In some circles today, the timeless wisdom is referred to as nondual gnosis, but this has a very tenuous connection with Gnosticism as such. In fact, a case could be made that apart from the name, nondual gnosis has nothing to do with Gnosticism whatever.
Gnosticism has been defined as “a dualistic religious system that combines ideas from mythology, philosophy and the abstruse.” The ‘system’, however, turns out to be so diverse and contradictory as to be almost meaningless. It’s like trying to define present-day Christianity by its estimated 3,800 denominations!
One scholar has tried to define Gnosticism in doctrinal terms as: “… the notion that the world is evil, the result of a rebellious angel (demiurge) attempting to create something apart from God. The goal (end) of the Gnostic’s existence is to escape the created world and return to the state of perfection that existed in the beginning, before the creation of the world.”
The early Roman Church gave the impresson that Gnosticism was an aberration or perversion of ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine and existed from the 1st century CE to about the 5th when it was finally eradicated in a concerted effort by the Church and State powers.
But in actual fact Gnosticism was practiced many centuries before Jesus of Nazareth ever appeared on the scene.
George MacRae highlighted some of the evidence of pre-Christian gnosticism… and concluded that “for a growing number of scholars — now clearly in the majority — such evidence… enables us to rule out… that Gnosticism is to be seen as a heretical offshoot from Christianity’.”
In the early twentieth century, the New Testament scholar Wilhelm Bousset, who traced Gnosticism to ancient Babylonian and Persian sources, declared that “… gnosticism is first of all a pre-Christian movement which had roots in itself. It is therefore to be understood… in its own terms, and not as an offshoot or byproduct of the Christian religion.”
So it’s important to understand at the outset that Gnosticism could refer to a very wide range of religious beliefs and practices, that were generally esoteric in character, and which were often exploited by unscrupulous opportunists two thousand years ago as, indeed, they are right up to this very day.
Our main concern here is not Gnosticism as such, but the concept of gnosis. Gnosis (no-sis) would have been known in India when the Buddha was teaching as jnana (ya-na); both mean “knowledge,” in the sense of “wisdom,” and evidently, both words are from the same root.
The meaning of jnana, as summarized in an encyclopedia, is: “the eradication of the ignorance that sees the illusory multiplicity of the world as real, by attainment of knowledge of the Self (The Absolute),” which is regarded as “a single fundamental reality,” by the presence of which “there is no real distinction between the soul (or essential self) and God.”
As the renowned Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, once observed: “It is due to illusion — caused by the ego, the ‘I am the body’ idea — that the kingdom of God (realm of Being) is conceived to be elsewhere.”
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~ Robert Wolfe