Ashok R. Kelkar



Understanding Mysticism


The concept of mysticism


THERE IS A TENDENCY TO USE the word ‘mysticism’ carelessly.  Whether the user is dismissive of mysticism as irrelevant if not illusory or awe-struck by mysticism as a sovereign answer makes no difference.  Those who are said to be insiders certainly do not help matters by saying that mysticism is not something that one could describe, still less elucidate.  So let us try and do as best as we can.


            The derivation of the word does not help too well.  The words ‘mystic’ and ‘mystery’ both happen to come from the same Greek verb ‘muein’ (to be silent), but that is no excuse for saying ‘mystical’ when one simply means ‘mysterious’.  Again, the ending ‘ism’ here does not refer to an ideology so much (as it does in ‘empiricism’ or ‘socialism’) as a human propensity (as in ‘scepticism’ or ‘heroism’).  Incidentally, this means that the word ‘mysticism’ is badly translated, for example, by a word like gūdha-vāda since mysticism is neither gūdha (mystery) nor vāda (ideological position). The word rahasya- vāda is not any better.


            To make matters worse, the word ‘mysticism’ is systematically ambiguous in that it can equally well refer either to a mode of experience or to a way of living.


            Let us first consider mysticism as a mode of experience.  To begin with, a person normally acts as if there is a more or less clear boundary between himself and the environment.  Such a boundary appears to be far from clear to an infant. A child has to work it out for himself.  Most grown-ups retain and respect this boundary most of the time.


            But, exceptionally, some people abolish the boundary some of the time.  Abolish, not just ignore. The mode of experience associated with such an occasion is mystical experience (or mysticism, for short).  (Let us call it, say, bhedavilop¢ anubhava or bhedavilopana, for short).


            There are two varieties of the mystical mode of experience.  Either this mode consists in assimilating the environment to the self.  (Let us call it say, jagadvilop¢ anubhava) or this mode onsists in assimilating the self to the environment. (Let us call it, ātmavilop¢ anubhava.) The traditional Indian terms kaivalya and nirvān**a probably refer to the first and the second variety respectively to the first and the second variety respectively.  What Romain Rolland called ‘oceanic feeling’ (with Freud endorsing) probably refers to the second mode.


            Not so exceptionally, many people on many occasions have undergone quasi-mystical experience.  (Possibly, almost everyone has undergone quasi-mystical experience at some tome or other). (Let us call such an experience prāya-bhedavilop¢ anubhava.) The traditional terms nirvikalpa samādhi and savikalpa samādhi probably refer to mystical experience and quasi-mystical experience respectively.  (The term vikalpa here presumably refers to the entertaining of even the possibility of a distinction between the self and the environment.)


            The undoubted resemblance between mystical and quasi-mystical experience extends to the presence of the two varieties in quasi-mystical experience also.  A quasi-mystical experience may consist either in partial assimilation of the environment to the self or in partial assimilation of the self to the environment.


            Some persons who have had a mystical experience begin to live from mystical experience to mystical experience.  That is, when they are not having mystical experience, they are either recalling past mystical experience or anticipating future mystical experience.  When they come to have mystical experience, they have withdrawn from ordinary living and are going to return to ordinary living.  When that happens, mysticism is now seen to be not merely a mode of experience but a way of living.  The way of living, then, associated with such experiences is mystical way of living (or mysticism, for short).  (Let us call it, say, bhedavilop¢ dharma or bhedavilopitā for short.)


            A similar observation appears to hold good for quasi-mystical experience.  There may arise a quasi-mystical way of living. (Thus, there is the mystique of the Bohemian artist or the Jazz musician.)


            Some person who have had a mystical experience come to believe that such an experience affords then a direct experience of (if not a direct contact with) some single principle of Urgrund that underlies reality (if not God). Some, but not all.  Mystical way of living is perfectly compatible with nir¢svaramata (no God) or even nāstikya (no Urgrund, no brahma).


            It will be seen that he tendency to be confused or silent about mysticism is entirely understandable.


The Fact of mysticism


There is a tendency to fight shy of mysticism as a fact of life.  And yet there appears to be no ground for doubting reports of mystical and quasi-mystical experience coming from a large number of witnesses coming from a large variety of cultures separated by geography and history that have been studied by scholars, field-workers, and laboratory workers.  Indeed mysticism as a mode of experience appears to have a biopsychic base of  some kind; and so does quasi-mystical experience.


            There is undoubtedly a certain contiguity between mystical and quasi-mystical experience.  Some instances of mystical experience may arise out of quasi-mystical experience and recalling or anticipating of mystical experience may occasionally lead to quasi-mystical experience may occasionally lead to quasi-mystical experience.  And yet there is no mistaking of one for the other.  Indeed Vedantists explicitly warn us not to mistake the quasi-mystical precursor (they call it rasāsvāda) for the real thing.

            In view of the relative rarity of mystical experience proper, it will be best to cite her examples of quasi-mystical experience, following the strategy of proceeding from the known (or at least partly known) to the wholly unknown.


Instances of partial assimilation of the environment to the self are the following.


(1)   Sexual orgasm (in which all other inputs to the consciousness tend to be blocked out) or being smitten with love (pair-bonding experience)

(2)   certain moments of artistic or intellectual creativity or of artistic performance

(3)   self-hypnosis induced by certain repetitive verbal or bodily responses

(4)   certain moments of euphoria and exultation (as with a mountaineer reaching the top)

(5)   intoxication induced by ingestion of alcoholic or other substances

(6)   certain morbid states like delirium, manic states, or onset of catalepsy

(7)   type of schizophrenia in which the patient rejects discordant parts of his personality and projects them into his conception of the environment.

(8)   the moment of falling asleep or approaching death.


Instances of partial assimilation of the self to the environment are the following:

(1)   certain moments of life’s fulfilment induced by acts or events satisfying the dominant motive (inclusive of acts of martyrdom)

(2)   certain stimulations induced by certain kinds of skyscapes, seascapes, and landscapes

(3)   certain moments of reception of art works (especially music)

(4)   self-hypnosis induced by concentrating attention on whatever is deemed to deserve the highest attention.

(5)   certain states induced through stupor from fatigue, exposure, illness, or self-mortification

(6)   certain states induced by ingestion of opium, cannabis (bhang), peyote or the like or certain psychedelic drugs

(7)   certain morbid states like torpor, depressive states, or onset of epilepsy

(8)   type of schizophrenia in which the patient introjects harmonious parts of the environment into the conception of his self.

(9)   the moment of waking up from sleep or unconsciousness.


It is interesting to note how ordinary language expressions apply to mystical and quasimystical experiences in general and to the two varieties, environment-assimilating, and self-assimilating and how they are transferred through metaphor and metonomy.  Thus, consider the uses of dhanyo’smi (I feel rich), rapture, ecstasy, bliss, mind-blowing, on a high, vision, awakening, trance, madness, being lost to the world, ranga, jagālā visarn,e (forgetting the world), svatālā visarn,e  (forgetting oneself), and so forth.


            Having offered a beachhead in the form of illustrations of quasi-mystical experience and or ordinary language expressions for mystical and quasi-mystical experience, we are now in a position to offer a preliminary characterization of mystical experience as such:

(1)         Only few people have such an experience on few occasions and for a limited duration.

(2)         That experience can be recalled after it is over.  It can be anticipated, especially by somebody who has had one earlier.

(3)         In such an experience either the self or the environment gets lost and so the very distinction between the two gets erased.

(4)         Whatever characterizes the varieties of quasimystical experience characterizes mystical experiences as well – only more fully or more intensely so.

Mystical experience is described as ineffable – rightly so, but then just as ineffable is colour or humour, as anybody can testify who has had an occasion to describe or identify it so somebody who is ‘blind’ in that respect.  But then an indirect characterization of colour or humour can usefully be offered even to the ‘blind’. Let us continue the good work then in respect of mystical experience.

(5)         The distinction between ‘I’ (the self) and ‘all this’ (the environment) eventually yields another distinction, namely, and between ‘I’ and ‘you’. This latter distinction also gets erased in an analogous manner (one begins by losing either ‘I’ or ‘you’).

(6)         One not only ‘feels’ colour or humour but, at least for the time being, believes it to be out there in the world. Likewise one believes, at least for the time being, that the distinctions I/all this or I/you do not really belong to the world.

(7)         Likewise, the distinction between what is here in sight and what is there out of sight.

(8)         Likewise, the distinction between what is now is sight and what is recalled or anticipated but out of sight.

(9)         All our senses (the five senses included) become more intense, and are liable to accompany one another is synaesthesia (tones/having/colour or colours having/smell, for example). (The ‘visions’ of various kinds, whose contents appear to be culturally conditioned, that are commonly associated with mystical experience means an invariable concomitant of are by no/mystical experience.  Indeed in many traditions they are looked upon as distractions to be warded off.)

(10)     The order accepted in understanding the environment gets loosened, tends to disappear.  Likewise the order accepted in coping with the environment.  It is as if there is no ‘natural order of things or no ‘right way of doing things’.


Mystical and quasi-mystical ways of living often crystallize into traditions and such traditions are widely attested cultural facts. Some of these traditions are closely associated with religious cults and sects:


(1)    Hinduism :  Yoga, Vedānta, bhakti (Shaiva, Vaishnava, Devī), nirgun,īyā bhakti (of Kabir, for example), Shākta vāmācāra

(2)    Buddhism (especially Mahayana) and Jainism

(3)    Judaism (Kabbala) and Islam (Sufism)

(4)    Christianity

(5)    Taoism in China

(6)    Shamanism among Ural-Altaic peoples

(7)    Peyote cult among certain native North American peoples.


Others are secular: certain strands in Neo-Platonism or European Romanticism, for example.


It is interesting to note transferences such as the recognition of certain instances of insanity or morbid states are having sacred status.


There are two varieties of the mystical way of living.  Either mystical experience is looked upon as an achievement resulting from steady pursuit, often through induced quasi-mystical experience.  Or mystical experience is looked upon as an event that ‘happens to’ a person.  Traditional paired terms like ‘works’ and ‘grace’ or like sādhanā and prasāda probably refer to this distinction.  The term sahaja in Yoga or bhakti probably refers to the latter alternative.


A striking expression of this distinction is found with the Muslim mystic Abu Yazid: “I sought for God for thirty years.  I thought it was I who desired Him, but, no, it was He who desired me.” In the first variety there is greater emphasis on how man understands reality.  In the second variety there is greater emphasis on how man copes with life and feels about it.


This distinction is independent of the one mentioned earlier between environment-assimilating and self-assimilating mysticism.  Thus, Buddhist sādhanā (the closing triad of the Eightfold path) is self-assimilating but Advaita sādhanā is environment-assimilating.  Christian mysticism of action or good works (relieving human misery, for example) is environment-assimilating but Christian mysticism of loving contemplation (like bhakti in Hinduism) is self-assimilating.  But neither activity nor contemplation is seen as the pursuit of the mystical experience.  That comes to the person through grace – the grace of God in fact.  Activity or contemplation are simply ways of living appropriate to someone who has either already attained mystical experience or fervently hopes for such experience.


It will be seen that the tendency to be uncritically dismissive or promotional about mysticism is certainly understandable, though by no means defensible.


The Worth of mysticism


Mystical or quasi-mystical experiences appear to be ‘desirable’ states of consciousness in the sense that people tend to recall or anticipate these with deep satisfaction even though a certain amount of fear or sadness may be associated with experience itself.  The reason is not far to seek.  The reason ultimately lies in certain inherent contradictions in what Stendhal called the ‘human condition’ that are stressful if not actually painful. Man has to come to terms with certain disturbingly salient facts of life.


            Man cannot wholly make sense of the world as it presents itself to him in his immediate experience.  The infant presumably begins, in William James’s phrase, with ‘a booming, buzzing confusion’. The child gradually sorts things out by setting up space-time coordinates, by separating the self and the other, by adopting abstractions and concretions, by arriving at the common sense picture of the world, what ancient Indians called the vyāvahārika sattā. And yet the booming, buzzing confusion will not wholly go away.  Our life remains a melée of perpetual and rapidly succeeding perceptions.  Things “never rest anywhere, but hurry to and fro, like nothing else but gnats at night, troublesome and unquiet; and so they go about from one subject to another”. (That is Saint Teresa, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, in her Vida). Even space and time fail.  The experience of the world proves to be intractable.


            Man cannot wholly satisfy all his varied and unlimited impulses.  The infant begins as a bundle of appetites; sometimes it is fortunate enough to have grown-ups surrounding him who are ready to satisfy them.  Eventually the child finds responsibilities and frustrations thrust upon him  The innocence is irrevocably lost.  The environment does not wholly oblige, indeed it is often hostile. Other human beings surrounding a person do not always oblige, indeed they are often competing, indifferent, or even hostile.  There is a sense of estrangement – jhālo m¢ parades¢, in the words of Tukaram.  Even his own self does not wholly come up to his expectations.  He finds himself riddled with splits if not conflicts.  The elaborate structure of morality and polity cannot relieve man’s deep sense of unfreedom and unworthiness. The world of human impulses proves to be intractable.


            The child discovers not only the self and the other.  The child also discovers other selves, and works his way to a three-way separation between I, you, and them (what will they say?).  Somewhere along the line, however, man discovers that he cannot wholly make sense of himself.  Is he anything more than a loose bundle of perceptions and impulses? Isn’t there a part of himself that presents itself as ‘the other’? Which is the ‘inner self’ and which is the ‘outer self’? And he discovers that he cannot wholly make sense of other selves either.  And his attempts to reach out to the others through communication fail - there isn’t enough of a sense of mutuality either before or after the attempt.  And, finally, the whole fabric of social arrangements fails him - it doesn’t even make sense.  A deep sense of isolation and isolation and instability overcomes man. The experience of life proves to be intractable.


            As Paulor observes an animal, man included, when faced with a serious impasse that does not permit either flight or fight responds either with mute passivity or with vocal activity that bears no relation to the resolution of the impasse (A child wail of course serves to summon ministration.) But a human response is often more complex.


            Man has to come somehow to terms with this experience of intractability of things – emptiness and disorder, unfreedom and unworthiness, being placed in a lonely crowd.  Otherwise the suffering can lead to violence: destruction or murder of suicide are always around the corner.  Man builds himself successive lines of defence.


            We have already mentioned orientation in space and time, adoption of abstractions and concretions, common sense and practical wisdom, polity and morality, language and education, individualization and socialization.  We could also mention even more elaborate arrangements like lores and ideologies, technologies and economies, organizations and institutions, the arts and philosophies, dogma and ritual, myths and magical practices.


            Mystical experience goes one better in that it offers to organize the totality of experiences and impulses in a manner that is direct, insightful, and without contextual limitation.  Indeed it thus offers a reassuring participation in the universe and offers the complete mutuality of communion not found in ordinary communication.  It thus helps overcome alienation.


            Man is grateful even for the more limited respite of quasi-mystical experiences, such as the communing between lovers.


            And yet mystical or quasi-mystical experiences are not to be taken as ‘desirable’ in the sense of being valuable or useful of comforting. (Like a ‘desirable property’ in the heart of the countryside!) The claim being made to a direct insight is a serious claim that invites argument and criticism.  The decision to trust oneself, trust the others, and trust the world is a serious decision that is open to doubt and criticism.


            No wonder that the relationship between mysticism as a way of life and orthodoxy of any kind (whether secular of religious) is an uneasy and problematic relationship.   Mysticism often bypasses intermediaries like texts, their interpreters, even prophets, and abandons conventional mores and rites.  (Incidentally, the guru in Hindu mysticism is not an intermediary so much as a catalytic agent of prasāda.)


            No wonder that the relationship between mysticism as a source of insight and science or received knowledge of any kind is at best uneasy truce.  Mystical experience certainly motivates claims to certain insights but does it validate them? If not, what could be an acceptable way of validating them or invalidating them? Since mystical experience cannot be accounted for as a presentation of external phenomena, can it be accounted for entirely as, say, body chemistry or the effect of ‘suggestibility’? If such is the case, will that be an acceptable way of invalidating it?


            No wonder that the relationship between mysticism as a mode of experience and philosophy is an acutely problematic relationship.  After all, the questions relating to mysticism that have just been raised are philòsophical questions.  But mysticism may in its turn impinge on the very style of philosophizing.  Philosophy may be undertaken in a spirit of scepticism and as a quest for consistency.  Or, alternatively, it may be undertaken in a spirit of imaginative speculation and as a quest for completeness.  Mystical experience may motivate the second alternative though not necessarily so.  Again, mysticism may motivate the very programme of philosophizing.  Philosophy as a speculum, a mirror help up to reality is closer to the mysticism of sādhanā. Philosophy as an organon, a way to live by, is closer to the mysticism of prasāda


            No wonder that the relationship between mysticism as a mode of experience and artistic creation and reception is a problematic relationship though not acutely so.  The life of art is an exercise in observant participation.  In mystical experience either observation is assimilated to participation or participation is assimilated to observation.  A creative episode or a receptive episode in the life or art can therefore be at best a prelude or a sequel to mystical experience.  In itself such an episode can be associated with a quasi-mystical experience at best – but not invariably so.  Whether or not this happens appears to depend on two things at once – on the stature of the subject (the artist or the recipient, as the case may be) or the stature of the art object (being created or being contemplated as the case may be).  One thing is certain. The association of a mystical experience with an art object as prelude or a sequel does not quarantee the high stature of the art object. Mystics have been known to have produced perfectly mediocre works of art just as mystics have been known to be naively dogmatic, unwise philosophers (no philosophers, in other words).


            At the best of times, however, mysticism sets one of the two extreme limits (to borrow the metaphor from mathematics) to religion, philosophy, art, even possibly science.  The true antithesis of mysticism, the opposite propensity of man is what Unamuno calls the tragic sense of life - the defiant acceptance of the inherent contradictions of the human condition. The two limits help all of us retain our sense of modesty and proportion.

            Mystical experience may or may not be illusory, irrelevant it certainly is not.



The primary sources for mysticism – whether literary texts of field interviews or laboratory protocols or non-literary works of art - are very many.  The secondary sources – histories, recreations, analyses, critiques – are not so many. (India is rich in the former, but rather poor in the latter.) A selection from such documents can usefully complement the argument presented here.


            I have benefited especially from a reading of the following:

F.C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an anthology, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963, revised 1970.

Bimal Krishna Matilal, Logical illumination of Indian mysticism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954 ff, volume 2, 1956, especially its quotations from and account of Taoism.

J.S. Slotkin, Social anthropology: The Science of human society and culture, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950, especially chapter 10: The Mystical world view.



This appeared in New Quest no. 95:271-6, Oct-1992. Marathi versions, successively longer, were published in Samāj Prabodhan Patrikāno. 121:183-95, Oct-Dec. 1992, Navabhārat 43:2-3:85-104, Nov.-Dec. 1993 (published 1995, and in book form Bhedvilopan: Ekākalan, wai 1995. Hindi version was published in Pārvagraha no. 114:70-89 (published Sept. 2002).