What is mysticism? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, mysticism is a “quest for a hidden truth or wisdom.” The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, defines it thus: “Mysticism is the direct experience of the divine as real and near, blotting out all sense of time and producing intense joy.”
According to mysticism, man is supposed to take himself away from the material world and devote his life to becoming one with the non-material world by first stopping his thinking process and concentrating on certain objects or points in the human body and then undertaking certain meditative practices such as chants or mantras. When he does this, he experiences a very different kind of feeling. This is nothing other than what is generally known as ecstasy. When man enters this state of ecstasy, he experiences an unknown pleasure. On the basis of this experience, people associate ecstasy with spirituality or contact with reality.
So, according to the mystics, the final state produced by mystical exercises is inner joy or spiritual bliss or ecstasy. Some people mistakenly think that mysticism is the answer to the search for truth. In fact, mysticism, to be more exact, is a sort of escapism. It seeks a refuge rather than the truth. Let us try to understand why.
1. Man’s unique quality is his intellect or his mind. The search for truth, by its very nature, should, therefore, be entirely an intellectual exercise. Its findings too should be intellectual in nature. The search will be successful when the seeker finds rational answers to the questions he poses about the universe and his own existence. The search for truth is not, therefore, a vague matter. It begins from the conscious mind and also culminates there.
The case of mysticism is quite different. Mysticism, essentially based on intuition, is not really a conscious intellectual process. As such, the mystical experience is more an act of spiritual intoxication than an effort to apprehend the truth in intellectual terms. A drug user undergoes an experience of inner pleasure which is too vaguely and unconsciously felt to be explained in comprehensible language. Similarly, what a mystic experiences is a type of unconscious ecstasy, which does not amount to a consciously sought after or properly assessable discovery. On the contrary, the search for truth is an intellectual exercise from beginning to end.
2. Mysticism, as popularly conceived, makes the basic assumption that the physical, material, and social needs of man act as obstacles to his spiritual progress. Therefore, mysticism teaches him to reduce his physical needs to the barest minimum; to renounce worldly and social relations; and if possible to retire to the mountains or jungles. In this way, he will supposedly be able to purify his soul. Thus, by giving up the world and by certain exercises in self-abnegation, a mystic expects to awaken his spirituality.
The educated community, however, does not find this concept of mysticism acceptable. A seeker aims at a rational explanation of the world and endeavours to discover a definite principle by which he may successfully plan his present life. Mysticism, on the contrary, teaches man to abandon the world itself; to depart from the world without uncovering its mystery. Obviously such a scheme amounts only to an aggravation of the problem rather than a solution to it.
3. The mystics can broadly be divided into two groups. Those who believe in God and those who do not. Non-believers in God assert that there is a hidden treasure in the centres of our souls. The task of the mystic is to discover this hidden treasure. But this is only a supposition. None of them has ever been able to define this hidden treasure or to explain it in understandable terms. Tagore has thus expressed this claim made by the mystics:
“Man has a feeling that he is truly represented in something which exceeds himself.”
But this is only a subjective statement unsupported by logical proofs. That is why, in spite of its great popularity, no school of this mystical thought has so far produced any objective criterion by which one may rationally ascertain that the existence of such a hidden treasure within the human soul is a reality, and not an illusion. On the other hand, no well-defined law, or step-by-step practical programme, has been introduced by any individual or group that might help the common man reach his spiritual destination consciously and independently.
Moreover, mysticism makes the claim that the natural quest of man is its own fulfillment. It does not require any external effort to arrive at the perceived goal. In other words, it is like assuming that the feeling of thirst or hunger in man contains its own satisfaction. A thirsty or hungry person is not to trouble himself to search for water or food in the outer world.
4. Those (of this school of thought) who believe in God interpret this hidden treasure in terms of God. To them the inner contemplation of a mystic is directed towards God.
This concept too is rationally inexplicable, for, if such mystic exercises are a means to discover God, then, there should be genuine proof that God Himself has shown this way to find Him. But there is no evidence that this path has been prescribed by God. On the other hand, there is a clear indication that this course separates the seeker from God’s creation and leads him to a life of isolation. This makes it plain that God cannot enjoin such a path to realization as would mean nullifying the very purpose of creation.
5. The mystics hold that although the mystical experience may be a great discovery for them, it is, however, a mysterious, and unexplainable realization which can be felt at the sensory level, but which cannot be fully articulated. According to a mystic: “It is knowledge of the most adequate kind, only it cannot be expressed in words.” (EB/12:786)
This aspect of the mystical experience proves it to be a totally subjective discipline. And something as subjective as this can, in no degree, be a scientific answer to the human search for truth. Those who have attempted to describe the mystic experience have chosen different ways of doing so. One is the narrative method, that is, describing their point of view in terms only of claims, without any supporting arguments. Another method is to make use of metaphors. That is to attempt to describe something by means of supposed analogies. From the point of view of scientific reasoning, both the methods are inadaquate, being quite lacking in any credibility in rational terms, and are therefore invalid.
As the subject of the present volume is the search for truth, we can see that mysticism cannot help a seeker in his search for truth. We, therefore, have to look elsewhere to find truth or reality.