The Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece
By Linda Johnsen
Publisher: Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute Press, 2006
In The Lost Masters, the author Linda Johnsen informs us that many of the Greek philosophers who shaped Western thought were actually mystics whose teachings paralleled those of the ancient sages of India. Johnsen, who is best known as an author on Hinduism and yoga, was struck on reading the writings of Plotinus by the similarities between his teachings and those of Indian mystics. On further reading, she found that many Greek masters trained their disciples in various meditation practices, believed in reincarnation and the law of karma, and were avid vegetarians.
The book covers philosopher-sages of the Classical Period (500 BCE – 200 CE) through Late Antiquity (200 - 529 CE) and ends with the final closing of Plato’s Academy by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 CE. This wide span of history includes the spread of Greek culture by Alexander the Great, the birth and death of the Roman Empire, and the beginnings of Christianity. Johnsen writes in an entertaining style with simple language so that the lay reader can understand the complex and rich history of Western mysticism.
Pythagoras (c. 570 - 495 BCE) is best known today for developing mathematical principles that became the foundation of Western science. Yet, Johnsen explains, “we’ve forgotten that in his own time he was best known as a spiritual master, a guru of the highest calibre, whose teachings would survive over the next few centuries to profoundly influence the great minds of Western civilization.” Johnsen points out that the community he founded was similar to an Indian ashram. “The devotees were vegetarians, they didn’t drink or take drugs, they dressed in white, they got up before sunrise to do stretching exercises and sit for meditation. They practised long periods of silence, and sex outside marriage was considered inappropriate.”
Plato (c. 424 – c. 348 BCE) asked the fundamental questions: What is the nature of the soul? What happens after death? What can we know about the Supreme Being? Johnsen summarizes Plato’s teachings thus:
The soul itself is immortal…. At one time a soul’s association with a particular body comes to an end, and at another time it is reborn in another body, but the soul itself never perishes. Therefore it’s imperative that we live pure lives. What ruins our lives is injustice and senseless aggression. What allows us to flourish is justice and a way of life that is sensible and self-controlled.
As Johnsen explains, Plato described man’s plight in the world using the allegory of a cave,
in which we are born, live, and die. We’re tied down so we can see only the wall in front of us. On that wall we see nothing but the play of shadows, yet those shadows are the whole of reality for us. Imagine that one man pulls loose and finds his way through the dark tunnels out of the cave. The first moment he steps into the daylight he’ll be blinded by the Sun, but as his eyes adjust he’ll be amazed at the spectacular world he sees around him. Now what if that man re-enters the cave and tells his friends about the amazing sights he’s seen, and encourages them to escape too? Most people in the cave won’t believe him; they’ll think he’s either crazy or a liar.
Apollonius of Tyana (c. 15 – c. 100 CE) is one of the spiritual masters of the Classical Period who is definitely known to have visited India. Records have survived of the period he spent “living with a community of yogis in the Himalayan foothills.” The exact location is difficult to trace, but it appears to have been the Punjab or perhaps Kashmir. While he was there he received intensive yogic training, learning the Vedic system of astrology and techniques of controlling matter through the manipulation of sunlight. His Indian guru taught him that “when the mind is purified, the divine knowledge at the root of our being is revealed, and we locate our own Higher Self in the Self of all.” Near the end of his life when he was called to Rome to answer to charges of sorcery, he explained that he was practicing sciences he had learned in India and claimed that many of the mystery schools of the West originated in India.
Plotinus (204 – 270 CE) was “perhaps the most articulate and inspired master in Western spiritual history.” He started the school of Neoplatonism – rooted in the insights of Plato, but enlivened by Plotinus’s own teacher Ammonius Saccas – and thus sparked a spiritual revolution. According to Johnsen, his teachings influenced the development of Christianity. Nearly a thousand years later, Jewish rabbis blended his teachings with Jewish mysticism and reshaped the Kabbalah. His mind-expanding essays helped spark the Renaissance in Europe. Johnsen states that Plotinus’s teachings posit that “the soul is, in a sense, ‘amphibious,’ living sometimes ‘here’ in the deep and turbulent waters of material existence, and other times ‘there’ in a tranquil realm of light.” She paraphrases Plotinus: “The chains of our senses keep us bound here, as if we’re trapped in a cave. However, deep within, the soul remembers its true nature. This recollection motivates it to begin meditating.” Johnsen points out that this haunting remembrance of one’s real nature is called “anamnesis in Greek and pratyabhijna in Sanskrit.” Plotinus counselled the spiritual seeker, “Try to unite the divinity in yourself with the divine in all things.”
Hypatia (c. 350 – 415 CE) was a Neoplatonist in the tradition of Plato and Plotinus. She was a highly reputed scientist and spiritual master who trained her students intellectually as well as spiritually. Johnsen notes that professors at this time were more like the traditional gurus of India.
Students were initiated in mental and spiritual disciplines so that they not only understood the higher realities Plato and Plotinus had spoken of intellectually but also experienced them directly in meditation. It was not enough to speak about the One; a true master had directly experienced the One, and a true student made every effort to do so too under her guidance. Hypatia was widely recognized as one of the great spiritual lights of her time.
However, the cultural atmosphere in which she lived was hostile to intellectual and spiritual freedom, and although Hypatia was a beloved educator, she was brutally murdered by a mob accusing her of being a demonness from hell who used sorcery and magic to captivate the crowds.
Proclus (412 – 485 CE), a committed vegetarian and an avid student of the Platonic lineage of mystics, wrote that “the ultimate purpose of life … is to return to the One, the very root of our being.” According to Johnsen, he described spiritual teachers as:
special pure souls who descend into physical bodies in order to serve humanity. They bring with them personal knowledge of higher realms and are able to redirect the minds of ordinary men and women toward states of increasing awareness. Because the highest reality is so far beyond what we normally experience, we need divine grace, whether from God himself or from special souls like these, to make the breakthrough to enlightenment.
Proclus believed that a true man of wisdom should be a “priest of the universe,” and should honour all religious traditions. However, as the murder of Hypatia in 415 CE and the closing of Plato’s Academy in 529 CE illustrate, the atmosphere of religious tolerance in the Greek world was coming to an end. As Johnsen puts it, “The Golden Chain of enlightened Western sages – with the living tradition of spiritual knowledge and practice it preserved – was about to be broken forever.”
Beginning in 313 CE with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion by Roman Emperor Constantine, Europe was slowly becoming Christianized. As monasteries became the centres for spiritual and mystical practice – even being referred to as ‘Christian philosophy’ – the contributions of the teachers of the Graeco-Roman world began to be forgotten. Johnsen comments,
Today we consider meditation, reincarnation, vegetarianism, spiritual practices designed to turn us inward, and a recognition of the essential unity of all things to be purely Eastern. We’ve forgotten that these teachings were once an integral part of our own Western spiritual heritage.
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