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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index



Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and 'The Mystic East.'

King, Richard. (1999)
London: Routledge.


ISBN:0-415-20258 paperback
0-415-20257 hardcover


Description: Hardcover, x + 238 pages

Contents: acknowledgments, introduction, 9 chapters, chapter notes, bibliography, index.

Excerpt(s): Introduction
Changing the subject

This work can be located within the history of ideas and is an examination of a constellation of categories surrounding the cultural symbolic of the 'mystic East' in modern Western consciousness. The history of ideas is often distinguished from philosophy on the grounds that the latter involves an engagement and evaluation of ideas rather than a non-committal examination of concepts within their own cultural and historical context. However, I wish to argue that both philosophy and the history of ideas should take more seriously not only the social location of the concepts under examination but also their involvement in a wider cultural field of power relations, or what has become known as 'the politics of knowledge'. In particular, I wish to argue for an awareness of the mutual imbrication of religion, culture and power as categories. This is not to say that religion and culture can be reduced to a set of power relations but rather that religion and culture are the field in which power relations operate. ...

Overall, my interest within this work has been to explore the interface between postcolonial theory and the comparative study of religion. Such a task is overwhelming in its enormity and work within this area has hardly begun. To focus my analysis I have concentrated upon the notion of 'the Mystic East' as a prevalent theme within Western understandings of India as 'the Other', particularly in relation to scholarly approaches to the study of religion and mysticism.

... Nevertheless, the account contained therein is intended to furnish the reader with a broad, if somewhat selective, sketch of some of the cultural, philosophical and methodological factors that form the tapestry upon which scholarly approaches to the mystical have been painted. It will also provide an opportunity to discuss some of the underlying trends that directly impinge upon the search for a postcolonial approach to the comparative study of mysticism and religion. ...

... Here I argue that religious studies as a discipline might better conceive of itself as a form of 'cultural studies', rather than as an offshoot of theology. In this way, the study of religion can bring an interest in cross-cultural engagement and the role of religion within culture to an emerging discipline that has generally been characterized by its secularist agenda and the Eurocentricity of its approach. (pages 1-2)

Since the Enlightenment, it would seem, dominant representations of Western culture have tended to subordinate what one might call the 'Dionysian' (as opposed to the Apollonian) aspects of its own culture and traditions (that is, those trends that have been conceived as 'poetic', 'mystical', irrational, uncivilized and feminine). These characteristics represent precisely those qualities that have been 'discovered' in the imaginary realm of 'the Orient'. Of course, this is a grand narrative about a highly complex and contradictory set of cultural processes, but it involves the ascendancy of secular rationality as an ideal within Western intellectual thought, a concomitant marginalization of 'the mystical' and the projection of qualities associated with this concept onto a colonized and essentialized India. (pages 3-4)

... Virtually all contemporary studies of mysticism fail to appreciate the sense in which notions of 'the mystical' (including those that are adopted in the studies themselves) are cultural and linguistic constructions dependent upon a web of interlocking definitions, attitudes and discursive processes, which themselves are tied to particular forms of life and historically specific practices. Not only are contemporary notions of the 'mystical' subject to the cultural presuppositions of the day, they are also informed by and overlap with a long history of discursive processes, continuities and discontinuities and shifts in both meaning and denotation. Just as these various meanings and applications of 'the mystical' have changed over time, so too have the variety of attitudes towards them and evaluations of their importance differed according to circumstance. Defining the mystical then is never a 'purely academic' activity (in the sense in which one means 'of no real consequence'), nor can it ever be completely divorced from the historical remains of past definitions of the term. ...

As Jantzen aptly demonstrates, the way one defines 'the mystical' relates to ways of establishing and defining authority. This is obvious in the pre-modern context since anyone claiming direct experiential knowledge of God or the ultimate reality is in effect claiming unmediated authority to speak the truth. In a traditional Christian context, for instance, such a claim might be seen as undermining the claim of the Church to mediate between humanity and the divine. Defining mysticism then is a way of defining power. One's answers to the questions 'What is mysticism?' and 'Who counts as a mystic?' reflect issues of authority. But, one might ask, of what relevance is mysticism to power and authority in the modern Western context? Surely the way we define mysticism today has nothing to do with social or political authority. Yet this can be seen to be a misguided (if understandable) objection, if we only pause to look below the surface. The very fact that 'the mystical' is seen as irrelevant to issues of social and political authority itself reflects contemporary, secularized notions of and attitudes towards power. The separation of the mystical from the political is itself a political decision! (pages 9-10)

In the modem era, Certeau suggests, the traditional hagiographies and writings of the saints become adapted and designated 'mystical'. Thus one finds the invention of a Christian mystical tradition. Emphasis shifts from a focus upon the virtues and miracles of the saints to an interest in extraordinary experiences and states of mind. It is at this point in European history, Certeau argues, that 'already existing writings were termed mystic and a mystic tradition was fabricated'.

Why did this happen? Seventeenth-century usage of the term 'mystical' appears to have become increasingly pejorative. Critics attacked the apparent novelty of the mystic - having a history, they argued, that spanned barely three or four centuries and usually said to originate with figures such as Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross. Apologists for the mystical responded to this critique in two ways. First, they claimed to reveal only what was already present in Holy Scripture. However, the claim to access the 'secret' meaning of scripture was always likely to be seen as a threat to the Church's institutionalization of biblical meaning if made by those outside its auspices. So, we find the predominance of a second strategy, namely the invention of an ancient mystical tradition within the orthodox walls of Christianity. This involved a selective colonization of classical Christian authors - in particular the early church fathers and a variety of medieval Christian writers and saintly figures. The consequence of this second strategy, of course, was that it tied the newly sanctified mystic and their apologists to the established tradition of exegesis and the overarching authority of the Church, as well as binding them to a canon of acceptable and orthodox ecclesiastical literature. So it would seem then that the birth of a 'Christian mystical tradition' also coincided with its domestication by the ecclesiastical authorities. (pages 17-18)

[Chapter] 8 The politics of privatization
Indian religion and the study of mysticism


In Chapter 1 we noted that a peculiar feature of modern conceptions of mysticism is the emphasis that has been placed upon an experiential definition of the subject matter The dominant trajectory within the contemporary study of mysticism, following William James, has conceived of its subject matter as the study of 'mystical experiences' or 'altered states of consciousness' and the phenomena connected with their attainment. However, exclusive emphasis upon the experiential dimension of 'the mystical' ignores the wider social, ethical and political dimensions of the subject matter and also misrepresents pre-modern usage of the term within the Christian tradition.

As we have seen, in early and medieval Christianity the mystical denoted the mystery of the divine. For Origen the mystical represented the key for unlocking the hidden meaning of scripture. Christian liturgical practices such as the Eucharist were also described as mystical, being that which transforms a mundane activity (taking bread and wine) into a religious sacrament of cosmic and eternal significance. Although there was a place within the Christian tradition for an understanding of the mystical in terms of religious experience (that is, as the direct apprehension of the divine), this was not divorced from the other dimensions of the term. Thus, for Origen, the mystical interpretation of scripture and participation in the Eucharist cannot be divorced from a mystical experience of the divine. The separation of these various aspects of the mystical and the elevation of one aspect - the experiential - above all others is a product of the modern era and the post-Enlightenment dichotomy between public and private realms. ... (pages 161-162)

The comparative study of mysticism

A prevalent, one might even say perennial, theme within modern writings on mysticism is a theological position known as perennialism. According to this doctrine there is an essential commonality between philosophical and religious traditions from widely disparate cultures….

In terms of the modern study of mysticism the most influential work of this genre is clearly The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley (1944). …

... The problems with such an approach are, of course, manifold. For example, the very fact that all of the excerpts occur in a single linguistic medium, namely the English language, has already significantly transformed and homogenized the selections to begin with. Without recourse to the originals from which such translations were made, Huxley's perennialist thesis remains unsubstantiated and problematic. Equally, to suggest that one can lift out sections of a text (which have already been transformed by English translation) and recontextualize them without significantly changing the meaning and interpretive tone of such excerpts is to display considerable hermeneutical naïvety. Quotations are provided but there is no attempt to provide a sense of the social, historical or cultural location of these religious expressions. This is perhaps no surprise since the perennialist position tends to underplay the significance of sociohistorical context. It is precisely the particularity of human religious expression that we must look beyond if we are to see the 'common core' or philosophia perennis underlying apparent differences.

Huxley describes the philosophia perennis as:

the metaphysic which recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.

For Huxley, this perennial philosophy exists in all human cultures throughout history and remains the focal point or essence of the world's religious expression. In 1954 Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, an account of his experiences as a result of taking the drug mescaline. The result of this was a mystical experience of the 'unfathomable mystery of pure being', where visual sensation became greatly enhanced and Huxley experienced 'being my Not-Self in the Not-Self which was the chair'. Huxley compared this to the mystical experiences of the various world religions:

Words like Grace and Transfiguration came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things they stood for ... The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness- Bliss - for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to.

Huxley was heavily influenced in his description by Vivekananda's neo-Vedanta and the idiosyncratic version of Zen exported to the West by D.T. Suzuki. Both of these thinkers expounded their own versions of the perennialist thesis. For Huxley, his experiments with mescaline overwhelmingly demonstrated the enduring validity of monistic experiences as well as the enduring truth and unanimity of mysticism in the various world religions. (pages 162-163)

In 1957 a direct response to Huxley's Doors of Perception was published in the form of R.C. Zaehner's Mysticism Sacred and Profane. There are two fundamental aspects of Zaehner's response to Huxley. First, Zaehner's work can be seen as a critique of Huxley's claim that drug-induced mystical experiences are noetic and that they bear some resemblance to the mystical experiences of the major world religions. Second, Mysticism Sacred and Profane involves an explicit repudiation of Huxley's perennialist claim that 'mysticism' represents a 'common core' at the centre of all religions. Instead, Zaehner argued, there are three fundamentally different types of 'mysti-cism': theistic, monistic and panenhenic. ...

Panenhenic or 'nature' mysticism, Zaehner's third category, seems to be something of a ragbag collection of those mystics not easily classifiable in terms of the 'world-religious traditions'. Thus, this category includes poets such as Wordsworth, the mystical experiences of animistic or so-called 'primitive' religions and drug-induced experiences in general (exemplified for Zaehner by Huxley's experiences with mescaline, which Zaehner takes as normative for all drug-induced mystical experiences). ...

In 1960 Zaehner's distinction between theistic and monistic mysticism was challenged by Walter Stace in his book Mysticism and Philosophy. Stace criticized Zaehner (as later authors such as Smart and Staal have) for his obvious Catholic bias. Replacing Zachner's threefold typology, Stace distinguished between two types of mystical experience (cross-culturally) introvertive and extrovertive mystical experiences. The introvertive mystical experience is a complete merging of everything and constitutes for Stace not only the superior of the two types of experience but also the mystical core of all religions. The extrovertive experience is only a partial realization of introvertive union - and amounts to a sense of harmony between two things. For Stace all mystical experiences have the following characteristics: they provide a sense of objectivity or reality, a sense of blessedness and peace and a feeling of the holy, the sacred or the divine. Mystical experiences are also characterized by paradoxicality and are alleged to be ineffable by mystics. Both extrovertive and introvertive mystical experiences are of an underlying unity (a unifying vision of all things in the case of extrovertive cases and a transcendent unitary consciousness beyond space and time in the case of introvertive mysticism).

Furthermore, Stace argued that Zaehner and his predecessors had failed to make a distinction between mystical experiences as such and the interpretations placed upon them. Zaehner's typology, Stace suggested, was based not upon the mystical experiences themselves but rather on the reports and interpretations of those experiences offered by mystics. ...

... For Stace, what we have is an unmediated and ineffable mystical experience that is then understood according to culturally conditioned interpretations. This is a significant feature of all perennialist accounts of mystical experiences. The apparent differences between a revelation of Christ for Teresa of Avila and an aware-ness of the presence of Krsna for a Vaisnava Hindu are undermined by driving a wedge between the 'pure' experience itself and the mystic's inter-pretation of it. As we saw with Huxley, perennialism supports its position by suppressing (or at least radically underemphasizing) the cultural and historical particularity of mystical experiences. (pages 164-165)

Stace accepts that one cannot isolate a 'pure' experience from interpretations of it simply because we remain reliant upon reports of the experience in our analysis of it. However, it is possible, he says, to distinguish between levels of interpretation. For example, consider the following statements:

'I have a visual sensation of black and white.'
'I see a black and white cloth.'
'I see a chequered flag.'
'I have won the race.'

This is a point that has also been made by Ninian Smart who argues that 'phenomenologically' mystical experiences are everywhere the same but that they differ according to the nature and degree of 'doctrinal ramification' involved in the interpretations of such experiences. ...

Stace's epistemological position, of course, also undercuts the particularity of any claims that may be made by specific religious traditions. For Stace, mystical experience validates 'Religion' as opposed to 'the religions'. However, as Stace himself admits, this argument from unanimity, based upon the apparent similarity of mystical experiences cross-culturally, will not convince the skeptic. Even if all mystics experienced the same thing and agreed that their accounts were of the same objective reality, they might all be deluded. If I drink too much beer the ceiling appears to spin. If other people have the same experience when they also drink too much beer does that mean that the ceiling really is spinning? How does one distinguish between delirium tremens and Otto's mysterium tremendum?

The constructivist response to perennialism

In 1978 a collection of influential articles written by contemporary scholars of mysticism was published in a single volume entitled Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. This was followed in 1983 by a companion collection entitled Mysticism and Religious Traditions. Together both anthologies provide a sustained critique of the perennialism of authors such as Aldous Huxley and Walter Stace with regard to the phenomena of mysticism in the various world religions. The editor of these two collections, Steven Katz, describes his work as a 'plea for the recognition of differences', involving a much greater sensitivity to the cultural particularity of mystics and their traditions than is to be found in the works of the perennialists. The primary focus of Katz's approach is a consideration of the question 'What is the relationship between a mystical experience and its interpretation?' Katz asks his readership to accept a basic epistemological principle which provides the theoretical foundation for his own position - namely, the impossibility (indeed incoherence) of the idea of a pure or unmediated experience. There is no such thing, Katz argues, as an experience that is free from interpretation, an experience free from any recognisable content. (pages 166-167)

Katz, like Robert Gimello, Hans Penner, Wayne Proudfoot and numerous others agree in rejecting attempts to drive a wedge between interpretation and the experience itself. Mystics do not have context-free, 'pure' experiences that they later interpret according to their own particular cultural and theological presuppositions. The very nature of the experience is itself socially constructed according to the culture, beliefs and expectations of the mystics having the experiences. Catholics do not experience a vision of a young woman that they then interpret as the Virgin Mary - they experience the Virgin Mary. This is what their tradition tells them to expect, this is what they hope for, and this is what they end up seeing. On this view, mystical experiences are preconditioned by cultural values, beliefs and expectations and are radically contextual. ...

Upon analysis most mystics can be seen to be rather orthodox in the sense that they tend to see precisely what they have been conditioned and expect to see. It is not just the language of mystical reports that is culturally conditioned but the experience itself. The problem, Katz suggests, is that scholars have tended to emphasize the radical examples in order to suggest that mysticism somehow transcends the particularity of the religious tradition in which it occurs and is evidence of a spiritual 'common core' underlying the religions of the world. As a number of critics have pointed out, however, Katz's own epistemological position does not provide an adequate account of innovation within religious traditions. If one's experiences are socially constructed, how can one ever come up with anything new?' (pages 168-169)

Grace Jantzen draws attention to the fact that the perennialist-constructivist debate is peculiarity modern in its exclusively experiential definition of the mystical. She suggests, rightly in my view, that 'the modern conception of mysticism, with the characteristic of ineffability as the key ingredient, is as much a social construction as were all the previous constructions'. However, we should also note that the modern (that is, post-Jamesian) characterization of the mystical as well as the social constructivisms of Katz and Jantzen are also peculiarly Western. The predominance of post-Kantian influences in Western forms of constructivism (whether modern or post-modern in nature) reflects a series of post-Christian and post-Enlightenment presuppositions about the nature of humanity and its inherent limitations. ...

... This recognition of the agency of the human subject in the construction of a world-picture and the impossibility of an unmediated cognition of reality has had such a lasting influence upon Western intellectual thought since the Enlightenment that it is often simply taken for granted.

Katz has made his own allegiance to a neo-Kantian position explicit in his response to criticisms of his position. Indeed, he suggests that 'this "mediated" aspect of our experience seems an inescapable feature of any epistemological inquiry'. However, since the late 1980s a number of critical responses have been made to the constructivist position. Most of this work has involved questioning Katz's 'single epistemological assumption' that all experiences are mediated by cultural, historical and religious factors. Robert Forman, for instance, makes a distinction between two alternatives: complete constructivism (the view that the entirety of one's experiences are structured by one's cultural context and mind-set) and incomplete or partial constructivism (the view that concepts and beliefs are not the only factors involved in experiences, there being other factors such as sensory input, etc.). ...

However, once this debate moves beyond Western intellectual horizons and one attempts to make universal claims about human experience one is obliged to reconsider the ethnocentric presuppositions of the neo-Kantian paradigm and consider the political and colonial implications of imposing one's own position on the debate. I suggest that there is a need to problema-tize the modernist and Eurocentric framework of this debate. For my own part I wish to suggest two trajectories that such a problematization might take. First, one might question whether the way in which Kant and his successors have framed epistemological debates is the only, or even the most fruitful, way of understanding human experience. ... Second, however, one could problematize the modernist construction of 'the mystical' as a predominantly experiential phenomenon, ... . The first approach involves a 'plea for the recognition of differences' in the realm of epistemological theory. The second seeks to undermine the false dichotomy between perennialism and constructivism by displacing the psychologically inspired paradigm that has framed the debate in the first place. (pages 173-175)

... Katz, however, denies that his position is reductionist there may indeed be a transcendent reality but the crucial point, he suggests, is that one cannot have an unmediated experience of it.

Scholars such as Huston Smith and Donald Evans have made casual (though no less pointed) references to the cosy compatibility of this stance with Katz's own Jewish tradition. Katz's analysis safeguards Jewish beliefs in a transcendent reality and the inherent limitations of human beings, while at the same time underscoring the exclusivism of Judaism in his emphasis upon a recognition of differences between religions. It is clear that Katz's account creates problems for the non-dualistic and monistic traditions in particular. Mystical experiences of a 'unitive-absorptive nature' (that is, precisely those forms of mysticism that tend to presuppose some kind of unmediated experience of ultimate reality) can be found in Buddhism, 'Hinduism' (Advaita and Yoga), and Islam (Sufism). Testimony to such an experience can even be found, Katz notes, in the Christian mystical tradition but 'is absent from its Jewish counterpart' (page 176)

My intention in drawing attention to Indian alternatives to Western forms of constructivism is to offer my own 'plea for the recognition of differences'. There are other ways of seeing the world than are dreamt of in post-Enlightenment Western philosophy and one should not seek to close one's account on reality too prematurely. To accept modern Western epistemological theories without highlighting their cultural and social particularity is to remain within a long and well-established tradition of Western arrogance about the superiority of Western ways of understanding the world. The introduction of indigenous forms of Indian constructivism to the debate, therefore, both broadens its parameters and causes a transgression or disruption of the hegemonic philosophical trends of modern Western intellectual orthodoxy. ...

Perennialism is based upon what one might call the 'Myth of the Transcendent Object'. Perennialist philosophers postulate a common core - that is, some kind of transcendent reality or truth that underlies the diversity of mystical accounts. In contrast to this, Katzian constructivism is grounded in a form of cultural isolationism or the 'Myth of the Isolated Context'. On this view all mystical experiences are fundamentally culturally bound, rendering the establishment of cross-cultural similarities inherently problematic. As we have seen, the perennialist or common-core thesis presumes and requires a distinction of some sort between experience and interpretation. On the other hand, the pluralist account offered by constructivists such as Katz presumes and requires that experience is itself constructed by culturally determined interpretations. ...

As we have seen, there are alternatives to Katz's neo-Kantian constructivism. One could, for instance, uphold a position of partial constructivism. On this view, experience is produced by pre-experiential conditions such as tradition, mind-set, expectation and so on, and it is these that provide the limits of possibility for one's experience. Nevertheless, there may be dimensions of human experience that are not conditioned by such cultural factors. A constructivism grounded in an epistemology of enlightenment postulating an unconstructed awareness - provides some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. One might also opt for a more open-ended and agnostic position, refusing to pass judgement on the question of the farthest reaches of human possibility. Further work is also needed in the development of alter-natives to the late Capitalist constructivist or productivist metaphor as a paradigm or model for understanding the nature of the interaction between humans and their cultures. ... (pages 182-184)

The answer to the question 'What is relationship between a mystical experience and its interpretation?' has been represented by scholars as central to debates about the nature and significance of 'mysticism', as well as to the question of the possibilities and limitations of cross-cultural analysis in this area. The privatization of modern notions of 'the mystical' has caused the comparative study of 'mysticism' to be reduced to a debate about which epistemological theory one wishes to hold. Such debates ignore the shifting meanings and contexts of the category of 'the mystical' throughout its history. More specifically, no attention has been paid to the way in which the construction of a number of stereotypical images of the East D. T. Suzuki's 'Zen Buddhism', Vivekananda's or Sankara's 'Advaita Vedanta', Patnijali's 'Yoga', Lao Tzu's Dao De Jing have been pressed into service as token representatives of 'the global phenomenon of mysticism'. Whether colonized and homogenized by perennialists or essentialized and segregated by the constructivists, these stereotypes of 'the Mystic East' have been used to make a variety of competing claims about the 'mystical', spiritual or other-worldly nature of Eastern culture and the limitations (or not) of human experience. Such debates also serve to locate certain aspects of Asian and Western culture within a modernist and psychologized framework that misreads the phenomenon of 'mysticism' on a number of levels. From a postcolonial perspective, contemporary debates within the comparative study of mysticism ignore the inequality of power implied when Western scholars pass judgement upon the belief systems and forms of life of cultures that are still coming to terms with centuries of Western colonial hegemony.

As Grace Jantzen has pointed out, the tenor and framing of these debates are modern in nature and reflect neither the concerns nor the agenda of the pre-modern mystics and literature that are the subject of such analysis. However, as I have been arguing, these debates are not only peculiarly modern in their orientation and agenda, they are also Eurocentric in their failure to question the post-Enlightenment assumptions that continue to structure the debate. Moreover, such comparativism fails to engage seriously with the indigenous theories, categories and forms of life of those under analysis. Fundamentally, the problem with this entire debate is that the study of mystics has become skewed by the contemporary (post-Jamesian) construction of 'mysticism' in exclusively experiential terms. This, above all else, does violence to the traditions, literature and lives of those who are described as 'mystical', as well as to those who are subject to the sweeping cultural caricatures that such representations frequently imply. ...

... Rather, my point is that Western scholars should pay far more attention to the nature and operation of the 'fusion of horizons' that occurs in comparative analysis. Engagement with the theories, categories and world-views of the cultures under examination also requires an acknowledgement of the cultural particularity of Western concepts and theories and a recognition of the politics of comparative analysis. (pages 185-186)



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