Mysticism, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

3. Indian mysticism

Among the earliest recorded manifestations of mysticism are those from the Indian subcontinent. Even before the second millennium bc, the pre-Aryan civilization apparently practised a form of yoga. The polytheistic religion of the invading Aryans centred on ritual sacrifice, but gradually evolved in a mystical direction as its practitioners reflected upon the inner significance of the sacrifices, and Brahman (originally identified with the sacred power contained in the rites) came increasingly to be understood as a universal principle or power underlying all reality.

Out of this context, and over many centuries, emerged the Vedas, a fluid canon of sacred writings accepted as revelation (śruti) by orthodox Hindus; among these the Upaniṣads propose a path of mystical insight allowing liberation (mokṣa or mukti) from the vicissitudes of human existence. The Upaniṣads are concerned with the relationship between Brahman (the Supreme Soul or Absolute) and ātman (the eternal inner soul or self), a relationship summarized in the classic formulation tat tvam asi, ‘thou art that’; in other words, the eternal self, realized through meditation and asceticism, is ultimately one with the Absolute (see Brahman).

The Upaniṣads themselves, however, incorporate a variety of tendencies from the preceding traditions. The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, for example, contains an unusually strong theistic strain, and speaks of the path to union with the Supreme Self through devotion (bhakti); other Upaniṣads seem to support a strict identity between ātman and Brahman. The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, often cited in Western philosophical discussions of mystical experience, speaks of a state of consciousness beyond dreamless sleep: ‘unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, uninferable, unthinkable, and indescribable’, ‘all peace, all bliss, and nondual’, ‘this is ātman, and this has to be realized’ (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, 7).

Other movements emerging between 800 and 500 bc developed approaches to mysticism that were atheistic or agnostic in their implications. Like the Sāṅkhya philosophy associated with classical yoga, Jainism maintains the ultimate status not of a single divine monad but of an infinity of individual souls; the goal of the mystical journey is to isolate this self-monad from its immersion in materiality. Early Buddhism, by contrast, developed the doctrine of ‘no self’ (anatta) and impermanence (anicca), analysing persons as a series of transitory states and denying the existence of any underlying eternal self. According to Buddhist tradition, Prince Gautama Siddhartha (born perhaps in the latter half of the sixth century bc) left home and family to seek the cause of human suffering and the way to liberation from it. After years of harsh asceticism and searching, he discovered the Middle Path (between sensuality and excessive austerity) and, while meditating beneath a bo (or bodhi) tree, attained nirvāṇa, that is, supreme peace and enlightenment (bodhi) – hence the title ‘Buddha’ (‘Enlightened One’). The Buddha taught his disciples that by following the Noble Eightfold Path and attaining nirvāṇa, the cycle of rebirth, the illusion of selfhood, and the suffering caused by ignorance and craving can be overcome. In succeeding centuries, as it flourished and spread to other parts of Asia, Buddhism underwent extensive scholastic systematization (for example, in the dialectical method developed by Nāgārjuna in the second century) and evolved into several schools, most notably Theravāda (probably closer to the Buddha’s original doctrine and found today in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and southeast Asia) and Mahāyāna (in China, Japan and Korea).

Crucial to the development of later Indian mysticism is the Bhagavad Gītā, a famous mystical poem (in the form of a dialogue between Lord Arjuna and Krishna) which presents three paths to salvation – the way of knowledge, the way of works, and the way of devotion (bhakti) or loving adoration – and which (on some interpretations) seems to give a higher place to bhakti than to contemplative yoga. Since Krishna is a manifestation of Vishnu, the poem clearly contains a theistic element, but there are monistic strains as well.

Such diverse tendencies eventually gave rise in the medieval period to three main schools of Vedānta (the ‘end’ or systematic explanation of the Veda) (see Vedānta). Śaṅkara gave the Upanishadic formula ‘thou art that’ its most radical nondualistic (advaita) interpretation, insisting on a strict numerical identity between the soul and Brahman; though allowing for worship and devotion on the level of appearances, he believed these to be transcended in union. Against this view, the eleventh-century thinker Rāmānuja developed a position of ‘qualified nondualism’; he recognized an impersonal mysticism of undifferentiated unity, but ranked it inferior to loving communion with a personal God. Two centuries later, Madhva propounded a dualistic (dvaita) system of thought. He argued for a radical pluralism among God (īśvara), individual souls and non-intelligent substances, and maintained that it is God who decides the destinies of all finite selves.

More recently, Aurobindo Ghose has attempted to combine elements of traditional Hindu theology with an evolutionary mysticism. But perhaps the best-known modern representative of Vedāntic spirituality is Ramakrishna (1834–86), whose life and message of universalism were popularized in the West by Swami Vivekananda (1862–1902), organizer of the Ramakrishna Mission, which combined Advaita philosophy with a deep concern for social issues (see Ramakrishna Movement).

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Indian mysticism. Mysticism, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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