"What do you think of the Case of Mr. Levy?"
~ Private Schuon to S. Husayn (1939)
Some Fragments of Research Concerning John Levy and Frithjof Schuon
I have now given some idea of the final position, and there is little purpose in my speaking at length of the several years during which, still in search of genuine guidance, and having adopted the religion of Mohammed, I lived as a Muslim, practised the rites of orthodox Islam and performed the disciplines, the ritual dances and the meditations of an Order of Sufis, under the direction of a Sheikh. I should explain that what Cabbala is to Judaism, Sufism is to Islam. Now, the characteristic of all religions on the level at which they serve the needs of ordinary men is the acceptance of the duality of God and man, though usually there is in their scriptures something that points to a higher truth. In the Old Testament, for example, we repeatedly find the expression, ‘I am the Lord Thy God’; and in the New, there is the statement of Jesus, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’. Similar pointers are not wholly lacking in the Quran and are to be found especially in the recorded sayings of the Prophet. Great Sufis like Muhyuddin Ibn Arabi have rightly given them a metaphysical interpretation, although they seldom if ever give arguments to show why the reality is necessarily subjective, a thing Vedantins invariably do, the better to help aspirants to overcome the individualistic habits of thought of which I have previously spoken. But the unseeking Muslim, like the unseeking Jew or Christian, unfortunately has always been firmly wedded to dualism and has often sought to destroy anyone who, having transcended it, has been so bold as to proclaim the fact. The example of Mansur, who was beheaded for declaring, ‘Ana’l-Haqq—I am the truth’, is evidence enough. Al-Haqq, which means literally the truth, is one of the ninety-nine names of Allah, so to a Muslim, ‘Ana’l-Haqq’ means ‘I am Allah’: this is considered to be the most dreadful blasphemy a man can utter. One may suppose that the possibility of its being true was almost totally ignored. Of course, a man as such cannot be God as such, but the essential reality of God, as distinct from what mankind ascribes to him, cannot be different from the essential reality of a man who has realized his self as that which is beyond all human attributes.
Duality colours the mind of all who are brought up with the Quran as their scripture, and the result of this limitation is that Sufism, which has lost its force and is moribund, at present can offer only a path based on devotion and not upon knowledge, which, if the ultimate reality is to be found, is the necessary complement to the other. It is in many ways parallel to the dualists of India who say they only want to taste the sugar, which stands for the truth, and not to become it. Whereas the very basis of Non-Dualistic Vedanta is that it is impossible to become something you are not already: you have only to become aware of what you actually are, that is to say, absolute consciousness or knowledge when self is viewed from the standpoint of thought, absolute bliss or peace from the standpoint of feelings, and absolute existence from the standpoint of life. Even so, this awareness is not considered by Vedantins to be enough: it is one thing to have recognized your essential being, but what of the world? In Islam, just as there is no real analysis of the self, there is practically none of the world in terms of sensory perception, which in reality constitutes it, as already indicated when I spoke of Berkeley and in the lines of Shankaracharya. In Non-Dualistic Vedanta, this analysis is considered to be quite essential: without it, your experience of the world remains unexplained and complete knowledge is then impossible. Let it not be thought that I wish to disparage the admirable religion of Islam, for what I have said about its limitations applies equally to all other religions as such. In spite of these deficiencies at the highest level, Islam gave me the most invaluable help and brought me to the state of heart and mind in which I could receive the pure truth from a great Vedantin. That was in India, several years ago, and my life really began at that moment. Needless to say, because I have passed through so many phases to arrive at a solution, it does not follow that others have to do the same. Perhaps, from one angle, it was necessary that I should have had to pursue such a roundabout path in order the better to assure my fellow seekers that the truth, in the end, is utterly simple and self-evident. As Shankaracharya says:
‘The self that is ever-present in all beings appears, through a misconception, to be unattained. But when this wrong knowledge has been destroyed by true knowledge, it is seen always to have been attained, just as after searching everywhere for a necklace, the seeker finds it around his neck.’
~ John Levy, The Nature of Man According to the Vedanta, pp. 12-15
"Since we have seen how Coomaraswamy and Guénon diverged on the matter of what India could offer a Western aspirant, it is of interest to know Schuon’s own views here. He himself was on a trip to India with two Englishmen and had just arrived in Bombay when the War broke out, obliging him to return shortly to Europe. But the others remained and eventually attached themselves to a guru named Krishna Menon. We were in Lausanne when letters, at once euphoric and insulting, arrived from these men, indicating that something in their inner development had gone drastically askew in the way of self-delusion.
Now Schuon had good evidence that this guru was in reality a false master possessing dangerous psychic powers. He nevertheless in a long letter addressed to Krishna Menon gave the man the benefit of the doubt, writing that he was quite ready to believe his venerable addressee understood the structure and needs of the Hindu mind and soul; what he very much doubted, however, was if Krishna Menon or any other Hindu master as such was or ever could be adequately informed of and sufficiently prepared for the individualistic and cerebral complications that the typical Westerner bears in his heritage. Needless to say there was no reply, but the material in this letter has been expanded into the magnificent chapter in Language of the Self entitled ‘Self-Knowledge and the Western Seeker.’ This episode illustrates how Schuon was frequently motivated to write: a vast amount of what came from his pen was provoked by an error crying for rectification or a truth needing clarification, where no one else had appeared on the scene to do the job.
~ Whithall Perry, Perspectives
At the beginning of the following year Schuon gave up his professional activity, which was taking up too much of his time, and started to think seriously of returning to live in Switzerland. However, in August 1939, he undertook a journey to India in the company of two English disciples. One of them, John Levy, was very wealthy and took on the expenses of the journey. On the way they stopped in Cairo and Schuon was thus able to see Guénon for a longer period, as the latter had wished. Guénon was ill at the time, and lay on a mat on the floor. He had temporarily let his beard grow. Schuon wrote that “he radiated a sort of benevolence,” and that in his presence one felt a “spiritual greatness.” During his stay, John Levy gave Guénon a large sum of money so that he could buy a bigger house, for he was then only a tenant, and Adrian Paterson, a young Englishman who had become a close friend of Guénon’s, made up the difference. After a stop at Aden, the travelers arrived in Bombay on September 2, where they learned that the Second World War had just broken out. As a French citizen, Schuon had to join his regiment without delay. As for the two Britons, they were able to stay in India.
A year or two after his arrival, John Levy met a guru called Krishna Menon whose disciple he became with the name of Premânanda Nath, rejecting Guénon, Schuon, and Islam. A few years later, Levy came to see Schuon in Lausanne and brought him the book by his master Âtmâ-Darshan which contradicted Guénon’s views on Hinduism. After reading it, Schuon wrote Krishna Menon a long letter of doctrinal clarification in which he said, “René Guénon was the first European who dared to affirm in the West the superiority of the Hindu spirit over the modern Western spirit, and, in the name of Eastern spirituality and that of the ancient West, dared mercilessly to criticize modern civilization as it has developed for about the last four centuries. It is absurd to claim that an author of European and Christian origin, who has studied, in Sanskrit, the sacred Scriptures of India and the commentaries of Shri Shankara and other sages, and who alone in the West places Hindu wisdom above all philosophies, has understood nothing of this wisdom. Guénon wrote much in his life. He expounded all the fundamental data that it is necessary to know in the West in order to understand India” (undated data). For Schuon, the expression of the truth took precedence over any divergence. Moreover, he would not tolerate a cavalier attitude toward Guénon’s memory because, beyond all criticisms, he sincerely revered the person of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wâhid (René Guénon)—something that some of his detractors never understood. John Levy returned to England and wrote a book on the teachings of his master. In the early 1950s, a few of Schuon’s disciples approached the same guru, whose “so-called Hinduism” Guénon had criticized, and then left him. Several of Guénon’s articles at the time implicitly criticized the attitude or blindness of those who followed Krishna Menon. His letters also make frequent reference to this. A few years after his return to Europe, John Levy was the victim of a serious accident that left him paralyzed. He died a few years later.
~ Laude and Aymard, Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings, pp. 25, 141-142
Excerpt from a Letter of Frithjof Schuon to Martin Lings regarding J.L. (John Levy), May 1945:
I am thinking of all of those who are far away, also J.L. and Mc. Iv. whom I may perhaps see one day; in the meantime, I see them in spirit, just as I have kept them in my memory: I still see them waiting sadly, at the dock in Bombay, the departure of my ship.... Our friends from Switzerland have not forgotten them, and, like me, hope to be able to speak to them directly in not too distant a future.
The letter of Ch. Town. has the merit of getting to the heart of the matter with clarity and precision, and constitutes a quasi definitive answer to J.L.’s thesis. In one of J.L.’s letters, I was surprised to find the following affirmation: “...as a Moslem, I had incurred no responsibility towards anyone, and I was thus, and still am, entirely free to do whatever seems in my best interest.” The author of this sentence does not seem to know that there is no traditional form that allows its members to leave it; for example, it is impossible for a Hindu to become a Moslem without being expulsed from his caste, which signifies civic death; and is it necessary to recall that no religion allows the passage into another religion? Islamic Law reserves capital punishment for apostasy (irtidâd); therefore I do not see how one can think oneself to be independent with respect to Islam by virtue of one’s quality “as a Moslem”. As for esoterism (Islamic or other), there can be exceptional cases where a change of traditional form cannot be excluded, which amounts to saying that only esoterism can see in such a change something other than “apostasy”; however, it is clear on the other hand that in esoterism one depends on one’s Master, and that nothing can be done without him. J. L. became a Moslem to be a faqîr, he did not become a faqîr to be a Moslem; therefore, it is all the more illogical to claim, as a faqîr, one’s “freedom” as a “Muslim”. Not least, it must be added to all this that the first condition for a change of traditional form to be legitimate is that this change must be motivated for reasons of a “technical” opportunity and not for a conversion purely and simply as is the case for J.L. and Mc. Iv.; in other words, this change must really be considered to be a passage from one form into another, and not as a passage from error to truth.
What seems to hold particular importance for J.L. is the expression “theory as such” which, according to him, I did not properly understand; now this expression cannot logically mean anything other than the theory considered outside of such or such possible contents, and uniquely in relation to that for which it is for us the necessary complement; there is no other meaning in the expression “theory as such”. If I am told that “theory as such” means theory understood as a simple “mental content” or “mental act” (“mentalization”), I would answer that this is an improper designation since there are mental contents or acts that are not theories and that on the other hand any mental content or act, be it a theory or something else, is an obstacle before the formless Essence; moreover, I do not know of any faqîr who would think that theory is a goal in itself and not a means, and, at that, a strictly indispensable one for a being gifted with reason.
By way of paradox that is not without meaning, what makes J.L.’s position so fragile is precisely its theoretical insufficiency; for if it is easy to understand, for he who has the metaphysical notions required, that the goal for man is only to return to the “Absolute Subject”, Chit, it is however far from easy to know how to arrive there; to believe that it is enough to closes one’s eyes and to think of nothing, or to concentrate oneself on what one feels in one’s depths, as certain modern “Vedantists” do, is truly the height of naivety. In truth, it is the tradition of the spiritual Masters, with all the complexity and subtlety of its doctrine and method, that alone answers this “how”, for it is not a matter of grasping the Ungraspable, but of removing the obstacles that take us away from our own infinite Essence; now one cannot simply desert the “ego”, not even to arrive at that Essence, for if we were thus to attempt to leave this “self” by our own means, this “self” however would not leave us. This is why it must be transmuted; the “self” must realize the Prophet as it were, namely the purified and consecrated “place” where the “theogenesis” can take place, for: “None shall meet God who hath not first met the Prophet.” To transmute the “self” into a seat of the “Real Presence” is a science, and a science that is as complex as it is indispensable. If one does not follow the legitimate way, that is to say the way that is in conformity with realities that are individual as well as universal, one will never encounter the real Chit; the gross or “unformed” mentality of the profane could never approach It. The japa (dhikr) is the symbolic, but also “supernatural” seat of the Real Presence of Chit: the japa, along with the conditions that are indissolubly bound to it, guarantees the rectitude of the deva-yana (as-sirât al-mustaqîm); our spiritual concentration on the “Absolute Subject” is accomplished in parallel with the japa, and does not stop at the manolaya which in itself has nothing transcendent about it. Outward traditional affiliation (samskâra), then initiatic affiliation (diksha), and finally spiritual means (such as tapas, yantra, mantra, japa), and at the center of all of this permanent concentration on what “I as Self am”—such is the way. Some modern theoreticians of the “direct way” do not seem to ask themselves if it is psychologically possible to persevere a whole lifetime, by one’s own means, in the mere concentration on the “Absolute Subject”, nor if such efforts, assuming they are feasible, could end in a positive result; they forget that Christ said: “No man cometh to the Father but by me”, and: “Without me ye can do nothing”; this means that only doctrine and the grace of the Word can render possible what is humanly impossible, that is to say, only revealed and orthodox doctrine can give spiritual concentration the required “quality”, and only the initiatic means can enable this concentration to attain to its supreme Goal.
But could it not be objected that simple concentration by definition suffices to reach the Goal, and that it alone possesses the virtue of removing the obstacles separating the individual from Reality? Concentration possesses this virtue in principle, but in fact this is not how things are; otherwise all the methods of realization used for thousands of years, in India as elsewhere, would be merely complications devoid of meaning; the consecration rite of a sannyâsi, for instance, would be but a simulacrum lacking any sufficient reason.
J.L. goes on to say: “You are yourself the Reality. What more do you want?” Well, the realization of that truth, of course. For the Upanishad says: “What thou art is what thou must become.” It does not say: “What thou art, that is what thou art”—an expression suiting the Divine Principle alone, Who in effect designates Itself thus in the Thora: “I am That I am”. If the Upanishad says “thou must become”, this means that man has something to realize, namely the consciousness that “I am That I am”, precisely.
Finally, J.L. adds: “I should have said: only if Sh. A. were to discuss the matter with an Indian sage...”. Everything is there, in that simple phrase. Is it necessary to say that there is no traditional doctrine that could be formulated only by a sage? Traditional Indian doctrine is what interests us, not its formulation by this or that man, were he a yogî; this formulation, by the very fact that it pertains to human language, could not be better than that of Sacred Scriptures and their traditional and orthodox commentaries. For one of two things is true: either a truth is essential, in which case it will be formulated in the Scriptures, and any traditional authority qualified for such a teaching will be able to affirm this truth with respect to error; or else a truth is secondary, in which case whether it is formulated by a sage or not, it can in any case only be of secondary interest, and could not be used for the fundamental enunciation of a doctrine. Apart from that, if J.L. knows what he wants to say, no need to quote a Hindu sage; if he does not know what he wants to say, then it is obviously because he has nothing to say. However, if he left Islam and has adopted Hinduism, he must have had reasons for acting thus; these reasons must be sufficient to justify his initiative; if they are sufficient, then J.L. must be able to expose them; if they are not, then it is because his initiative lacked precisely a sufficient reason.
I recall having read somewhere that when one hears a metaphysical truth being formulated, it is not the idea’s intrinsic truth that matters, but the question of knowing “who” formulated the idea. This question makes sense in the case of an enunciation expressing in subjective terms a state of spiritual knowledge, such as Shivoham (“I am Shiva”) or Ana ’l-Haqq (“I am the Divine Truth”), but not in the case of the enunciation of a universal principle, for in this instance it is a matter of radical indifference to know “who” enunciates this principle. This is why it is, for example, altogether illogical to reproach a lack of “bhaktic amplitude” in such or such a metaphysician, since his outward role as theoretician or commentator of sacred doctrine does not in any way imply any kind of psychic virtue; in fact, this role has nothing to do with such a virtue; it would also be illogical to reproach a priest a lack of esoteric knowledge, for just as this lack does nothing to invalidate the quality of the rite accomplished by this priest, so too the absence of a psychic perfection, however desirable this perfection may otherwise be in certain respects, does nothing to invalidate the orthodox enunciation of a metaphysical truth; indeed this enunciation requires, all told, nothing more than an intelligence capable of receiving said truths. I have met many a person gifted with a more or less “bhaktic amplitude”, but wholly lacking in intelligence; their “amplitude” has therefore no other meaning save that of being a natural fact, whereas, on the contrary, contemplative and transcendent intelligence can be term to be “supernatural”, quite apart from what the individual may happen to be. If I am told that it is nonetheless desirable that a man who possesses such an intelligence also have such or such a human virtue, I respond that this wish has absolutely nothing to do with the function corresponding to the intelligence in question; “intellectual genius”, that is to say the direct effect of the divine intellect in the human mind, is by definition free from all individual contingence. R. G. never wished to assume the role of spiritual master, and no one can say that he is his disciple; it is therefore as illogical as it is unjust to reproach him for a lack that is only a lack in the exercise of the role mentioned.
I ought to make a comment on what some refer to as the “method of the Maharshi”; now such a method does not exist, for the simple reason that the Maharshi himself never followed any method. He owes his realization to a sudden enlightenment, and not to spiritual exercises; and since he never followed a method, he cannot teach one; his teaching through the question “who am I” is much more the expression of his inner reality, or a principial and symbolic expression of all spiritual ways, than a method that can be imitated in the absence of any other support. In no wise does this mean that the Maharshi has no radiation or that he does not transmit graces, but only that, having never had to follow a way himself, he could not have the mission of forming disciples, and that is in fact the reason for which he refuses to accept any; to affirm that the mauna-diksha constitutes in itself an integral way, instead of simply representing the essential aspect of every way, amounts to saying that the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles constitutes a spiritual method. Let it not be objected that the Apostles, having had a quasi sudden realization, as did also the Companions of the Prophet, could not therefore form disciples; the case of the Apostles and the Companions is altogether different, for not only did they receive an initiation, but also a method to be transmitted; this method, “simple” and “synthetic” at the beginning, became “differentiated” and more explicit, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, as the origin and its flood of spiritual graces receded and that it became necessary to adapt to more and more precarious conditions; thus the position of a Saint John or a Sayyidna Ali is in no way comparable to that of a “later” saint, that is to say, someone who is not the direct disciple of a founder of a traditional form. As for the Maharshi, he is clearly one of those whom Shri Ramakrishna says that they obtain realization independently from their will and in a sudden and spontaneous manner; these are the men Sufism knows under the name of afrâd; the initiatic meaning of this saying of Christ applies to them: “they that be whole need not a physician”; now the existence of such men does not imply that initiatic rites, which exist in Hinduism as in any other tradition, are mere contrivances that have no meaning, namely that they would be stupidities; the fact that these rites exist, means that they must correspond to some kind of reality and necessity. There really should be no problem here: if someone is a fard, then the initiatic question does not apply to him, and discussions on this subject are pointless for him; if he is not a fard, then he has no choice but that of a normal way transmitted by tradition, which is to say that, with the help of the rectitude of his intention and of barakah, he needs to seek for an orthodox murshid, and receive from him what this murshid himself had received from his murshid. It goes moreover without saying that the fard possesses by definition the general extrinsic qualities of spirituality— to mention only what can serve as an outward criterion—although the presence of these qualities probably does not allow one to tell whether a spiritual person is a fard or not, whereas their absence proves beyond a doubt that a person is not spiritual in any way, thus neither a fard nor an “adept” in the ordinary sense of the term; in other words if an ignorant person sought to hide under the claim of being one of the afrâd, the inferiority of his psychic and mental emanations together with a kind of satanic “self-promotion”
would betray him infallibly to those who have the discernment of spirits. But returning to the Maharshi: to follow his way is to imitate what he did, or rather that which made of him what he is, that is to say to have one’s great-grandparents cursed or blessed by a sannyasin, then to be surprised, during adolescence, and unexpectedly overcome by a spiritual force, then to remain in samadhi for weeks and months on end, and finally to enjoy a spiritual realization obtained as a gift, without any inward work; to wish to emulate this “way” would be as absurd as to wish to be crucified by Pontius Pilate and to resuscitate on the third day.
Excerpt from a Letter of Frithjof Schuon to John Levy, December 1946:
You then say: “The crucial question in his case as in my own...is not the question of tradition, of silsilah, or of method, but the question of the Guru’s realization.” But how can you know what “the Guru’s realization” is? For, either you are not a perfect Sage, in which case you have no means of verifying whether the Guru is a “perfect Sage” or not; or else, you are yourself a “perfect Sage”, in which case you have no need of a Guru. The disciple cannot know more than that the Guru is spiritually superior to him; and this he can know only thanks to the tradition to which he belongs, and from which the Guru is issued. Once the disciple attains to the degree of the Guru, he can then seek another Guru, and so on and so forth; but it is in any case impossible for the disciple to know the “realization” of the Guru, and moreover this would be of no use at all. Only tradition can make up for this impossibility facing the disciple, and it does so on the one hand through the silsilah, which constitutes a first guarantee, and on the other hand by the doctrinal light which allows the disciple to recognize the spiritual superiority of the Master. You say that “the one thing indispensable is an immediate relation with the embodied Absolute”; but what is it that proves to the disciple that he is really in presence of this “Absolute”? You go on to say: “...whether he ‘discuss’ the point or not, a serious disciple must satisfy himself as best he can, that his prospective master is fully realized.” Now, I would like to know what the disciple can do to verify whether the Master possesses a wisdom that he himself, the disciple, does not have! You say that, once one admits the difference between the Shaykhu’l-barakah and the muqaddam (or rather, in this case, the khalîfah), “the emphasis now falls on inspiration rather than experience”, to which I reply: in no way! For the experience of the Master, whatever may be his degree of realization, is always amply sufficient for the disciple. You continue: “...and inspiration is a term that is eminently vague, and something which, whatever level it may spring from, is wholly accidental to Knowledge”; to which I would say first that, if you do not know that inspiration is a perfectly precise reality and fully accounted for by any traditional form, including Hinduism, this does not oblige me to think likewise; moreover, if it is true that there is a specific category of inspirations that is more or less—but not necessarily “wholly”—“accidental to Knowledge”, there are inspirations that depend on Knowledge; this is for example the case with the Maharshi’s hymns; furthermore, the Maharshi has explained the process of this inspiration very well. Since the human mind can never be Paramâtmâ, there are inspirations even for the perfect Sage, although in this case, the process will not be the same for him as for the man not having attained to the supreme Reality; however, it is impossible to develop all these questions in a letter.
You continue: “I repeat that for a serious disciple the realization of his master is all-important, his grace or power subservient to this—and to reverse the issue as Sh. Abdul-Wahid has is pure perversity.” To which I would retort, quoting the Tibetans, that “a dog can be a Guru”, without taking this literally, anymore than the Tibetans do; if I have quoted this maxim, it is uniquely to highlight how little the integral perfection of the Guru matters for the disciple; in other words, this maxim would be utterly meaningless if your thesis were true.
Regarding Shri Ramakrishna, you inform me that the Hindus are not in agreement as to the perfection of his realization; I see in this a fine example of the nullity of your principle by which it is for the disciple to judge the spirituality of the Master and to determine its degree; for if it is possible not to be in agreement on the “perfect realization” of a Master, the disciples are the first that could be mistaken, since they are beginners, and the risk of error here will be all the greater since, according to your theory, being connected to an initiatic line—a silsilah—is nothing, anymore than traditional orthodoxy is. The choice of the Master by the disciple—made in virtue only of the principle of “perfect realization”—is therefore a highly conjectural matter ... neither Bhairavi, nor Totapuri—the two Masters of Shri Ramakrishna—had attained to the supreme Goal; ... Shri Ramakrishna had thus chosen for Masters men who had not attained perfect realization; consequently, he was not a “serious disciple”!
“Apart from this,” you say, “it seems to me self-evident that any kind of experience can be made use of by a master to take a disciple to the goal. The line followed need not be traditional at all, and its virtue as tradition, that is to say the virtue of its originator, is altogether secondary to the virtue of the Master who makes use of it.” This is not at all “self-evident”, and if there is something that seems evident to me, it is the exact contrary of what you are saying, namely that the disciple could never be brought to the Goal by any means whatsoever; the means, whatever it may be, must on the contrary correspond to the Goal, and it is precisely tradition, with all the degrees it contains, that guarantees, by its very structure, this correspondence. This is why “the line followed” has to be traditional; tradition is nothing other, in its most inward aspect which is also its essential reality, than the prototype of the way. The traditional virtue of the method is everything, for without it there would be no guarantee for the disciple to be rightly guided; likewise, the spiritual virtue of the Avatâra or the Prophet to which the tradition refers is everything, and the virtue of the Master would be inconceivable without that of the respective Avatâra; the “greater” can never come from the “lesser”, and—for multiple reasons—tradition is never revealed by means of a man not possessing perfect Wisdom.