Description: A work of comparative religion, comparing the different faiths from across human history. Argues that religion derives from man’s deep inward desire to access the transcendent. Argues in favor of perennialism (that all religions share universal characteristics, but assume the traits of the underlying cultures and psychologies that produce them). Argues for the centrality of the mystic life-path as the beginning and the end of religion.
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books. You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, but take in all things and filter them from yourself. -Walt Whitman
1 Reflections on my own personal religious path
Other elements of Indian religion
Similarities with Hinduism
Differences with Hinduism
Origins of Sikhism
A spiritual civilization
Struggles of India
Buddhism in Japan
Trumpism as Frazerism
The Oracle of Delphi
Additional elements of Hellenic religion
The continuity of consciousness after the death of the body
The illusion of I-hood
The Dark Night of the Soul
1 Reflections on my own personal religious path
I began my personal spiritual quest at 15. At this age I became self-aware, and began to grapple with the great human questions of mortality, the meaning of existence, and man’s place in the cosmos. This grappling took me through many beliefs, traditions, and philosophies but ultimately brought me to the spiritual. Since that age I have read the Bible, the Buddhist suttas, the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Philokalia, the Platonic dialogues, and a litany of other works. I have deeply studied comparative religions and mysticism.
At 15, I began as a blank slate without a clear concept of what I should read or what conclusions I should make. In fact, I began as a strict materialist. I disparaged the idea of the nonphysical and spiritual, thinking it was nonsense. At this time I thought that the only viable path to truth was through the five senses and the empirical. I did not believe anything could exist beyond what the senses could perceive.
I was also hostile to Christianity at this time. I felt Christianity had caused many ills for western civilization, and that its failings, deficiencies, and controversies had damaged it as a viable spiritual path. Around this time I read Albert Camus and the existentialists, and like them I felt that as a modern person (and a westerner) I had to begin first with the problem of the “death of God.”
By the “death of God” I mean the idea that our modern, western civilization has lost a sense of the sacred. What religion we do have is deficient and poor quality, and offers little tangible value. I attribute the “death of God” to our culture’s history and to our psychological idiosyncrasies. I feel the “death of God” is something that is deeply internalized by all westerners, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. I feel that as adults, we must start here and respond to this fact before we can proceed further.
Despite feeling the “death of God” very strongly, I still felt a strong intuition of the reality of the transcendent, and a strong yearning to access it and engage with it. Thus, like many other westerners (from the 1960s to today) who were motivated by the same force, I moved away from western spirituality and pursued an alternate path.
I approached the sacred first through the study of consciousness (a distinctly “nonspiritual” spirituality), for example through the writings of Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception) and P. D. Ouspensky (The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution). I also approached the sacred through the study of eastern philosophies, like Buddhism and Hinduism (again, to the western perception, “nonspiritual” paths). Around this time I also read R. M. Bucke (Cosmic Consciousness, a book on comparative religion) and Alan Watts (a western writer on Buddhism).
My readings in this domain eventually brought me to the “Gurdjieff work.” I had discovered this movement through reading the works of P. D. Ouspensky, who was a Russian writer, traveler, spiritual seeker, and orientalist. I felt that this tradition was able to offer me what I was seeking.
The Gurdjieff work was a spiritual tradition established by the Greek-Armenian teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff had traveled widely and developed a unique philosophy blending many mystical elements. Gurdjieff called his teaching “esoteric Christianity”: a version of Christianity focused on self-examination, self-knowledge, and spiritual dialogue.
The Gurdjieff tradition was very practical and, I felt, rigorous. It offered me more than could be gotten from the droning congregants of an American church. The “work” groups were filled with people who were very serious about investigating man’s spiritual possibilities.
Around this time I also became interested in Christian monasticism. I read the Philokalia, the manual for the Greek monks; and The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an ascetic treatise written by the Greek monk John Climacus. For a time I seriously contemplated becoming a monk. But, my reservations with the deficiencies of institutional religion, and my reservations about accepting the restrictions of the religious life, prevented me. I felt that as a “modern” person, clerical life was no longer appropriate for one on a spiritual path. At the same time, I felt if ever my health went astray, I could give up everything and join a religious order.
I also began to study Platonism around this time, and inclined toward the Neoplatonic (ie, mystical) interpretation of Socrates and Plato. I felt that the Allegory of the Cave was a clear analogy for the spiritual path, and that the purpose of philosophy was (as Socrates said) the “preparation for death.” I felt that the ancient Greeks clearly showed that man could be improved through self-examination, self-knowledge, and askesis; and that the “rightly ordered soul” (of The Republic) was a spiritual end. Indeed, many of the topics I was encountering elsewhere were also appearing in the ancient Greeks’ writings (ie, metempsychosis and the Myth of Er) and I believed to thus be universal to man.
Eventually I felt I had learned everything I could from the Gurdjieff group. I felt it was an authentic spiritual tradition and offered many benefits to the sincere seeker. But, it could only get one so far. It is here where I transitioned to what I would describe as the more serious and solitary side of the spiritual life, the mystic’s path.
I would define mysticism as the inner part of religion. It is the transcendent and sublime core that is the source of every religion. It focuses on self-development, introspection, emotional refinement, and wisdom. It is practical, inclusive, and nonjudgmental, and offers the greatest path for man to commune with the sacred. Mysticism attempts to bring man to direct experience of the divine.
Around this time I read Walt Whitman, Dante Alighieri, Rumi, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. By this stage I had fully embraced the thesis of the “perennial philosophy” proposed by Huxley: the idea that all religions are expressions of the same universal truth intuited by human beings.
There were other thinkers I read who shared Huxley’s thesis and I sympathized with. Carl Jung argued each culture’s gods were simply individual expressions of a universal divine. Joseph Campbell argued for a “hero with a thousand faces”: a universal inward path described by each culture’s myths. James Frazer was a final scholar who made a similar argument for the universal tenets of religion.
Around this time I read the great tome Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. This is a huge book so the process of reading and digesting it took several years. In my opinion this work is the authoritative text on the history of western mysticism. The book presented mysticism as a life-path. This path, described by Underhill, consisted of the following stages.
The first grapplings of man with the human condition. Man realizes his finiteness; he learns that birth brings with it a death sentence; he becomes aware of his ignorance of his place in the universe. Man thus turns to religion and self-knowledge as the paths to transformation.
As a man grows in self-knowledge, he begins to see the aspects of himself that horrify him or shock him. He sees how far removed he is from conformity with the divine. He begins a path of self-examination and self-improvement. He grapples with the “Seven Deadly Sins,” the passions, and other vices. He adjusts his values and re-orients himself toward the sacred (the “metanoia”).
Having transformed himself and grown in wisdom, man finds himself in a new relation to the divine. He sees himself as a part of a vast, sublime Unity. He begins to intuit his true place in the cosmos. He begins to experience the higher emotions: joy, empathy, and equanimity. He starts to intuit the reality of the nonphysical.
4. Dark Night of the Soul
Despite the former period in the sun, man again descends into darkness and doubt, and goes through a period of self-annihilation. A mysterious transformation occurs.
Finally, man wholly “imitates Christ” and becomes both divine and human. He comes into true approximation with the sacred. He becomes convinced of his immortality and real nature.
I felt Underhill was not only one of the great scholars of the discipline, but also wrote from practical experience. I felt she was describing much of the life-path I had already partly walked upon. I began to look to her and other mystics for guidance.
An important dictum of Underhill was the centrality of direct experience in the spiritual path. Though a scholar herself, she explained the limits of a purely academic approach to faith. Study had to be supplemented by practice; otherwise, purely theoretical knowledge would never achieve its full potential.
Around this time I discovered Jeffrey “Jhanananda” Brooks, a spiritual teacher and contemplative from Sedona, Arizona. Jeffrey had been a lifelong meditator and student of Buddhism. He had gained attention for his works he had made examining the concept of “jhana,” or altered states of consciousness, produced through meditation. Jeffrey argued that the seventh and eighth folds of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path called for seekers to practice the contemplative life.
Indeed, the seventh fold was “samma sati,” right mindfulness (or meditation), and the eighth fold was “samma samadhi,” right ecstasy (or absorption), which described an altered state of consciousness. The term “jhana” in Buddhism thus described states of joy, bliss, silence, or energy felt by a meditator. Jeffrey argued individuals should dedicate themselves rigorously to meditation in order to reap these fruits.
I found Jeffrey had a similar background to myself. He had read the same Buddhist and Hindu scriptures that I had, and was also inspired by figures like Kabir, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. I felt Jeffrey had found the path that was missed by institutional religion, and that proceeded directly to the end goal of faith.
One achievement claimed by Jeff - which is usually seen as fantastic when described to the layperson - was the ability to fully silence his mind. This meant suppressing the ordinary stream-of-consciousness - the unpleasant chattering mind - that the average person has to constantly listen to. Jeffrey described this state as the “second jhana” out of the four described by the Buddha. After meditating for years, I myself was able to recreate this state as well as several others described by him.
After meeting Jeff I joined his “sangha” or community of mystics which he calls the “Great Western Vehicle.” As I’ve progressed on my own journey, I have been inspired to produce several writings which I have shared with this group. These works include The Book of Shiva, a text on spiritual beliefs and ascetic practice; “The Orientalist,” the tale of an adventurer’s journey to India in search of hidden knowledge; “Anastasis,” a poem describing the dark night of the soul (inspired by John of the Cross); and “The Harrowing of Hell,” a poetical tale of Christ’s descent into the underworld. These works are also joined with a long list of nonfiction articles I’ve written that examine religion, mysticism, and philosophy, as well as a number of paintings I’ve made that attempt to portray transcendental themes.
A final point to examine here may be the out-of-body experience. This topic is one of the most fantastic elements that comes up in descriptions of the spiritual path. It is one I had heard of early on at 15, but ignored for a long time. I recall that early in my path I had dismissed it as fantasy or imagination. And certainly there are individuals who conflate dream experiences with the out-of-body experience, but having since studied the works of many writers on the topic I have become convinced of its reality and significance. This experience is likely the end goal of most spiritual paths, and it is also likely the origin of the experiences of the founders, mystics, and holy people who are the key figures of each faith.
The main source for the out-of-body experience is Robert Monroe, an American who, upon reaching middle age, began spontaneously having these experiences at night. Monroe himself was extremely reluctant to speak openly about them to people, fearing he would be placed in an asylum. Yet he found when he discussed them openly, he was surprised how many people believed him, or reported similar experiences themselves.
I believe the out-of-body experience exists on a spectrum that overlaps with its related phenomena, dreams and lucid dreams. At night all humans (and most animals) dream. This occurs during the REM phase across several cycles during sleep. Dreams indeed have always been one of the most mysterious phenomena experienced by human beings. Even today, they remain poorly understood. They are clearly an important part of human health, though their exact significance remains elusive.
Some individuals experience what are called lucid dreams, where self-awareness and personal agency enter the dream space. Lucid dreamers are able to experience their individuality during their dreams, and consequently mold their surroundings. Beyond this phenomenon, an even smaller number of individuals report what are called out-of-body experiences, which are usually described as being “as clear as waking reality,” or even hyper-real. Remembering these experiences on waking produces its own challenge: and suggests a barrier between the physical and nonphysical states. One recommendation for improving memory is by keeping a dream journal.
William Buhlman and Robert Bruce are other individuals who have written about out-of-body experiences. Jeffrey “Jhanananda” Brooks has also described the same, both those induced by meditation as well as those experienced during sleep. These individuals suggest the name “out-of-body experience” may be a misnomer; that more properly, it could be said that in these states consciousness is actually projecting inward. (This might explain the famous line of Christ, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.”) Collectively, these experiences suggest that man is not simply a finite physical creature, but that we also all possess a nonphysical nature. The out-of-body experience is one of the most fantastic claims of religion, and is a topic worthy of further investigation preceding our deaths.
Religion derives from man’s deep inner desire to access the transcendent. This is a need man has along with many others, such as the need for water or food or shelter. Indeed the American psychologist Abraham Maslow described this once in his Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow described this desire as the pinnacle point of “self-actualization” on his pyramid of happiness. Maslow believed man was an animal that needed to cultivate a balance between the material and the spiritual.
It is true that all human beings share this desire (to greater or lesser degrees), and indeed it may be that many of our modern pathologies, including chronic anxiety disorders and ennui, are derived from our failure to satiate it.
Religion intersects with culture, myth, and morality; comes in diverse forms (ie, polytheism, pantheism, animism, etc); and intersects with image, symbolism, and art. Due to its breadth, a mature student of religion must also be a student of the related disciplines, in other words psychology, philosophy, mythology, theology, art, and language.
In regard to the last point, I have found in my own studies the extreme importance of language in studying religion. It is often necessary to return to the original language of spiritual texts in order to understand them. The Bible, for example, has been translated out of the original Greek. Similarly, in India the Pali or Sanskrit originals have also been translated. This results in distortions or the loss of important connotations or meanings behind words.
One example of this I will give is of the Greek word “metanoia” which is translated into English for us as “repentance.” Metanoia comes from the Greek words “meta” (beyond or after) and “noia” (intellect). The word thus means to think things over or ponder things seriously, coming to a new understanding. The word thus refers to a process of personal transformation. This meaning in my opinion is not present in the English word, which has assumed a different connotation. Thus a huge aspect of the Christian teaching is lost without the study of language.
Pondering the intersection of religion with art, a few images occur to me. These are the Shiva Nataraja (Dancing Shiva) of south India; Gustave Dore’s image of the Paradiso; and the image of the crucifixion. These three images are some of the most potent attempts of man to put into physical form an understanding of the transcendent.
The first of these images attempts to portray the formless in a human approximation. The second attempts to portray the empyrean (the highest heaven) as a revolving, divine rose in which selfhood is dissolved back into God. And the third attempts to portray a prescription about the human condition, the need for man to suffer and strive to access the sacred.
Indeed, I believe the love of beauty is an essential aspect of the religious path, and it is not by accident that religion has produced these images. It is not by accident that some of our species’ greatest works, for instance those of the Renaissance painters, were produced out of faith or in efforts to portray spiritual themes.
I have been pondering an argument I could make about religion. Over the years I have spoken to many so-called “religious people” and found they can be some of the most difficult and unpleasant people to interact with. They can be judgmental, narrow-minded, and provincial. At the same time, I have always been inspired by the great spiritual figures of humanity, such as Christ, the Buddha, Dante, Walt Whitman, and John of the Cross, and believe them to be among the greatest figures of mankind. The contradiction here - that religion can produce both the worst and best people - is what I want to reconcile.
Interestingly, we find that these figures - both the worst and the best - are often produced by the same religion. Thus, it is not appropriate to say “well, these religions over here are good” and “these religions over here are bad.” Christianity has produced both inquisitors as well as philanthropists. Thus, we will take the perennialist’s position, and simply state that all religions are attempts at man to express certain universal truths about the human condition; that the outward forms they take on are simply reflections of the cultures and psychologies of the civilizations that produced them.
Thus I wanted to propose categorizing the followers of every religion in the following way. Individuals may belong to the same faith, but they interpret it according to these different stages of maturity.
The lowest level of religion. A childlike understanding of it. Results in mass hysteria, violence, or witch hunts. The world is ruled by spirits. Magic is possible. Religion is corrupted by man’s weaknesses.
A slightly higher form of religion. The tenets of faith are codified. However, the faith becomes repressive, insecure, and controlling. It falls under the influence of fallible human institutions. Here we can think of the Popes who lived in sprawling pleasure-palaces, and the great affluence and avarice of the Church. We can think of the Inquisition, the Catechism, and the drive for conformity of belief. This stage of religion can have utility in bringing social and political order, but simultaneously censors and suppresses human flourishing.
Here I will mention that it is not by accident that Christ criticized the Pharisees (the religious authorities) in the Gospels, referring to those at this stage of religion; or that in the Paradiso St. Peter becomes irate when discussing the corruption of the Catholic Church with Dante.
The highest form of religion. I would argue that this is the “adult” or “mature” understanding of faith. It is usually observed in the initial founder of a religion. It is visible in figures such as Christ or the Buddha. It is also embodied by the major saints and mystics of a faith who follow the personal life-path that returns man to the transcendent. It is open and tolerant (unlike the former stages) as it sees the divine in all. It is a faith that embodies the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”
A final category - though it does not quite fit the above - would be what I would call “pathologies of religion.” This would represent a lower level of religion than that of superstition. This would include movements founded by cult leaders that exist only to enrich or empower themselves. These kinds of groups are harmful and damaging. Indeed, in life we find pathologies exist of everything, and religion is no exception. These movements take advantage of the desire deep in human nature to commune with the sacred, and exploit it for selfish and destructive ends (ie, the benefit of the founder, a charlatan).
The difficulty in studying native faiths is the lack of primary sources. Pre-literate societies function off of oral traditions. For students of religion, this means to learn the tenets of one of these faiths they must physically travel and meet a living representative. As some of these religions may have existed for thousands of years, it may be that their best representatives (ie, a figure on par with a Paul or a Patanjali) lived in the past and we have no record of their teachings. This means we are forced to compromise, speculate, and piece together as well as we can the tenets of these faiths.
This situation is no different from a study of the Old World religions (if one goes far back enough in time). Socrates taught philosophy to his students only orally, and we have a record of him only thanks to the writings of his literate students, Plato and Xenophon. Christ similarly wrote nothing down, and we have a record of his teachings only due to the evangelists (though these are likely not primary accounts). Similarly, the early brahmins of Bronze Age India wrote little, and it was only later when the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita were compiled.
Studying native religions shows us that they share many of the universal tenets of human faith. Thus, the “perennial” perspective can help us to better contextualize what we observe about these traditions.
The native faiths of North America describe a Great Spirit that takes on diverse outward forms. Similarly, these faiths counsel following ethical prescriptions, such as abstaining from theft, killing, and adultery, to cultivate greater conformity to the divine. These teachings are consistent with those seen in Old World religions.
These faiths include shamans, who serve as intermediaries between man and the sacred (similar to the priest or prophet of Abrahamic religion). Shamans are said to undergo a kind of “death and rebirth” experience which causes them to re-emerge as a seer for a tribe, a process similar to religious initiations observed elsewhere.
Shamans often begin their paths through a “vision quest” by which they commune with the spirit world. Shamans are said to experience altered states of consciousness, travel astrally, and develop a forgetfulness of self and an experience of oneness with the world. These claims are similar to those of mystics and holy men of other traditions.
Aldous Huxley was famous for examining native shamanism and wrote positively about it in his work, The Doors of Perception. Huxley was known for trying peyote, a plant used in the religious rituals of the natives of the American Southwest, and said it induced an altered state of consciousness in which he felt the unity of all.
William Buhlman, an American spiritual teacher, has also similarly written positively of shamanism. Buhlman himself traveled to Peru where he studied with a Quechua shaman, and explained that the shaman’s teachings were no different from what he had learned from Bob Monroe or indeed experienced for himself when meditating.
The divinatory role of shamans - the ability to offer counsel or predict the future - recalls figures such as the Oracle of Delphi from ancient Greece. Finally, the powers claimed of such figures (ie, healing, cursing, or blessing) is also comparable to the claims made of saints or siddhas observed in the Abrahamic or Dharmic faiths of elsewhere.
Western scholars often romanticize native beliefs, celebrating them especially for their valuation of nature. Indeed, native religions tend to support a harmonious relationship between man and the natural world. However, it is clear indigenous faiths are susceptible to the same pathologies that Old World religions are.
In Mesoamerica, powerful priesthoods historically rose to dominate society; in the early modern period, these developed into regimes of mass human sacrifice under the doctrine of satisfying the gods. The Mexica are believed to have held ceremonies in which tens of thousands were sacrificed to the gods. These practices are a clear example of the dangerous path some religions can proceed upon.
At the same time, the condescension of Europeans when encountering native faiths resulted in the loss of many spiritual artifacts. An account I read long ago was that of the Spanish priest assigned to Christianize the Yucatan. Given control of the area, he collected and destroyed most of the Mayans’ texts, resulting in a great amount of cultural destruction. It is believed only two books survived the conflagration. It is thus essential not to arrogantly dismiss native beliefs, and to work to preserve their valuable cultural and spiritual productions.
One of the most august and ancient religions is Hinduism. The name itself is a western term. The Indians themselves call their faith “Sanatana Dharma,” which translates as something like “the eternal religion” or “the eternal truth.” The word “Hindu” in English is derived from the Iranian word for the Indus River (ie, the route by which most visitors to the subcontinent would have traveled), with Hinduism thus meaning in our language “the religion of the Indians.”
For westerners, Hinduism represents an utterly different approach to faith compared to our own history. In Europe (and the Middle East), religions were innately intolerant and struggled with one another for supremacy. Heretics and disbelievers were punished and there was an expectation of conformity of belief. For someone coming from this background, the religious pluralism and openness to different beliefs native to India is a dramatic change.
Hinduism is usually explained as polytheistic, though this is not entirely accurate. Interviewing an Indian family tends to result in them identifying a preferred deity - for instance Vishnu, Ganesh, Shakti, or Shiva - and explaining their devotion to him (or, in the case of Shakti, her). In practice this means their chosen god becomes a vehicle of monotheism. Shiva, for instance, is sometimes portrayed as “Mahadeva,” the supreme divine.
At the same time, this is not entirely accurate. (This flexibility is a big part of Indian belief.) Another articulation explains the gods as the individual expressions of a universal “brahman.” Brahman (not to be confused with the creator god Brahma, or a member of the learned class, brahmin) is the impersonal absolute that is the origin of the cosmos. In this model, the gods emanate or derive from brahman, similar to how the angels derive from God in western cosmology.
Modern Indian belief is believed to derive from Bronze Age traditions, making it one of the most ancient world religions alongside Judaism. Historically, the Indo-Europeans (also known as “Aryans”) invaded the subcontinent from the west. Likely taking control by force, there followed a deep cultural exchange between the invaders and the natives of India. It is from the invaders that the Sanskrit language was derived. It is also believed that the invaders introduced the caste system (perhaps a way of keeping their ethnicity in positions of power) along with one of the principal Indian deities, Indra (who is believed to have later evolved into the modern day Shiva).
Scholars of Hinduism usually start by explaining the trimurti, or trinity, of the three chief gods of India - Vishnu the maintainer, Brahma the creator, and Shiva the destroyer. However, this division is not an accurate reflection of daily practices. In India the most worshiped god is Vishnu, followed by Shiva, followed by Shakti. After this proceed a litany of other gods, including Ganesh, Kartikeya, and Lakshmi. Brahma is usually not worshiped at all.
Complicating Indian religion is the fact that each god comes in multiple forms. For example, Shiva’s consort Shakti also comes in the forms Kali (destructive form) and Parvati (calm form). Shiva himself comes in the forms of Nataraja (the cosmic dancer), Kala (the black destroyer), and Bholenath (the god of simplicity). Each god embodies different aspects of human psychology and cosmic principles; thus studying the gods becomes a tool for developing self-knowledge.
As stated before, Indian religion is characterized by its pluralism. There are a vast number of sects and a vast number of religious interpretations. A famous quote is that in India “there are as many sects as there are gods.” The overall tendency is toward diversity of belief (though the subcontinent does at times manifest religious intolerance and persecution the same as elsewhere).
Despite its breadth, Indian religion has a few strong consistencies. Indian religion tends to believe in the following.
“Life is suffering”
This line - actually from Buddhism - represents the starting point of the Indian worldview. Indian religion tends to define human life as characterized by the confrontation with the “three divine messengers,” the forces of old age, sickness, and death.
Because of this, commenters sometimes describe Indian religion as cynical: as focusing too much on the negative side of human life. At the same time, deeper investigation reveals this is simply the beginning; the whole focus of Indian religion is on reacting to and overcoming this negative reality.
This is the idea that good acts are rewarded and evil acts are punished. It is one of the pillars of Indian belief. For example, it is believed that the charitable are rewarded with wealth, while thieves are punished with poverty. Meanwhile the pacific are rewarded with long life, while murderers are punished with physical injury, short lifespan, or disability.
Karma is complicated by the delay that is believed to occur before the fruits of actions are wrought. It is further complicated by the intersection of the idea with reincarnation.
Karma is believed to ultimately originate from a divine Unity. If all beings are ultimately One, and it is only illusion (Maya) that conceals this, then it would follow that injury to another is actually self-injury, and help to another is actually self-help. The idea of a divine Oneness would thus be the basis of karma, and our experiences in the world would represent an exercise in us re-learning our essential unity.
Reincarnation is the belief that an underlying self, called atman, is compelled to return existence after existence in an eternal chain. In India, it is believed one can reincarnate as various forms. These are usually explained as being the states of a human, animal, demon, ghost, and god.
One’s karma is believed to be the origin of one’s reincarnation in all these states. For example, a virtuous individual is believed to reincarnate as a brahmin. An unvirtuous person is believed to reincarnate as someone in poverty (an untouchable). Those of especial merit may join the gods and rise to the state of the devas on death. Meanwhile, those guilty of crimes such as theft, adultery, or fraud may find themselves among the lower states of being, forced to return as an animal, ghost, or asura (demon).
The idea of reincarnation is interwoven with the idea of samsara. Samsara is usually portrayed in art as a wheel. Samsara is a kind of prison one cannot escape from. Due to one’s nature, one is continually bound to form, forced to return and suffer repeatedly, whether one wishes to or not.
Moksha is the idea that it is possible to free oneself from the forces of karma and reincarnation; that it is possible to break the cycle of eternal return and reunite with the divine. Moksha is usually described as a state of liberation, bliss, and immortality, and as the ultimate end of the spiritual quest.
One who has obtained moksha is called “enlightened.” An “enlightened” person is said to be in a state which is incomprehensible to the human mind. In this state, the individual’s atman, or personal soul, is in a state of unity with brahman, the universal soul. This state is usually described as distinct from heaven (ie, the world of the gods). It is believed that in this state one loses a conventional sense of selfhood or individuality.
In the west, yoga is associated with the physical exercises (asanas), but in Hinduism it is the mystical life-path by which one seeks union with the divine. The word itself means “to yoke” or “to join,” ie, to unite oneself with the sacred.
The practice of it is described in detail by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. To walk the path of yoga, a yogi must amass wisdom, follow ethical prescriptions, and meditate to a state of absorption.
The Yoga Sutras are written in an aphoristic and terse style. Despite this, the lines are carefully constructed and appear to be intended for the reader to unpack them to derive their full meaning. Consequently, publishers of the Yoga Sutras usually include long commentaries (the verses themselves are fairly short) where the meaning of each Sanskrit term is defined and the multiple interpretations of each verse are examined.
The specific tenets of the Yoga Sutras are the following.
1. To practice tapas or asceticism; ie, abstaining from sense-pleasures for a spiritual end.
2. Self-examination and the study of the scriptures.
3. Devotion to the divine.
4. Ethical observances; actively doing the right thing.
5. Ethical abstentions; avoiding doing the wrong thing.
6. Asanas, physical exercises; the yoga postures used to keep the body fit, enabling it to sit for long periods in stillness.
7. Pranayama, breath control; believed to facilitate the transfer of energy in the body.
8. Pratyahara, withdrawing the senses from their engagement with sense-objects.
9. Dharana, applying and sustaining the attention (in other words, the first stage of meditation).
10. Dhyana, meditation; achieving a state of stillness.
11. Samadhi, the religious experience; the direct experience of the divine.
Patanjali places particular emphasis on samadhi, the altered states of consciousness produced by meditation. This is explained as a state of nonduality, in which the difference between subject and object - “I” and “you” - vanishes.
Other elements of Indian religion
Indian religion is vast and contains many additional elements. Before continuing, we can examine some of these.
Indian civilization has the teaching of the Purusartha, or four goals of life. These are (1) duty, (2) wealth, (3) pleasure, and (4) liberation. This idea shows a worldview that understands the material as well as the spiritual needs of man, and that accepts the diversity of life-paths pursued by individuals.
Indian society usually teaches a set of life stages that derive from the Purusartha. As one ages, one passes through the following.
1. In youth one is a student (brahmacharya). Here one lives with one’s parents, studies in school, learns the scriptures, and observes chastity.
2. In adulthood one becomes a householder (grhastha), taking a spouse and raising a family of one’s own. During this stage, one pursues a trade and dedicates oneself to materialistic ends.
3. One ends one’s life as a renunciate (sannyasin), a spiritual ascetic. In old age, one’s children have reached maturity and formed households of their own. One retreats to the forest or an ashram and studies spiritual topics in the anticipation of death.
No discussion of Indian religion would be complete without a reference to the subcontinent’s central text - and greatest cultural production - the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord.” This work is a part of the larger epic, the Mahabharata or “Great Epic of India.”
In the Bhagavad Gita, two warriors (Krishna and Arjuna) discuss philosophy and the meaning of life before they leave to fight in a battle. In their conversation, they discuss death, karma, reincarnation, consciousness, and the soul. In the work, Arjuna represents the everyman, the average person. Krishna meanwhile is an avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu, an all-knowing teacher in the text who works to teach the “eternal dharma” to mankind. The concepts taught by Krishna are consistent with those described above.
Indian culture embraces the idea of the spiritual teacher, or guru. A seeker or sannyasin who embarks on the spiritual quest is recommended to find a mentor. Over the years, many westerners have traveled to India in the imitation of this ancient practice. The guru takes the student under his discipline and communicates “revealed knowledge” to him. Through religious initiation by the guru, the student progresses to self-realization.
The repetition of mantras is an important Indian religious practice. A mantra is similar to the prayers or hymns of Abrahamic faith: they are usually dense, brief verses which one repeats in devotion to a deity or an idea. It is believed a mantra can bring favor on an individual or help them achieve a desired goal. The most famous mantra is the repetition of “aum,” the sacred syllable of Hinduism (which is also often used as the pictorial symbol of the religion).
Devotional religion in India is usually referred to as bhakti. This is a practice by which Hindus dedicate themselves to a deity to develop a personal relationship with the divine. This is similar to what is observed in some Christian practices (ie, a monk’s development of a personal relationship with Christ). The anthropomorphization of the divine allows the aspirant to reflect on the spiritual nature of the world. Devotional practice can include songs, prayers, and libations.
A final tenet of Indian religion that we might mention is that of the chakras. The word chakra means “wheel” and refers to a series of “energy centers” in the body. These invisible centers are believed to facilitate the connection between the physical and the nonphysical. The chakras are identified as the base (root), navel, solar plexus, heart, throat, third eye, and crown. These centers are said to facilitate the transfer of energy (prana) through the body.
Some schools of yoga focus on the chakras and dedicate themselves to the raising of energy through them. The energy described in this context is sometimes referred to as kundalini or shakti. Yogis dedicated to this practice claim that when raised, this energy results in the induction of ecstatic or transcendent experiences.
Buddhism originated in upper central India, on the eastern shores of the Ganges, in approximately 500 BC. It developed from the underlying spiritual culture of India, and represents a refined version of the same principles.
Despite its origin - and its period of prevalence under the reign of Ashoka - Buddhism is little practiced in India today. However, over the centuries Buddhism spread to the neighboring countries, and today is the dominant faith of Tibet, Sri Lanka, and southeast Asia.
The Buddha’s historical name was Siddhartha Gautama. “Buddha” is a title, derived from the word “budh,” to awaken: thus the name means “the awakened one.”
Siddhartha was born on the northeastern Gangetic plain, and was likely a noble and probably the heir to one of the small kingdoms of Magadha. A fortune teller is said to have prophesied Siddhartha’s future at the time of his birth. The fortune teller told Siddartha’s father he would be either a great conqueror or a holy man. Hearing this, Buddhist tradition says that Siddhartha’s father wished for him to become a ruler, and consequently sheltered him from outside knowledge out of the fear that it might inspire him to become spiritual.
Despite this, the Buddha was exposed to the “three divine messengers” - the three harmful forces of the human condition, old age, sickness, and death. This experience produced a profound impact on him, and spurred him to become a holy man. The Buddha is said to have renounced his worldly life and inheritance, and “gone forth” on the path of spiritual knowledge and monasticism.
The stories of the Buddha’s life are at least partly allegorical and teach important spiritual truths. Discerning the exact historical events is difficult, thus it is important to read the stories with an openness about their multiple levels of significance.
The Buddha is said to have followed an austere ascetic practice, renouncing all pleasures. The Buddha lived in the wilderness as a mendicant, and became malnourished due to his austerities. Buddhist tradition says he attracted several followers during this time, and also went to learn from spiritual teachers.
Frustrated by his lack of progress, the Buddha eventually realized that his ascetic practice was not bearing the desired fruit. He thus reformed himself and embraced the “Middle Way,” a spiritual path that was a median between the poles of extreme materialism and asceticism.
From here, the Buddha is said to have investigated a phenomenon he encountered in his youth. The suttas recount he had an experience as a young boy when he sat under a tree. While sitting he experienced a feeling of spontaneous joy. Intuiting this was the right path, the Buddha dedicated himself to meditation that would cultivate this.
This experience is usually referred to as the first “jhana,” and it represented the beginning of the Buddha’s path of introversion. In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is next said to have sat under the bodhi tree, and there remained until he achieved enlightenment.
This tale likely refers to a period of withdrawal when the Buddha dedicated himself to meditation. The tale speaks of the Buddha’s battles with demons and sirens, but these likely represent the Buddha’s confrontation with the passions, his development of virtue, his silencing of the mind, and his achievement of samadhi.
Despite his enlightenment, the suttas refer to the Buddha’s refusal to begin a ministry. There is a passage where the Buddha states he does not believe anyone will be capable of receiving his teaching. According to this same passage, the Buddha is only persuaded when one of the devas descends to earth to speak to him. This event led him to relent and to found the Buddhist religion.
Similarities with Hinduism
Buddhism developed out of the underlying Indian religious tradition, so it would follow that Buddhists share many of the same beliefs as Hindus. Indeed, the Buddha himself refers to his teaching’s origins, for instance when he refers to his doctrine of the “brahma viharas” (which he cites as deriving from the brahmins of his time), and when he refers to the two teachers (Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta) he studied under in his early years.
Buddhism is divided into sects - Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana - similar to how Hinduism is divided into Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism. Similar to how Hinduism’s sects are localized to certain regions (for example, Shaivism to south India), Buddhism’s sects are as well. Vajrayana (which overlaps with Shaivism and Shaktism in places like Nepal) is practiced in Tibet and Mongolia; Theravada in Sri Lanka and southeast Asia (with the exception of Vietnam); and Mahayana in Vietnam. Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, usually referred to as Ch’an and Zen Buddhism, are often categorized as divisions of Mahayana.
One achievement of Buddhism is its articulate, extensive, and well-preserved literature. The Buddhist suttas, written in Pali, are a remarkable collection of spiritual doctrines worthy of study by any sincere student of religion.
Like Hinduism, Buddhism believes in karma, reincarnation, and samsara; in a life-path that returns one to the transcendent; and in a vast spiritual cosmology. Both religions emphasize the importance of liberation, the quest to realize the individual self is no different from the divine, universal self.
Buddhists present a codified version of the Indian worldview, which they call the Four Noble Truths. These are the following.
1. Life is suffering (dukkha)
In other words, life is ultimately unsatisfying, painful, and transitory; life characterized by the confrontations with sickness, old age, and death.
2. The cause of suffering is craving (tanha)
We are kept in a state of bondage due to our desires and attachments to form-based reality.
3. There is a way out of suffering
It is possible to overcome our desires and attachments by following the holy path.
4. The way out of suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path
The Buddha presents a systemic path to lead one out of bondage and to liberation.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the following.
1. Right view; ie, understanding the ultimate nature of physical reality as unsatisfying (the First Noble Truth).
2. Right intention; applying oneself to the path to liberation (spiritual path).
3. Right speech; speaking positively, avoiding sowing chaos or discord.
4. Right conduct; avoiding injury to others and practicing ahimsa (nonviolence) and chastity.
5. Right livelihood; avoiding professions that cause harm to others, for instance working in weapons dealing, prostitution, or slaughterhouses.
6. Right effort; striving towards liberation.
7. Right mindfulness; practicing meditation.
8. Right samadhi; direct experience of the divine.
Without going into an extended commentary, we can see that the above is very similar to that expressed by Patanjali, and that the two were clearly derived from the same underlying spiritual tradition.
Differences with Hinduism
The main difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is that they represent the two articulations of the spiritual path: the positive and negative. A good analogy to understand this is to think of apophatic or “negative” theology in Christianity. Hinduism uses positive language to understand the quest to the divine, while Buddhism uses negative language. Ultimately, however, both are proceeding to the same end.
Hinduism begins with the underlying self, or atman, and states that through Yoga one realizes that this self is identical to the universal, divine I. When one realizes this one achieves moksha.
Buddhism in contrast teaches the doctrine of anatta, or not-self, the idea that there is no underlying, cogent self that reincarnates across the various lifetimes. Buddhism denies the reality of the external forms (skandhas) that one identifies with. When one achieves nirvana, the state of “blowing out,” one extinguishes the false identification with outward form and achieves identity with the true, underlying reality. As this state is transcendent, the Buddhists describe it using negative language.
This approach derives from the Buddha, who referred to himself as the “Tathagata,” or the “thus-gone one,” and even referred to himself in the third person. When questioners would ask the Buddha to describe the state he was in, he would negate their statements or refuse to answer, constantly emphasizing the unfathomable nature of enlightenment. (This ultimately led to the doctrine of the “unfathomables,” the philosophical questions the human mind cannot understand.)
There are two statements that perhaps embody these two paths of the spirit. One is “thou art that” (Tat Tvam Asi), the idea that the individual I is identical to what is observed; identical to the universal I. This would be the verbal summary of the Hindu, or positive, approach.
The other is “not this, not this” (Neti Neti): the idea that one should continually negate observed phenomena as objects of identification. It is believed that by doing this one ultimately loses the division between subject and object - between “I” and “you.” This line would be the summary of the Buddhist approach. This practice would produce the same state as the one described above.
Westerners are often attracted to Buddhism due to its apparent secularism or nontheism, and it is true the Buddha counseled against the worship of gods and against the elevation of himself as a deity. However, Buddhist cosmology is similar to that of most other faiths. Just as the Hindu cosmos consists of gods, demons, ghosts, animals, and humans, the Buddhist cosmos does as well.
The Buddha in fact went into great detail in the suttas describing the various levels of naraka, or hell, and the various planes of the gods in heaven. The Buddha also explained the deeds that led one to reincarnate in these various states. For example, moral behavior leads to human birth; acts like murder lead to descent to the animal reincarnations or to rebirth in hell.
One difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is the emphasis on monasticism. The Buddha thought worldly life was deeply distracting, and recommended renunciation and taking on the life of the bhikkhu (literally beggar), or monk. Placing particular emphasis on the seventh and eighth folds of the Noble Eightfold Path (the path of the contemplative), the Buddha expressed the difficulty of practicing these folds as a layperson. Thus, the Buddha counseled the taking on of the ochre robes and the joining of a monastic order to have time to practice meditation.
One last unique teaching of Buddhism is that of the four stages of enlightenment. This teaching is particular to the faith, and attempts to codify the steps of progress as one advances on the spiritual quest across several lifetimes.
Buddhism teaches that one reincarnates due to “fetters,” or desires and attachments, that bind one to form and matter. If one purifies oneself of these, one will rise to higher states of being.
The four stages of enlightenment are the following.
One has taken the first steps on the path to liberation. One will inevitably reach enlightenment, but it may require multiple lifetimes to do so. One has overcome the fetters of identity-view, belief in religious ritual, and doubt about the existence of a spiritual path.
One has made great progress on the spiritual quest, and weakened the two powerful fetters of sensual desire and ill will. These are the two fetters that bind one to the world of matter. One will reincarnate at most once more as a human being.
One has become effectively an angelic being in human form, and overcome the fetters of sensuality and ill will. On death, one will rise to the state of the devas.
An enlightened being. An individual who achieves this is a great rarity. One has overcome the fetters that bind even the gods. These include conceit, restlessness, and ignorance, as well as the attachment to the states of jhana.
Jainism is a secondary religion of India that is little known in the west. While Jains are regularly encountered on the subcontinent, they are a minority that make up only about 1% of the population. Like Buddhism, Jainism is a religion that developed out of the underlying spiritual culture of India; and, again like Buddhism, shares the same core beliefs.
Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe in reincarnation; in karma; and in liberation. However, the faith diverges in several important areas, for example in its extreme focus on nonviolence, in its rejection of caste, in its preferred professions for the laity, in its holy figures selected for reverence, and in its art.
The faith is attributed to Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha who likely lived around 500 BC. (Mahavira’s name comes from “maha,” great, and “vira,” man - the latter being the same root for the word “vir,” man, in Latin, and the root of our word “virtue.”) Like the Buddha, Mahavira is believed to have been born to the upper class, but later became a renunciate and dedicated himself to spiritual matters. Similar to the Buddha who lived in the wilderness and dedicated himself to meditation, Mahavira is said to have done so as well.
Where the two diverge is over their emphasis on asceticism. While the Buddha moderated his ascetic practices and embraced a “Middle Way,” Mahavira did not do this. Mahavira was said to have gone naked his whole life (a practice still observed to the present in Jain ascetics who imitate him). Mahavira’s persecutions are also an important part of his narrative. Jain hagiography speaks of Mahavira being taunted and goaded, harassed by villagers, and attacked by dogs.
Mahavira’s story is similar to that of many other religious founders, such as Christ who lived in the wilderness before his ministry, or Mohammed who retreated to a cave to receive his revelation. Mahavira’s story however contains far more of the “wild man” elements than these accounts. Mahavira’s tale is thus more similar to the narrative of figures like Myrddin Wyllt - the Welsh holy man who retreated to the wilderness (the origin of the modern “Merlin”).
Despite his persecutions, Mahavira is said to have embraced a strict practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence, in response. He is said to have not only become a vegetarian, but to have taken extreme pains to avoid any injury to animals, even anticipating every step to avoid stepping on an insect. This benevolence toward animals encourages comparisons with holy men of other cultures, like Francis of Assisi, to whom similar practices are attributed.
Jainism rejects a reverence for a creator-god, but its cosmology is similar to that of Hindus and Buddhists. Jainist teaching refers to a heavenly world, to a human-animal world, and to a hellish world. Similar to Buddhism, Jainism places emphasis on a human birth as being the best place from whence to achieve liberation.
Like its peers, Jainism believes in the eternity of the universe and in the cyclical nature of the world. Jainism, like its peers, divides creation into spirit and matter. Perhaps different from its peers however, Jains embrace a “gnostic” perspective and believe that all things - even the inanimate - have spirit in them. This belief is the basis for the Jains’ strict insistence of proceeding cautiously so as to avoid causing harm.
Similar to the “avatars” of Hinduism, Jainism includes a list of saints who have achieved liberation and who are to be looked to for inspiration. The tales of these saints follow the perennial narrative: awakening; renunciation; withdrawal into the wilderness; liberation; and ministry. This recurring narrative is visible in other religions.
In Jainism, liberated beings are called “jinas” or conquerors. The religion portrays these individuals as mighty ones - not as gentle intercessors like other religions might. This view is visible in Jain architecture, which usually assumes monumental proportions. Saints or Mahavira are usually portrayed in massive monolithic statues, which emphasize the great power and achievement of these individuals for having become liberated.
Due to their pacific nature, Jains have historically avoided certain professions, such as farming (avoided due to fear of crushing insects), and have gravitated instead toward commercial and intellectual professions. Historically, Jains served as moneylenders to Indian rajas (kings). Today, Jains are often observed as physicians, lawyers, and businessmen.
Over the centuries, Jainism divided into different sects. The most famous Jains are those of south India. This branch is famous for its naked ascetics and its refusal to let women into monastic life. Northern Jains - likely due to the colder climate - are associated with the white robes worn by its nuns and monks.
Modern Jains have grown associated with the practice of ritual devotion (puja), making offerings to the statues of their holy figures in a manner similar to Hindus. Due to this, some modern sects of Jainism have emerged which challenge this practice and have attempted to re-emphasize the practice of austerity.
Jainism has not proselytized as well as its related faiths, and did not develop a strong base of support in neighboring countries like Buddhism did, resulting in its modern condition. Despite this, Jainism was prominent at several historical points, and during the classical period several significant Indian rulers were members of the faith.
Like other religions, Jainism began as an oral tradition, with the teachings of the ascetics communicated by direct instruction. Jains often state that the original scriptures of their faith have been lost and have only been imperfectly recreated. Despite this, the Jains have collected an impressive canon including works on monastic conduct, ethics, and cosmology similar to the Buddhist lexicon.
Origins of Sikhism
Around the year 1000, Islam first arrived in India. The monotheistic faith would go on to be embraced by many of the modern unifiers of India, for example the Delhi sultanate of the 1300s and the Mughal dynasty of the 1600s.
While the religion would perform well amongst political leaders - and attract some converts due to its rejection of the caste system - it would ultimately fail to find significant converts among the indigenous population. This led to a situation, for example under Akbar the Great in the 1500s, in which a Muslim minority ruled over a Hindu majority.
So long as religious pluralism was embraced, the system held. The Mughal emperor Akbar is often (universally) celebrated by Indians due to his policy of promoting ecumenical dialogue and emphasizing the universal nature of all his subjects’ faiths.
The common narrative of imperial decline ties the Mughals’ later efforts to impose religious conformity as causing their downfall. The emperor Aurangzeb, Akbar’s successor, was known for a series of rapid conquests - followed by executions, destructions of temples, and forced assimilations which won him many enemies. Following his reign there followed a swift collapse. Two often cited examples are the Sikh revolt (which occurred following the execution of its ninth guru by Aurangzeb) and the rebellion of Shivaji and the Hindus (following the execution of the leader of the Marathas).
Given the above, we can see some of the historical dynamic between Hinduism and Islam. Given the history of conflict, it would follow that there would exist a spectrum of responses in each religion to the opposing faith. Indeed, alongside acts of rejection there were also efforts at reconciliation. This thus leads to the simplest way of understanding Sikhism: an effort to syncretize Hinduism and Islam.
Sikhism is a modern religion, dating back chiefly to the 16th and 17th centuries. Its founder, Nanak, was born in the late 1400s in the western part of the subcontinent. Born a Hindu, Nanak lived in an area of India that was gradually converting to Islam. Nanak had an important Muslim friend, Mardana, who he would dialogue with on spiritual topics frequently, causing him to realize the similarities between their beliefs.
As a young man, Nanak would have a revelatory experience that would convince him of the transcendent nature of the divine. Nanak would come to insist that “Hindu” and “Muslim” were just names and that all faiths were simply individual efforts for man to gain access to a universal divine. Nanak referred to God as a “True Name” that transcended all the names created for him by the world’s disparate cultures.
Nanak and Mardana would work to recruit disciples (or “Sikhs”) to their movement after Nanak’s revelation. In their efforts they would synthesize many Hindu and Muslim elements. Sikhs would embrace reincarnation and karma, similar to Hindus, and teach (like both religions) that the human being was a combination of matter and spirit. Unlike Hindus, they would reject ritual, polytheism, and vegetarianism. Similar to Muslims, Sikhs would embrace the aniconic nature of the divine, rejecting images and the veneration of shrines.
Sikhs are taught the illusion (or “Maya”) of the physical world, and the need to detach themselves from selfish hindrances such as egotism, anger, greed, and lust. Sikhs have a strong focus on social service (similar to the prescription for charity in Islam) and often hold group events to feed, clothe, and take care of suffering community members.
In their outward appearances, Nanak and Mardana would also communicate the syncretic nature of their faith. The two would, for example, wear Hindu legwear and forehead markings and combine these with a Muslim coat and cap. Their efforts would ultimately attract followers to their movement, most of these localized to the Punjab region of north-central India.
Nanak would proceed to become the first guru, or teacher, of Sikhism. After him, there follow nine additional gurus who are believed to be religiously inspired by the Sikhs. These gurus are especially revered by Sikhs, and are believed to have played essential roles in the development of their religion to the present.
In its history, Sikhism went through several stages. Initially, it was a loose movement that sought to exist alongside other faiths. Later, after coming under attack, it became institutionalized. The Sikhs formalized their teachings into a holy book and embraced a militarist stance as a means for self-defense. This shift has led to the popular image of Sikhs today as associated with the military or warfare. This is why Sikhs are usually portrayed as turbaned men wearing swords, and why the popular Sikh surname, “Singh” (lion), shows the cultural emphasis on martial prowess.
The Sikhs have built several temples, most famously the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which is considered the spiritual center of the religion. The building is a grand structure that itself shows the synthetic nature of the faith, combining Mughal (Muslim) and Rajput (Hindu) architectural styles. The building is famous for its serene reflecting pool.
The symbol of the Sikhs is called the khanda. This image has a military connotation and portrays several interlocking weapons. At the center of the symbol is a double-edged sword, surrounded by a throwing discus, flanked by two daggers. The khanda shows the emphases on duty and solidarity, and on the historic need of the Sikhs to adopt a martial focus to defend themselves. The symbol is usually seen in Sikh places of worship or in Sikh neighborhoods.
The Sikhs suffered greatly following the British evacuation of India in 1947. The division of the subcontinent between India and Pakistan caused a partition of the traditional Sikh lands, with some ending up in Pakistan and some in India. Violence later developed over an abortive effort to achieve an independent state for the Sikhs, which tragically resulted in mass violence and the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Today however, Sikhs are generally well-integrated into India, while in neighboring Pakistan they have almost disappeared, a result of that nation’s efforts at suppressing the minority.
While Sikhism is mainly a social-cultural response to two other faiths, we find that it nonetheless shares several of the perennial elements of the other religions we have examined. Sikhism is based on the teachings of a founder who experienced a religious transformation and was inspired to begin a ministry. Similar to Hinduism and Sufi mysticism, Sikhs are counseled to attain liberation and achieve union with God. Adherence to the teachings of the gurus is believed to be key to achieving this.
A spiritual civilization
I have a friend who I speak to on historical topics, and he said once, “India is the great spiritual civilization; China is the great material civilization.” When I heard this I felt it was one of those excellent lines that summarizes what one learns from reading a dozen books. Having studied the histories of both, I felt this was a fair characterization. Indeed, the two civilizations seem to be driven by opposing unconscious forces.
In my opinion, India has contributed more to the spiritual dimension of mankind than anywhere else; its contributions to the world of religion exceed that of any other civilization. India has produced Patanjali and the Buddha; the Yoga Sutras and Buddhist suttas; the Vedas and Upanishads; and a litany of sadhus, ascetics, and holy people. If one has an interest in religion, one should start with India. From India, one can get a base of understanding from which to interpret every other religion.
Despite this, we must remember that the stages of religion still apply to the subcontinent. In any faith we study we will find those at the “superstitious,” “dogmatic,” and “transcendent-mystical” levels, and India is not an exception.
I would like to share an anecdote here to illustrate this.
I once watched an Indian religious bathing. During this, dozens of people came to the Ganges to submerge themselves in the river. This bathing is believed to bring spiritual cleansing. I watched two people who were participating, a couple (husband and wife). They were submerged along with many others. While submerged however, the husband turned to his wife and lightly kissed her on the cheek. To an outside observer it would appear to be a non-event, but on seeing it the other bathers turned and slowly formed a crowd around the couple. The bathers then proceeded to beat and physically assault the pair. One was not supposed to engage in any sort of sensual activity during the ritual; doing so would contaminate the purity to be gained from the bath. The crowd turned into a mob, and became incandescent in their violence.
I share this anecdote here to put things in perspective. In the study of any religion, these contradictions exist. Hinduism is both the supreme spiritual expression of man and also shelters superstition. A student of religion thus needs to be able to discern between the two.
Struggles of India
Before concluding, it may be appropriate for us to examine some of the sociological effects of Indian belief. As the supreme “spiritual civilization,” India has the strengths and weaknesses one might anticipate. While Indians embrace ideas like renunciation, almsgiving, and the reverence of the holy, their culture has also produced several problems.
One that appears occasionally is a victim-blaming mentality. As Indians embrace the idea of karma, this at times leads to the belief that any suffering experienced by an individual - even one who is blameless - is their own fault. This occasionally leads to a decrease in sympathy for the suffering (at least in comparison to Christian or Islamic civilization).
Caste rigidity is another challenge produced by the spiritual traditions of India. Though lawfully the caste system is abolished, having met many Indians I learned the extent to which it is still internalized by large numbers of people. Most Indians continue to follow the subcontinent’s strict social mores which regulate behavior. In my opinion, this system hinders India’s dynamism and impedes its social development.
Material development is the last challenge faced by India. While the subcontinent was formerly one of the world’s great economies (it was about a quarter of world GDP in the 17th century - approximately the same as the United States today), this has diminished to the present. I have spoken to several Indians about this. Indeed, it appears that if a culture strongly believes the main end of life is to prepare for death, then there are reduced incentives to amass wealth, innovate, and compete. This leads to long-term material effects. Thus a danger of excessive religiosity is a decline in economic development.
Abraham Maslow spoke about the need for balance in man between the material and the spiritual, and it is interesting to expand this analogy to civilizations. The thesis here would be that balance is necessary. Indeed, it is rare to find cultures that maintain a healthy balance between the material and the spiritual.
When we discussed China previously we referred to it as “the great material civilization.” Technically, however, this is not accurate. When studying the internal dynamics of China one finds that - in an ideal situation - it is actually a “balanced” civilization, one that embraces the material as well as the spiritual.
China can be understood as a synthesis of three intellectual traditions. For simplicity’s sake, we will call these legalism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Legalism (the term actually deriving from ancient China) is the basis of the political order and empowers an authoritarian system of governance. Confucianism is a social-secular philosophy that is used to cultivate individual excellence and maintain social harmony. Taoism is a safety valve, a mystical-spiritual path that provides an exit from the world and a path to liberation. (For simplicity’s sake, we will put Buddhism and Chinese folk religion under the umbrella of “Taoism.”)
Understanding the dynamic between these traditions requires an understanding of Chinese geography, demography, and history. Studying these historical topics shows how the three traditions symbiose and work to create a state of civilizational “balance.” Thus we will examine a brief narrative of Chinese history and observe how these traditions originated and the role each one plays in China.
Fertilized by the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, China occupies one of the world’s great river basins. The country is a vast, fertile plain amenable to agriculture and urbanization. Historically, China has been the most advanced economy in the world (its modern state is an anomaly). China’s internal geography has few natural boundaries, promoting unification; however, the country is cut off from other civilizations due to formidable obstacles like the Himalayas, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gobi Desert.
In history, China exists in one of two states: politically united under a single leader, or divided amongst an anarchy of feuding principalities. China’s dynasties such as the Ming, Tang, and Qing embody its periods of unity. During these eras, the country prospers and projects power outwardly.
However, the forces of devolution are always present in China. Famous eras of division include that of the Three Kingdoms period; as well as that of the classical period before the rise of the Qin. Another famous era of division occurred during World War II, when China was divided amongst several states ruled over by “warlords” prior to being reunited after the Chinese Civil War.
China’s initial unification occurred under Shi Huangdi, the authoritarian emperor of Qin. (It is from him where the western name, China, derives.) Shi Huangdi was a formidable military leader who developed a powerful standing army. This force conquered and annexed the lands of Qin’s rival states, creating China.
Shi Huangdi sought an intellectual tradition to cement his rule, and selected the harsh school of legalism to do this. Legalism valued censorship, repression, and forced labor; severe punishments; and strict obedience to the ruler. The legalists are usually portrayed as cruel tyrants, but one way to understand the movement is as a tool to weld together the extremely disparate regions of the country into a new nation.
Due to his cruelty, the Qin dynasty swiftly collapsed after the emperor’s death, and the leader of the rebellion, a member of the Han dynasty, usurped him. (Today the Chinese refer to themselves as the “Han” people, after this dynasty.) The Han moderated the authoritarian program of the legalists, and gradually embraced a new, calmer tool for social organization: Confucianism.
Confucianism is a school of thought that originates with Confucius, a Chinese teacher and civil servant who lived in the divided China that predated the Qin. Confucius lived around 500 BC, making him a contemporary of the Buddha. Confucius saw the division and turmoil of the land he inhabited, and sought to develop a philosophy that would bring social harmony.
Confucius believed education was the path to success, and emphasized students study writing, history, painting, poetry, and music. Confucius believed that the cultivation of an individual would result in the production of higher persons who would then raise society to a higher level of development. Confucius valued virtue and ethics and believed these should be inculcated into the young as well.
Seeing fragmentation and disorder, Confucius thought a philosophy of political and social unity would be a remedy to this. Confucianism is thus communitarian, focused on social bonds and personal fulfillment achieved through serving others. It is a philosophy that would run counter to what most Americans would be familiar with (who are inculcated instead with individualistic traditions).
Essential to Confucius were relationships. For Confucius, if correct relationships could be developed by all persons, then harmony, well-being, and prosperity would result. Confucius thus emphasized the need for respect and care among individuals, as well as the importance of mutual obligation.
Relationships in Confucianism were not egalitarian: often one party was the superior of the other. However, the mutual obligation emphasized by Confucius insisted on the need for the superior to not neglect his duties, and to act as a wise steward to subordinates.
Some of the essential relationships described by Confucius were that between fathers and sons; that between elder brothers and younger brothers; that between husband and wife; that between old and young; and that between ruler and subject. In each of these relationships, the junior party was expected to obey and listen to the senior, while the senior looked after and cared for the junior.
Some of the effects of Confucianism are visible to this day (even in communist China), having been internalized by the culture. I met a teacher from China who said his students were taught to sit on their hands and be silent unless called upon - a practical necessity, as one teacher was responsible for 60 students at a time.
The importance of sons is visible (more macabrely) in the present excess of young men in China. When forced to choose between one or the other under the one child policy, many families chose to abort their daughters and keep their sons.
The practice of three generations living together under one roof is a final manifestation of Confucian principles, with families providing the main source of social support in times of difficulty, and taking on the burden of care for the elderly in old age.
Historically, Confucianism embraced meritocracy, and was famous for creating a civil service exam that allowed anyone to work in government if it was passed. This allowed even the sons of poor families to work in the imperial administration. Often families would invest massive resources into the education of the eldest son, who if he found employment would then be able to support his family with that income.
At the same time, the civil service exam was onerous and the process competitive - something reflected even in Chinese education today. A few years ago, I had a student from China who explained to me the Chinese education system. He explained that the Chinese equivalent of the SAT is competitive - only the highest scorers are allowed to move on to higher education. This creates a lot of stress, and has led many families to send their sons abroad to receive a western education.
Confucianism’s literature consists of the Five Classics and the Four Books. The most famous of these works is called The Analects, presented as the sayings of Confucius. These sayings often take the form of short stories or aphorisms. Each line of The Analects begins with verse, “The master said.”
Calligraphy - writing as an art form - is often associated with Confucianism. In East Asia one at times encounters works of calligraphy, which are celebrated as embodiments of human excellence. The words written (ie, sayings of wisdom) are intended to demonstrate cognitive and moral excellence, while the brushwork of the characters demonstrates aesthetic excellence.
One Chinese practice - an amalgam of Confucian reverence for ancestors and traditional folk practice - is that of celebrating ancestors. This practice caused early western visitors to China to misunderstand the country’s religion as “ancestor worship.” The shrines to ancestors visible in some places are not ancestor worship per se, but an internalized cultural practice of remembrance and reverence of the dead.
The current Chinese administration is known for its criticism of Confucianism, and the great efforts made to suppress it in the culture. The current regime has criticized Confucianism for ossifying China and allowing it to fall behind the west; for promoting elitism; for failing to educate the majority; and for failing to provide opportunities to women. During the Cultural Revolution, these criticisms resulted in a gross overreaction, as many artifacts of traditional China were destroyed in a series of mass demonstrations. It seems the Chinese regime has come to understand its overreaction in recent years however, as there has recently been observed a marked interest in reviving Confucian practices.
For simplicity’s sake, we will put all Chinese spiritual practices (that is, including Buddhism and folk religion) under the heading of “Taoism.” As I mentioned earlier, Taoism can be viewed as a “safety valve” creating an exit for individuals from the secular-material order. As the spiritual is a core human desire, it follows that a culture would maintain a path by which individuals could leave ordinary life to pursue it.
Taoism is attributed to the legendary Chinese figure Lao Tzu, who may have lived about 600 BC. The religion he founded is in many ways a mysterious and nebulous movement. It includes many aspects and forms, including an appreciation of nature, individualism, spirituality, laissez faire governance, humor, and supernatural powers.
The simplest characterization of Taoism may be to compare it to Henry David Thoreau or the transcendentalist movement of the United States. Thoreau was an American poet who famously renounced worldly life and retired to live in a cabin in the wilderness. Thoreau went on to write of his experiences in the book Walden. In the book, Thoreau criticized the clamor and stress of material life and praised a life that simplified the human being and re-integrated him with nature. Thoreau implied that going back to nature re-integrated one with the spiritual.
Like Thoreau, Taoists are often portrayed as hermits living alone in the wilderness. They are portrayed as being separate from society, separate from ordinary life; but then often returning later to offer humor or wise counsel.
Taoists are also often portrayed as alchemists seeking to create an elixir of life. Given the otherwise mysterious nature of Taoism, it may be useful to examine this aspect of Taoism in greater detail.
Alchemy is an ancient science that is not unique to China. Alchemy also developed in other cultures, such as the Islamic world and medieval Europe. Alchemists are usually portrayed in popular culture as ancient chemists who experimented with the transmutation of different metals.
This leads to the common trope of the alchemist as an individual attempting to transform the “base metals,” such as lead, into the “noble metals,” such as gold. Alchemists are also portrayed elsewhere as seeking to create the “philosopher’s stone,” or as seeking to create the “elixir of life.” In China, the last (creating the elixir of life) is the preferred allegory.
Alchemy is ultimately a philosophy that teaches about a series of changes that occur within an individual who follows a spiritual path. The tales of alchemy are figurative. For example, the “base metals” represent the vices, such as the greed, lust, or attachment of the ordinary man, while the “noble metals” represent the virtues, such as the charity, wisdom, or detachment of the refined man.
A danger in alchemy lies in the literal interpretation of its tales. Ironically, despite playing such a major role in China’s formation, the life of Shi Huangdi offers an important lesson about this.
The founder of China became very anxious about death as he grew in age, and famously called alchemists from all throughout China to produce for him the elixir of life. Not explaining to him the metaphorical meaning of their tales, the alchemists traveled all throughout China in search of the elixir. Not finding anything, they ultimately returned to him with what was the most popular prescription for a potion of longevity at the time: mercury.
As mercury is highly toxic, it is believed that Shi Huangdi suffered extremely deleterious effects, and ultimately died from consuming it. This tale is a cautionary one and emphasizes the need to understand the alchemist’s quest not as a literal one but a figurative one.
Sometimes alchemy is framed as “internal alchemy,” ie, referring to the transmutation of the internal life of the practitioner. This process is sometimes interconnected to the manipulation of energy, the spiritual life force of the individual called chi.
Commenters usually explain that the alchemist cultivates a detachment to external objects, becomes emotionally refined, develops wisdom, and experiences mystical states of consciousness - all events symbolized by the allegories of the discipline. Through these practices, Chinese alchemists are said to develop the “immortal embryo,” an imperishable spirit that can survive the death of the body.
Related to this, tales also exist in Taoism of the “Immortals.” These are eight remarkable individuals who, through living Taoist practices, are believed to have ascended to godhood. This trope is similar to other religions, for example to the idea of deva-rebirth in Hinduism, to the idea of theosis in Christianity, to the fate of Gilgamesh in the Babylonian epic, or to the conclusion of Hercules’ trials in the Greek myth.
A Taoist idea we should mention before concluding is the yin and yang symbol. This symbol consists of a circle that has been divided into dark and light sides, with a small amount of light and a small amount of dark in each of the opposing sides.
This symbol is believed to comment on the nature of reality and represent the Taoist’s approach to it. In nature, phenomena usually come in twos - male and female, north and south, hot and cold, life and death. Taoists view the conflict between these forces as a part of the world’s natural dynamic. In one age individuals will embody the principles of one side of this equation; in another, they will move to its opposite. A Taoist is believed to have ultimate knowledge of both sides, thus transcending the conflict between dualities.
A final topic to mention before concluding is the Tao Te Ching. This work was written centuries after Lao Tzu, but quickly became the classical work of Taoism. The book is a collection of sayings of wisdom. The book emphasizes the enigmatic, elusive nature of the Tao, and emphasizes an appreciation of nature and a practice of calm serenity when faced with life’s difficulties.
When I read the book 15 years ago I was personally surprised by its political side. Several of the passages commented on government, and counseled an idea I would describe as an ancient equivalent to the idea “that the government which governs least, governments best.” I found it interesting that Taoism would offer this alternative to traditional Chinese authoritarianism.
As I presented at the start, the ideal of Chinese civilization seems to be a balance between the material and the spiritual. In China, three philosophies - legalism, Confucianism, and Taoism - help organize society. “Legalism,” ie, strict authoritarianism, is the basis for the political system; Confucianism regulates social life and the material side of man; and Taoism offers a “safety valve” that allows individuals to follow a spiritual path.
Yet just as the forces of yin and yang feud, we see that in certain ages China inclines heavily to one of these philosophies or the other. Periods of severe authoritarian rule have manifested throughout Chinese history, for example under the reign of Shi Huangdi or more recently under the communists. These eras are often mediated by a subsequent period of secular prosperity and openness, for example under the Han during their promotion of Confucianism. The spiritual aspect of China is often secondary, but enjoys periods of greater or lesser acceptance to the public.
So balanced is the internal dynamic between these forces that China often manifests a strong aversion to outside influences. For example, foreign religions are often seen as dangerous to China. This is visible today, for example in modern China’s hostility to Christian missionaries and to the Dalai Lama.
There is some evidence that this Chinese view of foreign religion is not simply xenophobia. In the 1800s, for example, Christian missionaries helped to produce the Taiping or “Heavenly Kingdom” revolt, a rebellion against the Qing in which millions perished to quash the rebellion and reunify the country. The main troublemakers here were Chinese converts to Christianity who openly questioned the legitimacy of imperial rule.
A Chinese fear of subversion by foreign religion is visible in other events, such as the Tang massacre of their Islamic subjects, or in the current state of the Uighurs of western China. The fear foreign religion will subvert the nation and destabilize the country’s internal dynamic appears to be a perennial theme of China.
Shintoism is the folk religion of Japan and one of the few native religions that is still practiced in the present day. It developed out of traditional Japanese belief and today exists alongside Buddhism in a harmonious relationship. We can attribute Shintoism’s success to the unique geography of Japan. While similar religions would have been effaced elsewhere, the physical isolation of Japan played a role in it preserving its traditional beliefs to the present.
Shintoism, similar to other folk religions, is life-affirming. It lacks a system of ethical condemnation (ie, a list of “thou shalt nots”) and instead affirms the fundamental goods of human nature and behavior. One example of this is seen in its sex-positivity (a contrast to the sexual restraint counseled by other faiths).
Shintoism values nature (similar to Taoism or American transcendentalism) and suggests man can reconnect with the spiritual by getting closer to the natural world. The religion values ritual and places an emphasis on presenting offerings at shrines. Shinto priests preside over ceremonies and play an important role in administering marriages, holidays, and coming-of-age celebrations in Japan.
Purity is a common theme of Shinto ritual. In Shintoism, the human being is viewed as fundamentally good; however, he can become contaminated by contact with forces such as death, illness, waste, or menstrual blood. Ritual washing is thus used for cleansing and restores the human being to its fundamentally pure state.
Shintoism reveres the “kami,” the nature spirits or traditional gods of Japan. The kami are similar to the gods of other folk religions, having morally gray natures similar to ancient gods like Zeus or Poseidon. The kami are prayed to for intercession and are the ones offerings are presented to at shrines. The kami are similar in some ways to the fairies or fey folk of Celtic belief; or to the gods of the Norse religion, who too usually hold dominion over certain areas of nature.
When needed, Shintoism at times develops a political nature. For example, emperor worship was promoted massively by it during the Meiji Restoration and during the Second World War. In these contexts, Shintoism became a political-social faith, used for national mobilization and for inculcating a particular social ideal.
Shintoism celebrates the sun goddess and the moon god, and in its creation story explains the origin of the world and of the Japanese emperor. Interestingly, Shintoism inverts the common sexual dynamic of the sun and moon. While other cultures portray the sun as male and the moon as female, Shintoism inverts this. Some have speculated this inversion was made to affirm the legitimacy of an empress of classical Japan. Others have said the daily vision of the eastern sunrise would have caused the sun to develop into a fertility symbol for Japan (while in other civilizations femininity would have been associated with the changing cycles of the moon).
The fertility element of Shintoism recalls the book The Golden Bough by James Frazer. In this book, Frazer argued for a series of recurring archetypes that appear in ancient religion - including sacrifice, kingship, and legitimacy - tied together to a larger cycle of fertility. That these themes appear in Shintoism shows the universal nature of these symbols.
Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism - Shintoism’s antipole - is believed to have arrived in Japan around 500 AD. Coming as an import via China, the Japanese were initially skeptical of it as a threat to their culture. Buddhist missionaries were, however, very shrewd and capable, and worked hard to syncretize Buddhism with the indigenous faith. For example, under their guidance the kami were equated with the gods of Buddhist belief, while the Buddha became venerated in shrines like the traditional deities. The Buddhists maintained that the kami should be revered, but added that the old gods needed the teaching of the Buddha just as the people of Japan did.
The modern relationship between Shintoism and Buddhism is comparable to China’s internal dynamic. That is, just as China is a synthesis of legalism, Confucianism, and Taoism, Japan is a synthesis of Shintoism and Buddhism. In Japan they sometimes say “one is born Shinto and dies Buddhist,” and examination shows that in the country Shintoism is the yang to Buddhism’s yin.
Shintoism controls the ceremonial and social functions of religion, and fulfills the life-affirming aspects of religion including festivals and marriages. Meanwhile, Buddhism - with its life-negating aspect - exists to fulfill the introspective and dread aspects of religion, including conducting funerals and maintaining monasteries. One interesting point is the only Shinto funeral is given for the emperor. This again recalls the Frazer argument about the monarch’s connection to fertility cycles.
Japanese Buddhism is a “secular spirituality” compared to branches of the faith that exist elsewhere. Zen tends to focus on the stilling of the mind and the calming of mental fermentations. It is associated with zazen, the practice of sitting in cross-legged meditation. The mind-focused, secular nature of Zen has caused it to appeal to many westerners.
Ultimately, the existence of a “dual religion” - Shinto and Buddhism - in Japan allows it to exist as a balanced civilization, one that embraces the spiritual as well as the material. It also means that Japanese religion can be appreciated from many different perspectives. It can be seen (by moderns) as a benign faith that values nature and promotes Japanese culture; it can be seen (by the traditional) as a folk religion of spirits and ghosts; or (by the introspective) as a secular spirituality.
Alongside Hinduism, Judaism is one of the world’s most ancient religions, dating back to the Bronze Age. Despite its adherents making up less than 1% of the world population, Judaism has had a large influence on history. The world’s two leading faiths - Islam and Christianity - are derived from Judaism, the three making up collectively the “Abrahamic tradition.” Judaism’s adherents have made some of the greatest contributions to human civilization, producing great scientists, philosophers, writers, and businessmen across time. The Jews refer to themselves as the “chosen people,” and indeed history seems to affirm their unique status.
Judaism begins with its holy scripture, the Tanakh. This scripture consists of the Torah (including works like Genesis and Exodus), which presents a sacred history; the historical books (including Joshua and Kings), which explain the conquest of Israel and the rule of the Hebrew kings (ie, David and Solomon); the books of the prophets (including Isaiah and Jeremiah), the intermediaries between God and the people; and the wisdom books (including Ecclesisates, Job, and the Song of Songs) which present some of the most philosophical works of the Jewish faith. Uniquely, the same works make up the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, and indeed the same figures and tales are recreated (in a slightly altered form) in the Muslim Koran.
The Jewish scripture presents an account of the history of the world which we can refer to as a “sacred history.” This narrative was once believed to be historically accurate, but recent studies have caused most to re-interpret its events as figurative - as a narrative with a deeper meaning that is supposed to comment on the human condition and man’s relationship to the sacred. Despite its lack of historical fact, these tales have become central to the narrative of western civilization, and allusions and references to them persist to the present day.
The Hebrew Bible begins with the story of creation, in which God creates the world out of a void. He then creates the first man, Adam, who he designs in his own image; and the first woman, Eve, out of Adam’s rib.
The pair live in a garden - the worldly paradise - and enjoy great longevity as they dwell there with God. God is anthropomorphic in this tale, and is said to walk in the garden with Adam. Despite the paradise, God bans Adam and Eve from eating from a tree in the garden - the tree of knowledge. Famously, a snake descends to the couple and tempts Eve with fruit from the tree. Eve eats the fruit, then offers it to Adam who does the same. When God learns this he expels them from paradise. Human beings will now be subject to death and will have to labor harshly for their sustenance.
This story has been interpreted in various ways. Adam’s primacy gave subsequent culture a patriarchal bent. Eve’s initiative in taking the fruit caused medieval interpreters to argue the liberal natures of women needed to be restrained. The story has also been read, more modernly, as a tale of self-awareness: that eating from the tree gave man a sense of self-consciousness, but in doing so severed his connection to the sacred.
The next major story is that of Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam and Eve, Cain was a farmer while Abel was a shepherd. The two offered the fruits of their trades as sacrifices to God. In the tale, God scorns Cain and praises Abel, causing Cain to grow resentful of his brother and murder him. This tale is often interpreted as showing the struggle in early human society between agriculturalists and pastoralists, and the anxieties many primitive communities had about settling down.
The next major tale in the Biblical narrative is of the great flood. Likely inspired by a similar Babylonian epic - or indeed by an historical flooding of the Fertile Crescent - in the story God grows angry over the corruption of humanity and decides to destroy the world. He preserves only a small number of righteous individuals who will be used later for a restoration. These individuals include Noah and his relatives. They are told by God to build an ark to survive the flood. This tale has been interpreted as an origin story for the races of humanity (the three sons of Noah), as a moral rationalization of an actual event (the Mesopotamian flood), and (the most interesting interpretation of it I have read) as a parable for esotericism (ie, those with “esoteric knowledge” are those in the ark surviving the deluge).
Another famous tale of the Hebrew Bible is that of the Tower of Babel. In the narrative the Babylonian king Nimrod works to build a great monument to show his civilization’s power and ability to rival the gods. Consequently, the Hebrew God descends to earth to destroy the structure and create the diversity of human languages. The subsequent confusion of speech is used to explain all human beings’ conflicts and misunderstandings, and their inability to cooperate on a large scale. The tale can be read as a fantasized destruction of a rival civilization (the Babylonians at the time were oppressors of the Jews), as a divine punishment for hubris (similar to the theme of Greek myths), and as an origin story for the diversity of languages.
The Bible next tells the tales of the patriarchs, the father figures who each received special revelations from God.
The first patriarch is Abraham. Initially a shepherd in Mesopotamia, Abraham is inspired by the Hebrew God to migrate west to Canaan and there be the father of a multitude. During his revelation to him, God tells Abraham the two will make a covenant, or special agreement. So long as Abraham and his descendants keep their side of the agreement, God will look after them and they will enjoy his favor. God also states that as a sign of their covenant, Abraham and his descendants must be circumcised, a religious practice observed by Jews to the present day.
Abraham eventually migrates to Canaan, but while there he struggles to father any descendants. He fathers an initial son, Ishmael, with the milkmaid Hagar. This son is later given away. (This son is usually interpreted by Muslims to be the progenitor of the Arabs.)
Abraham finally fathers a legitimate son with his wife Sarah, and names him Isaac. However, not long after this God imposes a cruel test on Abraham. God demands Abraham sacrifice his son to him as proof of his devotion. Horrifying to the modern reader, in the tale one reads as Abraham ascends a mountain with his son over his shoulders like a lamb, ready to be given as an offering. Pleased with the devotion, God intervenes at the last moment to prevent the slaughter and offer an animal sacrifice instead. This tale is usually interpreted as an artifact of ancient religion, showing the transition from human to animal sacrifice in Middle Eastern practices.
Isaac’s son Jacob has his own revelations. Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, an image that has been a fertile symbol for later interpretations. Jacob is also depicted as wrestling all night with an angel, an event that causes him to be renamed as Israel, “one who struggles with God.”
In the next major tale, Jacob fathers many sons. His favorite is his youngest, Joseph. Joseph is envied by his brothers, however, and in the tale they betray him and sell him into slavery due to their resentment. Much later, a famine strikes Canaan, and the family is forced to flee and petition for sanctuary in Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph has risen through the ranks and become the vizier of the pharaoh. Though he could use the opportunity to be cruel, Joseph is clement to his brothers, and arranges for them to find refuge in the country.
A later pharaoh comes to the throne, and in the next tale the Hebrews find themselves placed in bondage. Growing fearful of his new subjects, the pharaoh orders the killing of the first born of all the Hebrews. This causes a mother to save the life of her son, Moses, by putting him in a watertight basket. The water floats Moses down the Nile and the orphaned boy is adopted by an Egyptian family. Later, Moses receives a revelation from a burning bush, and is told to lead his people out of slavery. (Interestingly, the voice in the bush identifies itself as “I am what am,” or as “I am amness,” an interesting definition of God.) After bringing the plagues on Egypt, Moses leads his people through the desert and back to the promised land.
The tale of Moses includes the Ten Commandments. These are the ethical rules God demands of his people for them to fulfill their side of the covenant. God gives these rules to Moses in a special revelation he receives atop Mt. Sinai. When Moses descends, he finds his people have descended to barbarism, building golden calves and worshiping them like the other peoples of the Near East. In the tale Moses becomes irate at their rejection of monotheistic faith.
When the Hebrews reach Canaan (after a long travail in the desert), they reconquer the region from the natives and establish the kingdom of Israel. By this point in the tale Moses has passed away, and the Hebrews are now led instead by the figure Joshua.
The Hebrew Bible next tells of David, the founder of the kingdom of Israel, the builder of its capital (Jerusalem), and the Jewish model of a just sovereign. The Hebrew Bible also tells the tale of David’s son and heir Solomon, the builder of the Temple and for human beings a model of wisdom.
This part of the Hebrew Bible includes several other works of interest. These include the writings of the prophets - the divine intermediaries sent by God to re-affirm the covenant; the Book of Psalms - the pensive poems and prayers attributed to David; and the books of wisdom - including some of the most interesting works of the Jewish religion, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Song of Songs.
At this point the Hebrew Bible begins to overlap with actual documented history. The kingdom of Israel is conquered by the powerful and oppressive Assyrians, who invade from the north in late antiquity. After this event, the Assyrians withdraw and the southern Hebrew state, Judah, survives in a surreal limbo. This event is the origin of the term “Jew,” the name of the survivors who resided in Judah.
Later, the Babylonians (themselves rebels against the Assyrians who went on to create their own empire) arrive in the Levant, destroy the Temple, and enslave the Jews, bringing them in bondage back to Babylon. (This was a common practice of empires at the time, to enslave and relocate conquered peoples as a means of ensuring the pacification of different regions.)
The liberation of the Jews is believed to be an actual historical event, and accounts of it exist in multiple sources. Around 500 BC, Cyrus became ruler of Persia, and during his conquest of the Near East he decided to liberate the Jewish people who he found in exile in Babylon. Due to this, Cyrus receives great praise in the Jewish canon and is often remembered as a humanitarian.
The next great event to recount may be the tale of Hanukkah. This modern celebration dates back to the Hellenic Period. Around 300 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, leaving Greek rulers in charge of much of the Middle East. The Seleucids (heirs to Alexander’s general, Seleucus) assumed control of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Palestine. The Seleucids attempted to assimilate their Jewish subjects who lived in Palestine, and this caused them to rise in a revolt against them. In the tale, the Jews suffer an oil shortage during a siege and do not have enough oil to keep their menorah (sacred candles) burning. Despite only having enough oil to burn for one day, their oil lasts for eight. Due to this and their repulsion of the Seleucids, Jews observe Hanukkah as a holiday.
The Hellenic Age came to an end with the rise of Rome, and during this period the Jews found themselves under a new empire. Around 50 BC, the Roman general Pompey invaded the Near East and conquered the last remnants of the Seleucid kingdom as well as the Jewish rebel state in the region. Despite the regime change, Greek remained the cosmopolitan culture of the east. Hebrew declined in the face of both the vital Hellenic culture as well as the new lingua franca of the region, Aramaic.
This identity crisis led the Jews to develop four factions which each offered their own solutions to the situation. In the Christian Bible, Roman Judea is defined by the struggle between these factions. These were the Sadducees, religious leaders and politicians who thought the best path was accommodation and collaboration with the Romans; the Pharisees, religious teachers or rabbis who sought to revitalize Jewish culture and belief as a means of retaining an identity separate from the Romans; the zealots, who sought a violent war for independence from Rome; and the Essenes, an ascetical sect that retreated into the desert and sought to make themselves “sons of God” in the spiritual domain (renouncing interest in material affairs).
It is in this environment where Christ was born, a Jewish rabbi who lived in Judea during the period of Roman rule. While Jews do not acknowledge the significance of Christ, he is interpreted by Christians as the Jewish “messiah” and went on to found one of the world’s major religions.
A generation after the life of Christ, the zealots led a revolution against Rome, which caused a brutal reprisal to be brought against them. It is during this time when the Roman general Titus destroyed the Second Temple and sent many of the Jews into exile. This event is understood as the primary cause of the diaspora, the spreading out of the Jews throughout the globe.
A less known event that followed this is the Bar Kokhba revolt. In this, the zealots believed their leader (Bar Kokhba) was the promised messiah, and attempted to re-establish an independent Israel. The Roman emperor Hadrian was extremely unsympathetic to this revolt, and punished the Jewish population severely. The failure of this revolt further contributed to the dispersal of the Jews throughout the globe.
As a Jewish state was destroyed, the focus of Judaism moved away from ceremonial religion and turned instead to scripture and practice. The Jews became a highly literary people, inculcating a knowledge of their texts into their youth from a very early age.
Jews lived as minorities in many states in the subsequent history. In Spain, the Sephardic Jews prospered under the Umayyads, producing intellectuals such as the famous Moses Maimonides, who became an important expositor of the faith. The Sephardic Jews would later be expelled in 1492 following the decree of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, after the Christian reconquest of Spain.
Another major branch of the Jews, the Ashkenazi, rose to prominence in Poland and Germany. Jews in these countries developed their own language, Yiddish, a synthesis of Hebrew and German, which is spoken to the present day. Jews congregated in particularly large numbers in Poland, where its medieval king famously offered them sanctuary (in one myth said to have done so after falling in love with a Jewish woman).
In most places however, Jews were discriminated against as an alien group and the acceptance of their residence could always be rescinded. France, England, and other countries would expel their Jews in a manner similar to Spain. In places like Venice, Jews had to live in ghettos (segregated areas of the city) cut off from the larger population. Further restrictions prevented intermarriage with Gentiles (non-Jews).
Despite this, Jews played a crucial role in medieval society. One role they performed was in moneylending, as their religion exempted them from the canon law against charging interest. This proved both a blessing and a curse. Jewish moneylenders became indispensable to monarchs for the running of states, but as happens to most lenders they become demonized by those who have to pay them back.
Medieval states attempted to convert Jews, but found the Jewish culture resilient. There was some success at converting Jews in places; two famous figures of the Spanish golden age, for example, were Diego Velazquez, the oil painter, and John of the Cross, the monastic reformer. Both are believed to be descended from Jewish conversos, or converts.
When Jews failed to assimilate they found themselves ostracized and villainized by larger society. Antisemites began to label Jews as social subversives and as a danger to the states they resided in. Famous antisemitic caricatures of the Middle Ages portrayed Jews as Christ’s murderers; or as “wandering Jews” punished by God to lack a home due to their rejection of Christ.
The Enlightenment and Age of Napoleon had a major impact on the Jews. During Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, Jews were liberated from ghettos and given equal rights. For the first time, a new vision of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles appeared. Liberal politicians after Napoleon promoted this ideal, and the idea of Abrahamic harmony found some successes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In Wilhelmine Germany, Jews achieved great social integration, lived peacefully alongside Christians, served admirably in World War I, and assumed important roles in science, business, and education. In Austria-Hungary, Jews like Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka became important figures, and the capital of Vienna became a nexus for Jewish culture.
Despite these successes, antisemitism persisted. The Dreyfus incident in France is often presented as an example of anti-Jewish sentiment in an otherwise liberal society. Later, the volkish movement which developed in turn-of-the-century Germany and Austria embraced antisemitism. These developments led to an alternative idea to integration to develop - the idea of the creation of a Jewish state.
Various forms of this idea were played with and sometimes attempted in the modern period; one artifact of these proposals is the Jewish Oblast, a state in eastern Russia which still exists to the present day (though its population of Jews is effectively non-existent).
The most famous suggested Jewish state (and the one that was ultimately implemented) was Israel. The Austro-Hungarian Theodor Herzl suggested it in the 1800s, and became the father of the Zionist movement, the movement that said the Jews should return to the Levant and restore their ancient home country.
This idea received some attention, and a small trickle of Jews began migrating to the region. Then, in 1917 during the Great War, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, an invitation for Jews to immigrate to the newly occupied mandate of British Palestine. (The British practiced a program of “divide and conquer,” and the invitation of the Jews meant the import of a supportive population to the area, easing imperial administration.)
During the Second World War, the Jews suffered massively as the National Socialist movement (which developed out of the volkish movement) scapegoated Jews for Germany’s defeat in 1918. During the war, six million of Europe’s nine million Jews were murdered. This atrocity caused global sympathy for the Jews to surge, and in 1947 the United Nations attempted to create a settlement that would establish an Israeli state (and a Palestinian one alongside it) in the Middle East.
The Islamic world did not receive the news of Israel’s creation positively, and formed coalitions that would stand in solidarity with the Palestinians. This struggle would lead to a series of conflicts called the Arab-Israeli wars. During these conflicts, the Israelis would take control over the Palestinian territories, and launch expeditionary attacks into Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.
The modern Israeli state is one in a political minefield. Seventy years later, Palestinians have still not accepted the legitimacy of Israel, and efforts at peace and compromise seem futile. The Israelis have been forced to maintain a military occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and maintain labyrinths of checkpoints and walls to prevent violence and terrorism. The presence of constant conflict in the country is likely not what Theodor Herzl imagined when he idealistically envisioned the return to Zion.
Judaism is unique as it is not only a religion, but also an ethnicity and an identity. Due to its connection with a specific people, Judaism has proved to be one of the world’s most resilient faiths. The faith has fortified the people in times of adversity, while the people have strengthened their faith as a bulwark through its existence in many alien places and times.
Usually, Judaism does not seek converts. Membership tends to be based on blood, and among Jews Jewishness is inherited through the matrilineal line. If your mother is Jewish, you will be considered Jewish as well. If your father is Jewish, you may or may not be considered a Gentile. (How Gentiles interpret Jewish identity has its own spectrum of responses.)
Judaism can be defined by a broad set of principles, many of which are common to the other Abrahamic faiths. Jews are monotheistic, believing in one God similar to Christians and Muslims. Jews believe in the prophets, intermediaries sent by God to rectify his people’s relationship with him (Christians and Muslims believe in the same, though they expand this list to include Christ and Mohammed). Jews follow the commandments issued by Moses (the same as Christians); they also believe in a resurrection, and that a messiah will emerge to lead their people.
Despite the apparent simplicity of these beliefs, Jews hold a wide spectrum of interpretations of these core tenets. The best example of this lies in the ambiguity of Jewish belief in the afterlife. This ambivalence comes from the ways lines of the prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah (the main sources for belief on these matters), are interpreted. Some secular Jews do not believe in the spiritual at all, holding the Hebrew Bible gives insufficient evidence for it; while others hold a belief in the afterlife comparable to those of Christians and Muslims.
The messiah is another figure who is interpreted in very different ways by Jews. The prophets presented the messiah as a political leader, as a descendant of the line of David who would rise to prominence and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. Likely the closest figure to this in history was the Jewish rebel Bar Kokhba. After his defeat - and his severe punishment by the Romans - the messiah concept was increasingly interpreted in allegorical or non-literal ways.
This idea comes into complication when juxtaposed to Christians. Christianity - which began as a sect of Judaism - interpreted Christ as the prophesied messiah. Christianity altered the political nature of the messiah concept into one of a solely spiritual nature, and used this as a basis to legitimize their religion. This very alien interpretation for Jews has contributed to a historical conflict, with Christians stating that Jews are rejecting their own prophesied messiah.
We have examined the narrative of the Jewish religion, and examined the core tenets of Jewish belief. We will conclude by looking at the sects of modern Judaism, which we can break into three broad categories: conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and Kabbalists.
Conservative Jews strongly embrace the social-cultural practices of their religion. Conservative Jews observe a set of strict customs to organize their daily lives, and practice their identity outwardly. Conservative Jews can often be seen wearing the traditional prayer cap and shawl; segregating the sexes based on their duties; wearing their hair and beard in the traditional style; abstaining from pork and shellfish; and strictly keeping the Sabbath holy (this means not doing any “work,” in some cases including not driving to the synagogue or turning on a lightswitch). Very conservative Jews are referred to as orthodox, while the most conservative belong to sects like the Hasids. We can interpret conservative Jews (using our previous categorization system) as believers in the dogmatic form of religion, and as embracers of the social-cultural dimension of their faith.
Reform or “liberal” Jews tend to follow a secularized form of the religion. They embrace the Jewish identity and tend to practice the main customs of their culture, which they share with conservatives. This may include customs like circumcision; going to the coming-of-age ceremony (bar mitzvah); celebrating Hanukkah and Yom Kippur; keeping kosher; and going to a rabbi for counsel. At the same time, Reform Jews tend to strongly believe in integration with larger society, and tend to dispense with the rituals adhered to by conservatives, which they view as burdensome. Reform Jews may be more inclined to embrace modern materialist modes of thinking. In this regard, Reform Judaism may be seen as a “secular religion” or “social religion,” similar, for example, to Confucianism.
A final branch of Jews, and its smallest minority, would be Kabbalists. Kabbalism is Jewish mysticism, focused on the introspective quest of religion. Kabbalism has existed in Judaism since antiquity, but reached its pinnacle in Umayyad Spain. Kabbalists practice an esoteric reading of scripture; embrace meditation; study sacred letters and numbers; and dabble in magic and alchemy.
Kabbalists have practices similar to the mystics of other faiths. They practice devekut, a form of contemplative prayer (similar to sati in Buddhism, or dhikr in Sufism) and report the experience of ecstatic states. Medieval Kabbalah had a strong Neoplatonic influence, and its fruits are comparable to those of the Christian and Islamic mysticisms of the same period. Kabbalah has some controversial teachings - including an idea of reincarnation - which has little basis in the Bible but is of interest when comparing the sect to other religions. Indeed, the experiences of Kabbalists suggest the Jews have a mystical tradition as developed as that of any other religion.
Christianity likely has the vastest history of any of the world religions, especially if its narrative is interwoven with Judaism. Christianity developed out of the Jewish tradition and then proceeded on its own course. It has gone through innumerable states and forms, but has persisted as the world’s most powerful and popular religion.
Christianity began in Roman Palestine in the first century. While historical evidence is limited for this time, the most probable origin is that it developed out of the Essene movement. As mentioned earlier, the Essenes were one of the four factions that developed in Judea after the Roman conquest. While the Sadducees sought accommodation with Rome, the zealots revolution against Rome, and the Pharisees a cultural revival distinct from Rome, the Essenes scorned the physical world entirely (perhaps viewing the restoration of a Jewish state as impossible) and sought to build the “kingdom of God” in a metaphysical domain.
In retrospect, Essene practices were similar to those of Christian monks. Essenes renounced material possessions, focused on prayer and meditation, and withdrew to live in isolation in the desert. An Essene library was discovered in modern times (at Qumran), and this has granted us insight into their beliefs. It appears many Jewish teachings, such as the ben elohim (sons of God), the messiah, and the kingdom of God were re-interpreted by them from an introverted perspective.
The most famous Essene - or individual related to the Essenes - was John the Baptist. We have limited information about him, but it appears he lived in the desert as a renunciate; seeked close conformity (if not union) with God; preached to followers in sermons; and developed a novel ritual, baptism, as a symbol of initiation into the Essene mode of life.
Again we lack concrete evidence for this, but it appears Jesus was a follower of John who later became independent. The main evidence for this lies in the account of Jesus being baptized by John in the Bible, perhaps an artifact of an actual historical event.
Jesus’ ministry did not begin immediately however. The Gospels suggest Jesus spent a lengthy period in spiritual withdrawal. The synoptic Gospels all refer to a time spent in the desert, allegorized as a story of being tempted by the devil. This tale is extremely similar to the tale of the Buddha’s period of withdrawal (including the idea of being tempted by Mara, a devil-figure), thus the literal extrapolation of this seems reasonable.
Jesus’ historical name would have been Joshua ben Joseph, or Joshua the son of Joseph. The term “Christ” is a title, similar to the title “Buddha.” “Christ” means “anointed one.” While this title has lost meaning in our time, it would have had great significance in the past. Anointing refers to being blessed with holy oil. Usually reserved for kings or priests, this ritual distinguishes a figure who has been sanctified.
Jesus had a family and most scholars of ancient Christianity acknowledge this (in previous eras this thesis would have been controversial). There are passages in the Christian Bible that allude to Christ’s mother and siblings, including one account where his mother admonishes him and exclaims that he has “gone mad” when he begins teaching in public (Mark 3:21). It seems that Jesus’ siblings, such as his brother James, later joined his movement and became important figures in the early church after his death.
One teaching of the Essenes that is observable in both Jesus and John the Baptist is what we can call “esotericism.” This term refers to an “inner” or “mystical” interpretation of Judaism, juxtaposed with an “outer” or “exoteric” interpretation subscribed to by the public.
This idea derives from the Jewish tradition. For example, in the Jewish temple there existed the “holy of holies,” an inner space reserved only for the priests. In temples, the public would congregate in an “exoteric” or “outer” area, while only the priests who had been initiated could access an “esoteric” or “inner” area. At the back of the temple there was an especially exclusive area reserved only for those who had been properly trained and sanctified.
For John, baptism symbolized one’s initiation into esoteric religion. The idea of the necessity of direct instruction from a teacher is also visible, for instance in Christ’s selection of the twelve apostles who were chosen for initiation.
This “esoteric-exoteric” concept is also visible in scripture. One example of it appears in the Gospels.
To you [my direct students, the apostles] it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the public] it has not been granted. (Matthew 13:11)
Christ was famous - when he did speak to the public - for teaching in parables, symbolic stories that needed to be interpreted to derive their meaning. In the above quote, Christ comments on the difficulty of the process of initiation, and notes the good fortune of the apostles for having a rabbi who is able to bring them through this process directly.
Indeed, reading the Gospels shows much of Christ’s worldview. He dispensed with ritual and religious behavior, and instead attempted to direct focus to the ultimate end of religion. Paul - a later apostle of Christ - alludes to this in the epistles when he discusses the difference between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law.
While traditional Jews in Christ’s time were studying the “letter of the law” in an effort to build a closer relationship with God, Christ emphasized two simple commandments instead: “to love God with all your heart and your mind” and “to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Christ and John the Baptist also preached the doctrine of metanoia, a difficult term to translate into English. Metanoia refers to a kind of life-transformation, a reorientation of all one’s beliefs and principles, around a religious purpose. This transformation was believed to be deeply powerful and to constitute a kind of rebirth of the individual. Baptism appears to be the ritual that was developed to symbolize the change of metanoia. Baptism was a physical cleansing by water that symbolized an “internal” cleansing of the individual.
Due to his ministry, Christ raised the attention of the authorities, and was ultimately put on trial for heresy and executed. This tragically occurred to him at a young age, likely in his early 30s. The exact nature of what occurred from an historic perspective is unclear. It may be that his actions were viewed as attempts at political subversion, thus provoking the rancor of the Romans. He may also have been viewed as a danger to the Jewish priesthood, thus provoking the spiritual authorities to dispose of him.
The death of the leader of any religious movement would obviously be deeply traumatic, and would stain the legacy of that group as being associated with a criminal. It is here where the Christian tradition goes in an interesting direction. Rather than lament Christ’s death, the Gospels recount apparitions of Jesus (Luke 24), acts of posthumous divine inspiration (Acts 2), mysteries about the fate of his body (Mark 16), and ultimately the account of the resurrection (John 20).
Reading the Gospels critically provides unique insight, as the nature of Christ’s resurrection becomes more physical and more literal with each account. While Mark ends initially with an empty tomb (referred to as the “short ending” or the “old ending” of Mark), these stories were embellished with dialogues with angels (Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb) and mysterious apparitions of Christ on the road (the “road to Emmaus”). The resurrection takes on its most tangible conclusion in John, when the disciple Thomas physically touches the openings of the resurrected Christ’s wounds.
It is here where we should discuss the meaning of the resurrection. This teaching is one of the central tenets of Christianity and one of its boldest pronouncements. In my opinion, eastern Christianity - with its love of mystery - offers unique insight into this.
Symbolically, we can view the crucifixion as an allegory for the human condition. Just as in India we are bound to “old age, sickness, and death,” in the west we are bound to suffering, to “carrying our crosses” in life just as Christ had to in his martyrdom.
This reality would normally produce a sense of fatalism, enslaved as we are to the physical. Yet Christ’s narrative shows us that this is not all - that we are not simply material, passible man. The Gospels suggest that we, like Christ, can become both human and divine (theosis), realize the “conquest of death,” and achieve anastasis (resurrection).
This interpretation - the idea that man can become divine - is alluded to by the church fathers, famously Athanasius and Augustine. This understanding of Christianity has unfortunately fallen out of favor in recent times. Western Christians interpret Christ’s death as a redemption for Adam’s sin, placing it in the Biblical narrative. Modern scholars often promote a belief in a physical resurrection. However, I believe the mystical view provides more insight into Christianity’s long-term success - that at its core it is a religion of a mystery “tremendum et fascinans,” a religion that offers a profound truth and remedy to the fundamental human question, death.
Despite this profound core, Christianity remained a small sect in Roman Judea. The main limiting factor for the religion was its exclusivity to Jews. Given their small population, the potential for the religion was small. Christianity further fell into precarious times shortly after the death of Jesus, with the events of the Jewish revolt (occurring about a generation after Christ) and the Bar Kokhba revolt (occurring about a century after Christ). These revolts resulted in brutal Roman reprisals against the region, killing many Jewish Christians.
It is here where Paul appears, arguably the most transformative figure in the history of Christianity. Paul was a Hellenized Jew, one who believed in the prudence of integrating with the Romans. Due to this, in his early years Paul viewed Christianity as a dangerous and subversive sect, one that undermined the Jewish tradition and threatened the harmonious relationship with Rome.
Yet an extraordinary event occurred which changed Paul’s understanding of Christianity. This event is dramatized as the “road to Damascus,” but it is probable this change occurred in him over many months or years. Paul likely read and learned about Christianity in detail, and gradually opened his mind to it. As he did so, he likely realized the excellence of the religion, and felt it would be in the world’s interest if he used his talents to promote it, rather than suppress it.
The alteration Paul would make for the religion would be opening it up to non-Jews. As stated, early Christians were required to be Jews and this prevented the religion from expanding. As a Jew, Paul made the decision to open the faith “to the nations” and in doing so found willing converts throughout the Hellenic world.
Around this time, the Gospels were written. These, along with the epistles (letters of Paul), would become the primary texts of Christianity.
The Gospels were written by the evangelists. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written about a half century after the death of Christ, while the last Gospel, John, was written about a century after Christ. Christian tradition taught the evangelists were Christ’s direct apostles, but modern scholarship suggests this is false. The evangelists were likely later Christians who did not know Jesus in person.
The Gospels have been scrutinized to an extraordinary degree over time. This scrutiny has led to some fascinating insights. For example, one of the things scholars have done is reverse-engineer the texts. Scholars take lines of one Gospel, like Matthew, and find analogues for it in another Gospel, like Luke. Doing this, one can develop a list of lines that appear in both and seem to have a common source. Going through this process has indicated the following.
1. There was a work of Jesus’ sayings that predated the four Gospels. This work has since been lost. This work was used as a source for the Gospel of Mark, and some of these sayings also appear in Matthew and Luke.
2. Mark was the first Gospel. This contradicts early Christian tradition, which believed Matthew was written first.
3. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a reference.
4. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are remarkably similar, and are often categorized together as the “synoptic” Gospels.
5. John is very unique and was written later. Its author did not use the other Gospels as references. John developed in an environment where a Christian community already existed as much of its content shows a development of doctrine and a commentary on issues that would have arisen in early church communities.
We can add to these insights by briefly looking at the Gospels themselves. Indeed, one of the most interesting elements of Christianity is its acceptance of four different accounts of Christ. Scholars tend to make light of the contradictions between these, but reconciling their differences, I believe, is a major part of developing a mature understanding of the Christian religion. The views of the different Gospels can be framed as the following.
1. Mark is the earliest Gospel and emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. In this Gospel, there is a mystery of who Christ is and there is an emphasis placed on his experiences of suffering and adversity.
2. Matthew emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus. Christianity existed in the underlying Jewish culture and defending it as a sect of Judaism was important to the early Christians. This Gospel takes the concerns of Jews very seriously and tries to show Christ’s integration into the wider tradition.
3. Luke, in contrast, emphasizes the Gentileness of Jesus. As Paul opened Christianity up to the Hellenic world, it became essential to emphasize Christ as a teacher to the Hellenes. This Gospel places a focus on Jesus’ universality.
4. John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus. In this Gospel, Jesus possesses great insight and intellectual fortitude, goes on long discursive sermons on theology, pre-exists with the Father, and possesses all the traits of a deity.
Indeed, it is not by accident that the major controversies of Christianity are visible in the above. Early Christianity feuded over whether it was a Jewish sect or an independent religion. Matthew and Luke reflect this. Later, Christians feuded over the nature of Christ. Was he a man? Or was he divine? This is reflected in the works of Mark and John.
It seems the takeaway one should get is that Christ is all of these things. He was a Jewish teacher as well as a universal one; and - in the Christian tradition - he is fully human and fully divine.
Christian tradition next holds that the apostles left to proselytize throughout the globe. Tradition states that Peter went to Rome while Thomas went to India. Tradition also teaches that the apostles were persecuted severely. They are said to have been martyred, killed in grisly or torturous ways for their beliefs.
Why did the Romans persecute Christians? It seems strange to us as moderns that the Romans, who were so inclusive of other religions, had a disdain for the Christians and Jews.
As polytheists, the Romans would widen their pantheon and add the divines of the peoples they conquered. The Romans would syncretize the gods of conquered peoples with their own. For example, the Romans equated Zeus with Jupiter, Aphrodite with Venus, and Poseidon with Neptune.
The Romans treated conquered gods with respect, and expected conquered peoples to treat their gods in the same way. At times, conquered peoples would be expected to make offerings to Roman deities, such as Mars, Jupiter, Sol Invictis, or the emperor. These offerings represented political submission and were an important social ritual.
The refusal to make offerings - or the denial of the existence of foreign gods - was seen as insulting or subversive. This meant that monotheists (like Christians or Jews) who denied the existence of foreign gods were the most problematic faiths for Rome. Unlike everyone else, they could not be integrated into the larger pantheon.
Despite persecution, Christianity continued to spread. Indeed, the deaths of the martyrs inspired more people to join. The religion offered redemption to the poor and answers to suffering and death, central human problems, contributing to its appeal.
In Rome, Christianity co-existed with other faiths, which overlapped with it and informed it. The portrayal of Christ as a bearded brown-haired male, for example, likely comes from Greek icons of Zeus. Christian practice was likely informed by Mithraism, a Persian mystery religion that became popular and was often practiced in secret. The death-rebirth motif of Osiris of Egypt may have had some influence on Christianity. The worship of Dionysus and Apollo - popular gods of the late Hellenic period - likely contributed to the gradual transition toward monotheism. Finally, Manichaeanism and Platonism are two other traditions that likely also influenced Christianity.
Constantine would be the emperor who would elevate Christianity into the Roman religion. Around 300 AD, he was initially one of the “caesars” in the complicated system of succession designed by Diocletian to end the instability problems faced by Rome. When this system fell apart, Constantine led the faction that reunited Rome and reasserted imperial control.
Constantine won a major victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, claiming he felt the revelation prior to it “in this sign you will conquer.” This “sign” consisted of the letters X and P, the first letters of Christ’s name in Greek, called the chi rho. Constantine painted this symbol on his soldiers’ shields, the first adoption of this imagery by a Roman army.
Constantine would move the imperial capital to the Bosphorus, building a city over the small port of Byzantion that would later be called Constantinople. He legalized Christianity, and converted to the faith formally on his deathbed. His embrace of the faith would cause it to become widely popular.
Christianity adapted during this time. Formerly meeting in people’s homes (ecclesia) in secret, Christians would now practice in temples in the open. Christians would be organized into dioceses and parishes, terms that came from the Roman military. Communities would be led by bishops (episkopos).
The expansion of the faith now led to the question of definition. What was a Christian? Sometimes bishops answered this, but church councils would be convened to resolve the major theological disputes. The two most famous councils were at Nicaea and Chalcedon. These councils codified the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the dual nature of Christ (both human and divine).
Christianity became a pillar of the Roman state, and submission to doctrine became synonymous with submission to the emperor. Thus, heresy for the first time emerged as a political issue, remaining so for Christendom until 1648.
Most of the major heresies were also acts of political subversion. Those who did not want to submit to the emperor would often adopt different views of Christ’s nature. Among the Germanic tribes, for example, Arianism became popular. This heresy acknowledged only the humanity of Christ, denying his divine nature. Monophysitism meanwhile became popular in Egypt and the Levant, which gave primacy to Christ’s divinity. These sects broke away from mainline “Chalcedonian” Christianity, but eventually lost their significance as their followers were conquered by Islam.
During the medieval period, major figures arose who would facilitate the development of Christianity. These figures include Anthony the Great, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.
Anthony was one of the Desert Fathers, one of the first Christian monks who lived a life of contemplation in the desert. Anthony’s life became the basis of Christian monasticism, elaborated later on by the figures Dominic and Francis of Assisi.
Augustine was a North African convert who became one of Christianity’s great proselytes. Augustine had dabbled with other religions before ultimately embracing Christianity. One important legacy of Augustine was his apologia for Platonism. Early Christians were unsure if the Platonic tradition was compatible with Christianity, and Augustine played a key role in demonstrating that it was.
Thomas Aquinas was a similar figure to Augustine, and was the founder of the scholastic movement. He can be remembered for his reconciliation of Aristotelianism with Christianity, effectively arguing in favor of the idea of compatibility between faith and reason.
Chalcedonian Christianity itself split around 1000 in what is called the Great Schism. The cultural and political divides in the faith had simply grown too strong over time and could no longer be reconciled. In the middle of the eleventh century the Pope and patriarch excommunicated each other, creating a rift that persists to the present day.
While there were theological differences between the branches, the main reason for the divide was political. The religion split between Catholic (Latin) and Orthodox (Greek) branches. In the west (after the fall of Rome), the Pope wanted control over the church. In the east (where the empire still survived), the emperor wanted to maintain control over the faith.
One point of difference to emphasize between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is over their primary means of accessing the sacred. Catholicism focused on the intellectual apprehension of God, which is referred to as scholasticism. Orthodoxy, in contrast, embraced the doctrine called hesychasm. Hesychasm is contemplative prayer focused on stilling the mind and having a direct experience of God. Thus Catholicism moved in an academic direction while Orthodoxy embraced mysticism.
Catholicism became increasingly institutionalized over the subsequent centuries, playing a key role in daily life in Europe. The Church served many important roles, preserving ancient texts, providing education, and offering social services. Christians attended Sunday services, bringing together communities, and bishops were often local leaders.
Charlemagne would be a key figure of medieval Christianity, cementing its primacy in Europe. Charlemagne Christianized regions that remained pagan, such as Saxony (modern northern Germany). Charlemagne also repelled the Moors in Spain, and protected the Pope from the Lombards, which resulted in him being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800. This “restoration” of the Western Roman Empire would prove a pivotal event in the later history of Christianity.
Moving forward (in the need for brevity), Christianity would experience another schism around 1500. While in 1054 Christianity divided between east-west, in 1517 the Catholic Church would divide between north-south.
The reason for this was over the issue of corruption in the Church. Over the centuries, Catholicism had become increasingly materialistic and decadent. With power came temptation to abuse that power, and the Church found its holiness shielded it from criticism and prevented it from accepting reform. Indeed, popular anger at the Church is visible in literature from the Middle Ages, for instance in Dante’s condemnation of the Popes in sections of the Inferno.
At last in the early 1500s the German priest Martin Luther would present his 95 Theses, or arguments, about the corruption of Catholicism. Luther focused primarily on indulgences as the most egregious failing of the faith. The Catholic clergy had taken to selling these - tickets that would get one into heaven - to the public for their financial benefit.
Luther’s criticism would spawn the Protestant movement, which would divide the western church in two. Protestants sought to eliminate the power of the Papacy and affirm a more privatized version of the faith.
Luther was brought before a tribunal and asked to recant his teachings. He refused. When he did so he was declared a fugitive and fled to Saxony where his prince offered him sanctuary. Indeed, had times been different Luther would have been burned at the stake just as forerunners of him, Wycliffe and Hus, had been. However, popular disillusionment had reached a new level, as Christians throughout Europe felt widespread cynicism at a Church that refused to reform. Additionally, Luther’s heresy would intersect with a political conflict - the struggle for secular power in the 1600s - which would elevate Protestantism as a political religion for princes.
Protestantism offered rulers several opportunities. The heresy increased princes’ power, letting them seize Church lands for the crown and giving them jurisdiction over religious matters. In places like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, kings embraced Lutheranism.
In Central Europe, the Holy Roman Empire (which included modern day Germany, Austria, and Czechia) was sundered by this heresy. The faith gave the rulers of small German states de facto independence from the emperor, the Catholic ruler of Austria.
This conflict would lead to the great European war of religion, called the Thirty Years’ War. This struggle between Catholics and Protestants was fought mainly in Germany but would determine the fate of western Christianity. This war resulted in northern Europe throwing off imperial-Papal domination and effectively declaring their region’s independence.
The war resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia, an agreement with both political and spiritual consequences. Indeed, after so much bloodshed the Christians vowed they would never again fight amongst themselves in a religious war. They would follow the principle of “his realm, his religion” and for the first time in history different interpretations of Christianity would be accepted.
This treaty occurred in Europe around the same time as the Scientific Revolution, and a new paradigm would inform the spiritual development of Christendom over the next centuries. European civilization moved increasingly away from a spiritual bent and embraced materialism. Empirical facts and the scientific method were accepted and religiosity diminished.
Despite this (summarizing again in the interests of brevity), the religion continued to spread and has grown today to be the world’s most powerful religion. During the modern period, missionaries left Europe to spread the faith abroad. Spanish missionaries brought Christianity to places like Cuba, Mexico, and Peru during the age of colonialism, while French missionaries brought it to Canada. Christianity spread throughout Africa during the Victorian period, and in the Far East Christianity has risen to prominence in places like the Philippines and South Korea.
The increasingly fragmented nature of the religion (due to Protestantism) has led in some ways, ironically, to a reversal. The sheer number of sects of modern Christianity - and the confused, complex history which is unknown to most people - has produced a kind of natural ecumenism, as modern Christians look instead to their shared basic identity, as opposed to fighting over dogmas. Despite this, the tenets of the different sects remain a major part of modern culture and values in various countries - compare, for example, the different forms of Christianity observable in places like Greece, Italy, Mexico, and England. Today Christianity remains one of the most impactful forces on the globe; intersects widely with culture, art, and values; and offers billions answers to life’s central problems.
Islam is the second most popular religion after Christianity, and, like Christianity, developed out of the Abrahamic tradition. The religion begins with Mohammed, who lived in Arabia in the seventh century. Mohammed was a thoughtful young man who was immersed in the spiritual culture of his time. He was pious and sincere, and often retreated from worldly life to immerse himself in meditation and prayer.
It was during one of these retreats when he felt a profound sense of religious inspiration. In the Islamic tradition, this is referred to as the revelation from Gabriel, celebrated as the holiday of Ramadan. “Recite!” the angel is said to have stated. The revelations given to Mohammed later constituted the Islamic holy scripture, the Koran.
Islam, which itself means “surrender” (as in surrender to God or “Allah”), is defined by its five pillars of faith. These are the essential tenets subscribed to by all Muslims. These pillars state the following. First, Muslims must accept the primacy of God and they must accept Mohammed as his prophet. Second, Muslims must pray five times a day facing toward Mecca (the religion’s holy city). Third, they must give alms to the poor. Fourth, they must fast during Ramadan (a remembrance of Mohammed’s revelation). And fifth, they must (if financially able) make a pilgrimage (hajj) to the holy city of Mecca at least once.
In contrast to Christianity, Islam began as a political religion at its origin. Mohammed was not merely a spiritual leader like Jesus was, but a diplomat and statesman as well. Mohammed was not only a spiritual reformer but a political one.
In Mohammed’s time, the Arabs were divided into a multitude of feuding tribes, and Arabia was viewed as a backwater relative to the two superpowers of the age, Persia and Byzantium. Mohammed revolutionized everything. His new religion would challenge the two dominant faiths (Christianity and Zoroastrianism); and his new state, the Caliphate (or Islamic Empire), would proceed over the next centuries to conquer much of the world.
The success of Islam is difficult to explain without a reference to providence. The Arabs were viewed as a primitive people who had never united or amassed any cultural or economic wealth. It is indeed an extraordinary coincidence that Islam appeared at just the right moment - following a large, destructive war between Persia and Byzantium - to take advantage of the unique vulnerability of these states at the time.
Under the leadership of the general Khalid, the Muslims would sweep through the divided Sassanid realm, ultimately bringing that whole region into Islam. Similarly, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia - formerly Monophysite and Nestorian Christian regions - would fall to Islam. The Muslims would then conquer the (former) Vandalic kingdom in North Africa and the Visigothic kingdom in Spain (Arians), adding these regions to the House of Islam.
Early Islam would be led by a series of rulers, called caliphs (successors). The first four of these are called the Rashidun or “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” the close relations or personal friends of Mohammed. These leaders include Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali.
The Rashidun were chosen by consensus, a kind spiritually-informed form of election, in theory producing candidates who would be widely accepted. The Muslim world expanded rapidly in a short time under their rule, and this success shows the latent energy that had been dormant in the peoples of the Near East for an extended time.
The era of the Rashidun would come to an end due to the rise of dynasticism. The first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar, were elected from different tribes and strove to cultivate a sense of Islamic universality. These caliphs were also known for their personal simplicity and piety.
The third caliph, Uthman, was a member of the Umayyad clan, and began to drift away from the consensus model and toward a dynastic one. Uthman appointed relatives to key positions in the Caliphate, for example making relations governors of places like Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. This perceived nepotism - along with the perceived increased materialism of Uthman - resulted in anger and discontent. Ultimately, a group of critics stormed into Uthman’s house and assassinated him.
Ali, elected caliph after Uthman, attempted to bring unity to Islam, but found the faithful divided. One of Mohammed’s wives led a revolt against him in Iraq, while Uthman’s cousin, the governor of Syria, prepared another rebellion against him. Ali defeated both of these rebellions, but after his second victory he made a crucial mistake by deciding to agree to a negotiated peace. This decision damaged his aura of divine legitimacy, and ultimately caused him to be killed by an extremist. This dramatic event led Uthman’s dynasty, the Umayyads, to ultimately take power over the Caliphate.
The Umayyads would continue the momentum of Muslim expansion, and their success would only be halted at two major battles. First, in western Europe, the Franks under Charles Martel would decisively defeat the Muslims at Tours. Second, in the east the Greeks would at last mobilize after a long series of defeats, and stop the Muslims outside the walls of Consantinople. These two battles meant Islam would not replace Christianity as the universal Abrahamic faith, but that instead the two would have to coexist as rival civilizations.
Indeed, the conflict between these two religions would define the subsequent centuries, and play a central role in the development of the European and Middle Eastern identities. A famous historian, Samuel Huntington, referred to this feud between Christendom and the ummah (Islamic community) as the “clash of civilizations.”
The Umayyads were known for their materialism and impiety, as well as for showing favoritism toward Arab Muslims. This gradually resulted in a rise in discontent against them, and they were overthrown in a revolution by a new dynasty called the Abbasids.
Before continuing, we should mention the schism that developed in Islam around this time. Actually, it dates back to the time of Mohammed’s passing, but became ossified and formalized under the Umayyads.
At the time of Mohammed’s death, the Muslims needed to choose a successor to the prophet. After much debate they elected Mohammed’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was widely popular and a close relation to the prophet, however his succession was disputed by Ali, the cousin of Mohammed.
Ali’s supporters submitted to the Rashidun, but were hostile to (and persecuted by) the Umayyads. Gradually they became influential in Persia, and from one perspective they can be interpreted (today) as a Persian reaction to Arab domination of Islam. Today about 10% of Muslims, chiefly in Iran, belong to the Shia sect (the followers of Ali), while about 90% of Muslims belong to the mainline branch, which is called Sunni Islam.
The Abbasid Caliphate, which rose after the Umayyads, is usually associated with the era called the golden age of Islam. This period is famed for its tolerance and openness, and for Islam’s embrace of the arts and sciences. This flourishing was not limited to the Near East but also extended to Islamic Spain, where the last survivor of the Umayyads fled to establish a rival regime.
Important figures of this time include the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, who wrote on topics like mathematics, astronomy, theology, and logic. Notable achievements of Islam in this time were the study of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, both of which were integrated into Islam. The Abbasids were famous for constructing the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad, a large publicly funded center of learning, which became a nexus for culture and education.
Abbasid power gradually declined due to regionalism and overextension, until central authority ultimately found itself completely devolved. Regional governors exercised larger and larger amounts of autonomy until they de facto separated and established local dynasties independent of the caliph. The Abbasids remained figurehead leaders in Baghdad until that city’s destruction by the Mongols in the 1200s.
The Islamic world would re-consolidate in the era of the crusades, galvanized by the belated hostility of the Christians. During this time the divided realms of the Muslims would be reunited under the guidance of Saladin, who would establish the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and the Levant.
Islam would experience its next great revival in the “age of the gunpowder empires.” During this time, the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals embraced innovative new technologies and asserted control over large portions of the earth. During this period, the Ottomans would assume the title of caliph (which now referred to the spiritual leaders of Islam) and would consolidate their control over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt.
Despite this success, Islam gradually declined in the 18th and 19th centuries, until by the Victorian period there were arguably no Muslim great powers. It is here where we must discuss a sensitive topic: the crisis of modernity in Islam.
While political sensitivity would cause most to avoid this discussion, I feel we should subject Islam to the same criticism of every other religion we have examined up till now. In studying history, it is clear that while some religions, like Judaism and Christianity, adapted well to science and empiricism (embodied, perhaps, by figures like Spinoza or Pascal), when confronted by these forces Islam instead drew backward into the domain of conservatism. The best example of this lies in the story of Al-Ghazali and his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers.
As mentioned, Islam experienced a period of great openness under the Abbasids, identifying the successful practices of civilizations like Greece and Rome, and readily integrating these elements into Islam. A comparison that might illustrate the Islamic psychology of this period might be to Meiji Japan: a civilization with a high degree of openness and dynamism.
As the Abbasids declined however, they became increasingly insecure and tyrannical, and their reprisals against critics soured many in the Near East against their values. It is in this context where Al-Ghazali, a Muslim theologian, wrote a book attacking natural philosophy and encouraging a restoration of traditional Islam. (The Abbasids were the most famous sponsors of science.) The long-term effect of this work cannot be underemphasized. This book condemned thinkers like Avicenna and Al-Farabi - figures of the Muslim enlightenment - and led the shift in Islam back to literalism.
An often cited example of the long-term effect of this work is the late adoption of the printing press in Islam. Though they first encountered it in Vienna in the 1500s, this technology would only come into use in Turkey in the 1720s - and only then due to its embrace by the Turks’ Christian subjects, the Greeks and Armenians.
An insular and closed outlook embodies the crisis of modernity in Islam. A modern example may be the small number of Muslim Nobel laureates - dwarfed by the number awarded to Christians and Jews. The contrast to this, of course, would be to the golden age of Islam: when Muslims made up a majority of scientific thinkers and eclipsed those of their peers in the Judeo-Christian world.
Sharia law is another sensitive topic in modern Islam. While western countries derive their law from the Bible, many laws have been amended as society and morality have changed over time. While it is unpleasant for westerners to discuss, it remains a fact that Islam subordinates women, and prescribes severe punishments for crimes like apostasy (leaving the faith), adultery, blasphemy, and homosexuality, draconian attitudes for moderns.
Indeed, when I read the Koran years ago I was struck by a line which appeared early in the text.
When they are told “do not spread corruption in the land,” they reply, “but we are only reformers!” (2:11)
In this verse, Mohammed criticized those who would attempt to change the faith or institutions of Islam. Mohammed harshly counsels against this, stating it is a Trojan horse for corruption and dissolution. Indeed, while change has been a major part of Christianity and Judaism, the existence of this verse makes the reform of Islam exceptionally difficult. It is indeed possible for Islam to open - as in the religion there is the idea of “consensus” - however, the need for reformers to persuade large numbers of conservative jurists - who often cite this line in their defense - means for the foreseeable future the religion will continue on its conservative-closed course.
Despite this modern crisis, Islam remains a potent global force. The religion inspires great devotion and enthusiasm, and informs the cultural-social practices of billions. Despite its present difficulties, history affirms the vigor of the divine revelation of Mohammed.
As we have said before, religion overlaps with many other forces in the human condition. At times it manifests in what we have stated is its highest form, transcendent-mystical religion - the religion of Dante, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Rumi, Kabir, and Whitman. However, religion also manifests in other ways. It manifests as social and political religions; and it manifests in culture, art, science, mythology, and psychology. Religions become embodiments of unconscious forces; and become embodiments of the wills of nations.
Here we must venture into the eccentric world of religion, and discuss some of its idiosyncratic manifestations. I have said before that there exist purely pathological religions - what today are called “cults.” These are religions that exist only for destructive purposes. I have explained how in life there exist pathologies of everything, and religion is no exception. We find that there are sadly people too willing to take advantage of the credulity of others, and that devotion and belief are easily exploitable. Here we should remember the quote from the Bible.
Know a tree by its fruit. (Lk 6:44)
Though we may find the beliefs of other cultures strange, by looking at the results of their religions we can discern them and judge them. Judaism produces great scientists and philosophers; Christianity, philanthropists and nation-builders; Hinduism, mystics and humanitarians. These are all positive “fruits” of religion. Meanwhile, other “religions” come only to bad ends. Jonesism, a cult we will examine below, produced a mass suicide in Guyana; Hubbardism, the financial-emotional-spiritual destruction of followers; and Rajneeshism, a mass poisoning of a town of nonbelievers. It is clear that “religions” that manifest in these explicitly negative ways can only be categorized as pathological.
Here we can think of another quote from the Bible.
Beware of false prophets. They will come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. (Mt 7:15)
It is important in life to develop the virtue of discernment. Discernment is the ability to discern between the real and the unreal, the true and the false. The world is, unfortunately, filled with fraud. We must thus become wise students of religion and be able to subject any movement we study to critical reason.
One of the most infamous American cults is the People’s Temple - a Protestant church that developed under the guidance of the charismatic preacher, Jim Jones. The People’s Temple operated at first for seemingly positive ends, cultivating community solidarity, social services for the poor, and racial equality.
This last tenet of the People’s Temple - equality between the races - promoted the movement during the 60s, when racial integration was controversial. Indeed, this principle seemed to be a noble Christian virtue that was being practiced in a sea of prejudice. The People’s Temple also advocated for a form of Christian socialism, an alternative (to many) to the harsh capitalist system suffered by the poor in the United States.
The People’s Temple was dominated by its reverend, Jim Jones. Jones mesmerized his followers with his sermons, and cultivated strict conformity of belief and devotion to him. He unfortunately exploited his followers emotionally and financially; lied about the possession of paranormal powers; and engaged in sexual misconduct. Likely a narcissist, paranoia provoked Jones to relocate with his followers to Guyana, where he established a commune in the jungle. He did this to ostensibly establish a perfect Christian community that would be insulated from the contaminations of the outside world.
Jonestown tragically developed into a hell on earth, with Jones’ followers unable to question his teachings or leave without being murdered. When US congressmen visited the commune to conduct an investigation, Jones’ possessive egotism caused him to commit one of the most heinous events in the history of cults. Jones forced 900 of his followers to consume poison laced with cyanide (including 300 minors). Those who did not comply, or tried to escape, were killed with firearms. Jones then killed himself with a gunshot to the head.
This event is one of the best examples of a pathology of religion, and the danger of uncritical devotion to a charismatic leader. This event is an important prescription for the need for discernment, the ability to discern between a true religion and a false one.
Sometimes called the “Hollywood cult” or the “Sci Fi cult,” the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard is associated with the movement he created, called Scientology. Scientology - similar to the People’s Temple - has on first impressions perfectly reasonable tenets, but then takes everything that could be positive about its movement and corrupts it into a system of brainwashing, self-enslavement, and financial exploitation.
Scientology is effectively a modern gnostic movement, teaching a strict division between spirit and matter. However, the “religion” shows the influence of the modern (and Hubbard’s idiosyncrasies), as it alters many popular spiritual myths to have an alien origin.
Scientology teaches that the human soul is trapped in a prison of form and matter, and that only the cult has the techniques necessary for freedom. This results in Scientology’s central practice - called auditing, a form of question therapy which utilizes an e-meter (effectively half of a lie detector).
Former Scientologists usually testify to the positive impact of their initial audit session; it unpacks memories and examines the origins of stress. However, this initial positive experience serves as a cover for the e-meter’s long-term purpose. The personal nature of audit counseling first means it discloses many compromising secrets. Auditing also slowly molds the individual into someone in complete subordination. Beliefs that stray from the cult’s teachings are picked up on the e-meter (a stress detector) and worked on until they are destroyed. Individuals who leave the cult often require years of work and therapy to unpack all the ingrained beliefs inculcated by the cult.
Scientology believes in reincarnation, again a positive teaching that is visible in the Dharmic religions and Platonism. Yet the twist Scientology places on this is extraordinary. Scientology teaches that an ancient alien, called Xenu, committed an ancient genocide that resulted in millions of alien souls, called thetans, to disperse and spread throughout the globe. These thetans then accumulated in human bodies, causing the stresses and problems of contemporary humanity.
Scientologists advance in the cult by progressing up the “Bridge,” a table created by Hubbard that indicates the stages achieved through audit counseling. The “Bridge” is kind of like the Scientologists’ chart of the stages of enlightenment. Unfortunately, the Bridge exists for a solely financial purpose; each session of counseling can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and members are also expected to make regular financial donations to the group (under strong social pressure). Often, individuals will be sent back down the Bridge and forced to repeat steps as they are claimed to have done them incorrectly.
The first stage of Scientology enlightenment is called “Clear,” a state in which a devotee is said to have overcome their “reactive mind,” a part of the mind that is said to be the cause of many of life’s ills. Hubbard claimed this accomplishment would result in overcoming physical illness and many other human frailties, which he said were caused by the mind’s influence.
The highest stage of Scientology is called “OT VIII” or “Operating Thetan 8.” This is usually only achieved by the highest ranking and most senior Scientologists. Those at this level have likely donated at least $200,000 to the organization. Scientologists are inducted into this level aboard the Scientologist ship, the Freewinds. (Hubbard created the “Sea Org,” a clergy for his group, and commissioned these ships to escape from the authorities into international waters.) Those at OT 8 are said to be fully liberated and to possess supernatural powers. Many Scientologists who reach this level realize they have attained none of what was claimed and finally realize the fraud of the group.
One of the best sources on Hubbard is Bare Faced Messiah by Russell Miller. Miller begrudgingly acknowledged the talents of Hubbard, such as his prolific writing ability and his great personal charisma. However, Miller concluded Hubbard was a malignant narcissist. Indeed, analysis of Scientology shows a religion corrupted by a disturbed mind. Hubbard was motivated by little more than the love of money, and often manifested a callous disregard for other people’s welfare.
Hubbard’s religion became quite popular in the 1990s, reaching a global high in followers. The group is also quite litigious and uses the policy of “Fair Game” to harass and injure critics. The group actually achieved tax exempt status in 1993 after a program of targeted harassment against individual IRS agents. Today, the group owns extensive real estate properties throughout the globe (though most are empty) and has its largest presences in Hollywood, CA and Clearwater, FL.
Despite its rise in the 90s, Scientology fell into decline with the rise of the Internet. The Internet nullified its efforts at censorship, as increasing numbers of accounts of its destructive nature spread. Modern Scientology’s “Gold Base,” a kind of concentration camp (thought reform facility) in California, has been investigated by the FBI. It is believed the cult’s membership is now relatively low, with a membership only in the tens of thousands in the United States. It is likely that when the current generation of members pass away the group may fall into terminal decline.
While less malevolent than its peers above, another group that seduced many westerners seeking spiritual truth is the Rajneesh movement. This group was founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru and former philosophy professor. Rajneesh dressed the part of a master, or guru, and kept followers spellbound by charismatic speeches. Rajneesh presented himself as a reconciliation of east and west, of spirituality and materialism, and appropriated teachings from a wide array of sources including Jesus, the Buddha, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Rajneesh however was motivated by a love of money, and eventually moved his Indian ashram from the subcontinent to the United States. His group rose to prominence in the state of Oregon: however, authorities were immediately suspicious, as this occurred only a short time after the mass suicide in Jonestown. For the first time the public (and authorities) had become alerted of the danger of cults, and sought to stop them before they could produce ill effects.
Rajneesh’s followers would all dress in the same ochre robes (Rajneesh referred to his followers as “sannyasins,” appropriating the Hindu term), and became infamous among locals as they started buying real estate and moving into the local town (Antelope, OR). Conflict erupted as the “Rajneeshees” attempted to get seats on the town council and made overt moves to impact local politics. The Rajneeshees wanted to turn the American town into a new polity called Rajneeshpuram.
Though Rajneesh claimed he embraced “the material as well as the spiritual,” he demonstrated little of the disdain for physical comfort observed in teachers like Christ or the Buddha. Rajneesh wore elegant robes and Rolex watches, and bought a fleet of Rolls Royces which he would drive through his ashram. An often repeated image was of his followers living a life of poverty working in the fields of his commune while he drove around the complex in the cars he bought using their funds.
While Rajneesh’s speeches are still available online (rebranded today under the name “Osho”), these clips do not show the patrolling guards who circled the congregation holding submachine guns. Rajneesh ran into particular trouble after one of his acolytes, Ma Anand Sheela, attempted to contaminate a salad bar of a neighboring town with Salmonella. The “Rajneesh bioterror attack” poisoned over 700 people and demonstrated the danger of the movement. The FBI - who had been investigating Rajneesh - also discovered a plot among high-ranking followers to assassinate the US attorney for Oregon. (This plot recalled those of other cults, such as Scientology’s “Operation Snow White,” the largest infiltration of the US government.)
Rajneesh agreed to cooperate with authorities and denied having knowledge of these schemes. After extensive negotiations, Rajneesh came to a deal with American authorities and agreed to leave the United States. He passed away a few years later in exile back in India.
Similar to Jones and Hubbard (we can point out the recurring theme), Rajneesh was likely a narcissist. This was famously argued in The Narcissistic Guru, a study of him done by Ronald Clarke. Rajneesh is admittedly the least malevolent of the three here, and can be admitted to have made some positive contributions to the modern spiritual movement. However, his love of money, his (at minimum) lack of discipline over his followers, and his love of adulation tarnish his memory as being the leader of a cult.
Mormonism is a contemporary sect of Christianity that was founded by Joseph Smith in the 1800s. I place it here due to historical reasons, and due to a lack of a better location to place it; however, I want to emphasize that it is different from the three groups above. While Mormonism began as a deeply idiosyncratic (and potentially fraudulent) version of Christianity, in my opinion it has reformed itself significantly over the decades. I do have a positive opinion of the group today and believe that - despite their strange beliefs - they are an overall positive force on the American consciousness. Having said that, I categorize the group here for historical purposes.
The central problem of Mormonism lies in the veracity of the claims of its founder, Joseph Smith. Smith was born in Vermont in the early 19th century and grew up in the time of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the United States. Personally pious, he became immersed in the spiritual culture of his time.
Smith claimed to have uncovered mysterious golden plates that he found buried in his backyard. He claimed he had been directed to dig at the instruction of an angel named Moroni; and that these plates were artifacts that dated back to the ancient Americas. Despite this - and the significance of these plates - they were never revealed to anyone nor do they exist as an historical artifact.
These plates - which were transcribed from “reformed Egyptian” by the use of a “seer stone” (as Smith read them to an acolyte from the bottom of a hat) - became the basis of the Book of Mormon, the sacred text of his movement, read by Mormons today in addition to the conventional Bible.
Note that divine revelation is a central claim of most religions, and is often used to elevate the status of their spiritual writings, like the Koran, the Gospels, the Torah, or the Bhagavad Gita. However, Mormonism is unique for claiming its revelation came through a physical artifact and not Smith himself. This unnecessary fraud is an obstacle in accepting the veracity of Smith’s revelation.
The central claim of the Book of Mormon is that Jesus Christ, after the resurrection, came to America and preached to the Native Americans prior to ascending to heaven. The work also links the Biblical narrative with the Americas, for instance claiming prophets and patriarchs left ancient Arabia and traveled to the western hemisphere. The physical evidence for any of this is of course nonexistent, thus the kindest interpretation of these works is that they were not meant to be read literally but instead represent a kind of “sacred history.”
In the 1800s, the young Smith attracted thousands of followers, buoyed by the atmosphere of religious revival that existed in America at the time. Smith, however, was rejected by mainline Christians, who viewed his beliefs and practices as too bizarre and idiosyncratic. Many Christians rejected Mormonism entirely, denying it was a legitimate branch of Christianity.
The central problem for most was Smith’s embrace of polygamy. This practice, which was also embraced by Smith’s successor Brigham Young (who had 56 wives), provoked violent reactions. Smith was chased out of Missouri; and, as a part of his expulsion from Illinois, was killed for his bizarre beliefs.
This experience led the Mormons to flee west, where they created a “Zion” in the desert around the Great Salt Lake. For a short time, Mormons attempted to create their own nation called Deseret, before submitting and agreeing to be incorporated into the United States. Sympathetic views call Brigham Young a “modern Moses,” a prophet who led his people through the desert to their own promised land in Utah.
One view of the Mormons is that they are interpreting the Biblical narrative from the modern American experience; or, that their beliefs are a religious expression of American exceptionalism. The ultimate interpretation of Smith: whether he founded the movement for his own sexual and egotistical purposes; whether he was a pious fraud; or whether he was sincerely inspired but a personally flawed individual is one scholars continue to study.
Though the modern Mormons rankle with their own struggle with institutional religion - with a church that (in the interests of dogmatism) frequently interferes with individual free expression - the Mormons are generally acknowledged as embracing good and healthy virtues and effectively practicing them outwardly.
I confess that my own prejudices against the group have been tempered by all my personal experiences with Mormons, which have all been positive. I do not believe their interpretation of Biblical history from the lens of modern America is appropriate, and I believe their view ultimately demonstrates an immature religious expression; however, I admire their values and sympathize with the aspiration of members to cultivate themselves into a congregation of “latter day saints.”
In some ways it may seem that religion is over in our time, but on careful study we can see that this is not the case. Religion has always provided a schema by which we can understand the world and give it meaning, and modernity is no exception to this. Thus, I believe it is important for us to expand our understanding of what religion is in order to understand its contemporary manifestations. Doing this allows us to see how religious elements infiltrate political movements - using them as tools to express the deeply held desires and wishes of the human psyche.
We will look at two “political religions” of our age here, Hitlerism and Trumpism.
A detailed study of Nazism provides ample evidence that it possessed most of the elements of a religion. Like a religion, Nazism infiltrated German society, from the military to art to education to the family. It slowly became analogous with the whole civilization; inspired great devotion and fanaticism; presented a clear vision for the future; and also legitimized the committing of horrible crimes.
Hitler himself (quoted in Hermann Rauschning’s book, Hitler Speaks) said “our movement is a religion.” An intuitive individual and an adept public speaker, Hitler had a great capacity to comprehend and reflect the emotions of his audiences. Carl Jung - the famous psychologist - compared Hitler to Mohammed, saying that like him he had created a religion of conquest, a kind of military faith.
Indeed, Hitler and other Nazis were known for their praises of Islam, which demonstrates the temperament of the religion they were building. Like Islam, Nazism mobilized a population on a massive scale, cultivated a martial focus, inspired a sense of “social ecstasy” (we will explain what this means in a moment), and sought a political-spiritual-moral revolution on a massive scale.
The question of Nazism’s compatibility with Christianity arose repeatedly in the 1930s and 40s. That there was a concern over whether the two were compatible shows the religious nature of Nazism. Some Nazis insisted on the compatibility of the new belief systems, while other Nazis became hostile to Christianity and thought it should be destroyed.
Alfred Rosenberg built several open-air amphitheaters which could be understood as early Nazi temples. Heinrich Himmler built his own sanctuaries and developed a system of ritual for his SS officers. The revival of pagan and Germanic practices by him is evidence of the movement’s desire to displace the old religion. Hitler himself commissioned a shrine to the “martyrs” of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, using the bloodstained flag of the event alongside an epigraph of the early Nazis there who had been killed. (The Hijra, or exile period of Mohammed, would make an interesting comparison to this.)
As stated, Nazism cultivated a form of “social ecstasy”: a state in which followers experienced a sense of self-loss as their I-hood was dissolved into the larger “body” or identity of the state. Hitler himself cultivated this in his references to a “national community,” a concept that replaced individuality with a kind of collective consciousness.
A related tenet of Nazism was the belief in a “nation-soul” or “racial-soul.” Hitler, as high priest, was the embodiment of this - of the collective wishes and memories of the German people, a manifestation of their collective unconscious.
Nazism had a redemption myth, as described eloquently by the historian Saul Friedlander. The Nazis preached a “redemptive antisemitism,” that all things wrong with life or the world could be attributed to Judaism. Similar to Manichaeanism, the Nazis saw history as a conflict between good and evil, between the “Aryans” and the Jews. The scapegoat - a core element of primitive religion - was employed by them through antisemitism.
Nazism had its own mythology, viewing history through the schema of the “Aryan race.” Though untrue, Hitlerism insisted on a genetic origin of the Germans in the great civilizations of the past, for example claiming the Aryans were descended from the ancient Greeks. Hitlerism re-interpreted history post hoc by stating that all great achievements of the past were produced by members of a perennial “noble race.” This mythology allowed Hitler to claim ownership of any great individual of the past, whether Alexander the Great or Archimedes.
Nazism had its own origin myth, deriving from the stories of the Thule Society. One story told of the “Aryan” origin in Atlantis, a mighty civilization that was lost under the sea. The Atlantean race then spread in exile throughout the world, becoming the Aryans of other peoples. (The actual Atlantis story is derived from a one-sentence fable of Plato, used as a counsel in one of his books against hubris.)
Another story (from the Theosophical Society) traced the “Aryan” origin to Lemuria. Lemuria was an imagined continent that was said to have sunk beneath the Indian Ocean. Similar to the Atlantis story, this was said to be the origin of the “Aryans” before they spread throughout the globe. (Lemuria was proposed by scientists who found lemur fossils in Madagascar and India and speculated a lost continent had formerly existed that connected the regions but had sunk beneath the ocean.)
Had World War II proceeded differently, the full expression of Nazism in the postwar world would have been extraordinary. This movement may have coexisted with Christianity, or attempted to replace it. Nazism would have presented a very different form of morality and social organization compared to anything we have observed before or since.
Trumpism as Frazerism
Trumpism - the political movement that has developed around Donald Trump in the US over the past years - has been one of the most perplexing modern phenomena, but when studied under the lens of religion discloses itself.
Before proceeding, let’s list a few perplexing phenomena.
1. Why did Franklin Roosevelt, who contracted polio, hide his lame legs from the public?
2. Why did John F. Kennedy philander with so many women?
3. Why did Hitler - conversely - cultivate an image as a celibate (priestly) ruler?
4. Why do taller candidates often win elections for US president?
5. Why did the Spanish despise their disabled king, Charles II?
6. Why does the public lament rulers who fall into cognitive decline, such as Reagan or Biden?
7. Why do men, even in egalitarian countries, tend to rise to political leadership?
We notice these things in passing - though rarely connect their constellation to an underlying cause. I would argue that all of the above are manifestations of Frazerism, an ancient religion that dates back to early man yet persists in human psychology into contemporary times.
James Frazer was a Scottish anthropologist who studied primitive religions, and made the following observations.
1. To ancient peoples, the physical world and political world were not independent but related.
2. The physical world was viewed as going through cycles of prosperity and decline.
3. These cycles were related to the health of rulers.
4. Times of prosperity were associated with fertile and physically capable rulers.
5. Times of decline were associated with infertile or disabled rulers.
6. To bring about restoration, sacrifice was required.
7. Ancient cultures literally sacrificed their infertile rulers and replaced them with fertile ones.
8. Sacrificed rulers were “scapegoats” who embodied the ills of their time.
9. By destroying the scapegoat, revival was ensured.
Frazerism is a kind of argument for an “unconscious” religion; for a religion with deep biological and primal origins that are usually ignored by the conscious mind. It is a religion that believes in the “sacredness” of rulers.
By stating these tenets clearly, we can see their manifestations in Trumpism. Trumpism manifests the following.
1. Trump is one the tallest American presidents, denoting he is physically capable.
2. Despite his age and obesity, Trump overall maintains good health and has not cognitively declined.
3. For his followers, Trump exudes positive masculinity, which is an ideal.
4. The Trump movement presents scapegoats for the problems of the nation.
5. The clearest scapegoat manifests in the QAnon conspiracy about an elite pedophile ring. This conspiracy expresses an intuition of civilizational defilement and expresses a desire for a sacred ruler.
6. Trumpism believes in a day of “the storm” which will include bloodshed and a purge.
7. Trumpism believes that after this event, the health of the nation will be restored.
By expressing it in this way, we can contextualize Trumpism better, and get some insight into his deep personal appeal. It is also not by accident that Trumpism appeals more to males and blue collar individuals, as these individuals lack the artifices of the conscious-mind world that are inculcated by education. It is thus no surprise that those who are the most educated are also the most perplexed by the appeal of Trumpism.
Before concluding, we should examine some of the ancient religions of humanity: the Egyptian, Hellenic, Germanic, and Babylonian. Though no longer practiced, a study of these faiths shows they were often just as sophisticated as those of modernity, and contain many parables and myths that grant us insight into the human condition. Given the need for brevity, we will examine only the most relevant topics of each of these religions here, emphasizing their transcendent-mystical elements.
The Egyptian religion likely formed as an amalgamation of local faiths and practices which gradually combined and became a single belief system. (We can assume this process was the same for all these religions, the Hellenic, Germanic, and Babylonian.) The ancient Egyptians were deeply pious, and their beliefs affected daily life, burial customs, architecture, and government.
The Egyptian religion was focused on death and the preparation for it. We can examine a few elements of their faith that demonstrate this.
The Egyptians believed in a multifaceted soul, consisting of several elements. These included the ib (heart), ren (name), ba (personality), and ka (spirit). Egyptian art has been found to depict the ka, or spirit, leaving the body or existing independently from it.
The ancient Egyptians were famous for a great parable they told that explained what occurred in death. In the parable, the ib (heart) of an individual is taken by the gods and judged through the use of a scale. The heart is compared against a feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth. If the individual’s heart was heavy and weighed down by corruption and evil deeds, the soul of the individual would be fed to Ammit, the crocodile of the underworld. If, on the other hand, the heart was light from purity and benevolence (and thus weighed less than the feather), the soul would be judged righteous and allowed to ascend to the heavenly spheres.
The Egyptians taught that particularly noble individuals, judged so by Osiris, possessed what was called akh, the transfigured soul. These individuals were said to possess complete freedom in the spiritual domain. This concept is fascinating and encourages a comparison with the idea of resurrection (anastasis) in Christianity.
Another parable of the Egyptians is the story of Osiris. In the Egyptian pantheon, Osiris was the king of the gods, the judge of the living and the dead. Osiris is explained, however, as having been murdered by his brother, Set, similar to the Cain and Abel story of the Bible. Osiris’ body was then hacked into pieces, which Set then discarded in all the corners of Egypt.
Learning what happened to her spouse, Osiris’ wife Isis, the queen of the gods, is said to have scoured the land seeking the pieces of her husband. Reassembling them, Isis brought about the resurrection of Osiris in which he assumed a higher form.
This tale is fascinating in comparison to some of the others we have encountered, as it is a repetition of the death-rebirth parable of human religion. That this tale appears in so many cultures and times shows its universality.
The Hellenic religion is vast, and it would require a book to recount all its tales. Today the religion is still widely studied by moderns, though they do so under the name of “Greek mythology.” The longevity of this religion’s tales demonstrate their great insight into the human condition; and indeed it is not by accident that its names and allegories persist in contemporary language, for example in our words like tantalize, narcissist, and demigod.
We will look at the most relevant tale for us, the Twelve Trials of Herakles.
Herakles (Latin: Hercules) is a figure of Greek mythology, the offspring of an affair of Zeus (the king of the gods) with a mortal woman. As a product of this birth, Herakles is both human and divine, a demigod who possesses both a physical and a transcendent nature.
Herakles was despised by Hera, the queen of the gods, who resented the philandering of her husband. In the Trials, Hera sends a litany of obstacles and monsters to Herakles to punish him and injure him due to his scandalous birth.
Yet the Hellenic myth recounts Herakles overcoming these obstacles, conquering each monster and ultimately reclaiming his divinity. This tale was one of the most popular of the Hellenic world, and is remembered by moderns to the present day. A lengthy parable, scholars have interpreted the Twelve Trials as ultimately being an allegory for human spirituality.
This view usually attributes a psychological meaning to each of the monsters who fight Herakles. The Erymanthian boar, for example, represents gluttony and bestiality; the Nemean lion, anger and rancor; the Cretan bull, violence; and the Stymphalian birds the fickleness of human desire. Additionally, Herakles’ subordination to an inferior man, Eurystheus (the source of all the trials), represents the development of humility.
The prescription would be that the overcoming of all these obstacles - the cultivation of internal personal excellence - is a spiritual trial and constitutes the path to divinity. Indeed, in the Hellenic world Herakles was subsequently worshiped as a god; and we can see in his myth a repetition of the man-becoming-god tale that would later recur in Christianity.
The Oracle of Delphi
The Oracle was the figure who set Herakles on his epic quest, and we should mention her in our discussion of the Hellenic religion. The Oracle was the priestess of Apollo, a central institution of ancient Greece, and she appears in many tales both fictional and nonfictional.
The Oracles succeeded one another in history, new women rising to the office after the deaths of others. These priestesses were chosen by the priests of Apollo, who would scour Greece and select the most promising young women they encountered in Hellenic families. (This process makes an interesting comparison to the Tibetan religion, in which the monks embark on a search to find the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.)
The Oracle was a respected institution in Greece, and even the most scientifically-minded of the Hellenes revered her prophecies. Socrates, for example, began his quest for knowledge after being told he was the wisest of the Greeks by the Oracle; thus the philosophic tradition which developed into Plato and Aristotle can be traced back to her. The Oracle similarly appears in the tale of Lycurgus, the creator of the Spartan constitution, and in many other Greek fables.
The Oracle recalls the modern Tarot movement, and may represent a similar expression. The Tarot is a kind of introspective-intuitive religion which employs symbols as tools for self-knowledge. The Oracle’s prophecies were usually vague - but precise. For example, on the eve of the Persian invasion around 500 BC, she was cited as making the following prophecies.
[To the Spartans] Either the king or the city will be torn limb from limb.
[To the Athenians] Either the city or the people will be destroyed.
The sincere reverence of the Greeks for these prophecies is something we should emphasize. The Oracle’s prophecies caused Leonidas to lead his personal guard to self-sacrifice at Thermopylae in the interests of his city; and caused the Athenians to evacuate their city, resulting in its physical destruction - but its people’s preservation - as well as their great victory over the Persians at Salamis (which, in combination with the Spartan battle, ultimately compelled the Persians to withdraw).
Though Herodotus - the source of these two quotes - may have embellished the tales, the existence of similar statements of the Oracle that are not sourced to him suggest that she was a figure of great interest in the history of religion.
Additional elements of Hellenic religion
We should mention two last topics of the Hellenic religion. The first is the Greek mysteries, which find their best expression at the rites of Eleusis; and the second is the “descent into hell” which appears in the tale of Odysseus.
We lack definitive sources on the Eleusinian religion, but the great esteem it was held in by figures like Socrates and Plato suggests its excellence. The central teaching at Eleusis was the following.
1. The spiritual journey consisted of a life-path.
2. This life-path required initiation and special training.
3. This life-path involved three major stages: descent, search, and ascent.
4. These stages required induction by a high priest, called a hierophant.
5. These stages involved a death-rebirth experience (which was symbolized by the descent and ascent of Persephone to Hades).
We find that these stages recall many of the things we have discussed before; though likely the starkest comparison would be to Evelyn Underhill, and the steps of the mystic life she discussed (Purgation, Illumination, and Divinization).
The idea of the “descent into hell” - visible above in the “descent” stage - recurs in Homer in the tale of Odysseus. This, indeed, is one of the most universal metaphors of the human spiritual quest, and is something we should unpack before concluding.
The idea of “descent” appears in the Aeneid (Virgil), in the Harrowing of Hell (Christianity), in the tale of Orpheus, in the tale of Herakles, and in the Inferno (Dante). This idea is sometimes called the katabasis by students of mythology, and we can cite still more references to it such as in the conflict with the shadow (Jung), putrefaction (alchemy), and in the dark night of the soul (John of the Cross).
This experience appears to be an allegory for the initial stage of the spiritual quest: the purification an individual goes through as they seek greater conformity with the divine. As a part of this process, a spiritual seeker must integrate the base, primal, and repulsive forces of human nature into their larger identity. This experience is usually described as involving a large amount of turmoil, thus the image of the “descent into hell.”
It seems this experience is central to religious initiation: thus the vast number of references to it that emerge in diverse places and times.
If we are focusing on the transcendent-mystical expression of religion, then we should likely focus on Odin when discussing the Germanic faith. Odin was the king of the Germanic pantheon, the patron of prophets and seers, and the origin of our day of the week “Wednesday” (Wodensday). Odin embodied masculine priestly power: the magician archetype from the Jungian matrix of king, lover, magician, and warrior.
Odin is associated with several stories that are of interest to our analysis. He was said to descend in human form and walk around mortals in disguise, similar to the idea of avatars in Indian religion. Odin was said to have been crucified on a great tree to get knowledge of the runes, similar to Christianity; and he is said to have sacrificed one of his eyes for the gift of prophecy, similar to the tale of Tiresias in Hellenic religion.
Odin was associated with the runes, the mythic alphabet known only by the Germanic seers, something that in ancient cultures would have been associated with esotericism, higher knowledge, and initiation. Odin was additionally associated with his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, symbols of higher spiritual power; and with berserking, a kind of religious trance experienced by Germanic seers and warriors.
Yggdrasil, the world tree, is another powerful symbol of the Germanic religion. Yggdrasil - likely the product of a shamanic revelation - was a vision of the larger cosmos that presented man’s place in the firmament.
The world tree showed man as residing in Midgard (middle earth), while above him was Asgard (the realm of the gods) and below him was Hel (the underworld). The Germanic cosmos also included many mythological creatures, such as the dwarves and giants, who were said to reside in other spheres. This cosmology is quite similar to those of other religions, though encourages a particular comparison to those of the Indian subcontinent.
We do not know as much about the Babylonian religion as we do the others listed here, but we should mention its great tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh. This work is likely the oldest piece of human literature, and may date back to before 2000 BC. It will come as no surprise to us (as students of religion) that the focus of this work was on the central human questions we have observed repeatedly, death and immortality.
In the epic, the king Gilgamesh becomes greatly troubled about his mortality, and embarks on a long quest for eternal life. This quest takes him through many adversities and trials, similar to figures like Aeneas or Odysseus. For example, Gilgamesh must conquer monsters and engage in dialogues (or barters) with the gods, similar to the heroes of other classical myths.
In his quest Gilgamesh meets the wild man, Enkidu. Gilgamesh at first confronts Enkidu in combat before the two dialogue and turn into friends. Enkidu is rejected by civilization but Gilgamesh develops a great camaraderie with him.
This event recalls the story of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin) from Celtic mythology. Indeed this sequence recurs in many religions, and expresses the stage of the spiritual seeker’s withdrawal into the wilderness (becoming a “wild man” to conventional society as he proceeds in the quest for higher knowledge). We can see repetitions of this, for example, in the tales of Christ or the Buddha, who both similarly retreated into the wilderness.
Gilgamesh later meets Utnapishtim who instructs him that there does exist a path to immortality. Utnapishtim explains that by eating the green branch of a plant that grows in a secret location, Gilgamesh can achieve physical immortality. The branch lies hidden at the bottom of a lake. At his guidance, Gilgamesh swims down, nearly drowning in the process. Yet as he finds the plant he sees it being stolen, taken from him at the last moment by a snake.
Dejected, Gilgamesh returns to the surface, and retires to live out his life consigned to his fate. Gilgamesh accepts the inevitability of death and no longer pursues immortality. Yet it is here where some versions of the tale present a most interesting conclusion. For his efforts, the gods reward Gilgamesh with spiritual immortality, and agree that in the next world he will preside in the afterlife as a wise judge of the dead.
Here we can note this tale’s similarity to the others we have seen. Gilgamesh’s fate is a repetition of the death-rebirth parable of other cultures. Like the other heroes, Gilgamesh descends (ie, the descent into hell or the unconscious) and returns to the surface with knowledge. The Gilgamesh tale thus recalls the deification tale of Herakles, the resurrection tale of Osiris, and the resurrection tale of Christ. That this myth appears in so many cultures across time is fascinating and suggests its origin lies in an underlying truth about the human experience.
Indeed, these ancient faiths all share common themes. The most common tropes we can identify are of death-rebirth, the “descent into hell,” and the idea of a heroic figure achieving immortality. Other similarities emerge in these religion’s cosmologies. Indeed, the similarities between these religions provide evidence for a universal experience when one embarks on the spiritual quest.
Having reached the end of our discussion, we must now return to the topic we mentioned at the beginning, mysticism. Indeed, across all the histories and praxes we have discussed, mysticism has appeared repeatedly. We see it in Islam (Sufism), Hinduism (Yoga), and Judaism (Kabbalah). But what is mysticism? How can we define it? And why does it appear in so many religions, in so many places and times?
Mysticism is, arguably, the inner “core” of religion; it is the origin or source of religion; and it is the purpose of religion. Mysticism is the individual quest for direct experience of the divine. It is the introspective-intuitive aspect of religion that attracts the most serious and dedicated disciples of spirituality to it. Mysticism possesses the greatest mysteries of man within it; and it is not by accident that mysticism often produces some of the greatest figures of human history (ie, figures such as Dante, the Buddha, and Mohammed).
Mysticism is a life-path one follows that leads one to union with the divine. While explanations of this path appear in different forms, comparative religion shows a remarkable universality in descriptions of this path from mystics of different places and times.
We will recount an explanation of this life-path, using arguably the greatest authority of western mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, as our source. Underhill wrote a description of this journey (as well as a history of western mysticism) in her magnum opus, Mysticism (1911). As we proceed, we will point out analogues to what she describes that appear in the other traditions, in the process demonstrating the universality of this journey.
Underhill explained the “mystic way” as consisting of five stages. She created her system as a refinement of the traditional three stage system taught by the Catholic Church. Catholic tradition taught that mystics went through three steps on the quest for enlightenment: purgation, illumination, and divinization. Underhill added two stages to this, a new opening stage she called awakening, and an intermediate stage (that came before divinization) that she called the dark night of the soul. We will briefly examine each of these stages in our analysis.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. -Ecclesiastes
As we have recounted, a sincere analysis of the human condition leads us to recognize its horror. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king came to see the vanity of all he did when he learned that the end of everything was death. In India, we mentioned the “three divine messengers,” the forces of old age, sickness, and death, that were inevitable ends of human life. Finally, in Christianity we encountered the tale of the crucifixion; for our purposes, we will interpret this as an allegory for human life: a life characterized by the experiences of suffering and adversity.
Confronted by these forces, what is the human being to do? The first answer would be to resign oneself to fatalism; to submit to the forces of nihilism and mortality, to accept that life ends in death and there is nothing that can be done about it.
But: what if there was something more? If there was even a possibility - the remotest chance - that one could turn oneself into something that was not perishable, then it would follow that that possibility should be investigated very seriously. This intuition of the mystics - that there is something more - is the impetus which begins their quest.
It is here where the life-path begins. The mystics at this stage, coming to this great realization, often turn away starkly from their former material lives as though they were paths of utter foolishness. Here we encounter, for example, the tale of Francis of Assisi, who dramatically abandoned his life as a nobleman to instead seek union with the divine; or the tale of the Buddha, who renounced his inheritance of Magadha to seek the answer to the problems of “sickness, old age, and death.”
Mystics at this stage affirm the foolishness of human life: the unending race for riches and fame that ultimately results in nothing. They recognize, also, the speed with which life can change, how rapidly “the Lord giveth and taketh away” (Job), and the need to prepare for death (Phaedo 64a).
Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, called this stage the “call to adventure,” a psychological step which he said recurred in numerous epics of various places and times.
This awakening causes an outwardly-focused individual to become introspective. This introspection leads the mystic to a gradual awareness of their own shortcomings and limitations, and this leads naturally into the turmoil and adversity of the next stage, when these “heroically-minded” individuals (alluding to their description in Buddhism) enter the wilderness.
We have mentioned this “second stage” of the mystic life in passing several times, and it is indeed the stage of the spiritual life that is the most alluded to in art and literature. We have seen references to it when we discussed Christianity (metanoia) and the Hellenic religion (the descent into hell). When we examined the Greeks, we listed several references to this stage that appear in literature, such as in the tales of Orpheus, Herakles, Aeneas, and Odysseus. Additional references to this stage appear in Jungian psychology (the integration of the shadow), in comparative mythology (the journey into the “otherworld”), and in alchemy (the stage of “putrefaction”).
When the human being develops self-knowledge and becomes self-aware, he becomes conscious of the litany of traits he has that fall far short of perfection. Indeed, if the mystic seeks “the true, good, and beautiful” then he learns he must start with himself; take hold of the “prima materia,” the first matter - man in his fundamental state - and transform it into a higher form.
One explanation of this stage makes use of the Seven Deadly Sins. In Dante’s Divine Comedy (which we can read partly as an allegory for the mystic path) he explains each of the foolish traits that are innate to man and that separate him from the divine. As a mystic ascends the “Mount of Purgatory,” he purifies himself of these qualities and achieves greater conformity with the sacred. Thus, man in the state of purgation reforms himself and overcomes the vices: gluttony, greed, lust, pride, envy, wrath, and sloth. In place of them the mystic cultivates the virtues: temperance, charity, chastity, humility, kindness, patience, and diligence.
The Greek monk, John Climacus, used the metaphor of Jacob’s ladder from the Bible as an explanation of this process. A spiritual psychologist, Climacus viewed the overcoming of each of these vices as representing one ascending additional steps on the ladder. The Biblical tale of Jacob included a vision of angels “ascending and descending” the ladder, beings descending to earth to join humanity, and others climbing the ladder to reach the heavens (Gen 28:10-19).
Another explanation of the state of purgation makes use of metaphor. Sometimes mystics will describe the “opening of the heart,” and indeed this image recurs in Christian hagiography, for instance in icons of Christ, Mary, or the saints that depict them with an open, burning, or inflamed heart. This metaphor suggests there is a refinement of the emotions that occurs in this stage: that in purgation the mystic overcomes the base and destructive emotions, like malice and fear, and elevates the higher emotions, including joy, empathy, and equanimity.
Whatever transformations occur in purgation are likely the result of the introduction of self-awareness to the stew of human memory. Indeed, the idea of self-awareness appears in the Kabbalah (devekut), Sufism (dhikr), Christian mysticism (nepsis), and Buddhism (sati). It is also worth emphasizing the idea of self-knowledge (gnothi seauton) which appears both as the inscription above the Oracle of Delphi, as well as in the teachings of Socrates.
We have discussed the power of dogmatism previously; how religions throughout time develop institutions that come to organize and regulate human behavior. Indeed, we have said how these institutions have political and social value, but how over time they come to exist for their own purposes, and fall away from the original ends for which they were adopted. This process, which recurs in history, is how religions become oppressive and burdensome, and how they come to censor, condemn, and suppress human flourishing.
In Christianity this process is alluded to by Paul, who discussed the difference, taught by Christ, between the “spirit” and the “letter” of the law. The spirit is the purpose of religion, the reason dogma exists: to facilitate the individual’s quest to the sacred. The letter is the unfortunate product that develops over time: the burdensome and unnecessary accumulation of history that regrettably amasses.
Indeed, we are all born in cultures and times that have their own unique delusions, fallacies, and lies that are widely accepted. Thus, an essential part of the mystic life - one that often manifests in the stage of purgation - is the process of unpacking ingrained beliefs.
When the mystic goes through this process, they reacquaint themselves more and more with truth, with objectivity, and with the real world; they lose their prejudices and provincialism and begin to see the real nature of religion.
At the same time, this process is extremely difficult. Is it easy to question what you were taught by your parents? Is it easy to question the priests, who everyone else says have certain knowledge about the afterlife and God? Is it easy to question the truths believed in by your countrymen, your nation, your religion?
Indeed this process often leads to persecution, and it is not by accident that many of history’s mystics end up as martyrs. We see this in the accounts of early Christianity; and we see other examples of it in the lives of Christ and Socrates. Drifting too far from orthodoxy is dangerous in many times, and unfortunate mystics may find themselves perishing for this work.
One of the most difficult aspects of the mystic life, which makes it a struggle for us who try to comprehend it, is the primary means by which the mystic apprehends truth. While most of us defer to logic and critical reason as the means by which we come to conclusions, the mystic, while not rejecting these, inevitably moves past them and comes to, in their opinion, the most refined source of truth, intuition.
Intuition is something that recurs throughout the history of religion, and indeed “revealed knowledge” or “higher knowledge” is claimed by most religions as being the force that inspired their prophets or led to the writing of their holy books. Christians claim the Gospels are “revealed”; Muslims claim divine inspiration for their scripture the Koran; and Hindus claim a divine origin for their text the Bhagavad Gita.
Mystics claim to be led by strong inward pushes and pulls that they say lead them on their quest. This force is sometimes referred to as an “inner voice” or an “audition,” though when one reads the Spanish mystics (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross) they state that the closer this phenomenon comes to an actual voice the more questionable it becomes.
We see this strong inner push, for example, in Francis of Assisi’s sudden decision to renounce worldly life; and again in Teresa of Avila in her quest to reform the Carmelite order. There is even an account of this in Buddhism. After his enlightenment Siddhartha initially refused to begin a ministry, but was only persuaded to do this after a personal revelation (Sahampati).
The best example of this phenomenon in literature, however, appears in the Apology of Plato. During his trial, Socrates claims to be guided by such an inner voice, his “daimonion,” which he says has offered him the best and wisest counsel throughout his life (31d). Socrates states that the inner voice guided his conduct during the trial; and that it also informed his decision not to flee the sentence of the Athenians.
This force of intuition seems to be the most questionable in the early steps of the mystic life, often being conflated with one’s own opinion. However, it appears this force plays a major role in all instances of the advanced mystic life (Inner Castle, VI:3).
The illuminated life begins after the stage of purgation. From the Jungian perspective, the illuminated life is the product of the renewed integration of the psyche which proceeds after the turmoil of the previous stage. In books of mysticism, this stage is usually associated with the contemplative life.
What is contemplation? Contemplation refers to the act of focusing the attention: of grasping control of the digressive mind and establishing oneself in states of internal quiet. Contemplation is often practiced by the mystic in various states of withdrawal, for example as one retires to a monastery or the wilderness to focus on meditation.
Contemplatives appear frequently throughout religion. Dante dedicates one of the highest spheres of the Paradiso to them; and we see other examples of them in the Desert Fathers, Spanish mystics, and Indian yogis.
Descriptions of the contemplative life are remarkably similar across different faiths. The most common description of the steps of contemplation is the following.
1. Concentration. The first step of the contemplative. One starts with a digressive and wandering mind that is unable to focus. The contemplative applies and sustains the attention (in the Buddhist tradition, “vitarka” and “vicara”), often done by focusing on an object, such as the breath or a candle.
2. Meditation. Eventually, the constant effort at controlling the mind produces results, and a state of quiet stillness is achieved. In this, the usual chattering-mind is overcome and the contemplative abides in a state of inner quiet.
3. Absorption. The remarkable claim of the mystics. Here they claim their state of inner quiet deepens, and they experience something more. Sometimes this state is referred to as ecstasy (samadhi). The mystics often claim that in this state - at least for brief moments - their experience of individuality lapses and they achieve a state of unity with the divine.
This division appears in Underhill’s work Mysticism (II:6-8) and recurs in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives the names of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, correlating with the three listed above.
Buddhism describes the practice of right meditation (samma sati) which it states leads inevitably to the state of right ecstasy (samma samadhi). The Buddhists describe the states of absorption in their teaching of the four jhanas (altered states of consciousness experienced during meditation).
Likely the most famous example of ecstasy is visible in the statues of Bernini, who portrayed the religious experiences of Teresa of Avila in his art. However, ecstasy recurs in many figures, from Rumi to Catherine of Siena to Hildegard of Bingen.
Here we must confront the two mystical theses; the two bold claims of the mystics. These two claims, if accepted, are life-transformative, and mean extraordinary consequences for us in our understanding of reality. As a result of their contemplative practices, mystics claim (1) the continuity of consciousness after the death of the body and (2) the illusion of I-hood.
The continuity of consciousness after the death of the body
References to consciousness existing outside of the body appear throughout religious literature, but the most notable ones arise in the letters of Paul (“Whether in the body or out of it I do not know,” 2 Corinthians 12) and in the account of Mohammed’s ascent to the seventh heaven (Koran, 53:13-18). Teresa of Avila alludes to her own experiences of such phenomena in her discussions on “transport” which appear in the Inner Castle (VI:5). When reading the Buddhist suttas, we can infer the same claims of spiritual travel were made by the Buddha, due to his detailed descriptions of the heavenly and hellish realms which exist in Buddhist cosmology (eg, the pure abodes and naraka). Finally, modern references to this phenomenon appear in the “out-of-body experience” movement, with the main figure being Bob Monroe (Journeys Out of the Body).
Is consciousness the product of the body or does consciousness precede it? This is one of the great questions of human life, one of the great mysteries, and is a central question that has been debated by human beings since the dawn of time. Indeed, the debate between the two answers is so perennial that it appears in ancient Greek philosophy.
The Greek philosopher Plato, often remembered as being a key figure in the history of religion, concluded that consciousness could exist independently of the body. Indeed, to him “philosophy was the preparation for death” (Phaedo 64a); philosophy refined and perfected the soul so it could ascend to the higher spheres after the body’s end.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, the father of science (“natural philosophy”), in contrast proposed the opposite answer. Aristotle stated the powers of the soul - including perception, memory, and intelligence - were produced by “hylomorphism,” the coming together of matter and form (On the Soul). In other words, the soul was a product of physical matter.
Platonism presented several theories on the soul. These appeared in the dialogues in the doctrines of metempsychosis (reincarnation) and anamnesis (remembering what was forgotten), as well as in the Myth of Er.
The Myth of Er - the most relevant of these for our purposes - appears In The Republic. In this tale, Plato describes a man named Er, a soldier who was thought to have died in battle and who was subsequently placed on a funeral pyre by his compatriots. Yet in the account, Er awakens on the pyre and recounts what he experienced in the afterlife. Indeed, the tale of Er reads like a modern near-death experience.
Er explains he saw large numbers of people, some rising and some descending; some in queue to take on human forms, others progressing into the spirit world. Er explains the importance of morality in determining the fates of souls; and he explains the need for wisdom in choosing one’s incarnations wisely (Republic, 10.614-621).
Er explains the existence of the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which souls are supposed to drink from prior to descending to take on a new physical form. He explains how his failure to drink from this river meant he was able to remember and recount his experience of the nonphysical world.
The tale of Er, though forgotten today, plays a major role in developing the basic concept of death and the afterlife for most people. It is worth pointing out the similarity of this account to that given in most Dharmic religions, and the similarity of the account to the Christian and Muslim afterlifes, with the exception of the Platonists’ idea of return (as opposed to the idea of only one descent).
The illusion of I-hood
The second bold claim of the mystics - what we will refer to here as the “illusion of I-hood” - is, if true, one of the supreme mysteries of the human experience. While we have encountered this premise previously (when we compared Hinduism with Buddhism), we will try to put the basic concept into words as clearly as possible.
1. The human experience is based on duality.
2. This duality means all our experience is divided between “I” and “you.”
3. Another way of expressing this is to think of the division between subject (I) and object (you).
4. The claim of the mystics is that this division is untrue.
5. In India, the illusion of division is sometimes referred to as “Maya.”
6. The mystics claim that all is actually One. Everything - all phenomena without exception - are particles of a divine Unity.
7. The illusion of division is created by the divine in order to give its creation independence and agency; but ultimately, all is One.
This state - the hypothetical state in which the illusion of separation is lost - is referred to by various names. Buddhists call it “nirvana,” Sufis “fana,” Hindus “moksha,” and Christian mystics the “spiritual marriage.” It is a hypothetical state in which one’s individuality - one’s sense of I-hood - is extinguished and merged with the divine.
Mystics such as Teresa of Avila refer to this as the highest attainment of religion (VII:2), and counsel that all efforts should be made to achieve this state. Other mystics explain that this state is really not “achieved,” but rather it is “given” after a lifetime of work (Mysticism, II:7).
This state is described as inexplicable, though various devices have been developed over the years to describe it. We have explained before the apophatic (negative) and kataphatic (positive) approaches.
Negative explanations lead to descriptions of what the state is not; Buddhism describes the state as “amata” (deathlessness) but the Buddha refused to define the experience one way or the other when questioned. (This led to the doctrine of the “unfathomables” in Buddhism.)
Positive explanations (such as those that appear in the Inner Castle) usually describe the experience as one of joy, immortality, and transcendence; describing it as a kind of “spiritual marriage” in which individuality is paradoxically both lost and retained as one unites with a higher individuality in the divine “I.”
The quest for this state is said to have driven the theologians. Augustine was said to have experienced the state “in a flash” (Confessions, VII:23-27); Thomas Aquinas, having encountered it once himself, said later that all he had written was “but straw” in comparison to it (quoted in reply to Reginald of Piperno, when asked to resume writing the Summa Theologica in 1273).
This state is what is described in all the great myths of humanity: it is the Pearl of Great Price, the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone. The descriptions of this state suggest its surpassing anything else achievable in the human condition (Mt 13), making wealth, sexual fulfillment, and fame seem like dross in comparison. This state is usually attained in brief glimpses during illumination - then later established in a stabilized form in the stage of divinization.
The Dark Night of the Soul
While we have described each of the mystic’s stages in a linear way, in practice these overlap with one another. Some mystics may have a religious experience early on, during the awakening stage; while others may go through the purgation stage to the higher spiritual life without any of the extraordinary experiences associated with illumination.
The spiritual crisis - which we have referred to in “purgation” - often persists throughout the entire spiritual life, and, indeed, may be the primary source of the individual’s whole development. This crisis may occasionally subside, letting the mystic bathe for a time in the illuminated rays of the sun; before re-emerging, causing the mystic to descend again into the long process of difficult internal work.
The most acute part of the spiritual crisis - and the most mysterious for those of us down here on earth - is what the mystics refer to as the “dark night of the soul.” This stage is said to appear shortly before the stage of perfection, and represents the greatest depths of self-negation that it may be possible for the human psyche to undergo.
The “dark night of the soul” gets its name from the poem of the same name by John of the Cross, who in the work attempted to describe this spiritual transformation. Later versions of the poem also included a commentary by the mystic, which grant us some insight into the changes that accompany this stage (as well as showing us the great psychological insight of John of the Cross).
John’s poem is the following.
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
Several of the themes we have been discussing appear in this work. I will examine some of these briefly, though John of the Cross goes into much greater detail in his own commentary (which is usually published alongside the poem).
John describes the inability of the human mind to comprehend the higher states of the mystic (“on a dark night,” “without being observed”), referring to the transcendent nature of what occurs for these saintly figures. John alludes to overcoming the spiritual crisis (“my house being now at rest”), and alludes to his achievement of a state of stillness.
John refers to Jacob’s ladder (“by the secret ladder”), a metaphor of the mystics we mentioned before. John describes the state as positive (“a happy night”), suggesting its sublime and blissful properties; and alludes to a common charism (“save that which burned in my heart”), sensations of warmth felt in the heart described by mystics and portrayed in hagiography.
John is guided to the “place where he was waiting for me,” a “place where none appeared” - referring to Christ, in this case, as an embodiment of the divine. The place described seems to be a reference to the “loss of I-hood” we mentioned earlier.
John leans toward negative language (the repetition of “night”) in attempting to communicate the experience, but concludes with a positive description (“night that joined beloved with lover, lover transformed in the beloved”). John uses the metaphor of the “spiritual marriage” in describing the mystic’s supreme state: “I-hood” is not lost in annihilation, rather it is transformed in a joyful union with the divine.
The power of this state - its surpassing anything else available for mortals - is alluded to in John’s conclusion (“I remained, lost in oblivion”; “all ceased and I abandoned myself”; and “leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies”).
For us mortals this is one of the most incomprehensible states, and constitutes the boldest claim of mysticism. As we mentioned previously, Christian mystics claim that “God became man that man might become god.” We also encountered this premise elsewhere, such as in the Trials of Herakles, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the tale of Osiris. The claim is that a man can join the ranks of the gods, or can achieve a state of unity with the divine. But what is this state? And how can those of us on earth understand it?
Here we should cite the author R. M. Bucke, who in the early 20th century attempted to produce a survey of this phenomenon. In Bucke’s history, the book Cosmic Consciousness, he attempted to compile a list of individuals that he speculated had achieved the “divinized” state.
The individuals who made it on this list would be familiar to us, as they are the prophets, mystics, and great artists of human history. Bucke proposed Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Socrates, Dante, Paul, and Walt Whitman as all individuals he thought had achieved (or partly achieved) the supreme spiritual state.
While Bucke remained open over who did or did not best fit his schema, he insisted that all these individuals had at least glimpsed the supreme state, and the results of this were visible in their actions and works.
Bucke dedicated himself to this study after his own religious experience, which we will recount below.
All at once, without warning of any kind, [Bucke] found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire - some sudden conflagration … The next instant he knew that the light was within himself.
Directly after there came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of Brahmic Splendor which ever since lightened his life. Upon his heart fell one drop of the Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of Heaven. (Cosmic Consciousness, iv)
Bucke’s experience, something we have alluded to above in our discussion of illumination, is frequent in the mystics. The thesis of the “divinized” individual would be that they have developed a more-or-less permanent establishment of such a state following a period of work over many years.
Bucke argued that each of the individuals who attained the divinized state (he used the expression, “those with the cosmic sense”) manifested a group of common characteristics.
a. The subjective light.
b. The moral elevation.
c. The intellectual illumination.
d. The sense of immortality.
e. The loss of the fear of death.
f. The loss of the sense of sin.
g. The suddenness, instantaneousness, of the awakening.
h. The previous character of the man - intellectual, moral, and physical.
i. The age of illumination.
j. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to the person.
k. The transfiguration of the subject of the change as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present. (Cosmic Consciousness, 79)
Bucke explains that each of these individuals later went on to great accomplishment, often by founding religions, by reforming religions, or by achieving extraordinary feats in the arts or literature. Indeed, it seems a reasonable thesis that a “divine sense” is what led to the achievements of these individuals.
Since the beginning of the human race, some have followed a noble path to a hidden city. In the city is liberation. (The Book of Shiva)
All the evidence of our study points to this: in the human condition there exists a hidden path to immortality and liberation, which has been followed across time by saints and mystics. This path is the origin of religion and the end of religion; and all the other expressions of religion (in social, political, or other domains) are ultimately digressions from this central quest.
The mystic, following their own way, again and again throughout history rediscovers and retreads this path; follows the great and noble quest from the material to the spiritual, from the emanations back to the source.