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Humanity's longing for cultural heroes,
 enlighteners and saviours
by Andrea Bistrich

A survey of some cultural images of the Savior, showing the universality of hope for renewal. 

"The yearning for a messiah is almost as old as written records," writes Wilson D. Wallis in his study regarding messianism within world religions. Stronger still, the idea of a coming "messiah", a bringer of light and helper of humanity, has fascinated people since the beginning of time. This applies not only to the major religions where the expectancy of an elder brother such as a Krishna, Christ, Imam Mahdi and Buddha has gained ground, but in smaller traditional communities a similar figure in the form of a cultural hero, an enlightener and healer is also known. It seems to be a universal idea and hope found in almost every culture, whether occidental or oriental, in industrial nations or developing countries. The way this idea is expressed in different cultures varies considerably and is accompanied by political, social, religious and ethical consequences. One society idealizes the Saviour as a mythical hero and prophet while another expects a cultural hero who brings tools, diverts dangers, gives instructions regarding the cultivation of plants, and teaches ethical and social values; likewise for many he is the bringer of law and order, a transformer.

Awaiting a mediator

The feature common to all these Saviour figures is that they are expected to bring health to their people, and, where possible, to all of humanity. The Saviour will be a bridge between God and man; his function is that of a Divine Mediator who can be recognized by an unmistakable divine purpose.

The idea of a coming "Messiah", a bringer of light and helper of humanity has fascinated people since the beginning of time

Numerous myths report that he has already been here (or was once here -- that is: came before) and will return once again in the not too distant future. The idea of the return of the Saviour is, irrespective of the form it may be given, fundamentally the same in almost all cultures. It presents itself in Biblical and non-biblical concepts; in sagas, legends, myths and tales. Within the European tradition one finds the Saviour in non-biblical contexts as a national hero or king -- ie King Arthur or Barbarossa -- who never died but only sleeps, to return in difficult times in order to restore justice in the world.

Central Asian traditions

In the traditions of Central Asia the return of a Saviour is closely related to the awaited hero-king Gesar. In pre-Buddhist and pre-lamaistic epics it is written that Gesar will be reborn in 'Shamballa of the North', a mythical land somewhere between Tibet and Mongolia. He has already announced his return. The final words of Gesar directed to his people before his disappearance were: "You have not understood me. My words have been spoken too early. I will return once again in order to repeat them." Alexandra David-Neel, who during her adventurous travels through Tibet after World War I visited the city of Lhasa, which at that time was forbidden to foreigners, wrote in her diary: in Tibet in the 1920s it was believed that Gesar was already in incarnation and that his public appearance was to be expected within the next 15 years (written 1931). For the nomadic population of Tibet the epic of Gesar is not a mere legend, but a reality that embodies the hope of a better future.

Pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon teachings also awaits a great king and Bon teacher. It is said that he will not simply produce heaven on earth, but will uniquely present the old spiritual teachings in a newly revived form. Using these teachings as a basis, the task of humanity will be to take the restructuring of the future into their own hands.

Buddhist influences

In Buddhism the expectation of a returning world Saviour is seen in the form of a future Buddha as Maitreya-Buddha. The Maitreya myth plays an important role in the cultural history of all Buddhist Asia. Each culture, influenced by Buddhism, knows the stature of this exalted Buddha, and each has understood how to combine it within their own traditions. Possibly the most striking characteristic of the Maitreya figure is its different guises: Maitreya has many faces; and the combination of this figure with indigenous traditions is manifold. Yet the Buddha of the future is always a symbol of collective and universal hope. He is associated with a future which is represented by a basic and transcendental renewal; he will teach in a Golden Age -- the expectation is -- an age where human life will reach its highest level of perfection. The Maitreya figure will be the intermediary between past and future: he is both a mythical and an historical figure -- transforming history into myth and myth into history.

The Buddha of the future is always a symbol of collective and universal hope

In Korea, the future Buddha bears, amongst other features, the mark of a warrior, a guard and leader in a new world order. In China the original idea of Maitreya as a world Saviour, who would free the world of injustice and need, has been transformed into the happy "fat-bellied Buddha" under the influence of Confucianism. Compared to the exalted figure of the earlier Maitreya, one whose spiritual teachings are emphasized, and one who could look into the future, the present image of Maitreya is somewhat simpler: he should especially bring material fortune and prosperity -- expectations based on the stomach's needs rather than spiritual values. In Chinese folk literature of the 16th and 17th centuries Maitreya's position is that of a bodhisattva who acts as an intermediary bringing in a new revelation, as a Saviour and helper, who will save the world from confusion and suffering.

Of the numerous interpretations of the awaited Buddha found in Japan one theme that can be given predominance is that of the Maitreya-figure, connected with a pre-Buddhist, mythical view of the world. In this case the people expect Maitreya's ship which will come after a famine in "Maitreya Year", crossing the wide ocean, on the other side of which live the ancestors and spirits. Along with beneficial goods the ship will bring an abundance of crops and bounties of food.

On the island of Java the Saviour figure embodies a similar syncretic meaning. Here, it is the image of Ratu Adil, an image combined with influences that were basically foreign to the culture, ie with Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian concepts. In this case the person of the Saviour is not the main aspect of interest but more what he represents in his function.

 The element of discipleship is often associated with the awaited Saviour. In his final speech Buddha explains that as Ananda was to him -- his favourite disciple -- all other exalted future Buddhas will also have such aides at their side, who regard this service as a great honour. The Iranian Saoshyant is similarly described as the messenger of the highest creator Ahura Mazda, who likewise had seven helpers to assist him in his work.

Comparing the various Saviour descriptions in the traditions of the different cultures, one finds that the expectation of a returning Saviour includes hope for both the renewal of a people's own specific cultural circumstances, as well as for the revivification of the world as a whole. The idea of a new age, a new earth -- in short, a new man -- emerges within the history of humanity as a universal desire. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung stated that man today is painfully aware that neither the main religions nor the different philosophical systems are able to lend him the support needed in today's world. The longing for a divine intermediary is, according to Jung, a "vital need of the soul" of man for the "security" he is not capable of finding within himself.

Bibliography: Sponberg, Alan (ed) (1988) Maitreya, the Future Buddha, Cambridge; Abegg, Emil (1928), Der Messiasglaube in Indien und Iran, Berlin; Bauer, Wolfgang (1989), China und die Hoffnung auf Gluck. ParadieseUtopien, Idealvorstellungen in der Geistesgeschichte Chinas, Munich; Coquet, Michael (1984), Maitreya -- Le Christ du Nouvel Age, Grenoble; Jung, Carl Gustav (1991), Der Mensch und seine Symbole, Olten.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005