Thank you, Swamiji, for assigning Jules Evans’s excellent essay on Aldous Huxley and perennialism. Evans’s summary of Huxley and the debates around The Perennial Philosophy is the best I’ve read. And this is embarrassing, but I felt a bit of a thrill reading it—Evans is way too sympathetic to Huxley, according to the current academic fashion I've been indoctrinated into.
You see, the P word is a very bad word in academic circles. Most of my scholarly peers see perennialism as a musty relic of bygone days of colonialism, 19th-century social science, and pie in the sky mysticism. [Edit, 6/22: and it certainly has elements of the first two!]
The True Way of 21st century scholarship is to look at (and look for) particularities—not what joins religions and sects, but what distinguishes them. The scholarly lens zooms finer and finer, and I’m no different in my research: I write about a single musical group in the context of early-1980s Great Britain.
As a person of faith in academe, you feel like a secret agent sometimes-- you have two identities, and you operate in occasionally hostile territory. But – shh-- there’s a perennialist underground. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I know several religious academics—Hindus, Christians, Esotericists—who agree with Sri Ramakrishna:
At one ghat, Hindus drink water. They call it ‘jal’. At another ghat, Muslims drink water. They call it ‘pani’. At another ghat, the English drink water. They call it ‘water.’ These three are one. The difference is only in name! Some are calling Her ‘Allah’, some ‘God’. Some are calling Her ‘Brahman’, some ‘Kali’. Some are calling Her ‘Rama’, ‘Hari’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Durga.’”
We don’t talk about it outside our little circle of like-minded friends, but we’ve read the mystics, as Evans has, and like him, we’re struck by how much they agree on. Some of us have had our own mystical experiences, which have reinforced our perennialist leanings.
But perennialism, as Evans suggests, has its pitfalls and shortcomings. Swamiji spoke in last week’s class of the “spiritual marketplace” and the tendency of people in 21st-century America to treat religion as another consumer item, and an unfortunate side effect of Huxley’s brand of perennialism can be to encourage spiritual consumerism, tourism, and materialism.
I’m with Ramprasad in that regard: “Why should I go to Kāshi? / At Her feet you’ll find it all.”