Most of us are familiar with the word agnostic but are slightly unsure of Gnosticism, so let me first explain the genesis of the word. The word gnosis derives from Greek and 'means' knowledge or the act of knowing. However this knowledge is different from rational, logical knowledge -- as is obtained by reading books or listening to a guru -- and instead refers to a form of knowing obtained by experience or perception.
In this respect it bears an uncanny resemblance to the revelation or enlightenment that is experienced by Eastern mystics, which is different from the 'bookish' knowledge obtained by reading the Vedas or the Upanishads. The ascent of Kundalini in Tantra and the 'flash' of revelation that it brings to the sadhak is also an example of gnosis. Ramakrishna blessed many of his disciples by stating : Tor Chaitanya Hok - which may be translated as May You Be Aware Of, or, May You Realise (the Truth).
In the first century after the appearance of Jesus Christ in the Middle East, there existed many schools of Christian thought -- each with its own set of adherents and reference books. One such group was what we refer to today as, the Gnostics. Christianity as we know today, principally from the Catholic schools where many of us had the good fortune to be educated in, is based on the accounts of the life of Jesus Christ as written down by four individuals, namely Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. These are the books, or Gospels, that are accepted by Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, as being authentic. But at the dawn of the Christian era, in the first few hundred years after Christ, there was in existence and circulation, many more books that also described the same events.
However, in the clash of ideas between the various sects and in the competition to be recognised as the one-and-only-true-owner-of-the-legacy-of-Christ, one specific group prevailed over the others. We in India can find a parallel in the conflict between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas, though the results were not as one-sided. The brand of Christianity that was based on Gospels of Mark, Mathew, Luke & John triumphed and established itself as the dominant brand. And to safeguard its position in the market, its leaders went about -- in the true spirit of the barbarism of those times -- to destroy all evidence of the rival schools of thought. Followers of the other schools were branded as heretics and killed and their books were located (there were not too many copies around anyway!) and burnt.
With the passage of time and with the active connivance of the dominant Christian church, these alternate versions of Christianity disappeared from public memory and would have been lost, had not it been for an Egyptian farmer who found a set of rare manuscripts as late as 1945 in the village of Nag Hammadi. And our perception of Christianity has never been the same again !
The manuscripts of Nag Hammadi introduce us to the 'lost' school of Christian thought that is referred to as the Gnostic school and as we read them, and through them peep into the mind of the Gnostic leaders, I have noticed an uncanny resemblance to the thoughts and ideas of Vedanta and the Sanatan Dharma of India. In particular, there are THREE facts, which incidentally happen to be the three pillars of Gnostic thought, that stand out in their equivalence to the Hindu experience.
The Three Principal Features
A] The FIRST essential feature, perhaps the defining feature, of Gnosticism is the assertion that "direct, personal, and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings". The Hindu word for philosophy is Darshana -- the vision and Hindu saints and savants have always claimed that this vision appears to those who are ready for it. Moreover, Gnosticism is not based on a logical, rational approach to the Truth. It is not for individuals with the 'book keeper' mentality. Instead, it is for individuals who cherish the ongoing force of divine revelation.
B] The SECOND definitive feature of Gnosticism, and one which is in close congruence with Advaita Vedanta, is the concept that 'inside' man was 'something' that was uncreated. This uncreated seed, the uncreated self, the divine seed, the 'pearl', the 'spark' of knowing: consciousness, intelligence, light, is identical to the substance of GOD.
This is indeed a very loud echo of Advaita Vedanta, where we assert that the ATMAN, the spark of consciousness that lies at the 'core' of man is identical to BRAHMAN, the Universal Consciousness. The truth of this identity is hidden by the illusion of MAYA that causes one to believe, erroneously, that the Ataman is distinct from the Brahman.
Gnostics believe that a man or woman who achieves 'gnosis' or experiential knowledge of this identity, the equivalence of humankind and divinity, was truly free and liberated. The big mystery was that apparently Man was not God and yet he or she was Godly: this paradox was the Gnostic mystery and knowing the answer was their treasure.
The Advaitin is on a quest that is identical. He seeks that experience that extracts him from the illusion of Maya and makes him realise his identity with the Universal Brahman
Finally, Gnostics believe that the god who had apparently created the universe, who was the God of the orthodox or 'standard' Christianity was a lesser God. Here is another similarity to Brahma, the Creator, (or any of the 3.3 million members of the Hindu pantheon) that is far inferior to the singularity of BRAHMAN of Advaita Vedanta.
C] The THIRD important feature of Gnosticism was its emphasis on the dyad (or duality) of God consisting of a pair of male and female identities. This is a direct and head on challenge to the explicitly male nature of the 'standard' Christian god.
When we switch to Vedanta, we see an apparent contradiction, since Advaita or non-duality speaks of a Singularity without form, without shape and without attributes. But one step away from this absolute singularity is the pair of Shiva-Shakti, the Purusha-Prakriti that even Shankara, the most ardent votary of Advaita-Vedanta had acknowledged as the fountain head of creation. "Without Shakti, even Shiva is unable to move" is how he begins his most famous work, the SaundaryaLahari (also known as AnandaLahari)
This acknowledgement of the equal and complementary role of the feminine principle in the effectiveness of the male principle is a defining point of departure of Gnosticism from 'standard' Christianity and brings it very close to the Tantric paradigm. There are even references to sexuality, muted by the norms and needs of the era, and an explicit reference to Mary Magdalene as the consort and the most beloved disciple of Jesus Christ.
In fact the most famous and sacred of all Gnostic rituals, as described in the Gospel of Philip, is that of the Bridal Chamber, where the perception of God is viewed through the principle of 'duality seeking unity' and was perhaps enacted by a man and woman, the Sadhak and his Sadhika, the Bhairav and his Bhairavi, in their search for the ultimate truth. Tantrik chakra-sadhana where a man and a woman unite to experience the joy of union with the infinite is a close analogue to the Bridal Chamber.
Convergence and Divergence
These THREE principles, (1) the importance of direct realisation, without the intermediation of a priest or the Church, or even a Savior like Jesus Christ (2)the potential divinity of man and his equivalence to God and (3) the importance of the feminine as a complementary to the masculine image of the divine, show that elements of early Christian thought had on one hand (a) shows convergence towards the world view of Advaita Vedanta, and on the other hand, (b) may actual diverge awar from what came to be accepted as the world view of 'standard' Christianity.
Unfortunately for the Gnostics, the 'standard' Christianity prevailed and succeeded in pushing Gnosticism out of the public domain. However the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts shows that Truth, may be hidden, but is rarely destroyed. The triad of Semitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, may seem to be at a significant variance with the Advaita Vedanta of India but as this analysis shows, there could be a deeper congruence of all world views that will emerge with the passage of time.
Gnosticism that is presented here is based on the ideas expressed in the website located at The Nag Hammadi Library
Good Friday, 14 April 2006