
Similarly, Mary’s portrayal too passed through many phases and expressed various theological ideas. From quite early days of its power, Christianity gave her an assured official status as a Virgin as the Mother of God - though quite significantly never as God the Mother. Therefore, during many, many centuries of Christian art, Mary was often portrayed as madonna with a child, or as a sorrowing mother - her statues and images are often shedding tears. The portrayal was often sentimental, but it did not offend good taste and revealed a religious feeling at work. But in later times, Virgin was completely secularized and she frankly became a voluptuous figure, the artist not unoften painting his mistress as Madonna. Lippi (1406-1469), famous painter and Chaplain to the nuns of Santa Margherita at Prato, used Lucrezia Buti, a nun and his mistress as his model for Madonna and later on simply abducted her from the nunnery. Savonarola thundered week after week against artists who “painted prostitutes in the character of the Virgin”. It is said that his invectives gave bad conscience to many artists. Betticelli gave up his pencil altogether; Fra Bartolomeo retired into a monastry; the poems of Michelangeto reveal that he was troubled by doubts if his art had been sinful. ↩
It seems that these remarks on Taj wounded the national sentiment of some Indians - that is the only kind of national sentiment many have; and when he briefly came to India again after thirty-five years in 1961, he was made to visit the Taj again in the hope he might revise his old opinion. But he saw no reason for doing it. ↩
It seems that Huxley was not altogether unaware of these visions. In Eyeless in Gaza, he describes one such vision of one of his characters which is likely his own. It says: “That last glass of champagne had made him the inhabitant of a new world, extraordinarily beautiful and precious and significant. The apples and oranges in the silver bowl were like enormous gems. Each glass, under the candles, contained, not wine, but a great yellow beryl, solid and translucent … Even sound was frozen and crystalline.” ↩
Meditation for Huxley did not have this kind of significance before. It acquired this significance when a shift came in his fundamental viewpoint. Earlier meditation for him was no more than navel or nose-gazing as we have already seen; or even a form of dozing, “the doze’s first cousin”, as he described it. He said that people who are “insufficiently nourished” or are “reduced to an Indian diet” meditate willy-nilly. But when he embraced the spiritual view of life, meditation for him became the food of the soul, the method of self-discovery and if contacting higher reality. ↩