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Romila Thapar

Exploring Mysticism* by Frits Staal Reviewed by Romila Thapar Many of us have on occasion been dubious about the obsession in some circles to explain Indian culture entirely in terms of mysticism. This analysis by Staal of how to approach the study of mysticism is most valuable in that it not only puts the matter into a new perspective, but also because it suggests that the comprehension of the phenomenon so far remains inadequate. The book does not deal with Indian mysticism per se although his own interest in the subject is reflected in the discussion. As he himself puts it, ‘ ... this essay deals primarily with the exploration of mysticism, not with mysticism itself. It reviews the methods by which mysticism is generally studied, and it explores methods by which it can be studied more fruitfully.’ He begins with the assumption that the study of mysticism is unsatisfactory and that what is primarily required is a totally different approach to the study. His dissatisfaction stems from the fact that the study has not so far been carried out on rational lines and thus an important dimension to the study of the theory of mind is lacking. For him such a rational analysis is not a contradiction in terms, as it has generally been held to be, but the only way in which a complete understanding can be obtained of the processes involved in mystical experience. The refusal in the past to rationally analyse mysticism was largely the result of prejudices concerning its supposed innate irrationality. In the first part of the essay Staal examines some of these prejudices in what he calls the alleged irrationality of mysticism. He draws on the mystical tradition in Christianity and Buddhism to indicate that mystical experiences can be subjected to rational analyses. This is an interesting departure from the earlier position when the entire experience was dismissed as incapable of such analyses. Some might argue of course, that in choosing Buddhism as the example of ‘Oriental mysticism’, he is in a sense simplifying his problem, since Buddhist mysticism emerges from a philosophical base which is more easily analysed in rational categories than that of many other ‘Oriental’ philosophies. However, the evidence which he draws upon is sufficiently widespread to make such an argument look like nitpicking. In the second part of the essay he develops on his dissatisfaction by examining the evolution of the ...

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