Eliade, Mircea (1907-1986), Scholar of World Religions

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Eliade, Mircea
(1907-1986), scholar of world religions.

Eliade was born in Bucharest, Romania, where he developed into a precocious writer, publishing his first article at age fourteen. From the beginning, he published both critical and creative works: studies in alchemy, the history of religions, Asian religions, and literary criticism, as well as stories, travelogues, and autobiographical writings.

In 1925 Eliade matriculated in the literature and philosophy department of the University of Bucharest. A gifted student of language, as a youth he learned Italian, English, Hebrew, and Persian; later he would come to know Sanskrit, Bengali, and French as well. In 1928 in Rome he completed a thesis on Italian philosophy. From there he went to India, where he worked for three years with Surendranath Dasgupta at the University of Calcutta; he also spent an additional six months studying yoga with Swami Shivananda in the latter's ashram at Rishikesh. Eliade's doctoral dissertation, entitled "A Comparative History of Yoga Techniques," is based on his studies in India.

After completing military service in Romania, Eliade served as an assistant to Naë Ionesco, professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Bucharest. Early courses that Eliade taught include studies of Indian and Buddhist religious thought, Aristotle's Metaphysics, and religious symbolism. With the outbreak of World War II Eliade and his wife, Nina Mares, moved to London, where he served as cultural attaché to the Romanian royal delegation. He continued in the same capacity in Lisbon from 1941 to 1945. His wife died in 1944.

After the war Eliade and his stepdaughter, Adalgiza, moved to Paris, where he spent numerous productive years lecturing at the École des Hautes Études and publishing many of his major works. In 1956 he gave the Haskell Lectures, "Patterns of Initiation," at the University of Chicago. The next year he accepted a post as professor and chairman of the history of religions department and as professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he lived for the rest of his life together with his second wife, Christinel.

It is certainly because of his work in Chicago that Eliade came to influence the study of religion in the United States. His thought became accessible to scholars and students, with lasting effect. Major publications include studies of yoga, shamanism, ritual, and myth, as well as encyclopedic works such as The Encyclopedia of Religion and three volumes of the series A History of Religious Ideas.

Eliade approached the study of religious phenomena as a historian of religions, along the lines of Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883–1959) and Joachim Wach (1898–1955). Eliade regarded the discipline as having three dimensions: history, properly speaking, together with the comparative study of religious morphology and phenomenology (Eliade 1962, n. 1). The goal of the history of religions, in his view, is hermeneutical—i.e., "making the meanings of religious documents intelligible to the mind of modern man" (Eliade 1962, p. 2).

Eliade's approach opens up three avenues for exploring religion. Above all, he provides a neutral language for talking about religious phenomena. For example, the term hierophany, which means "the appearance of the sacred," can be used to denote any subjective experience of what is felt to be ultimately real, regardless of the cultural context. The term suggests equally the revelation of a monotheistic God, the revelations of gods and goddesses in a polytheistic tradition, and nontheistic epiphanies. Likewise, the sacred, as Eliade uses it, is a neutral term. It points to an evaluative feeling, not to the cause of the feeling; that he leaves to other disciplines, such as metaphysics or psychology.

A second aspect of Eliade's scholarship that continues to influence the study of religion is his understanding of the symbolic nature of religion. Although the hierophany occurs on the subjective level of experience, its expression gives rise to objective phenomena: rituals, myths, sacred art, and ultimately the complex religious traditions that develop over time. Religion, in this sense, is man-made, the human response to the experience of the sacred. And the nature of religion is symbolic. Humans draw on objects from their everyday lives to express the subjective and ineffable nature of the hierophany. This understanding of the symbolic nature of religion leads to a recognition of the symbolic quality of specific worldviews, such as the historical worldview found in the West in contrast to certain cyclical, ahistorical notions found elsewhere.

Thirdly, this does not lead to a rejection of the historical method, but it does allow for a positive appreciation of nonhistorical ways of living in the world. Archaic cultures and peoples are seen to live richly and rationally within symbolic worlds that have integrity and value. Eliade described himself as a humanist, and the history of religions as a new humanism. His life and his work enrich our appreciation of the human being as always and everywhere creatively religious.

See alsoMyth; Religious Studies; Ritual; Shamanism; Yoga.


Allen, Douglas. Structure and Creativity in Religion:Hermeneutics in Mircea Eliade's Phenomenology andNewDirections. 1978.

Allen, Douglas, and Dennis Doeing. Mircea Eliade:AnAnnotated Bibliography. 1980.

Culianu, Ioan Petro. Mircea Eliade. 1977.

Dudley, Guilford. Religion on Trial: Mircea EliadeandHis Critics. 1977.

Eliade, Mircea. "History of Religions and a New Humanism." History of Religions 1(1) (1962):1–8.

Eliade, Mircea. Ordeal by Labyrinth: ConversationswithClaude-Henri Rocquet, translated from the French by Derek Coltman. 1982.

Rennie, Bryan S. Reconstructing Eliade: Making SenseofReligion. 1996.

Ricketts, Mac Linscott. Mircea Eliade: The RomanianRoots, 2 vols. 1988.

Beverly Moon