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Related to mysticism: Sufism, Islamic Mysticism


(mĭs`tĭsĭzəm) [Gr.,=the practice of those who are initiated into the mysteries], the practice of putting oneself into, and remaining in, direct relation with GodGod,
divinity of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as many other world religions. See also religion and articles on individual religions. Names for God

In the Old Testament various names for God are used.
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, the Absolute, or any unifying principle of life. Mysticism is inseparably linked with religion. Because of the nature of mysticism, firsthand objective studies of it are virtually impossible, and students must confine themselves to the accounts of mystics, autobiographical and biographical, or, as the mystics themselves say, they must experience for themselves. The terms mystic and mysticism are used very broadly in English, being extended to mean magic, occultism, or the esoteric.

The Nature of Mysticism

There are certain common fallacies current about mysticism: that mystics are not "practical" and that they are revolutionary; on the contrary, many of the greatest mystics have been both intensely active as well as submissive to authority of whatever sort. Nor is the "solitary thinker" necessarily, or even usually, a mystic. There is no accepted explanation of mysticism, and few psychologists have interested themselves in its practice. William JamesJames, William,
1842–1910, American philosopher, b. New York City, M.D. Harvard, 1869; son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and brother of the novelist Henry James.
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 studied the nature of mysticism but reached no conclusion that satisfied him. A significant philosophical evaluation of mysticism was made by Henri BergsonBergson, Henri
, 1859–1941, French philosopher. He became a professor at the Collège de France in 1900, devoted some time to politics, and, after World War I, took an interest in international affairs.
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There are two general tendencies in the speculation of mystics—to regard God as outside the soul, which rises to its God by successive stages, or to regard God as dwelling within the soul and to be found by delving deeper into one's own reality. The idea of transcendence, as held most firmly by mystics, is the kernel of the ancient mystical system, NeoplatonismNeoplatonism
, ancient mystical philosophy based on the doctrines of Plato. Plotinus and the Nature of Neoplatonism

Considered the last of the great pagan philosophies, it was developed by Plotinus (3d cent. A.D.).
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, and of GnosticismGnosticism
, dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a wide assortment of sects, numerous by the 2d cent. A.D.
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. Their explanation of the connection between God and humans by emanation is epoch-making in the philosophy of contemplation. Among those who think of God, or the Supreme Reality, as being within the soul are the Quakers (see Friends, Religious Society ofFriends, Religious Society of,
religious body originating in England in the middle of the 17th cent. under George Fox. The members are commonly called Quakers, originally a term of derision.
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) and the adherents of VedantaVedanta
, one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy. The term "Vedanta" has the literal meaning "the end of the Veda" and refers both to the teaching of the Upanishads, which constitute the last section of the Veda, and to the knowledge of its ultimate meaning.
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The language of mysticism is always difficult and usually symbolic. This is readily seen in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, in the book of Revelation in the New Testament, and in the writings of William Blake. Mystics, especially those of the Roman Catholic and the Islamic traditions, have made use of a terminology borrowed from ordinary human love. A conventional analysis is as follows: The soul undergoes a purification (the purgative way), which leads to a feeling of illumination and greater love of God (the illuminative way); after a period the soul may be said to enter into mystical union with God (the unitive way), which begins with the consciousness that God is present to the soul; the soul progresses through a time of quiet and an ecstatic state to a final perfect state of union with God (spiritual marriage). Late in this process there is an experience (the dark night of the soul) wherein the contemplative finds himself completely deserted by God, by hope, and, indeed, even by the power to pray; it lasts sometimes for years.

Visions, voices, ecstasies may accompany any or none of the states of contemplation before the final union. It is because of these external and nonessential manifestations that the erroneous idea has arisen that all enthusiastic and nonintellectual religious movements are necessarily mystical. The positive convictions of the mystic arise from the fact that they are based on what he or she must regard as objective reality directly perceived.

Great Mystics and Mystical Traditions

Among the principal contemplatives of Christianity from post-Apostolic times to the Reformation are Clement of AlexandriaClement of Alexandria
(Titus Flavius Clemens), d. c.215, Greek theologian. Born in Athens, he traveled widely and was converted to Christianity. He studied and taught at the catechetical school in Alexandria until the persecution of 202. Origen was his pupil there.
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, OrigenOrigen
, 185?–254?, Christian philosopher and scholar. His full name was Origines Adamantius, and he was born in Egypt, probably in Alexandria. When he was quite young, his father was martyred.
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, St. AugustineAugustine, Saint
, Lat. Aurelius Augustinus, 354–430, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church and a Doctor of the Church, bishop of Hippo (near present-day Annaba, Algeria), b. Tagaste (c.40 mi/60 km S of Hippo). Life

Augustine's mother, St.
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, the false Dionysius the AreopagiteDionysius the Areopagite, Saint
, fl. 1st cent. A.D., Athenian Christian, converted by St. Paul. Acts 17.34. Tradition has made him a martyr and the first bishop of Athens. He has been confused with St. Denis.
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, CassianCassian, John
(Johannes Cassianus), 360–435, an Eastern Christian monk and theologian who brought Eastern spirituality to the West. Cassian toured the ascetic monastic settlements of Egypt before he was driven from the East during the controversy over the theology of
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, St. Gregory IGregory I, Saint
(Saint Gregory the Great), c.540–604, pope (590–604), a Roman; successor of Pelagius II. A Doctor of the Church, he was distinguished for his spiritual and temporal leadership. His feast is celebrated on Mar. 12.
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, EriugenaEriugena or Erigena, John Scotus
[Lat. Scotus=Irish, Eriugena=born in Ireland], c.810–c.877, scholastic philosopher, born in Ireland.
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, St. Peter DamianPeter Damian, Saint
, Ital. Pietro Damiani, 1007?–1072, Italian reformer, Doctor of the Church, b. Ravenna. He became a Camaldolese monk at Fonte-Avellino (near Gubbio) and because of his rigor and asceticism was made prior.
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, St. AnselmAnselm, Saint
, 1033?–1109, prelate in Normandy and England, archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor of the Church (1720), b. Aosta, Piedmont. After a carefree youth of travel and schooling in Burgundy he became a disciple and companion of Lanfranc, the famed theologian and prior
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, St. Bernard of ClairvauxBernard of Clairvaux, Saint
, 1090?–1153, French churchman, mystic, Doctor of the Church. Born of noble family, in 1112 he entered the Cistercian abbey of Cîteaux, taking along 4 or 5 brothers and some 25 friends.
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, Hildegard of BingenHildegard of Bingen, Saint
, 1098–1179, German nun, mystic, composer, writer, and cultural figure, Doctor of the Church, known as the Sibyl of the Rhine. An aristocrat educated in a Benedictine convent, she began experiencing mystical visions as a child.
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, Joachim of FioreJoachim of Fiore
, c.1132–1202, Italian Cistercian monk. He was abbot of Corazzo, Italy, but withdrew into solitude. He left scriptural commentaries prophesying a new age.
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, Richard of Saint VictorRichard of Saint Victor,
d. 1173, Scottish monk and mystic, prior of the Abbey of St. Victor, Paris. His principal importance is in the history of mystical theology, in which he is a successor to Hugh of Saint Victor.
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, Hugh of Saint VictorHugh of Saint Victor,
1096–1141, French or German philosopher and theologian, a canon regular of the monastery of St. Victor, Paris, from c.1115. In 1133 he was made head of the monastery school, which became under him one of the principal centers of learning in medieval
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, HadewijchHadewijch
, fl. early 13th cent., Dutch mystical poet, a nun. Her works, beautiful lyrics on the love of God and a number of letters in rhyme and visions in prose, are a monument both of early Dutch literature and of Roman Catholic mysticism.
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, St. Gertrude, St. FrancisFrancis, Saint,
or Saint Francis of Assisi
, 1182?–1226, founder of the Franciscans, one of the greatest Christian saints, b. Assisi, Umbria, Italy. Early Life
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, Jacopone da TodiJacopone da Todi
, 1230?–1306, Italian religious poet, whose name was originally Jacopo Benedetti. After the sudden death of his wife, he renounced (c.1268) his career as an advocate, gave his goods to the poor, and after 10 years of penance became a Franciscan tertiary.
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, St. BonaventureBonaventure or Bonaventura, Saint
, 1221–74, Italian scholastic theologian, cardinal, Doctor of the Church, called the Seraphic Doctor, b. near Viterbo, Italy. His original name was Giovanni di Fidanza.
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, St. Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas, Saint
[Lat.,=from Aquino], 1225–74, Italian philosopher and theologian, Doctor of the Church, known as the Angelic Doctor, b. Rocca Secca (near Naples).
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, Ramon LullLull, Ramón
, or Raymond Lully,
c.1232–1316?, Catalan philosopher, b. Palma, Majorca. Of a wealthy family, he lived in ease until c.1263, when he had a religious experience and was fired with ambition to convert Muslims to Christianity.
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, DanteDante Alighieri
, 1265–1321, Italian poet, b. Florence. Dante was the author of the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest of literary classics. Life
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, EckhartEckhart, Meister
(Johannes Eckhardt), c.1260–c.1328, German mystical theologian, b. Hochheim, near Gotha. He studied and taught in the chief Dominican schools, notably at Paris, Strasbourg, and Cologne, and held a series of offices in his order.
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, TaulerTauler, Johannes
, c.1300–1361, German mystic. He was a Dominican. He met Meister Eckhart, either at Strasbourg or in Cologne, where he went to study, and he was one of Eckhart's disciples. He also knew Heinrich Suso.
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, SusoSuso, Heinrich
, c.1295–1366, German mystic, a Dominican friar, also known as Henry Suso. While studying at Cologne he came under the influence of Meister Eckhart, whose writings he defended against charges of heresy.
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, RuysbroeckRuysbroeck, John,
Dutch Jan van Ruusbroec , 1293–1381, Roman Catholic mystic, b. Brabant (now in Belgium and the Netherlands). He was an Augustinian canon. In middle age he retired to a hermitage at Groenendael (near Brussels), where he was prior of a small
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, GrooteGroote, Gerard or Geert
, 1340–84, Dutch Roman Catholic reformer. He studied at Paris and elsewhere and because of his learning in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, and medicine, he was appointed professor at
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, Thomas à KempisThomas à Kempis
, b. 1379 or 1380, d. 1471, German monk, traditional author of The Imitation of Christ, b. Kempen, Germany. He was schooled at Deventer, in the Netherlands, the center of the Brothers of the Common Life founded by Gerard Groote.
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, Nicholas of CusaNicholas of Cusa
(Nicolaus Cusanus), 1401?–1464, German humanist, scientist, statesman, and philosopher, from 1448 cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. The son of a fisherman, Nicholas was educated at Deventer, Heidelberg, Padua, Rome, and Cologne.
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, Rolle of HampoleRolle of Hampole, Richard
, c.1300–c.1349, English religious writer, a Yorkshire hermit. He wrote mainly in Latin, but his English works are important for the history of the language.
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, Walter HiltonHilton, Walter,
d. 1396, English religious writer, an Austin canon of Thurgarton, Nottinghamshire. His spiritual treatise The Scale of Perfection (ed. by Evelyn Underhill, 1923) is a general manual for holy living.
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, Juliana of NorwichJuliana of Norwich
, d. c.1443, English religious writer, an anchoress, or hermit, of Norwich called Mother (or Dame) Juliana or Julian. Her work, completed c.1393, Revelations of Divine Love, is an expression of mystical fervor in the form of 16 visions of Jesus.
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, Margery KempeKempe, Margery
, d. 1438 or afterward, English religious writer, b. King's Lynn. She was the wife of a prominent citizen and the mother of 14 children. Her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe (complete ed. 1940; ed.
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, St. Bridget of SwedenBridget of Sweden, Saint,
c.1300–1373, Swedish nun, one of the great saints of Scandinavia. She was a noblewoman at court and the mother of eight children. After her husband's death she founded (1346) the Order of the Most Holy Savior (the Brigettines).
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, St. Catherine of SienaCatherine of Siena, Saint
, 1347–80, Italian mystic and diplomat, a member of the third order of the Dominicans, Doctor of the Church. The daughter of Giacomo Benincasa, a Sienese dyer, Catherine from early childhood had mystic visions and practiced austerities; she also
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, GersonGerson, John
(Jean Charlier de Gerson) , 1363–1429, French ecclesiastical statesman and writer. He studied (1377–94) under Pierre d'Ailly at the Univ. of Paris, where he took his doctorate in theology and succeeded Ailly as chancellor (1395).
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, St. Bernardine of SienaBernardine of Siena, Saint
, 1380–1444, Italian preacher. He was a Franciscan of the Observant congregation and one of the most effective and most widely known preachers of his day. His popular, lively sermons still make good reading.
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, and St. Joan of ArcJoan of Arc,
Fr. Jeanne D'Arc (zhän därk), 1412?–31, French saint and national heroine, called the Maid of Orléans; daughter of a farmer of Domrémy on the border of Champagne and Lorraine.
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. The Catholic tradition was continued by St. Ignatius of LoyolaIgnatius of Loyola, Saint
, 1491–1556, Spanish churchman, founder of the Jesuits (see Jesus, Society of), b. Loyola Castle near Azpeitia, Gipuzkoa, Spain. Early Life and Ordination
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, St. TheresaTheresa or Teresa, Saint
(Theresa of Ávila) , 1515–82, Spanish Carmelite nun, Doctor of the Church, one of the principal saints of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the greatest mystics, and a leading
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 of Ávila, St. John of the CrossJohn of the Cross, Saint,
Span. Juan de la Cruz, 1542–91, Spanish mystic and poet, Doctor of the Church. His name was originally Juan de Yepes. He was a founder of the Discalced Carmelites and a close friend of St.
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, St. Francis de SalesFrancis de Sales, Saint,
1567–1622, French Roman Catholic preacher, Doctor of the Church, and key figure in the Counter Reformation in France. He was a member of an aristocratic family of Savoy and was trained for the law, but he entered (1593) the priesthood against his
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, and St. TheresaTheresa or Thérèse, Saint
(Theresa of Lisieux), 1873–97, French Carmelite nun, one of the most widely loved saints of the Roman Catholic Church, b. Alençon.
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 of Lisieux. Orders that have given their name to types of mysticism are CarmelitesCarmelites
, Roman Catholic order of mendicant friars. Originally a group of hermits, apparently European, living on Mt. Carmel in Palestine, their supervision was undertaken (c.1150) by St. Berthold. In 1238 they moved to Cyprus, and thence to Western Europe. St. Simon Stock (d.
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, CarthusiansCarthusians
, small order of monks of the Roman Catholic Church [Lat. abbr.,=O. Cart.]. It was established by St. Bruno at La Grande Chartreuse (see Chartreuse, Grande) in France in 1084.
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, and CisterciansCistercians
, monks of a Roman Catholic religious order founded (1098) by St. Robert, abbot of Molesme, in Cîteaux [Cistercium], Côte-d'Or dept., France. They reacted against Cluniac departures from the Rule of St. Benedict.
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Among great Protestant mystics are Jakob BoehmeBoehme or Böhme, Jakob
, 1575–1624, German religious mystic, a cobbler of Görlitz, in England also called Behmen. He was a student of the Bible and was influenced by Paracelsus.
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 and George FoxFox, George,
1624–91, English religious leader, founder of the Society of Friends, b. Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. As a boy he was apprenticed to a shoemaker and wool dealer.
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, founder of Quakerism, the foremost Protestant mystical movement. In the 17th and 18th cent. much literature of the contemplative life was written by the metaphysical poetsmetaphysical poets,
name given to a group of English lyric poets of the 17th cent. The term was first used by Samuel Johnson (1744). The hallmark of their poetry is the metaphysical conceit (a figure of speech that employs unusual and paradoxical images), a reliance on
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 and by Henry MoreMore, Henry,
1614–87, English philosopher, one of the foremost representatives of the school of Cambridge Platonists. His writings emphasized the mystical and theosophic phases of that philosophy, and as he grew older mysticism dominated his writings.
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, William LawLaw, William,
1686–1761, English clergyman, noted for his controversial, devotional, and mystical writings. One of the nonjurors, Law was deprived of his fellowship in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and lost all chances for advancement in the church.
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, and others. Extremes in post-Reformation mysticism are seen in Jansenism (see under Jansen, CornelisJansen, Cornelis
, 1585–1638, Dutch Roman Catholic theologian. He studied at the Univ. of Louvain and became imbued with the idea of reforming Christian life along the lines of a return to St. Augustine.
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) and in quietismquietism,
a heretical form of religious mysticism founded by Miguel de Molinos, a 17th-century Spanish priest. Molinism, or quietism, developed within the Roman Catholic Church in Spain and spread especially to France, where its most influential exponent was Madame Guyon.
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; and Emanuel SwedenborgSwedenborg, Emanuel
, 1688–1772, Swedish scientist, religious teacher, and mystic. His religious system, sometimes called Swedenborgianism, is largely incorporated in the Church of the New Jerusalem, founded some years after his death.
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 may be regarded as a Protestant mystic. Also included in the mystic tradition were the Hermetic philosophers and the Alchemists.

In Judaism the mystical tradition represented by the kabbalahkabbalah
or cabala
[Heb.,=reception], esoteric system of interpretation of the Scriptures based upon a tradition claimed to have been handed down orally from Abraham.
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 was continued in the modern HasidismHasidism
or Chassidism
[Heb.,=the pious], Jewish religious movement founded in Poland in the 18th cent. by Baal-Shem-Tov. Its name derives from Hasidim. Hasidism, which stressed the mercy of God and encouraged joyous religious expression through music and dance, spread
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. For Islamic mysticism, see SufismSufism
, an umbrella term for the ascetic and mystical movements within Islam. While Sufism is said to have incorporated elements of Christian monasticism, gnosticism, and Indian mysticism, its origins are traced to forms of devotion and groups of penitents (zuhhad
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; al-GhazaliGhazali, al-
, 1058–1111, Islamic theologian, philosopher, and mystic. He was born at Tus in Khorasan, of Persian origin. He is considered the greatest theologian in Islam.
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; Farid ad-Din AttarFarid ad-Din Attar
, 1142?–1220?, b. Nishapur, Persia, one of the greatest Sufi mystic poets of Islam. His masterpiece is the Mantiq ut-Tair (The Conference of the Birds), a long allegory of the soul's search for divine truth.
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; Jalal ad-Din RumiRumi, Jalal ad-Din
, 1207–73, great Islamic Persian sage and poet mystic, b. in Balkh. His father, a scholar, was invited by the Seljuk sultan of Rum to settle in Iconium (now Konya), Turkey.
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; Muin ad-Din Hasan ChishtiChishti, Muin ad-Din Hasan
, 1142–1236, Indian Muslim saint, b. Sistan, Persia. He founded a Sufi mystic order responsible for spreading Islamic teachings in India.
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; HafizHafiz
[Arab.,=one who has memorized the Qur'an], 1319–1389?, Persian lyric poet, b. Shiraz. His original name was Shams al-Din Muhammad. He acquired the surname from having memorized the Qur'an at an early age.
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; JamiJami
, 1414–92, Persian poet, b. Jam, near Herat. His full name was Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami. His poetic influence was widespread. Nearly 100 works are attributed to him, of which some 40 are considered authentic.
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; SadiSadi
or Saadi
, Persian poet, 1184–1291. b. Shiraz. Orphaned at an early age, Sadi studied in Baghdad, where he met Suhrawardi, a major Sufi figure. Having to flee Baghdad because of the Mongol threat, he went on a long journey that took him to central Asia and
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. For Hindu mysticism, see VedantaVedanta
, one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy. The term "Vedanta" has the literal meaning "the end of the Veda" and refers both to the teaching of the Upanishads, which constitute the last section of the Veda, and to the knowledge of its ultimate meaning.
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; yogayoga
[Skt.,=union], general term for spiritual disciplines in Hinduism, Buddhism, and throughout S Asia that are directed toward attaining higher consciousness and liberation from ignorance, suffering, and rebirth.
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; Aurobindo GhoseGhose, Aurobindo
, 1872–1950, Indian nationalist leader and mystic philosopher. Born in Bengal, he was sent to England and lived there for 14 years, completing his education at Cambridge. Returning to India in 1893, he plunged into the study of Indian languages and culture.
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; Chinmoy GhoseGhose, Chinmoy
, 1931–, Indian mystic and poet. Orphaned at the age of 12, he went to live at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in S India, where he stayed for the next 20 years, practicing spiritual disciplines.
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; Dayananda SaraswatiSaraswati, Dayananda
, 1824–83, Indian religious reformer, founder of the Arya Samaj movement. He was a Brahman from Gujarat who became the major spokesman for the 19th-century Hindu revival that placed exclusive authority in the Vedas.
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; RamakrishnaRamakrishna
or Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa
, 1836–86, Hindu mystic. He was born of a poor Brahman family in Bengal, and his given name was Gadadhar Chatterjee.
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; VivekanandaVivekananda
, 1863–1902, Hindu mystic, major exponent of Vedanta philosophy. He was born of a well-to-do family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and his given name was Narendra Nath Datta.
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; YoganandaYogananda
(Paramahansa Yogananda) , 1893–1952, Indian mystic. He was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur, India, of a Kshatriya (warrior caste) family. Before attending Calcutta Univ.
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. For Buddhism, see Zen BuddhismZen Buddhism,
Buddhist sect of China and Japan. The name of the sect (Chin. Ch'an, Jap. Zen) derives from the Sanskrit dhyana [meditation]. In China the school early became known for making its central tenet the practice of meditation, rather than adherence
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; BuddhaBuddha
[Skt.,=the enlightened One], usual title given to the founder of Buddhism. He is also called the Tathagata [he who has come thus], Bhagavat [the Lord], and Sugata [well-gone]. He probably lived from 563 to 483 B.C.
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; MilarepaMilarepa
, 1040–1143, saint and poet of Tibetan Buddhism. He was the second patriarch of the Kargyupa sect, the first being Milarepa's guru Marpa (1012–97), who studied under Naropa, the Bengali master of Tantra, at Nalanda.
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; Daisetz SuzukiSuzuki, Daisetz Teitaro
, 1870–1966, Japanese Buddhist scholar, educated at Tokyo Univ. After studying (1897–1909) in the United States, he became a lecturer at Tokyo Univ.; he later taught at leading universities in Japan, Europe, and the United States.
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. See also TaoismTaoism
, refers both to a Chinese system of thought and to one of the four major religions of China (with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese popular religion). Philosophical Taoism

The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching,
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See R. M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (1909, repr. 1970); S. N. Dasgupta, Hindu Mysticism (1927, repr. 1959); E. A. Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics (3 vol., 1927–60); E. Underhill, Mysticism (rev. ed. 1930, repr. 1961); J. de Marquette, Introduction to Comparative Mysticism (1949); D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957, repr. 1971); W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (1960); R. C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (1960, repr. 1969); G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. 1961); D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (1961); E. O'Brien, Varieties of Mystical Experience (1964); E. C. Butler, Western Mysticism (3d ed. 1967); L. H. Bridges, American Mysticism (1970); G. Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's Religions (1976); D. R. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism: A Biography of Rama Krishna (1985).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A frame of mind and a teaching based on the idea that true reality is beyond reason and is perceived only in an intuitive, ecstatic (that is, mystical) way. As a philosophical doctrine, mysticism is a type of intuitionism and irrationalism.

(2) A religious practice whose goal is the ecstatic experience of direct “union” with the absolute; also, the totality of theological and philosophical doctrines that seek to justify, explain, and regulate this practice.

The world views on which mysticism is based differ sharply, depending on social conditions and religious practices. In orthodox theistic systems, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the absolute is a personal god, and union with him is a dialogic “communion” which requires the consent of the partner and which, therefore, cannot be mechanically attained by unilateral efforts.

“Communing” is often reinterpreted by heresies as “becoming one with.” In the tenth century the Muslim mystic al-Halladj was executed for saying, while in a state of ecstasy, “I am the Truth” (that is, “I am god”). In nontheistic mystical systems an impersonal, transcendent principle (for example, the Tao of Taoism, the Sunyata of Buddhism, and “the One” of Neoplatonism) takes the place of the personal god.

However, all mystical doctrines have certain common features. They all tend toward irrationalism, intuitionism, and deliberate paradoxicality. They express themselves not so much in the language of concepts as in the language of symbols, focusing on death, which symbolizes an experience that destroys the previous structures of consciousness. Mystics from all historical periods, all peoples, and all faiths insist in almost the same words on the complete impossibility of conveying the meaning of mysticism except in inadequate metaphors or utter silence (the “noble silence” of the Buddhists, for example). In Christianity the theology of mysticism is termed negative, or apophatic, because it describes god by means of negatives, excluding any mention of positive characteristics.

The practice of mysticism presupposes a system of psycho-physical exercises, such as dhyana and yoga in Indian mystical systems or the umnoe delanie (inward activity) of Russian Orthodox monks. Usually, these exercises involve hypnotic concentration on very simple figures (the yantra and mandala in Indian tradition and the cross in Christianity), on simple combinations of words (the mantras of Hinduism, the “Jesus prayer” in Russian Orthodoxy, and the short prayers [ejaculations] repeated thousands of times in Catholicism), or even on individual words. Optimal body positions and breath control are also recommended for meditation in some mystical systems, such as yoga and hesychasm. Techniques are extremely diverse, ranging from the frenetic dance of the dervishes to the serenity of Christian ascetics. In any case, mysticism cannot do without the psychological techniques of asceticism, or of asceticism turned inside out, as in satanism and some forms of gnosticism and tantrism, in which the ritualized violation of ethical and sacred prohibitions is supposed to create the preconditions for psychological shock and entry into a trance. Since mysticism presupposes the experiencing of unfamiliar psychological states, the novice has only to entrust himself blindly to the guidance of the “initiated.” Thus, teachers play an important role in mysticism (the guru in Hinduism, the pir in Sufism, the starets [an old monk] in hesy-chasm, and the zaddik in Hasidism).

The shamanistic, orgiastic cults of remote antiquity, the goal of which was the ecstatic elimination of the distance between man and the world of the spirits or gods, are the historical analogues and prototypes of modern mysticism. Nonetheless, mysticism proper did not originate until religious speculation approached the concept of a transcendent absolute and the development of logic made possible the conscious retreat from logic into mysticism. Therefore, mysticism flowered first in countries that had a philosophical and logical culture: India (the Vedanta), China (Taoism), and to some extent, Greece (Pythagoreanism and Platonism). Later waves of mysticism, which generally crossed national and official religious boundaries, were characteristic of periods of social crisis. The fall of the Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D. was marked by the rise of mystery cults, Neoplatonism, early Christianity, gnosticism, and Manichaeism; the end of the Middle Ages in the 13th and 14th centuries, by the spread of Sufism, cabalism, hesychasm, and the teachings of Joachim of Flora and of J. Eckhart and his followers; and the development of early capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, by the rise of circles of Jansenists, Quietists, Methodists, Pietists, Quakers, Hasidim, and flagellants. Under certain historical conditions mysticism was a form of protest against the clerical and social hierarchy. It played such a role in the world view of the plebeian sects during the Peasants’ War in Germany. Under other social conditions the paradoxes of mysticism have inspired idealistic dialectics. For example, commenting on the development of mystical ideas in classical German idealism, F. Engels referred to the German mystic J. Boehme as “the forerunner of future philosophers.” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 18, p. 574).

Confronted with the crisis of contemporary bourgeois society, many semi-intellectuals have adopted eclectic, pseudoscientific systems of mysticism unrelated to any organized religion (theosophy and anthroposophy), as well as extremely vulgarized practices of obtaining “mystical experience,” ranging from old-fashioned spiritualistic seances to the frenzies of the hippies. Mystical motifs are characteristic of many schools of contemporary idealistic philosophy and are encountered even in such rationalistic, scientistic schools as logical positivism, which is defined by L. Wittgenstein in a number of his statements as a type of apophatic mysticism analogous to the “noble silence” of the Buddhists.

Marxism-Leninism regards mysticism as a flight from the contradictions of man’s social existence and as a perverted reflection of the real world that is irreconcilable with a scientific, materialistic world view.


Engels, F. Krest’ianskaia voina v Germanii In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7.
Otto, R. West-östliche Mystik, 2nd ed. Gotha, 1929.
Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist. London, 1957.
Scholem, G. Die judische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen. Zurich, 1957.

S. S. AVERINTSEV [16–985–1; 16–987–2]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.



Mysticism has become a highly imprecise term, partially because various popular writers have come to associate it with the occult and anything “mysterious.” Originally, mysticism was a purely religious concept, referring to the experience of the direct union of the individual soul with the divine. Thus, people like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Rumi, and a host of others were mystics in this pure sense. All true mystics would make a sharp distinction between the dream state and the state of divine union. For example, the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture that deals with mystical union, distinguishes between our normal waking state, the dream state, dreamless sleep, and the “fourth” state (i.e., the state of union with the godhead). Mystics do, however, often have visions and vivid spiritual dreams related to their quest for union with the divine. Thus, while it is not incorrect to associate dreams with mysticism, the dream state and the mystical state should never be confused.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Jewish oral traditions, originating with Moses. [Judaism: Benét, 154]
Catherine of Siena, St.
experienced visions from age seven. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 59]
magical priests of Celtic religion; oak cult. [Celtic Rel.: Leach, 325; Jobes, 471]
Hudson, Dr. Wayne
believed power obtained by good deeds and silence. [Am. Lit.: The Magnificent Obsession, Magill I, 547–549]
mothers, the
keepers of the bodiless spirits of all who have lived; they supply Faust with an image of Helen of Troy. [Ger. Lit.: Faust]
letterboard reveals messages from spirits. [Am. Pop. Culture: Brewer Dictionary, 788]
Hungarian hypnotist, mesmerizes artist’s model who becomes a famous singer under his influence. [Br. Lit.: Trilby]
of Ávila, St. religious contemplation brought her spiritual ecstasy. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 318]
religious beliefs and practices from the West Indies. [Am. Cult.: Brewer Dictionary]
Buddhist sect; truth found in contemplation and self-mastery. [Buddhism: Brewer Dictionary, 1174]
Zohar, The
cabalistic reinterpretation of the Bible. [Judaism: Haydn & Fuller, 812]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a system of contemplative prayer and spirituality aimed at achieving direct intuitive experience of the divine
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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