Esoteric and Exoteric Knowledge in Religious Traditions

by Dr. M. Darrol Bryant
Professor of Religion & Culture
Renison College
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario


     I am a Professor of Religion and Culture at Renison College, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. I was educated at Concordia College (B.A., Philosophy & Political Science), Harvard Divinity School (S.T.B. Theology) and the University of St. Micheal’s College (M.A. & PhD in Religious Studies). I have published fifteen volumes in the study of religion and spent sabbatical years in the U.K., India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. I have been a Visiting Scholar at several universities including Cambridge University, Hamdard University, and the University of Madras. I have also lectured at numerous universities in Europe, India, Sri Lanka, and Africa.

     The distinction between “esoteric knowledge,” available only to initiates, and “exoteric knowledge,” available to all, has long been part of the religious life of humankind. The distinction is commonly based on the belief that only those initiated in a particular tradition or having achieved a certain level of spiritual development should have access to the esoteric or higher teachings. This distinction is different than the pervasive religious practices of confidentiality in relation to religious confession and counseling. In the Eastern religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, this esoteric knowledge is usually transmitted orally and directly from guru to initiate. But even here, especially in Tantric forms of both Buddhism and Hinduism, there have been texts that are also only available to those having achieved a certain level of spiritual development. Similar practices are also known in Taoism. In Western religious traditions, this distinction is not as extensively known. Yet in periods of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, this distinction is found. Generally, this distinction was not made in relation to the sacred scriptures but in relation to certain mystical teachings which were considered only appropriate for the initiated. The concern was that without adequate training and understanding, such knowledge would not be rightly understood or rightly treated. In the Mormon tradition, there are certain sacred writings that are available only to those in the highest circles of the community and they have never been made publiicly available. Such practices are also to be found in the quasi-religious traditions of societies like the Masons.

     This long history of a distinction between knowledge available only to insiders and that available to all is more complicated in religious movements in the modern world with modern means to record and retain the teachings of their founder. In the case of Scientology, the sacred literature is extensive. But most of the material is regarded as exoteric sacred texts and thus generally available. The esoteric sacred texts—available only to those having achieved a certain spiritual level—are a very small part of their sacred scriptures. Thus the esoteric texts are only a tiny percentage of the overall sacred scriptures. Scientology feels that even being exposed to the esoteric texts without having achieved the requisite spiritual level could interfere with one’s spiritual progress. Scientology has sought to protect their sacred scriptures, both esoteric and exoteric, through modern means not available to earlier religious movements, for example, copyrighting. These special circumstances should not, however, obscure the general point that a distinction between “esoteric” and “exoteric” knowledge is widely practiced in the religious life of humankind.

M. Darrol Bryant
November 25, 1994

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