Traditionalism: A Dialectic of Authenticity

  • Joel S. Kahn


One of the most common criticisms of Western writings on Asia in general, and Asian religion in particular, is that they have less to do with “real” Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. and much more with the (modern/Western) concerns of those who author them. Western accounts of non-Western belief systems are, in other words, better seen as particular kinds of representation rather than descriptions of actually existing Islamic/Buddhist/Hindu/Taoist/Confucian beliefs and practices that they purport to be. In a word, although critics are increasingly hesitant to use it, these accounts are inauthentic. In this view, Guénon’s Islam, David-Néel’s Buddhism, Schrödinger’s Hinduism, Hesse’s Taoism/Confucianism are “constructions” that bear little or no resemblance to Islam in the Middle East (or Southeast Asia), Buddhism in Tibet, Hinduism in India, or Taoism/Confucianism in China respectively.


Middle East Classical Text Muslim World Ritual Propriety Eastern Religion 
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  1. 1.
    For an excellent study of the British occultist/theosophical/hermetic scene of the 1890s, see Alex Owen. 2004. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. For a shorter but equally important study, because it contains a discussion of Guénon’s relationship to the contemporary occultist scene in Paris, see Mircea Eliade. 1976. Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashions. Chicago: Chicago University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    The name was changed to Études Traditionelles in 1937 (Harry Oldmeadow. 2005. Journey’s East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 185).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Although not a Traditionalist in the strict sense, Aldous Huxley produced what is perhaps the best known account in English of Perennialism (Aldous Huxley. 1944. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See Thomas Trautmann’s discussion of nineteenth-century “Anglicism” among British writers and writings on India (Thomas R. Trautmann. 1997. Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 7.
    Anticolonial sentiments were prominent in theosophical circles. And Count Albert de Pourville (who sometimes wrote under the nom de plume Mat-Gioi), foreign legion deserter in Indochina and author of a number of works on Taoism, which Guénon admired, and which contributed to his own Traditionalist outlook, wrote some influential critiques of French colonialism, warning of the impending decline of the white race unless it took to defend itself from the “yellow race” by “securing western control of Chinese philosophical and sociological resources” (Mark Sedgwick. 2004. Against the Modern World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 58). This may explain in part why, as a leading conservative French Islamicist in the early part of the twentieth century, Guénon was not singled out by Said for criticism.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    I have in mind here Chatterjee’s postcolonial critique of Indian nationalism as being a discourse of largely Western origin (Partha Chatterjee. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    King argues that these texts encourage a very particular understanding of Hinduism as an ancient, monotheistic, and esoteric religious tradition that is strongly shaped by the “reflections of a (largely male) brahmanical élite increasingly influenced by śrāmana (especially Buddhist) renunciate traditions [which] … contributed to the development of an image of the heroic and noble ascetic as representative of the core values of Hinduism” (Richard King. 1999. Orientalism and Religion, Postcolonial Theory, India and “The Mystic East” London: Routledge, 123). Apart from King’s, the criticisms of this very particular European version of Hinduism are now legion (for a summary of many of these objections, see the work of anthropologist Daniel Dubuisson (Daniel Dubuisson. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology, trans. William Sayers. Baltimore, MD and London: Johns Hopkins University Press). For a comprehensive study of the history of the European representations of Hinduism and India, particularly in German romanticism, see the book by Wilhelm Halbfass. 1988. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
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    Julius Evola, a close follower of Guénon, was an admirer of Mussolini and there has been considerable debate over what appears to have been the fascist sympathies of Mircea Eliade before he left Romania (Sedgwick, Against the Modern World). Moreover, Werner Heisenberg, Schrödinger’s fellow quantum physicist and amateur Orientalist, is said to have been “moderately pro-Nazi” (Walter Moore. 1989. Schrödinger: Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 266). There are also suggestions that both Carl Jung and Henry Corbin were guilty of anti-Semitism (Steven M. Wasserstrom. 1999. Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cited in a review of Gunner Decker’s Hermann Hesse biography (Gunner Decker. 2012. Hermann Hesse: Der Wanderer und sein Schatten. Munich: Hanser).Google Scholar
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    Sri Ananda Saraswati, whose cult engaged in hashish smoking “for the purpose of obtaining visions in astral travel” (Barbara Foster and Michael Foster. 1998. The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 32).Google Scholar
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    Japan “was, on the whole, a place too civilized and occidental for her taste, too ‘tame’” (Ruth Middleton. 1989. Alexandra David-Néel: Portrait of an Adventurer. Boston, MA and Shaftesbury: Shambhala, 112).Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    This is not the place to repeat arguments made elsewhere. For more detailed accounts of such “retraditionalizing” processes in colonial Indonesia and Malaya See, respectively, Joel S. Kahn. 1993. Constituting the Minangkabau: Peasants, Culture and Modernity in Colonial Indonesia. Oxford and Providence: Berg; and Joel S. Kahn. 2006. Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World. Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Singapore University Press (Singapore) and NIAS Press (Copenhagen) (published in the United States by University of Hawaii Press.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    Like Traditionalist critics before him, from René Guénon and Carl Jung to Edward Said, Lopez is unable to resist privileging his own account from the stereotypes that have imprisoned us heretofore, for example when he suggests that “hidden” in his book “some may find a file with which to begin the slow work of sawing through the bars” that make us all “prisoners of Shangri La” (Donald S. Lopez Jr. 1998. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 13).Google Scholar

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© Joel S. Kahn 2016

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