Exoteric and Esoteric in Spiritual Traditions

Devotions atop Mount Arunachala India

How do “conventional” spiritual or religious traditions, which bring their devotees into relationship with their Deity as it may actually exist, beyond concept and form? How may it be approached? At first quite often it is through images, icons, or stories to provide an initial connection, a pointing towards, the deep and real spiritual (non material) Source: That which the icons, images and mythic or religious literature are referring to, teaching and indicating.

This is the difference between the exoteric practices, meaning “outward”. Devotion towards a deity-form whether representational, as in Hindu deity forms ( Śiva, Śakti, Ganapati, Durga, Kali, Saraswati or Mahā-Lakṣmi, etc.)*. Or towards a human form as embodiment of the deity, and hence able to give voice to the teachings of the tradition, such as Kṛṣṇa as “Avatar” of the Divine in the Bhagavad Gita: Or Jesus the Christ, the Son of God of:”Our Father”; Or the historical Buddha as the exemplary “Enlightened One”, who teaches the path to Nirvāṇa. These representations are teachers and initial points of access. Millions are enriched and supported by their devotion through these means. Offering prayers, celebrating rituals, making offerings, chanting verses, lighting incense and candles. It is beautiful and can be seen and honored wherever we may go.

Yet all of these religions and religious traditions also have an esoteric path, the “hidden” or internal path. In Christianity it is the Gnostics. In Islam, the Sufis and others. Kashmir Śhaivism and Tantric “Yoga” in the Hindu world. These “mystical” paths of coming to know within one’s own experience, and coming into unity with, realizing, that inexpressible Highest Spiritual Truth. To know, and to be, that the transcendent Supreme is one’s own highest and truest nature. 

This is a progressive (or sometimes sudden) process of stages of realization, combining the subtle teachings of the tradition with some effective and authentic practice of introversive meditation to connect with that higher source of truth within. And gradually taking possession of it, to the degree we are capable. Coming into alignment with the highest, and by this means our human personality and relative “operating self” becomes progressively more refined.

Where does this lead? Towards becoming, “transparent to the transcendent” in our actual lived life. Towards the realization that our Self is not different from, nor separate from, the Source-Self-Consciousness of all. How extraordinary! xThat is the ultimate reality and only divinity. This is known as “Self realization” (ātma-vyapti) and is a stage on the way to “Unity Consciousness” (God Realization or Śiva-vyapti). It is also known as Jivan-mukti (liberation while still living), Nirvāṇa (enlightenment) and can be recognized in saints, siddhas and bodhisattvas throughout history.

Can this actually be achieved by us practicing (and struggling) human beings? Can you point to or identify just one person that you can recognize was completely enlightened? A true Guru or a Saint? A Jesus or a Buddha? Someone who shone with such love and compassion that they touched the heart of everyone they encountered? Perhaps touched yours? Such ones are still present on the earth today as they have been throughout history. The scientific and philosophic principle I am pointing to is “The one is proof of the class”. If any one caterpillar ever was transformed into a magnificent butterfly, then that proves that any caterpillar contains the potential to become itself a butterfly. (My favorite example.) If ever a single human became an enlightened and liberated person in life. Then that proves that the potential exists in all humans. We must take possession of it through our own practices, studies and life journey.

(This is an invitation to learn and to practice an authentic and deep personal meditation practice. Dr. Paul Van Camp, Āchārya, an authorized teacher of Neelakantha Meditation as taught in Blue Throat Yoga.)

* Note: Because Hinduism has so many different names and images of deities it is mistakenly thought that it is polytheistic- Has many rather than one deity or God. Whereas the various Hindu religions and spiritual traditions understand that each of these is a “face, aspect or access-point to the one abiding divinity which is beyond conception. In Hindu literature it is referred to as Brahma, in Buddhism as the Shunyata (Emptiness or Void). 

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