Hinduism Secrecy
Gavin Flood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0083


If we take secrecy to mean the restriction of information to particular groups of people or individuals that excludes other groups or individuals, then secrecy has always been a part of Hindu traditions both in the sense that certain doctrines, texts, experiences, and practices are restricted to those who are deemed to have the necessary qualification (adhikāra) and in the sense that a higher realization or enlightenment is a secret for those who have not achieved that state. The history of Hinduism can be seen in terms of secrecy understood as the restriction of information, practice, and institution to particular groups of people. In the history of Hinduism we can identify three broad kinds of secrecy: secrecy as social restriction; secrecy as soteriological restriction; and secrecy as metaphysical concealing. Secrecy as social restriction means that the traditions, cultural knowledge, and oral and written texts are restricted to certain social groups, a restriction that is also linked to power. That certain kinds of knowledge or cultural forms are secret gives power to those who have that knowledge. For example, Brahmanical initiation at which a boy is given a sacred thread that he wears over his shoulder, thereby becoming one of the “twice born” (dvija), is secret in the sense that it is restricted to males of the top three classes (varṇa). This idea of social restriction and exclusion is common in Hinduism, although conversely there have been movements from time to time, devotional or bhakti traditions, that have denied and rejected the idea of social hierarchy claiming that the truth of God that gives salvation is available to all. Secrecy as soteriological restriction refers to traditions of esoteric teachings that form a graded hierarchy, with the most spiritually developed having access to higher echelons. Saiva levels of initiation would be a good example of this. This is also linked into cosmology in the sense that in many traditions, particularly tantric traditions, spiritual development is thought to be a rising through the levels of the cosmos to the state or place of liberation located at the top of this hierarchy. Secrecy as metaphysical concealing is the idea that liberation is a secret only in the sense that restricted perception or ignorance prevents humans from realizing its truth. Lift the veil of ignorance, and liberation is the secret open to all. In all of these meanings of secrecy, hierarchy is central.

General Overviews

There are no general book-length overviews of secrecy in Hinduism as such, although ideas about secrecy can be found in general introductions. For an orientation of secrecy in religions, see Bolle 1987 and Wolfson 1999. For a general account of secrecy in Hinduism, see Welbon 1987. Georg Simmel first presented a sociological study of secrecy (Simmel 1906), focusing on secrecy as the regulation of information flow in a given society. Tefft 1980 is an edited volume of papers mainly from an anthropological perspective. Faivre 2010 provides a good account of processes for maintaining secrecy parallel to esoteric Hinduism. Urban 2006 provides a good account of Western esotericism and the influence of Indian religions upon it. Gonda 1985 provides essays on Indian religions that are concerned with the theme of secrecy, such as initiation and the guru.

  • Bolle, Kees, ed. Secrecy in Religions. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1987.

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    A thematic study that examines the role of secrecy in major world religions linking secrecy with taboo and ideas of hierarchy. Particularly useful is the discussion of terms for secrecy in Sanskrit.

  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

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    This is the classic book on caste and hierarchy in India. Although contested by some scholars, Dumont’s book presents an account of hierarchy and the relationship between hierarchy, power, and purity. The concept of secrecy needs to be understood in relation to hierarchy and power.

  • Faivre, Anton. Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Translated by Christine Rhone. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

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    An accessible example of Faivre’s work on esotericism that traces its history from hermetism through Kabbalah to the 18th and 19th centuries and the rise of theosophy and occult science.

  • Gonda, Jan. Change and Continuity in Indian Religion. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1985.

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    This book is a collection of articles by Gonda that contains an important paper on initiation (dīkṣā) dealing with its secret dimension, from Vedic initiation through to the later tantric traditions. It also contains a chapter on the importance and role of the guru in the transmission of teachings.

  • Simmel, Georg. “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies.” American Journal of Sociology 11 (1906): 441–498.

    DOI: 10.1086/211418Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Simmel wrote a sociological account of secrecy, arguing that secrecy is the way information is regulated and distributed in a society. It governs social relations through controlling the relationship between ignorance and knowledge. The general principles discussed by Simmel apply to cultures generally, including Hindu culture.

  • Tefft, Stanton K., ed. Secrecy: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1980.

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    This volume of papers contains anthropological studies of secrecy in various cultures, including secrecy in business organizations and government intelligence. For Tefft, secrecy is concealing information, activities, and relationships. This is relevant to Hinduism in providing a comparative framework within which secrecy can be understood.

  • Urban, Hugh. Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520247765.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This is an interesting account of “sex magic” in Western esotericism influenced by Western constructions of Buddhist and Hindu tantric ideas and erotic discourse.

  • Welbon, Guy R. “Secrecy in Indian Tradition.” In Secrecy in Religions. Edited by Kees Bolle, 44–65. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1987.

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    After some initial reflection on the nature of secrecy, the article explains Sanskrit terms for secrecy, including terms within the general semantic range, such as inconceivable (acintya), unseen (adṛṣṭa), unknown (ajñāta), and invisible or beyond sight (parokṣa). The article discusses secrecy in relation to the sacrifice and hymns of the Veda, the Buddhist understanding of secrecy, and tantric ideas about secrecy.

  • Wolfson, Elliot R., ed. Rending the Veil: Concealment and Secrecy in the History of Religions. New York: Seven Bridges, 1999.

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    This edited volume raises questions about secrecy in religions. How can secrecy be a viable strategy in religions that seek wide or universal outreach? Essays are written from the perspective of different traditions, although cross-cultural and cross-religious themes emerge.

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