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Insights into Gnosis

My original definition

(original definition (italics and some paragraphs) 12 March 2000,
modified several times along with additional material, most recently 12 August 2004)

Note: the following constitutes my own informal understanding and interpretation of Gnosis.  This is a monistic, panentheistic interpretation quite at variance with (but not contradictory to) the more restricted academically accepted and dualistic version of the term.  I see it as a subset (or one of numerous possible subsets) of the more universal and mystical understanding of Gnosis presented here.

Gnosis is the Light Within.  It is the voice of the Higher Self.  It is the only true Guru, the only true Teacher.  It deals with matters that are Absolute.  There are many who follow an external guru or teaching, because they do not have the Light Awakened within them, and require to be told by another what is Absolute.  For me, there are many Realised teachers (and even more that are not so realised), whom I respect.  But respecting them does not mean slavish imitation.

Gnosis articulated is what is known as the Perennial Philosophy.  Note, I don't necessarily agree with every perspective or author mentioned or cited, but with the general sentiment.

One way in which I differ from the standard religious-based Perennialist postion is in non-harmfulness to all sentient beings, not just humans. This was taught by Buddha and Mahivira in India, by Pythagoras in the classical west, and St Francis of Assisi in the Christian world. For me, this non-anthropocentric perspecticve also implies not merely a vegetarian but a vegan lifestyle. However, while that is what my gnosis compells me to do, I am not claiming it as absolute that should be forced. If one feels that way, one will act in such a way, to walk lightly on the Earth, with the right ecological attitude, and not harm other beings; to have a right attitude to humans, animals, plants, even inanimate nature (interestingly, the Baal Shem Tov spoke of sparks in even inanimate matter that need to be "raised up"). One should be guided by the inner light, the True Light, and then one will act correctly, regardless.

For me, ahimsa, non-harmfulness, does not mean one should stand by idly and let innocents or loved ones be harmed because you don't want to harm the aggressor. To me, that is just stupid. Strength is a part of the Divine Plan as much as Empathy and Compassion. In this the Kabbalists and Hermeticists are absolutely correct, I feel (regarding the balance of Hesed and Gevurah). Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo also was critical of the non-violence advocated by Gandi as a universal solution, and I see where he is coming from. Gandhi's peaceful protest worked with the British, who are a democratic nation with a sense of justice and human rights. Martin Luther King also was able to bring about civil rights for afroamericans because, again, America is a nation based on these principles. But peaceful protest does not work against, say, the Communist Chinese, as they are a totalitarian regime who care neither for their own dissidents nor for other people (e.g. the Tibetans) they wish to repress.

One very big problem many mystical teachings have, which to me is an abberration and not part of true spirituality or genuine (as I experience it) gnosis, is their guilt trips and hang-ups over the the physical body and associated lower emotional tendencies. We see this in exoteric religions with their obsession with "sin" and guilt (Catholic Church private schools that in the past would teach girls when they shower not to look at their bodies being only one such example), many spiritual teachings (many yogis and mystics have hang-ups with asceticism, hatred of the body etc), blanket rejection of the ego, using the same attitude of "that is bad" that those exoteric religions do to the body (this is typical of a vast number of pop Gurus with little true insight), fear of the mind and of reason (leave your mind at the door (Osho Rajneesh), elements in the New Age movement, a young lady in the rebirthing movement I knew some time back (no, she wasnt my girlfriend)) etc etc.

The true approach is not denial, but transformation and transmutation. e.g. the Vajrayana teaching of changing the five poisons into five wisdoms. Also Taoist internal Alchemy, working with the flow of ch'i. And Sri Aurobindo speaks of (his) yoga as an "integral" transformation of all faculties of the being.

Yet Gnosis, perhaps, and despite its core of unity, is a profoundly individual thing, and what Gnosis is for me may not be what Gnosis is for you. But this is how I understand, interpret, and experience it.

Comments on Gnosis

Arvan Harvat

12 March 2000

Having consulted a few various sources ( books, Web resources, talks with both experts and informed enthusiasts ), there emerged a picture curiously similar to your original definition of Gnosis.  Briefly, some other points, especially regarding relation to the cosmos and the eschatological or "evolutionary" questions, can be subsumed under single differentia specifica not necessarily shared with multiplicity of orthodoxies and heterodoxies.  Just a reference to a landmark book: beautiful Happold's anthology, "Mysticism". He differs between three kinds of mysticism:

    God-centered ( all "classic" religious paths ) Nature-centered ( more "poetic" expressions ( Blake, Whitman, .., also - classical Paganism, naturalistic Taoism and many others ). Soul-centered ( in this sense, "Soul" has more similarities with "Self" ). The immortal man, Divine Self, soul spark, the deepest "I" - this is the true goal of the third way.

In this respect, the widest possible definition ( or intuitive flash of insight into the nature of Gnosis, as liberated from frequently more nuanced, but, alas, simultaneously musty and sometimes anemic academic dissections ) is: Gnosis is awakening to the deepest Self and Light within. It is the cornerstone of dramatic transmutations of consciousness achieved through theoria, death-and-resurrection initiations and spontaneous awakenings. It is pilgrimage of the self to the Self.

So, Gnosis in the widest sense is the "discovery" of inner Self as the true "I". A corollary must be added: not all meditative/contemplative disciplines can be termed as "Gnostic". Only those that affirm the reality of Reality qualify ( this adjunct dumps Advaita and Ch'an/Zen ).  The premier examples of Gnosis are Shamanism, Hermetism, Christian and Jewish Gnosticisms, Kashmir Shaivism and Siddha Yoga in general; also, some schools of Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism ( six Yogas of Naropa- here, things become fuzzier due to the Mahayana Buddhist dogma of illusory nature of the Cosmos ).  In short, Gnosis equals radical self-reliance on and/or fierce transmutational/expansionary voyage towards Inner Self/Light within.

(see also Gnosis and esotericism)

A more recent reformulation:

M.Alan Kazlev

(3 May 2007)

I wrote the following definition (slightly edited here) in reply to comments to blog a blog post

By Gnosis I mean an inner certainty about spiritual realities that has been very real to me since i was only 20 or 21. It pertains to the inner mind (to use Sri Aurobindo's terminology). I have never been a "seeker", because a seeker doesn't know. Rather I have - ever since the "scales fell from my eyes" (wonderful saying, from external link Acts 9:18) when i was about 20, known, not in a rational sense., But in a sense that when i read spiritual knowledge it was like a remembering. A bit like in the Platonic sense that all true knowledge and education is remembering what we knew before. When I read Tibetan Buddhism, Jung, Sri Aurobindo, Henry Corbin, whoever, ah - of course, how obvious! Why didn't I see that before. That's what I mean when I speak about Gnosis. I have found on forums like blog Open Integral it is impossible to convey this concept.

But my gnosis is just one form of gnosis, one facet of gnosis. And authentic mystical experience is also gnosis (obviously more profound than mine). An example of this is Realisation, for example the state of being of Ramana Maharshi. The ascent to the Supermind in Aurobindonian Integral Yoga is an even more profound gnosis again. Sri Aurobindo even uses the term gnosis. So I wouldn't say that gnosis is only this but not that. There are many forms and types and grades of gnosis.

Two things can be said about gnosis

Of course it is easy for the ego to hijack gnosis, then you have the "intermediate zone, the mixture of truth and falsehood that characterises most gurus.

See also my suggestion for an Integral Gnostic Community - blog posted on Zaadz ; the same blog posted on Integral Transformation and comments by others

A still more recent reformulation:

(18 July 2009)

Working on my book in progress The Integral Paradigm has encouraged me to further reformulate my understanding of gnosis, basically on the basis of material written above. As I now understand it, gnosis (or Common Gnosis, to use a phrase I coined for this particular level of realization) is a state of inner certainty, which goes beyond the normal holistic/intuitive/"spiritual" stage of opening to transpersonal experience, because it does not involves a complete transformation of values, a profound sense of alienation, and a realization of the necessity and ultimate orientation of ego-transcendence and Realisation ("Enlightenment").

Thus Gnosis as often defined and experienced is not the final state, but a transitional stage between the exoteric (or at best public esoteric (Hanegraaff) "Translucent"/Transpersonal/New Age/Cultural creative stage, and more authentic states of Realization, which I used to call "Enlightenement" but are less happy to do so now because of the misuse of the term by fake gurus (whether sincere but self-deluded into thinking they are "Enlightened"/Awakened/Realized when they aren't, or deliberately abusive, or both (I was thinking of substituting the term "Enlightenement" with Realization, but decided to leave it as it would be too much work with all teh revisions required - 22 Jul 09)

For this reason I propose an admitedly simplistic linear sequence of Stages of Realization, althougha more accurate model would be a multidimensional matrix of possibilities.

I n t e g r a l Y o g a

(individual and cosmic transformation)

Outer being
Inner Being
or evolution
Spiritualization Divinization/
Evolving Divine Soul
Feeling Ego-Shadow
I-Thou Empathy
Body Physical

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content by M.Alan Kazlev and Arvan Harvat.
page uploaded 12 March 2000, most recently modified 18 August 2009