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The Liberating Influences of the Traditional East

Gandhara_Buddha3,292 words

Translation anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

The following essay was originally published in English in East and West, vol. 2, no. 1 (April 1951): 2327. This is chapter 1 of Julius Evola, East and West: Comparative Studies in Pursuit of Tradition, ed. Greg Johnson, forthcoming from Counter-Currents in the summer of 2013.

The relationship between East and West, particularly with regard to the influence each may exercise over the other, has of late been taken frequently into consideration, but, in my opinion, the conclusions drawn have hardly ever been satisfactory. This is due to the absence of a comprehensive appreciation of the real terms of the problem. The first thing to decide is what is meant by the general terms “East” and “West,” taking into account historical as well as other factors, since civilizations are never static. They develop and may undergo changes so radical that the East of our day is not, for instance, the East of the past, while the West of today differs from the West of even recent times. This is sufficient to explain the fact that the use of stereotyped designations is likely to lead to confusing things that are really sharply differentiated one from the other.

This is a point of great importance to those who affect to perceive a fundamental difference, if not a dialectic incompatibility, between East and West. It is what happens whenever an unwarranted identification is made of Western civilization with what can be defined only as modern civilization, which it is obviously more and more difficult to identify with one continent or group of peoples, inasmuch as it is rapidly spreading over the whole world, displaying much the same characteristics everywhere. In the East, too, modern civilization has been gaining ground, not only in the realms of politics and social organization. It has also acquired a hold on the Oriental mind; many Orientals have succumbed to the mirage of “Europeanization” and boast of having acquired a “Western” mentality, culture, and way of life.

These recent aspects of an East already altered through contact with the West do not come of course within our purview, for if we were to consider them, all contrasts between the two civilizations would he effaced. Indeed, we are daily witnessing not only how Orientals, suitably conditioned and trained along these lines, are quite capable of displaying the same dynamic and military qualities which were until recently considered to be the exclusive property of the Western peoples, as well as the opposite of the alleged inertia, the passive and contemplative orientation of the Asiatic races. We are also witnessing not a few Orientals falling into step with the Westerners, even in matters of technology, scientific research, and economics. This marks a stage in a general process towards standardization, the ultimate effect of which is bound eventually to divest the terms East and West of their present respective significance; they will survive only as geographical expressions.[1]

But there exists, of course, an authentic East apart from all this. It is the “traditional East,” and it should be carefully distinguished from the more or less modernized forms of Asiatic civilization. What relation can be traced between this traditional East and our own civilization? If by the expression “our civilization” we mean the “modern civilization,” undoubtedly we find a marked difference between the two. Many, however, who start from this premise, end by reversing the thesis of the so-called “defenders of the West.” Noting the materialistic, individualistic, and rationalistic trends of the modern Western world, these critics are inclined to think of the East as the center of a possible spiritual influence, which they however, conceive almost always in confused and muddled terms, very often selecting as references doubtful, distorted, or ill-understood aspects of the spiritual life of the East. An instance of this is afforded by Anglo-Indian theosophy and by various currents of humanitarian or pantheistic spiritualism which have grown up on the margin of our civilization. As a matter of fact, it may be asked whether persons entertaining such ideas would not do better to get a clearer understanding of an heritage they have forgotten, before they speak of the East of which they know so little and only at second or third hand, and which they approach in an “escapist” spirit. Then only could their contact with the spiritual forces of the East act not as a purely external influence, but as a fulfilment based on real understanding and congeniality of thought.

* * *

It is a fact that a philosophy and a morphology of culture, capable of overcoming the historical and illuministic prejudices of the current academic mentality, would soon discover that the real difference lies not between Oriental and Western civilization, but rather between the modern pattern of civilization as a whole and what we may call the traditional one, which in its essentials and under various forms, is the same in East and West. While the West throughout its history has gradually detached itself from the traditional type of civilization, and to such an extent that even the recollection of it has been lost or radically modified, the East has remained faithful to tradition and until lately, at least, has given evidence of this fidelity in forms still unpolluted, drawing their inspiration from its original sources. Paul Dahlke was, therefore, right when he said, with reference to certain metaphysical teachings, that the East still remembers what the West once possessed but has forgotten.[2] The distance between East and West is fundamentally that which separates two different phases of one and the same civilization namely, the modern phase and the traditional one in general, which lasted in Europe until medieval universality came to an end.

A split has since occurred in the West which has been broadening with amazing rapidity. That split has given rise to a new, unprecedented world which has chosen for itself a questionable direction leading to a new civilization from which all transcendental metaphysical elements, all elements not purely human, have been gradually eliminated. As long as we cling to this world and consider ourselves the children of this civilization, adapting ourselves fully to the modern mentality and all it implies, with no understanding of any higher spiritual dignity, all endeavors to come to close quarters with the East will be in vain, for whatever we touch will be distorted and defiled, and no creative results will be achieved, since the condition for such achievement is a process from the interior, the influence of like on like, the reaction of like before like.

The matter stands on a rather different footing if we take into consideration the terminal phase of modern Western civilization, with its evident forms of crisis and dissolution on the one hand, while on the other new forces set free come to the fore. We would call these forces elemental rather than intellectual; although in the West they have found frequent expression in the domain of thought and culture, the cases with which we are concerned are not those of mere intellectual criticism and more or less brilliant personal considerations on the present crisis, such as are to be found in many of the books now in vogue. The problem to be faced is how to guide these forces and how to integrate their possibilities.

We believe that the term of reference for this should be provided by ideas and notions having the character of “traditional constants,” that is to say such spiritual elements as, in the East and in the West of a former day, have varied only in their external and historical forms of expression and application. The fundamental aim to be attained in this way consist in causing what we could call a “break of level.” We will try briefly to illustrate our meaning, though we are now entering on what is virtually unexplored land to the great majority of our Western contemporaries.

The difficulty lies in the fact that modern man has shut himself in a sort of magic circle and is incapable of conceiving and appreciating any values other than purely human ones. It follows that almost all the categories generally used in the West to describe those aspects of the East that are pure, authentic, and traditional, are inadequate for their object and give rise to misapprehension. It is necessary, first of all, to realize that the spirituality we are dealing with has nothing in common with philosophy. The East has, of course, produced also forms of philosophy such as the Upanishads, the works of Nagarjuna, or Al-Ghazali, etc. But, apart from occasional exceptions, such works are philosophies in form only, and their essence is derived from a super-rational and super-individual plane. They are not the result of subjective speculation, but of objective experience warranted by a millenary tradition. The dependence of the philosophical forms on this super-philosophical content is no less strict in the East, and is frequently stricter, than in the case of our medieval scholastic systems, which were dependent on the Christian revelation and on the dogmas and ritual of Catholic tradition.

We should not, however, be misled by this into inferring that the category “religion” is more suited than “philosophy” to define our object. Again, the East also certainly has “religions,” but with reference to the aspects that are of interest to us, we must understand that the word “religion” often designates widely different things. We, in the West, conceive of religion as a theistic system based on the notion of a personal God, and of the relations between God and man as those of the Creator with His creature, leaving an ontological hiatus between the two. Faith, worship, revelation, divine grace, dogma, redemption complete the picture which the word religion brings before our minds. As a matter of fact, all this is only pertinent to a particular type of religion, by which, however, many presume to measure every religious form, pre-Christian (in the case of Europe) as well as Oriental.

Here, again, we should consider the possibility of a “break of level” which would give access to a higher sphere. This sphere is defined by the doctrine of the “Supreme Identity” (not to be mistaken for some form of pantheism); or by a concept of the Absolute ranking high above the theistic idea; or, again, by the overcoming of the creation conception and of the path of faith by means of the principles of pure knowledge and spiritual awakening. Even though some glimmer of these wider and freer horizons have been caught here and there in the Christian West, the premises for a grasp of their real nature have been lacking, nor have their transcendence beyond the world of religion been clearly realized.

On this subject many may perhaps, be induced to utilize the category of “mysticism,” which again would lead us astray. If by “mysticism” we mean direct experience as against more dogmatic theological speculation, we may accept the term. “Mysticism” is also acceptable as a classification if, tracing it back to its origin, we think of the Mysteries of Antiquity which no doubt were off-shoots of the one universal tradition in the West. But if we use the word in its ordinary modern acceptation, we must dismiss it as the expression of a confusingly indefinite something based on a fusion of irrational, visionary, and ecstatic emotions from which the intellectual element, clear perception, and knowledge are missing. This is why mystics appear as isolated individuals, we may say as “Einzelgänger,” who have by chance broken through one or another gate without forming any “chain,” without having been shaped by a common tradition, and without being endowed with that superior knowledge which would allow them to grasp the inner significance of their casual achievements. That it is possible to reach out beyond these limits, that there exist paths sanctified by tradition and age-long experience for the fulfilment of Nietzsche’s precept: “Man is something that must be transcended” and the attainment of knowledge of what the ancient West called the “super-world” and conceived in terms of Olympian clarity, to all this the East we have in mind can bear witness.

* * *

Two further aspects of such trends still treasured by Oriental tradition may here be noted, firstly, the sharp differentiation of real spirituality, to be essentially defined in terms of knowledge, of gnosis, from all things pertaining to morality and ethics; secondly just the opposite to that fancied “Asiatic contemplative inertia” of which many Westerners speak with a contempt only equaled by their ignorance. According to the Oriental teaching to which we are referring, spiritual knowledge and awakening are always connected with “power” as their natural consequence—power over both nature and men.

At last and as a whole the magic circle of Western “humanism” is broken through by the general view of life afforded by the traditional East. This view widens all spiritual horizons; earthly birth is no longer considered as the beginning of conscious being, just as death is no longer deemed to be a significant and tragic event, beyond which there is either a void, or the vague foreshadowings of religious mythology. Through such an outlook transcendence can he brought within the framework of immanence, so that reality is not evaded but transfigured, the one being completed by the other. Such is the East; and it recalls a reality once known also to the West, even though less intensely and universally before secularization and rationalism had the better of it.

If accepted in an undiluted form, and disassociated from esoteric and casual elements, these lines of thought might exert an unequaled liberating power. But it is a destructive power as well if we consider the conventional values prevailing in present-day civilization and culture: speculation, conventional religious sentiment, vague mysticism, and the general conception of life based exclusively on the human condition. All this, when compared to the horizon to which we have referred, is brought to a crisis, and shows itself as problematic and devoid of absolute value. Did not the Katha-Upanishad warn that the pathway to knowledge is like a razor’s edge? And did not the tradition of the Far East advise us not to follow the Dragon in its flights above the clouds?

Now, just on this point we sense a highly significant convergence, because, as we have pointed out, this crisis, this relativization is also coming about within the present-day civilization of the West as the inevitable consequence of forces and processes which are set irrevocably in motion, and are in the nature of the terminal phase of a cycle. Now the insertion of the above mentioned spiritual values of the East at this very point may produce this effect, that dissolution may lead to purification and liberation, and that we may pass beyond destruction straight to an absolute beginning.

“Modern man,” wrote C. G. Jung, “may deem himself lucky because, when he came in contact with the thought and experience of the East, his spiritual poverty was such, that he failed even to perceive the nature of the reality he had come up against. So he can now restrict his relations with the East to the innocuous plane of intellectualism, for the rest leaving the matter to Sanskrit scholars.”[3] As a matter of fact, these words can he turned against Jung himself, theories of psychoanalysis having been responsible for one of the most dangerous misrepresentations of the traditional spirituality of the East. Yet he is right in warning us that contact with the East may be an event of very different import from what is fancied by vegetarian “spiritualists” or amateur intellectuals. The point of contact, as we have said, reaches down to the depths; it lies in the path not of those who in the West get confused, draw back, and try to resist, but of those who are not afraid of going on to extreme positions. The latter in most cases hurl themselves blindly forward, fight in the dark, and do not know what is to come hereafter. They do not realize that they are clearing the way for the contingent advent of a new cycle beyond the modern world as a whole.[4] Now this is just the sort of situation in which a knowledge of Oriental spirituality may act integratively.

* * *

We are not going to inquire here into the specific forms in which this influence may he brought to bear on situations not on the planes of knowledge and action. Some allusion to the subject has already been made in my article on a special current of Hindu thought, Tantrism, published in this periodical.[5] Here we have dealt with the general aspects, and we can sum up our views as follows. Firstly, the starting point should be the recognition of a spiritual heritage, which preceded, and is superior to, the East-West antithesis. In one particular sector, this finds its counterpart also on the historical and empirical plane, through the fundamentally common origin of the great Indo-European civilizations.

In the second place, we must morphologically single out a type of civilization which, like the modern one, is exclusively based on human conditions, and we must oppose to it a spiritual trend based on real and regular contact with a transcendent reality. Finally, as regards the practical problem, the possibility of a “return” conditioned by conversion should be considered: that which is now making itself felt at the close of a historic cycle through crises of many kinds and confused efforts at liberation may, if a suitable change or reversal of the polarity be made, lead to a new manifestation of what existed at the beginning and was lost. And it is in the East more than elsewhere, in the still undeteriorated East not yet caught up in the whirlpool of the modern world, that superhuman spirituality and a knowledge of the origins is still to a considerable extent preserved, while the West is standing on that edge for which Goethe’s words “Stirb und werde”[6] are valid. It will be, therefore, a question of the utmost importance whether the East now rushing at a disconcerting pace towards a stormy and chaotic period, will be able to resist spiritually and hold its ground till the moment when an effective contact between it and the West can be established. From this point of view, the problem of the future relations between East and West is seen to acquire universal significance, over and above the respective interests of either of the two civilizations.

East and West, vol. 2, no. 1 (April 1951): 23–27.

 

Notes

1. Japan until lately afforded an interesting example of an Eastern people which held on to its spiritual tradition in spite of being widely westernized in its outer life. Japan having been overthrown, it is difficult to tell how far it would have been able to maintain that position.

2. Evola, in his The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts, trans. H. E. Musson (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1996), cites  on p. 9 (note 14) Paul Dahlke, Buddhismus als Religion und Moral (Munich-Neubiberg: Oskar Schloss, 1923).–Ed.

3. C. G. Jung, Psychologie und Alchemie (Zurich: Rascher, 1944), p. 484.

4. It may be pointed out that the “cycles” doctrine offers an example of cases where things confusedly foreshadowed by individual Western thinkers might be integrated by notions of a traditional effective knowledge well-known in the East.

5. See [“What Tantrism Means to Modern Western Civilization“]. Some other aspects of this question have been considered in our work Ride the Tiger to be published shortly [Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for the Aristocrats of the Soul, trans. Joscelyn Godwin and Constance Fontana (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2003)].

6. “Die and become,” from Goethe’s poem “Selige Sehnsucht” (“Blissful Yearning”).–Ed.

 

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  • […] “A split has since occurred in the West which has been broadening with amazing rapidity. That split has given rise to a new, unprecedented world which has chosen for itself a questionable direction leading to a new civilization from which all transcendental metaphysical elements, all elements not purely human, have been gradually eliminated. As long as we cling to this world and consider ourselves the children of this civilization, adapting ourselves fully to the modern mentality and all it implies, with no understanding of any higher spiritual dignity, all endeavors to come to close quarters with the East will be in vain, for whatever we touch will be distorted and defiled, and no creative results will be achieved, since the condition for such achievement is a process from the interior, the influence of like on like, the reaction of like before like.” -Julius Evola […]

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