The Edward Butler Interview – Aparna Sridhar

Dr. Edward P. Butler

Aparna SridharAparna Sridhar speaks to Platonist and Polytheist Dr. Edward P. Butler. His doctorate is from the New School for Social Research, New York City, and his dissertation was “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”. Since then, he has published regularly in academic journals and edited volumes, primarily on Platonism and Neoplatonism and on the polytheistic philosophy of religion.

Q : How did your interest in religion and divinity begin? What were the first Indian resources you encountered in this journey?

A : I was raised without any religion, and hence discovered the religious literatures of the world in an unprejudiced fashion. As a child, I was introduced to religion through reading mythology from everywhere I could find it, and by staring at pictures in books of the ineffable icons of ancient polytheist civilisations. It was all captivating to me.

With respect to India in particular, my first introduction was through a close friend of the family who had travelled there extensively, and who, while not a Hindu herself, had a deep love and respect for Indian religion and culture. From the stories she told, I gained a vision of India as a place where a curtain had not been drawn between the Gods and humans, as it had before the Gods of Greece or Egypt.

When I got a bit older, all of these influences from my childhood coalesced into my present polytheistic religious identity as I began to have direct experience of the Gods.

Q : You have studied Gods and Goddesses of different civilisations. How are Indian deities different?

A : That is a difficult question. Every God is unique, and every pantheon of Gods is different; indeed, in Platonic thought the essential characteristic of divinity is uniqueness. I think that the first thing that comes to mind for me with respect to the Gods and Goddesses of India is the great good fortune of the Indian people to have their ancient traditions present for them intact, continuous and thriving. Most of the world’s other great polytheisms have been sundered or all but succumbed to the attempts to exterminate them, and hence exist today either in greatly reduced circumstances, or only through the efforts of revivalists. Clearly Hindu theology had already in antiquity reached the pinnacle of sophistication achieved by only a small number of others; ancient Egypt particularly comes to mind as an apt comparison. But so many of the works of the geniuses of piety in every nation are lost to us due to the violence perpetrated upon them, that it is to India above all others that we must look to see what a thriving polytheism looks like in its full flower, in all its complex richness.

Q : Many Westerners have come to India and been influenced by Indian notions of spirituality and bhakti. What is the uniqueness of the Indian tradition which attracts non-Indians, according to you?

A : People coming from cultures whose indigenous polytheisms and wisdom traditions were extinguished, or from which only a trickle has been allowed to flow, cannot but thirst for what India alone can offer, namely the overwhelming, living presence of her Gods. There are other living traditions, particularly of an initiatory kind, but it is only in India that the entire interdependent ecosystem of devotion is present, ritual and contemplation mutually informing one another. Outsiders, however, may not fully appreciate the extent to which all of the elements of this ecosystem are essential to one another and to the whole. And yet it is from this organic totality that they derived what nourishment they took for themselves.

Q : Rituals are comforting. What is the role of ritual in understanding a philosophy? Especially Indian philosophy?

A : Ritual is more than merely comforting; it is a vital connection between us and the Gods, and a way for us to participate in the mode of being which belongs to Them. Plato, in his Timaeus, states through the title character that if we intend to inquire concerning the universe, we must invoke the Gods and Goddesses, praying that all we say may be acceptable to Them, in the first place, and secondly to ourselves (Tim. 27c). The great Platonic philosopher Proclus, in the first chapter of his Platonic Theology, says similarly that everyone possessing any degree of intelligence begins their undertakings from the Gods, and especially in works concerning the Gods, for we cannot expect to understand that which is divine other than by being illuminated by the Gods, nor convey it to others without being guided by Them. And philosophy concerns the Gods even where it does not explicitly treat of Them, for it concerns the characteristics of divine being, that way of being that the Gods most of all possess, but in which we too share insofar as we are blessed by Them either directly or indirectly. Hence Aristotle recognises in his Metaphysics (983a6-10) that the goal of philosophy must be either to know the nature of the Gods, or to know what it knows in the way that it would befit the Gods Themselves to know.

And so ritual, as action directed toward the Gods and Their way of being, is essential to philosophy. This is especially clear, of course, in the case of Indian philosophy, a dominant strain of which is rooted in direct reflection upon ritual action. A tree does not, once grown, pull its roots up after it; and what has nourished philosophy in its infancy remains its source of vitality. Philosophers often speak of the intuition or insight which grounds thought; I would say that this philosophical intuition of truth is itself theophany, a perception of the Gods Themselves, as is attested by its beauty and the indelible impression it leaves upon the soul. To this extent, we ought perhaps to regard philosophy, when it is practised correctly, to be a sacred rite as well, one which honours the Gods through the kind of thought it practices.

Q : If you had to recommend one book to understand Sanatana Dharma, which would you choose?

A : I would simply recommend the Ṛgveda, the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas. In any tradition, what is most important is to engage with the sacred texts and let them speak to one as they will. Beyond that, I personally have found the works of Sri Aurobindo helpful.

Q : Does the concept of Brahman have parallels elsewhere in the world?

A : Not precise one-to-one correspondences, but I think that Brahman bears comparison to being (einai, on) or substance (ousia) in Greek thinkers, in certain respects to Aristotle’s prime unmoved mover, in Chinese thought to the notion of dao, and probably to ideas in many other indigenous wisdom traditions. The point of such a comparison is never, in any case, to arrive at complete substitutability, but rather to open a dialogue.

Q : Do you think Hinduism is understood by the world? Why is there so much intolerance to values it holds dear?

A : Hinduism is not understood by the world, unless we should say that in the very intolerance toward it, there is a certain unconscious understanding of it that motivates hostility, because of the repressions that exposure to it threatens to undermine.

The intolerance toward Hinduism is rooted in fear and loathing of polytheism. Polytheism was not simply left behind in the West, it did not die of natural causes; in fact, it didn’t die at all, because the Gods are still here. Christendom has been fighting its war against Them for two millennia now, and it grows tired. This is why when Europeans came into contact with actually existing polytheisms in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania in the early modern era, it set off a frenzy of destruction, subjugation and inhumanity. The old enemy was back.

Q : Religion in India permeates every walk of life. Are people comfortable with the whole package?

A : This is an excellent question. As I indicated above, I think that many outsiders seek enlightenment from India’s wisdom traditions while regarding India’s Gods as mere wrapping paper for some “message”. This is the commodification of spirituality, the idea that there is an essence, on the one hand, and something merely external, on the other. But an essence derived in this fashion is not universal in the true sense, which is simply about openness, about the possibility of engagement, but instead is universal in the sense that all manner of things can be reduced to their cash value. That is what is going on when the “universal” is opposed to the “particularistic” or the “sectarian”; it is about ease of appropriation.

There is another kind of universality, in which we are only ever dealing with the whole package. We cannot separate out the parts because it is only as living wholes, and not as dismembered limbs, that traditions communicate with one another. This is true universality, the universality of a pluralistic and polycentric world with traditions, whole and integral in themselves, entering into dialogue.

Q : What are your thoughts on Western Indology today? There are many fundamental problematic areas. Do you have any ideas on how we can fix them?

A : Until Western Indology recognises its complicity in the colonial enterprise, and particularly in the cultural genocide that is Christian conversion, it cannot be redeemed.

But we must recognise, further, that the entire academic study of religion is fatally flawed insofar as it is divided into so-called Theology, which is methodologically monotheistic, and Religious Studies, which is methodologically atheistic. The only way forward for the study of religion is methodological polytheism, because there can be no honest study of religions without granting immediately and transparently the existence of the Gods religions posit, the theophanies at their heart.

One cannot simply treat the objects of religious regard in diverse traditions as either confused representations of some reality beyond them, on the one hand, or as mere patterns of human behaviour, on the other, and claim to be pursuing knowledge. This is rather the pursuit of power, and an example, moreover, of the functional identity of monotheism and atheism, which is obscured by the conflict between them. They have a common goal in the suppression of the primary experience of Gods, which is theism itself. Polytheism just is theism. This is why the existence of other people’s Gods wasn’t and isn’t, generally speaking, a problem for polytheists. It’s not because they think all Gods are the same; you don’t get to tolerance by annihilating difference, but by recognising it. And this is the basis of all knowledge, as well. – CSP, 31 March 2020

Dr. Edward P. Butler is an associate editor at Walking the Worlds: A Biannual Journal of Polytheism and Spiritwork and the journal Socrates. His own website is Henadology.

Aparna M. Sridhar is a senior journalist, editor for Center for Soft Power and consulting editor for arts at IndicToday.