Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Mysticism: Its Nature and Function

Dr. P. Nagaraja Rao

Professor of Philosophy, S. V. University, Tirapati

What is mysticism? It is religion in the most acute, intense, and living sense. It is an immediate awareness, a direct and intimate consciousness, of God. It is religious experience, neither theological knowledge nor metaphysical perspicacity. It is first hand knowledge, and not information derived second hand. It is not a relational type of knowledge. It is the restful and living contemplation of the Divine. It is ineffable. It is a bonafide discovery of the ground of Reality and the goal of life.

Mysticism is latent in the depths of the world’s sub-consciousness. It has developed under the shade of every great religion, sometimes outside the church and at times inside the church. It has a long and respectable intellectual ancestry in the East as well as the West. In the East all the philosophical systems are the results of the spiritual experience of the sages who propounded them. In the West, on the contrary, many philosophers have refused to pass beyond the frontiers of the mind. They look with suspicion at those systems that base their doctrines on spiritual experience. The dominance of the rational is the chief note in Western thought. In the words of Dr. Radhakrishnan, the Western tradition stands for critical intelligence and the East for creative intuition. Some thinkers, however, argue that Indian philosophers have accepted unreasoned intuition and thus mixed up philosophy and religion. Students of the Indian system of philosophy who have looked into the philosophical classics and the polemical tracts know how much of subtle reasoning is present in the systems. The logical acuteness present in the works, regales the most ardent lover of logic and baffles the inexpert.

Mysticism, in the first place, is realization. It is not mere knowing Brahman but being Brahman. It is trans-intellectual and trans-relational.  It is also self-evident. It cannot be faithfully and adequately expressed in terms of human language. Only symbols are to be employed. The Upanishad declares that mind and speech return without comprehending it. The height is unscalable. Another Upanishad compares it to lightning. Plato in the Seventh Epistle says: “There is no writing of mine on this subject, nor ever shall be. It is not capable of expression like other branches of study. If I thought these things could be adequately written down and stated to the World, what finer occupation could I have had in life than to write what would be of great service to mankind?” St. Thomas wrote till he got the vision; after the vision he refused to dip his pen in the ink. The fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing declared: “The high and the best way thither is run by desire and not by the pace of feet.” The conscious mind and intellect of man are merely the superficies of the Self. Man needs the (divyacakshus) divine vision. “For He may be loved, but not thought. By love may He be begotten and holden; but by thought never.” The Bible says, “Be still and know.” Santa Upasita”, says the Upanishad. To secure that experience, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says: “Look that nothing lives in thy working mind but a naked intent stretching” (ananyabhakti). “Smite upon the thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of Longing Love.” Boehme states that the wheels of imagination must be stopped ‘. Thought, convention, self-interest, priggishness, lust, etc., smear the windows of the senses. They drape the panes. So Blake observes: “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is–infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks or his cavern.” Dionysius the Areopagite writes: “If anyone saw God and understood what he saw, then it was not God that he saw, but something that belongs to him.” The Upanishads again and again describe the Ultimate Reality as ‘not this, not this’, ‘not this which is before you, which you worship’. The negative description is clinched in the Mandukya verse: “It is unseen by the sense organs (adrstam). It is unrelated to the things of the world (avyavaharyam.) It is incomprehensible by mind (agrahyam). It is indefinable (alakshanam). It is unthinkable (acintyam). It is indescribable (avapadesyam). At the same time, it is essentially of the nature of consciousness which constitutes the character of the Self of man (ekatmapratyayasaram). It is the negation of the world (prspancopasamam). It is the tranquil, the blissful, and the non-dual (santam, sivam, advaitam). It is the reality of the Real (satyaya satyam).” Though the ultimate category is absolutely indeterminable, it is not ultimately unrealizable.

Mysticism takes its stand on experience, not dogmas, creeds, or contingent fancies. It rejects all the forms of external authority common to denominational, dogmatic, and exclusive theologies, i. e., belief in an infallible revelation or book, or an infallible church or prophet. It shifts the centre of gravity in religion from authority to experience. This makes mysticism place religion on an objective, empirical and scientific basis. It is the bold and experimental approach to religion. This insistence on experience as the ultimate testimony makes it rational. In the eloquent words of Dr. Radhakrishnan.

“It takes its stand on verifiable truth and not correct solutions of credal puzzles. It is not opposed to science or reason. It is not contingent on any event past or future. No scientific criticism or historical discovery can refute it, as it is not dependent on any impossible miracles or unique historical revelations. Its only apologetic is the testimony of spiritual experience. It is not committed to the authenticity of any documents or truth of any stories about the beginning of the world or prophecies of its end.”

In the popular mind, mysticism is identified with and believed to consist in locutions, weepings, trances, stigma, apparitions, visions, and auditions. They are not the indispensable conditions of mysticism. They are some of the passing stages, not the core. They represent only the ‘psychical aspect’ and not the ‘spiritual side, of mysticism in the words of St. Paul.

Mysticism takes up the contemporary challenge to Religion, posed by Naturalism. Naturalism regards the methods of religion as dogmatic and not scientific. The mystic takes his stand on experience and not a mere dogma. Mysticism is based on the experimental realization A Reality.

Another enemy of spiritual religion is the dogmatic theologian. He claims exclusive, total and special disclosure of divinity to him with the result, each prophet abrogates the truths of the creeds other than his own. Each says, “Thou shalt have no other God but mine, no prophet but me.” A sharply defined and fully described anthropomorphism is inconsistent with any catholocity of outlook. It does not tolerate any rival. No other approach is approved. This leads to wars, proselytisms, conflicts, and persecution. Enthusiasm is mis-spent in rivalling one another in the art of competitive indoctrination. “It brutalizes men by its rites and shrivelling terrors of superstition” and the practical record of its misdeeds is depressing. Fundamentalism, intolerance, fanaticism, and bigotry are the results of closed theologies.

The spiritual religion of mystics avoids the pitfall of dogmatic theologies because the Transcendent Reality cannot be described in any one form completely. It is described differently by different men. The different pictures of God are the different intellectual formulations of one indescribable Reality. None of them is the exclusive picture of Reality. All are different attempts to represent the one from different perspectives. Such a view promotes fellowship of faiths. It makes for peace and makes impossible the cruelty practised in the name of religion. The God of one religion does not conflict with the God of another religion. There is no need for proselytism or persecution. Tolstoy in his Confession writes: “I read and studied these books of traditional religion and theology, and here is the feeling I have carried away from that study. If I had not been led by life to the inevitable necessity of faith; and if I had not seen that this faith formed the foundation of the life of men; if this feeling, shattered by life, had not been strengthened anew in my heart….if there were within me only the faith of which theology speaks, I, after reading these books, not only would have turned atheist, but should have become the malignant enemy of every faith, because I found in these doctrines not only nonsense, but the conscious life of men who had chosen the faith as the means for obtaining certain ends.” Elsewhere he writes, “I intended to go to God and found my way into a stinking bog.” To the theologians he cries: “Go yourselves to your father, the devil….You are not speaking of God, but of something else. The God of religion is not the God of dogmatic theology.”

Swami Vivekananda in one of his American addresses said that the Upanishads and the Gita are the only scriptures that declare that “by scripture alone we cannot attain Moksha.” .The final authority is experience. “This Self-cannot be known by the study of the Vedas, nor by intellect, nor even by much hearing the sacred scriptures.” 1

Mysticism is not, as some think, a mere way of feelings. It is not a matter of emotions or the subject of psychology. It is not the experience of people who are highly suggestible and have a disordered mind and an intemperate imagination. It is not ‘the distressing appearance of entirely sophisticated and reflective persons cudgelling themselves into an attitude of lisping childishness.” Freud described religious experience as “an illusion and as a mental comfort and rest, based on an infantile part of our nature. It is a regress, a stepping to the attitude of little children coming up against the problems of life and death.” All these lines of attack are elaborations of the criticism that mysticism is a subjective state of feeling.

Mysticism is an attempt to realize the living God in the soul of man in thought, and feeling. In the words of Goethe, “it is the scholastic of the heart, the dialectic of the feelings.”

The mystics of the world exhibit a striking unanimity in their confessions. “They form an invariable brotherhood scattered through all lands and times. Though separated by space and time, they reach hands to each other and agree in saying that God and man are separated only in outer appearance, both are indissolubly one.” Dean Inge writes that “mysticism is singularly uniform in all times and places. The communion of the soul with God has found much the same expression whether the mystic is a Neo-Platonic Philosopher like Plotinus, or a Mohammadan Sufi, or a Catholic Monk, or a Quaker. Mysticism which is the living heart of religion springs from a deeper level than the differences which divide the churches, the cultural changes which divide the ages of history.”

It is not purely subjective. It is the genuine discovery of an object and is not opposed to reason though it transcends it. It is not discontinuous with knowledge. It is the concentration of all faculties, will, intellect and feeling, upon God. It is the logic of the whole personality that is at work and not the mere reason.” “The human mind,” says Macarius, “is the throne of Godhead.” The Cambridge Platonist, Whichcote, writes to Tweckney: “I oppose not rational to the spiritual. The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” The author of the Gita asks us to take resort in the Buddhi. McTaggart writes that a mysticism which ignores the claims of understanding is doomed.

The mystic’s knowledge has none of the limitations of sense or rational knowledge. It transcends them. It is not ‘contrological’. It is called Saksatkara, Samyag-darsana, sub specie etemitatis view. Among the seven gifts of the spirit, wisdom and understanding are prominent. “Mysticism is reverent thought and not unrestrained feeling.” It is true integral knowledge. It transforms men into little Gods and makes them work hard for the establishment of the world-community. The mystics possess greater power than normal men.

Another criticism is that the mystics are an indolent lot and lazy. We can see that this is not true when we consider the great work of the active mystics, the crusaders of God. They incorporate and incarnate the values of religion in the life and the institutions of men. They build the new social order in the image of honesty, truth, and love. They are not escapists. They realize the experience and spread the light in every age. They suffer martyrdom and bear witness to their experience.

The tenets of mysticism are two: The unity of all existence. In order to know God, man must be the partaker of the Divine. ‘What we are, that we behold’, and ‘what we behold, that we are’. We are consubstantial with the uncreated ground of the deity. Plotinus said that “Every man is a double,” meaning that one side of his soul is in contact with the intelligible, the other with the sensible, world. It is in His light we see the light. Though we are made in the image of God, our likeness to God only exists potentially. God is not wholly other to man. Spinoza declared: “We feel and know that we are eternal.” Man is not an irremediably fallen creature of sin, tied down to a body of lust, with no glimmer of divinity in him. He is ‘imprisoned splendour’, in the words of Browning. The Kingdom of God is not hither or thither, it is in us. It can be realized here and now, in the mortal frame, not at some distant date after death. It is the birthright of all without any distinction. The mystics affirm the dignity and divinity of man. It is humanism par excellence. The mystics affirm the unity of God and man. They do not admit any barrier in between the two. Man does not need any intermediary between him and God. “Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to them to be.” He is closer to us than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet. St. Paul writes that ‘God hath sealed in us and has given us the earnest of the spirit in our heart.’ If God is not found in man, He is unfindable. “All things that are yonder are also here.” We need not search for His footprints in nature, when we can behold His face in ourselves.

The Ethics of Mysticism: “Love God and do what you like,” said St. Augustine. It is impossible, to love God and do bad to men. It is hypocrisy to take the name of the Lord in vain. Good life is indispensable for godly life. The mystic gives up all those activities that forbid unity. Without holiness no man can see God. “Blessed” are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” “One who has not desisted from bad conduct, whose senses are not under control, whose mind is not concentrated, whose mind is not free from anxiety, cannot attain this Self through knowledge.”

The mystics have sunny confidence in the ultimate triumph of Good. They seek not atmakalyanabut the good of society. Some think that Eastern mysticism is world-negating and not life affirming. Eastern mystics regard the world as an illusion and the only thing we can do with it is to wake up from it. They do not dominate life but try to escape from it. Theirs is a personality destroying mysticism. Some critics hold that Buddhist and Hindu ethics are not born from a feeling of compassion but from the idea of keeping undefiled by the world.

The truth is that the mystic outlook combines in fine and proper proportion, the executive and reflective aspects of life. The two centralities of religion are energy and vision. The exclusive domination of one leads to savagery and the domination of the other leads to dwelling in cloud land. The Gita paradox of ‘action in inaction’ is resolved in the personality of the mystic who combines the vision of the Yogi and the executive ability of the commissar, the bow of Arjuna and the grace of Krishna.

The mystic experience is the common path of religious light. It is the steel frame behind all types of religious structures. The skeleton is the same, the flesh covering it varies in texture and the skin above the flesh varies in colour. They express themselves in symbols. Some regard God as a personality, others as spirit. The human mind resorts to symbols to express its experience. Thomas Aquinas says that all language about God must necessarily be analogical. Professor A. N. Whitehead writes: “Mankind, it seems, has to find a symbol in order to express itself. Indeed expression itself is symbolism…..Symbolism is no mere idle fancy or corrupt degeneration; it is inherent in the very texture of human life. Language is itself symbolism.” Symbols suggest but do not express. They provide support for experience which lies beyond the power of words. Berdyaer writes in a his book Spirit and Reality: “We cannot dispense with symbolism in language, and thought, but we can do without it in the primary consciousness. In describing spiritual and mystical experience man will have recourse to spatial symbols such as height and depth, to symbols of this or another world. But in real spiritual experience these disappear, there are not symbols of height and depth, of this or another world. The primal creative act is realistic and non-symbolic; it is free from conceptual elaboration.” Religious Experience is, in the words of Bergson, “the crystalization brought about by the scientific process of cooling what mysticism had poured white hot into the soul of man. Through religion all men can get what a few privileged souls possessed in full.”

1 Kathopanishad:           Nayamatma pravacanena labhyo
Na medhaya na bahuna srutena.

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