Between “Essence Religion” and “Godly Religion”: The Italian Communal Esotericism of the Universal Soul Movement

Massimo Introvigne



Religion and Magic

“It is often said that social scientists don’t know what they are talking about. And too often it’s true.” This is how Rodney Stark (2004, 1) introduces his most recent discussion of definitions of religion and magic. There are, of course, those denying that definitions serve any useful purpose. Stark disagrees, and believes that definitions are necessary tools to study social phenomena, including religion. He goes on to define the “supernatural” as including “forces and entities beyond or outside nature which can suspend, alter, or ignore physical forces” (Stark 2004, 12,) and “religion” as “consisting of explanations of existence based on supernatural assumptions and including statements about the nature of supernatural and about ultimate meaning” (Stark 2004, 14.) Magic, by contrast, is defined with reference to “all efforts to manipulate supernatural forces to gain rewards or avoid costs without reference to a God or Gods or to general explanations of existence” (ibid.) Stark’s definition is partially similar to the distinction proposed by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) between religion as hierophany and magic as kratophany, or experience of power (Eliade 1958.) Religion implies a certain gratuity, while magic is manipulation. Stark adds that magic does not care about general theories or explanations of existence, while religion does. Magic does not address questions of ultimate meaning; it does not offer otherworldly rewards; nor does it provide a basis for the moral order (although, according to Stark, only some religions do.)

But what about God or the Gods? These are defined by Stark (2004, 10) as “supernatural ‘beings’ having consciousness and desire.” Stark’s theory of religion in general is an attempt to escape Durkheimian functionalism, and return God to his central place in religion. His latest definition of religion, however, does not refer to God but only to “the supernatural.” In fact, this definition “makes no mention of supernatural beings,” while noting that “most religions do”: however, “some religions conceive of the supernatural as an omnipresent essence or principle governing life, but something that is impersonal, remote, and definitely not a being.” These are “essence religions,” different from “godly religions” centered on one or more personal beings known as God or the Gods.

Essence religions are elite religions, limited to comparatively small intellectual circles. They are normally unable to gather a large following (Stark and Finke 2000, Stark 2003.) Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) thought otherwise because he considered Buddhism as an essence religion, and Buddhism obviously does have a large following. Durkheim, however, ignored the difference between elite Buddhism, as practiced by some monks and philosophers, and popular Buddhism, which is literally full of Gods, and the same is true for Taoism, Confucianism, and other religions. Is Buddhism, thus, an essence or a godly religion? The more accurate answer is that it is both, with those practicing the elite essence religion providing guidance for the mass following which practices a godly religion, in turn tolerated by the elite as unavoidable for the large numbers of the uninitiated. That this structure may work is proven by the whole history of Buddhism. In Buddhism we may call the elite essence religion “esotericism” and the mass godly religion “exotericism.” Doing this would not be a statement about the various competing definitions of esotericism (see Faivre and Voss 1995, Hanegraaff 1995.) It would however recognize that esotericism is not magic. Esotericism does not focus on manipulating the supernatural for practical purposes, nor does it refrain from addressing questions of ultimate meaning. Grand, comprehensive theories are, if anything, fairly typical of esotericism.



If this is true, perhaps we do not need esotericism as a tertium genus between religion and magic. Esotericism is religion, in the shape of essence religion. When essence religion is simply consigned to books and scriptures, it lives in schools (Melton 1998) rather than in religious movements. On the other hand, essence religion typically functions as esotericism when it is the elite section of a religious system including both an essence religion for the elite and a godly religion for the larger following. This esotericism may be legal or de jure, when the access to the elite is regulated by strict criteria of selection and initiation, or practical or de facto, since at any rate essence religion attracts a limited number of followers. An extreme example of legal esotericism is found in those systems where esoteric knowledge is only revealed to a caste of initiates into which one is born. Some of the so called “hyper-Shiite” groups, which regard Ali not just as a prophet but as God incarnate, including Syria’s Alawites (Olsson, Özdalga e Raudvere, 1998,) as well as the Druses, are legal esotericisms of this kind.

Esotericism may thus be defined as elite essence religion functioning within a system also including a godly religion practiced by a larger number of believers. Of course, the relationship between the two parts of the system may be more of less difficult: followers of the popular godly religion may look to the practitioners of elite essence religion as models and leaders, or they may consider them as heretics. The former is the situation of Buddhism in most parts of the world. The latter mostly happened within Christianity, where esotericism in the shape of an essence religion was more often than not branded as heresy. Islam and Judaism, with their varying relations with Sufism and Kabbalah, may be regarded as intermediate cases.


A Case Study: The Universal Soul Movement in Italy


Macro categories should be micro translated in order to become empirically testable. Macro cases such as Buddhism or Judaism run the risk of generating endless discussions based on the somewhat arbitrary reduction of several hundred different cases to a few general models. There are, however, new religious movements functioning as micro models of what Stark and others have mentioned as features of Buddhism or Taoism. Small as they are, they do include both an elite essence religion and a popular godly religion.

Universal Soul is an Italian new religious movement headquartered in Leinì, near Turin, Piedmont. Its founder was Roberto Casarin, born in Turin on April 9, 1963. As a young man, Casarin was a pious Roman Catholic, who became well known for his mystical visions and for his gift of healing. Thousands of Catholics congregated in Turin to hear Casarin pray the Rosary, in the hope of being healed by the young visionary. The local Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, was quite hostile to his success, culminating in Anastasio Alberto Cardinal Ballestrero (1913-1998,) Archbishop of Turin, declaring on June 15, 1982 that Casarin’s meetings would henceforth be banned. They continued, nonetheless, and on February 26, 1984, an independent organization known as Associazione Cristo nell’Uomo – Centro di Elevazione Spirituale (“Christ in Man Association – Center for Spiritual Elevation”) was founded.



Casarin’s teachings evolved towards the idea of a “God for all people,” with a critical view of organized religion as a divisive and controversial factor. From 1985 on, it became evident that Casarin’s was an independent religious movement, with no remaining links with the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the most active members of Casarin’s association later created Comunità Impegno (“Engagement Community”), which in turn led to the establishment of the Church of the New Jerusalem in 1989. The final separation of the movement from the Catholic Church was confirmed by a declaration published on March 21, 1990, by Ballestrero’s successor as Archbishop of Turin, Giovanni Cardinal Saldarini. Catholic critics, and an ex-priest of the Church of the New Jerusalem turned vocal opponent, provoked a media campaign against Casarin, centering inter alia on his teachings on sexual ethics, including his tolerance of homosexuality. In 1996, in order to prevent confusion with other movements with similar names, the Church of the New Jerusalem changed its name to “Anima Universale – Movimento di Unione Spirituale” (“Universal Soul – Movement for Spiritual Union”,) a name also regarded as conveying the essence of the movement’s teachings.

Rituals include baptisms, weddings, funerals, collective meditations and prayers, “rituals of the elements” and “celebrations of mantras” (Roldán 2000.) The rituals are lead by the priests and priestesses of the Universal Soul, known as “Ramias,” a name derived from Maria, a reference to both the Virgin Mary of Catholicism and the Universal Mother. All Ramias are full time members living communally in the “Universal Soul Centers.” From the original Centers, all located in the Italian region of Piedmont, the movement spread to the Venetian area and to the province of Ancona in Central Italy. The construction of a temple in Poggiana di Riese Pio X (in the Italian province of Treviso, Venetian region) generated, between 1999 and 2000, new controversies. The local Catholic Church and some local politicians opposed the construction, calling the movement a “cult.” The conflict between the Universal Soul and the Roman Catholic Church appears, at times, paradoxical. Without always acknowledging it, in fact, Casarin and his Roman Catholic critics seem to agree on the one essential issue, namely that Universal Soul is a new religious experience and not part of Roman Catholicism. 

Casarin’s present approach is, at first sight, eclectic. According to PierLuigi Zoccatelli (2000,) “some symbols are typical of a very traditional Roman Catholicism: statues of the Virgin (some connected to the rose  – Mary as the Mystical Rose), of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, rosaries, relics, angels. (…) But alongside Madonnas and rosaries there are also icons from other traditions, apparently with a preference for Buddhism or the East in general. The architecture of the Temples appears as prima facie Christian, but they may include an inner Temple of Light with a statue of the Buddha.” In fact, the eclecticism is related to the simultaneous presence in the movement of two belief systems, one esoteric, an elite essence religion, and the other exoteric, a popular godly religion.

The pentagon, the movement’s symbol, indicates “the portion of God’s space inhabited by us through the Life, where God is always present.” “The higher golden-coloured band is the invisible safety which prepares to Eternity. It is a symbol of Miriam, the Universal Soul, and of a transit towards a purely spiritual essence. It is the dimension where we discover ourselves as divine beings” (Zoccatelli 2000.)

Swami Roberto,” as followers now prefer to call Casarin, asserts that humans have forgotten their divine origin and are living under the veil of material illusion. Universal Soul’s teachings remind humans of their true divine nature, thereby developing their spiritual awareness. In 2003, the movement released an important collection of Swami Roberto’s lectures. Even among the movement’s members, one lecture argues, many merely “believe that they believe”: “but none of you really believes in God!” In fact, the Swami argues, “you remain in the limited dimension of form, while He [God] is Spiritual Essence, Absolute and Eternal” (Anima Universale 2003, 69.) By using an increasingly Eastern terminology, Casarin insists that dualism is merely the result as a “hypnotic sleep of the mind.” What in the Universal Soul movement is known as “the Knowledge” offers essentialist monism as an alternative: “You and God are one,” “you are the same eternal Substance,” “you are of the same Essence of God,” “I and God are one” (emphasis in original: Anima Universale 2003, 260-261.) It would be difficult to be more unambiguous in stating the claim of a typical essence religion.



Yet, members continue to “believe that they believe.” Transmitting the Knowledge is difficult, and when it comes to assessing the movement’s success in spreading its essentialist gospel, the Swami is not over-optimistic. Perhaps, “so far you only believe in figments of your own imagination… you believe in a fantasy which is not necessarily the truth” (Anima Universale 2003, 69.) This is not to say that the movement has no success. Quite the opposite is true: from several hundred, the weekly and monthly gatherings in Piedmont expanded to include several thousand followers, with branches being established in several Italian cities and in France. Universal Soul’s main problem is currently how to accommodate those coming to Piedmont from faraway places who want to stay for the night.

Devotees, however, seem less interested in the arcane Knowledge than in the immediate power of symbols and the promise of healing. The Swami is among the most reputed healers in Southern Europe, and healing is what motivates many pilgrims who seek his blessing. In a way, the simple faith of these pilgrims is taken into account by the movement, which offers devotional practices in a pre-Vatican II style, Catholic statues, and continuous references to popular Catholic saints such as Saint Francis and Father Pio. References to “the Knowledge” are never lacking, but many pilgrims seem to translate the Swami’s essence religion into a traditional godly religion by simply spontaneously re-interpreting the same symbols, or by resisting the Ramias’ own re-interpretation of traditional Christian symbols.

This double esoteric-exoteric, essence religion-godly religion structure is not unusual. I found it in my own participant observation of Sukyo Mahikari, a Japanese neo-Shinto movement offering both healing ritual and arcane knowledge about the history of the world. Leaders explain the high members’ turnover with the fact that many come in search of healing, and leave once their immediate problems have been solved (or, perhaps, not solved.) Only a handful of members go on and develop a genuine interest in Sukyo Mahikari’s complicate Japanese esoterica (Introvigne 1999.) Dobbelaere (1998) found the same process at work in a Japanese Buddhist movement, Soka Gakkai: worldly benefits, particularly healing, continuously attract new members, but only a minority will develop an interest in the in-depth study of the Lotus Sutra offered by the movement and stay.

It is at the level of the exoteric, godly religion that controversies arise. Purely esoteric movements have largely managed to escape the attention of secular anti-cult and Christian counter-cult movements. Purveyors of elite essence religion remain small, do not influence the social order, and do not compete in the religious market with the larger organizations which offer godly religion and to which the counter-cultists belong. The Universal Soul movement does not attract negative attention because of its esoteric non-dualistic teachings. Quite to the contrary, the latter have been endorsed by popular Italian entertainment icons (actors, musicians, singers,) and are normally mentioned with sympathy (that is, when they are mentioned at all.) It is because the Universal Soul offers rituals and funerals which are both in direct competition with the Catholic Church and capable of gathering large crowds that parish priests, Christian counter-cult organizations, and secular anti-cult journalists denounce the Swami’s movement as a cult.

These critics would argue that the Swami hides his true, “heretic” (or “magical”) colours under the disguise of a quasi-Catholic ritual. The main accusation is that the Universal Soul engages in unfair competition: religious consumers are attracted by a ritual which is similar to Christian old time religion, while the teachings are monistic, esoteric, “magical” and “Oriental.” If the implication is that this is done on purpose, nothing could be farther from the truth. Quite to the contrary, there is a genuine, sustained effort by the Ramias to lead the followers from “fantasy” to “reality,” from dualism to monism, from godly religion to essence religion. That the effort succeeds only in a minority of cases is the common fate of all similar religious systems.



It is also untrue that the Universal Soul hides magic behind the external layer of religion. Again, first of all there is nothing really “hidden”: books about the Knowledge are very publicly on sale, and the esoteric teachings are mentioned in public lectures to large crowds. Secondly, what is dismissed as magic by critics is in fact essence religion. It is the fact that it is definitely not godly religion that misleads critics into dismissing the core of the Knowledge as magic rather than religion. We can also measure here the ambiguity of the term “esotericism.” For critics, it is simply magic, while within our theoretical framework it is best described as essence religion, particularly as the re-interpretation in terms of essence religion of symbols and rituals which are perceived by larger constituencies in the more usual terms of godly religion.

The experience of Universal Soul, thus, micro-translates generalizations and macro theories about religion. If the Universal Soul offered “pure” essence religion, it would remain a school of esoteric knowledge including the Swami, the Ramias, and perhaps another handful of very committed members. However, the Ramias do not limit their activity to the transmission of the Knowledge. They take care of the daily problems of a growing number of devotees, and offer counselling and healing. These latter activities are easily understood and successful because they rely on the power of century-old Christian symbols and rituals. Through such rituals the elite school of esotericism reaches out to include a growing religious movement. Those involved in the larger movement seem to resist the Ramias’ esoteric re-interpretation of the Christian symbols, and in turn re-interpret the essentialist teachings of the Knowledge in terms of the religion they are more familiar with.

From the Ramias’ point of view (not to mention the Swami himself,) there is no double standard. If anything, Casarin complains that the Knowledge is not understood, and that followers remain attached to their former (godly) ideas about religion. This, however, rather than a peculiarity of the Universal Soul is what normally happens when an esoteric school grows into a larger movement offering a full range of religious goods and services. Essence religion remains its esoteric core, while the same symbols are re-interpreted by a larger constituency in terms of godly religion. The Universal Soul, in this sense, is an ideal ground to test theories about the history and structure of much larger essence religions which grew up to achieve a mass following and to include in their systems a popular godly religion, such as Buddhism or Taoism.





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