Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a widely respected intellectual whose prolific writings embraced a multitude of genres, from creative novels and short stories written in his native Romanian, to the scholarly works for which he is most renowned as an eminent historian of religions, orientalist, and interpreter of myths and symbols (Allen and Doeing vii). His writing style appealed to a wide audience beyond the halls of academia to embrace readers interested in the arts, literary criticism, journalism, travel or simply a good story line (Beane and Doty xvii). Indeed, Eliade enjoyed two productive careers throughout his seventy-nine years. In Romania prior to World War II, he was lauded as a major literary figure while his scholarly work went relatively unnoticed. In the West after World War II, he was hailed as an important historian and phenomenologist of religions while his Romanian literary works remained unknown, untranslated from Romanian and unpublished (Allen 545).
Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest on March 9, 1907. His father, Captain Gheorghe Eliade, was a career army officer and was often away from home. Mircea’s mother, Joana Stoenescu, was left at home to raise three children, Mircea being the middle child. He was not an easy child to control, preferring to roam the streets rather than attend school which he found boring. However, with the help of a few of his respected teachers who took an interest in their wayward student, he managed to get through his secondary school studies and to enrol in the University of Bucharest in 1925 in the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy (Ricketts 10). His favorite professor, Nae Ionescu, guided Eliade’s progress through university to a master’s degree in Philosophy in 1928 with a dissertation on Italian Philosophy.
Given his past, one might assume that Mircea Eliade had been an unproductive student as well as an undisciplined one. This was far from being the case: during his formative years in Bucharest, Eliade had been honing skills and interests which would serve him well in his professional life. By far the most important skills he attained were those of reading and writing. Blessed with educated parents who wanted the best for their children, Eliade had learned to read at an early age (Ricketts 12). He read widely but primarily materials that stimulated his imagination and interests. His mother willingly supplied her son with reading material, having discovered that a book kept her wayward son at home, off the streets and out of mischief (Ricketts 20). He did not confine himself to reading only Romanian works. While still a teenager, Eliade learned Italian in order to read the works of G. Papini and V. Macchioro and English to read Max Muller and Frazer. He also studied Persian and Hebrew (Allen and Doeing xiii). Eliade was curious about everything and took pains to satisfy that curiosity through the printed word.
Not only was he a voracious reader in his youth, he was also a prolific writer. At age fourteen, he began a diary, Jurnalul, which he maintained throughout his life and from which much of his creative writing flowed (Allen and Doeing xiii). He was the main character in many of his stories, which described events that had actually happened to him with perhaps a few added fictional details. While still a youth, he wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, articles which demonstrate his early interests in entomology, orientalism, folklore, alchemy and travel (Allen and Doeing xiii). His first autobiographical novel, Romanul adolescentului miop, was written in 1925, followed by a sequel, Gaudeamus, in 1928. Neither of these novels were published and are now almost completely lost (Allen and Doeing xiv).
Another trait that was to serve Eliade well was a genuine interest in meeting people and learning from them. He had no qualms about deliberately getting in touch with people he admired. On his first trip to Italy in 1927, for example, he visited G. Papini in Florence and V. Macchioro in Naples (Allen and Doeing xiv). He possessed a certain brashness and genuine friendliness that opened doors for him. It seemed that he was destined to do something great with his life and he himself was convinced of it from an early age.
In 1928, Eliade, already steeped in the folklore of Romania and the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church, decided that he might profit from experiencing life in India. Some scholars suggest that the multi-media atmosphere of the Eastern Church prepared Eliade for his experiences with India (Rennie 2640). Eliade himself, however, admits that his real introduction to the “other” began with India (Beane and Doty xviii). He had been reading Surendranath Dasgupta’s A History of Indian Philosophy when he decided to write to the professor to inquire if he might study Sanskrit and Indian philosophy under him at the University of Calcutta. At the same time, he wrote to the Maharajah of Kassimbazar to acquire funds for his proposed stay in India. Both men agreed to sponsor him and he set out on the journey on November 20, 1928. The journey, via Egypt and present-day Sri Lanka, took him to Madras where he met Dr. Dasgupta and on December 26, he arrived in Calcutta, taking up residence in a boarding house for foreign students (Ricketts 346).
Eliade’s studies at the University of Calcutta began successfully but old habits die hard and his studies seemed increasingly interrupted by the pleasures of student life and by the many new sights and sensations that India had to offer. In January 1930, Dr. Dasgupta took his Romanian student into his own home where Mircea at last made every effort to live like an Indian (Ricketts 347). Studying Sanskrit and Indian philosophy by day, Eliade nevertheless continued to write novels in his native Romanian by night. Most of Eliade’s fiction featuring Indian themes was written and published while he was in the country or shortly after returning to Romania (Calinescu 559). This ideal arrangement, however, was to end abruptly when Dr. Dasgupta discovered that his daughter Maitreyi was romantically involved with Mircea. Immediately he was banished from the professor’s home and from the university (Ricketts 347).
Eliade had already decided that his doctoral dissertation would be a comparative history of the techniques of Yoga. With this in mind, he set out to learn all he could from Swami Sivananda at the asrama at Rishikesh, Himalaya (Allen and Doeing xv). Many of the results of his six-month crash course in Yoga techniques and philosophy can be inferred from Eliade’s mystical short story “The Secret of Dr. Honigberger.” It is a riveting story, a mixture of fact and fiction, through which Eliade is able to relate his personal experiences with yogic practices on an emotional level. He admits freely that he could not find scientific words to describe the same experience (Ricketts 1186).
Eliade was called back to Romania for compulsory military service in January of 1932, but the lessons he learned in India, along with the subject matter of his doctoral dissertation, set his subsequent career path through academia as an expert of the Orient and oriental philosophy (Azim 1035). He believed that he had discovered great truths while in India. He had discovered a spiritual dimension in Indian life in Samkhya Yoga and Tantrism that he had never encountered before. He had discovered insights into symbolism and what he called “cosmic religion” among peasants that applied worldwide (Ricketts 363).
In 1933, he successfully defended his Ph.D. with a dissertation in Yoga and was appointed Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Bucharest where he taught courses on India and Hindu philosophy (Allen and Doeing xvi). His theories on the significance of symbols, rites and myths became part of the growing discipline of the history of religions. In 1933, his novel Maitreyi, based on his ill-fated love affair, was a huge success in Romania (Ricketts 537). Indeed, many of Eliade’s writings are autobiographical and are based on the extensive journals that he kept throughout his life.
Eliade could well have stayed at the University of Bucharest for his entire academic career, had peace prevailed. However, he was sent to London as part of the Romanian diplomatic corps, at the outbreak of World War II. He was transferred to Portugal in 1941 and remained there as a cultural attaché until 1945. With a communist government now in control of Romania, Eliade found himself in exile and looking for a university teaching position. In 1945 through his friendship with Georges Dumezil, a scholar of comparative mythology, Eliade secured a position as a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris where he taught courses in comparative religion until 1956 (Rennie 266).
The years between 1945 and 1956 proved to be a very productive time for Eliade. In addition to his teaching, he became a member of the Asiatic Society and was a regular attendee and presenter at the International Congresses of Orientalists and the International Congresses of the History of Religions during those years (Allen and Doeing xviii). It was in Paris that Eliade wrote many of his best known works; English translation would follow. The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949) was Eliade’s first major work in his new position at the Sorbonne. In it he discusses “fundamental characteristics of archaic societies” and “nostalgia for a periodical return to the mythical time of the beginning of things” (Allen and Doeing 16). Images and Symbols followed in 1952. It is a collection of case studies analyzing the structures of different symbols. It was highly controversial containing some of Eliade’s boldest statements about the history of religions (Allen and Doeing 22). The Sacred and the Profane (1956), which expresses Eliade’s view of the sacred and the profane as two planes of being in the world, became very popular with the general public, just as Eliade had intended from the outset. It was to become his best known work, encompassing a wide range of sacred phenomena, space, time, myth, symbolism, cosmic religion, etc. (Allen and Doeing 24).
In the autumn of 1956, Eliade was invited by Joachin Wach (1898-1955), the chair of the History of Religions department at the University of Chicago, to deliver the prestigious Haskell Lectures. After Wach’s sudden death the following year, Eliade accepted a position as a regular professor and Chairman of the History of Religions department at the University of Chicago, a position which he held, publishing and continuing to write his Romanian fiction, until his own death in 1986 (Rennie 266).
At the time of his death, Mircea Eliade was one of the most renowned and revered men in his discipline. He received many accolades from his peers including the compendium Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade in honor of his sixtieth birthday (Popescu 87). He was awarded many honorary titles at universities throughout the world (Allen and Doeing xx). However, change is inevitable if progress is to be made, and a new generation of young scholars was waiting to question the findings of the old. Mircea Eliade was to come under severe scrutiny and criticism for his position on a variety of religious topics. Young anthropologists, in particular, who had spent many months in the field living with their subject tribe, noting every nuance of daily life, rite and ceremony, complained that Eliade was not quite so thorough (Saliba 3). These new disciplines laid more emphasis on fieldwork and objective reporting, whereas Eliade was comfortable with generalizations and subjectivity and he freely admitted that to be the case.
John Saliba was one such anthropologist who viewed the religious man in a totally different light from Eliade’s (Saliba 2). Saliba felt that Eliade’s view of the religious man appealed more to the theologian or the literature student than to the anthropologist who had never actually encountered such a man in the field (Saliba 141). In Saliba’s opinion, Eliade had given up on the search for the true origins of religion, the holy grail of the discipline (Saliba 103) and most of Eliade’s conclusions he found to be “highly questionable” and “sweeping generalizations” or “overstating his case” (Saliba 140).
Saliba was not alone in his criticism. Thomas Altizer also held that Eliade’s methods were “mystical” and “romantic” when they should have been “rational” and “scientific” (Allen 548). He too saw Eliade’s methodology as “uncritical, arbitrary and subjective” (Allen 545). It is not surprising that Eliade’s prolific writings became the focus for a whole new generation of Religious Studies’ scholars bent on reassessing the theories of past generations and adding to the discipline’s position in academia.
Eliade died in 1986, leaving generations of students with a wealth of materials, often difficult to understand and internalize, requiring thoughtful interpretation. He has left the world much food for scholarly critical discussion as well as a wealth of literature written in his native Romanian that warrants translation and appreciation by the Western World (Ricketts 1216). His legacy lives on in his writings, in the accolades of his peers, and in the thought-provoking ideas that flowed from a lifetime of study.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Allen, Douglas (1988) “Eliade and History.” The Journal of Religion 68:545-65.
Allen, Douglas, and Dennis Doeing (1980) Mircea Eliade: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.
Azim, Firdaus (1996) “Review of Bengal Nights: A Novel by Mircea Eliade.” The Journal of Asian Studies 55:1035-37.
Barth, Christine (2013) “In illo tempore, at the Center of the World: Mircea Eliade and Religious Studies’ Concepts of Time and Space.” Historical Social Research 38:59-75.
Beane, Wendell C., and William G. Doty (1975) Myths, Rites and Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader. New York: Harper and Row.
Calinescu, Matei (1978) “The Disguises of Miracle: Notes on Mircea Eliade’s Fiction.” World Literature Today 52:558-64.
Eliade, Mircea (1992) Mystic Stories: The Sacred and the Profane, edited by Kurt W Treptow. New York: Columbia University Press.
Popescu, Mircea (1971) “Eliade and Folklore.” In Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H. Long, 81-90. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Rennie, Bryan (2013) “Mircea Eliade’s Understanding of Religion and Eastern Christian Thought.” Russian History 40:264-80.
Ricketts, Mac Linscott (1988) Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945. New York: Columbia University Press.
Saliba, John A. (1976) ‘Homo Religiosus’ in Mircea Eliade: An Anthropological Evaluation. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Sarbacker, Stuart Ray (2002) “Enstasis and Ecstasis: A Critical Appraisal of Eliade on Yoga and Shamanism.” Journal for the Study of Religion 15:21-37.
Wasserstrom, Steven M. (1990) Religion after Religion: Gersham Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Eastern Orthodox Church
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This article was written by Mary E. Anderson (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.