As novelist, philosopher, and humanist, Mircea Eliade advocated a unique perspective in his primary work as historian of religions, a field in which he was universally recognized as a brilliant and enthusiastic scholar. By means of his creative and controversial approach to the religious expression of humankind, he attempted to bridge the gap between the contemporary, secularized world and archaic or more traditional cultures, where the sacred dimension has held a higher profile. By any standard, Eliade had a significant impact on his field and related academic disciplines, but the debate about Eliade as “problem” or “prospect” is still quite lively. As a leading historian of religions, he mastered a vast array of data, but became, and still remains, the subject of considerable inquiry himself.
Eliade was born in Romania and was educated as a philosopher at the University of Bucharest. He was an avid reader (in several languages) and learned English to gain better access to James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a classic in the anthropological study of religion. While in Italy doing research on Renaissance philosophers, he became interested in Indian philosophy and took an opportunity to study for 4 years at the University of Calcutta. This time in India, which included an extended period in an Himalayan ashram, changed Eliade’s life in several ways. He returned to Bucharest and received the doctorate in 1932 for a dissertation on yoga (later published as Yoga, Immortality, and Freedom), but he also returned to the West with a profoundly different understanding of the East, including Eastern religious traditions.
Like Frazer’s work, Eliade’s writing was marked by illustrations drawn from the wide range of religious traditions, from the broad sweep of history. Though he produced several specialized studies on religion (such as yoga, shamanism, Australian religions), Eliade called for “learned generalists” that could identify and interpret parallel thoughts as expressed throughout the history of humankind. Of course, he was aware of the historical contexts of religious events, objects, and words but had a special interest in the recurring forms or patterns of religion. Such wide-ranging research led to the compilation of a major theoretical work, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), and toward the end of his life, the completion of his three-volume A History of Religious Ideas(1978-1986).
Through his cross-cultural and historical approach, Eliade documented what he claimed were universal patterns, and his search for common ground in the world’s religious traditions led him to advocate a new humanism. He was aware of the more rationalistic perspective on religion, but some students of Eliade’s hermeneutic detect a postmodern slant in his approach.
He left Romania in 1940 because of political turmoil and more promising circumstances and spent the rest of his life teaching and writing in Europe and America. This exile included time in Paris, where he lectured at the Sorbonne and formulated some of his central concepts. Eliade became a professor at the University of Chicago in 1956, where he succeeded Joachim Wach and served with many illustrious colleagues for 30 years, until his death in 1986. In Eliade’s earlier days, he published numerous novels (including The Forbidden Forest), which focused on great philosophical themes and fantasy and included slightly veiled references to his Indian experience. Taken as a whole, the literary legacy of Mircea Eliade is remarkable; he wrote over 1,300 items (beginning with an article at age 14), including many books that are still held in great esteem and some that are regarded as classics in the field. Other important titles in the Eliade oeuvre include The Myth of the Eternal Return (an analysis of the human experience of history and time); The Forge and the Crucible (a byproduct of Eliade’s lifetime interest in alchemy); and The Sacred and the Profane (a study of how the holy has manifested itself in some cultures). In 1961, he was instrumental in launching the prestigious journal History of Religions; he also served as editor in chief of the 16-volume Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), an important reference set that reflects Eliade’s own encyclopedic range of interests.
The intellectual forces that shaped Eliade (through the written word or through his many friendships) were numerous and varied (for example, Rudolf Otto, Surendranath Dasgupta, Gerardus van der Leeuw, George Dumézil, Raffaele Pettazoni, C. J. Jung, Paul Tillich). His background in philosophy and lifelong interest in Eastern religions and mythology (among other subjects) are evident at every turn. Eliade’s analyses of religious phenomena (as historian, phenomenologist, and interpreter) always reflect his academic background, but the reader of an Eliade book can easily detect the author’s energy, creativity, and curiosity. Much of that creativity was channeled into an intriguing technical vocabulary, without which it is impossible to understand what Eliade means. Sometimes he adopted (and adapted) these technical terms from ancient or medieval writers or his own scholarly predecessors, but some words were defined in specific ways for a book and serve as keys to its main points (for example, axis mundi, coincidentia oppositorum, ganz andere, hierophany, homo religiosus, homo symbolicus, illud tempus, imago mundi, sacralize, theophany). Eliade promoted his humanist agenda by asking readers to recover meaning and truth in a “desacralized” world—by discovering the sacred, the “wholly other,” in its various hierophanies—and to accept religious phenomena within their own frame of reference.
- Eliade, M. (1963). Patterns in comparative religion. New York: World Publishing.
- Rennie, B. S. (1996). Reconstructing Eliade: Making sense of religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Saliba, J. A. (1976). “Homo religiosus” in Mircea Eliade: An anthropological evaluation. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.