An Overview of Gnosis

c 1994 Dean Edwards



This document contains a general overview of gnosis. It should be read by anyone interested in understanding the what gnosis is and what differentiates it from other forms of mystic experience.


The following general overview of gnosis is not intended to be the last word or the definitive work on this subject. Rather it is, as its title implies, intended to provide the participant or reader with a set of guidelines that will familiarize them with the general use of the terms gnosis, ma'rifat, jnana, mystical ecstasy and other related terms. It will also review the trends, study and practice of historic and contemporary experience of gnosis. Pleae send comments to: (Dean Edwards).


The purpose of this document is to provide a general overview of the historical and contemporary trends, techniques. practice and development of gnosis and gnosticism as well as related concepts such as mystical ecstasy, jnana (Sanskrit), Ma'rifat (Arabic) and Erfan (Persian) The Gnosis-Overview is intended to serve as a general on-line reference about gnosis in the soc.religion., talk.religion., and sci. and alt. hierarchies (among others). It may not be sold or resold without permission of the author.

Gnosis comes from a Greek word meaning 'to know' in the sense of to be acquainted. Gnosis in a more specific religious sense refers to the knowledge of God and the fullness of the true spiritual realms through direct personal experience. Similar terms are jnana (Sanskrit) and ma'rifat (Arabic). A gnostic is someone who has had such an experience or who has been initiated into a tradition which provides access to such personal revelations. (Please note that as a term 'jnana' should not be confused with jnana yoga, which as a system of yoga is related to study and not to the topic of gnosis.)

Gnosis is not simply a synonym for mysticism, paranormal, occult, metaphysics, esoteric or knowledge. It is a distinct category of mystical experience beyond the physical or psychic levels of being. (Psychic experiences, such as speaking in tongues, are not considered to be an experience of gnosis.)

A gnostic religious-philosophical movement flourished during the first several centuries of the current era. Although the presence of gnostic concepts were documented in Alexandria during the Second Century B.C.E., no system of practice emerged until the Second Century C.E..

The effects of the presence of Gnosticism as a systematized religious and spiritual practice were felt throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. These effects continue to be felt today. While much of the focus in gnostic studies has been with the Christian forms of gnosis, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, pagan and other versions are also present in the historical and contemporary record. An active academic debate about the origins of gnosticism and gnosis is a major focus of many scholars. The discussion and study of gnosis as an approach to spirituality cannot be easily tied to any single religion.

Gnosis involves direct "knowledge" and experience of the sacred, rather than relying exclusively on faith, belief or study of sacred texts. The gnostic (Arabic: 'arif) draws upon this inner experience and knowledge to describe the origin and true nature of all things.

The world is often seen as a training ground or prison for soul as it seeks spiritual liberation, a return to its true home in the Pleroma or realms of pure spirit beyond the physical and psychic regions of matter, emotion and the mind. The true nature of Soul is as a divine spark which originally issued forth from the fountain- head of God. Systems of gnosis often teach that only through the intercession of a messanger from the pure spiritual realms can the soul become acquainted with God. The original Greek word, gnosis, as noted above, meant knowledge in terms of being 'acquainted with'. The gnostic in any form is a 'friend of God'.

Please note that soul in the above paragraph refers to the spark of individualized spiritual essence that dwells within the consciousness or mind. In some systems the word 'spirit' itself is used instead of soul. Soul then becomes interchangeable with mind. In Greek, for instance, the word 'psyche' means both mind and soul. 'pneuma' on the other hand means spirit, wind, breath, air. The ancient Egyptians used the word Ba for mind/soul and used Sa for the spiritual essence which dwelt within the Ba.

Today, new schools of gnosticism such as the Ecclesia Gnostica have emerged in the West. The ancient movement still thrives in several Sufi orders of Islam. (The Arabic term for gnosis is marifat.) There are also strong gnostic influences in Jewish Kabbalah, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Similar patterns are found in India in the teachings of the Fifteenth Century poet Kabir and in the Sikhism. There is also increasing interest in the marifat of Sufism in Islam.

As a field of academic study gnosticism has risen to prominence as a result of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library materials in Egypt in 1945 and earlier discoveries of Manichaean materials. This document is intended to serve as a foundation for a continuing serious exchange of information, questions and views about historical and contemporary gnosis, gnostics and Gnosticism.

Future editions of this document will include sections summarizing various schools of gnosis. Additional information is also available at most libraries by looking up Gnosticism or Sufism in the subject index.

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Last edited Sun Oct 01 20:05:46 2006.