Mircea Eliade was born in 1907 to Gheorghe Eliade and his wife, Ioana Stonenscu. Eliade’s family belonged to the cultural elite of Bucharest, capital of the twenty-year-old constitutional monarchy of Romania, a small crescent lying mostly north of the Balkan Mountains along the Danube River and south of Transylvania. Eliade was initially educated in the turbulent era of “The Great War,” experiencing the German invasion and the moving of the capital to Jassy, when Romania entered the war as Russia’s ally on August 28, 1916.
Three years later, Romania was nearly tripled in area and population by the incorporation of huge segments of the demolished Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. The result was a national mood of great expectations, and the competitive attractions of monarchy, liberalism, Bolshevism, and Fascism were debated in the heady atmosphere of the University of Bucharest, where Eliade was a student of political philosophy and a budding author.
As part of completing his master’s degree, Eliade went to Benito Mussolini’s Rome in 1928, already familiar with Italian scholarship. His opposition to liberal historicism and its anti-Fascism, of the kind of Benedetto Croce, the foremost Italian philosopher of the time, was a by-product of his intellectual encounter with Raffaele Pettazoni, a historian interested in the phenomenology of religion, with whom Eliade corresponded from 1923, though they did not meet until 1949.
A chance encounter at Rome with A History of Indian Philosophy (1922-1955), by the distinguished Sanskrit scholar Surendranath Dasgupta, made him aware not only of Indian thought but also of financial assistance from Dasgupta’s patron, the Honorable Maharaja Sir Manindrachandra Nundy. The maharaja made available a scholarship at the University of Calcutta from 1928 to 1931. Eliade was barely twenty-one when he became immersed in the eroticism of both the academic study of Tantra and Yoga, and the physical environment of India. Eliade’s love affair with Dasgupta’s daughter, Maitreyi Devi, is recounted in both his journals and the best-selling novel of which her name forms the title. He would eventually marry Nina Mares, despite the opposition of his parents; she died of cancer in 1944.
After leaving the presence of Dasgupta, Eliade undertook two years of intensive training in the rigors of Yoga in the Himalayas. Gradually he made the transition as a Romanian intellectual from the role of a “cultural despiser” to that of a quiescently passionate student of both the archaic elements of Hinduism and those of the Romanian peasant expressed in Greek Orthodoxy. He returned to Bucharest with a dissertation written under Dasgupta on Yoga and received his doctorate in 1932.
In the development of his religious ideas, Eliade ascribes indebtedness to Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige (1920; The Idea of the Holy, 1923), which he read as early as 1928 and of which his own Das Heilige und das Profane (1957; The Sacred and the Profane, 1959), written almost thirty years later, was meant to be a continuation. Some sketch of the morphological and methodological directions that Eliade was to take was given in lectures at Bucharest shortly after 1933, wherein the thought of Gerardus van der Leeuw was also acknowledged. He showed himself to be a serious religious man with a deeply rooted spirituality reflecting the passions of the Indian sojourn.
Though principally an author, Eliade had associated status with the faculty of letters at the University of Bucharest until the outbreak of World War II. In this period, he was closely associated as student and then as junior colleague with Nae Ionescu, who blended orthodox piety with radical rightwing nationalism in a movement called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael, Iron Guard.”
With the coming into power of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism, Romania was increasingly troubled by political anarchy, as foreseen in Eliade’s two-volume novel Huliganii (1935; the hooligans). After watching others undergo searches and arrests, he was himself placed in a prison camp for refusing to denounce Ionescu and “The Legion.”
Eliade might have languished in prison had not a professorial friend, Alexandru Rosetti, interceded by convincing the propaganda minister of the royal government to send Eliade to London in 1940 as a cultural attaché with the Romanian legation. Under the Ion Antonescu regime, Eliade was shifted to Lisbon, Portugal, as the cultural conseilleur and remained there until the Soviet occupation of his homeland terminated his status. He wrote in 1942 Salazar şi revoluţia în Portugalia (1942; Salazar and the revolution in Portugal), about Antonio Salazar, whose brand of neutral national socialism he admired; in 1943 he wrote a brief history of the Romanians, whom he identified as the Latins of the East.
There is no doubt that Eliade perceived in the events of the interwar era the “terror of history”—a notion that became central to his discussion of religion at the...