“Inner teachings” or knowledge, as opposed to teachings for the masses called “exoteric” knowledge. The word derives from the Greek eso, “within.” It is generally applied to doctrines designed for an inner circle of disciples for spiritual or religious disciplines.
That esoteric schools existed in ancient times is beyond doubt. G.R.S. MEAD wrote that there was an esoteric side to the religions of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, quoting Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “Many rod-bearers there are, but few Bacchi,” which means there are many candidates but few reach to real Initiation (Extracts from the Vahan, p. 331). The teachings and proceedings of the Mysteries were so closely guarded that any unlawful revelation to the public was punishable by death.
In the East, the tradition of esotericism is well known. Hinduism has its Gupta Vidya, or secret knowledge; Buddhism has MAHAYANA, Vajrayana, Esoteric BUDDHISM; TAOISM has also its own esoteric tradition. The tradition of discipleship under a qualified guru enables one to receive such esoteric teachings not given out to the masses.
The major religions, including the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, have their own esotericism. In Judaism it is embodied in the Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. KABBALAH, wrote Gershom Scholem, “is mysticism in fact; but at the same time it is both esotericism and theosophy” (Kabbalah, p. 3).
Christianity, despite the vehement denial of many of its modern adherents, has had a long tradition of esotericism that dates back to the gospel accounts. When asked why he spoke always in parables, Jesus answered:
And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. Mark 4:11-12 (See also Luke 8:10; Matt 13:10-17)
As a justification for keeping esoteric doctrines to the elect, the gospels report Jesus as saying:
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. Matt 7:6
This esoteric tradition was continued by later Christians in the form of GNOSTICISM, which flourished in the 2nd century and which developed its own doctrines that differed widely from the established church. As a result it was condemned and persecuted, and declared heretical.
Islamic esotericism is found in SUFISM, the mystical movement that has had an ambivalent relationship with orthodox Islam. It is often regarded with suspicion by mainstream Muslims. However, Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), highly respected among the orthodoxy, wrote of Sufis: “During my successive periods of meditation there were revealed to me things impossible to recount. All that I shall say for the edification of the reader is this: I learned from a sure source that the Sufis are the true pioneers on the path of God; that there is nothing more beautiful than their life, nor more praiseworthy than their rule of conduct, nor purer than their morality” (Deliverance from Error).
In the West, esotericism flourished among non-religious movements, such as HERMETICISM, ROSICRUCIANISM, ALCHEMY, FREEMASONRY, and THEOSOPHY. For a more detailed discussion of these movements, see the respective articles.
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