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Comparative Mystics: Scholars as Gnostic Diplomats
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Common Knowledge 10.3 (2004) 485-517

Scholars as Gnostic Diplomats

Jeffrey J. Kripal

It is not difficult to see why Ulrich Beck's cosmopolitan viewpoint would inspire dissent. In a time of religious violence, fundamentalist politics, and attempts to erase historical memory on behalf of ethnic self-interest, it is easy to forget that, not so long ago, intelligent and pragmatic people could hope for a global worldview and even a global spirituality to emerge. It is worth remembering. It is worthwhile resisting the cynicism that comes from knowing that cosmopolitan hopes were at their highest during the colonial era. But however unwelcome the contact (unwelcome, often, on both sides), colonialism brought divergent cultures into intimate relationships whose results were not wholly or finally negative. One result was that brave souls around the planet came to believe that the conflicts among cultures, religions, and "final vocabularies" could eventually be transcended.

The positive results tended to be scholarly and to center on religion. In 1950, the postcolonial turning point, Raymond Schwab argued that the human venture had been ennobled and transformed during an "Oriental Renaissance" (1680-1880) when scholars labored diligently, if imperfectly, at the project of translation and religious interpretation. "Few people today," Schwab wrote,

seem to have heard of Anquetil-Duperron or Sir William Jones or what they set out to accomplish in India in the eighteenth century, but they have drastically altered our ways of thinking nonetheless. Why, then, is the fact generally unknown? The truth is that, in seizing upon the treasures of the poor Orient, critics have grasped only superficial influences that conceal the real issues, which concern the destinies of the intellect and the soul.

Schwab was most likely thinking of the effects that Asian and Middle Eastern cultures had had on the European mind, but, as we well know, the effects of Orientalism were no less profound in Asia and the Middle East. Indeed, Asian and Middle Eastern actors often did more than anyone to advance the cultural exchange. As participants in cultures that had neither created nor fully participated in the astonishing scientific, political, and cultural achievements of the Enlightenment, these individuals were keenly aware of what might be gained from cross-cultural encounter, even if they usually described their activity in terms of redressing imbalances and injustices. Many, on all sides, saw cross- cultural transformation as the secret to a better, more balanced world, and they often turned to religion as the place to signify or effect these new "destinies of the intellect and the soul."

Schwab locates the beginnings of this "conversion" in the mid-eighteenth century and observes how its rise and development coincided with not just colonialism but also Romanticism:

The ability to decipher unknown alphabets, acquired in Europe after 1750, had one incalculable effect: the discovery that there had been other Europes. Thus, in that progressive era, the West perceived that it was not the sole possessor of an admirable intellectual past. This singular event occurred during a period when everything else was likewise new, unprecedented, extraordinary. The advent of oriental studies during a Romantic period abounding in geniuses and accomplishments, in great appetites and abundant nourishment, is one of history's most astonishing coincidences.

Schwab, moreover, saw, in the synergies of European Romanticism and the cultural riches of the Orient, a hopeful answer to the violence, bigotry, and mass death of World War II: "So many prophets of doom cry out to our age of a world near its end that it feels itself susceptible to what has never moved it before. Now is the time to present to our age... the birth of an integral humanism, a crucial, unprecedented chapter in the history of civilizations."

I begin with Schwab's postwar "integral humanism" because, first, I recognize myself to be an heir, and a grateful one, of Schwab's Oriental Renaissance. But my reasons for beginning with Schwab go far beyond the personal. The global meeting of Eastern and Western religions has dramatically changed the theologies of Western Christianity, in particular that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Oriental Renaissance has been definitive as well for modern Hinduism—definitive in its pluralistic expressions (Aurobindo's...

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