Adi Shankara

Mystical Experience of Adi Shankara

Adi Shankara (also known as Sri Shankaracharya) is widely regarded as being one of the greatest Indian saints and philosophers; he lived sometime during the fifth to eighth centuries. The name Shankara means “giver of prosperity”. Shankara is credited with the development and advancement of Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu spiritual and religious path that proclaims the unity of the Atman (the Self) and Nirguna Brahman, which is Brahman without attributes (the Supreme Reality). Shankara’s works elaborate on ideas found in the Vedas, Brahma Sutras, and Upanishads.

Most biographies state that Shankara was born on the 14th year of King Vikramaditya’s rule; however, it is not clear which particular king this was. Some of the suggested dates of Shankara’s birth range from 509 B.C.E. to 805 C.E. Shankara was born in the village of Kaladi in southern India. His parents were aged at the time of his birth, and his father died shortly after Shankara was born.

In his formative years, Shankara was taught by the sage Govinda Bhagavatpada, who was a disciple of Gaudapada, the author (or compiler) of the Maṇḍukya Karika, also known as the Gaudapada Karika. Shankara studied various works such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and Brahma Sutras which were pivotal in shaping his future philosophy and worldview.

It is reported that Shankara traveled widely across India to areas such as Bengal and Gujarat, although the chronology of his travels is not conclusive. During his travels, Shankara engaged in philosophical debates with advocates of different sects of Hinduism as well as other religious thinkers, such as Buddhists. Some biographies credit Shankara with establishing several monasteries that maintain his philosophy to this day.

Shankara is credited with writing over 300 texts and philosophical letters. The works cover a wide range of issues and fields, including poetry, spirituality, philosophy, and social commentary. Among Shankara’s most well-known works are The Bhagavad Gita with The Commentary of Sri Sankaracharya, The Crest Jewel of Discrimination, and Aparokshanubhuti (or Direct Experience of the Absolute). Shankara is believed to have died at the age of 32, although the location and details of his death vary in the different biographies.

Below are excerpts from Adi Shankara’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (from Mysticism East and West) describing the mystical state:

“When the confusing play of ideas (chittam) has come to rest, and he thus, through himself (without the senses) through the purified “inward organ” apprehends the highest, which is wholly Spirit, essentially light, then he wins through to joy.”

In his book, The Crest Jewel of Discrimination, Shankara further wrote:

“Brahman [the Ultimate Reality of Consciousness, Existence, and Bliss] alone is real, the world is the appearance [of Brahman]; and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and Atman, the individual self.”

In Mysticism East and West, the late Theologian Rudolf Otto explains that Shankara’s view is that “Atman [the Self] is not capable of proof nor does it need any… [it is] ‘self-proven’”. Otto further explains Shankara’s ideas about Atman: “For itself, inconceivable, it is the ground of every possibility of conceiving, of every thought, of every act of knowledge. And even he who denies it, insofar as he thereby thinks, considers, and asserts, presupposes it. But above all, Shankara holds that knowledge based on the scriptures is merely the finger which points to the object and which disappears when it itself is looked upon.”

Quoted from Mysticism East and West by Rudolf Otto and The Crest Jewel of Discrimination by Adi Shankara.


Mystical Experience of Svetasvatara

In India, sometime during the first millennium B.C., the Vedas, a large body of Hindu religious texts, were finally collected and put into an organized written form. An additional, much later, collection of philosophical writings by the rishis, or seers, were appended to those earlier hymns and religious precepts, and thereafter regarded as an integral part of the Vedas. These philosophical appendages were called the Upanishads.

Of the 108 Upanishads said to exist, twelve are generally regarded to be of primary importance. In philosophical purity and persuasiveness, these few represent what, for most, are the Upanishads. Their names are the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Aitareya, Taitiriya, Svetasvatara, and Maitri Upanishads. The authors and exact dates of authorship of these separate spiritual treatises are unknown; we know only that they were written, by various anonymous sages who had realized that Truth of which they speak, sometime between 1200 and 400 B.C.

While the Upanishads vary in length and in style, their one common theme is the inner realization of the identity of the Atman (Self) and Brahman (the one universal Consciousness). We may strive to know God, or we may strive to know our Self; but, say the Upanishads, when you find the one, you shall also find the other; and it is this discovery which constitutes enlightenment consciousness.

Perhaps the most celebrated and often cited Upanishad is the Svetasvatara Upanishad, written sometime between 500 and 200 B.C. and attributed to the sage Svetasvatara, whose name is included in the closing text of the work. No other information about Svetasvatara is known to exist.

Below are excerpts from part six of the Svetasvatara Upanishad, describing Svetasvatara’s mystical consciousness:

“The non-dual resplendent Lord resides
As the Self in all creatures and all things.
He impels all to action and witnesses all.
While pervading everything, He remains ever free…

He is the Eternal within the temporal, the Infinite within form.
He’s the One within many, who grants all desires….
Only those who see Him within themselves
Obtain the gift of eternal Peace….”

Quoted from History of Mysticism by Swami Abhayananda

Image Credit: artist’s depiction of Svetasvatara from

isaac watts

Mystical Experience of Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) was a minister, theologian, and logician born in Southampton, England. After studying at the Dissenting Academy at Stoke, in London, he served as a tutor, assistant to a minister, and, in 1702 a full pastor, a role in which he was known for his inspirational oratory. In 1712, due to a health matter, Watts went to stay with Sir Thomas Abney in Hertfordshire; he would remain with the Abney family for the remainder of his life.

Watts was a highly prolific hymn writer who is credited with authoring approximately 750 hymns. His works include “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Joy to the World”, and “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”. Watts is widely regarded as the “Godfather of English Hymnody”. Many of his hymns are read today, having been translated into numerous languages.

Isaac Watts wrote the following about his mystical experience:

“Far in the Heavens my God retires:
My God, the mark of my desires,
And hides his lovely face;
When he descends within my view,
He charms my reason to pursue,
But leaves it tir’d and fainting in th’ unequal chase.

Or if I reach unusual height
Till near his presence brought,
There floods of glory check my flight,
Cramp the bold pinions of my wit,
And all untune my thought;
Plunged in a sea of light I roll,
Where wisdom, justice, mercy, shines;
Infinite rays in crossing lines
Beat thick confusion on my sight, and overwhelm my soul.

Great God! behold my reason lies
Adoring: yet my love would rise
On pinions not her own:
Faith shall direct her humble flight,
Through all the trackless seas of light,
To Thee, th’ Eternal Fair, the infinite Unknown.”

Quoted from “The Incomprehensible” by Isaac Watts.

HG Wells

Mystical Experience of H.G. Wells

Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) was a novelist, sociologist, and historian born in Bromley, England. Although he grew up under the constant threat of poverty as the son of domestic workers who later became small shopkeepers, Wells was a voracious reader and an ambitious young man. He won a scholarship to study biology at the Normal School of Science (now part of Imperial College), in London, when he was 18. Wells graduated from university in 1888 and then became a science teacher.

The first book that Wells published, in 1893, is entitled Text-Book of Biology. He published his first novel, The Time Machine, in 1895. That work was an immediate success and Wells subsequently wrote a series of science fiction novels, propelling his writing career. Prolific in several genres, Wells is best known for The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, both science fiction novels, as well as the comic novels Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr. Polly.

As World War I, raged on, H.G. Wells wrote the following about mystical experience (presumably based on his own experience):

“Suddenly, in His own time God comes. This cardinal experience is an undoubting, immediate sense of God. It is the attainment of an absolute certainty that one is not alone in oneself. It is as if one was touched at every point by a being akin to oneself, sympathetic, beyond measure wiser, steadfast and pure in aim. It is completer and more intimate but it is like standing side by side with and touching some one that we love very dearly and trust completely. ‘Closer is He than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.’”

Quoted from H.G. Wells’ God, the Invisible King by A. Eustace Haydon in “The Significance of the Mystic’s Experience”.

Image Credit: H.G. Wells by Granger/Shutterstock.


Mystical Experience of Kabir

Kabir Das (1440 – 1518) was a 15th-century Indian mystic, poet, and saint who is revered by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Kabir was born in the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, India, and he was raised in a Muslim family. Later in his life, Kabir was heavily influenced by the Hindu bhakti leader, Ramananda. He was a weaver by profession.

Kabir is known for being critical of both organized religion and religions. Kabir questioned what he regarded as meaningless and unethical practices of different religions, and those of Hinduism and Islam in particular. Kabir taught that to know the Truth, one must drop the sense of “I”, the ego. Today, Kabir is widely known for his poems, specifically 100 Poems of Kabir. Most of Kabir’s work is concerned with devotion to God, mysticism, and discipline.

Kabir wrote the following about mystical consciousness:

“The river and its waves are one surf: where is the difference between the river and its waves?

When the wave rises, it is the water; when it falls, it is the same water again. Tell me, Sir, where is the distinction?

Because it has been named as wave shall it no longer be considered as water?

Within the Supreme Brahma, the worlds are being told as beads:
Look upon that rosary with eyes of wisdom.”

Kabir also noted the ineffability of mystical states, writing:

“It [the Supreme Truth] cannot be told by the words of the mouth. It cannot be written on paper. It is like a dumb person who tastes a sweet thing—how shall it be explained?”

Quoted from Kabir’s One Hundred Poems of Kabir.

Image Credit: Kabir from

edward carpenter

Mystical Experience of Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter (1844 – 1929) was an English poet and philosopher who was educated at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, Carpenter was elected a fellow and was ordained in 1869. In 1870, he became the curate for the theologian Frederick Denison. However, Carpenter tired of the religious and social conventions of his time and, in 1874, he became a traveling lecturer for the newly founded university extension movement, teaching in various industrial towns in northern England.

An early activist for gay rights and prison reform, Carpenter also advocated a vegetarian diet, and he stood against the practice of vivisection. In 1883, Carpenter bought a small farm in Derbyshire; he would live there for the next 39 years. A prolific writer who authored dozens of works, Carpenter was particularly known for his essay “Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure”, in which he wrote of civilization as a type of disease through which human societies pass.

Edward Carpenter wrote the following regarding his mystical consciousness:

“Thus at last the Ego, the mortal, immortal self—disclosed at first in darkness and fear and ignorance in the growing babe—finds its true identity. For a long period it is baffled in trying to understand what it is. It goes through a vast experience. It is tormented by the sense of separation and alienation—alienation from other people and persecution by all the great powers and forces of the universe: and it is pursued by a sense of its own doom. Its doom truly is irrevocable. The hour of fulfillment approaches, the veil lifts and the soul beholds at last its own true being….. At last there comes a time when we recognize—or see that we shall have to recognize—an inner equality between ourselves and all others; not of course an external equality, for that would be absurd and impossible, but an inner and profound equality. And so we come again to the mystic root-conception of Democracy.”

Quoted from Pagan and Christian Creeds by Edward Carpenter.


Mystical Experience of Chao Pien

Chao Pien (994 – 1070) was a highly regarded government officer of China’s Sung dynasty and a lay disciple of Fach’uan of Chiang-shan. Chao Pien was well-known by many for his integrity and benevolence. It is reported that every night Chao Pien put on his ceremonial robe, lit incense, and made offerings to submit the events of the day to The Divine.

One day, after Chao Pien’s official duties were over, he found himself leisurely sitting in his office when, all of a sudden, a clash of thunder burst on his ear, and he realized a state of satori (mystical consciousness). Chao Pien wrote the following poem to describe key aspects of his Zen experience:

“Devoid of thought, I sat quietly by the desk in my official room,

With my fountain-mind undisturbed, as serene as water;

A sudden clash of thunder, the mind-doors burst open,

And lo, there sitteth the old man in all his homeliness.”

Quoted from The Teachings of the Mystics by W.T. Stace.

Thomas Traherne

Mystical Experience of Thomas Traherne

Thomas Traherne (1636 or 1637 – 1674) was an English poet, Anglican cleric, theologian, and religious writer. Traherne was educated at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. He was ordained in 1660 and then served in a number of religious roles, with his final position being the minister of Teddington Church.

Traherne is best known today for “Centuries of Meditations”, a collection of short paragraphs first published in 1908. Much of Traherne’s writings explore the glory of creation and his relationship with God.

Thomas Traherne wrote the following of his mystical experience:

“WILL you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness? Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the Gift of God they attended me into the world, and by His special favour I remember them till now. Verily they seem the greatest gifts His wisdom could bestow, for without them all other gifts had been dead and vain. They are unattainable by book, and therefore I will teach them by experience. Pray for them earnestly: for they will make you angelical, and wholly celestial. Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.

All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason. My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the Estate of Innocence. All things were spotless and pure and glorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious, I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free and immortal. I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either for tribute or bread. In the absence of these I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator’s praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me: All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the whole World, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.”

Quoted from The Third Century by Thomas Traherne, as available at

Photo Credit: Thomas Traherne from

Mystical Experience of Nanak

Mystical Experience of Nanak

Nanak (1469 –1539), also referred to as Baba Nanak, was born in the small village of Talwandi in the Punjab (now a territory of Pakistan). As a child, Nanak attended school and tended cows for his father, a farmer. However, Nanak did not like rural life, and he proved to be of little use to his father. Nanak thus went to live in Sultanpur with a brother-in-law who held a post there as a petty government officer. Nanak also obtained a governmental post, working as a storekeeper in the Commissariat. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 18, he married, and, by the time he was in his late thirties, he had fathered two sons.

It was during his time at Sultanpur, while working at the Commissariat, that Nanak began to awaken to the spiritual life. He took to joining with a Muslim friend, Mardana, in singing devotional songs and attending religious lectures. It was also around this time that Nanak nearly drowned in a canal where he regularly bathed, and he had a near-death experience (NDE). This NDE generated in him a profound spiritual awareness of the eternal Self.

Thereafter, Nanak proclaimed to his friends and family that he had been taken up to God and had known Him directly. Transformed by his experience, Nanak was inspired to teach others of the all-pervasive God. He thus quit his job, and, renouncing worldly life, set out as a religious mendicant. Nanak traveled extensively across Asia—eastward as far as the city of Benares, as far as Kashmir to the north, and westward, to Afghanistan and Persia, and to Mecca in Arabia—teaching his message of one God who dwells in everyone and constitutes the eternal Truth.

After his long and broad travels, Nanak returned to his family, taking them to the village of Kartarpur, on the Ravi River, where he had been given some fertile farmland. There, in his later years, he settled down as a wheat farmer. A commune of devotees gathered there, and Nanak generously shared with all who came both his grain and the wisdom he had acquired.

During his many years of traveling, Nanak wrote down numerous musings and inspirational songs of God. Below are examples of Nanak’s mystical writings, which describe the spiritual union with God that he experienced:

“When the light of the soul blends with the universal Light,
And the human mind commingles
With the Mind of all things,
Then, our petty being,
With its violence, doubt and sorrow, disappears.
Through the grace of the Guru,
Such spiritual union takes place.
They are blessed in whose hearts the Lord resides.”

Nanak further wrote:

“It is not through thought that He is to be comprehended,
Though we strive to grasp Him a hundred thousand times;
Nor by outer silence and long deep meditation
Can the inner silence be reached;
Nor is man’s hunger for God appeasable
By piling up world-loads of wealth.
All the innumerable devices of worldly wisdom
Leave a man disappointed; not one avails.
How then shall we know the Truth?
How shall we rend the veils of untruth asunder?
Abide by His will, and make your own His will,
O Nanak; write this in your heart.”

Quoted from History of Mysticism by Swami Abhayananda.

Photo Credit: Nanak from


Mystical Experience of Heraclitus

Heraclitus (540 – 480 B.C.E.) was an Ancient Greek philosopher and a native of the city of Ephesus, which was then part of Persia. Born an aristocrat, a prince, Heraclitus renounced all political activities and ceded his title and properties to his brother. He then became a recluse, living in the mountains, “making his diet of grass and herbs.” It is interesting to note that, although Heraclitus was a contemporary of the Buddha—who was also a prince who renounced his role for spiritual pursuits—it doesn’t seem that Heraclitus had any contact with Eastern thought. Rather, he came to his views through his own reflection and mystical experience.

Heraclitus is famous for his book, On Nature, which was published around 500 B.C.E. On Nature is a philosophical treatise containing three discourses on 1) the universe, 2) politics and ethics, and 3) theology. Heraclitus had a significant influence on other thinkers of his own and later times. Hesiod, before him, had described the world of matter as arising from the primal Chaos, and had conjectured that this matter, of which the universe consisted, was then set in order in a designed manner by the all-pervading Thought or Intelligence of God. That Divine, all-pervading formative Intelligence, Heraclitus called “Logos,” a common Greek word used variously to mean “thought,” “reason,” or “idea.”

Below is Heraclitus’ message of mystical oneness, based on existing fragments from On Nature:

“[There is] one Intelligence, which is distinct from all things and yet pervades all things. That Intelligence is One; to know It is to know the Purpose, which guides all things and is in all things. Nature has no inherent power of intelligence; Intelligence is the Divine. Without It, the fairest universe is but a randomly scattered dust-heap. If we are to speak with intelligence, we must found our being on THAT which is common to all… For that Logos, which governs man, is born of the One, which is Divine. It [the Divine] governs the universe by Its will and is more than sufficient to everyone.”

Heraclitus further wrote that:

“One should not conjecture at random about the Supreme [Truth]. The eyes are better witnesses to the truth than the ears; but the eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if their souls cannot understand. You could not in your travels find the source or destination of the soul, so deeply hidden is the Logos. [But] I searched for It [and found It] within myself. That hidden Unity is beyond what is visible. All men have this capacity of knowing themselves, [for] the soul has the Logos within it, which can be known when the soul is evolved. What is within us remains the same eternally; It is the same in life and death, waking and sleeping, youth and old age; for It has become this world, and the world must return to It.”

Quoted from History of Mysticism by Swami Abhayananda and On Nature by Heraclitus.