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Philosophia perennis, Sanatana Dharma

Priscorium, sophia, golden age

"The wise man will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients, and will be occupied in the prophets..."
Ecclesiastes 39: 1-5

Rama P. Coomaraswamy, MD


It is generally assumed that there is no room within Christianity for accepting the concept of Sanatana Dharma, or what in the west has been called philosophia perennis or priscorium. This Sophia perennis, to use a phrase preferred by Wolfgang Smith holds that certain metaphysical truths, and hence access to a knowledge of the divine, have always been available throughout history and are to be found within the framework of every valid religious tradition.

First of all it should be clear that such a concept in no way contradicts the principle Extra eclesia nulla salus - that outside the Church there is no salvation. If one understands this principle in the way the Church has always understood it, one accepts the fact that there are individuals who, as Saint Pius X put it, belong to the soul of the Church. Such individuals are "invincibly ignorant" of the manifest Church, and certainly before the coming of Christ, the ark of salvation had to take other forms.

It is also necessary to consider history, not as a progressive advance from primitive times to the present "enlightened" era but more realistically as a continuous degeneration from a former golden age. Adam's fall from paradise is a paradigm for understanding the present situation. God did not abandon His creation and Adam found regeneration, and is indeed considered by the Church to be a saint. In ancient days, saving revelation, in accordance with man’s more "direct" apprehension of truth, was appropriately more "simple. With each succeeding "fall," God provided more stringent requirements for man to follow if he sought to reverse the process of degeneration, until the time of Moses when the rules required encompassed every aspect of life. This is well reflected in the Sacrifice of Abel, followed by that of Abraham, and finally by that established through the medium of Moses. Yet throughout all this we have the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, renewed once again in Christ.

Such an attitude is not a carte blanche for every religion that comes down the pike. If salvation is possible outside of the formal structure of the Church, as must have been the case at least before the coming of Christ, one must remember that one cannot be saved by error. It is Truth alone that saves. And so it follows that salvation comes to us by the Divine Logos which Logos exists and existed from the beginning of time, for "in the beginning was the Word."

The early Church fathers were faced with the plethora of old religious forms which were degenerate in the extreme. They followed one of two courses. They either declared that Christianity had the fullness of the Truth and that therefore there was no need to look elsewhere, or they held that all truth, no matter where it was found, belonged to the integrity of the Faith, and was therefore to be accepted, absorbed, and embraced. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, quoting St. Ambrose, "all truth, no matter where it is found, has the Holy Spirit for its author." In a similar manner, St. Jerome all but adopted the Buddha’s life story and Christianized it as we have in the hagiographical account of.St Josephat.

Catholic Saints have recognized this reality throughout the centuries. St. Justus referred to Heraclitus as "a Christian before Christ," and Eckhart spoke of an ancient sage in the following terms: "One of our most ancient philosophers who found the truth long, long before God’s birth ere ever there was a Christian faith at all as it is now." Thomas of Villenova taught the same doctrine: "Our religion is from the beginning of the world. A great Christian was Abraham; a great Christian was Moses; so also David and all the patriarchs. They adored the same God, believed the same mysteries and expected the same resurrection and judgment. They had the same precepts, manners, affections, desires, thoughts, and modes of life; so that if you saw Abraham, and Moses, and David with Peter and Andrew and Augustine and Jerome, you would observe, in all essential things, a perfect identity." One could multiply such quotations but such serves no purpose as long as the principles are understood.

Against this we seemingly have Augustine’s retraction which he wrote at the end of his life in an attempt to correct any misunderstanding that his works might lead to. This Retraction runs as follows: "The very thing that is now called the Christian religion was not wanting among the ancients from the beginning of the human race, until Christ came in the flesh, after which the true religion, which had already existed, began to be called ‘Christian.’"

A closer examination of this retraction however requires an understanding of its reference. The earlier statement occurs in a passage of De Vera Religione (X.19) wherein Augustine explains that "the soul, crushed by the sins which envelope it, would be unable to rise towards the divine realities unless there was found within the human sphere something which would allow man to rise from the earthly life, and to renew in himself the image of God. For this reason God, in his infinite mercy, has established a temporal means by which men may be recalled to their original perfection, and by which God comes to the help of each particular individual and of the human race." St. Augustine then adds: "That is in our times the Christian religion, to know and to follow which is the most secure and certain salvation."

In passing it should be noted that Augustine speaks of the "human race," and not just of the Jewish religion with which of course Christianity has a very close connections. Again, St Justin stated: "God is the Word of whom the whole human race are partakers, and those who lived according to Reason are Christians even though accounted atheists." He included in these, not only Heraclitus, but also Socrates and Abraham.

It was this last sentence that Augustine wished to clarify, explaining that in his retraction he had made use of the term "Christian religion" but had failed to express the reality which lies behind the name. To quote him again, "It is said according to this name, not in accord with the thing itself, of which is the name." . To make this even clearer Augustine adds: "When, in fact, following the resurrection and ascension into heaven, the Apostles began to preach and many persons came to believe, it was among the people of Antioch - so it is written - that the disciples were first called Christians. This is the reason why I said, ‘That is in our times the Christian religion’; not because in earlier times it did not exist, but because in later times this name was accepted."

And so it is that it is possible for a Catholic to hold to the position usually described as "perennial or universal philosophy." The only requirement is that he hold to it as a Catholic who accepts all the teachings of the Church as encompassed in the traditional Magisterium, and this for the simple reason that if one steps outside the Magisterium and entertains one’s own personal opinion as being "true," one contradicts all that the sanatana dharma holds sacred.

All this has little to do with the false ecumenism that seems to pervade the atmosphere in our days, an ecumenism that would accept not only Protestantism, but every new age deviation imaginable on - as Vatican II puts it - "on an equal footing." This ecumenical outreach often extends itself to Eastern religions where those responsible have little true knowledge and understanding. For example, many will speak of the Trinity in Hinduism as being represented by the exclamation of sat chit ananda - which is perhaps best translated as being, knowledge and bliss - names of God equivalent in Islam to qudrah, hikmah and rahmah.. The Hindu Trinity of Powers consists of the solar Father above, a fiery Son on earth (whence he ascends to heaven), and the Gale of their common spiration. St. Frances of Sales warned against those who speak of other religions without adequate knowledge, and indeed, even for those familiar with their own theological terminology (which is rare among current scholars), would have difficulty in understanding ways of expression foreign to their intellectual world.

And so it is that we as faithful Christians can, and indeed must accept the idea of a sophia perennis. Wisdom has always been there, it is Christ, the Word made flesh who opens the door and the Church which gives us access to it.

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