AskDefine | Define gnosis

Dictionary Definition

gnosis n : intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths; said to have been possessed by ancient Gnostics [also: gnoses (pl)]

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  1. an esoteric form of knowledge or spiritual truth, such as sought by the Gnostics

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Gnosis (from the Greek word for knowledge, γνώσις) is used in English to specify the spiritual knowledge of a saint or enlightened human being. It is described as the direct experiential knowledge of the supernatural or divine. This is not enlightenment understood in its general sense of insight or learning (which in Greek is διαφωτισις) but enlightenment that validates the existence of the supernatural.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines gnosis as, "A knowledge of spiritual mysteries." From the word gnosis is derived Gnostic and Gnosticism, the latter a modern construct referring to one of various eastern sectarians flourishing during the early Christian era which claimed to have supernatural knowledge. The term being Koine Greek has, nonetheless, a much broader application than being exclusive to any sectarian group. The term gnosis is used by Byzantine and Hellenic cultures as a word to mean a special knowledge or insight of the supernatural, in some sense mature understanding or knowledge. It refers to the knowledge that comes from experience rather than from rational or reasoned thinking. Knowledge as in revelation and or intuitive knowledge (see gnosiology).


Gnosis is a Greek word, originally used in specifically Platonic philosophical contexts. Plato, for example, uses the terms gnostikoi’ and gnostike episteme in the text called Politikos. The word means the knowledge to influence and control, Gnostike episteme also was used to indicate one's aptitude. The terms do not appear to indicate any esoteric or hidden meaning within the works of Plato but instead expressed a sort of higher intelligence and ability akin to talent. The term is used throughout Greek philosophy as a technical term of experience knowledge (see gnosiology) in contrast to theoretical knowledge which is akin to epistemology. The term is also related to the study of knowledge retainment or memory (also see cognition). In relation to ontic or ontological which is how something actually is.


Judeo-Christian Sectarians

Among the sectarian gnostics, gnosis was first and foremost a matter of self acquaintance which was the goal of enlightenment. Also stated as direct knowledge of God through awareness of the divine spark within. Later, Valentinius ( Valentinus), taught that gnosis was the privileged Gnosis kardias "knowledge of the heart" or "insight" about the spiritual nature of the cosmos, that brought about salvation to the pneumatics—people who believed they could achieve this insight. Gnosis was distinct from the secret teachings they only revealed to initiates once they had reached a certain level of progression. Rather, these teachings were paths to obtain gnosis. (See e.g. "fukasetsu", or ineffability, a quality of realization common to many, if not most, esoteric traditions; see also Jung on the difference between sign and symbol.) Gnosis from this perspective being very akin to the same meaning as the word occult.
Among heresiologists, gnosis denotes different Jewish, Christian or Pagan belief systems of esoteric nature such as, first and foremost, Gnosticism and other dualist systems from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., but also Rosicrucianism, Kabbalah, etc. Sectarian groups that denoted that the creator of the cosmos as demiurge was not the true God but a fallen and even sometimes the personification of evil. That the creator god of the Jewish old testament and Hellenistic pagan philosophy (Zeus) was evil, as was the cosmos that the creator had fashioned (see the Sethian and Ophite gnostic sects).

Early Christianity

In early Christianity gnosis (related to the Greek religious meaning not the sectarian groups) also carried over from Hellenic philosophy into Greek Orthodoxy as a critical characteristic of asceticism, via St Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hegesippus, and Origen. Gnosis meaning intuitive knowledge, spiritual knowledge, heart knowledge (kardiognosis) or memory of an experience of God. In relation to theosis (deification/personal relationship with God) and theoria (vision of God). According to Greek Orthodox theology and biblical scripture Jesus proclaimed that he did not teach any secret or hidden knowledge. Early church tradition was that gnosis carried these meanings regardless of if the individual professing them was honest or not about their mystical experiences.

Hellenic philosophy

The Neoplatonic philosophers including, Plotinus rejected followers of gnosticism as being un-Hellenistic and anti- Plato due to their vilification of Plato's creator of the universe referred to as the demiurge. Also the use of misotheism as an answer to the problem of evil. (see Neoplatonism and Gnosticism). Plotinus did express true gnosis as the highest goal of the philosopher.


The term Gnosis is related to the Sanskrit jnana (as in Jnana Yoga) and to the Hebrew daath, which is the hidden sphere in the Kabbalah, or that knowledge which was only given to the initiated.
In the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, the Gnostic being refers to the future supramental state of divinised humanity, living a spirit-filled existence. He speaks of a Gnostic Community, a collective Gnostic life that will establishe a gnostic Supernature. Author Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet discusses the Gnostic being and the 'rise and establishment of a Gnostic society' in terms of the Supramental Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother of Pondicherry.


Gnostic ideas of salvation were similar to Buddhist conceptions of Bodhi, hence gnosis was not expressible by words.

Etymological and Intercultural associations

Gnosis has been associated and often cited as synonymous with terms from numerous cultures and religions:
The word is cognate (from Proto-Indo-European) with the Sanskrit word jnana (pronounced gyana; g is guttural) that has an equivalent meaning in Buddhist and Hindu spiritual treatises. In Theravada Buddhism the word for gnosis is añña (lit. 'highest knowledge'). The knowledge to which gnosis refers is that of the unconditioned ground (and source) of phenomenal reality, variously called Brahman (The Upanisads); the Dharmakaya (Mahayana Buddhism); the Tao (Tao Te Ching) and God (Theistic religion). One who having followed a spiritual path in order to return to the origin and arrived at this transcendental knowledge is called a gnostic (Jnani in Sanskrit and Hindi).

Influences on contemporary culture

  • Gnosis was the name of magazine, subtitled a "Journal of the Western Inner Traditions," published between 1985 and 1999 in California and covering traditions of spirituality and mysticism. It was a project of the Lumen Foundation.
  • Among certain modern occult movements, esp. chaos magic, gnosis refers to an altered state of awareness in which the will is "magickally" effective.
  • Philip K. Dick was very interested in gnosticism, and several of his novels deal with the subject. Perhaps most notable is his VALIS trilogy.
  • In the cult hit musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig's protege/lover/rival takes the stage name "Tommy Gnosis".
  • In the novel The Secret Magdalene by Ki Longfellow, the central theme is the experience of gnosis by Mary Magdalene and her companion a fictional version ofJesus Christ.
  • The ghostly enemies of the Xenosaga series of videogames on the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS are known as The Gnosis.
  • The anti-virus protection program created by the Codemasters and used by the Guardians in Reboot is called Gnosis. Found only in the first web-comic by Rainmaker Entertainment.

See also


gnosis in Welsh: Gnosis
gnosis in German: gnosis
gnosis in Modern Greek (1453-): γνώσις
gnosis in Spanish: Gnosticismo
gnosis in Western Frisian: Gnosis
gnosis in Dutch: Gnosis
gnosis in Polish: Gnoza
gnosis in Portuguese: Gnose
gnosis in Russian: Гнозис
gnosis in Slovak: Gnosticizmus
gnosis in Serbian: Гноза
gnosis in Finnish: Gnosis
gnosis in Swedish: gnosis
gnosis in Ukrainian: Гнозис
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