The Timeless Relevance
of Traditional Wisdom
By Ali M. Lakhani
Whole Book online: Scribd
More than ever, there is an urgent need to rediscover timeless and objective principles in order to confront the issues of our times. In this collection of remarkable essays, Lakhani summons us to rediscover the sacred worldview of Tradition, governed by truth, virtue, and beauty, as he addresses some of the most pressing issues today, including fundamentalism, gender and sexuality, religious diversity and pluralism, faith and science, and the problem of evil.
By William Stoddart
During the last fourteen years, the bi-annual journal Sacred Web has become recognized as a voice to be heard in the field of comparative religion and spirituality. This is largely due to the skillful editorship of M. Ali Lakhani, who, for virtually every issue, has been able to garner an impressive array of learned and distinguished contributors.
The Prince of Wales publicly expressed his appreciation of the journal and even made a gracious contribution to its pages. Every enterprise must have a “mission” or a “guiding principle” and, for Lakhani, this has been the “traditionalist” or “perennialist” point of view. In recent years, the term “perennialism” has gained a certain notoriety, but it is not to be assumed thereby that absolutely everyone is clear as to what it means.
The “traditionalist” or “perennialist” school was founded by the F rench orientalist René Guénon (1886-1951) and the German poet and artist Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998). Guénon was the pioneer, and Schuon the fulfillment or consummation. Schuon pointed out the analogy here with two other wisdom schools which had dual originators and expositors, namely, those associated with Plato and Socrates in 5th century B.C. A thens, and with Jalal ad-Din Rumi and Shams ad-Din at-Tabrizi in 13th century Turkey.
Basically, the message of Guénon and Schuon is that of philosophia perennis or the perennial philosophy. This term was first used in the Renaissance, at which time it signified the recognition that the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus incontrovertibly expounded the same truth as lay at the heart of Christianity. In more modern times, the term has been enlarged to include the metaphysics and mysticisms of all of the great world religions, notably, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.
Forerunners of the perennial philosophy in the E ast could be said to be the Islamic philosopher/mystic Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), who explained with particular cogency how an “essence” of necessity had many “forms”; and also the Hindu saint Ramakrishna (1836-1886), who was intimately familiar, not only with Hinduism, but also with Christianity and Islam, and who knew that each one of these religions was a way to God..
The central idea of the perennial philosophy is that Divine Truth is one, timeless, and universal, and that the different religions are simply different—and providential—languages expressing that one Truth. The two symbolisms most often used to express this view are, firstly, the uncolored light and the many colors of the spectrum, which are made visible only when the uncolored light is refracted. Secondly, there is the saying that “all paths lead to the same summit”. In this symbolism, the variety of religions is represented by the multiplicity of starting-points around the circumferential base of a mountain or a cone. The radial, upward, paths are so many ways to God. From this picture, one can see that the unity of the religious forms is a reality only at the dimensionless point that is the summit.
Following upon the two eminent originators of the traditionalist or perennialist school, there came two distinguished continuators, namely the Anglo-Indian A nanda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) and the German-Swiss Titus Burckhardt (1908-1984).
Coomaraswamy was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) of a Tamil father and an E nglish mother. He was educated in E ngland. In his early days he worked in his homeland, but later he moved to the United States, where he became Keeper of the O riental Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, a post he held for many years. During the early and middle part of his career, Coomaraswamy gained an enviable reputation as a historian and connoisseur of Indian and Indonesian art. When, in the later part of his life, he encountered the traditionalist writings of Guénon and Schuon, it was a case of love at first sight. From the late thirties onwards, he became a powerful voice for “tradition” in the English-speaking world, writing several books and contributing many articles expounding the traditionalist or perennialist point of view to a variety of learned journals.
Titus Burckhardt was Schuon’s oldest and closest friend. He was born in Florence, but he came from a distinguished family of Basel, the city in which Schuon was born. Burckhardt was one year younger than Schuon, and they were at junior school together in Basel. Burckhardt devoted his life to the study and exposition of the different aspects of Wisdom and Tradition. He and Schuon were destined to become intellectual and spiritual colleagues for many decades. It seems appropriate to mention in passing that the perennialist school has been attacked on many sides. Sometimes, because of its universalism, it has been likened to the “New A ge” movement, and sometimes, because its central principle is gnosis (the knowledge of God), it has been likened to the heretical “gnosticism” of the early centuries of Christianity. I will not take up space here to refute these ill-founded charges.
René Guénon began writing his principal books in the 1920s, and Frithjof Schuon in the 1930s; each of them wrote over twenty books. F rom the start, however, their writings usually made their first appearance in the form of articles contributed to journals which could be called the predecessors of Sacred Web. These included, among others: the venerable Études Traditionnelles (Paris)—for a short time under the title of Le Voile d’Isis—which for many years was edited by Paul Chacornac; Studii Iniziatici (Naples), edited by Corrado Rocco; Sophia Perennis (Tehran); Connaissance des Religions (France); Sophia (Oakton, Virginia); Caminos (Mexico); Religio Perennis (Sao Paulo); and Zeitschrift für Ganzheitsforschung (“Journal for Holistic Research”, Austria).
The first English-language journal dedicated to the perennialist writings was Studies in Comparative Religion (London)—for a short time under the title of Tomorrow—which was edited by Francis Clive-Ross. This journal was published from 1963 to 1984, and has recently been revived as an on-line journal by World Wisdom Books of Bloomington, Indiana. Finally, in 1995, Sacred Web (Vancouver) made a welcome entry onto the scene. The focus of Sacred Web is encapsulated precisely by the title of this anthology, The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom. The journal quickly became a forum for articles by highly qualified contributors on a multitude of topics, ranging from metaphysics, spirituality, and sacred art, to every conceivable problem of the modern world.
Lakhani’s perennialist background did not in any way constrain him in his capacity as editor. All manner of points of view found expression in his pages. There were differences, and sometimes conflicts, the latter occasionally spilling over onto the “Letters to the Editor” section. No number of Sacred Web was dull. From the beginning, each number of Sacred Web was introduced by a long and meaningful editorial by Lakhani. With a lawyer’s meticulousness, he patiently and conscientiously scrutinized the problems and ambiguities emerging from the multi-faceted modern scene, often concentrating on those that were being dealt with in the relevant number of Sacred Web.
Part One of this anthology consists of a selection of the editorials from Sacred Web. The editorials expound what is meant by “Tradition”, and discuss metaphysical principles such as “verticality” and the underlying unity of religions, as well as metaphysical “problems” such as reconciling “evil” with the existence of God, and “the quest for moral certainty”. Many of the editorials focus specifically on the application of metaphysical principles to the issues confronting modernity. These issues include such topics as fundamentalism, secularism, pluralism, scientism, the environmental crisis, and issues of sexuality.
In these essays, Lakhani approaches the chaotic world with both compassion and sensitivity, but what makes his writings so worthwhile is the fineness of his analyses. In any context, he always seeks the “principle” or the “essence” underlying the issue and, from this starting-point, proceeds, deductively, to define its effects. When appropriate, it is his custom to offer an opinion as to what the “cure” for some problem or other might be. His opinions are a combination of principles and commonsense, and always repay much pondering. The “Greek” method of objectivity and impartiality in defining and rectifying a problem is always visible. Bias stemming from sentimentalism is not the way of Mr. Lakhani.