By David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)
Global Esoteric Traditions
Esoteric, mystical, and occult traditions have been widely connected worldwide as far back as we can trace their history. These often secret teachings cross over realms of healing, astrology, alchemy, Yoga, mantra, and meditation, emphasizing internal practices to raise our awareness to higher states of consciousness. They have been also important in European traditions, going back to the most ancient times.
Yet these connections are not always easy to see or even recognized. Many such esoteric groups formed secret societies, particularly in European and Middle Eastern countries where they have faced extensive oppression by religious authorities. They often deliberately veiled their teachings in symbols and hid their identity and associations, retiring from the world or public scrutiny.
The largest number of such esoteric traditions has occurred in India, Tibet and the Himalayan region. This is because these regions honored freedom of spiritual practice and maintained an unbroken continuity of teachings of Yoga and mediation.
Spread of the Higher Teachings
Many esoteric teachings were transmitted along the Silk Trail overland, which began in China and went to the north of Tibet and India, picking up such Himalayan influences. This was the primary route how Buddhism entered into China two thousand years ago. The Silk Trail was part of other land routes from India and the Himalayas, including south through Iran in the south or north of the Black Sea.
Another important route was the Spice Trail from South India by sea, which went both to Europe through the Middle East on the western side and to China on the east. Hinduism and Buddhism spread to Indonesia, Indochina and East Asia along this path. Yet ideas also moved to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe by western maritime routes.
Extensive trade existed between India and the Greco-Roman world, including a movement of teachers and teachings. Plotinus (third century AD) – perhaps the most important mystic philosopher of later Rome and who strongly impacted Christian mysticism and the Sufis – was said to have visited India. Another important example was Apollonius of Tyana (first century AD), who visited India and carried on Pythagorean traditions that included vegetarianism and a belief in reincarnation.
Migratory movements of peoples also allowed for the spread of esoteric ideas and meditation practices. There was a spread of peoples along the land route from India and Afghanistan through Central Asia and into Europe going back to the dawn of history.
From Afghanistan – itself a Hindu and Buddhist kingdom until a little over a thousand years ago – were ancient trade and migration routes to the Volga, around the Black Sea and to the Danube going back many thousands of years.
Indo-Iranian Influences in Ancient Europe
The main peoples that dominated Eastern Europe in early ancient times were Iranian peoples with possible ties to Afghanistan and India. These Northern Iranian groups were older than the Persian Zoroastrian traditions, and culturally different, reflecting teachings more like the Vedas of India.
Ancient Iranian peoples like the Thracians and Scythians dominated Eastern Europe and the Balkans from well before 1000 BCE to the early centuries AD. The Thracians were the most numerous people in the ancient world according to the Greeks. Indeed the oldest cities and gold work in Europe are sites in Bulgaria going back to before 4000 BCE, like Plovdiv and Varna. Perhaps these were ancient Thracian sites.
The Greek Orphic tradition arose from the Thracians and strongly influenced Greco-Roman esotericism. The Dionysian tradition, later very popular among the Greeks, was also connected to the Thracians. Dionysus resembles Hindu deity Shiva. Such traditions believed in rebirth and sought higher states of consciousness and ecstasy through music and chanting.
The Scythians followed after the Thracians. The Scythians were often enemies of the Persians as Central Asian and Eastern European Iranian peoples that had their own distinct culture. Scythian kingdoms dominated Central Asia from 1000 BCE or earlier up to the eighth century AD. Greater Scythia extended from the Danube (Scythia Minor) to the Pontic Steppes (Scythia Major) and to North India and the Tarim Basin now in China. The Scythians and related peoples ruled parts of North India and Central Asia up to the early centuries AD, with Indo-Scythian, Indo-Greek, Kushana and Huna kingdoms that had associations both with India and with their European counterparts.
Central Asian Scythian kingdoms followed Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Manichean influences, as well as their own indigenous traditions. The worship of Shiva and his son Skanda was common among them and frequently found upon their coins. Turkish and Mongolian groups in the region also adapted similar esoteric teachings as part of their worship of Tengri, their great deity of the Sky and the mountains, and their adaptation of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Pagan and Esoteric Traditions
Ancient DruidEuropean pagans as a whole, most known of which are the Celts and the Druids, had similar esoteric traditions in Western Europe throughout their own long history, with suggestions of influences from the East, including a belief in rebirth, the use of philosophy, astrology and yoga like practices.
There was a common extensive esoteric tradition in the ancient world that seems to become stronger the further back we go in time, which was gradually displaced and submerged with the onset of Christianity, though mystical Christianity borrowed much from it.
These esoteric traditions developed into secret societies. We find Hermetic, Gnostic, Manichean, and Zoroastrian influences common in esoteric traditions of Europe extending into the Middle Ages. The Manicheans, a religious group from Syria, also honored Buddha and spread as far as China, had a strong influence on Europe. There were special crusades in Europe against such mystical and pagan groups like the Bogomils and Cathars, which had Manichean and Gnostic influences.
Meanwhile older pagan traditions survived in Europe until the fourteenth century, particularly in the Baltic region, notably Lithuania, which were the subject to brutal crusades against them by the Teutonic Knights. In many countries of Europe from Ireland to Russia older pagan traditions have survived in hiding, in the background, or by adopting Christian forms and symbols.
Much of the Renaissance in Europe was based upon bringing back older pagan ideas and esoteric traditions, including Hermetic and Neo-Platonic ideas extending to reincarnation. Unfortunately, the mystical and astrological side of the Renaissance teaching was soon suppressed by the church.
The Mongols under Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde had Buddhist, Taoist and Shamanic influences that reached Europe and Iran starting in the thirteenth century. The Golden Horde ruled the Eastern European region as far as the Danube for several centuries, only later adapting Islam.
Alchemy, magic and astrology were common esoteric traditions up to the eighteenth century, with connections worldwide including China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The Gypsies, who came from India around a thousand years ago, brought many esoteric teachings as well as music and dance.
Such esoteric connections increased after the nineteenth century with the Theosophical movement that spread throughout the globe, and with the travel of great Yoga gurus to the West starting with Swami Vivekananda at the turn of the twentieth century.
Today there is a large group of neo-pagan traditions in Europe and America, from Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic backgrounds, as well as renewed interest in Greco-Roman and Hellenic traditions extending to ancient Egyptian and Babylonian traditions, and indigenous traditions overall. This group is increasing as the interest in orthodox Christianity declines and reviving many of the esoteric sides of these traditions
Esoteric Hinduism as a Point of Synthesis
Probably the oldest and most extensive esoteric tradition is that of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Tradition. Hinduism is the world’s largest and oldest pagan and pluralistic tradition, with Yoga, Tantra and Veda enshrined within it as a treasure house of cosmic knowledge.
Yet Hinduism is not a religion as a faith or belief based tradition. It is a way of secret knowledge. While Tantra is the most well known form of Hindu esotericism, all Hindu Yoga and Vedic traditions have similar concerns and practices. Esoteric Hinduism holds perhaps the keys not only to ancient pagan spirituality but also to much of the world’s mysticism.
Today we are at a new phase in the comparison, revival, and reintegration of ancient esoteric traditions, which deemed pagan or primitive by modern scholarship were not given their proper regard or study.
Many of these esoteric movements are still distorted and misunderstood, looked upon as cults, as dangerous forms of occultism, or as types of mind control. Yet the deeper yogic, psychological and philosophical side of the same teachings is also becoming popular, and countering this deep seated negativity.
What is called Tantra in Hindu and Buddhist circles and what was called magic or alchemy in the West are kindred in many ways. In India occultism, meditation and devotion were often pursued together and part of the same body of knowledge. Yet such devotion was an honoring of the Divine within, not the dictates of church or final book of revelation.
In dharmic traditions, there is a recognition of many cycles of civilization, of which ours is not the first or the highest, and is still lacking in the deeper knowledge that the ancients held.
Today we are entering into a new planetary age in which we can understand how such esoteric traditions can link us with the cosmic mind. It is important to reclaim these older esoteric traditions and practice them again. There is a secret light of higher knowledge hidden within them, not something fearful or dangerous. Such esoteric traditions offer individual spiritual experience and enlightenment that helps us go beyond the limitations of all organized religions. They encourage our search for inner freedom and Self-realization, which is the real goal of life and culture.