Gnostic Studies on the Web


From: (Dean Edwards)
Subject: Gnosis-Overview
Summary: This document contains a general overview of gnosis. It should be read by anyone interested in understanding the what gnosis is and what differentiates it from other forms of mystic experience.
Keywords: gnosis,mysticism,spirit,consciousness,logos,sufi,marifat
Organization: La Casa del Paese Lontano
Date: Sat, 28 May 1994 00:40:25 GMT

Archive-name: gnosis/overview
Last-modified: 18 May 1994

Gnosis Overview
This document is posted monthly to alt.religion.gnostic and to other relevant newsgroups. It is maintained by (Dean Edwards).

The following general overview of gnosis is not intended to be the last word or the definitive work on this subject. Rather it is, as its title implies, intended to provide the participant or reader with a set of guidelines that will familiarize them with the general use of the terms for gnosis. Beyond that it will seek to review the historical and contemporary trends, techniques, practices and developments of gnosis, Gnosticism, ma'rifat, irfan,jnana, mystical ecstasy and other related terms.

The Gnosis-Overview is intended to serve as a general on-line reference about gnosis in the soc.religion., talk.religion., sci. and alt. hierarchies (among others). It may not be sold or resold without permission of the author. Please send comments to (Dean Edwards).

c 1994 Dean Edwards
Gnosis comes from a Greek word meaning 'to know' in the sense of 'to be acquainted'. Gnosis in a more specific religious sense refers to the knowledge of God and the fullness of the true spiritual realms through direct personal experience. Similar terms are jnana (Sanskrit) and ma'rifat (Arabic). A gnostic is someone who has had such an experience or who has been initiated into a tradition which provides access to such personal revelations. (Please note that as a term 'jnana' should not be confused with jnana yoga, which as a system of yoga is also concerned with the study of knowledge rather than the topic of gnosis as in 'direct acquaintance or experience. The true or 'sat' jnana, while it can be discussed or written about, has its real value in direct experience.)

Gnosis is not simply a synonym for mysticism, paranormal, occult, metaphysics, esoteric or knowledge. It is a distinct category of mystical experience.beyond the physical or psychic levels of being. (Psychic experiences, such as speaking in tongues, are not considered to be an experience of gnosis.)

A gnostic religious-philosophical movement flourished during the first several centuries of the current era. During the Second Century C.E., a series of systems of gnosis emerged in Alexandria and the ancient Medeterranean world. These systems, most of which were associated with early Christianity are usually referred to by historians of religion by the term "Gnosticism". When Gnositcism is used in this document, it is with that meaning in mind. 'Gnosis' and 'gnostic' retain their broader meanings.

Gnostic practices and ideas have long been present within many, if not most, religious and spiritual traditions. What occurred in the Second Century C.E. was the emergence of gnostic systems which focused on gnosis itself as the goal around which these early (classical) Gnostics formed their own approaches to spirituality.

There would seem to have always been traditions of secret knowledge within various religious systems. What is referred to here was the emergence of systems in which gnosis itself was the principal goal and experience. In these systems it was not just another thread in a larger tradition.

The effects of the presence of Gnosticism as a systematized religious and spiritual practice were felt throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. These effects continue to be felt today. While much of the focus in gnostic studies has been with the early Christian forms of gnosis, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, pagan and other forms are also present in the historical and contemporary record. An active academic debate about the origins of Gnosticism and gnosis is a major focus for many scholars. The discussion and study of gnosis as an approach to spirituality cannot be easily tied to any single religion.

Gnosis involves direct "knowledge" and experience of the sacred, rather than relying exclusively on faith, belief or study of sacred texts. The gnostic (Arabic: 'arif) draws upon this inner experience and knowledge to describe the origin and true nature of all things.

The world is often seen as a training ground or prison for Soul as it seeks spiritual liberation, a return to its true home in the Pleroma or realms of pure spirit beyond the physical and psychic regions of matter, emotion and the mind. The true nature of Soul is as a divine spark which originally issued forth from the fountain- head of God. Gnostic traditions often teach that only through the intercession of a messanger from the pure spiritual realms can the Soul become acquainted with God. The original Greek word 'gnosis', as noted above, meant knowledge in terms of being 'acquainted with'. The gnostic in any form is a 'friend of God'.

Please note that Soul in the above paragraph refers to the spark of individualized spiritual essence that dwells within the consciousness or mind. In some systems the word 'spirit' itself is used instead of Soul. Soul then becomes interchangeable with mind. In Greek, for instance, the word 'psyche' means both mind and soul. 'Pneuma' on the other hand means spirit, wind, breath, air. The ancient Egyptians used the word Ba for mind/soul and used Sa for the spiritual essence which dwelt within the Ba. In some traditions the terms for soul and spirit often have the same meaning and are used interchangeably.

Today, new schools of gnosis such as the Ecclesia Gnostica have emerged in the West. The ancient movement still thrives in several Sufi orders of Islam, which continue to attract many new adherents. There are also strong gnostic influences in Jewish wisdom tradition, Kabbalah, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Similar patterns are found in India in the teachings of the Fifteenth Century poet Kabir and in the Sikhism.

As a field of academic study Gnosticism has risen to prominence as a result of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library materials in Egypt in 1945 and earlier discoveries of Manichaean writingss. This document is intended to serve as a foundation for a continuing serious exchange of information, questions and views about historical and contemporary gnosis, gnostics and Gnosticism.

Additional information is also available by looking up Gnosticism, Sufism and related subjects at most libraries.