News & View




  I S C

  Research Project

  About Us





Prophetic Mission

Max Weber has expressed the view that : “A distinctive concern with social reform is characteristic of Israelite prophets. This concern is all the more notable, because such a trait is lacking in Hindu prophecy of the same period, although the conditions in India at the time of Buddha have been described as relatively similar to those in Greece during the sixth century.”1 Further, he divides prophets into two types: “One represented most clearly by Buddha, the other with especial clarity by Zoroaster and Muhammed. The prophet may be primarily, as in the case just noted, an instrument for the proclamation of a god and his will, be this a concrete command or an abstract norm. Preaching as one who has received a mission from god, he demands obedience as an ethical duty. This type we shall term the ‘ethical prophet’. On the other hand, the prophet may be an exemplary man, who, by his personal example, demonstrates to others the way to religious salvation, as in the case of Buddha. The preaching of this type of prophet says nothing about a divine mission or an ethical duty of obedience, but rather directs itself to the self-interest of those who crave salvation, recommending to them the same path as he himself traversed. Our designation for the second type of prophecy is ‘exemplary’.”2 On these premises, Max Weber proceeds to formulate that : “the exemplary type is particularly characteristic in India, although there have been a few manifestations of it in China (e.g., Lao Tzu) and the Near East. On the other hand, the ethical type is confined to the Near East, regardless of racial differences there. For neither the Vedas nor the classical books of the Chinese... make it appear at all probable that prophecy of the ethical type, such as developed in the Near East or Iran, could ever have arisen in India or China. The decisive reason for this is the absence of a personal, transcendental, ethical god. In India this concept was found only in a sacramental and magical form, and then only in the later and popular faiths. But in the religion of those social classes within which the decisive conceptions of Mahavira and Buddha were developed, ethical prophecy appeared only intermittently and was constantly subjected to reinterpretations in the direction of pantheism.”3

What makes it difficult to accept that part of Weber’s formulation which links the absence of the ethical type to the absence of “a personal, transcendental, ethical God”, is the puzzling fact that the radical Bhagtas like Namdeva, Kabir, Ravidas, and many more, all believed in a personal, transcendent, and ethical God, as also did the Sikh Gurus. The radical Bhagtas and the Gurus were, moreover, near contemporaries, that is subject to more or less similar social, political, and economic environmental influences and conditions. Therefore, a very relevant and significant question has to be answered. Why, of all these Bhagti schools, who were also anti-caste, only the Sikh Gurus pursued a systematic, sustained course, over a long period, to create the Sikh Panth, as a distinct social entity outside the anti-humanitarian and anti-ethical caste society ? Also, why did the Sikh Panth (the Khalsa) alone capture political power for the plebeian masses ? A thing which no other Indian religion or movement had ever conceived of, much less aspired to.
It is obvious that mere faith in a “personal, transcendental, ethical god” was not enough. Something more than that was needed. We hope we might come across some clues in our search for answers to these questions if we pursue some aspects of the distinction drawn by Weber and Wach between prophetic religions and other religions.

1. The Prophet
“It is generally agreed that the emergence of a great new religious faith is one of the inexplicable mysteries which have accompanied the ascent of man and bears the most convincing testimony to the contingency and spontaneity of his spiritual history. We have reviewed the origin of the founded religions from this point of view and have stressed the fact that no prior preparation and pathbreaking could alone explain the emergence of the new inspiration and its effect.”4 This applies with greater force to the emergence of prophets.

Max Weber defines “prophet”, from the perspective of sociology, to mean a purely individual bearer of charisma, who, by virtue of his mission, proclaims a religious doctrine or divine commandment.5 It is characteristic of the prophets that they do not receive their mission from any human agency, but seize it, as it were. Their mission is a consequence of divine revelation and their charisma is a divine gift.6 Rather, “the personal call is the decisive element distinguishing the prophet from the priest. The latter lays claims to authority by virtue of his service in a sacred tradition, while the prophet’s claim is based on personal revelation and charisma.”7

The charisma of the prophet also stands differentiated likewise. Though the prophet, like the magician, exerts his power simply by virtue of his peronal gifts, unlike the magician he, however, claims definite revelation and the core of his mission is doctrine or commandment not magic.8

Max Weber considered the “prophecy” a special category in his systematic outline of types of religious authorities. “What, then, is the characteristic of a prophet ? The prophetical charisma seems to be the chief gift. It implies immediate communion with the deity the intensity of which is more characteristic than its continuance. It was only under very unusual circumstances that a prophet succeeded in establishing his authority without charismatic authentification. It must not be forgotten that the entire basis of Jesus’ own legitimation, as well as his claim that he and only he knew the Father, and the way to God led through faith in him alone, was the magical charisma he felt within himself. It was doubtless this consciousness of power, more than anything else, that enabled him to traverse the road of prophets... There was always required of such prophets a proof of their possession of particular gifts of the spirit, of special magical or ecstatic abilities. ”9

“The manner in which the prophet receives his mandate is essential; usually there is a distinct ‘call’… The consciousness of being the organ, instrument, or mouthpiece of the divine-will is characteristic of the self-interpretation of the prophet. The prophetic authority is distinctly mandatory… It is characteristic of prophetic revelations that they are usually not induced by methodical or casual manipulation, but arise spontaneously and are received passively… Frequently, the prophet appears as a renewer of lost contacts with the hidden power of life… The prophet illuminates and interprets the past, but he also anticipates the future. The kairos (moment) is interpreted by the prophet in this dual light.”10

“It is interesting to note that prophets do not usually come from the aristocracy, the learned, or the refined; they frequently emerge from the simple folk and remain true to their origin even in a changed environment. Frugality and simplicity mark the life of the prophet, and these features link him with the ascetic and the ‘saint’ (cf. the Russian Staretz). Since his inspiration means the revelation of hidden truth, the prophet may also be regarded as one who ‘knows’. As one who possesses knowledge and information as to the most essential that man wants to know — the nature, will, and manifestations of God — the prophet has features in common with the teacher, philosopher, and theologian.”11 However, in spite of sharing some common features, both Weber and Wach have differentiated prophets as a special category apart from all other religious authorities — the reformer, the seer, the saint, etc. We need not enter into such details, as we have to concentrate on the social and historical significance of the prophetic mandate.

2. Social and Historical Significance of the Mandate
It is true that the prophet “is never to be found where the proclamation of a religious truth through personal revelation is lacking. In our view, this qualification must be regarded as the decisive hallmark of prophecy”.12 But, this “religious truth through personal revelation” included, directly or by implication, features which led to momentous social, political, and historical consequences, at least in the case of some prophets.

“The political, national, and social activities of prophets have always attracted the attention of the students of prophecy. In these fields, they played so outstanding a part in old Hebrew history (Balaam, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and most of the great prophets) that some scholars are inclined to regard this side of the prophetical activity as the central one. That is not correct, because his moral, social, and political ideas, the prophet’s function as the ‘conscience’ of the group, tribe, nation, or state, are caused, conditioned, and determined by his basic religious experience. Owing to his contact with the deepest sources of life, the prophet reacts vigorously against all disturbance or perversion of the civil or moral order which is meant to reflect the divine-will. He feels danger and seizes crucial moments to interpret present situations in the light of the past and the future… The blunt expression of moral judgement which we are accustomed with prophetic activity, particularly with the messages of Nathan, Amos, Micah, and Jeremiah, is not inspired by personal resentment, but is a result of the strong emotion and the profound intuition evoked by basic religious experiences. Such pronouncements and judgements confirm the prophet’s charisma.”13

The political, national, and social activities of prophets may or may not be central to prophecy, but the very fact that these are born of the prophet’s direct contact with the deepest sources of life serves to reinforce their potential rather than weaken it or sidetrack it. The prophet himself embodies a certitude about the mission he is charged with which is not assailed by the least doubt and which does not waver at the cross. He loves it with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might.

“The mandate which the prophet receives is essential; usually there is a distinct call… The consciousness of being the organ, instrument, or mouthpiece of the divine-will is characteristic of the self-interpretation of the prophet.”14 This “mandate”, “call”, “mission”, by whatever name it is called, takes complete hold of the prophet, and he cannot but devote his entire energy towards spreading and fulfilling his mission. In analysing the various activities of the founders, we find in nearly every case preaching and teaching. To convey to others the message of salvation and perfection and to lead them to the acceptance of the truth revealed to them in their basic experience are primary concerns of the founder… The awareness of his mission comes to the chosen one upon the occasion of his “call”. Characteristic of such a mission is the close association of the message with the personality of its promulgator and the permanent endowment with power. The idea of a mission implies consciousness of its mandatory character.15

3. Implications and Comment
A student of history is free to accept or not accept any of the formulations cited in this chapter, but he can in no way ignore the exceptional social, political, and historical driving-forces generated by prophets, the consequences of which are there in history for all to see. “… should a doubt remain as to the decisive role played by leading religious personalities, a study of the great founded religions will remove it. The changes here effected through personal initiative are tremendous; and even if we allow for the embellishment of the lives of the founders in legend and tradition, their influence on the great communities which they called into being must be termed prodigious.”16

“As is well known, none of the great founders intended to ‘found a religion’. They were, each in his own way, deeply concerned with following out an experience which became decisive in their lives and which determined their own attitude towards God, towards the world, and towards men. From the psychological and historical stand-point, the Jesus who wandered about in Galilee was a revolutionary, a teacher, a reformer, and a prophet. Many of his contemporaries considered him a magician. Seen from the sociological point of view, he was the head of a school or the leader of a religious group, as many before and after him; but this description does not do justice to his significance — even not the sociological — if it leaves out the events after his death which brought a considerable part of the human race into communion with him. Thus, Jesus of Nazareth, or, in theological terms, Christ, is even sociologically defined like something more than a teacher, a prophet, or a reformer, for he founded Christianity. From a theological point of view, the number of his followers is immaterial, but it is sociologically significant that he, Buddha, Mohammed, and Zoroaster became the founders of large religious bodies by the influence which their personalities and activities had on their followers. The historian is interested in the transformation which the leadership of great religious personalities produced in the world; the sociologist concentrates his attention on the direct and indirect sociological effect of his appearance on the organization and stratification of society.”17



1. p. 35.
2. p. 35.
3. p. 36.
4. p. 36.
5. p. 36.
6. p. 37.
7. p. 37.
8. p. 37.
9. p. 37.
10. p. 37.
11. p. 38.
12. p. 38.
13. p. 38.
14. p. 39.
15. p. 39.
16. p. 39.
17. p. 40.



ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2007, All rights reserved. Designed by Jaswant (09915861422)