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Gnosticism, Past and Present - Mark Albrecht

An examination of the parallels between Radha Soami teachings and Hellenistic Gnosticism


In recent issues of Update, we have frequently used the terms Gnostic and neo-Gnostic as words describing a particular thought system which serves as the lowest common denominator of Hinduism, Buddhism, occultism and other esoteric traditions.

The word Gnostic Itself comes from gnosis in the ancient Greek language and basically means "knowledge" or "to know." This knowledge is not so much a learning of factual data in the scholarly sense as it is an intuitive and existential apprehension of the deeper truths Divinity and Cosmic Law. This gnosis is usually attained through some variety of mystical experience, in which the adept attains experiential union with the purportedly divine cosmos.

This world view, which finds its only real opposition in Judeo-Christian thought, can be traced back to the early pantheistic speculations of the Hindu Vedas, perhaps ca. 1000 BC; beyond that, it may find historical expression even earlier, in the primitive forms of Shamanism (tribal religions of magical rites.)

However, the well-known Hellenistic Gnosticism made famous by the Gnostic cults of the early Christian era was significant in that it represented the first attempt to syncretize these elements with Judeo-Christian thought, which resulted in a protracted theological battle for the Second and Third Century Church. This fight, which has continued on and off for some 1800 years, has come to a head again today with the advent of the current religious pluralism and its resulting confusion.

Hellenistic Gnosticism was also important because it presented the first major theological challenge to the early church and helped formulate Christian dogmatics. It even forced the codification of the New Testament canon, since the Gnostics has set forth their own set of "inspired gospels." The church eventually won its hard-pitched battle against Gnosticism, but not without a number of casualties and painful but valuable lessons. The problem of various Gnostic sects and teachings has arisen continually throughout the history of the church, but has now entered the mainstream of western life with renewed vigor, and is vying for supremacy with Christianity in what appears to be a rather expanded re-run of the original clash.

One of the most interesting groups in this regard is the relatively recent Radha Soami religion of north India, which was established in 1861 and has numerous outreaches in the West. In this fast-growing movement, a number of Hindu and Sikh elements have been blended with a revival of Hellenistic Gnostic speculations. There is also a strong tendency to syncretize Radha Soami teachings with Christianity through de-contextualized quoting of the New Testament and the publication of several Radha Soami commentaries on the Gospels. Some of these Gnostic parallels are so striking that it is possible that the Radha Soami founder, Soamiji Maharaj and his successors, may even have had access to early Gnostic texts, or perhaps secondary sources such as the church father Irenaeus, who described the Gnostic system in detail in his writings.

First, a general overview of the ancient Gnostic system should be given. There were two basic schools, the Persian Gnostics, who were dualists, and the Syrian or Alexandrian school, who were more monistic. There were also many variations and splinter groups, since one of the hallmarks of Gnosticism was speculation, and each new theory tended to give rise to a new group. Irenaeus said of them, "Every day one of them invents something new, and none of them is considered perfect unless he is productive in this way." Like all other speculative esoteric traditions, they were also extremely syncretistic, attempting to subjugate all forms of religious expression to their form of "final knowledge."

The philosophic basis of the Hellenistic Gnostic systems was grounded in cosmogony, i.e., the explanation of the origin of the universe. In the Persian school, there were two eternally equal and counterbalancing forces, usually represented as The Light and The Dark or good and evil; creation began when these two poles came into contact.

However, the Syrian school’s monistic version is more typical of modern day Gnostic speculations, and especially of Radha Soami. According to a creation treatise written by the notorious Gnostic Simon Magus, "God," who was referred to as "The Root" or "The Unfathomable Silence," inadvertently stirs and thinks or reflects upon itself. This reflective process causes a thought to be formed, which immediately creates an imbalance in The Root, and the thought (female principle) becomes detached from the thinker (male principle.) Through progressive deterioration of the thought, she takes on a personality of her own, and creation both springs from her and clings to her in attachment. The creation then emanates down through the succeeding regions or spiritual spheres, the last (and worst) being the earth.

Similarly, Radha Soami teaches that the absolute being is Anami Purush (meaning "without name.") Before creation, Anami Purush was in a state of highly polarized self-absorbed consciousness. Suddenly an uncontrollable "commotion" began in Anami Punish and a sound was emitted - "SOAMI" - ("everything is within me"). Further sounds and vibrations followed, and the universe unraveled itself through a series of emanations that were divided into grand divisions or lokhs. Each lokh became darker (less spiritual) as if the light from Anami Purush dimmed in intensity. Here too, the positive pole of Anami Purush is male and the negative pole or manifestation is female.

A second common area of teaching concerns the resulting cosmology, i.e., the way the universe is now that it has been created. The Gnostics taught that there were a number of spheres of descending spiritual complexity, each ruled by a god or demon called an archon. Our planet was ruled by a demi-urge who was despotic and evil and usually associated with Yahweh of the Old Testament. These cosmic spheres acted like magnetic force fields, pulling souls into them and away from The Root, the true home of all bliss, which lay beyond the emanations of the spheres.

Likewise, Radha Soami postulates the existence of a number of spheres of spiritual activity, the previously mentioned grand divisions and lokhs. Here too, each one is ruled by a god, including the entire pantheon of major Hindu gods. These gods exert spiritually magnetic forces which tend to keep the soul from advancing to the higher spheres unless one has access to esoteric knowledge, which is, of course, available only through initiation into Radha Soami.

A third area of similarity are the teachings on anthropology. The ancient Gnostics were well known for their deprecation of the body and the created realm, and because of this, they ran into opposition from the Greek philosophers. They divided the human being into body, soul (mind) and spirit. The former two were looked upon as creations of the demiurge and viewed with contempt - "Woe, woe, unto the shaper of my body!" - as a typical Gnostic text reads. The spirit was believed to be a spark of the divine and had to be freed from the body like a bird is set free from its cage.

Again, we find almost the same situation in Radha Soami. Man is a bird in a cage, with the body and mind trapping his spirit, which struggles to fly to the higher regions. Therefore the world is seen as negative and the aspirant must withdraw his senses from the consciousness of the world. The mind is seen as an imprisoning agent, the same terminology used by the ancient Gnostics. According to Radha Soami doctrine the devotee must perform spiritual surgery by detaching the spirit from the mind.

A fourth area of common teaching centers around eschatology and salvation. In Hellenistic Gnosticism, a transcendent savior who is an incarnation of or messenger from The Root enters the world periodically to impart saving gnosis to the chosen. The adept would then travel up through the spiritual spheres, running the gauntlet past the archons, evading them by means of magical rites and secret passwords. If he had learned the esoteric practices correctly, he was successful in negotiating the dangerous obstacle course and was reunited or merged with The Root, which was supposed to be of identical essence with the human spirit. Parallels with the Brahman-atman teachings of Hinduism are also seen here.

Predictably, Radha Soami teaches a similar system of salvation. The presence of the living master, a perfected man who ostensibly lives in constant unity with God, is essential. He imparts knowledge and secret teaching after initiation. Radha Soami literally means "the path back to Soami." This path is a winding one, whereby the devotee passes through the lokhs and grand divisions until he reaches the Divine, where a merging takes place, "like a wave disappearing in the ocean." Each spiritual region or lokh has sensory characteristics such as sound, smells, colors, feelings, etc. The devotee must familiarize himself with these characteristics in order to identify the respective lokh when his spirit is "soul travelling" outside of the body. This soul travel is attained via a mystical alteration of consciousness through meditation. Radha Soami recommends three to six hours of meditation daily.

Similar to the secret pass words used by the Hellenistic Gnostics, Radha Soami employs the use of mantras to designate the sounds of the various spheres, as well as the sounds of musical instruments like the flute and bagpipe. Use and/or recognition of these sounds is necessary for advancement through the lokhs. However, not all souls advance all the way back to God. Some may be hindered along the way and stop at a particular level, retaining their personality.

Radha Soami is striking because of the detailed parallels between it and Hellenistic Gnosticism, yet it is not a unique case of Twentieth Century gnosticism. Neo-gnosticism raises its head in many shapes, forms and varieties, such as the hundreds of new age groups (see Update, Vol. V. no. 2, Aug., 1981), but usually has the following common features:

1. A monistic or pantheistic theology which is always some modification of Hinduism, Buddhism or Hellenistic Gnosticism.

2. The logical inference of this is that humanity is Divine, since we are a conscious part of the Divine Universe.

3. A salvation system in which the adept or devotee strives to become experientially one with the Divine through meditation, yoga, or ritual. This is really the summum bonum of Gnostic holiness: You are God, and the sooner you realize and achieve it, the better.

4. The final element common to the great majority, if not all neo-Gnostic systems is syncretism, the belief that all religions are really saying the same thing, but in different languages. The focus of attention is often on Christianity, and frequent attempts are made to point out that Jesus really taught the above Gnostic doctrines. The church’s consistent and historical claim to exclusive truth is usually seen as a threat and/or stumbling block to the unification of world religion.

Finally, it should be noted that the conditions that gave rise to Hellenistic Gnosticism are very similar to those of today. The expansion of uniform civilization and language that was brought about by the formation of Alexander the Great’s empire tended to break down traditional social, political and religious frameworks, unifying the Mediterranean area as a cosmopolitan entity. However, this also lead to disorientation for many, and there was an uprooting, merging and mixing of religions, philosophies and ethnic groups. Hellenism promoted a syncretistic milieu, and from this crucible Gnosticism was forged.

The Twentieth Century has produced a similar situation, although greater in both Scope and intensity. The early church responded quickly to the Gnostic challenge, considering its inexperience and lack of developed theology. The Twentieth Century Church has the lessons of history and a developed theology behind it, but it remains to be seen whether or not modern Christianity can recognize and effectively counter Contemporary Gnosticism with the same vigor and theological precision as the Church of the Fathers.