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Esotericism, Politics, and Global South Asia


Admission requirements

This course is open to students who are enrolled in the Masters programme in Religious Studies, Asian Studies, History, International Relations, and other related fields. Prior knowledge about South Asian history and religions is appreciated but not mandatory. The language of the course is English.


This course aims to introduce the study of esotericism and its relationship to politics from a global history perspective. The course content will mainly focus on the period from the nineteenth century through contemporary times. It will introduce students to the field of esotericism and familiarise them with the theoretical nuances within the field and its significance in the study of religion. We will begin the course with a broad overview of various theoretical and methodological approaches used in the study of esotericism. We will study how South Asian and Euro-American currents and movements became globally entangled, thus influencing cultural and intellectual politics in modern times. Subsequently, we will learn about the Theosophical Society’s relationship to Indian nationalism, the reception and appropriation of various South Asian currents (yoga and tantra) and religions (Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Sufism) in the “Western” esoteric discourses and the influence of global occultism in Indian and European politics. In the later part of the course, we will explore the formation of globalised “esoteric” communities in Indian and American towns (Adyar, Auroville, and Osho’s Rajneeshpuram) and their influence on local and global cultural politics. We will also study India’s position in global psychedelic culture. The course will be rounded off with a session on how several New Age and post-New Age gurus have used esoteric currents as tools of sexual abuse, financial fraud, and exploitation of power. During the course, students will also have the privilege to listen to a talk by a leading expert from the field in one of the sessions. We may also visit the Theosophical Society library in Amsterdam and interact with the Theosophists there for a field trip.

Course objectives

This course aims the following:
1. Introduce students to the emerging and highly dynamic field of esotericism from a global history perspective.
2. Highlight the significance of the academic study of esotericism within Religious Studies
3. Familiarise students with several fundamental terms and concepts used in the field.
4. Provide a nuanced understanding of South Asian religions and currents relevant to the study of esotericism.
5. Explore the relationship between esotericism and different political philosophies and movements (nationalism, socialism, and fascism) from a cross-cultural context.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Assessment and weighing

The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average of the following:

Partial Assessment Weighing
Class Presentation 25%
Classroom interaction and web-posting 15%
Final Assignment 60%

In order to pass the course, students need a passing mark (“voldoende”, i.e. “5.50” or higher) for the course as a whole.


The resit will only consist of the final assignment (60%). No resit opportunity for class presentation/book reviews (25%) and classroom interaction and web-posting (15%).

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will be organized.

Reading list

Readings will be posted on Brightspace.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.