Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism
Gnostics have a unique religious belief that maintains that knowledge is salvation. This does not denote knowledge of the material world but that of spiritual reality and an understanding of the cosmos. It is now believed after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls that Gnostics learned the principles of their religion directly from Christ's disciples.
According to Gnosticism, all humankind was created by Demiurge, a deity that has a dualist nature — a physical form and a divine spark, which lies within. Those who have not gleaned the supreme knowledge continue to move toward Demiurge's Garden of Delights — condemning their divine spark to lie concealed, even after death. Beyond Death: The Gnostic Book of the Dead by Samael Aun Weor explains how unenlightened souls live in a world of illusion, both during life and in the afterlife, unless they learn spiritual knowledge of where they originated and where they must go.
Salvation signifies the release of the divine spark from its physical bondage to merge with the supreme God at death instead of being reincarnated. This salvation can be attained through gnosis, or knowledge. According to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus explains that humans must comprehend the supreme God while on earth in order to gain salvation at death. The physical body of a being that has failed to complete the work of gnosis is destroyed at death, and the divine spark is transferred to another body to remain on earth in search for the true knowledge. This cycle continues until the being achieves gnosis.
Earthly beings are assisted in their search for supreme knowledge by the Messengers of Light, such as Jesus, Seth, and the Prophet Mani, sent by God. Jesus and Sophia, the embodiment of wisdom, wait, in a place called Pleroma, for those who have followed the divine guidance to gain gnosis. Here, these divine entities aid the being to merge with the supreme God. Those who have almost gained the supreme knowledge are allowed to exist in a heaven-like place at the entrance of Pleroma. Here, they increase their awareness and ultimately rise to the level of the enlightened being that merges with God.
Esotericism holds that a deep insight into the hidden meanings of spiritual texts is necessary in order to gain an understanding of the ultimate truth. These hidden meanings have been concealed herein by the divine to be unveiled through introspection by earthly beings, which have attained higher spiritual levels. By understanding these hidden realities the earthly being can align actions, the way of life, and thoughts, so that after death it can merge with the supreme God. The concept of esotericism can be found in many religions, including Buddhism.
Buddhism and Esotericism
Vajrayana Buddhism, a key esoteric belief system, speaks of the path that leads to knowledge and thus to nirvana, or the escape from the cycle of life and death. Religious teachers ask disciples to carry out good deeds, think good thoughts, and follow the sutras (Buddhist teachings or scripture) so that they can gain a higher birth after death. In this manner, the being is expected to move constantly higher toward nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists believe that good souls are reborn in the Pure Land where they may continue their good deeds without interruption for all eternity. Evil souls are meted out punishment by Yama, in proportion with the magnitude of the bad deeds they have accumulated in life. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the soul exists in Bardo, or in a kind of limbo, until rebirth.
In Hermeticism, a leading esoteric religion in the West, followers believe that godlessness is the worst kind of evil perpetrated by man. This evil is punished in the afterlife by demonic spirits who torture those beings after death when they are in purgatory. The good souls avoid this by turning to God in life (De Castigatione Animae, chapter 10.7).
Rosicrucians also follow esoteric beliefs. According to them, when a person dies, his ego, or the manifestation of his earthly self, leaves the physical body but continues to hover around it until they both degenerate over time. The transition from life to death takes a while and at the end of this time, the ego breaks free from the connection to the physical form. It takes on the same physical appearance and enters the “desire world.” Here the ego has to rid itself of the coarse desires that were built up during life. It also has to understand the consequences of the sins committed in life. Only after this stage can the ego move up to heaven.
Mysticism finds place in many religions across the world. From the ancient Egyptians to Judaism, Sufism, and Christianity, numerous religions reveal elements of mysticism in various forms. The mysticism school of thought holds that it is every living being's eternal quest to find the pathways and processes to attain the ultimate goal of reunion with a supreme power. This quest takes the form of a communion with oneself by keeping all external influences at bay. However, different mystic forms of religions describe this ultimate salvation in different ways.
Mystic Christians believe that enlightened souls attain the final goal of oneness with Christ wherein they become Christ. The New Testament has several references that mystics refer to, like Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” The underlying belief is that by experiencing Christ as the believer would experience himself, through prayer and devotion it is possible in time to elevate the soul to a higher place. In this plane, the soul achieves union with the essence of God. Traditional Christianity, as opposed to mystic Christianity, speaks of reaching God's heaven through unswerving faith and devotion but does not dwell on elevating the soul to the level of Christ through spiritual knowledge.
Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, wrote about the beliefs prevalent in rabbinic Judaism at that time. He stated that the souls of the evil are punished in the afterlife while good souls are given a new life in a physical form on earth. Although esoteric elements exist in rabbinic Judaism, such leanings become evident in the kabbalistic Judaism teachings, which clearly define the mystic aspects of rabbinic Judaism. According to the Zohar, a religious text of kabbalistic Jews, it is the evildoers who are consigned to resurrections on earth after memories of previous births and actions are erased. These souls must rectify past wrongs in the reincarnated life to attain salvation.
In Sufism, God assesses all souls on the Day of Judgment, or Yawm ad-Din. Those who have surrendered themselves to the belief and practice of worshipping God will be granted a place in paradise (jannat) while nonbelievers will be sent to hell (jahannum). As opposed to traditional Islam, Sufis believe that paradise brings them closest to the Supreme and allows the veil between the souls and Allah to be lifted. In this way, they are reunited with the Supreme Being to become one with him.