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Man has always been attracted towards the mystic, elusive aspects of the universe. There is evidence to suggest that man’s tendency to admire and worship the unknown has existed since the stone age. Some of these practices have found their way into the modern world, even though not in their original forms. The need for a higher, superhuman explanation for the universe exists even now. These sentiments probably gave rise to the ever growing membership of cults and exclusive, secret societies. They eventually came to be known as “esoteric” communities or religions. They had existed in the world for a long time as separate philosophies and distinct schools of thought before they came under a single concept.
The term esoteric traces its etymology to the Greek word ‘esoterikos’ which means ‘inner’. Esoteric spirituality is an umbrella term for all branches of philosophy and theology that make use of symbols to communicate. The knowledge of these symbols is usually limited to a particular community of culture. Additionally, the messages conveyed through the scriptures of these communities are often deeply rooted in several generations of a specific culture. Even if a foreign person was to decode the meanings of the symbols, they would not be able to understand the entirety of the message.
Esoteric religions came to be known under the term “esoteric” after they were actively rejected by people who subscribed to the modern school of thought. The modern thinkers looked at esoteric religions suspiciously. A lot of these religions came to be considered ‘occult’ and ‘superstition’. The general school of thought at the time was largely inspired by pure rationality, much like now. So, People who were in academics or aspired to have a career in academics, stayed away from anything to do with occult. As a result, much of the ongoings of esoteric religions were pushed into secrecy.
Although it doesn’t make sense to analyze religion with tools of rationality, most religions have remained open to analysis and criticism by the public. Their scriptures are accessible and the concepts are often grounded in reality or myth. However, esoteric groups are known for their highly guarded nature. It is argued that esoteric religions exist by holding themselves higher than other schools of thought. It is a primary nature of these groups that they do not seek approval of people external to their communities. They also refuse to be subject to analysis or rational treatment. Meanwhile the more mainstream, “external” religions have come under constant analysis and criticism.
It is reasonable to assume that esoteric religions came about as a response to people’s need for a higher purpose. Although science has made impressive strides in the past decades, a lot of the universe it yet to be understood and most of it seem impossible to even imagine. The primary characteristics of esoteric groups; exclusivity and secrecy are not entirely about the need for elitism. Rather, it addresses the general frustration with the advent of rationality and the growing disdain towards anything outside of rational thought. Having a belief system that is insular to the influences of rationality is often a great relief.
Historically, it could even be said that the esoteric groups were forced into secrecy. They were constantly under attack from the other more open, “external” religious groups. Most esoteric groups have faced persecution at some point in history.
Western esotericism is believed to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean countries such as ancient Egypt, Greece and Persia. During the age of globalization and modern ideas of intense rationality, the works of the Egyptian thinker Hermes, inspired many. Hermes’ works reflected a sense of higher cosmic meanings which were beyond rational thought. He contemplated about the existence of God and talked about the concepts of awakening and enlightenment as ways of salvation. The current esoteric religions borrow a lot of ideas from Hermes. However, it is unclear whether Hermes’s works founded any religions which put his ideas into practice.
Thinkers such as Antonine Faivre and Wouter Hanegraaff often consider the Western concept of esotericism different from that of oriental esotericism. Although, it is also often argued that there are no eastern equivalents of what is known as Western esotericism. Faivre’s list of characteristics of Esoteric groups include:
- The understanding that all elements in the universe have a symbolic meaning which is different from the real meaning. They are connected by some unfathomable threads of causality. This concept gave rise to the idea of astrological impacts on human lives. The idea that the alignment of cosmic elements have direct impacts on individual human lives is just one example of the esoteric concept of “correspondences”.
- Faivre observes that all esotericist, across religions and communities believe in a universal driving force. Nature itself is considered a life force and everything in it has value of life and the system itself is hierarchical.
- Esotericists believe in separate levels of the real world and the spiritual world. Believing in mediation by people and specialized rituals to get in touch with the spiritual world is a huge part of all esoteric groups.
- Knowledge as a level of spiritual attainment. Concepts such as “awakening”, “transcending” and “gnosis/enlightenment” are core concepts of most esoteric religions. Attaining knowledge is considered a level of superior being, as opposed to the rational understanding of ‘knowing’. The hierarchical levels of attainment are laid out in detail with specialized practices for each.
- The idea of a single, unifying root from which all religions emerged. Esoteric religions often believe that if we were to get to the root religion, we would come across elements of all currently existing religions there. This idea is sometimes put forwards as a pacifying factor among conflicting religious communities.
- Another feature found in a lot of esoteric religious groups, if not all, is that they adopt a person-to-person method of transmission of these ideas. Members of these groups may undergo some process that ‘initiates’ them into the community. They are then expected to subject themselves to guidance and indoctrination by a someone higher up on the hierarchical system.
Esoteric versions of some mainstream religions
Some major branches of Christianity can be called esoteric because of their nature of propagation and initiation. The catholic church is highly esoteric in its practices. Membership is highly restricted and mostly inherited. The scriptures were considered inaccessible to laymen in the early days, until proper translations were made available. The Old Testament in particular, is replete with instances of a strong sense of exclusivity and core membership. It is, however, not as secretive as some other esoteric groups and is highly institutionalized by now. The hierarchical nature of the institution is still reflective of the esoteric core of the religion.
A notable esoteric version of Christianity is Gnosticism. It denounces the Christian tradition of living by the orthodox teachings of the church. Gnosticism encourages a personal journey towards a higher entity who is different from the Jewish and Christian idea of Yahweh. Rather than focusing on the ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’, they believe in ‘enlightenment’, unlike the tenets of Christianity.
The mystic, esoteric aspect of Judaism is known as ‘Kabbalah’ or ‘Torat ha-Sod’, meaning “teaching of the secret”. Kabbalah is believed to have been from the garden of Eden, carried forward by select few, down the generations. The traditional understanding of the teaching of Jewish scriptures evokes the characteristics of esoteric practices. This involved meditation, initiation and worship. Additionally, Jewish traditions generally have a strong sense of membership and exclusivity. The members are typically initiated into the community at infancy. The initiation ceremony includes circumcision, when the member is as young as eight days old.
Martinism falls under the category of Christian mysticism with some elements of Kabbalah. It is inspired from the idea of the first man’s fall from grace and eventual return to the divine source of enlightenment. Martinism involves the concepts of a spiritual journey distinct from the material world and ideas of an inner temples. The need to access one’s inner temple is emphasized as the path towards salvation. Just like the other esoteric religious groups, Martinism also propagates its ideas through processes of initiation and learning. These activities are often held at religious centres called ‘heptads’. Martinism was founded by Martinez de Pasqualy in France and later propagated around the world by his students Louis Claude de Saint-Martin and Jean-Baptiste Willermoz.
Sufism is a mystic branch of Islam, although often rejected by other branches of Islam. The origins of Sufism was essentially in practicing Islam in a more intense, personal way by constant recitation of the Quran and actively emulating the Prophet in every day life. The esoteric aspects of Sufism mainly lie in its concepts of salvation, which includes the attainment of higher consciousness much like the other esoteric communities. As opposed to the community-oriented practices of Islam, Sufism encourages individual efforts towards a personal connection with God.
Some forms of Sufism involve attaining oneness with God through music and dance. The orthodox ideas of Islam does not approve of public celebrations involving music or dance, and this remains a matter of conflict between these groups.
Several Sufis have faced persecution from orthodox groups of Islam, in countries like India, Pakistan and most recently, Iran.