Religious Comparativism, Esotericism, and the Global Occult: A Methodological Outline

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Julian Strube Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Vienna Vienna Austria

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This article scrutinizes the history of “esoteric” and “occult” as comparative terms and outlines a concrete methodology for their examination and potential practical application, based on the theoretical framework of Global Religious History. My main argument is that “esoteric” and “occult” are today de facto comparative terms that are employed worldwide within and beyond academia. Similar to the case of “religion,” they are not the result of the unilateral diffusion of “Western” knowledge but of globally entangled exchanges that can serve as concrete objects of research. Their synchronic and diachronic historical contextualization forms the basis of the development of substantiated comparative terms and their (experimental) application in different contexts. Departing from scholarship on “Western esotericism,” “esoteric Buddhism,” and “the global occult,” the article outlines a five-step methodology that illustrates the practical use of Global Religious History for religious comparativism based on concrete historical examples.

1 Are “Esoteric” and “Occult” Useful Comparative Terms?

The terms “esoteric” and “occult” have been used for centuries to describe teachings and practices around the world, but there has been little systematic reflection on their meaning beyond largely isolated fields of study, and sometimes even within them. In response to this situation, I will demonstrate the effectiveness of Global Religious History in questioning scholarly vocabulary, both in terms of its history and its practical application today. This method can complement the discussion about religious comparativism by consistently adhering to widespread calls for an empirical-historical grounding of our analytical vocabulary, in contrast to (crypto-)essentialist, decontextualized, and ahistorical approaches to the subjects of religious studies and other disciplines.1 Even though the article is self-contained, much of its underlying argument and empirical evidence is based on and expanded by a series of related articles, as well as a recent monograph that fully operationalizes the method outlined here in a condensed form.2 These publications also explain in more detail how terms in European languages – including esotericus, occultus, esoterisch, ésotérique, esoteric, arcanus, acroamaticus, and so forth – relate to each other, as well as to terms in non-European languages, such as the Bengali nigūṛh and gūṛha, or the Japanese terms kengyō and mikkyō. A systematic study focusing on the genealogy of such terms, especially one encompassing multiple regional and linguistic contexts, is lacking. The present article is not least a proposal for how such research might be conducted.

In what follows, I will discuss the notions of “esoteric” and “occult” under the rubric of “esotericism,” for the main reason that my point of departure is the academic study of esotericism, where most of the directly related research on these notions takes place. Since the scope of this article does not allow for entering into an in-depth discussion of scholarly conceptualizations of “esotericism” itself, I will focus on its relevance to issues of religious comparativism.3 It is important to note, however, that much of the research on esotericism is done within the framework of “Western esotericism,” which has evolved from “religionist,” universalist, and phenomenological understandings of esotericism to more historical-empirical approaches that predominate since the 1990s. This evolution is somewhat convoluted, not least because “Western esotericism” emerged as a polemical concept in occultist debates towards the end of the nineteenth century, where it was explicitly positioned against a (supposedly inferior) “Eastern” esotericism.4 In the pioneering academic work of Antoine Faivre, it retained its “religionist” tendency, but it acquired a new function.5 The qualifier “Western” was now supposed to counteract universalist understandings of esotericism: rather than suggesting a worldwide esotericism with Western, Eastern, and other varieties, the demarcation should provide a concrete historical focus, with scholars within the field increasingly insisting that “Western esotericism” does not imply other varieties. The internal contradictions of this maneuver are far from being resolved.

Most importantly for our present concerns, the paradigm of “Western esotericism” does not aspire to develop a comparative approach, not only because it is self-declaredly limited to “the West,” but also because it is based on a diffusionist logic that assumes the spread of “Western esotericism” to the rest of the world. Although valuable first steps have been taken, there is no systematic approach to a comparative study of esotericism.6 Recent studies, however, have proposed global historical approaches to esotericism that imply the need to pay closer attention to the issue.7 There is also increasing interest, for instance, in “Islamic esotericism,” a prospering field that, unlike the scholarship discussed below, closely engages with “Western esotericism.”8 This expansion within the established study of esotericism demands reflection on the meaning of esotericism as a scholarly term. Noting the lack of such reflection, Helmut Zander has most recently addressed some of the major issues that pose a challenge to a comparative study of esotericism. First, he asks to what extent a globally applied concept of esotericism might “constitute a continuation of the traditions of European imperialism” by using a “European concept” as a matrix for explaining non-European cultures. Second, he warns against essentialist tendencies when esotericism “is not determined by regional or other contexts.”9 These are points that pertain to broader debates within religious studies and other disciplines: is the use of a “European concept” such as “religion” an act of epistemic violence, and thus a direct result of colonial expansion and its attendant Orientalist projections?

These problems have been discussed at some length in Global Religious History, and they are addressed in one way or another in the contributions to this special issue.10 In keeping with Zander’s caution, I argue that it is misleading to think of esotericism simply as a “European concept,” to begin with. As I have shown elsewhere, esotericism (and the same can be said of religion) was not a fixed European concept ready-made for export to a passively “influenced” world.11 The meanings of both esotericism and religion were hotly contested within Europe, and they were shaped by globally entangled exchanges. Zander’s warning against terminological imperialism is apt in intent, but it results from an exclusive focus on Europeans – and only certain people in or from Europe, as has been argued in the different but related case of Africana Esoteric Studies by Stephen C. Finley, Biko Mandela Gray, and Hugh R. Page, Jr.12 Zander himself points out that “entities” such as esotericism are not the result of confrontations between Eastern and Western cultural blocks, but rather are “entangled in processes of exchange.” At the same time, however, he adds that what has come to be understood as esotericism “has developed in a process of exchange with the West – and that it was largely influenced by Western ideas.”13 This is certainly true, but it is only “the West” that is part of this deliberation. Where is “the Rest” that must have participated in this process of exchange? As will hopefully become clear throughout this article, any discussion of global and comparative approaches to esotericism (and, again, religion) will benefit from taking full account of this gap.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that the language of esotericism is commonplace in disciplines and fields of study that are not (primarily) concerned with Europe, “the West,” or Christianity. Terms such as “esoteric Buddhism” are used as widely as translations of, for instance, the Sanskrit term jñāna with “gnosis.” Moreover, Asia-focused global historical scholarship is increasingly interested in what has been termed “the global occult.”14 Remarkably, the conceptualization of “the global occult” completely avoids the notion of esoteric or esotericism. Its reception in South Asian and Japanese studies, for example, points to a situation that is instructive about the complexities and contradictions of “esoteric” and “occult” as scholarly terms.15 On the one hand, “esoteric” language is firmly established in Asianist scholarship, for instance for discussions of developments in Buddhism dating back centuries and millennia.16 However, the term “esoteric Buddhism” was popularized by the Theosophist Alfred P. Sinnett in his 1883 book, Esoteric Buddhism, and is thus tied to a movement, the Theosophical Society. On the other hand, the specialized study of esotericism, prominently including Theosophy, has been largely institutionalized within the paradigm of “Western esotericism,” which is inherently exclusionary of “non-Western” subjects (at least if they are to be perceived as more than the result of “Western influences”).17 As I have argued in my other publications, a promising way out of this somewhat perplexing situation is a consistent historicization of the terms in question.

The crucial point is that these historical and contemporary developments have taken place with the participation of “non-Western” actors, which requires a decentered historiography and collaboration between experts on different regional, temporal, and disciplinary areas. I hold that the goal of such an endeavor should not be to “correct” historical developments that some perceive in contrast to “pre-colonial” authenticity prior to corrupting “Western influences” – perceptions that more than superficially resemble Eurocentrism, as they similarly tend to focus on the activities of Europeans.18 Rather, we should fully acknowledge that our scholarly terms are, in fact, in global use today, and that they have a globally entangled history that awaits our scrutiny. From this perspective, “esoteric” and “occult” are just as useful comparative terms as “religion,” with all their instability, ruptures and continuities, contestation, and fuzziness. The challenges they pose may in themselves be the objects of our research.

2 A Methodological Outline

The toolkit of Global Religious History is by no means the only way to approach the issue, but it has already proven to produce instructive insights and promises to give new impetus to debates on religious comparativism. The following method is intended to inspire concrete research steps that can be taken to examine globally used terms, to shed light on their historical development, and to decide whether they can be meaningfully and productively used in comparative research. The purpose of this research is not to discover a common essence of the subjects under study, but to understand why and how historical actors and academics have identified certain ideas and practices as similar or even identical.

This is directly related to the issue of translation, which is at the heart of Global Religious History. Following Lydia Liu’s approach of translingual practice, I am less invested in the question whether translations/applications of “esoteric” or “occult” were “correct,” but I am interested in the historical context that made the translation possible, in the first place: translation is not understood as the production of equivalents in two different languages, but the equivalence of two terms becomes possible and is produced in a specific historical context.19 This is not simply the result of either innovation within “indigenous tradition” or of foreign impact; neither is it a rupture between tradition and modernity, but a product of cross-cultural interpretation.20 Hence, what follows should not be regarded as a meeting of Eastern and Western esotericism (or religion). Rather, different understandings of “esotericism” were produced and constantly negotiated through cultural exchanges.21

2.1 Starting Point in the Present

As indicated above, the genealogical starting point of this method is the present. Genealogical approaches have been accused of reproducing biases and canons, that is, the hegemonic structures of the past that determine the selection of and approach to sources.22 This is a very real problem, but it must be noted that it applies to any form of historical research: our archive is determined by past circumstances, and most historical actors will forever be beyond our reach. The purpose of the genealogical approach, as it is understood here, is to give maximum visibility to this problem, to explicate both the positionality of the researcher and the concomitant approach to the source material. It should not simply describe and reproduce the content of the source material, but critically analyze it, making the tools of analysis transparent.23 The present method recognizes the contradictions, struggles, and confusions of a certain terminology as Erkenntnisinteresse, the very object of research. I am fully aware that the following outline is highly selective and incomplete, but it is my hope that it will be a useful and concise illustration of this procedure.

As this article zooms in on Asia, and South Asia in particular, it is necessary to return to our discussion of “esoteric” language in Asianist scholarship. It is most widely used among scholars of what is called “esoteric Buddhism,” and importantly, there are longstanding debates about whether the nomenclature “Tantric Buddhism” would be more appropriate.24 Before moving on to my own area of expertise, Tantra on the Indian subcontinent since the eighteenth century, I will discuss scholarship on “esoteric Buddhism” because it offers the most comprehensive and well-founded reflections on the meaning of “esoteric” in Indian, Chinese, and Japanese contexts. Despite considerable disagreement, most experts on “esoteric Buddhism” would agree that the term: (1) has something to do with secrecy; (2) is associated with certain (ritual) practices that require initiation by a master; and (3) is considered a useful umbrella term that does not refer to any one tradition, lineage, or school. Remarkably, no one really seems to know why exactly the term “esoteric” is used to describe these varieties of Buddhism.

The editors of the comprehensive handbook on Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia argue that “esoteric,” despite being a modern term, is apt because it corresponds to the indigenous Sinic terms mijiao and mikkyō, as well as to the Indic term guhya, all of which can mean “secret.” The editors caution against easy equations, however, not least because there is no simple “on the ground” entity corresponding to these terms: the teachings and practices associated with them are fraught with hegemonic struggles, ideological polemics, anachronisms, and vastly differing purposes and contexts (for instance, ritual instructions, textual interpretations, the construction of lineages, and rivalling affiliations).25 While it is contested when it might be reasonable to talk of “esoteric Buddhism” and where between India and China it emerged and developed, the Japanese distinction between “esoteric” and “exoteric” (kengyō) in Shingon and Tendai can be traced back to the writings of the monk Kukai (774–835).26 A similar distinction exists between the Chinese mijiao and its “exoteric” counterpart, xianjiao, which were used to describe and classify Buddhist teachings from the fifth to the eighth centuries and beyond.27 These terms were in themselves the subject of ideological contestation, for instance, when Shingon scholars were opposing “pure” (junmitsu) from “unsystematic” (zōmitsu) varieties, including those supposedly corrupted by the influences of Shaiva Tantra.28

While experts on “esoteric Buddhism” provide a great wealth of philological source work, close reading, and detailed analysis in order to justify their terminology, they generally seem uninterested in explaining why they use the very word esoteric. Charles Orzech, for example, is content to consult the Oxford English Dictionary on the matter, noting Sinnett’s 1883 book and the writings of other Theosophists, as well as later missionary texts and the work of Friedrich Max Müller. He remarks: “This decidedly quirky and colonialist genealogy is cause for caution in adopting the term ‘Esoteric Buddhism,’ though it appears that its origins have been largely forgotten.”29 Apart from the apparent sense of uneasiness to which I will return below, this lack of interest in the etymology of “esoteric” is striking. While this issue may seem marginal from some disciplinary perspectives, it lies at the heart of religious studies, and Global Religious History in particular: why and in what contexts did this translation emerge, and how did it sediment as a widely accepted term while being used in quite different ways elsewhere?

Before we return to this question, it is important to highlight that, of course, it is not simply “words” that Global Religious History is interested in, but the teachings and practices that historical actors tried to signify in usually conflictual ways. After all, the signified may well exist before a certain signifier is attributed to it, and neither of them are fixed and stable. This is especially relevant because there is wide agreement that “esoteric Buddhism” was no single tradition, and that terms like mijiao and mikkyō very often served to claim superiority over rivals. According to Richard McBride, distinctions between “esoteric” and “exoteric” did not necessarily claim to introduce something new, but they formed part of polemical clashes.30 “Esoteric” could simply mean “the best,” laying claim to “a privileged place within the expansive Mahayana teaching for their ritualized approach to overcoming duality and desire to achieve buddhahood.”31 A key element in such debates was secrecy, often implying the necessity for initiation (abhiṣeka) by a master (ācārya) that entailed a close master-disciple relationship, similar to the guru-śiṣya bond in Hindu contexts. Texts abound with emphatic statements that certain methods are secret and only available after initiation, and the respective ritual knowledge and material culture was often structured according to specific “lineages” (or “families,” kula).32 At the same time, and this is another crucial parallel to Tantra in its Hindu varieties, this association with secrecy and exclusivity contrasts with the ubiquity, popularity, and very “mainstream” character of “esoteric Buddhism.” The first sentence of the handbook on Esoteric Buddhism reads: “In all likelihood, it was [what] Buddhism scholars commonly designate ‘esoteric Buddhism’ that had the greatest geographical spread of any form of Buddhism.”33

Among the main features identified by scholars are a belief in the efficacy of extraordinary language (dhāraṇī, mantra), the pursuit of extraordinary powers (siddhi), and the notion that buddhahood can be attained in the here and now, since all sentient beings possess buddhanature.34 Robert H. Sharf has cautioned, however, that these elements “were the common heritage of virtually all traditions of Chinese Buddhism, whether elite or popular, monastic or lay.”35 Henrik H. Sørensen, on the other hand, argues that “esoteric Buddhism” developed from “a special trend within Mahāyāna, that of ritualism and magic.”36 According to Sørensen, this was not a separate school but a movement concerned with achieving its spiritual and worldly goals through ritual practices, especially “spells” and dhāraṇī (incantations).37 Some ritual techniques were deemed especially inappropriate for the public eye, including those involving sexuality.38 From this point of view, certain teachings and practices distinguish “esoteric Buddhism” from other varieties, but without forming a monolithic block. It has also been argued that the association made by many scholars between ritual practices of invoking beings such as gods, spirits, and deities with “magical” or “mystical” practices adheres to Protestant assumptions about religion and the concept of “original Buddhism” that rejects ritual practices, the frequent performance of rituals, including the use of chants and incantations such as dhāraṇī and mantra in everyday, non-secret situations. While it is not appropriate to equate ritual with esoteric Buddhism, they are closely linked in the perceptions of observers.39 Clearly, there is no agreement on what exactly “esoteric Buddhism” is, but many Asianists accept it as a meaningful and instructive category that helps to explore currents across vast geographical spaces that go back well over a thousand years.

By contrast, the notion of “occult” has gained some traction among Asianists after Nile Green’s special issue on “the global occult.” Rather than referring to ancient traditions, it focuses on “the many new religious firms that flourished between around 1880 and 1930 through their characteristic claims to access hidden knowledge/power by the performance of specialist techniques” that are regarded as “outcomes of Victorian globalization.”40 As such, Green considers them “bicultural forms of religious production (i.e., the merging of elements from two distinct culture systems)” that are also “countercurrents to the better-known flows of official (often imperial) knowledge.”41 Indeed, the period since the 1870s has seen a rapid increase in exchanges between “alternative” religious movements around the world, with the Theosophical Society perhaps the most prominent example. New technological advances, such as the telegraph and improved travel, accelerated global exchanges to an unprecedented degree. I would, however, disagree on at least two points: first, the model is explicitly binary and assumes the meeting of two “distinct culture zones,” whereas I argue for a more complex tangle of exchanges. Second, the periodization and especially the notion of “Victorian globalization” suggest a diffusion from a European/Victorian center and neglect diachronic developments and local contexts.

Moreover, similar to the term “esoteric Buddhism,” there is no reflection or explanation as to why “the occult” was chosen to designate the object of study. The expression “the occult” has rarely been used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century but was later popularized by Colin Wilson’s bestseller, The Occult, in 1971. Much more common was the term “occultism,” which most Theosophists also overwhelmingly preferred to the term “esotericism.” This question of nomenclature is not insignificant, for it points to the vagueness of what exactly is in the focus of research. The issue is underscored by the reception of “the global occult” in Japanese studies, where Ioannis Gaitanidis and Justin Stein, offering by far the most helpful and illuminating reflection on terminology available for their subject, focus on the period since the 1870s, noting how Wilson’s The Occult inspired the Japanese loanword okaruto, while at the same time outlining a chronology of “modern Japanese occultism” and engaging with the scholarship on “Western esotericism.”42 Similarly, Varuni Bhatia has employed “the global occult” in her discussion of Vaishnavism in fin de siècle Bengal, however without explicating how it relates to the notion of “esotericism,” which is used interchangeably by her.43 In the end, the relationship between the occult, occultism, and esotericism remains unclear, while it becomes obvious that Asianist scholarship is entirely disconnected from that on “Western esotericism.” It would appear that we do have a de facto separation between “Western” and “Eastern esotericism” in academia, and nobody wants to talk about it. I trust that the reader is by now accustomed to escalating complexity and confusion, and that in itself is an excellent starting point for a genealogical endeavor.

2.2 Genealogical Reconstruction

My observations about recent and ongoing research have been relatively detailed because of the main concern of this article, which is the uncertainty surrounding widely used terms across distant geographical and temporal spaces, and within different cultural and social contexts. It has become clear that scholarship approaches these terms in very different and often confusing ways, and that even small groups of highly specialized experts struggle to agree on even the most basic definitions, dating, and delineations. Moreover, we could observe a persistent lack of reflection on why, exactly, a term like “esoteric” or “occult” is used to signify an object of research. This is the precise question that can serve as the point of departure for a genealogical project. As I emphasized above, this kind of research does not aim simply to trace the development of “words” or, as one can sometimes read, to focus on abstract “discourses” that are somehow detached from “history,” “content,” or “the empirical world.” Rather, the above survey can serve as a starting point to understand how meaning was attributed to certain terms, while recognizing the persistent instability and contextuality of meaning.

It also illustrates the decidedly critical intention of a genealogy according to Global Religious History. For this purpose, I would like to extract one aspect that is common to the above-mentioned reviews of “Western esotericism,” “esoteric Buddhism,” and “the global occult,” namely, the question of why “esoteric” or “occult” was chosen to signify certain teachings and practices, and which historical actors were involved in the relevant processes of signification.44 What follows will show that even under the conditions of colonialism, the meanings of the terms “esoteric” and “occult” were constantly re-negotiated with the active participation of “non-Western” and colonized actors. Although Theosophy played a significant role in this process, and although these exchanges unfolded within the colonial context – as noted by Orzech with some uneasiness regarding “esoteric Buddhism” – this was by no means a process of Western diffusionism.

Rather than dwell on the notion of “esoteric Buddhism” and the case of Sinnett,45 I will shift focus to my own area of expertise, Tantra in Bengal since the eighteenth century. It has become clear that “Tantric” has often been considered “esoteric,” to the extent that scholars disagree on whether to speak of “esoteric” or “tantric Buddhism.” Tantra is widely viewed as “esoteric” par excellence, and thus an outstanding case study for our concerns. One, if not the main, reason that it is a serious academic subject today is the publications of a pseudonymous “Arthur Avalon” from the 1910s to the 1930s.46 Previously, Tantra had been regarded by most orientalists as the worst symptom of a supposed degradation of “pure, original Hinduism.” After Avalon’s translations, editions, and studies of Tantra, it was recognized as an integral and prominent part of (South) Asian culture. The Avalon publications served as a basis not only for practitioners worldwide, but also for numerous scholars, including Sylvain Lévi, Paul Masson-Oursel, Walter Evans-Wentz, Heinrich Zimmer, or Mircea Eliade. For a long time, it was assumed that a British judge working at the High Court in Calcutta, John Woodroffe (1865–1936), stood behind the Avalon pseudonym. Indeed, Woodroffe is still referred to by experts on Tantra as the “father of Tantric studies,” the practice of Tantra worldwide, and the one person who wrote and translated the Avalon publications.

Based on this assumption, one might reasonably suppose that when Tantra was described as “Indian occultism” in the Avalon and Woodroffe’s own publications, this was the Orientalist projection of a Westerner. Tantra, we read in many instances, was of “scientific importance” not least because of “the present revived interest in occultist study in the West,” including Theosophy, New Thought, hypnotism, Spiritualism, and magic.47 Our initial genealogical observation has thus produced a first insight, namely, that the academic study of Tantra, as well as the reception of Tantra across the globe, is closely linked to a development that led to the Avalon publications and thus places them at the center of our research interest, as Tantra is here explicitly identified as “Indian occultism” that allegedly corresponds to “esoteric” currents in “the West.” At first glance, this might appear to be a prime example of Victorian globalization: is it not a clear case of terminological imperialism when a British colonial administrator interprets an Indian subject in this way?

2.3 Synchronic Contextualization

This is where the next step of our investigation takes place, revealing a situation that is vastly more complex. In this and the following sections, I provide very brief summaries of research published elsewhere, highlighting only key methodological steps for illustrative purposes. Most importantly, the following example is intended to show the benefits of a decentred perspective that takes into account all actors involved within the colonial context, specifically by locally contextualizing the particular exchange while considering global entanglements, before moving on to trace diachronic developments that had shaped the conditions for the encounter.

In short, behind Arthur Avalon was not Woodroffe, but a group of learned South Asians, mainly Bengalis, whose goal it was to propagate a specific understanding of Tantra as the noblest core of the “eternal Vedic Aryan dharma” (Bg. sanātan ārya dharma). In 1880, a decade before Woodroffe had arrived in Calcutta, members of the same group initiated what I have termed the “Bengali Intervention” in the leading Theosophical journal, the globally distributed Theosophist. Protesting negative perceptions of Tantra, they praised “Tantrik Occultism” as the true essence of “Aryan civilization,” whose true meaning, however, was “esoteric” in the sense that it was hidden to most people. Authors such as Baradakanta Majumdar and later Pramathanath Mukhopadhyay compared this veil of secrecy around Tantra to that of the Rosicrucians and Freemasons. Drawing parallels with Theosophy, Spiritualism, New Thought, and Mesmerism, as well as with German Idealism and Vitalism, they asserted the superiority of Indian wisdom by claiming that modern Western science was only superficially rediscovering what the ancient Indian sages had long known. A prime example was yoga, which was identified as an “occult science” by both Indian and Western Theosophists.48 Baradakanta emphasized the importance of this notion when he wrote that “[t]he occult sciences of India are the monuments of her ancient greatness.”49 He maintained its Western counterpart “is yet in its infancy; and it is hoped that with the help of Indian occultism it will fast gain the position which other sciences now occupy.”50

Obviously, the rhetoric of “Indian occultism” and the accompanying characterization of Tantra that was spread worldwide through the Avalon publications were not the result of Woodroffe’s projection, but were shaped as early as the 1880s by the active intervention of learned Bengalis, who not only compared “Western” and “Indian occultism,” but also claimed the superiority of the latter over the former. Moreover, these authors claimed that Tantra was the esoteric essence of all “true” religion, including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.51 These claims are certainly shaped by orientalist scholarship (and its assumption of the origin of “Aryan civilization” in India52) and contemporary trends in “Western” science and philosophy. At the same time, they also result from local developments in Bengal. This becomes perhaps most palpable in light of the fact that Baradakanta, Pramathanath, and Woodroffe were all disciples of the same Tantric guru, the pandit Shivachandra Vidyarnava. The latter’s magnum opus, Tantratattva (1893), was among the first Avalon publications, translated into English as the famous Principles of Tantra (1914–16). Shivachandra perhaps most prominently claimed that Tantra was the true Aryan dharma, but that its true meaning was nigūṛh, or gūṛha, Bengali terms that relate to the Sanskrit guhya and were translated by the Avalon team as “esoteric.” Among the ultimate goals of Tantra, which required initiation by a guru, was the attainment of siddhi (extraordinary powers) through sādhanā, ritual practice.53

A key insight from a diachronic contextualization of this encounter is that the interpretation of Tantra as “Indian occultism” was not simply the projection of Westerners, namely, Woodroffe and the Western members of the Theosophical Society. The latter entered a complex intellectual landscape where they were confronted with competing viewpoints, rather than “exerting influence” and rendering their interlocutors “Western esoteric.” The agency behind these debates on Tantra, and the Avalon project that later emerged from them, was chiefly Indian. It was Indians who initiated and participated in acts of comparison, cross-cultural interpretation, and translingual practice. Among the most notable features of their identification of Tantra as “Indian occultism” were: (1) religious universalism;54 (2) practices such as yoga, mantra, and sādhanā aimed at the attainment of siddhi and liberation in the here and now (e.g., jīvanmukti); (3) an emphasis on the secret (nigūṛh, gūṛha) nature of Tantric teachings, which required initiation (dīkṣā) by a guru.

2.4 Diachronic Tracing

Now that we have charted the diachronic context that conditioned and structured the translation of terms such as nigūṛh and gūṛha with “esoteric,” and now that we have understood that “Indian occultism” was discussed in terms that related to entangled “Western” and local developments, the question arises as to what made these translingual practices possible from a diachronic perspective. I have shown elsewhere how Tantra in Bengal was shaped by a rich cultural atmosphere that included ancient centers of Brahmanical Sanskritic learning such as Navadvip and Krishnagar, devotional Vaishnava as well as Shaiva-Shakta traditions, Mughal culture, a variety of religious movements, and orientalist scholarship.55 The development of the latter took place largely at Navadvip, the “Oxford of Bengal,” where William Jones, among others, learned Sanskrit, leading to the momentous “discovery” of the linguistic relationship that came to be called “Aryan.” Tantra was fairly “mainstream” in Bengal (as elsewhere in India) and was an integral part of the culture of learning that informed the Bengali Tantrics who confronted the Theosophists in 1880. It is essential to take into account this diachronic dimension of the local Bengali context in order to understand the encounter between the Bengali Tantrics and the Theosophists.

The question remains why certain teachings and practices, in this case those related to Tantra and yoga, were signified as “esoteric” and “occult.” I have shown elsewhere that the reasons for this are historical – and they open up new research perspectives on a fascinating development that is of great relevance not only to the study of esotericism, but also to religious studies and other disciplines.56 It has received little attention that the formation of “esoteric” vocabularies in European languages went hand in hand with the development of orientalist scholarship, and was in fact an integral part of the process.57 Since at least the seventeenth century, notions of “esoteric” and “occult” became common among orientalist scholars to describe Asian subjects, which were often identified as “cabala,” “gnosis,” and the whole fuzzy variety of “mystical” and “magical” vocabulary. Regardless of historical accuracy, this is the de facto emergence of a comparativist vocabulary, concomitant with the emergence of specific historical narratives and (imagined) traditions.

This informed the formation of the notion of “occultism,” as I have demonstrated in the case of Éliphas Lévi (i.e., Alphonse-Louis Constant, 1810–1875), who is often considered the “founder of occultism.” Constant based his ideas largely on contemporary orientalist scholarship, particularly through the lens of Catholic theories about a “primitive revelation” at the root of all true religion, whose “occult” meaning had been handed down through the millennia by an elite of initiates.58 In Constant’s time, many orientalists were convinced that ancient wisdom from India and China was transmitted via Persia to the Mediterranean, where it supposedly evolved into “Gnosticism” and “cabala,” which, along with Neoplatonism, formed part of what the orientalist Jacques Matter first termed ésotérisme in his 1828 Histoire critique du gnosticisme. The orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron had previously published his famous Latin translation of the Persian rendering of the Upanishads under the title Oupnek’hat (1801–2), claiming links between Indian, Persian, gnostic, cabalistic, and Neoplatonic teachings.59 From there, it can be traced how, especially since the eighteenth century, an “esoteric” and “occult” vocabulary became commonplace in orientalist scholarship to describe Asian teachings and practices, especially “yoga,” and identifying them with “gnosis” and “cabala,” or viewing them as part of a larger history of “magic.”60 The application of this vocabulary was not restricted to Indian subjects, as I have shown with regard to the identification of Daoism and Kung-Fu as an “occult science,” which was compared to European Mesmerism, at the end of the eighteenth century.61

More research is needed to understand how this vocabulary developed, how it relates to local contexts, and which cultural exchanges and transregional connections were relevant to the production of respective knowledge. The starting points for such research are highly promising, as can be demonstrated by scholarship on the relationship between yoga, Islamicate, Buddhist, and other currents in India. Scholars such as Carl Ernst and Shaman Hatley have demonstrated that Sufi and Tantric traditions placed emphasis on secrecy, initiation, as well as certain teachings and practices such as extraordinary language, visualization, and controlled respiration.62 Similarly, Keith Cantú, following scholars such as Liana Saif, has argued how Islamicate differentiations between bāṭin (“esoteric”) and ẓāhir (“exoteric”) play a role, not only in Arabic contexts but also in their regional adaptations, in his case, the Bengali Bāuls.63 Such lines of reception do suggest that some teachings and practices, stretching from the Mediterranean via India to China and further to the East, are shaped by concrete historical exchanges that might explain structural, doctrinal, practical, and material similarities. This does not imply that there was a distinct “esotericism,” or an “esoteric tradition,” but it does raise productive research questions that allow for systematic analyses of the structural similarities or even equations posited by historical actors – again, without claiming that we are dealing with any one homogenous “esoteric tradition” or a fixed meaning of “esoteric.”

2.5 Analysis and Reflection

On the basis of the results yielded by the preceding steps, the researcher is prepared to analyze the material, for instance, to abstract analytical categories or reflect on their usefulness. Both recent scholars and historical actors have been able to compare teachings and practices because, on the one hand, a language was available that had developed in highly heterogeneous ways over several centuries: yoga had long been identified as “esoteric” and was related to “gnosis” or “cabala”; terms such as prāṇa had been related to magnetism and magic. To emphasize it again, it should not be concluded that these concepts and practices were actually identical or rooted in the same teachings, but the fact that they were historically compared is in itself the instructive object of our inquiry. On the other hand, there are structural similarities between certain teachings and practices, some of which have been highlighted above: they include secrecy, the use of extraordinary language, certain practices that are often restricted to highly ritualized and exclusive contexts, and universalist assumptions.

Such structural features offer reasonable opportunities for comparative research, but such research must be based on careful contextualization in each case, and it must also be wary of glossing over both internal and comparative complexities and contradictions, ruptures and continuities.64 For example, similar to “esoteric Buddhism,” secrecy plays an ambivalent role in Tantra in Bengal, where it was and is a “mainstream” phenomenon rather than something “marginal” or “rejected.”65 Indeed, claims to secrecy in our sources can simply mean “the best” or “the true” and function polemically to assert authority and superiority, in elite as well as subaltern contexts.66 Secrecy is no sui generis phenomenon but embedded in broader social dynamics.67 While this is widely taken for granted among Asianist scholars investigating things “esoteric,” secrecy only plays a remarkably marginal role for “Western esotericism,” with notable exceptions such as the work of Kocku von Stuckrad.68 It is absent from Faivre’s classic typology as well as from the conceptualization of esotericism as “rejected knowledge in Western culture.”69 One takeaway from this survey, then, may be that secrecy would deserve considerably more attention in a comparative study of esotericism. In any case, such a study should be concerned first and foremost with understanding the categories with which it operates, and it remains to be hoped that the methodology presented here will be useful to that end.

3 Conclusion: A Global Approach to Esotericism (and Religion)

There are concrete historical reasons for the application of the terms “esoteric” and “occult” in Asian contexts, and the above survey has demonstrated how such reasons can be brought to light through a genealogical method based on a decentered synchronic and diachronic contextualization. Rather than categorically dismissing esoteric vocabularies of comparison as Western invention or projection, it is crucial to examine their histories, which in this case have proven to consist of an interplay between local and global, synchronic and diachronic developments. The historiographical point of departure for this investigation was the fact that “esoteric” and “occult” are today used globally by academics and non-academics alike. Their meaning is and has been constantly (re-)negotiated through global exchanges, in which “non-Western” actors have played a decisive role. The recognition of their agency, and the concomitant examination of local contexts beyond “the West,” is essential to the method proposed here. In the research process, it is crucial to consider the positionality of the researcher, to consistently historicize the object of research, and to avoid decontextualization and essentialization.

While there is common ground among scholars that there was no such thing as an “esoteric tradition,” historical constructions of such traditions, as well as comparisons and equations, are the very source material that teaches us much about the academic categories we use today. With regard to “Western” and “other” esotericism, this source material clearly shows that discussions of “esotericism” have not been limited to “the West,” and it is time that scholars pay serious attention to this fact, which must be part of an informed reflection on the category and its application. Such are the concrete historical reasons that warrant a comparative study of esotericism, and I hope to have shown that such a study necessitates collaborative research that revolves, for example, around the issue of translation, social dynamics and practices (including secrecy), and historical connections that may span large geographical and temporal spaces. This brief article could only sketch the outlines of how such research might be conducted, at least in part. I hope, however, that it will stimulate future discussion and raise questions that will lead to new insights into the global history of religion.


Julian Strube is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Vienna. He works from a global historical perspective about the relationship between religion and politics since the eighteenth century, focusing on exchanges between India, Europe, and North America. He has published widely on global religious history, religious comparativism, colonialism, esotericism, socialism, and far-right extremism. Recent publications include his third monograph, Global Tantra: Religion, Science, and Nationalism in Colonial Modernity (Oxford University Press 2022); New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (co-edited with Egil Asprem; Brill 2021); a special issue on “Global Religious History” for Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, co-edited with Giovanni Maltese; and Theosophy across Boundaries co-edited with Hans-Martin Krämer (SUNY 2020). His PhD thesis on Socialism, Catholicism, and Occultism in Nineteenth-Century France was published in 2016 with De Gruyter.


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For more on Global Religious History and its fruitfulness for religious comparativism, see the introduction to this special issue; Maltese/Strube, Global Religious History; and Bergunder, Comparison.


Most notably, these publications are Strube, Emergence; Strube, Global Tantra; Strube, (Anti-) Colonialism; Strube, Rajnarayan Basu; Strube, Towards; Strube, Daoism; and Strube, Esotericism. Their relevance to what follows is highlighted where appropriate.


For an extended discussion, see the publications cited in footnote 2. For recent overviews and debates, see, e.g., Zander, What Is Esotericism; Baier, Esotericism; and the contributions to Asprem/Strube, New Approaches.


Strube, Occultist Identity Formations.


See, e.g., Faivre, Accès; Faivre/Voss, Western Esotericism.


See, e.g., the contributions by Asprem, Beyond the West and Zander, What Is Esotericism.


Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 1–33, 250–251; also see Bergunder, Umkämpfte Historisierung. An important early step was done by Bogdan/Djurdjevic, Occultism. Hanegraaff, Globalization has defended a decidedly diffusionist model of “Western esotericism”. A fruitful global perspective was most recently included in Pokorny/Winter, Occult Nineteenth Century.


The inclusion of the conceptualizations of “esoteric” and “occult” from this field would be indispensable for a more comprehensive discussion, which, however, is unfortunately impossible within the present scope. See, e.g., Saif/Leoni/Melvin-Koushki/Yahya, Islamicate Occult Sciences; Saif, What is Islamic Esotericism? and the respective special issue; Sedgwick, Western Sufism.


Zander, What Is Esotericism, p. 28.


See, for instance, Maltese/Strube, Global Religious History, pp. 231, 243.


Strube, Global Tantra, p. 27; Strube, Towards, p. 60.


Finley/Gray/Page, Africana Esoteric Studies, p. 183.


Zander, What Is Esotericism, pp. 32 et seq.


See Green, Global Occult and other contributions to that special issue.


E.g., Bhatia, Psychic Chaitanya; Gaitanidis/Stein, Japanese Religions.


Strube, Esotericism.


For a discussion of the Eurocentric treatment of Theosophy, see Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 28–33, passim; Strube, Theosophy; and the contributions to Krämer/Strube, Theosophy Across Boundaries.


See, e.g., Strube, Global Tantra, p. 32.


Liu, Translingual Practice, pp. 5 et seq., 10; cf. Liu, Legislating, p. 137.


Liu, Translingual Practice, pp. xix, 2, 19. Also see Hermann, Unterscheidungen, pp. 219–232.


Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 32 et seq.


E.g., Josephson Storm, Metamodernism, pp. 131 et seq.


Maltese/Strube, Global Religious History; Bergunder, What is Religion.


Orzech/Payne/Sørensen, Introduction; Orzech, Great Teaching of Yoga. There are more nuances to these debates than can be captured in this discussion. For example, East Asianists may prefer “esoteric Buddhism” because its material revolves around Sutras rather than Tantras, or because the potential for (ritually) transgressive behavior is less conspicuous.


Orzech/Payne/Sørensen, Introduction, pp. 10–13.


Sharf, Coming to Terms, pp. 264 et seq.


McBride, Is There Really ‘Esoteric’ Buddhism?, pp. 330 et seq.


Orzech, Great Teaching of Yoga, p. 41.


Orzech, Great Teaching of Yoga, pp. 40 et seq.


McBride, Is There Really ‘Esoteric’ Buddhism?, p. 332.


McBride, Is There Really ‘Esoteric’ Buddhism?, p. 335. Also see Sharf, Coming to Terms, pp. 227 et seq.; Orzech, Great Teaching of Yoga, p. 42; Sørensen, On Esoteric Buddhism, pp. 174 et seq.


Orzech, Great Teaching of Yoga, pp. 68–71; McBride, Is There Really ‘Esoteric’ Buddhism?, p. 347; Orzech/Payne/Sørensen, Introduction, pp. 11–13; Sørensen, On Esoteric Buddhism, p. 172.


Orzech/Payne/Sørensen, Introduction, p. 3.


Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism, p. 117, passim; Orzech, Great Teaching of Yoga, pp. 40 et seq.; Orzech/Payne/Sørensen, Introduction, p. 14.


Sharf, Coming to Terms, p. 278.


Sørensen, On Esoteric Buddhism, p. 157.


Sørensen, On Esoteric Buddhism, p. 159.


Sørensen, On Esoteric Buddhism, pp. 166–168, 171.


Sharf, Ritual, pp. 249–253.


Green, Global Occult, p. 384.


Green, Global Occult, pp. 383 et seq.


Gaitanidis/Stein, Japanese Religions; cf. Robouam, The Role Of Esoteric Buddhism.


Bhatia, Psychic Chaitanya.


For details, see Strube, Emergence; Strube, Esotericism.


See Harlass, Orientalische Wende, pp. 96–133; Rudbøg/Sand, Early Debates.


The following is based on several publications, including Strube, Global Tantra; Strube, (Anti-)Colonialism; and Strube, Tantra as Experimental Science.


E.g., Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta, pp. 73 et seq., 88.


Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 96–123.


Majumdar, Occult Sciences, p. 53.


Majumdar, Occult Sciences, p. 53.


Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 237–241, passim.


About the ambivalences of the racial dynamics revolving around the notion of “Aryan,” see Strube, Theosophy. The relevance of Theosophy for orientalist and religious studies, in particular, has been discussed, e.g., in Mühlematter/Zander, Occult Roots; Krämer/Strube, Theosophy Across Boundaries; and Josephson-Storm, Myth of Disenchantment.


Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 174–186.


This must be understood against a particularly Bengali background that directly relates to the emergence of religious studies: see Strube, Rajnarayan Basu.


Strube, Global Tantra, pp. 48–55, passim.


Strube, Emergence.


Among the valuable studies that do explore these connections, see App, Birth. Similar can be said about the Americas, see Villalba, The Occult.


Strube, Sozialismus, pp. 190–196, passim. For a summary, see Strube, Baphomet.


Also see Winter, A Study.


Strube, Emergence; Strube, Esotericism.


Strube, Daoism.


E.g., Ernst, Islamization; Hatley, Mapping.


Cantú, Islamic Esotericism.


See the introduction to this special issue.


“Rejected knowledge” is perhaps the least useful interpretation otherwise common in the study of esotericism. This is certainly the case in Asia, but also in “the West.” See, e.g., Asprem, Rejected Knowledge; Zander, What Is Esotericism, pp. 22 et seq.


Cf. Urban, Elitism and Esotericism; Cantú, Islamic Esotericism; Lorea, Afraid.


There is rich scholarship on this issue, e.g., Urban/Johnson, Routledge Handbook; Urban, Secrecy; Crockford, What Do Jade Eggs Tell Us.


E.g., Stuckrad, Locations; cf. Zander, What Is Esotericism, pp. 17 et seq., 31 et seq.


Most notably, Hanegraaff, Esotericism.

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