TThe Mysticism Group of the

American Academy of Religion

  HOME ::

For the AAR Annual Meeting

in Baltimore, MD, USA

November 23-26.

Hinduism Group and Mysticism Group
Theme: Mystical Emotion in Hindu Tradition:

Bliss, Joy, Wonder and Fear

Gerald J. Larson, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Indiana University, Bloomington, Presiding

Saturday - 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Hilton Baltimore-Johnson B

The field of Religious Studies has often noted an ambiguity in religious understandings of emotion: affect is thought to be a “lower” level phenomenon that theology and religious practice aim to transcend. However, paradoxically, emotion can also be a means of transcendence, through the bliss, love, and awe involved in mystical experiences. Hindu traditions of philosophy and theology have developed sophisticated interpretations of the emotions, especially their role in evoking mystical and transcendent states of awareness. This session will examine these understandings from four methodological perspectives: Psychology of Religion, Philosophy of Religion, History of Religions, and Literary Theory. While the understandings of emotions in Hindu mystical systems sometimes converge with those of contemporary theories, their broader philosophical and transformative frameworks present a substantial challenge to the latter. This panel aims to initiate a dialogue between these areas of discourse.

Stephen Kaplan, Manhattan College

Is Bliss an Emotion? Is There a Neuroscience of Mystical Literature?

The neurosciences are clear—bliss (ecstasy) is an emotional state which is neurochemically induced, neurophysiologically structured, and neuropyschologically reducible to the appropriate brain states. Take ecstasy (MDMA) and experience ecstasy. Mystics throughout the world have identified ultimate reality or the experience of ultimate reality with the experience of bliss and ecstasy. From the Bliss (ānanda) of Brahman, the Advaita Vedānta tradition, to the different levels of ecstasy within the mystical theology of Richard of St. Victor, mystical literature abounds with the metaphysics of bliss and ecstasy. Is this bliss reducible to a brain state?

This paper will investigate whether and to what extent Śaṅkara and Richard of St. Victor anticipated, in admittedly non-neuropsycological terms, this reductionistic debate and how the issues each raises helps us reflect on the current debate. This paper will reveal that the modern debate regarding neuroscientific reductionism is 1) not so modern, and 2) not something all mystics must fear.

Alfred Collins, Alaska Pacific University

Puruṣa’s Pleasure: Does Consciousness Experience Emotion in Sāṁkhya/Yoga?

Yoga and Sāṁkhya are generally considered to be dualistic systems but in fact aim at a state that is no longer dual but dynamically unified. This state has an affective aspect of enjoyment (or simply joy) that is exactly 180 degrees opposed to the state of suffering (duḥkha) that is the natural state of humans before they practice yoga. Seen in this way, yoga is similar to bhakti and tantra. There is an implicit "sharing" (bhaj-) between puruṣa and prakṛti paradoxically founded on prakṛti's realization of their ultimate separateness. This sharing of experience leads from suffering to joy.

The central concept in both the Sāṁkhya Kārikās (SK) and the Yoga Sūtras (YS) is purusartha, the idea that the world process (prakrti) takes place solely for the sake of the pleasure and release of consciousness (puruṣa). The ultimate state, kaivalya, arising when consciousness achieves bliss and freedom, is a highly dynamic and duplex moment described in metaphors. Close reading of both texts shows that their aim is the attainment of a state where the "ego self" (ahaṁkāra, asmitā) and "consciousness self" (puruṣa) are neither separate nor merged. On the cultural level the aim is a transformed human world of freedom and joy anticipating the one found in bhakti and tantra.

June McDaniel, College of Charleston

Shakti Rasas: Wonder, Terror, Love and Complaint to the Goddess Kali

In the Bengali bhakti tradition, religious emotion is the path to the divine. In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the worshipper may love the god Krishna as a lover, a friend, an infant, a master, and an aspect of self. These roles and their values have been elaborated in the Vaishnava literature. However, the major emotions and roles of the Bengali Shakta tradition have not been organized in this way. In the poetry to Kali, we see a different selection of religious emotions emphasized: there is wonder and joy at her compassion, terror at her power, sorrow at the state of the worshipper’s life, and anger and complaint at human suffering. A goddess who is universal can appreciate all of these emotions.

In this paper, we will examine the major emotional essences or rasas in the poetry of two major Bengali Shakta poets, Ramprasad Sen and Kazi Nazrul Islam. It will discuss some theories of religious emotion or rasa, and the ranges, conflicts and limits of religious emotion. These will be compared to several patristic Christian models of the passions.

Sthaneshwar Timalsina, San Diego State University

Fear and the Orgasmic Self: Transformative Role of Fear in Upaniṣadic Discourse

While various studies have highlighted the negative role of fear, it appears crucial in transforming experience from the commonsense to the mystical ones. Fear, along these lines, elicits the experience of the transcendent, assisting subjects to overcome their embodied experiences. Tracing from the Upaniṣadic sources and comparing fear in the contemporary studies of Grixti (1983), Blits (1989), and Svendsen (2008), my paper explores the factors that elicit fear and analyze its transformative role. I argue, there are two types of fear: dormant and intrinsic to the self that manifests with the emergence of self-awareness or with the rise of the ego, and the relational fear that manifests due to an extrinsic source. Overcoming fear, in this paradigm, is not linked to the ‘restoration’ of the ego but rather with its transcendence. This transformative role attributed to fear is essential to understanding various Hindu sub-traditions where eliciting fear for the rise of mystical experience is crucial.

David P. Lawrence, University of North Dakota


Mysticism Group

Theme: Per Aspera ad Astra: Mystical Journeys Across Traditions

Jason N. Blum, Presiding
Sunday - 1:00 PM-2:30 PM
Hilton Baltimore-Key 3

The goal of this panel is to examine the notion of mystical journey in the context of different religious and/or cultural traditions. The papers will present narratives of mystical journeys as mystagogical reinterpretations of inner transformative processes, whereby the protagonist of the journeys engage the contingency and the particularity of a specific religious tradition, but are also able to transcend particular religious claims and achieve a state of psycho-physical integration. The papers will explore that most famous of mystical journeys- Dante's Commedia-, as well as al Ghazali's reading of Abraham's mystical journeys and Carl Jung's exploration of his inner landscape in the Red Book.

Matthew Dillon, Rice University

Towards a Hermeneutics of Visionary Memory: Theorizing Ekstasis in Dialogue with Carl Jung’s The Red Book.

In this paper, I present a psychoanalytically rigorous yet robustly comparative model of visionary mystical journeys by utilizing a combination of historical biography, hermeneutic personality psychology, object-relations psychoanalysis and Obeyesekere’s theory of personal and cultural symbols. My argument is that visionary journeys are themselves interpretive phenomena molded to the symbols of the religion – or, in the case of modern mystics without a tradition like Carl Jung, the symbol set they endow with religious meaning – while these scenes and figures are also, through the process of Freudian dreamwork, representations and enactments of the psychological neuroses peculiar to the individual visionary. Through a close reading of Carl Jung’s The Red Book, I show how a visionary rewrites their sense of identity in the hermeneutic spiral of reading, vision and writing in a mode that can work through oedipal or narcissistic issues as a means to altered states of energy and transformation.

John Bugbee, Mount Saint Mary's University

Dante's Mysticism of Cooperation

Dante’s Commedia intends to deliver news about what we now call “mysticism” – or so many readers have taken his apparent suggestion that the poem has an anagogical sense. There is, however, another form of “mysticism” in the text: not a secondary meaning of the events, but a set of presuppositions about human-divine cooperation that continually reveal themselves in small ways within the literal sense. For example, the alternation between day and night in Purgatory is linked to the relation between activity and passivity, will and grace, in human-divine relationships. The relationship between the poem’s symbols for the theological virtues and the four classical cardinal virtues plays a similar role. Even the way Dante asks questions of his guides accords with once-common theological teachings about the perfection of the person. This paper considers several such cases of “subterranean mysticism” alongside illuminating texts from authorities of the day, especially Bernard of Clairvaux.

Scott Girdner, Old Dominion University

Abraham's Journey: al-Ghazali's Mystical Synthesis of Traditionalist and Rationalist Sources and the Dynamics of Scriptural Mysticism

As an example of a mystical journey, or ascent, the presentation examines the trope in Jewish and Islamic traditions of Abraham encountering a series of celestial bodies that culminates in a realization of divinity (e.g. Qur’an 6:75-9). It focuses on Islamic traditions, situating Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s use of Abraham’s journey in the context of previous traditionalist, rationalist, and mystical interpretive traditions. It argues that al-Ghazali’s mysticism understands scripture as the object of mystical experience, in a manner that undermines the utility of analytical distinctions between kataphatic mysticism, where the mystic has an ecstatic encounter with a sacred symbol, and apophatic mysticism, which strongly advocates a direct encounter with the unknowable and ineffable nature of the deity itself. An appreciation of the dynamics of such scripture focused mysticism is useful for understanding Jewish and Christian mysticism as well.

Thomas Cattoi, Graduate Theological Union

Mysticism Group

Theme: Genealogies of the Numinous: Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans, Majestas, and the Ganz Andere

Bryan S. Rennie, Westminster College, Presiding

Monday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hilton Baltimore-Key 11

This roundtable session is dedicated to examining new perspectives on, and applications of, Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous, as developed in his landmark work, Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy), in the study of mysticism. Focus will be placed in the roundtable session upon the central concepts that Otto utilized to flesh out his concept of the numinous. These include the notions of mysterium tremendum et fascinans, majestas, and the ganz andere, translated as the “overwhelming and fascinating mystery,” “majesty,” and the “entirely other,” respectively. These concepts will be traced with respect to their genealogical origins, their historical application, and in terms of the theoretical and social implications of their application. The goal of the session is a more nuanced perspective on the context in which Otto’s theories of mysticism were developed and on the continuing impact of Otto’s theories in framing contemporary scholarship on mysticism.

Israel Fischer, Tel Aviv University
Todd Gooch, Eastern Kentucky University
Ulrich Rosenhagen, UW-Madison
Unregistered Participant
Yoshitsugu Sawai, Tenri University
Stuart R. Sarbacker, Oregon State University
Timothy D. Knepper, Drake University

Gregory D. Alles, McDaniel College

Business Meeting:
Thomas Cattoi, Graduate Theological Union