Chapter One



Nearly two thousand years ago strong parallels between Gnostic thought and Indian thought had been recognized. When the heresiologist Hippolytus (died about 235 C.E.) wrote about his Gnostic opponents, he was quick to include Indian religious thought as a similar source of heresy. He asserted:

There is...among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from eating living creatures and all cooked food ... They say that God is Light, not like the Light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is Discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge, or gnosis, through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise. [1]

This particular passage from Hippolytus, which mentions the ideas of "God is Light" and "God is Discourse" (or Sound), as well as vegetarianism, brought to my attention the remarkable similarities between aspects of the Gnostic traditions [2] and the Sant tradition of India. This Indian religious tradition underscores several Gnostic themes, including cosmology, mystical ascent, and, in some cases, ethics.

Mysticism is an area that has provided scholars, both generalists and specialists, with significant possibilities for cross-cultural studies in the field of religious studies. [3] In this study I am comparing the mystical tradition of the Gnostics of the Greek world with the Sant tradition of India, concentrating on the "classical" precepts of each. My objective is not to reduce one religious tradition to the other, ignoring the intriguing idiosyncrasies of each. But rather I argue that by examining the Sant tradition, which offers a clearly elaborated process and technique for mystical experience, some light can be shed on the mysticism of the Gnostic tradition. While the historical origins [4] and the complex mythology of the two traditions may be distinct, for both the conception of the world, physical and spiritual, bear a great deal of resemblance's. [5]

Ninian Smart has supplied a framework for comparative studies of religious traditions that will be quite helpful for this study. Each world religion, he argues, consists of seven essential features or dimensions. As Smart states, religion is "a six (now seven) dimensional organism, typically containing doctrines, myths, ethical teachings, rituals, and social institutions, and animated by religious experiences of various kinds." [6] [Sidebar: the seventh dimension Smart has added is known as the material dimension, consisting of temples, art, religious texts, etc.] Accordingly, since all religions contain the above characteristics, a scholar can compare, for instance, the experiential aspects of one religion with that of another, and so on. Suffice it to say here that both the Gnostic traditions [7] and the Sant traditions [8] can be classified as religions.

Instead of exploring all seven dimensions, I will be comparing the doctrinal, experiential and ethical dimensions of each tradition, precisely because these aspects more clearly match up. Our examination will unfold as follows:

1) A brief description of the development of the Gnostic tradition and some of its characteristic constructs.

2) An outline of the Sant tradition, which advocates surat shabd yoga as a methodology for mystical illumination.

3) A comparative analysis of both traditions, focusing on the following aspects: doctrines (i.e., theology, cosmology, anthropology, eschatology), experiential dimension, and ethics.

4) Concluding remarks highlighting the similarities and differences of each.

This comparative work involves substantial citing from both traditions (primarily in the fourth section of the study). Since some of the writings date back nearly two thousand years, deciphering the material is not an easy task. First, sections of the, texts are missing, and, secondly, there is a difference in the writing style from today. It is important not to read into the text our own cultural biases, particularly when the writing is vague. In view of this I shall limit my study to those writings that are relatively clear and non-controversial. My main sources will be the Nag Hammadi Library [9] for the Gnostic tradition and the writings of Tulsi Sahib [10] and Shiv Dayal Singh [11] for the Sant tradition.

Methodologically, I have taken a phenomenological stance in order to better understand both traditions from the "inside." [12] In the area of mysticism, which generally entails a trans-worldly encounter, it is important to take seriously the claims of mystics, describing them at face value. All too often scholars will read into records of mystical experiences their own interpretations, depending upon their theological position. A typical example of this is when a scholar assumes that a mystic is waxing metaphorically when she or he describes spiritual encounters. I will argue, rather, that to interpret cal visions (e.g., experiences of inner light and sound, etc.) as mere symbols is reductionistic and, hence, non-phenomenological. To the mystic, whether a Gnostic from the second century or a Sant from the twentieth century, these visions are not metaphorical or speculative, but, rather, a direct experiential encounter with a higher level of being. In this study, the phenomenological approach allows for a deeper grasp of the mystical, dimension of the two religions.


1. Hippolytus, Refutation Omnium Haeresium 1.24. Elaine Pagels briefly discusses the connection between this passage and Indian philosophy in her book The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. xxi.

2. Kurt Rudolph criticizes the use the title "Gnosticism," a modem term coined in the eighteenth century for a general spiritual movement which embraced the concept of gnosis. He argues that there was no coherent religion, or "ism," and so referring to the Gnostic movement as such is incorrect. See Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. and ed. by R. Mc. Wilson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark/San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 56. Birger Pearson, however, argues that "there are definite advantages in retaining the term because ‘Gnosticism’ (or the Gnostic religion) can then be usefully distinguished from the kinds of 'gnosis'...that do not share in the radical dualism or other essential features properly reserved for 'Gnosticism!." See Birger Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), p.7. To avoid controversy, however, I will not be using "isms," since, as Gerald Larson has pointed out, "it suggests a substantive unity which is really not there." (Personal letter, October, 14, 1990). Hence in this study "Gnosticism" will be consistently referred to as "the Gnostic tradition" and its comparative counterpart "Santism" as "the Sant tradition."

3. W. T Stace identified two related types of mysticism: the introversive and the extroversive; however, both forms, he says, share common criteria. These are: 1) a noetic quality, 2) ineffability, 3) a sense of holiness, 4) a positive affect, 5) and a paradoxical aspect (that which defies logic). Stace argues that since there are universal features comparative work on mysticism is possible. See W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (New York: Macmillian, 1960).

4. Speculatively speaking, there may be a historical connection between the Gnostic tradition and the Sant tradition, possibly through Sufi mystics; yet, due to limited space, I will not be exploring this in the present study.

5. Several scholars have done comparative work on Gnostic mysticism and different forms of Indian mysticism; however, some of them have been suspect in their comparisons. For instance, J. Kennedy argues that the Basilidian Gnostic worldview containing three parts (pneumatic region, ethereal region, and aerial region) is directly related to Buddhism’s three gunas, i.e., satva (intellectual, light principle), rajas (emotional principle) and tamas (heavy, dark principle). See J. Kennedy, "Buddhist Gnosticism, the System of Basilides," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (London, 1902), 377-415. See also Edward Conze, "Buddhism and Gnosis," in Le Origini dello Gnosticismo: Colloquio di Messina 13-18 Aprile 1966 (Leiden, 1967), 665. Kennedy's reference to Buddhism and its three gunas is incorrect, however, since Buddhism, unlike the Samkyha tradition, does not accept guna theory. Scholars must be careful not to inaccurately attribute the teachings of one philosophical system to another.

6. Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984), p. 16. See also Smart's new book: Worldviews: Cross Cultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983), pp. 7-8.

7. As for the Gnostic tradition, Birger Pearson captures this point when he says: "The Gnostic Religion might be a better term, for in effect the Gnostic tradition involves a radically new worldview and symbol system, and should be defined as a religion in its own right, with clearly recognizable historical parameters." See Pearson, op. cit., p. 181.

8. The adherents of the Sant tradition vehemently deny that it is a "religion" and, I believe, this denial is possibly the result of the status of their religious leader--the fact that there is a living guru. Every initiate I have interviewed offered the same response: the Sant tradition is not a "religion." Religion to satsangis is an organization that manifests only after the guru has passed away (and no successor has been appointed), and her/his teachings become "empty dogmas in a ritualistic setting." My objective is not to argue that it is a "religion" despite adherents' prejudice against such a title, but to examine this tradition in light of what Smart says about religion. The Sant tradition, in spite of its denial of constituting a religion, seems to fulfill Smart's seven dimensions. Perhaps we are faced simply with a problem of definition. For instance, satsangis claim to be opposed to "rituals," but it is important to note here that when Smart uses the term "ritual," he is referring to a repeated activity within a religious tradition. As such, meditation or attending satsang can then be considered a ritual. See Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, pp. 6-7.

9. A few decades ago most Gnostic literature was unknown to us. Most of it was burned by the heresiologists, and some of it was buried for safekeeping. Hence, for centuries scholars were somewhat in the dark about the nature and scope of the Gnostic movement. Fortunately, in 1945 an Arab peasant discovered near a cave in Upper Egypt an ancient jar containing 49 papyrus texts of different Gnostic documents. Today, with a variety of Gnostic texts in our hands, we are better able understand this tradition.

10. Tulsi Sahib (1763-1843), popularly known as the "Sage from the South," settled in Hathras (located near Agra) and attracted a large following to the path of shabd yoga. His written works include: Ratan Sagar, Shabdavali, and Ghat Ramayana.

11. Shiv Dayal Singh (1818-1878),otherwise known as Soami Ji, was born in Agra and is believed to have come into contact with Tulsi Sahib. After fifteen plus years in meditation, Shiv Dayal Singh began to give public discourses on shabd yoga and is considered the founder of a parampara of the Sant tradition known as the Radhasoami tradition. Shiv Dayal Singh's writings were published six years after his death under the title Sar Bachan Chhand Radhasoami.

12. Husserl appears to have been one of the first philosophers to have utilized the term "phenomenology" as a discipline of study. It deals with phenomena or essences and refers to what appears. Ideally, it is a descriptive approach in which the scholar has three main aims: 1) utilize the methods of epoche (bracketing out one's prejudices) and verstehen (empathy); 2) regard religious phenomena as unique for the believers; 3) and give an unbiased description (not explanation). Overall, this methodological approach seeks to objectively understand religious phenomena and refrains from making value judgments on what is ontologically true. According to Smart, "the description of religion and its history could be said in one sense to be a scientific undertaking, for it is necessary to look at the facts dispassionately and objectively." See Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, p. 4. On the other end, Robert Wuthnow critiques phenomenology as subjective and hence unscientific. According to Wuthnow, there is no "out there meaning" that scholars in consensus could agree upon since history changes with time and place. This is similar to C. J. Bleeker's critique of phenomenology that religion is dynamic and cannot be understood in moment's of stopped action. Wuthnow argues that when phenomenologists attempt to generalize across history, essentially they are denying history and demonstrating what others called "diachronic reliability." Hence, he believes that hermeneutics and phenomenology are crippled with respect to generalizing and predicting and, therefore, fall short of a truthful, scientific description. However, I disagree that phenomenology is scarred with the above critique. It is a descriptive procedure, albeit a very useful and powerful one, for allowing outsiders an inside glimpse of the inner workings and logic behind a religious faith. In order to understand a religion, a scholar must begin at the level of the believer, what it "means" to her or him. The scholar, then, takes off the academic robes and tries, in a sense, to experience what the believers themselves experience.