Frithjof Schuon and Sri Ramana Maharshi

    A survey of the spiritual masters of the 20th century
    by Mateus Soares de Azevedo
    This essay was first published in the journal, Sacred Web (www.sacredweb.com),and is reproduced
    here with the kind permission of Sacred Web Publishing.
    Among the most important pillars of spiritual wisdom in the 20th century, Frithjof Schuon
    (1907-1998) and Sri Râmana Maharshi (1879-1950) clearly occupy a prominent place. Both
    were “universalists”, that is, they believed in and, in the case of Schuon, explicitly taught, the
    “transcendent unity of the religions”; both expounded the purest (and also the most
    intrinsically orthodox) form of perennial gnosis, but each in his own way; both attracted
    admirers from all the major religions. Schuon in fact was a sage in the double capacity of a
    pure metaphysician—in the lineage of Shankara, Pythagoras, and Plato—and of an “extraconfessional”,
    sapiential spiritual guide, with a profound love for all authentic religions, but
    without attachment to their more “formalistic” and “nationalistic” aspects. Schuon was a
    teacher of the Uncolored Truth, of the Truth beyond form.1
    There are of course distinctions to be made in the scope, completeness, and universality of
    the metaphysical doctrines which Schuon and the Maharshi expounded, and in the methods of
    spiritual realization which they advocated. We shall consider these distinctions in what
    In selecting the German “philosopher” (in the original sense of “lover of wisdom”)—who
    was also an inspired poet and painter, as his productions in these fields richly show—and the
    Hindu sage as the main objects of this study, we do not forget the immense importance
    (especially in the domain of traditional metaphysics, religious symbolism, and the critique of
    the modern deviation in all its aspects) of the remarkable French metaphysician and esoterist
    René Guénon (1886-1951).
    Guénon was, in a sense, the founder of the traditionalist or perennialist school, a “school” in
    which Schuon‟s works are the complete and final flowering. If Guénon is unquestionably the
    originator of the this unique phenomenon—an unprecedented influx of intellectual and
    spiritual light in an epoch almost completely impervious to true intellectuality and
    spirituality—Schuon is its apogee and fulfillment. The French esoterist was the seed, and the
    German metaphysician is the flower and the fruit. Guénon was the pioneer and Schuon the
    consummation; Guénon was like a river and Schuon like an ocean—so profound and
    diversified are the metaphysical doctrines which he expounded, the spiritual counsel which
    he imparted, and the poems and paintings which he produced.
    In surveying the spiritual lights of our time, we will refer to illustrious representatives of the
    various great religions. Through Schuon‟s “universalism”, the essential messages of these
    figures, unknown outwardly to each other, are brought inwardly together. Each of the mystics
    referred to below brings to us the particular “color” of his or her own religion of origin, while
    Schuon endows their messages with a unity through the “uncolored Light” of the sophia
    Commencing with Western Christianity, we call to mind especially two spiritual descendants
    of the great Francis of Assisi, both of them Italian capuchins: Padre Pio da Pietrelcina (1887-
    1968) and Sister Consolata Betrone (1903-1946).
    Padre Pio, who was a stigmatist,2 taught and practiced the invocation of the Holy Name, and
    was the spiritual director of thousands of Catholics; it was in this sense that Schuon could
    write in a letter to an Italian correspondent of the 1950s, Signor Guido di Giorgio, that Padre
    Pio was “une protection, sinon bien plus” for the Christian world. Sister Consolata (a
    successor, in a sense, to the 19th century saint, Theresa of Lisieux3) was a pious and devoted
    soul who was directly taught by Christ regarding the way of ejaculatory prayer and the
    perpetual invocation of the Holy Name—a way which was viewed by Schuon as the
    quintessence itself of all spirituality.
    Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) must also have a place here, because of his excellence, of course,
    but particularly now in view of the cowardly calumniation he has undergone by the enemies
    of tradition (for he was the last traditional pontiff of the Catholic Church), whose main
    weapon is the false allegation that he was indifferent to the fate of European Jewry during
    World War II4. But the truth is that, in contrast to many of the secular leaders of the period,
    who did almost nothing to help the Jews, Pius XII clearly acted in their defense during the
    When vicious anti-Semitism was rampant, it was he who boldly declared: “We are all
    Semites!” Here he had in mind the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition that is common to Jews,
    Christians and Moslems. In this respect, it is important to recall that, in 1942, many
    thousands of Jews were being sheltered in convents, monasteries and schools under the
    auspices of the Supreme Pontiff. Vatican City itself harbored many of them, and
    Castelgandolfo, the summer residence of the popes, sheltered more than 15,000 Jews. In 1944,
    Pius XII put the papal seal on the entrance to the main Roman synagogue before the city was
    invaded by Nazi troops, in order to protect its sacred contents. And, in 1946, no less than the
    chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, embraced Catholicism, with all his family, saying that one
    of the reasons for this spectacular change of religion was precisely Pius XII‟s defense of his
    people during the war. Moreover, the rabbi took as his Christian name “Eugenio”, which was
    the baptismal name of Pius XII. These facts alone should suffice to show that the accusations
    leveled against him do not have any concrete basis, and have in fact an ideological and
    political motivation, namely that by attacking Pius XII, one attacks the traditional Church
    (which, in our opinion, has been destroyed by the Vatican II Council and its sequelae).
    Let us say a little more about this topic. Two years before becoming pope in 1937, when he
    was the Vatican‟s Secretary of State, he collaborated with the then pope Pius XI6 in the
    drafting of his famous encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, which strongly condemned Nazi
    racist ideology. And when some critics allege that the encyclical was not strong enough, one
    should remember that until well towards the end of the war, not even Jewish organizations
    knew fully that the Nazi persecutions had in view the complete extermination of the Jewish
    people. Moreover, in the case of Pius XII, he was sometimes obliged to moderate his voice or
    maintain a prudent silence, when the opposite could have dangerously and cruelly aggravated
    the situation.7
    Pius XII, so orthodox and traditional in doctrinal, ritual and moral matters, and profoundly
    compassionate and humble as a human being, had a particular gift for the teaching and
    transmitting of a vast corpus of doctrinal guidance on a vast number of themes. He was also
    deeply conscious of the dignity, not only of his function as Supreme Pontiff, but also of man
    as such, as God‟s representative on earth. This can be seen in the pictures that allow us to
    witness his dignified gestures (one might use the Hindu term ―mudrâs‖!)—especially as he
    gave his papal blessing to the faithful—reminiscent of the gestures of the greatest of the
    Hindu or Buddhist masters.8
    Let us turn now to the world of Islam. Perhaps the greatest figure of modern times is the
    Algerian Shaykh Ahmed al-„Alawi (1869-1934). He is highly relevant to the Guénonian and
    Schuonian phenomenon, in that he was a master of gnosis and of the spiritual method of
    “Godremembrance”. He was also profoundly interested in other religions, especially
    Christianity. At a certain moment, the Shaikh al-„Alawi is said to have had more than
    200,000 disciples throughout the Islamic world, which caused his spiritual order (or
    “brotherhood”) to be influential even in cultural and political matters. What a contrast to
    contemporary pseudo-Islamic leaders, such as Khomeini and Gadhaffi, or anti-Muslim
    secularists such as Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, who have shamelessly exploited
    religion for their own personal and political ends! Schuon had personal knowledge of the
    Shaykh Al-„Alawi, and has written wonderfully about him:
    The idea which is the secret essence of each religious form, making each what it is by the
    action of its inward presence, is too subtle and too deep to be personified with equal intensity
    by all those who breathe its atmosphere. So much the greater good fortune is it to come into
    contact with a true spiritual representative of one of those forms, to come into contact with
    someone who represents in himself, and not merely because he happens to belong to a
    particular civilization, the idea which for hundreds of years has been the very life-blood of
    that civilization.
    To meet such a one is like coming face to face, in mid 20th century, with a medieval saint or
    a Semitic patriarch, and this was the impression made on me by the Shaykh Al-Hajj Ahmad
    Bin-„Alawi, one of the greatest masters of Sufism... In his brown jelaba and white turban,
    with his silver-gray beard and long hands which seemed, when he moved them, to be
    weighed down by the flow of his baraka (spiritual radiance), he exhaled something of the
    pure archaic ambience of the Prophet Abraham... His eyes, which were like two sepulchral
    lamps, seemed to pierce through all the objects, seeing in the outer shell merely one and the
    same nothingness, beyond which they saw always one and the same reality—the Infinite.
    Their look was very direct, almost hard in its enigmatic unwaveringness, and yet full of
    charity... The cadence of the singing, the dances and the ritual incantations seemed to
    continue vibrating in him perpetually; his head would sometimes rock rhythmically to and fro,
    while his soul was plunged in the unfathomable mysteries of the Divine Name, hidden in the
    dhikr, the Remembrance... He was surrounded at one and the same time, with all the
    veneration that is due to saints, to leaders, to the old, and to the dying.9
    Moving now further East, we find in India a great precursor of Sri Râmana Maharshi, and
    also of the perennialists, in the figure of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), known as the
    Paramahansa (“the supreme swain”), the highest denomination for a mystic in the Hindu
    tradition. Ramakrishna was a forerunner of the universality of revelation, as later expounded
    by Guénon and Schuon. To mention one particular instance of his uniqueness and importance:
    at different periods in his life he willingly practiced, profoundly and sincerely, two non-
    Hindu religions, namely Christianity and Islam, fully recognizing their spiritual validity; and
    thus he manifested, by direct personal participation, the metaphysical concept of the
    “transcendent unity of religions”—a thesis later developed by Schuon in an influential book
    bearing that title. As William Stoddart notes in his excellent outline of Hinduism,10
    Ramakrishna was the first spiritual authority in modern times explicitly to teach this idea. He
    too was a practitioner of the spiritual method of the invocation of the Divine Name, a
    technique traditionally considered—and also emphasized by Schuon—as the best-suited for
    the end of the Kali Yuga, which seems (but God knows best!) to be our own period.
    Ramakrishna had a saying that Schuon would later expound in manifold forms, namely that
    “God and His Name are one”.
    One cannot leave India without mentioning two important figures. The great bhakta
    (“devotee”, “divine lover”) Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) and the 68th Jagadguru (“universal
    teacher”, in Sanskrit) of Kanchipuram (1894-199). Like the “Russian pilgrim” in the 19th
    century, Swami Ramdas traveled as a wandering monk through the whole of the Indian
    subcontinent, always invoking the Sacred Name, in which he had an unshakable trust as a
    privileged means of attaining to God. Moreover, during his only visit to the West, he had
    occasion to meet Schuon who made a deep impression on him. After that meeting, Ramdas
    wrote of the German sage: ―The tall and stately figure [of Schuon] stood out in great
    prominence above us all—a very prince among saints‖.11 Concerning the Jagadguru of
    Kanchipuran, he was an authentic and traditional descendant of the greatest exponent of the
    sapiential way (gnosis) in India, Sri Shankaracharia (from the 9th Century). Teacher of jnana
    for 90 years (he assumed his function as early as 1907, the same year Schuon was born), the
    Jagadguru was dedicated one of Schuon‟s best books, Language of the Self—proof of the
    high esteem in which Schuon was held. (Besides being an official representative of Advaita
    Vedanta, Schuon was an universalist well versed in Christianity, Islam and even in the old
    religion of the Indians of North America, being an admirer of the Sioux visionary Black Elk.)
    Finally, in the primordial world of the shamanist tradition of the American Indians, one must
    mention the extraordinary figure of the holy man from the Oglala Sioux, the chief and
    medicine-man Hekaka Sapa (Black Elk) (1862-1950). A man of deep contemplation, he
    received many visions from the spiritual world, and explained to new generations of Indians
    the meaning of their religion and the utility of its ancient rites. In a series of penetrating
    essays, especially in The Feathered Sun – Plains Indians in art and philosophy, Schuon
    showed his understanding and love for the Red Indian spiritual patrimony and demonstrated
    its universality and convergence with the other great religions, proving thereby its intrinsic
    truth and orthodoxy. Interestingly, Black Elk, by the end of his long life was revered not
    merely as a kind of prophetic figure by the American Indians, but also as a holy man by the
    Christian missionaries, who taught him the love of Jesus Christ, a love which in a sense he
    incorporated in his native religion of the Sun Dance and Sacred Pipe.
    As two much earlier precursors of Schuon and Guénon, one calls to mind the great figures of
    Muhyi ‟d-Dîn ibn „Arabî in Islam (died 1240) and Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa in Western
    Christianity (1401-1464). Ibn „Arabî is particularly renowned for the declaration he made in
    one of his poems:
    My heart has opened unto every form; it is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian
    monks, a temple for idols, the Kaaba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah, and the book of
    the Koran. I practice the religion of love; in whatsoever directions its caravans advance, the
    religion of love shall be my religion and my faith.
    Surely an inspired confession both of “universality” and of the love of God by the greatest of
    the Moslem “gnostics”!
    For his part, Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa wrote, amongst other things, a commentary on the
    Koran, as well as an imaginary dialogue between followers of different religions, entitled De
    Pace Fidei (“On peace between the faithful”), in which he advocated an understanding
    between the different faiths of the world.
    From the particular perspective of this article, we will focus our attention on Schuon and the
    Maharshi, each the very epitome of spirituality in this century. In this connection, one must
    consider Guénon and Schuon as belonging to one and the same spirit—having nevertheless
    different functions and styles—of traditional metaphysics, intrinsic and universal orthodoxy,
    and a radical and devastating critique of modern mentality, culture, art and science, which
    they castigate as materialistic, relativistic, inconsequential and harmful to man and the
    ambience. As mentioned earlier, Guénon and Schuon are the two chefs d’école of the
    traditionalist or perennialist school of thought, the difference between these teachers being
    that the French esoterist was like the embodiment of intellectual or metaphysical doctrine,
    whereas his German counterpart was a master of both intellectuality and spirituality. Guénon
    never wished to have disciples. As Schuon himself has aptly written: “The work [of Guénon]
    is „theoretical‟ since it does not directly envisage spiritual realization, and even refrains from
    assuming the rôle of a practical teaching ... The rôle of René Guénon was to state principles
    rather than to show how to apply them...” He states further: “Guénon was like the
    personification, not of spirituality as such, but uniquely of metaphysical certainty...”12
    Turning our attention once more to Sri Râmana Maharshi, in reality he was not a spiritual
    master in the strict sense, for the reason that he was a fard (a “solitary”), a term which we
    borrow from Sufism. This means that he was one of those saints who did not have a spiritual
    master to teach him the Way, but gained his exceptional condition purely by grace, by direct
    divine illumination.13 Not having been the disciple of a master, he was not himself a master
    of disciples. He thus did not teach a spiritual method properly so called. His permanent and
    constantly reiterated preoccupation was the self-inquiry, “Who am I?”, in which he pointed to
    the Self, the Divine Being as our authentic center.14 In the Maharshi‟s case the divine was, as
    it were, in his powerful spiritual presence. His “spiritual way”, if one may put it thus,
    consisted in his own radiant inner presence; through his darshan, he blessed all those who
    sought his barakah (another applicable Sufi term); he was a born contemplative and a born
    gnostic, arguably the most extraordinary spiritual teacher that India has produced in the 20th
    This sage, who lived on and around the sacred mountain of Arunâchala, near Tiruvannamalai
    in South India, used to give his blessings through his contemplative silence, not only to the
    followers of the Sanâtana Dharma (Hinduism), who came to him from all over India, but
    also to Europeans and Americans, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and Moslems, and
    even to persons without a religious affiliation. This aspect of the Maharshi‟s life could be
    considered problematical, for, since he did not explicitly require from his visitors a traditional
    affiliation (the purpose of which is to guarantee a structure or framework for the spiritual
    journey), his non-Hindu followers for the most part remained without ritual and doctrinal
    support, and therefore did not prepare themselves to attain something solid and permanent in
    the spiritual way.
    Most probably Schuon had this in mind when he included the following in his long cycle of
    Ein Weiser sagte: fragt euch wer bin Ich?
    Dies ist kein Weg. Der Weise meinte sich,
    Beschrieb sein Geisteswesen, gottgeschenkt;
    Es ist nicht euer, weil ihr Gleiches denkt.
    Man kann nicht ohne Gott die Welt verbrennen—
    ―An seiner Frucht wird man den Geist erkennen.‖
    A sage said: ask yourselves—who am I?
    But this is not a spiritual way. The sage referred to himself,
    He described his spiritual state, granted by God;
    This state is not yours, just because you think the same.
    One cannot overcome the world without God—
    ―Ye shall know the Spirit by its fruits.‖
    Be that as it may, Schuon has more to say about this Indian saint, and we conclude our
    section on the Maharshi with the following profound words of Schuon:
    With the Maharshi, one encounters ancient and eternal India (...) The spiritual function
    which can be described as „action of presence‟ is found in the Maharshi its most rigorous
    expression. Sri Râmana was, as it were, the incarnation in these latter days and in the face of
    modern activist fever, of all that is primordial and incorruptible in India. He manifested the
    nobility of contemplative „nonaction‟ in the face of an ethic of utilitarian agitation (...) The
    great question „Who am I?‟ appears with him as a concrete expression of a reality that is lived,
    if one may so put it, and this authenticity gives to each word of the sage a flavor of inimitable
    freshness—the flavor of truth when it is embodied in the most direct way. The whole of the
    Vedanta is contained in the Maharshi‟s question „Who am I?‟ The answer is: the
    As regards Frithjof Schuon himself, the spiritual method he taught was far from ignoring the
    question of traditional affiliation, since, for him, the sine qua non for receiving spiritual
    guidance was the commitment to practice with sincerity and discernment an orthodox religion.
    In his circle of admirers and followers were Moslems, Christians (Catholics, Orthodox and
    traditional Protestants), Jews, Buddhists, and members of the religion of the Sun Dance and
    the Sacred Pipe.
    Those to whom destiny gave the opportunity of meeting this remarkable man—a man who
    was considered by many as the one who best embodied in our time the prototype of the
    “traditional man” and of the “sage”, as understood by all the ancient civilizations that molded
    the life of humanity for millennia—invariably left the encounter as if walking above the
    clouds, even though, more often than not, they required weeks or months of reflection and
    meditation in order to digest everything that he had imparted.
    Implacable discernment, infinite nobility, sincere courtesy, unfailing good sense: these are
    some of the recurrent expressions that have been used to describe him following such
    encounters. Every question put to him, be it regarding philosophy, religion, mysticism,
    esthetics, or even of contemporary life and personal life—even the most simple—was
    received with interest and answered with brilliance. Of course he did not gladly suffer
    presumptuous or pedantic people, nor stupid questions. It was as if Schuon‟s extraordinary
    discrimination was a magical sword which, in the most efficient and painless way, cut the
    Gordian knot of our illusions. One would arrive at his house as a poor orphan and leave as if
    walking on air. A profound gratitude was the main sentiment of all those whom Schuon‟s
    love and intelligence marked, and it is with this sentiment that now I end this rough and very
    incomplete appraisal of a sage whom many consider to be one of the greatest of our time.
    With the death of Frithjof Schuon, the 20th century was deprived, in its twilight, of its most
    penetrating and inspired intelligence, a philosopher, poet, and painter whose lucidity
    confronted our time, obsessed as it is with banal novelties, with the permanent truth and
    beauty of the sophia perennis. Through his writings, he taught us, his readers, how to think
    with objectivity, how to see the causes of things in their remote effects, and how to foresee
    the remote effects of present causes. Schuon the man has gone, it is true, but his books,
    poems and paintings remain. His message, paradoxically, seems to become more and more
    relevant with the passage of time, as if to confirm its oneness, precisely, with the “perennial
    philosophy” which he so staunchly embodied. His message is thus at the disposition of all
    those, be they from the East or from the West, who genuinely seek the profound reason of
    things, who seriously wish to plumb the “why” of the world and of men, and who deeply
    desire true certainty and serenity, which alone are the bases of that peace of spirit that is so
    lacking in the agitated and anxious contemporary world.
    1 In the world of Christianity, Schuon could be viewed as belonging to the lineage of the
    “gnostics” (the term is not here used in a sectarian or heretical sense), such as St. John the
    Evangelist, St. Clement of Alexandria, Angelus Silesius, and Meister Eckhart. In Islam, he
    belongs to the line of Rumi and the Shaikh al-„Alawi.
    2 Padre Pio is the only stigmatized priest in the history of the Catholic Church (St. Francis
    also bore the stigmata of Christ, but he was not a priest). It may be of interest to note that
    Padre Pio was from the same generation as, and a contemporary of, Guénon, and that he had
    a marked facial resemblance to Schuon.
    4 One must assume that the reason he has recently been attacked is precisely because he was
    the last papal representative of the traditional Roman Catholic Church, being therefore a
    privileged target for the enemies of the Old Church. Interestingly enough, the main source of
    these attacks—disguised, of course—is those modernist and revolutionary elements that have
    taken control of the Vatican since the time of John XXIII, Paul VI, and the Vatican II Council.
    Vatican II established, so to speak, a “new religion”, a religion of “Man” and the “World”, in
    opposition to the old and perennial religion of God and eternal life. In spite of the fact that
    some call him a “conservative”, it is this control by the “revolutionary” elements that is
    currently maintained by John Paul II. In the words of Cardinal Suennens, Vatican II was the
    “French Revolution in the Church”, and according to the well-known theologian, later also a
    cardinal, Yves Congar, it was like “the October 1917 revolution”.
    5 As was the case with the populist leaders Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Juan Domingo Perón
    in Argentina, and even to a certain extent Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States, who
    until 1942 did not agree with pleas from Pius XII to accept more Jewish refugees from
    6 Achille Ratti, pope Pius XI (Roman pontiff from 1922 to 1939), also deserves a place in
    this synthesis. Beyond his work of clarifying Christian social doctrines with his vigorous
    condemnations of Fascism (1931), communism and Nazism (1937), he was clearly a great
    man also for pronouncing the following bold “universalistic” words to his Nuncio to Lybia:
    ―Do not think you are going to a country of heathens. Muslims attain to salvation. The ways
    of God are infinite.‖
    7 Some readers may be interested to know that Pius XII once granted a private audience to
    Titus Burckhardt in Castelgandolfo, during which they talked about the sacred art of the
    Middle Ages. The pope must surely have appreciated the conversation and presence of an
    eminent representative of the Guénon-Schuon current of spirituality—just as Burckhardt
    appreciated the pope‟s—for the pontiff‟s final words to Burckhardt were: “I bless you, your
    colleagues, your family, and your friends.” Surely a wonderful and blessed link between
    traditional Catholicism and the exponents of the philosophia perennis.
    8 The gesture of folding the hands when praying is a typical Christian ―mudrâ‖.
    9 Râhimahu ’Llâh, by Frithjof Schuon. In Cahiers du Sud (Paris), août-septembre, 1935.
    Quoted in Lings, Martin: A Sufi Saint of the 20th century, University of California Press,
    1973, pp. 116-117.
    10 Outline of Hinduism. Washington, DC, Foundation for Traditional Studies, 1993, p. 90.
    11 See World is God, by Swami Ramdas. Anandashram, P.º Anadashram, Via Kanhangad,
    South India, p. 107.
    12 Both quotations are from Schuon‟s appreciation: “René Guénon: L‟Oeuvre” in Études
    Traditionnelles, Paris, juillet—novembre 1951), English translation: “René Guénon:
    Definitions” in Sophia, vol. 1, No.2, Winter 1995.
    13 Apart from this last aspect, Guénon as well can be considered in a sense a ―fard‖
    14 This fundamental aspect of the Maharshi‟s message converges perfectly with Schuon‟s
    teaching, being in fact its finality.
    15 Frithjof Schuon, Perspectives Spirituelles et Faits Humains. Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose,
    1989, pp. 164-65.