Mircea Eliade began his life in Bucharest. While still studying in the lycée he wrote numerous articles in a popular vein on entomology, the history of alchemy, Orientalism, the history of religions, impressions of his travels, stories, and literary criticism. In 1925 he entered the University of Bucharest, where he pursued the study of Renaissance philosophy. Thus began a life-long preoccupation with the great creative epochs in Western history and with the puzzle of human, especially literary, creativity itself. Eliade had seen, for example, how the Rumanian poets, writers, and historians he admired had drawn material and inspiration from folk sources, and he was fascinated to see an analogous process at work in the Italian Renaissance.
In 1928, while in Rome to research his degree thesis on Italian Philosophy, from Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno, Eliade wrote to Professor Surendranath Dasgupta expressing a desire to study under his direction at the University of Calcutta - which he did, thanks to a scholarship offered him by the Maharajah Manindra Chandra Mandy of Kassimbazar. Eliade's stay in India lasted three years. In 1933 he received his doctorate with a dissertation on yoga, later published in French under the title Yoga: Essai sur les origines de le mystique indienne (1936), and began teaching at the University of Bucharest that same year.
Shortly after his return from India, in the midst of a busy schedule that included university teaching and many commitments to write and lecture, Eliade's novel, Maitreyi, was released to great critical and popular acclaim. Born into a tradition which saw no incompatibility between scientific and literary occupations, Eliade, the historian of religions, continued to produce novels, stories, essays, and a travel book. Today, especially in Romania and Germany, he is known primarily as a writer of fiction; and his popularity continues to grow as more and more of his works appear in translation.
During World War II Eliade served as cultural attaché to the Romanian legations in London and Lisbon. After the war he elected to remain in exile in Paris where he could complete work on a number of manuscripts which had taken shape during the war years, notably Patterns in Comparative Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return, both of which came to print in 1949. The years 1951 to 1955 saw the publication of several more volumes for which Eliade is well known: Shamanism, Images and Symbols, Yoga, The Forge and the Crucible, and The Forbidden Forest. Many regard the last title as his most important work of fiction.
Eliade travelled to the United States to deliver the 1956 Haskell Lectures at the University of Chicago, and a year later he was offered the post of professor and chairman of the History of Religions Department and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the university. Almost 30 years later, he was professor emeritus at this same institution with the title Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor.
Eliade's scholarly output continued unabated. Volume I of A History of Religious Ideas appeared in 1974, and three of its four projected volumes had been published by 1985. A History of Religious Ideas marked something of a departure from his previous theoretical work. As in his sourcebook, From Primitives to Zen, Eliade presented the "creative moments" of the world's religious traditions in more or less chronological order, treating them in a way one might call more historical and less thematic. In addition to his scholarly writing, Eliade served as editor-in-chief of a massive encyclopedia of religion until his death in 1986.
His literary works belong to the fantasy and autobiographical genre; the best known are the novels Maitreyi (La Nuit Bengali or Bengal Nights), Noaptea de Sânziene (The Forbidden Forest) and his Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent, the novellas Domnişoara Christina (Miss Christina) and Tinereţe fără tinereţe (Youth Without Youth), and the short stories Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr. Honigberger) and La Ţigănci (With the Gypsy Girls). Remarkable for his vast erudition, Eliade had fluent command of five languages (Romanian, French, German, Italian, and English) and a reading knowledge of three others (Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit). He was elected postmortem member of the Romanian Academy.