Many people throughout history have looked and are currently looking for a savior of some kind to appear on Earth to save them, redeem them, liberate them, usher in peace, a new world, etc., and this can be seen throughout the religious and spiritual traditions. What is the nature of this messianism archetype in the various traditions, and what might it mean in mysticism? Will there be a future “messiah,” or does this point to a mystical reality?
The Jews are looking for the Messiah. The Christians are looking for (Jesus) Christ’s second coming (which Muslims also share). Buddhists are looking for Maitreya Buddha’s appearance on Earth. Hindus are looking for the coming of Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu. Taoists look towards the coming of Li Hong, a messianic figure. In Zoroastrianism they are looking for a savior figure in Saoshyant. And in Bábism they are looking for “He whom God shall make manifest.” And if it is not a spiritual figure, it is perhaps a saving political figure, the State, a tech guru, a Singularity event, or something or someone else which will save us from our misery, our problems, our mortality, and will begin a new age in human history.
What’s fascinating about all of these “messiahs” is that many of them seem to have arisen independently of each other. Some certainly have connections, as in the Jewish Messiah and the Christian Christ, but others seem to have emerged quite apart from the others either in time or place or both, which seems to indicate a deeper reality than can be found in history. Let’s review each of these briefly.
Perhaps one of the most well-known “messiahs” in religious history is that which is found in Judaism. The word messiah comes from a Hebrew word משיח (mashiah, moshiah, mashiach, or moshiach) which means “anointed” or “anointed one.” It was used in reference to priests and kings in ancient Israel, who were literally anointed with holy oil, usually when they were set apart to be a religious and/or political leader of the people, as in a consecration or coronation. I’ve written before about the many messiahs in the history of the Jews and ancient Hebrews. These were each considered saviors, liberators of the people in some way.
Eventually the messiah came to be known as a future Jewish king from the Davidic line of King David, who will gather the Jews back to the Land of Israel, build the Third Temple, and rule the Jews during a Messianic Age of peace. This messiah is often referred to as Melech HaMeshiach, or the “Anointed King.” The Jewish philosopher Maimonides once said:
Anyone who does not believe in him, or who does not wait for his arrival, has not merely denied the other prophets, but has also denied the Torah and Moses, our Rabbi.
There have been many Jewish messiah claimants.
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The Jewish belief of a coming messiah led to the birth of Christianity, which arose from a messianic Jewish sect. The word christ (Χριστός, romanized: Khristós) is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word messiah, and so it too means “anointed one.” Christ was also one who would bring salvation and redemption to the Jewish people and all of humanity. The early Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was the one who had come to fulfill that role as the messiah/christ (Jews deny this claim). They thought Jesus was that “anointed one,” which had been promised in the Hebrew Bible.
While Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled the role of messiah during his mortal ministry, they also believe some of the prophecies of the messiah will only be completed when Jesus returns in a “second coming of Christ.” At that time, Christ will rule and reign in God’s kingdom on Earth during a millennial age. So it seems that the awaiting of a Jewish Messiah is again mirrored similarly in the Christian awaiting of Jesus’ return, Christ’s coming. In both cases, they await the Messiah/Christ, a savior and liberator.
There have been many Jesus/Christ/Second Coming claimants. (Intriguingly, Joseph Smith might be added to this list, as he seems to have called himself (and perhaps others) by the name “Ahman Christ.” Joseph was also voted by the Council of Fifty (aka “Kingdom of God”) to be “Prophet, Priest & King,” the threefold office often used to refer to Jesus. I have also noted before how Joseph’s First Vision can be interpreted to be a revelation of the Christ, the “Son,” in Joseph.)
Islamic Mahdi (and Jesus)
Muslims also believe in the second coming of Jesus, Isa Ibn Mariam, al-Masih (“Jesus son of Mary, the Messiah”). In Islam it is thought that Jesus was chosen by Allah to be a prophet and king. But first it is thought that Mahdi (al-mahdī meaning “the guided one”), perhaps a descendant of Muhammad, will come to be a redeemer of Islam, will come to establish truth and justice, and will bring together the sects of Islam. This coming of Mahdi is known in Shia Islam as Occultation.
In some Islamic views, the Mahdi and Jesus are one and the same, not separate individuals. In other views, the two will arrive together and defeat Al-Masih ad-Dajjal (“the false Messiah”, or Antichrist). The Mahdi will rid the world of evil, and will rule and reign as king, after whose death Jesus will be a messianic King, bringing eternal peace to the Earth.
There have been many Mahdi claimants.
In the eschatology of most Buddhist sects, Maitreya (derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “friendship”) is a distant future Bodhisattva and Buddha which will come to the Earth, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma. This Buddha will be a successor to to the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
It is thought that the world and human society will decay into complete degeneration, the dharma will be forgotten, as well as the Buddha. But Maitreya will be born and will attain total enlightenment in only seven days, and he will then rule over the Pure Land. He will teach humanity the virtues, the dharma, and people will rediscover enlightenment, ushering in a new golden age on Earth.
There have been many Buddha claimants.
In Hinduism it is thought that Kalki will be the tenth and final incarnation or avatar of the highest god, Vishnu. Kalki will come at the end of the present age known as the Kali Yuga, an age of darkness, which is perhaps where the name Kalki comes from, the Sanskrit word “kalka” referring to dirt, filth, foulness. Kalki will destroy all this darkness, annihilate this ignorance and adharma. He is said to come riding a white horse with a fiery sword. He ushers in a new “Golden Age” of Satya Yuga, the yuga of truth, when humanity is governed by the gods in the purest goodness, where “righteousness will reign supreme.”
There have been many avatar claimants.
Taoist Li Hong
In the eschatology of Taoism, Li Hong is a messianic and savior figure that is thought to be one who will come at the end of the world cycle, during a time of great upheaval, chaos, deluge, epidemics, etc. It is thought that Li Hong will be the ideal leader who will set things aright, and establish harmony again. It is thought by some that he will be a reincarnation of Laozi (Lao Tzu).
In Zoroastrianism, Saoshyant is an eschatological savior figure. Saoshyant is thought to bring about Frashokereti, a final renovation of the world. Saoshyant will battle the forces of evil and ultimately destroy them, the word meaning “one who brings benefit.” At that time, Ahura Mazda, the supreme God of Zoroastrianism, will reign supreme, and Saoshyant will be his agent, who “will resurrect the dead, whose bodies will be restored to eternal perfection, and whose souls will be cleansed and reunited with God. Time will then end, and truth/righteousness (asha) and immortality will thereafter be everlasting.”
Bábism’s “He whom God shall make manifest”
In Bábism, “He whom God shall make manifest” is a messianic figure. The founder of Bábism, the Báb, mentions this messianic figure many times in his works. This figure is thought to be the origin of all divine attributes. His command is said to be the same as God’s command. His arrival will mark the beginning of a new creative life cycle in the world.
There have been several claimants to be this figure, including Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. A unique aspect of this particular belief is that Bahá’u’lláh is not considered to be the last “Manifestation of God,” but that these Manifestations never end.
Secular Political/Technology Figure or Event
Sometimes, in our modern society, certain political figures are hailed as messiahs who have come to save a people. Donald Trump has been so identified by others, and by himself, as a “chosen one.” Hitler was thought by some to be a new messiah. Sometimes tech gurus are looked to as messiahs, such as Elon Musk, someone who will save us from our destruction of this planet, introducing electric vehicles and helping us become an interplanetary species. Sometimes it is not a particular person, but a particular transhumanist event or cumulative effect of evolving technology that will lead to a Singularity, per Ray Kurzweil, or an Omega Point, per Tailhard de Chardin, that will completely change the world, perhaps leading to the end of toil, and peace, and human immortality.
Many people seem to believe that their messiah is the only one, the one who will save the whole world, who will liberate all people (and/or destroy the wicked), who will be the redeemer of all humanity and life on Earth, who will bring peace, prosperity, truth and light, and conquer all evil and all enemies. All other messiahs are perhaps thought to be false messiahs, false prophets, impostors. If they are generous, they may think that all other messiah figures are ultimately referring to their own messiah.
Jews think that the Christians made a mistake in identifying Jesus as the messiah. Christians think that the Jewish messiah is Jesus, who was prophesied to come in the Hebrew Bible, and who will come again as a future messiah. I know in my former Mormonism, it might be thought that all these messianic prophecies point to the return of Jesus to the Earth in his “second coming,” to rule the LDS Church as the “kingdom of God” on the Earth.
I think it is a mistake that some religious people may make, in thinking that all prophecies of a messiah refer to their own traditions’ messiah. I think that the universal presence of such messianic beliefs across cultures and religions is indicative of a deeper pattern which points to no particular religious belief, specifically, but includes all of them within it. They are all manifestations of the same deeper messianic reality.
I suggest that this archetypal savior is not a particular person, a unique individual person who will come to save the whole world, and who will rule and reign. Not even Jesus. No, I think the the secret in this pattern is this:
The savior we are all looking for is hidden within us as our own deepest and most fundamental identity in reality itself, in humanity itself, in life itself.
All these religious prophecies concerning messiahs I think are pointing to this inner messiah, this inner light, this inner identity, this true Self. I perceive they are all pointing to this deeper quality of the human condition itself, one which becomes radically manifest in mystical experience.
This One is in ourselves, deep in our essence, in our true nature, beyond the ego personality that we think we are. It is that nondual unitive nature that binds us all together as a cohesive whole, One in Love, in nature, in this universe, as Life itself, as a “collective consciousness,” as one with Ultimate Reality, as manifestations of that Ultimate Reality or One. Our true Self is that One, and the realization of that Self/One is our awakening to the true Messiah.
It has often been thought that one of the messiah’s missions or roles was to establish world peace. How can that happen, if there is no actual person to do it? I think the error we made, and continue to make, was in thinking that the messiah was to establish this peaceful kingdom through outward force, politics, armies, conquest, war, etc. No, I don’t think that is right. As Jesus said, cleaning the inner vessel first will make the outward clean too, which is something that we each do within ourselves. And then we help others also realize this inner purification, and the outward world then takes care of itself (Matt. 23:25-26).
The Armageddon and apocalypses that are often thought to precede the coming of the messiah I think are symbolic of the destruction and transcendence of the ego-self within each of us. This is the cleansing, the purification, the refiner’s fire, the annihilation of the darkness of ego, that psychological subject-object construction which only divides, separates, alienates, and is full of error, ignorance, deceit, delusion, etc. The ego “dies,” and a new One is born in its place. This One is that Prince of Peace. A 17th century German mystic once noted:
Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.-Angelus Silesius
Mystics and prophets have pointed to this Truth within for millennia, this virgin point, this true Self, this divine nature, this divine spark, this One, this messiah, this kingdom, this god, this daemon, this nondual reality, this Buddha-nature, this Atman. They often use symbolism to refer to it, and it is from this symbolism that I think many of the world’s traditions of a messiah were formed.
The mystics experienced the messiah directly, within themselves, in their own nature, in contemplative practices such as meditation, and in the mystical experience and communion those practices engender. But in order to communicate this to others, they had to use language and metaphor, saying that they too could experience this in them, often in a future tense, as an event that would unveil this eternal nature within their consciousness.
The wisest mystics helped point others to this savior within them, guided them to realize/recognize this deepest divine identity in the human condition, and so these mystics themselves were often seen as “saviors” themselves, bringing others into the recognition of this oneness, this One who redeems us all from our egos, and we realize a “peace that surpasseth all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). Sometimes mystics assume the identity of the messiah exclusively as their own, and this becomes a kind of demonic ego inflation.
We must realize the inner kingdom first if we hope for world peace. This kingdom is within you (Luke 17:21), primarily. Compare with the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus says:
…the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.–The Gospel of Thomas, translated by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer
Or consider this cryptic passage in 1 John, which attempts to overcome the dualism in much of Christianity:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.-1 John 3:2
Or as it is found in my former tradition of Mormonism:
And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?… I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?… Behold, I say unto you, that the good shepherd doth call you; yea, and in his own name he doth call you, which is the name of Christ; and if ye will not hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd, to the name by which ye are called, behold, ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd.-Alma 5:14, 19, 38
It is that inner realization that reveals our messianic oneness with all people everywhere, the mystical Body of Christ, and we no longer want to fight them, for they are recognized as our own divine Self.
As Rupert Spira recently said, this realization and awareness must be the foundation of world peace, of harmony, of justice and truth and love. It starts within and flows as living waters from each of us into the whole world.
There is a saying often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
The One you are looking for is the One who is looking.
This is the message of all true prophets, sages, gurus, mystics, and wisdom teachers. In a future article I may look at more of the qualities of the messiah in the world’s traditions to see how these may be manifest in this inner mystical realization of the One.