Although he did not originate the idea, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) is certainly the figure who is most widely associated with the term the perennial philosophy. The perennial philosophy is the idea of a core of shared truth and insight at the heart of a wide variety of diverse worldviews: the idea that mystics and visionaries spanning the world’s religions and philosophical systems have apprehended a common reality. Each of these mystics has expressed this reality in the language appropriate to their respective cultural settings and points of view.
As an approach that sees truth as available from a variety of standpoints, the perennial philosophy could be called a form of pluralism, albeit one that emphasizes the underlying unity of viewpoints, rather than the ways in which each viewpoint is unique.
An analysis of Huxley’s version of the perennial philosophy reveals that this approach to diverse worldviews is rooted in Vedanta, the central philosophy of Hinduism–specifically, the vision of Vedanta advanced by the Ramakrishna Order, based on the teachings of Hindu spiritual teachers like Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. This does not invalidate Huxley’s approach, but lends an important dimension to our understanding of why he takes the approach to the diversity of worldviews that he does. A study of Vedanta can thus illuminate the perennial philosophy.
Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy: An Outgrowth of Vedanta
Huxley defines the perennial philosophy at the outset of his classic work of the same name:
Philosophia perennis–the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing–the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being–the thing is immemorial and universal…A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.
Huxley was a Western spiritual seeker–an Englishman who immigrated to America and came to be a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976), a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Those who arrive at pluralism do so from a variety of starting points. (My own pluralistic outlook is, like Huxley’s, a largely Vedantic one.) The philosophical thread that Huxley describes as uniting many worldviews is essentially Vedanta.
Vedanta is identified primarily as a form of Indian–and specifically Hindu–philosophy. Rooted in the Upaniṣads–as well as in the Brahma Sūtra (a text which essentially condenses the teachings of the Upaniṣads into highly compact Sanskrit verses) and the Bhagavad Gītā (a text which renders the teachings of the Upaniṣads in a way more accessible to a popular readership, and which is seen by many as an Upaniṣad in its own right, called the Gītopaniṣad)–Vedanta is a philosophy which presents itself as the culmination of the Vedas, the sacred writings which form the authoritative foundation of Hinduism, and which are understood to reflect the insights of the ancient rishis–literally ‘seers,’ or sages–through whom they were revealed.
Vedanta, however, has a more universal dimension. If one breaks the word Vedanta–or, more properly, Vedānta–into its component parts, it is a combination of the words veda and anta. Veda refers, again, to the most sacred of Hindu writings; but it also means, in its root, wisdom. Anta means ‘end,’ and is cognate with this English word, both in the way it looks and sounds, but also in its varied meanings. So the word Vedānta can simply mean, in a very literal sense, ‘the end of the Veda,’ meaning ‘the end of the Vedas,’–the last portion of the Vedic literature to be composed: namely, the Upaniṣads. In this sense, Vedānta is simply a synonym for the Upaniṣads.
But, like ‘end,’ anta also means not only the final part of something, but also the aim or goal to which something is aimed or the purpose for which it is intended. In this sense, then Vedānta is not simply coincidentally the final portion of the Vedas to be composed historically. It is, rather, the ‘end’ or aim toward which all prior Vedic literature is pointed: its inner meaning or final, true purport. This is how Vedānta is traditionally understood by adherents of this school of philosophy in India: as the final aim or meaning of the Vedas, and thus of all Vedic thought and practice.
However, because Veda also means ‘wisdom,’ Vedānta can also be taken to mean the ultimate aim or end of all wisdom: of all knowledge. This is how Swami Vivekananda (1853-1902), the founder of the first Vedanta Society, and of the Ramakrishna Order of monks and the Ramakrishna Mission in India, and the preeminent disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, interpreted this word. “All knowledge is Veda,” according to Swami Vivekananda. This includes not only the teachings of the world’s religions, but also modern science, which Vivekananda sought to show to be harmonious with the Vedanta philosophy.
Accordingly, Vedanta is seen, certainly within the strand of this tradition that is rooted in the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, not only as a form of Indian or Hindu philosophy (although it is certainly this as well), but as a universal philosophy which underlies all worldviews and belief systems. As Pravrajika Vrajaprana explains, “Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its application and is equally relevant to all countries, all cultures, and all religious backgrounds.”
In short, Vedanta is the perennial philosophy.
This can be seen from Huxley’s characterization of the perennial philosophy as well. As Huxley describes this philosophy, it is “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.” The idea of “a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds” is the central teaching of Vedanta: the idea of Brahman. Brahman, according to Vedanta, is anantaram sat-chit-ānandam, or infinite being, consciousness, and bliss. It is from Brahman, according to the Upaniṣads, that all of existence has emerged: ‘All this, indeed, is Brahman,’ or in the original Sanskrit, sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahman.
Brahman is the Ground of all being, but also of each of our individual existences, in the form of the Self, or ātman. Ayam ātmā brahma. It is not only “substantial to the world of things,” but also to “lives and minds.” As the recurring refrain of an important dialogue in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad states, tat tvam asi–a phrase which many have taken to mean “You are That,” “That” being Brahman. A way of translating this phrase that was quite popular at the time that Huxley wrote The Perennial Philosophy was “That Art Thou,” which Huxley makes the title of the first chapter of his classic book: the chapter in which he shows, through numerous examples from many diverse traditions, the existence of a thread of thought found globally which teaches that the divine reality is present within each of us, at the very core of our being.
Huxley further states in his introduction that, “A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago.” This is a clear reference to the Upaniṣads, which form the conceptual touchstone of Huxley’s work. The most often cited, or principal, Upaniṣads were composed during the first millennium before the Common Era, with the oldest ones preceding the Buddha, who likely lived in the fifth century BCE.
The method which Huxley utilizes in articulating the perennial philosophy is essentially a literary one: to find expressions of various facets of this philosophy in works from a great variety of world traditions. As Huxley expresses it:
I have brought together a number of selections from these writings, chosen mainly for their significance–because they effectively illustrated some particular point in the general system of the Perennial Philosophy–but also for their intrinsic beauty and memorableness. These selections are arranged under various heads and embedded, so to speak, in a commentary of my own, designed to illustrate and connect, to develop and, where necessary, to elucidate.
Critical Responses and Replies to Criticisms
A number of criticisms of Huxley’s approach have been expressed through the years since he first articulated his vision in the nineteen forties.
One of these criticisms is that many of the selections that Huxley utilizes have been taken out of context, and that greater attention to the cultural and religious settings from which these aphorisms have been extracted–as well as to the texts themselves from which they are cited–might reveal that the authors whom Huxley cites are not really saying what he takes them to be saying. This is, of course, a very serious criticism; for the success of Huxley’s method depends upon his being able to show that the perennial philosophy is truly perennial: that the many great mystics that he cites are indeed all saying essentially the same thing about important topics like the nature of divinity.
A proper response to this criticism would itself constitute a lifetime of work, possibly on the part of multiple scholars: experts trained in the various traditions, languages, and literatures from which Huxley has drawn. A subset of this criticism is of course that Huxley has relied upon translations, which are themselves inevitably interpretations of the materials they present. (As an area studies expert myself, I must say that I find it maddening when amateur scholars draw grand conclusions from translations of texts which I know in their original language, and which do not quite say what the amateur scholar takes them to be saying.)
It is not impossible, though, that such work could be done. Scholars from an array of disciplines who take seriously and are interested in Huxley’s claims might well take up some particular aspect of his work–his citations of Chinese Daoist texts, for example, or of Sanskrit Hindu and Buddhist sources, or of Christian sources in various European languages–could well delve into the claims in the service of which Huxley cites particular sources and examine whether the interpretation he has given might be defensible.
Questions of interpretation, though, are not simply a matter of knowing a language well, or being familiar with the beliefs and practices of a particular tradition. If scholars are hostile to Huxley’s agenda–that is, if they are predisposed to reject the idea of a perennial philosophy–one could argue that their findings will be biased. Similarly, if scholars are friendly to this idea, if they have made up their mind that Huxley is essentially correct, then this is likely to bias their findings in the other direction. One would need to find scholars with sufficient interest in this project to pursue it, but who have not already made up their minds about the idea of a perennial philosophy. This is a tall order, though, again, not an impossible one to fulfill. A scholar would simply need to have an open mind about whether Huxley’s interpretation of some particular subset of the many texts that he cites represents an example of the perennial philosophy or not.
Another criticism, not entirely unrelated to the first one, arises from the fact that the philosophy he is identifying is, basically, Vedanta. If Huxley is, as the first criticism suggests, reading his own philosophy into the texts he cites, does this not do a kind of violence to those sources and the worldviews they represent? If he is trying to fit Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews into an essentially Hindu framework, is this not a form of religious inclusivism rather than a pluralism? Is Huxley articulating a truly universal philosophy, or a Vedantic inclusivism?
This is a fair criticism, but it also raises another set of very profound epistemological questions: that is, questions about the very nature of knowledge, particularly to the extent that all knowledge involves some measure of interpretation.
Religious inclusivism is an approach to the diversity of worldviews characterized by adherence to a specific worldview–typically a religious one–in a way that is open to the idea of there being truth in other worldviews, and even to the idea that the adherents of other worldviews are able to reach the same ultimate aim to which one is, oneself, oriented, through one’s own view and practice. It is an approach taken by many systems of Indian thought, as well as by the Catholic Church.
The most common criticism of this approach is that it is paternalistic: that one takes one’s own view, unquestioningly, to be the highest truth, and looks down upon the views of others as lesser truths. This is different from pluralism, which sees truth in other views, but is also willing to see one’s own view as imperfect, and capable of being deepened and expanded by engagement with others. Ramakrishna expresses pluralism when he says that all scriptures, even those of his own tradition, contain a mixture of sand and sugar. “We need to take out the sugar and leave the sand behind: we should extract the essence of religion–whether we call it union with God or Self-realization–and leave the rest behind.”
At the same time, however, there is a certain logic to inclusivism which, I would suggest, makes this position, to some extent inevitable, so long as we operate in the realm of conceptual thought. It is in the very nature of holding a worldview that one takes it to be true.
Even if one is open to the suggestion that one’s preferred view may need perpetual self-correction and improvement, this idea is itself a truth-claim to which one is assenting. One is thus, at least implicitly, rejecting its opposite: that one need never correct oneself because one’s view is already perfect just as it is. What we believe to be true, we believe to be true.
This means that if Huxley takes Vedanta to be an essentially true description of reality, he has a responsibility to live and act–and interpret other traditions–accordingly. Part of being devoted to Vedanta is being devoted to truth, whatever form it may take. One who takes the philosophy of Vedanta to be universal thus has a responsibility to be rigorous in terms of finding it in the texts of other systems of thought and practice. This is part of being intellectually honest. It is not that Huxley has been otherwise; but we may never see any statement of the perennial philosophy as final or complete. As long as we are operating in the conceptual realm, the realm of language, the possibility of sharpening and improving our expression of truth will always exist. Huxley’s work, I would suggest, presents us with an invitation to build upon it, even if this may require rejecting specific interpretations that he has given of particular texts. The perennial philosophy, we might say, is rather like truth itself–an ideal which we forever approach but never perfectly embody, at least in the realm of imperfect words and concepts. In words of Alfred North Whitehead, “There is no first principle which is in itself unknowable, not to be captured by a flash of insight. But, putting aside the difficulties of language, deficiency in imaginative penetration forbids progress in any form other than that of an asymptotic approach to a scheme of principles, only definable in terms of the ideal which they should satisfy.”
The Perennial Philosophy, Pluralism, and the Diversity of Worldviews
In last month’s issue of Tarka, I discussed pluralism: a response to the fact that, as we each search for truth, we inevitably encounter the fact that there are a great many possible worldviews. Each of these views suggests itself to us as a contender for the title of the ultimate truth. Many of these worldviews are religious in nature: the varied forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Daoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, the Baha’i Faith, and so on. Many others are secular, taking modern science as the primary, or perhaps the only, measure of truth: Marxism, existentialism, and so on. Each of these views has sub-varieties, finally coming down to the way of thinking of individual persons. To paraphrase Mohandas K. Gandhi, who once said, “In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals,” we can, perhaps with even greater precision, affirm that in reality, there are as many worldviews as there are individuals. Perhaps there are even more than this, given that the worldview of a single person will also shift over the course of a lifetime: sometimes subtly, and sometimes quite dramatically.
I also briefly surveyed various possible responses to the diversity of worldviews: agnosticism (the idea that it is unknown, or may even be impossible to know, which of the many worldviews that exist are actually true), secular exclusivism (the idea that only what has been proven by science is true), religious exclusivism (the idea that only one religion is true, and that only the practice of the one true religion leads to ultimate human fulfilment–salvation or liberation), religious inclusivism (the idea that there is only one fully true religion, but that there may be some truth in many of the world’s religions), and finally, pluralism, or worldview pluralism, according to which there is truth in many worldviews, and that our understanding of truth advances when we study and engage in a sincere dialogue with people who hold many different worldviews, expanding and deepening our own worldview along the way. The pluralist sees the cosmos as a field of diverse possibilities, but as finally affirming our quest for meaning and understanding. Phrased in theistic terms, pluralists believe that God will not abandon anyone because of the way they approach the truth. God, rather has provided many paths to truth precisely because we are diverse beings who need diverse ways to achieve our ultimate aim. To again cite Gandhi: “I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are all God-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at the bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”
Though Gandhi and other pluralists often phrase this stance in theistic terms, it is not necessary to do so. The particular shape that worldview pluralism takes will depend on the other commitments and beliefs with which it co-exists in the mind of any given individual. However it is phrased–either in theistic terms or in more impersonal terms–worldview pluralism is the view that there are many true worldviews, religious and non-religious, and that these worldviews and the practices and ways of life that are associated with them are effective in leading human beings toward their ultimate fulfillment, whatever that might consist of or mean.
Given that those of who arrive at worldview pluralism do so from various starting points, and take this perspective due to reasons distinctive to our own respective worldviews, there are, as one may expect, a variety of worldview pluralisms.
Many pluralists argue that the varied worldviews and the ways of life associated with them are all paths to the same ultimate end, or responses to reactions to the same ultimate reality. The Hindu sage, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886), affirms, for example, that the reality to which various paths point is one and the same, though known under different names and forms. He thus establishes the basic template which Huxley also follows in The Perennial Philosophy:
…the Reality is one and the same. The difference is only in name. He who is Brahman is verily Ātman, and again, He is the Bhagavān. He is Brahman to the followers of the path of knowledge, Paramātman to the yogis, and Bhagavān to the lovers of God…It is like water, called in different languages by different names, such as ‘jal,’ ‘pāni,’ and so forth. There are three or four ghāts on a lake. The Hindus who drink water at one place, call it ‘jal.’ The Mussalmāns [Muslims] at another place call it ‘pāni.’ And the English at a third place call it ‘water.’ All three denote one and the same thing, the difference being in the name only. In the same way, some address the Reality as ‘Āllāh,’ some as ‘God,’ some as ‘Brahman,’ some as Kāli,’ and others by such names as ‘Rāma,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Durgā,’ ‘Hari.’
The Christian pluralist John Hick (1922-2012) similarly argues that the world’s religions are varied responses to a singular transcendental reality, which Hick designates–using a term which seeks to be religiously neutral, but which is highly evocative of Hindu traditions–as ‘the Real.’
Other pluralists, though, have argued that this approach is not pluralistic enough. John Cobb and David Griffin, for example, influenced by the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), have argued for a ‘deep religious pluralism,’ in contrast with the ‘identist’ pluralism of John Hick and others. Cobb and Griffin have argued that a metaphysical worldview can be postulated in which adherents of diverse worldviews and religious practices each achieve the fulfilment of their respective practices without claiming that this ultimate fulfilment is exactly the same in every cases.
In practical terms, this means that Christians, for example, can be reaching salvation as conceived in Christianity–eternal loving communion with a singular Supreme Being–while Buddhists are at the same time reaching nirvana–the extinction of all ignorance and craving and freedom from the cycle of rebirth. These can both be happening in the same universe. From this point of view, each of the religions is capturing an important part of the truth, and the practices that accompany each of these perceptions are really and truly effective in achieving the goals that they set out to achieve. This is a complex, multi-faceted universe, which allows for a multiplicity of worldviews and lifeways. The challenge for this approach is to articulate how it is that apparently incompatible worldviews can, in fact, be mutually compatible.
Still other thinkers focus, like Ramakrishna and Hick, on the convergences of the world’s religions, arguing that, behind their apparent diversity, there is a deep unity: shared values, but also shared experiences of transcending and going beyond the sufferings of our worldly life. Huxley, a preeminent exponent of this point of view, argues in The Perennial Philosophy that a thread of shared wisdom unites the world’s religions, and that it is this shared wisdom, more so than the many topics on which they differ, that is the important element to focus upon in our quest for truth amidst the diversity of worldviews. This perspective, sometimes known as perennialism, is often differentiated from pluralism precisely by its emphasis on a unity connecting the world’s religions.
I would suggest, though, that it is more useful to think of the idea of the perennial philosophy as an important component of pluralistic thought: as a type of pluralism. When we observe the many differences amongst worldviews, it is not always the case that these differences are absolute. There are also areas of genuine overlap amongst the world’s religions and philosophies. Simultaneously, while these areas of overlap certainly exist, it also cannot be said that the world’s religions and philosophies are the same or identical. One could see the exponents of deep religious pluralism and the adherents of a perennial philosophy as each affirming an important piece of the larger picture of the diversity of worldviews. An affirmation either of a sameness that would ignore or obliterates difference, or of difference that does not allow for sameness or overlap, would be extreme positions. Neither would fully capture the complex reality of worldviews that both differ and overlap simultaneously. I am not saying that either the perennialists or the deep religious pluralists are guilty of falling into these respective extremes. These are all very subtle thinkers. Each, rather, tends to emphasize one side of the issue more than the other. I would argue for an integration of the perennial philosophy with a pluralism that also emphasizes the distinct truths that are unique to each worldview: a pluralism that includes both the perennial philosophy and deep pluralism as important factors in approaching diverse worldviews.
Historically speaking, Huxley’s articulation of the perennial philosophy is a major contribution to the rise of a pluralistic consciousness in the Western world. It is with Huxley that Ramakrishna’s and Swami Vivekananda’s Vedantic ideal of the transcendental unity of worldviews is popularized and begins to enter the philosophical mainstream, where it is picked up by Hick and others.