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Sir Richard Burton: A Gnostic Bridge to Asian Culture Sir Richard Burton: A Gnostic Bridge to Asian Culture
by Rene Wadlow
2023-03-19 09:02:45
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            He noblest lives and noblest dies
            who makes and keeps his self-made laws

                        Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

As Edward Rice stresses in his biography of Richard Burton, whose birth anniversary we mark on 19 March, “Burton's adult life was passed in a ceaseless quest for the kind of secret knowledge he labeled broadly as 'Gnosis' by which he hoped to uncover the very source of existence and the meaning of his role on earth.” (1)

Historically, the word 'gnosis' means knowledge, a certain interior, intuitive cognition, sometimes called 'the gnosis of the heart' by which the 'awake' individual is able to understand the transcendental presence within himself.  The mystical experience of the gnosis is most often set into myth and folk tales.  Burton believed that the same gnosis was in the background of all myths, and he studied Hindu Tantra, Sikhism and Kablalah but his most lasting interest was in Islamic Sufism.

si01Richard Burton, son of an English army lieutenant colonel, followed his father's path and in his early twenties set sail for India as an officer in the army of the East India Company, the first institution of British imperialism there.  Burton had a facility in learning languages, doing so well that he could not be detected as an Englishman. Thus he was often used as a spy.   He inspire red R. Kipling's character of Colonel Creighton in the novel Kim. His ability in language and disguise allowed him to take his famous trip to Mecca and the closed Ethiopian city of Harare. He became the character Murthwaite in Wilkie Collins The Moonstone.  In 1855, he tried to find the source of the Nile which he describes in Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860)

Richard Burton left the military and joined the less time-consuming Foreign Service. From 1864 to 1871 he was the British consul in Damascus where he was able to continue his explorations of Sufi thought. Damascus was followed by the then calm city of Trieste where for the last 20 years of his life he had ample time to work on his translations of The Arabian Nights, in 10 volumes, and the Kama Sutra. At his death, his more conservative wife burned other erotic translations, including The Perfumed Garden on which he had long worked.

Burton recognized the need for the reconciliation of opposites in human nature as a hallmark of spiritual liberation along Gnostic lines.  Sexual intercourse is the most widely-used symbol of the reconciliation of opposites into a single oneness.  Sexual symbolism is widely used in certain Sufi traditions. Burton was both a Victorian and an anti-Victorian with an interest in the sexual activities of others and knowing that many of his fellow Englishmen shared the interest in the sexual life of exotic peoples without admitting the interest publicly.

Burton is a forerunner of the current 'Dialogue among Civilizations'.  He was looking for an early common core of ideas and aspirations which would have then been set into myth and folk tales within different socio-cultural settings.  Sexuality represents a common core, both on a physical level and as an avenue to higher consciousness.  His adventurous life has largely overshadowed his Gnostic approach in the public mind (where he is sometimes confused with a much later British actor, on-and-off husband of Elisabeth Taylor). However, Burton's serious participation in Eastern religious practices and the aims of his translations can be an example for us in the current dialogue.



Edward Rice. Captain Sir Richard Frances Burton (New York: Scribner, 1990)

            See also:
            Frank McLynn. Burton: Snow Upon the Desert (London: John Murray, 1990)
            Mary S. Lowell. A Rage to Live. A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton 
                                     (New York: Norton )


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens


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bohdan2020-03-20 00:28:22
Always admired his quests.

A man in search of...

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