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Mysticism is a rich tradition with many facets that was initially connected to several religions before becoming an autonomous traditional element of the most elevated and heavenly human experience. Due to the fact that mysticism's characteristics and principles are inconsistently different from one another and occasionally similar, as well as the fact that it is indescribably in nature, mysticism continues to be ambiguous and indefinable. The tradition is largely associated with religions and religious beliefs, but it dissociates with religious beliefs and becomes an independent entity, as its experience and occurrence remains unascertainable to a large extent. Mystical experiences have been described in many religions in different ways, interpreted in thousand ways, making the tradition difficult to be nailed. Religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, all have an intersection with mysticism, in that their only similarity is the rituals performed to seek a mystical experience. Despite its similarity to hypnotism, it must never be mistaken as such, as it targets a state higher than the most achievable and perceptible.
This essay argues that mysticism, although popularly recognised as an off-shoot of religion, is independent of religious beliefs, and has in mind for the seeker, a state that is imperceptible by any amount of austerities and religious rituals. Mysticism lays down the foundation for experiencing the oneness of all reality and existence, so as to perceive the infinite.
Mysticism and mystical experiences
Anthropological studies, involving human culture and ways of the lives of past and present societies, fail to deliver a concise and generalized theory of mysticism. Even when religion has no definitive general theory, seeking to fix mysticism to a singular form of description is a far cry. What is possible is to ascertain the rise of mysticism from religions and religious beliefs, and lay out its eventual elevation and separation to an independent form of tradition, followed with rigour by its seekers.
Mysticism, as described by Peter Moore, is “anything nebulous, esoteric, occult, or supernatural”. He further notes that the definition of mysticism has changed over time, and regards it as “problematic but indispensable”. Mysticism, said Moore, has Christian overtones, and owing to its lack of thoughtful and meaningful explanation, even in other cultures, has made it inadequate of a worthy description, rendering it irrelevant. Steven Katz has a different definition of mysticism, he says “mysticism is the quest for direct experience of God, Being, or Ultimate Reality, however these are understood, that is, theistically or non-theistically. Derived from a Greek meaning, mysticism identifies with the act “I conceal”. This particular explanation seems ambiguous as it attempts to conceal what is to be known, hence the word mysticism becomes more ambiguous and unworthy of much clarity. However, further exploration of the word in its Greek language results into the derivation “induct” and “initiate”, which asserts to make a revelation about an unknown state that has never been experienced. A mystic, therefore, would seek to experience something which is literally imperceptible, but is ideally possible only in one’s thinking. This makes mysticism more of a concealed tradition, difficult of a general description and of laying out its principle characteristics.
Deriving from the theories of Neo-Platonism, mysticism resembles a state where the mystic unifies with God or the Divine or the Absolute. This particular theory identifies the union of the mystic and the origin of all that exists. This union is ideally the foundation on which mysticism prevails strong and continues to surprise the opponents and seekers, for the union with the Absolute when achieved or experienced must always remain indescribable. Because there exists no power in any language to describe or elaborate the union of the mystic with God, mysticism remains a mystery, even to the master mystics. As per mysticism, such a union can always be felt and internalised, but never described or transferred. This entails the condition that for one to seek such a mystic experience, one must immerse oneself into the oneness of the self and the Absolute. It could also decipher as a state where one strives to lose oneself into the Absolute, never to return back to the consciousness of earthly beings. William James, a renowned scholar having translated ancient Indian scriptures, propounded that “in mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness”. This elaborates and demystifies the condition in which a mystic operates, and clarifies the object of his exertion. This union or the state of oneness resembles the abstraction of the mystic, for it only becomes one when there is absence of all kind of dualism. Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta of Hinduism comes to the forefront of all that is non-dual because Vedanta thrives on non-dualism after negating all forms of dualism. As per non-dualism of Vedanta, all existence is one single reality and everything is subsumed in the Absolute, which also happens to contain all existence. Hence, when the mystic, living in a dualistic consciousness, supported by materialistic ideals, strives to negate all forms of visual existence, comes to realise the oneness of all existence. The mystic, as per Vedanta, also comes to a conclusion that everything is the Absolute and nothing is dissimilar from it. This union is what the mystics call as indescribable, only to be felt and internalized.
Mystics experience unrestricted bliss in their self-musings, which is both transcendental and imperceptible. The mystic transcends all forms of consciousness, wherein all senses are conquered, to reach the utmost heights of divine ecstasy. This transcendence is popular in many religion, although it had its origins in the ancient scripture of Hinduism, primarily the Vedas and the Upanishads. These scriptures describe the state of the mystic, who remains unsullied in his disposition, even while discharging his duties, because his mental faculties are all absorbed in the Absolute divine and the body functions without a motive. Such a state is also called as a living liberate state.
Mysticism in Christianity
Early Christianity contained the three aspects of worship, namely the biblical, contemplative, and liturgical. These three aspects later combined into a single worship factor which was contemplative and thought based than ritual based. This aspect or dimension of worship became a mystic way of worshipping God in Christianity. Here too, the religion and the religious leaders expounded on the theory of the existence of the Absolute and the striving to achieve one. The abstract interpretation of the bible made way for the hardening of the belief in mysticism, which later gave way to a deeper meaning of life and its purpose, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology. Since religious practice was becoming contextually defined, dominantly influenced by the ways and comfort of practicing, was rationalised through orthodox practicing, and considering the material necessity for worshipping God, mysticism broke its earlier unambiguity and became a force of reckoning. Mysticism demanded intellectual might, and this attracted more practitioners. Christianity, thus, has a mystical experience, implicitly enacted and lived by the mystics, who attempts to reach the fundamental foundations of metaphysical inquiries of humanity’s existence.
Mysticism in Shamanism
Shamanism, practiced by the Shamans, is a state where a variety of altered and heightened states of consciousness are reached, in which the practitioner interacts with spirits and tries to channel or redirect their energies. Widely practiced in the Asian region, especially in North and Central Asia, shamanism is popular in Siberia, where many shamans act as agents of spiritual connection. The very existence of shamans and the belief in their value, lie in their ability to spot, connect, and interact with the spirits and make arrangements for their permanent disappearance. For example, shamans in Siberia are called during weddings, where evil spirits do not disturb the newly wed, they are invited to funerals to ensure that the evil spirit departs permanently, and also to send good spirits to their rightful place of liberation. Shamans, in a way, represent mystics, as they live like nomads and are always inwardly focused. Their energies are never used for activities other than those, in which they can exhibit their knowledge and power, and mystically engage with the spirits. Their connection with spirits requires of them, if required, to depart their soul from their body and roam around places where the desired spirit dwells. This particular experience demands a mystic behaviour and their ability to connect with spirits is also spiritual and beyond sensual perception. These shamans are able to reach that state of oneness, because spirits are always imperceptible in a state of normal consciousness. Shamans travel beyond their mortal coils, and meet and interact with the spirits, so as to deliver messages of their descendants. Celestial beings, infernal beings, spirits, and dissatisfied spirits are entities with which the shaman engages to clear misconceptions about their descendants.
These beliefs are largely spiritual, and shamans draw power from the widespread trust in supernatural powers, spirits, with whom one must interact and exchange messages. Shamans are powerful agents of mortal beings who need to reach out to their ancestors and avoid evil spirits from disturbing their lives. Shamans live mysteriously, practice their ordained duties, and have been fulfilling many desires of irrational types. One would never believe that an interaction with a departed spirit is possible, but shamans make it possible with their mysterious powers and charms.
Mysticism in Hinduism
Hinduism has many mentions of mystics, of which yoga meditation and Advaita Vedanta are the first. A mystic, in Hinduism, is also called as the yogi who has transcended his senses and become one with the Absolute. A mystic yogi, as per Hinduism, strives to outgrow the natural instincts and seek what has never been sought before, the Absolute. Since the primary belief that everything is one single existence or the Absolute, a yogi immerses in the thought of the Absolute and forgets oneself to it. The seeker is called a mystic, owing to the difficulty in describing the feeling of the experience when one outgrows one’s senses and reaches the Absolute. Contemplating on the oneness of all existence is the primary object of the mystic, in that the mystic finds himself as containing the universe, or perceiving no difference between him and the universe. This experience is abstract in description and feeling, and hence linguistically indescribable.
Hinduism is full of rituals, of which sacrifices constitute a major portion. A mystic defies all such rituals and focuses on the spiritual aspect of his existence, and so only sits silent in his yoga meditation. A Hindu mystic understands that his finite soul is ever connected and identical with the universal soul, the Absolute, and on perceiving the oneness of these two, he comes to realize the single identity of the one universal soul that also resides in him. The mystic immerses in such practices to seek liberation, which makes him elevated from the consciousness of sentient beings. Defying the popular belief of his becoming insentient, the mystic rather becomes known to the eternal bliss that comes along with his perceiving the Absolute. A mystic is always revered for his intellectual might, as he is seen to have triumphed all obvious inadequacies and inabilities of sentient beings. Nullifying all problems in the simplest way possible is a mark of a successful mystic, who has achieved the heightened state of consciousness, only available to celestial Gods and renowned yogis.
Mysticism in Buddhism
Buddhism, in its pure essence, is considered to be a mystical religion because of its prime belief that life’s only worth is in seeking liberation from the cycle of birth and death and attain liberation. Moreover, mysticism is attached to Buddhism, for its primary ritual of meditating on the Absolute and aiming to reach the purest form of life. Meditation usually involves the object of the abstract, which is ever changing and varied in its subjective sense. Hence, mysticism associates quite well with the Buddhists who are ever subjected to inward attention and to reject the visible. Self-restraint, meditation, and moral righteousness are underlying principles of practicing meditation, which enables one to achieve the Absolute condition of one’s existence, after having achieved which, one is called a mystic. A mystic is bereft of any qualities, attributes, because he remains detached to all such, and repairs to his internal delight on having tasted the Absolute. Of all the sub-sects of Buddhism, Zen meditation and Taoism resembles more clearly, their attachment and similarity to mysticism. Zen mode of living is the superiorly advanced process of shunning the past and the future and concentrating all energies in the present. The Zen mode rejects all exertion of thought and action, and enables the seeker to just be, and extract bliss of the mystic presence of one’s unsullied existence. Like all other religions, here too, the mystic is on his own, striving to achieve what is unachievable by many, and seeks to transcend all forms of existence. This establishes some form of foundational similarity among mystics originating of different religions, and combining to project a tradition that is independent of all influential religions and religious beliefs.
Mysticism in Islam
Sufism in Islam is highly considered close to attribute traits, popularly seen in mysticism. Similar to other religions, Sufis also have a staunch requirement of meditating on God, rejecting the visible from sight, and striving only for God. Practicing Sufism requires one to ponder on the character traits of God, resemble the qualities of God, and try and imitate the same in practice, thereby developing a desire to reach God or the imperceptible condition of the Absolute. Through intense meditation, a Sufi is to cleanse his heart of all impurities, make extinct his individual existence or the knowledge thereof, commune with God, become one with God, and experience heightened states of spiritual ecstasy. The feeling of experiencing bliss establishes the base of Sufism and its practice. The object of Sufism is communion with God, achieved only by rejecting and renouncing all visible objects of sense gratification. Thus, alike other religious beliefs, Islam too claims to unite with the Absolute, where the mystic enjoys unrestricted bliss.
Such a practice of seeking that which is beyond rituals, sacrifices, and religious beliefs, strengthens the inclination that the final destination of an individual is the Absolute, which is begotten by austere devotion to God by immersing oneself in God.
Mysticism in Judaism
Judaism has two primary kinds of mysticism, the kabbalah and Merkabah mysticism. Merkabah mysticism precedes the kabbalah mysticism, it established a platform for the kabbalah mysticism. Kabbalah mysticism is a set of esoteric teachings, highlighting the relationship between the finite or mortal self and the unchanging and mysterious entity which has no end in itself. This again highlights the esotericism of the abstract and its union with the definite existence. The Jewish mystic is thus absorbed in the energy that strives to seek union with the Absolute or the endless being. Whatever the union, the description of this union is again mysterious, and hence ambiguous in nature. Since there exists no clear and definitive description of the nature of this union, it remains indescribable, but only tiny precepts could be ascertained by understanding its intent and the process.
Commonality of mysticism in different religions
The description of mysticism and its character traits described above, disseminates the primary fundamentals, under which mysticism is practiced. Christianity contains an elemental belief that there is a possibility of uniting the infinite with the finite, contemplation of which formulates a mystic experience, ineffable by nature. The striving of the Christian mystic is to seek communion with God, the Absolute, and this is possible when the material aspects of an individual’s existence are renounced.
Similarly, the Hindu mystic seeks to unify himself with the Absolute, knowing the identical nature of his finite soul and the infinite universal soul that contains all. The effort of the mystic again justifies renouncing the objective to seek the subjective Absolute. Even so in Shamanism, although the shaman is entrusted to interact and engage with good and evil spirits, it requires an exertion that is beyond material inclination. The shaman too, lives aloof from all material existence, makes effort to seek what is beyond his senses, and contributes to supernatural experiences, usually not attainable by normal exertions. The shaman connects with the supernatural spirits, and goes into a realm that is consciously not perceptible by non-shamans. Likewise, the Sufis of Islam also strive to seek a union with the Absolute, and so does the Jewish mystics. The Sufis make all effort of renouncing the material and the objective to seek the subjective Absolute, and the Jews contemplate on the nature of the connection between the finite and the infinite.
The urge of the mystic surely comes from the rising dispassion for a worldly life, and the growing distrust between and within religions. Explaining the urge of the mystic to suddenly turn to the divine and leave the material objective world behind, displays by volume the seeker’s desire for detachment and seeking something beyond the visible existence. Mysticism has come to be known as a practice ever since mystics’ claimed of heightened consciousness, which is unachievable by living attached to a worldly life. Thus, mysticism retains a promise for future generations who develop distaste for sensual pleasures, for only then the Absolute can be attempted to be known. This informs that all mystics would have experienced such states of dispassionateness and a loss of meaning for material objects. However, such feelings must not be confused with nihilism, which is the feeling of a loss of control on all religious, moral, and social values, and which is emptiness personified. Nihilism can be termed as the opposite of the eternal bliss that the mystic experiences after perceiving the absolute. Thus, a state of meaningfulness and divine bliss is what resembles the state of a mystic on reaching the realm of the Absolute.
It is certain that all religions’ believe in the indisputable existence of the Absolute, to which one must reach after renouncing all bonds of material existence. The realm in which all religious mystics dwell is the one which is outside of immediate perception and of an unsullied nature. All mystics make strenuous efforts of reaching the zenith of their transcendence, after which there remains noting to be obtained and desired, meaning a state which is bliss in itself. Because this state is only felt and is ineffable by nature, it remains a mystery to the eyes of the non-mystic. The commonality of the realm in which all mystic dwells establishes the common principle of the Absolute among all religions. This common foundation that serves all mystics to strive for an endless union with the Absolute, renders the tradition of mysticism a unique unifier of all religions. Belief in the Absolute, striving to achieve the Absolute, and renouncing the objective materials to unite with the Absolute are underlying principles of mysticism, irrespective of the ritualistic and sacrificial differences in religions.
Why mysticism is an independent religion/tradition?
All religions have an aspect of mysticism, which relates to the defiance and shunning of all scripturally based rituals and sacrifices, to attain a permanent position in the Absolute. Hence, mysticism can be said to have transcended all religious beliefs and the predominant structure of all religious practice. This transcendence is to reach the zenith of divine knowledge, and experience the existence of God. In as much as the religions differ in their practices, their off-shoot mysticism reflects its indistinguishable nature in its practice. Whether it is the magical charms of the shaman, the biblical contemplation of the Christian mystics, the yogic meditation of the Hindu mystics, the liberation seeking meditation of the Buddhists, or Sufis’ renouncing of the objective world, or it is the Jewish mystics’ pondering on the nature of the union of the finite and the infinite, mysticism establishes itself as a singular tradition of seeking the Absolute. The striking similarity and interchangeability of religious mystics’ fundamental object of self-contemplation, has made mysticism into a religion unto itself, although inseparable from their core religions. With declining interest in religious rituals and sacrifices, mysticism holds a reliable promise for those who seek to transcend all religious constraints to finally absorb in the divine.
Ineffability is the essential mark or identification of the mystical experience, says William James. When an experience is not clear to the thinking mind, and it leaves traces of ambiguity to the wisest of thinkers, it is said to be mysterious in nature. The same ineffability of a mystical experiences makes the experiencer the mystic.
Mysticism is a tradition embedded in all historical and contemporary religions. From its practice within the bounds of religious rituals and sacrifices, it has come to become a unique calling for those who seek religious transcendence. Mysticism is the source of dispassion and apathy toward the worldly life and material objects, for only when these are renounced can come a delightful calling for the mystic. The mystical experience contains within it, all forms of abstraction, never achieved before and recorded before. This experience identifies itself with the ultimate expression of the existence of God. The mystic resolves to seek union with God, the Absolute or the Divine. At least this union remains the primary narrative for all mystics who practice mysticism. The Hindu mystic or yogi personifies the outright rejection of material objects, after which he remains striving only to seek the Absolute. The shaman plays with the spirits, and outgrows the natural discomfort of engagement with departed souls. Shaman acquires supernatural powers and works his way through charms to interact with good and evil spirits, sending them the messages of their descendants. Christian mystics contemplate on the biblical meaning and seek a deeper identification of their self and the Absolute that contains all existence. The Buddhists yearns to seek liberation from subsequent birth, which is possible by renouncing all that binds one to earthly feelings. The Sufis and the Jewish, too, exert themselves to understand the source of all existence and to unite with the Absolute. All religions have different ways of mystifying themselves through scriptural mention of rituals and sacrifices, but the ultimate object of the mystics is similar, union with the Divine. The common belief of the existence of the Absolute makes mysticism break its religious bonds, to which it is bound, and spreads commonality across all religious mysticism practices. Owing to the principles of mysticism of different religions being similar in object and their final destination, mysticism has transcended religious boundaries to establish itself as a unique tradition. Mysticism shall remain mysterious in its practice and identification, but despite its ineffability, it shall prevail as the dispeller of ignorance and the means of acquiring divine knowledge.
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