Esotericism - an introduction
(Author's note: this essay first appeared as part of " Integral Esotericism - Introduction" on Integral World, November 2006, and is here included with only a very few modifications. Despite being quite old, I am still happy with it as a good introduction to the subject. However, several of the hyperlinks point to or emphasise topics which represent a newer insight on my part - MAK 04 Oct 09)
The words "Esoteric" and "Esotericism" are used here in a very specific context, that pertains to the contemporary (19th century onwards) "Wisdom Tradition" of the West. It is not to be confused with "esoteric" in the colloquial adjectival sense of something that is very specialised, technical, and difficult to master, such as "esoteric" mathematics, or that pertains to the minutiae of a particular area of common knowledge, such as "esoteric" baseball statistics.
In this definition, "Esoteric" refers to insight or understanding of inner (Greek: eso-) or spiritual or metaphysical realities, or a specific teaching or spiritual practice or path or "wisdom tradition" that is based on a mystical interpretation of spirituality, rather than a religious or slavish following of the outer words of scriptures, or pertains to transpersonal or transcendent states of existence. In contrast exoteric knowledge, is knowledge that is well-known or public, and does not require any such transformation of consciousness.
To give an example, Muslim fundamentalism which is based on a literal reading of the Holy Quran is "exoteric", whereas Sufism which looks at the inner meaning of the words and takes the scriptural account as metaphor (e.g. Mohammad's Night Flight to Jerusalem is interpreted as the ascent of consciousness) is "esoteric". Even progressive Islam which adopts a less restrictive and more academic and open-minded understanding provided by secular modernity is still "exoteric" because it is not based on a mystical and transcendent understanding of the hidden meanings of things.
Similar classifications between the "outer" "exoteric" and the "inner" "esoteric" approach to scripture and to spirituality can be made in Judaism and Christianity, while groups like Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Neo-Theosophy, and the "Fourth Way" teachings or "the Work" of G.I. Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky qualify as "esoteric" teachings.
All such esoteric teachings involve complex cosmological, cosmogonic, and anthropological speculations and accounts of the nature of reality and the spiritual path.
Another definition of "esoteric" is that it represents a special occult teaching that is available only to the initiate, and kept hidden from the profane masses. This form of "esoteric" was or is found in Ancient Egypt, in Pythagoreanism, in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, in Rosicrucianism and Hermetic Occultism, and in Radhasoami, to give just a few examples. More recently initiation-based sects like Eckanker, TM, and Divine Light Mission could also be included here. Alternatively, such knowledge may be said to be secret not because of the desire of an exclusivist priesthood, but by its very nature, for example, if it is accessible only to those with the right intellectual or spirituality capacities.
Especially in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century occult movement of the West, these two definitions have often merged.
As such, Esoteric can pertain to the Religious (as mysticism), Occult, or Philosophical/Perennialist, which might broadly and simplistically be matched with the Emotional, Astral, and Mental dimensions of reality.
"Esotericism" is both the collective field under which these various "esoteric", cosmological, and occult teachings can be included, and a generic term for any representation or variation of the contemporary occult-spiritual Wisdom Tradition of the West, based on the Kabbalistic, Theosophical, Hermetic,New Age, and other such traditions. As such, "Esotericism" has an "inner", ontological, cosmological, mystical, and transpersonal focus and emphasis.
As much as both pertain to higher spiritual levels of attainment, there is some overlap between esotericism and mysticism. However, a mystic is not necessarily an esotericist. Mysticism is based on the devotional relationship with the Godhead, with the on prayer and bhakti (heart consciousness) towards the object of devotion. Esotericism may or may not incorporate this, but adds the additional element of spiritual or transcendent knowledge (gnosis). Thus Esotericism is based in part at least on the element of transcendent or transpersonal knowledge (gnosis). It constitutes a sort of spiritual intellectualism, in contrast to the simpler devotionalism of Mysticism. However, it is not the case that one is superior to the other.