Classic Distortion – The darker side of Alain Danielou’s work

Alain Danielou's Inherent biases due to his western upbringing made him misrepresent Swami Karpatri Ji's works.

Classic Distortion – The darker side of Alain Danielou’s work

Alain Danielou (1907-1994) was famous as one of the few western disciples of Swami Karpatri Ji. Danielou, considered to be an expert on Shaivism, was generally seen as a champion of Hinduism. However, there are certain less commonly known facts about him which cast a dark shadow on this reputation. These facts relate to a scandal that remained buried for decades till 2004 when one of Danielou’s own disciples started highlighting facts which showed that Danielou had indulged in academic dishonesty by distorting and misrepresenting the views of Swami Karpatri Ji.
This phenomenon of a Hindu guru being betrayed by a western disciple is well known to many of us. Still, this specific episode is worth reminiscing because every such occurrence throws its own set of learnings for us. Having said that, we now recount the details of this scandal after taking a quick look at Alain Danielou’s career.
Alain Danielou was the man who made the first-ever English translations of works of KarpAtri Ji. He published translations of nine such articles in the 1940s. For a long time, these remained the only English translations of KarpAtri Ji’s works. Danielou was a French artist and musician who came to Varanasi before the 2nd world war and stayed there till 1954. During this period he met Swami Karpatri Ji in Varanasi and wrote some articles, under the name Shiva Sharana, in SidhAntathe magazine run by KarpAtri Ji.
After returning to Europe, Danielou became reputed as an expert on Hinduism and India. He wrote nearly 30 books on India and claimed that these books were based on traditional Hinduism, especially on KarpAtri Ji’s teachings. His books such as Myths and Gods of India, Hindu polytheism were received enthusiastically and registered good sales figures. Many westerners were introduced to Hinduism, Indian music and culture through Danielou’s works.
We can see that Danielou acted as a bridge between India and the western world and was generally seen as a great scholar of Hinduism. A part of his acceptance as an authority on Hinduism was attributed to his association with Swami Karpatri Ji who was one of the most revered gurus of the time. Danielou was seen and perceived as someone who was carrying the great guru’s message to the world. Danielou himself asserted his status as a representative of Karpatri Ji in many of his works. However, in 2004, another Frenchman Jean Louis Gabin discovered some facts which showed that Danielou had not only not conveyed Karpatri Ji’s true message but had also distorted the message of Karpatri Ji.(1)
Gabin, who had collaborated with Danielou for a long period, was working on editing the unpublished works of Danielou. Between 2003 and 2006 (After Danielou’s death), Gabin edited 5 books of Danielou. In 2004, Gabin says, he discovered a factual error regarding KarpAtri Ji in many of Danielou’s books. He found that Danielou had claimed many times that Swami Karpatri Ji had created the political party Jana Sangha. (2)
The truth of Gabin’s allegations can be confirmed from Danielou’s 1987 book The way to the Labyrinth where Danielou writes,

“After India became independent, Swami Karpatri created a political movement, the Jana Sangh(People’s assembly).” (3)

In another place he says,

“In 1942, when the Indian National Congress headed by Gandhi revealed its socialistic and progressive goals, Swami Karpatri decided that Hindu civilization was becoming seriously threatened: It was time for Brahmins and sannyasis, who are not supposed to take part in politics to “descend upon the battlefield” according to the predictions of the sacred texts. Before Swami Karpatri created the Jana Sangh political movement for the defense of traditional values, he ordered the preparation of one of those astonishing rituals called yajnas, on which kings have sometimes spent their entire fortune.” (4)

And yet again,

“Today the Jana Sangh, the traditionalist political party founded by Swami Karpatri, which I had a small part in helping to create, probably represents the majority of the population.” (5)

In another book, A brief history of India, Danielou doesn’t unambiguously credit Karpatri Ji with the formation of Jana Sangha but makes another false claim when he says that Jana Sangh was formed in 1947 when the actual year of Jana Sangh’s formation is 1951.(6)
Danielou says,

“Little by little, cultural and political movements were organized to defend the traditional culture, religion and structure of Hindu society. The first was Hindu Mahasabha, whose aim was to counterbalance the influence of the Muslim League. Then, toward 1939- inspired by a Hindu monk of extraordinary culture and intelligence, Swami Karpatri- the Dharma Sangh cultural movement was born. It was followed in 1947 by a political movement, Jana Sangh, which has continued to oppose the westernizing cultural policy of the Indian government.” (7)

This was a big mistake because KarpAtri Ji didn’t create Jana Sangha but as the founder of RAma RAjya Parishada, he was also a political opponent of Jana Sangha. He had severely criticised RSS and Jana Sangha on many occasions. Gabin further says that he later noticed that many western people considered KarpAtri Ji to be Jana Sangha’s founder on the authority of Danielou. The response, to this factual error, of KarpAtri Ji’s direct disciples whom Gabin met later was one filled with surprise and disbelief. At that time, Gabin was working on a project of publishing Danielou’s translations of KarpAtri Ji’s work in a single volume. This volume was being prepared under the title The Ego and the self and other writings.
Discovery of Danielou’s false claims about Jana Sangh prompted Gabin to examine the translations of Danielou more closely and soon he started to notice many errors. Gabin decided to dig deeper and thought the best recourse at that point was to compare Danielou’s translations with the original articles written by KarpAtri Ji. After some effort, Gabin was able to lay his hands on the original LingopAsanA and a reprint of Shri Bhagvati Tattva as it had appeared in SidhAnta. He started to check the translation of LingopAsanA with help of GC Tiwari, a direct disciple of KarpAtri Ji. Danielou’s translations were soon found to be replete with biases and distortions.
These errors which have been described in detail in the introduction of the book Linga and the great Goddess relate mainly to Danielou’s translations of the following two essays written by Karpatri Ji:
1) LingopAsana Rahasya
2) ShriBhagvati – Tattva
These errors can be placed into the following categories.
1. Wrong translations & interpolations.
2. Omissions of key words, sentences and paragraphs.
In the following space, we’ll take a look at both types of errors and try to understand how these errors might have impacted the reader’s understanding of Karpatri Ji’s ideas. We also try to see if these were honest mistakes or if they were prompted by Danielou’s own ideological biases.

Wrong translations & interpolations

One such instance is related to the translation of the term linga from KarpAtri Ji’s essay LingopAsana Rahasya. In the 1941 essay The inner significance of Linga worship, written by Danielou as a translation of LingopAsana Rahasya, the term linga appears without any change but translated as Phallus in later translations.
In the original essay LingopAsana Rahasya, Swami KarpAtri Ji wrote in Hindi,
एकतः सर्वदानानि व्रतानि   विविधानि 
तीर्थानि  नियमा यज्ञा लिङ्गाराधनमेकतः ।।
भुक्तिमुक्तिप्रद लिङ्ग विविधापन्निवारणं।(8)
English translation of the above text by G C Tiwari, the direct disciple of KarpAtri Ji is as follows

“On one side all the offerings and numerous vows, pilgrimages, obedience to rules, And on the other side, linga worship: The linga bestows prosperity, liberation and removes many kinds of misfortune.” (9)

Danielou translates this in the following manner in 1941, without using the term Phallus.

 “A life spent without worshipping the linga of Siva is a source of misfortunes; while its worship brings everything; worldly pleasure (bhukti) as well as liberation (mukti).” (10)

However, in The Myths and Gods of India (1991 edition, first published in 1964) the translations change to,

“Those who do not recognize the divine nature of the phallus, who do not measure the importance of the sex ritual, who consider the act of love as low or contemptible or as a mere physical function, are bound to fail in their attempts at physical as well as spiritual achievement. To ignore the sacredness of the linga is dangerous, whereas through its worship the joy of life (Bhukti) and the joy of liberation (Mukti) are obtained. (KarpAtri, “LingopAsana Rahasya”)” (11)

Further, In Shiva and the primordial tradition (2007, translated by Gabin), Danielou quotes Swami Karpatri Ji,

“Those who do not acknowledge the divine nature of the linga, who do not understand the sacred character of the sexual rite, who consider the act of love vile and despicable, or as a mere physical function, are certain to fail in their attempts at material and spiritual realization. To ignore the sacred character of the linga is dangerous, whereas by worshipping it one obtains pleasure (bhukti) and liberation (mukti).” (12)

Clearly, Danielou made changes in original translations from one edition to another. From 1941 to 1964, Linga changes to Phallus but in 2007, there is no mention of Phallus. However, it should be noted that the 2007 book was translated by Gabin and was published long after Danielou’s death.
Also, irrespective of the Linga/Phallus usage, the translations in 1964 and 2007 go far beyond the meaning of Karpatri Ji’s original essay and appear to highlight the importance of “sexual rite” which is not even mentioned in the original essay. This, evidently, is not a case of a careless translation mistake but an intentional interpolation of Danielou’s own views that misleads the reader about Swami Karpatri Ji’s position.
To prove that such a suspicion is not unfounded, we take a look at another example of such interpolation by Danielou. In LingopAsana Rahasya Swami Karpatri Ji writes,

सुख में साक्षात कामना और उससे अन्य में सूख का साधन होने से इच्छा होती है , इसलिए आनंद और तद्रूप आत्मा निरितशय , निरुपाधिक परप्रेम का आस्पद है, अन्य वस्तुएँ सातिशय, सोपाधिक अपर प्रेम के आस्पद हैं। कान्त को कान्ता की कामना , उसको सुखाभिव्यंजक अतएव सुखमय समझ कर ही होती है। कामना या तृष्णा से व्यथित ह्रदय में स्वरुपभूत आत्मानंद का प्राकट्य नहीं होता। परन्तु , अभिलाषित कान्ता की प्राप्ति होने पर वह तृष्णा निवृत हो जाती है , बस तभी अन्तर्मुख कंचित शांत मन पर आत्मानंद का प्राकट्य होता है।(13)

G C Tiwari translates this as,

“It is evident that when arises a direct aspiration towards happiness, and identifying in something different the means to fulfill this, there is the desire; for this very reason, bliss (Ananda) and the Self who is bliss -natured is the repository seat of the absolute, limitless, supreme love, and the other things are the object of relative, limited, lower love. The desire of the lover for the beloved makes him think her to be the means to, and nature of, his happiness. The self does not show itself in its own form of bliss when the heart is tormented by desire or longing. However, once the desire for the lover is fulfilled, for a moment that longing is completely suppressed; so in the mind somewhat introverted and pacified appears the bliss of the self.” (14)

In The Myths and Gods of India, Danielou, quoting Swami Karpatri Ji, says,

“Pleasure dwells in the sex organ (upastha), in the cosmic linga and yoni whose union is the essence of enjoyment. In the world also all love, all lust, all desire, is a search for enjoyment. Things are the desire for the pleasure they contain. Divinity is the object of love because it is pure enjoyment. Other things are objects of temporary love since they bring us only temporary satisfaction.
The desire of the lustful man for a woman exists because he sees her as the form of his pleasure, the source of his enjoyment. In the joy of possession, the pain of desire is for one instant relieved and man experiences pleasure, which is the end of his desire, and the perception of his inherent nature, which is enjoyment.
All enjoyment, all pleasure is the experience of divinity. The whole universe springs forth from enjoyment; pleasure is found at the root of everything. But perfect love is that whose object is not limited, love without attributes, the pure love of love itself, of the transcendent being-of-joy.” (15)

Here, we can once again note Danielou’s stress on the sexual aspect. Firstly, “upastha” or sex organ is not mentioned anywhere in the paragraph written by Karpatri Ji. Besides, Danielou translates कान्त (kAnta) as sexual man. It’s clear that such a meaning is not at all implied in KarpAtri Ji’s original article. Even in his 1941 article, Danielou does the same in addition to translating कान्ता (kAntA) as sexual woman. In this article, he also makes the sentence more prominent by starting a paragraph with it whereas in the original it is in the middle of the paragraph. This is what Danielou says in that article.

“The lust of the sexual man for the sexual woman exists because he believes her to be a source of pleasure and the cause of his pleasure. In the heart which aches from lust or thirst, the bliss which is the true nature of the soul does not appear. But when the desired woman is possessed, the heart is for one instant freed from the thirst, this is sufficient to create some peace in it which allows the bliss of the spirit to be seen in the mind. But the joy really resides in the spirit that is in the ‘freedom from want’ through which this joy manifests itself.” (16)

In yet another instance of wrong translation, Danielou replaces singular deity by the plural “deities”. In the original article LingopAsana Rahasya, Karpatri Ji writes,

सुन्दर, मनोहर देवता तद्विषयक प्रेम आदि उपादेय हैं, सुंदरी वेश्यादि की आनंदरूपता और तद्विषयक प्रेम हेय है। (17)

The English translation by G C Tiwari is,

Beautiful and charming is the deity, and our love for Him is fruitful, while the pleasure arising from beautiful prostitutes etc. is harmful and is to be rejected. (18)

However, Danielou’s translation on behalf of Swami Karpatri Ji in 1941 says,

“Deities, their beauty and appeal, are useful and love for them is beneficial while the beauty of prostitutes is harmful and their love is to be rejected.” (19)

We can see that singular Devata in Karpatri Ji’s original article has been changed to plural Deities in Danielou’s article in ‘Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art’. That it’s not an unintended error is proved by the use of their and them in Danielou’s article. Another thing to be noted here is that in Karpatri Ji’s original article, this sentence appears prominently at the start of a paragraph while in Danielou’s translation it is found in the middle of a paragraph.


In additions to the various mistranslations and interpolations such as the ones mentioned above, Danielou also omitted many key words, sentences and paragraphs in his translations. He also arranged many paragraphs differently and most shockingly totally omitted the last five pages concluding the article LingopAsana RahasyA.
Here’s an Example of sentences omitted by Danielou.

“It would be a great offence to consider Linga and Yoni that are forms of Shiva- Shakti, as merely the worldly penis and vulva, the fleshy organs of urination.”(20)

Here’s another example.

“Could a worldly Yoni, a urinary organ, a scrap of leather, support the Jyotirlinga, made of fire that burns everything?”(21)

We can clearly see that these omitted sentences showing Karpatri Ji’s view regarding the nature of the linga and Yoni may not have been in sync with Danielou’s views, as we have seen above, which attached a more sexual and worldly connotation to these terms.
The last five paragraphs, mentioned earlier, that were omitted totally, stress KarpAtri Ji’s strong belief in the unity of various deities or EkeshvarvAda. In these omitted pages, Karpatri Ji strongly emphasised the unity of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti.
In one place he says,

“Vishnu is considered to be Siva’s inner essence…In fact Shiva and Vishnu are one – (As shown) in the image of Harihara”. (22)

In another place, he says,

The same Lord, having taken the form of Shakti, is called ChandikA, the fearful Goddess.” (23)

Similarly, in Danielou’s translation of Shri Bhagvati Tattva on behalf of Swami Karpatri Ji published under the title ‘The mystery of the all-powerful God’ (24) in 1945 edits out the following words from Karpatri Ji’s original article.

एकेश्वरवाद सर्वत्र मान्य है ही, उसी को महद्भय वज्ररूप भी कहा गया है। (25)

This has been translated in English by MV Mehra as

Monotheism (EkeshvarvAda) is universally accepted. That one is said to have the greatly terrifying nature of the thunderbolt.” (26)

Here we note that EkeshvarvAda may have been wrongly translated to monotheism by Mehra. However, he does provide the original term EkeshvarvAda. Also, the fact that is being stressed here is Danielou’s omission of a sentence that is one of the core beliefs of an advaitin sanyasi such as Karpatri Ji.
Here it’s natural to ask if there was a motivation or pattern behind these omissions. It appears that the parts omitted by Danielou were in contradiction to his belief in polytheism and his antipathy towards nondualism. He saw Hinduism as a polytheistic religion. In his own words,

“In the polytheistic religion each individual worshiper has a chosen deity (Ishta devta) and does not usually worship other gods in the same way as his own, as the one he feels nearer to himself. Yet he acknowledges other gods. The Hindu, whether he a worshiper of the pervade (Vishnu), the destroyer (Shiva), Energy (Shakti) or the sun (Surya), is also ready to acknowledge the equivalence of these deities as the manifestations of distinct powers springing from an unknowable “Immensity.” (27)

Similarly, talking about Nondualism and monism he says,

“The term “nondualism” has proved, in many instances, to be a dangerous one, since it can easily be thought to rest on a monistic concept. The Hindu philosophical schools which made an extensive use of this term opened the way for religious monism, which is always linked with a “humanism” that makes the man center of the universe and of “god” the projection of the human ego into the cosmic sphere. Monism sporadically appears in Hinduism as an attempt to give a theological interpretation of the theory of the substrata. Nondualism was, however, to remain, a conception of the philosophers. It never reached the field of a common religion.  
The tendency towards monism never has had in practice a deep influence on the forms of Hindu worship. A simplified system could never accommodate the multifaceted, complex unity that characterizes the Hindu pantheon, where although every element can, from a certain point of view, be equated with every other, the whole can never be brought back to numerical unity.
In the general picture of later Hinduism, an exaggerated importance has been attributed to some philosophical schools of monistic Hinduism which developed mainly under the impact of Islamic and Christian influences and which aim at representing Vedic texts in a new light.” (28)

Here we can see that Danielou, as a strong supporter of polytheism does not accept the unity of various deities. The farthest he goes is to accept some kind of equivalence between the various deities. However, that is a very different position from Karpatri Ji’s EkeshvarvAda which says,

 “In fact, Shiva and Vishnu are one.”

Another point repeatedly stressed by KarpAtri Ji but omitted by Danielou concerns the theory of categorising Shiva as a non-Aryan god. According to Danielou, Shiva was a pre-Aryan God and Shaivism, a pre-Aryan religion, whose elements were gradually incorporated by Vedic Aryans. In his book Shiva and the Primordial Tradition (translated by Jean Louis Gabin), he says,

Since prehistoric times, India has known two great religious traditions. The first, Shaivism, is a nature religion, which seeks to perceive the divine in its works and to become part of them. The second is Jainism, a humanistic religion, dealing essentially with ethical and social values. Aryan Vedism gradually incorporated the concepts of these two ancient traditions, at many contradictory levels, resulting in what is now known as Hinduism, whereas Shaivism and Jainism as such have continued down to our own times in parallel with Hinduized Vedism. (29)

This clearly shows that Danielou believes in a non-Aryan origin of Shiva. However, KarpAtri Ji rejects this theory pointing to the importance of Shiva Rudra in the Vedas. His views are in contradiction to those of Danielou. Karpatri Ji says,

“Shiva is frequently claimed to be non Aryan. However, in the Vedas, Shiva- Rudra has been given an important stature.” (30)

KarpAtri Ji goes on to quote many passages, from Rk, Yajur and Atharva Vedas and from Taittiriya Aranyaka in support of his position and he ends LingopAsana Rahasya with the following words,

“In this way, the eternal and of non human origin (Apaurusheya) Vedas, Puranas, Tantras and the stories concerning them have proved the reality of Shiva having the nature of ultimate lordship (Parameshvaratava), peacefulness(Shantatva) and the all-praised(sarvapujyattava); so what is the basis to say that the worship of Shiva was taken from the non Aryans? What is the value of such baseless talk?” (31) (Translated by GC Tiwari)

However, Danielou never mentions these words in his translation of LingopAsana Rahasya and also omits pages which discuss Shiva’s association with Tamas. According to KarpAtri Ji,

“There are no tAmasika ingredients amongst those implements for a Shiva puja used by Vedic priests.” (32)

He adds the following,

“To say Shiva is god of Tamas is great foolishness.” (33)

He also says,

“Lord Shiva is controller of Tamas; he is not within power of Tamas” (34)

This again was again in conflict with views of Danielou, who says in The Myths and Gods of India,

“Shiva is the embodiment of Tamas, the centrifugal inertia, the tendency towards dispersion, towards disintegration and annihilation.” (35)

Having taken a detailed look at the various acts of mistranslation, interpolation and omission committed by Danielou, we can summarise the following:
1. The mistranslations, interpolations and omissions committed by Danielou have the effect of hiding the real views of Karpatri Ji. Hence, many times a significant gap gets created between what Karpatri Ji conveys and what the reader might conclude.
2. The parts that have been hidden from the reader through mistranslations, interpolations and omissions by Danielou are the ones which are not in sync with Danielou’s own thoughts.
3. This leads to the conclusion that Danielou, who was entrusted with the responsibility to take Karpatri Ji’s views to the world through his translations, was actually propagating his own views in name of Karpatri Ji. This is clearly something unethical.
4. The errors mentioned above were not one-off mistakes. They were committed repeatedly over a long period of time due to Danielou’s strongly held ideological positions.
Given these facts, it’s hard not to conclude that Danielou’s omissions and mistranslations were deliberate and had been done with the purpose of hiding the conflict between his own and Swami Karpatri Ji’s views. While one can debate endlessly about the merits of these two competing arguments, it was unethical of Danielou, who as a translator was writing on behalf of Karpatri ji, to have distorted the views of Karpatri ji.


Summing up the various distortions and misrepresentations created by Danielou’s translations, Gabin says,

 “Danielou’s translation reflects the original text as a mirror broken into many pieces reflects a landscape. All the reasoning of SvAmi KarpAtri disappears, and what remains are ‘tales’, ‘myths’ and ‘gods’ designated by decorative names – like Shiva the lord of sleep, Sarasvati, the lady of the lake- always colourful but often wrong.” (36)

Such distortions sometimes had the effect of bringing undeserved notoriety to the name of much revered Dharma SamrAta. This is evident in the way some foreign scholars described KarpAtri Ji as a “Tantric teacher and practitioner” on the authority of Danielou. (37)

As Lawrence Cohen writes, “KarpAtri’s mix of sexual and philosophical unorthodoxy and appeals to Hindu nationalism tinged with Aryan purity had a particular appeal for European intellectuals in the heady years before the Second World War when Varanasi was an international intellectual and cultural centre; His particular conjunction of unorthodox erotics and a Hindu nationalist theory of history can be found, further transmuted, in the writings of his disciple, the French Indologist Alain Danielou.” (38)

It was only through Ishvara’s will, infused with a great deal of irony that Danielou’s wrongdoings were brought to light by his own follower and collaborator Gabin. Expectedly, after discovering Danielou’s follies, Gabin shelved the plan of publishing the translations. Instead, he decided to publish a new translation in a bilingual edition that contained KarpAtri Ji’s articles with annotations.
This took the form of the book “The Linga and the great Goddess” which contains the original devanAgri text along with translations of 2 articles “LingopAsanA Rahasya”(translated by G C Tiwari) and “Shri Bhagvati tattva” (translated by M V Mehra). This endeavour of Gabin was supported by the followers of KarpAtri Ji. Also, the preface of the book was written by respected ShankarAchArya Swami SwarupAnanda Saraswati.
Here we note that publishing of “The Linga and the great Goddess”, a book where traditional scholars were intimately involved, could serve as a model for future publications related to Hinduism and Hindu culture. One is not suggesting a ban on works by western scholars but unless Hindu readers start placing a higher value on books which do not sideline traditional views, the empire of Donigers and Pollocks will keep growing bigger and stronger.
The saga of dubious Danielou also underscores the importance of traditional Hindu gurus exercising extreme caution while getting associated with those coming from non-Hindu traditions. This caution is advised mainly because most of these foreigners may be too deeply entrenched in their older culture to be able to grasp the Hindu worldview in its totality and hence end up distorting and misrepresenting that worldview. Danielou may not have been evil but we can surely detect a certain propensity for liberal ideas which seems to explain his zeal for presenting Hinduism as a non-dogmatic, joy seeking and liberal religion even at the cost of betraying the man he called his guru.
We conclude by observing that it was a matter of luck that KarpAtri Ji’s great name was exonerated from the distortions and misrepresentations of Danielou. However, such episodes can get repeated in the future too. Hindus have to be more vigilant than they have been to ensure early detection and remedy.

About Author: Pramod Kumar

Pramod is a teacher from NCR. He is interested in Indian history and culture. Twitter handle - @entropied

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