The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience

The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience, Gananath Obeyesekere, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012 (ISBN 9780231153621), xvii+622 pp., Hb $50.00

Gananath Obeyesekere, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, begins his latest work with the rather bashful admission that its length is “beyond all decent bounds.”  Those willing to commit to its many pages, however, will find an exceptionally rich account of visionary experience and the forms of life it makes possible.

The Awakened Ones takes its cue from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, though James’s work is by no means its only inspiration. Obeyesekere incorporates the voices of thinkers ranging from the Buddha to Julian of Norwich to Sigmund Freud in a compelling yet critical fashion. The wide-ranging comparative vision is, perhaps, the book’s principal strength. Avoiding facile comparisons Obeyesekere draws from the deep resources of Buddhist and Christian visionary traditions, reading the one through the other and subjecting both to the analytical tools of psychoanalysis and ethnography. The result is a conversational tone in which each tradition or discipline is allowed to question the others illuminating both their strengths and their flaws.

At the centre of this interdisciplinary interrogation stand the bold claim that “there are ways of knowing that bypass the Cartesian cogito” and a challenge to the reification of reason as the only legitimate access to knowledge (Obeyesekere, xii).  This claim is the organizational focus of Obeyesekere’s “overlong essay (Ibid.).

Obeyesekere insists that his work is essayistic in its style and presentation. It is, nevertheless, divided into eight “books” which can be read as stand-alone texts. “Book One: The Visionary Experience” presents the author’s theoretical views on the nature of visionary experience and the interplay between visionary thought and reason. Beginning with the myth of the Buddha’s spiritual awakening Obeyesekere weaves together a powerful narrative of an enlightenment in which the rational consciousness, or thinking-I, plays a partial rather than dominant role. This enlightenment, or awakening as he prefers to call it, poses a radical challenge to the European reification of rationality, but finds a closer affinity with Greek thought which, while emphasizing reason, did not discount the validity of visions or dreams. He goes on to detail some of the nuances of visionary experience including the altered perception of time and space. “Book Two: Mahayana” takes the reader through the cosmic visions of Mahayana Buddhism and outlines the ways visions influenced philosophy and practice and vice versa. “Book Three: The Cosmic It” develops the affinity of Greek philosophy and visionary thought through the work of the Neo-Platonist Plotinus. “Book Four: Penitential Ecstasy” considers the cultural constraints of visionary experience through an examination of Christian mystics like Julian of Norwich. This section focuses exclusively on female mystics and offers insights into mediaeval gender roles as well as the powerful and at times fateful challenge to patriarchy afforded by visionary ecstasy. “Book Five: Christian Dissent” chronicles the experience of Christian visionaries under the shadow of the Enlightenment. The central figure is William Blake, whose powerful protest against the enshrining of egoistic reason was influenced by his own experience of vivid dreams and visions.  The charges of madness levelled against Blake exemplify the increasing hostility towards visionaries in the modern world. Obeyeseke does not contend, it should be mentioned, that all dreams or visions should be accepted as legitimate or coherent forms of knowledge. He is critical, however, of a reductionism which suggest that any extrasensory vision is a manifestation of psychological illness. He is equally critical of Freud’s view that all dreams were meaningful on a deep level. “Book Six: Theosophies” annals the story of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society and points to the concerns and confusions of visionaries in periods of cultural flux and upheaval. “Book Seven: Modernity and the Dreaming” recounts of those who accepted some form of scientific rationality and sought, within that paradigm, to account for the meaningfulness of dreams, visions, and other apparently un-rational forms of thinking. The key players here are Freud and especially C.G. Jung. “Book Eight: Contemporary Dreaming” provides a brief outline of the practice of lucid dreaming and attempts to form a secular spirituality. Obeyesekere finds here a deep continuity with Jung’s archetypal thinking. He is sympathetic to both of these manifestations of visionary experience, but at the same time offers a powerful critique suggesting that neither Jung nor the New Age visionaries offer the same degree of coherence and spiritual depth as the Christian and Buddhist visionaries of the earlier pages.

Obeyesekere concludes recounting one of his own dreams. Throughout the book he maintains a high level of commitment to scholarship and cultural work that is matched by graceful and intensely personal style. The personalized ending, therefore does not entail a scholarly dilution but fortifies the overall trajectory of the text, drawing out to the very end the dialectical dance between rational and visionary ways of knowing.

In part the personality of style is due, no doubt, to Obeyesekere’s conscious restriction of his analysis to the two religious traditions which have clearly had the greatest impact on his own life and thought. His is a sweeping account of religious visionary experience, but by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive one.  Though this is, in some ways, a limitation of the work it is both a necessary and fruitful limiting. Any attempt to be more broad-ranging would almost certainly have entailed a suffering in the depth of the analysis. As it stands The Awakened Ones is a stunning scholarly achievement of interest both to academics interested in religious visionary experience or visionary/dreaming experience more generally. It is also a welcome antidote both to the empiricist’s irrational hostility to religiosity and the obscurantism one might expect in a text on dreaming and visionary experience.