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Mysticism is "a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions."[web 1]
The term "mysticism" has Ancient Greek origins with various historically determined meanings.[web 2][web 1] Derived from the Greek word μυω, meaning "to conceal",[web 1] mysticism referred to the biblical liturgical, spiritual, and contemplative dimensions of early and medieval Christianity. During the early modern period, the definition of mysticism grew to include a broad range of beliefs and ideologies related to "extraordinary experiences and states of mind".
In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition,[web 2] with broad applications,[web 2] as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God".[web 2] This limited definition has been applied to a wide range of religious traditions and practices,[web 2] valuing "mystical experience" as a key element of mysticism.
Since the 1960s scholars have debated the merits of perennial and constructionist approaches in the scientific research of "mystical experiences"; the perennial position is now "largely dismissed by scholars".
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Definitions
- 3 History
- 4 Mystical experience
- 5 Forms of mysticism within world religions
- 6 Mysticism and morality
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Sources
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Parson warns that "what might at times seem to be a straightforward phenomenon exhibiting an unambiguous commonality has become, at least within the academic study of religion, opaque and controversial on multiple levels". The definition, or meaning, of the term "mysticism" has changed through the ages.[web 2]
Spiritual life and re-formation
...the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.[note 1][note 2]
Parson stresses the importance of distinguishing between
...episodic experience and mysticism as a process that, though surely punctuated by moments of visionary, unitive, and transformative encounters, is ultimately inseparable from its embodied relation to a total religious matrix: liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals, practice and the arts.
According to Gellmann,
Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation (See, for example, Teresa of Avila, Life, Chapter 19) and not as the terminus of their efforts. Thus, in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions.[web 1][note 3]
McGinn argues that "presence" is more accurate than "union", since not all mystics spoke of union with God, and since many visions and miracles were not necessarily related to union. He also argues that we should speak of "consciousness" of God's presence, rather than of "experience", since mystical activity is not simply about the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly about
...new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.
D.J. Moores too mentions "love" as a central element:
Mysticism, then, is the perception of the universe and all of its seemingly disparate entities existing in a unified whole bound together by love.
Related to the idea of "presence" instead of "experience" is the transformation that occurs through mystical activity:
This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic's part and—especially—on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.
Belzen and Geels also note that mysticism is
...a way of life and a 'direct consciousness of the presence of God' [or] 'the ground of being' or similar expressions.
Some authors emphasize that mystical experience involves intuitive understanding and the resolution of life problems. According to Larson,
A mystical experience is an intuitive understanding and realization of the meaning of existence – an intuitive understanding and realization which is intense, integrating, self-authenticating, liberating – i.e., providing a sense of release from ordinary self-awareness – and subsequently determinative – i.e., a primary criterion – for interpreting all other experience whether cognitive, conative, or affective.
And James R. Horne notes:
[M]ystical illumination is interpreted as a central visionary experience in a psychological and behavioural process that results in the resolution of a personal or religious problem. This factual, minimal interpretation depicts mysticism as an extreme and intense form of the insight seeking process that goes in activities such as solving theoretical problems or developing new inventions.[note 4][note 5]
Mystical experience and union with the Divine
William James, who popularized the use of the term "religious experience"[note 6] in his The Varieties of Religious Experience,[web 1] influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental.[web 1] He considered the "personal religion" to be "more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism", and states:
In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which bring it about that the mystical classics have, as been said, neither birthday not native land.
According to McClenon, mysticism is
The doctrine that special mental states or events allow an understanding of ultimate truths. Although it is difficult to differentiate which forms of experience allow such understandings, mental episodes supporting belief in "other kinds of reality" are often labeled mystical [...] Mysticism tends to refer to experiences supporting belief in a cosmic unity rather than the advocation of a particular religious ideology.[web 3]
According to Blakemore and Jennett,
Mysticism is frequently defined as an experience of direct communion with God, or union with the Absolute,[note 7] but definitions of mysticism (a relatively modern term) are often imprecise and usually rely on the presuppositions of the modern study of mysticism — namely, that mystical experiences involve a set of intense and usually individual and private psychological states [...] Furthermore, mysticism is a phenomenon said to be found in all major religious traditions.[web 4][note 8]
In the Hellenistic world, 'mystical' referred to "secret" religious rituals[web 1] The use of the word lacked any direct references to the transcendental. A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion.
In early Christianity the term "mystikos" referred to three dimensions, which soon became intertwined, namely the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to "hidden" or allegorical interpretations of Scriptures.[web 1] The liturgical dimension refers to the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist, the presence of Christ at the Eucharist.[web 1] The third dimension is the contemplative or experiential knowledge of God.
This threefold meaning of "mystical" continued in the Middle Ages. Under the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite the mystical theology came to denote the investigation of the allegorical truth of the Bible. Pseudo-Dionysius' Apophatic theology, or "negative theology", exerted a great influence on medieval monastic religiosity, although it was mostly a male religiosity, since women were not allowed to study. It was influenced by Neo-Platonism, and very influential in Eastern Orthodox Christian theology. In western Christianity it was a counter-current to the prevailing Cataphatic theology or "positive theology". It is best known nowadays in the western world from Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross.
Early modern meaning
Luther dismissed the allegorical interpretation of the bible, and condemned Mystical theology, which he saw as more Platonic than Christian. "The mystical", as the search for the hidden meaning of texts, became secularised, and also associated with literature, as opposed to science and prose.
Science was also distinguished from religion. By the middle of the 17th century, "the mystical" is increasingly applied exclusively to the religious realm, separating religion and "natural philosophy" as two distinct approaches to the discovery of the hidden meaning of the universe. The traditional hagiographies and writings of the saints became designated as "mystical", shifting from the virtues and miracles to extraordinary experiences and states of mind, thereby creating a newly coined "mystical tradition". A new understanding developed of the Divine as residing within human, an essence beyond the varieties of religious expressions.
In the 19th century the meaning of mysticism was considerably narrowed:[web 2]
The competition between the perspectives of theology and science resulted in a compromise in which most varieties of what had traditionally been called mysticism were dismissed as merely psychological phenomena and only one variety, which aimed at union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God—and thereby the perception of its essential unity or oneness—was claimed to be genuinely mystical. The historical evidence, however, does not support such a narrow conception of mysticism.[web 2]
Under the influence of Perennialism, which was popularised in both the west and the east by Unitarianism, Transcendentalists and Theosophy, mysticism has acquired a broader meaning, in which all sorts of esotericism and religious traditions and practices are joined together.
The term mysticism has been extended to comparable phenomena in non-Christian religions,[web 2] where it influenced Hindu and Buddhist responses to colonialism, resulting in Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.
In the contemporary usage "mysticism" has become an umbrella term for all sorts of non-rational world views. William Harmless even states that mysticism has become "a catch-all for religious weirdness". Within the academic study of religion the apparent "unambiguous commonality" has become "opaque and controversial". The term "mysticism" is being used in different ways in different traditions. Some call to attention the conflation of mysticism and linked terms, such as spirituality and esotericism, and point at the differences between various traditions.
Since the 19th century, "mystical experience" has evolved as a distinctive concept. It is closely related to "mysticism," but lays sole emphasis on the experiential aspect, be it spontaneous or induced by human behavior.
Two distinct approaches can be discerned in the study of mystical experience. Perennialists regard those various traditions as pointing to one universal transcendental reality, for which those experiences offer the prove.
The perennial position is "largely dismissed by scholars", but "has lost none of its popularity". Instead, a constructionist approach is favored, which states that mystical experiences are mediated by pre-existing frames of reference. Critics of the term "religious experience" note that the notion of "religious experience" or "mystical experience" as marking insight into religious truth is a modern development, and contemporary researchers of mysticism note that mystical experiences are shaped by the concepts "which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience". What is being experienced is being determined by the expectations and the conceptual background of the mystic.
Forms of mysticism within world religions
Based on various definitions of mysticism, namely mysticism as a way of transformation, mysticism as "enlightenment" or insight, and mysticism as an experience of union, "mysticism" can be found in all major world religions.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were annual initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The High Middle Ages saw a flourishing of mystical practice and theorization corresponding to the flourishing of new monastic orders, with such figures as Guigo II, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, all coming from different orders, as well as the first real flowering of popular piety among the laypeople.
The Late Middle Ages saw the clash between the Dominican and Franciscan schools of thought, which was also a conflict between two different mystical theologies: on the one hand that of Dominic de Guzmán and on the other that of Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure, and Angela of Foligno. This period also saw such individuals as John of Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Genoa, the Devotio Moderna, and such books as the Theologia Germanica, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Imitation of Christ.
Moreover, there was the growth of groups of mystics centered around geographic regions: the Beguines, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch (among others); the Rhineland mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso; and the English mystics Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. The Spanish mystics included Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius Loyola.
The later post-reformation period also saw the writings of lay visionaries such as Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake, and the foundation of mystical movements such as the Quakers. Catholic mysticism continued into the modern period with such figures as Padre Pio and Thomas Merton.
The philokalia, an ancient method of Eastern Orthodox mysticism, was promoted by the twentieth century Traditionalist School. The inspired or "channeled" work A Course in Miracles represents a blending of non-denominational Christian and New Age ideas.
In the common era, Judaism has had two main kinds of mysticism: Merkabah mysticism and Kabbalah. The former predated the latter, and was focused on visions, particularly those mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel. It gets its name from the Hebrew word meaning "chariot", a reference to Ezekiel's vision of a fiery chariot composed of heavenly beings.
Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (no end) and the mortal and finite universe (his creation). Inside Judaism, it forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation.
Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought. Kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional Rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.
Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th to 13th century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. It was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century forward. 20th-century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation.
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Sufism and Tariqat
[A] science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.
A practitioner of this tradition is nowadays known as a ṣūfī (صُوفِيّ), or, in earlier usage, a dervish. The origin of the word "Sufi" is ambiguous. One understanding is that Sufi means wool-wearer- wool wearers during early Islam were pious ascetics who withdrew from urban life. Another explanation of the word "Sufi" is that it means 'purity'.
Sufis generally belong to a khalqa, a circle or group, led by a Sheikh or Murshid. Sufi circles usually belong to a Tariqa which is the Sufi order and each has a Silsila, which is the spiritual lineage, which traces its succession back to notable Sufis of the past, and often ultimately to the prophet Muhammed or one of his close associates. The turuq (plural of tariqa) are not enclosed like Christian monastic orders; rather the members retain an outside life. Membership of a Sufi group often passes down family lines. Meetings may or may not be segregated according to the prevailing custom of the wider society. An existing Muslim faith is not always a requirement for entry, particularly in Western countries.
Sufi practice includes
- Dhikr, or remembrance (of God), which often takes the form of rhythmic chanting and breathing exercises.
- Sema, which takes the form of music and dance — the whirling dance of the Mevlevi dervishes is a form well known in the West.
- Muraqaba or meditation.
- Visiting holy places, particularly the tombs of Sufi saints, in order to remember death and the greatness of those who have passed.
The aims of Sufism include: the experience of ecstatic states (hal), purification of the heart (qalb), overcoming the lower self (nafs), extinction of the individual personality (fana), communion with God (haqiqa), and higher knowledge (marifat). Some sufic beliefs and practices have been found unorthodox by other Muslims; for instance Mansur al-Hallaj was put to death for blasphemy after uttering the phrase Ana'l Haqq, "I am the Truth" (i.e. God) in a trance.
Notable classical Sufis include Jalaluddin Rumi, Fariduddin Attar, Sultan Bahoo, Saadi Shirazi and Hafez, all major poets in the Persian language. Omar Khayyam, Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi were renowned scholars. Abdul Qadir Jilani, Moinuddin Chishti, and Bahauddin Naqshband founded major orders, as did Rumi. Rabia Basri was the most prominent female Sufi.
Sufism first came into contact with the Judea-Christian world during the Moorish occupation of Spain. An interest in Sufism revived in non-Muslim countries during the modern era, led by such figures as Inayat Khan and Idries Shah (both in the UK), Rene Guenon (France) and Ivan Aguéli (Sweden). Sufism has also long been present in Asian countries that do not have a Muslim majority, such as India and China.
The main aim of Buddhism is liberation from the cycle of rebirth, by enlarging self-awareness and self-control. The Buddhist tradition rejects the notion of a permanent self, but does have a strong tradition of metaphysical essentialism, especially Yogacara and the Buddha-nature doctrine. The Madhyamaka tradition lends itself to both a non-metaphysical interpretation, as exemplified by the rangtong philosophy of Tsongkhapa, but also to a "mystical" interpretation, as exemplified by the shentong philosophy of both the Dzogchen tradition and Dolpopa. The Two truths doctrine reconciles absolute and relative reality, but is likewise differently interpreted. Chinese and Japanese is grounded on the Chinese understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Two truths doctrine. It was the Japanese Zen-scholar D.T. Suzuki who noted similarities between Buddhism and Christian mysticism.
Hinduism has a number of interlinked ascetic traditions and philosophical schools which aim at moksha and the acquisition of higher powers. With the onset of the British colonisation of India, those traditions came to be interpreted in western terms such as "mysticism", drawing equivalents with western terms and practices.
Yoga is the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which aim to attain a state of permanent peace. Various traditions of yoga are found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali defines yoga as "the stilling of the changing states of the mind," which is attained in samadhi.
Classical Vedanta gives philosophical interpretations and commentaries of the Upanishads, a vast collection of ancient hymns. At least ten schools of Vedanta are known, of which Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, and Dvaita are the best known. Advaita Vedanta, as expounded by Adi Shankara, states that there is no difference between Atman and Brahman. The best-known subschool is Kevala Vedanta or mayavada as expounded by Adi Shankara. Advaita Vedanta has acquired a broad acceptance in Indian culture and beyond as the paradigmatic example of Hindu spirituality. In contrast Bhedabheda-Vedanta emphasizes that Atamn and Brahman are both the same and not the same, while Dvaita Vedanta states that Atman and God are fundamentally different. In modern times, the Upanishads have been interpreted by Neo-Vedanta as being "mystical".
Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual which arose in India no later than the fifth century AD. Tantra has influenced the Hindu, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain traditions and spread with Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia. Tantric ritual seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana (energy flowing through the universe, including one's body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both. Tantric practice includes visualisation of deities, mantras and mandalas. It can also include sexual and other (antinomian) practices.
Mysticism in the Sikh dharm began with its founder, Guru Nanak, who as a child had profound mystical experiences. Guru Nanak stressed that God must be seen with 'the inward eye', or the 'heart', of a human being. Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, added religious mystics belonging to other religions into the holy scriptures that would eventually become the Guru Granth Sahib.
The goal of Sikhism is to be one with God. Sikhs meditate as a means to progress towards enlightenment; it is devoted meditation simran that enables a sort of communication between the Infinite and finite human consciousness. There is no concentration on the breath but chiefly the remembrance of God through the recitation of the name of God and surrender themselves to Gods presence often metaphorized as surrendering themselves to the Lord's feet.
Taoist philosophy is centered on the Tao, usually translated "Way", an ineffable cosmic principle. The contrasting yet interdependent concepts of yin and yang also symbolise harmony, with Taoist scriptures often emphasing the Yin virtues of femininity, passivity and yieldingness. Taoist practice includes exercises and rituals aimed at manipulating the life force Qi, and obtaining health and longevity.[note 9] These have been elaborated into practices such as Tai chi, which are well known in the west.
The Fourth Way
The Fourth Way is a term used by George Gurdjieff to describe an approach to self-development he learned over years of travel in the East that combined what he saw as three established traditional "ways," or "schools" into a fourth way, namely the schools of the body, the mind and the emotions. The Fourth Way emphasizes that people live their lives in a state of "waking sleep", but that higher levels of consciousness and various inner abilities are possible. The Fourth Way teaches people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. The Fourth Way is an "in the world" practice, which rejects retreats and other forms of seclusion. Its central concentrative technique, self remembering, is to be practised, as far as possible, under all circumstances. According to fourth way teaching, inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform a man into what Gurdjieff taught he ought to be.
Mysticism and morality
A philosophical issue in the study of mysticism is the relation of mysticism to morality. Albert Schweitzer presented the classic account of mysticism and morality being incompatible. Arthur Danto also argued that morality is at least incompatible with Indian mystical beliefs. Walter Stace, on the other hand, argued not only are mysticism and morality compatible, but that mysticism is the source and justification of morality. Others studying multiple mystical traditions have concluded that the relation of mysticism and morality is not as simple as that.
Richard King also points to disjunction between "mystical experience" and social justice:
The privatisation of mysticism – that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences – serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress.
- Original quote in "Evelyn Underhill (1930), Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness.
- Underhill: "One of the most abused words in the English language, it has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics. on the other hand, it has been freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have criticized these things. It is much to be hoped that it may be restored sooner or later to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual life."
- According to Waaijman, the traditional meaning of spirituality is a process of re-formation which "aims to recover the original shape of man, the image of God. To accomplish this, the re-formation is oriented at a mold, which represents the original shape: in Judaism the Torah, in Christianity Christ, in Buddhism Buddha, in the Islam Muhammad." Waaijman uses the word "omvorming", "to change the form". Different translations are possible: transformation, re-formation, trans-mutation. Waaijman points out that "spirituality" is only one term of a range of words which denote the praxis of spirituality. Some other terms are "Hasidism, contemplation, kabbala, asceticism, mysticism, perfection, devotion and piety".
- Compare the use of the terms bodhi, kensho and satori in Buddhism, commonly translated as "enlightenment", and vipassana, which all point to cognitive processes of intuition and comprehension, in contrast to the mind-calming techniques of samatha and samadhi.
- According to Evelyn Underhill, illumination is a generic English term for the phenomenon of mysticism. The term illumination is derived from the Latin illuminatio, applied to Christian prayer in the 15th century. Translated as enlightenment it is adopted in English translations of Buddhist texts, but used loosely to describe the state of mystical attainment regardless of faith.[a]
- The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience.
- According to W.F. Cobb, mysticism is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. According to Cobb, mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.
- blakemore and Jennett add: "[T]he common assumption that all mystical experiences, whatever their context, are the same cannot, of course, be demonstrated." They also state: "Some have placed a particular emphasis on certain altered states, such as visions, trances, levitations, locutions, raptures, and ecstasies, many of which are altered bodily states. Margery Kempe's tears and Teresa of Avila's ecstasies are famous examples of such mystical phenomena. But many mystics have insisted that while these experiences may be a part of the mystical state, they are not the essence of mystical experience, and some, such as Origen, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross, have been hostile to such psycho-physical phenomena. Rather, the essence of the mystical experience is the encounter between God and the human being, the Creator and creature; this is a union which leads the human being to an ‘absorption’ or loss of individual personality. It is a movement of the heart, as the individual seeks to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; it is thus about being rather than knowing. For some mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, phenomena such as visions, locutions, raptures, and so forth are by-products of, or accessories to, the full mystical experience, which the soul may not yet be strong enough to receive. Hence these altered states are seen to occur in those at an early stage in their spiritual lives, although ultimately only those who are called to achieve full union with God will do so."[web 4]
- Extending to physical immortality: the Taoist pantheon includes Xian, or immortals.
- According to Wright, the use of the western word enlightenment is based on the supposed resemblance of bodhi with Aufklärung, the independent use of reason to gain insight into the true nature of our world. As a matter of fact there are more resemblances with Romanticism than with the Enlightenment: the emphasis on feeling, on intuitive insight, on a true essence beyond the world of appearances. See also Enlightenment (spiritual).
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- "The Sikh Review" 57 (7-12). Sikh Cultural Centre. 2009: 35.
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- Mysticism: A guide for the Perplexed. Oliver, P.
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