with Robert Wolfe
Epiphanes, whose writings I actually possess, was Carpocrates’ son. His mother’s name was Alexandria. On his father’s side he was an Alexandrian, on his mother’s he was from Cephallenia. His life lasted only seventeen years. At Same in Cephallenia he has been honored as a god. A shrine of quarried blocks of stone was built and dedicated to him there, together with altars, sacred precincts, and a university. The inhabitants of Cephallenia gather at the shrine at the time of the new moon, and offer sacrifice to Epiphanes to celebrate his apotheosis as if it were his birthday. There are libations, feasts and the singing of hymns. He was educated by his father in the general curriculum and in Platonic philosophy, and taught the knowledge of the Monad (nondual gnosis), the source of the heresy of the Carpocratians.
~ Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 - ca. 215): Stromateis - Book 3 (No. B3) page 259. Trans. John Ferguson.
NB. The 'knowledge of the Monad' as taught by the Carpocratians in summary was: the Monad (Godhead) alone existed but was lonely; an Idea emanated from it, and from their intercourse emerged the universe.
In some circles today, the timeless wisdom is referred to as nondual gnosis, but this has a very tenuous connection with Gnosticism as such. In fact, a case could be made that apart from the name, nondual gnosis has nothing to do with Gnosticism whatever.
Gnosticism has been defined as “a dualistic religious system that combines ideas from mythology, philosophy and the abstruse.” The 'system', however, turns out to be so diverse and contradictory as to be almost meaningless. It's like trying to define present-day Christianity by its estimated 3,800 denominations!
One scholar has tried to define Gnosticism in doctrinal terms as: “... the notion that the world is evil, the result of a rebellious angel (demiurge) attempting to create something apart from God. The goal (end) of the Gnostic’s existence is to escape the created world and return to the state of perfection that existed in the beginning, before the creation of the world.”
The early Roman Church gave the impresson that Gnosticism was an aberration or pervesion of 'orthodox' Christian doctrine and existed from the 1st century CE to about the 5th when it was finally eradicated in a concerted effort by the Church and State powers.
But in actual fact Gnosticism was practiced many centuries before Jesus of Nazareth ever appeared on the scene.
George MacRae highlighted some of the evidence of pre-Christian gnosticism... and concluded that "for a growing number of scholars -- now clearly in the majority -- such evidence… enables us to rule out… that Gnosticism is to be seen as a heretical offshoot from Christianity’."
In the early twentieth century, the New Testament scholar Wilhelm Bousset, who traced Gnosticism to ancient Babylonian and Persian sources, declared that "... gnosticism is first of all a pre-Christian movement which had roots in itself. It is therefore to be understood... in its own terms, and not as an offshoot or byproduct of the Christian religion.”
So it's important to understand at the outset that Gnosticism could refer to a very wide range of religious beliefs and practices, that were generally esoteric in character, and which were often exploited by unscrupulous opportunists two thousand years ago as, indeed, they are right up to this very day.
Our main concern here is not Gnosticism as such, but the concept of gnosis. Gnosis (no-sis) would have been known in India when the Buddha was teaching as jnana (ya-na); both mean “knowledge,” in the sense of “wisdom,” and evidently, both words are from the same root.
The meaning of jnana, as summarized in an encyclopedia, is: “the eradication of the ignorance that sees the illusory multiplicity of the world as real, by attainment of knowledge of the Self (The Absolute),” which is regarded as “a single fundamental reality,” by the presence of which “there is no real distinction between the soul (or essential self) and God.”
As the renowned Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, once observed: “It is due to illusion -- caused by the ego, the ‘I am the body’ idea -- that the kingdom of God (realm of Being) is conceived to be elsewhere.”
Gnosis, on the other hand, is very generally defined as “spiritual knowledge or insightful wisdom attained by self-illumination.” which could include the definition of jnana above, but could also extend to just about anything. After all, who is to say what is truly 'spiritual' etc.?
From this point, when we use the word 'gnosis', we will consider it to have more or less the same meaning as the word jnana as defined above. To distinguish this gnosis from other kinds, we will refer to it as 'nondual gnosis', 'unity gnosis' or 'the Gnosis of Light. These are just other terms for the timeless wisdom spoken of elsewhere on this site.
Researcher, writer and authority on early Christian texts, Elaine Pagels, defines a gnostic as a person who claims to know about “ultimate reality.” But knowing about ultimate reality is one thing, actually experiencing it is quite another.
As Rober Wolfe points out; a person who professed to be a member of a gnostic sect may have, or, may not have, received the gnosis through spiritual awakening -- just as a member of today’s Masonic Order may, or, may not know, how to construct a stone tower. Experience indicates that it would be rare to find an 'accomplished' person in either case.
Consequently, the nondual gnosis may sometimes have been present where Gnostics were present, but Gnostics were not always present where the nondual gnosis was present. This could still be so today.
Religious-Studies scholars seem generally incapable of drawing this distinction. When discussing the first so-called Gnostic Christians, they often confuse the timeless nondual wisdom precepts with the conflicting doctrines of the various Gnostic schools -- which, by definition, are dualistic in their theology.
Gnosis, as we speak of it here, has nothing to do with the accumulation of knowledge nor the use of rational arguements. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowing (‘She knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘She knows me’), which is more akin to the 'knowing' of gnosis.
An Arabian Gnostic teacher, Monoimus (150-210 CE), has written: "Abandon the search for 'God' and the 'creation', and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking your self as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, my God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body... Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate... If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself."
This is in line with our conviction that true gnosis has all to do with self-knowledge or self-awareness -- an intuitive process of knowing oneself deeply. With regard to the nondual gnosis, it has been said that to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the great secret of the Gnosis of Light.
As Ramana Maharshi has clearly stated: "The absolute Being is what it is. It is the Self. It is God. Knowing the Self, God is known. In fact, God is none other than the Self."
In other words, to receive and abide in the gnosis is to recognize that 'God' cannot be known as an entity apart from the One who is experienceing conscious awareness in and through us. Our true nature is the infinite 'Experiencer', not what comes and goes in our temporary life-experience.
This, we recognize, was the innermost secret teaching of Jesus. When you consider the religious intolerance he faced, you can see why it had to be so secret and passed on only orally to those mature enough to receive it.