The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Context


The Gifford Lectures

The Gifford Lecture series on natural theology began in 1888, after the Scottish jurist (judge) Adam Lord Gifford, upon his death, bequeathed a large sum of money to fund them. He was convinced that knowledge of God improved humanity and moved it forward. Natural theology looks for the existence of divinity in the observations of nature and the use of human reason. William James served as Gifford lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901–02. Lord Gifford wanted the lectures to be scholarly but not too esoteric for a general audience. He imagined they would also be available in printed formats. Some books that grew out of the Gifford Lectures were very popular, and James's The Variety of Religious Experience is one of them.

The Mind-Cure Movement

William James discusses the religion of the "once-born," those who refuse to entertain ideas of evil (or sickness) in any form, in connection with the mind-cure movement, which was the New Age philosophy of his day. In the 1890s no one approach to medicine had gained ascendency in the United States, and many alternative therapies were common alongside those taught in Western medical schools.

The mind-cure movement had many adherents, but it began with American teacher Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, known as the father of "New Thought." The main teaching of New Thought was that the spirit is more real and more powerful than matter; therefore, the mind has the power to heal the body. Quimby believed himself to be a healer and had many followers. He sometimes called his healing method "Christian Science," and one of his students, American theologian Mary Baker Eddy, appropriated this term as the name of the new religion she founded.

After Quimby's death, New Thought, or mind-cure, became a national movement. William James mentions Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science as "the most radical branch of mind-cure in its dealings with evil. For it evil is simply a lie." Before Eddy met Quimby, she had already determined that disease was rooted in the human mind and that it was not God's will that a person should suffer sickness. She herself had suffered sorrow in her life and physical injury after a severe fall. She received a spiritual illumination at that time, which resulted in her healing, and she then built a religious movement on the idea that people could use their minds to heal themselves.


Peripheral to the mind-cure movement were the various experiments taking place in contacting the spirit world—sometimes called spiritism or spiritualism. Those who follow the practices of spiritualism believe that the living can communicate with the dead, often with the help of a medium. These activities are often accompanied by knocking and rapping of the spirits, movement of objects, manifestations of apparitions, levitation, and automatism (for example, when a medium channels a spirit, or a person finds themselves engaged in automatic writing). Spiritualism was quite popular in late 19th- and early 20th-century America, and by 1897 had some eight million followers in the United States and Europe.

William James mentions spiritualism (spiritism) as one of the doctrinal sources of the mind-cure movement. He also mentions people who have been subject to automatisms, "both motor and sensory," particularly mentioning English writer John Bunyan's verbal automatisms. He gives other examples, such as an account of someone who practiced automatic writing, and he mentions automatic behavior that occurs at religious revival meetings, where people gather to practice Christianity and receive inspiration.


Mysticism is the cultivation of altered states of consciousness, usually for the purpose of experiencing religious ecstasy or union with God or a return to unitary consciousness. Unitary consciousness in some religious systems of thought refers to an original ground of awareness from which all other states of awareness arise and from which the manifest (material) world also arises. Mystical states can also occur spontaneously and are reported by practitioners in many spiritual traditions and sometimes (in rare cases) by atheists or agnostics. Mysticism may also encompass the practice of insight, in which the spiritual practitioner cultivates awareness moment-to-moment, which is thought to lead to more sophisticated levels of understanding of the self and the external world.

The practice of mysticism can be found in all the major religions and in some types of philosophical inquiry. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James primarily examines mystical states as experienced by people within Christianity (which includes Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox church, and the various Protestant denominations that arose following the Protestant Reformation).

In his survey of non-Christian mysticism, William James includes one account of a Sufi mystic (Sufism is an offshoot of Islam, in which practitioners cultivate mystical states) and a brief account from a Hellenic (Greek) Jewish philosopher. Additionally, he provides related information on mysticism from Hinduism and Buddhism. However, examples of mysticism can be found in all parts of the world: for example, in aboriginal practices of tribal peoples, such as Native Americans (Shamanism); in Judaism (in the teaching of the Kabbalah); in Chinese Daoism (also called Taoism); and in the philosophy of ancient Greeks and Chinese (for example, Confucianism), who sometimes associated mysticism with rational thought.

Christian Mysticism

Mysticism in Christianity was more prevalent in the East in its early centuries. The "desert fathers" were 3rd- and 4th-century hermits who went to the Egyptian desert to live and pray in solitude and in community. They practiced contemplation, which in Christianity is nonverbal prayer and mental stillness that focuses the mind on the love of God. What is called contemplation in Christianity is equivalent to meditation in the Eastern religions. Further, the term meditation in Christianity traditionally referred to the practice of reflective thought on the meaning of certain passages of the Bible.

In the West, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century mystic, coined the term "spiritual marriage" to refer to the ecstasy of the soul in union with God. Prayer and contemplation were practiced primarily in monasteries, by people who had joined religious orders. The famous mystics of Catholicism were from Spain, and William James mentions all three: Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order; Saint Teresa of Ávila, who reformed the Carmelite order of nuns; and Saint John of the Cross, who extended Teresa's reform to the Carmelite monks. Saint Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations, prayers, and contemplations meant to develop openness and responsiveness to God. One aspect of these exercises is an imaginative recreation of certain scenes from the life of Jesus. Saint Teresa set out to reform the Carmelites after an intense period of spiritual activity, in which she experienced repeated visions of God and union with him. Teresa wrote extensively about her spiritual life in her autobiography (Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus, written in the 1560s) and elaborated on four stages of mystical prayer in other texts, particularly Interior Castle (1588) and The Way of Perfection (1583). Saint John of the Cross also experienced union with God and famously wrote about it in his poem Dark Night of the Soul (written between 1577 and 1579).


Quietism refers to the pursuit of spiritual perfection through the technique of suppressing effort and becoming entirely passive so that God may enter the soul. The term may be used generically in both Christian and non-Christian religious practice, but it was first coined by a Spanish priest, Miguel de Molinos, who was condemned by the Catholic Church and sentenced to life in prison. Similar to quietism are ideas propagated by the Pietists and the Quakers, dissenting sects of Protestant Christians who encouraged mystical encounters with God. French mystic Madame Guyon advocated a doctrine similar to quietism and was condemned by the Pope. William James provides excerpts from the writings of Molinos and Guyon, as well as from the English founder of the Quaker religion, George Fox, and English follower of Quakerism Thomas Ellwood.

Indian Religion and Philosophy

The major religion of the Indian subcontinent, called Hinduism by Westerners, is referred to traditionally as sanatana dharma, or the eternal path or absolute set of duties prescribed by religion. Sanatana dharma prescribes ethical behavior and acknowledges that there are four aims in life: artha (gaining wealth or the materials needed to live), kama (seeking pleasure),dharma (performing one's duty, such as going to school, getting married, working at a job or profession, and raising a family), and moksha or moksa (reaching spiritual liberation). Spiritual liberation is discussed in the Vedas, India's most sacred text (which has similar status for Indians as does the Bible for Christians). But the paths to emancipation were systematized through systems of Indian philosophy. These systems can be either orthodox (deriving authority from the Veda) or heterodox (not depending on the Veda). Vedanta and Yoga/Samkhya are orthodox systems of philosophy, while Buddhism, which is now classed as a religion, is heterodox.


Vedanta means "end of the Veda" and takes its authority primarily from the Upanishads (also Upanisads), Vedic texts that discuss the nature of "all-pervasive Reality" or "the One without a second, seated in the heart of all beings." This reality is called both Brahman and atman in the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy. Brahman refers to the reality outside the self, and atman refers to the reality found within human beings. Vedanta is considered a monist system (monism is any version of the idea that reality can be reduced to one principle) because it asserts that there is only one consciousness, although through the workings of Maya (illusion), the world appears multifarious, and Brahman and atman seem to be separated. The classical texts of Vedanta recommend methods of contemplation—study, pondering, and reflection on key truths—to reach the goal of life, called moksha. Spiritual emancipation in the Vedanta system occurs when a person fully embodies the truth that he or she is not different from Brahman. Emancipation also guarantees release from the cycle of birth and death.

William James's knowledge of Vedanta seems to come primarily from Swami Vivekananda, one of the first Indian teachers to come to the West (in 1893, where he addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago). William James even met Swami Vivekananda, who wrote several books in which he simplified Indian philosophy for the Western masses. Thus, William James's understanding of Vedanta and Yoga are largely filtered through that lens. Vivekananda's most popular book, Raja Yoga (1896), discusses the eightfold path of Yoga within the context of Vedanta philosophy.


While most Westerners are under the impression that Yoga is primarily a system of physical exercises and breathing techniques to obtain good health and slow down the mind, it is actually an ancient spiritual "technology" for obtaining the goal of life, which in the Yoga system is called kaivalya, or isolation. Classical Yoga is anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 years old, with roots in the Veda as well as the spiritual practices of wandering mendicants (yogis) who developed meditation techniques to still the mind. The Buddha spent time among the yogis, for example, before he refined his own system of practice.

The Yoga Sutra, attributed to Patanjali and written anywhere between 250 BCE and 200 CE is a collection of 196 aphorisms that describe the nature of the mind and prescribe techniques for controlling its modifications (fluctuations). Classical or Ashtanga (eight-limbed) Yoga (also called Raja Yoga) includes ethical guidelines (restraint and observances), physical practices (breathing techniques and sitting poses), and withdrawal of the mind from the external world through the practices of sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, or spiritual absorption. The Yoga Sutra describes stages of samadhi, which became more and more refined. It is only after the repetition of samadhi over a long period of time that a practitioner reaches kaivalya, in which the purusha, or transcendent self, is isolated from prakriti, or nature (the body-mind). At the end of Yoga, the seer (yogi) abides in his or her true nature at last. Kaivalya is the equivalent of spiritual liberation in the Yoga system. Yoga techniques rest on the philosophy of Samkhya (also Sankhya), which is a dualistic system (unlike Vedanta) and acknowledges two principles in the universe: purusha (consciousness, transcendent and immaterial) and prakriti (nature, which is both nonconscious transcendental ground and immanent and material stuff, such as the manifest world and the human body).

William James does not differentiate the goals of Yoga and Vedanta, which are different, as are their practices. He equates samadhi with enlightenment, quoting both Swami Vivekananda and an early Western source, but samadhi is not enlightenment. Moreover, the goal of Yoga is kaivalya. The term enlightenment, widely used in English texts to describe the goal of Indian spirituality, is misleading, and the Indian (Sanskrit) terms for these end states are quite different, even in English translation (i.e., liberation, freedom, or emancipation for moksha and isolation for kaivalya). William James correctly states that the term samadhi is used in the Buddhist texts to refer to stages of spiritual absorption called dhyanas (also called jhanas). But while James mentions four dhyanas, there are eight in original Buddhist practice. The first set of dhyanas/jhanas is performed "with content" (i.e., an object of meditation), while the second set is performed without content.


Buddhism began as a heterodox system of Indian philosophy and is now considered an atheistic religion, although later followers incorporated deity worship. The founder of Buddhism is Gautama Siddhartha, the son of a Nepalese king; he was later called the Buddha (the awakened one). The Buddha left his home to study with ascetics and yogis until he formulated his own spiritual path, based on four precepts: (1) Life is suffering. (2) Suffering is caused by craving. (3) Suffering has an end. (4) There is a path that ends suffering. The end of suffering is the state of nirvana in the Buddhist system, which can be translated as "blowing out." It is theoretically a state beyond suffering and the sense of self, in which a person is released from the cycle of death and rebirth. To reach nirvana, Buddhists practice meditation and detachment. For the most part, James refers to classical Theravada Buddhist philosophy and practices. He mentions Buddhism's theory of dependent origination—the 12-link chain of causes that explains how rebirth and suffering started. No deity figures into the chain of causation, which begins with avidya (also avijja) or ignorance and ends in old age and death. The cycle is driven by karma (action), repeating itself until an individual reaches nirvana.

American Transcendentalism

William James refers to "Emersonianism" (the philosophy of American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson) and quotes from Emerson's writing to demonstrate "Emersonian religion," which he also calls transcendental idealism and New England transcendentalism. Transcendentalism begins with the idea that knowledge lies beyond the senses and can be accessed by human beings who are open to receiving it. The transcendentalists were monists who believed that God was immanent in the world, and the soul of each individual was identical to the "world soul." Emerson was a key figure in the transcendental movement, and he was influenced by German and British Romanticism and later by Asian and Middle Eastern philosophical ideas.

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