Mysticism East and West

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism by Rudolf Otto.

Rudolf Otto Mysticism

This book was developed from Otto’s lectures presented at Oberlin College in 1923-4. It principally consists of a detailed attempt to compare and contrast two prominent mystics: Śankara from the Indian East and Meister Eckhart from the European West. In so doing, Otto proposes to demonstrate that there are distinct forms of mysticism which reach across boundaries of religion, culture and geography, and also that any mysticism will be essentially inflected by its particular religious basis—the soil in which it grows, to use Otto’s recurrent metaphor.

“Part A” of the text emphasizes similarities between Śankara and Meister Eckhart, and Otto manages to detail many of these. First, he points to their shared orientation to ontological ideas, and develops the technical and theological parallel
Śankara:Brahman:Isvara:Ātman::Eckhart:Godhead:God:Soul (14, 77-78). He also compares Śankara’s “Maya” to Eckhart’s “creare” (95). Otto emphasizes the religious, salvific, and theistic qualities of both thinkers’ systems, and points out that neither prescribes a “method” of attainment (29). He proposes a couple of idealized “schemas” of mystical experience, claiming that Śankara and Eckhart each engage both schemas (52).

In the process of comparing Śankara and Eckhart to each other, he distinguishes their type of (speculative) mysticism from other usual sorts: affective mysticism (72-73) and nature mysticism (73-74). Then, in the “Transition from Part A to Part B,” he uses specific schools of Indian mysticism to demonstrate the “differentiation of mystical experience in general,” showing that the similarities between Śankara and Eckhart are not common to all mysticism. Other individual mystics who play supporting roles for contrast include Plotinus and Hallaj.

Finally, in Part B, Otto provides some contrasts between Śankara and Eckhart. In these (generally shorter) chapters, the difference is usually expressed as a valuable quality or sensibility that is present in Eckhart but absent in Śankara. According to Otto, Śankara’s mysticism lacks dynamism, vitality, religious conscience, sense of righteousness, positive regard for the world, agape-love, and pastoral sensibility. In this portion, Otto remains engaged in the sort of “comparative religion” that he produced in Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1923) : he creates a basis for comparison in order to conclude which is better, and it is no surprise that a German Christianity is better on the scale of this theologian from the University of Marburg.

Otto notes that Mysticism: East and West presupposes ideas and positions that he advanced earlier in Das Heilige (vi). That work has become especially identified with “the discourse of sui generis religion,” which has been criticized (e.g. by Russell McCutcheon) for setting arbitrary boundaries between “religious” phenomena and other spheres of personal and/or social activity and ideas, as well as a tendency to abstract religions into essences. Such problems remain evident here, e.g. in the hypothesized/ hypostasized doctrinal conflict (82), the valuation “peculiar to all religion” (94), and the elision of economics and politics from caste doctrines (120).

The “soil” metaphor persists in this book’s efforts to characterize the source of differences between instances or types of mysticism—apparently, the “seed” is mystical capacity or aspiration, and the soil is the religious and cultural context. Otto claims, “the very different ground upon which mysticism rose in Europe also colors the highest mystical experience in a way which is Christian and not Indian” (162). But he does not demonstrate a relevant, describable difference between “the soil of Palestine” and “the soil [of the entire subcontinent!] of India” (206) I don’t doubt that this trope is either a conscious or an unconscious invocation of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:18-23. Note also: Eckhart had been a poster-child of the ‘German mystique’ since the early 19th century, and Alfred Rosenberg called him a paragon of the “new, reborn Teutonic man” in 1938.

Otto insists, “The difference between [Brahman mysticism and Atman mysticism] is not to be reproduced in intellectual conceptions and is only comprehensible in the mystical experience itself.” (146) I find myself dubious that he has experienced all of these diverse mystical attainments among which he professes to discriminate for scholars! If “intellectual conceptions” cannot effectively communicate the differences between various mysticisms, what possibility is there for scholarship to assert or explain such differences? Ultimately, I must suspect Otto of using a globe-spanning erudition to reinforce his own metaphysical prejudices. [via]