In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Esotericism and Yoga

  • Introduction
  • General Approaches to “Esotericism”
  • Modern Yoga
  • Yoga, Islam, and the Bāuls

Hinduism Esotericism and Yoga
Julian Strube
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0263


While the scope and content of a bibliographical entry generally depends on the author’s understanding of the subject at hand, the meaning of “esotericism” is particularly unclear and contested. The term is used in highly varied ways across diverse disciplines and fields of study. Systematic scholarship on the meaning of esotericism is limited to a relatively small number of disparate studies. Although there is little scholarship focusing on the relationship between “esotericism and yoga,” a wealth of valuable studies, most of them quite recent, have explored a range of contexts that are relevant to an understanding of it. This article relates these diverse studies, while being mindful of the blurry terminology and the many lacunae that invite further scholarship on this fascinating and important subject. The article’s point of departure are present-day associations of “esotericism” and “yoga,” that is, contexts in which these notions have been linked by scholars and practitioners. The logic behind this bibliography is oriented toward an understanding of how, why, and in which historical contexts people across the world have identified yoga as “esoteric” or “occult,” and often combined it with ideas and practices from various cultures within and beyond Asia. By consequence, this article is organized around the period in which “esotericism” emerged as a term within scholarship and primary sources: the nineteenth until the early twentieth century. If esotericism were regarded as a particular subject that might be traced back centuries in Asian contexts—either based on the identification of diachronic “esoteric” traditions or on a more structural focus on notions such as secrecy, initiation, siddhi, and so forth—the scope could comprise a vast body of sources and scholarship including, for example, sources from the spheres of tantra, hatha yoga, so-called Esoteric Buddhism, or traditions such as Vaiṣṇava Sahajiyā. This would be reasonable because Indological literature, for instance, widely employs notions such as esotericism, esoteric, or occult in research on material predating the “modern” period. However, engagement between disciplines like Indology and Asian regional studies and the dedicated study of esotericism is rare. Hence, this article might assist readers in exploring ways in which collaboration between different fields and disciplines could shine light on the usefulness of the category “esotericism” itself.

General Approaches to “Esotericism”

The question of “what is esotericism” might be approached through typological definitions, on the basis of phenomenological approaches, a sociological repertoire, or from historical angles. The latter are clearly predominant within the dedicated study of esotericism, which emerged in the 1990s and has by now developed into a prosperous field. Departing from earlier “religionist” approaches implying the existence of a perennial esoteric tradition, an influential typological definition was established in Faivre 1994 and remains influential especially beyond the study of esotericism. Many esotericism scholars have settled on the historical concept of “Western esotericism” that was pioneered by Faivre and further developed in Hanegraaff 2012: a specific set of currents including Gnosticism, magic, Hermeticism, Paracelsianism, Rosicrucianism, Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, Spiritualism, occultism, and organizations such as the Theosophical Society. Several works, including Stuckrad 2005 and Bergunder 2010, have questioned the grouping of such currents (or the identification of actual “currents” in the first place) under the single rubric of esotericism. More importantly for the subject at hand, the field’s “Western” demarcation and its underlying narrative have by now increasingly come under scrutiny, most recently in Asprem and Strube 2021. This is particularly relevant because of the prevalent focus on “Western” actors and contexts within the study of esotericism. A range of recent studies have demonstrated how modern understandings of yoga (and esotericism) were the outcome of complex, multilateral cultural exchanges, rather than a unilateral act of “Western” appropriation. Global historical approaches have recently been introduced to the study of esotericism, calling for a more decentered historiography and engaging with Asian regional studies and Indology. It bears emphasis that these latter disciplines frequently employ earlier approaches from the study of esotericism that have become largely obsolete within the field itself, including Faivre’s typology of analogies and correspondences between micro- and macrocosm, the development of “occult powers” (a common translation of siddhi), the notion of gnosis, and the postulation of a perennial tradition. This is further complicated by the circumstance that the language of “esotericism” emerged decisively through orientalist scholarship since the late eighteenth century. This entwinement of the emergence and development of disciplines and fields such as religious studies, the study of esotericism, and Indological studies further highlights the importance of a systematic dialogue between yoga studies, mostly situated within South Asian studies and Indology, and the study of esotericism.

  • Asprem, Egil, and Julian Strube, eds. New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2021.

    This anthology is the latest theoretical-methodological contribution to the study of esotericism. Its chapters scrutinize and revise aspects such as secrecy and knowledge production, global entanglements, race, gender, and diverse under-researched historical and geographical contexts.

  • Baier, Karl. “Esotericism.” In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion. Edited by Robert A. Segal and Nickolas P. Roubekas, 229–240. Hoboken, NJ, and Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2021.

    This is the most recent well-informed summary of the dedicated study of esotericism. Newcomers who seek a concise overview of current approaches might be best served with this chapter.

  • Bergunder, Michael. “What Is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approaches and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22.1 (2010): 9–36.

    DOI: 10.1163/094330510X12604383550882

    This contribution represents a historical approach grounded in post-structuralist and postcolonial theories, which examines how different understandings of esotericism have emerged and were continuously contested.

  • Faivre, Antoine. Access to Western Esotericism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

    Arguably the “classic” in the academic study of esotericism, this book was instrumental in establishing the concept of “Western esotericism” on the basis of a typological-phenomenological perspective. Faivre later shifted to a more historical-empirical approach.

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139048064

    Among the extensive oeuvre of Hanegraaff, this monograph might be considered the most fundamental in establishing the concept of “Western esotericism” on historical grounds. As the subtitle indicates, esotericism is understood from a longue durée perspective as rejected knowledge in Western culture.

  • Stuckrad, Kocku von. Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox, 2005.

    Departing from a discourse-analytical approach, Stuckrad developed his perspective on esotericism mainly by focusing on secrecy and what he terms the discourse on “the Esoteric.” This approach is further developed in Stuckrad’s later work, to which this monograph serves as a good starting point.

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