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The term "Gnosticism" is a modern one, although accurate in that it is derived from the Greek gnosis, higher or spiritual or Intuitive or Divine knowledge, as opposed to episteme, which is knowledge in the more mundane sense.

Gnosis in general

Although Gnosis is usually thought of as an aspect of "religion", it in fact differs from religion or "Faith" in one extremely important respect.  With Religion, knowledge of higher things is not realised intuitively, but rather enforced as a body of knowledge - a dogma or revelation - imposed from without, e.g. Bible, Koran, Gita, etc.  In the more extreme forms of religion, the so-called "fundamentalist" tendency, the believer is expected to accept this revelation without question.

With Gnosis, one may indeed be inspired or stimulated by external teachings and revelations, but the essential knowledge comes from within.  What this means basically is that there are as many Gnostic teachings as there are Gnostics, and vice-versa.  A modern-day gnostic may be (and in fact usually is) a part of some tradition (Sufi, Kabbalistic, Tantric, Christian, etc), but he/she will always interpret that tradition in an individual way.

If one could sum up the differences between "Western" materialism, religion, and Gnosticism and also "Eastern" religion and philosophy, one could say that the "Western" position is more concerned with the "Manifest", with the creation, nature, and ultimate purpose of the cosmos and of man/woman.  This is so both in the case of exoteric or conventional religion - Judaism, ChristianityIslam, Baha'ism, and the secular religion of Marxism - and esoteric gnosis - Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Manichaeism,  IshraqismSufism, Kabbalah, Theosophy, and Anthroposophy.  In contrast the "Eastern" position is more concerned with the "Unmanifest", with the Transcendent and how to attain It.  Of course, putting things simply in this way is to be guilty of gross over-generalisation, and I would add that there are very many exceptions to the rule on both sides.

Gnosis (Gnosticism) the esoteric religion

"Gnosticism" in the academic and usual sense of the word, is a blanket term used to embrace various esoteric cosmologies and spiritual teachings which developed in the syncretic Hellenistic civilisation in the centuries immediately after Christ.  The famous external linkNag Hammadi codexes are a late (early 4th Century C.E.) and degenerate expression of this.  These uniformly described a complex unfolding of Divine Powers (called "Aeons") from the unknowable Godhead; the Cosmos as the result of a pre-creation error or crisis, and therefore evil; and the fall of the Light - the essence of the Spirit or Divine soul - into the Darkness of matter, where it remains trapped until liberated by saving knowledge (Gnosis).  In Christian Gnosticism, Jesus is described as the Divine messenger, the one who brings gnosis to man/woman.  In non-Christian Gnosticism, the messenger may be Seth (a Biblical figure), Zostrianos (a corruption of "Zoroaster" or Zarathustra, the prophet of the ancient Persian religion of  Zoroastrianism), or a totally mythological or symbolic figure.

Basically, the Gnostics followed a dualistic metaphysic.  Above and beyond the Cosmos, they said, was the transcendental Spiritual-Divine Reality, the Pleroma or "Fullness".  What distinguishes Gnosticism and other Western esoteric cosmologies from comparable Indian philosophies are their complex accounts of the nature and the unfolding of the various Divine emanations, the Aeons: literally "Eternities" or "Worlds", which in their totality constitute the transcendental Pleroma or realm of Light.  Rather than being a featureless or qualityless Absolute, as in the Eastern conception of Nirguna Brahman or Shunyata, the Pleroma was actually made up of a number of distinct spiritual entities or divinities, Aeons or "Eternities".  These Aeons - the heavenly prototypes of the higher phenomena in this world (e.g. "Word", "Life", "Man", "Church", etc) had themselves originated from an even more transcendent original principle, and it is this latter which has the same characteristics as the Absolute of Indian Monism.

Gnosticism is commonly described or dismissed as a "Christian heresy".  This is a misconception, which seems to spring from the fact that until recently (with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codexes) our knowledge of Gnosticism was derived solely from the polemical and sarcastic accounts of the early Christian heresiologists and polemicists such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Epiphanius.  These men, coming as they did from the narrow framework of conventional Christianity, were unable to understand any other form of spirituality except as a departure - a heresy (the word, incidentally, means "free thinking") - from their own One True Faith.  Granted, there were Christian Gnostics (as well as non-Gnostic Christian mystics).  But there were also non-Christian Gnostics, some of whom incorporated Christianity as just one more idea that was current at the time, while others totally ignored it.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 June 1998, last modified 6 June 2004