Common Ground by Karl Jechoutek

Common Ground by Karl Jechoutek

On the surface, it appears that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have been enjoying a comfortable monopoly in the exercise of prophecy. No other world religion appears to place so much emphasis on the warning voice in the wilderness, the messengers carrying the corrective word from a personal God to the people who are repeatedly straying from the straight and narrow path, even speaking truth to power. The long line of Middle Eastern prophets immortalised in the Abrahamic scriptures has turned the very concept of ‘prophecy’ into a household word, an activity instantly recognised by Jews, Christians and Muslims. In fact, a kind of secular devaluation of the concept has taken place, with anyone who catches a trend slightly ahead of everyone else being labelled a ‘prophet’. So is there nothing more to be said other than that Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and votaries of traditional indigenous religions are missing out on this service of inspired visionaries?

Not so fast. Stripped to its bare bones, the concept of prophecy implies that a strong and persuasive message on the need for change and moral reform is delivered to the public and to decision makers by courageous individuals who are willing to stick out their necks. The message is non-routine, comes from unexpected angles, and requires a rethinking of the comfortable niche most people tend to settle into. Prophets tend to emphasise that denial is not an option, and that they are channelling the instructions of a higher principle. Looked at in this way, the concept can be discovered in a plethora of religions, and could even be applied to selected secular activities that fit the description. However, there are two features that define prophecy: first, it is something delivered by individuals who are not hiding behind groups, trends or movements. Second, the prophet invokes a higher authority rather than speaking out in a personal capacity only. The former feature allocates initiative and responsibility clearly, causing the individual to bear the consequences, good or bad. The latter anchors prophecy firmly in the spiritual realm, giving the message the extra power of the transcendent.

Seen in this light, many Hindu holy men can be recognised as engaging in prophecy. So can the spiritual spokespeople of traditional African religions. Let us focus on these two ancient traditions, as they are the wellspring of much of the world's religious thought, and as they are harder to define as single religions. Both Hinduism and traditional African thought are diverse compounds of polytheistic spirituality that have grown organically over time, are not bound by a single scriptural canon, do not rely on a single founder, and have not understood themselves as single coherent religious concepts until it was done for them by colonial administrations for ease of understanding. They are not laws imposed on a society, but they are synonymous with the society they are embedded in. So, prophecy in the case of traditional religions can not be a warning that divine laws are being transgressed. But it can be a guide on how to attain harmony in life, how to improve one's behaviour in order to get closer to the divine.

Indian sages lead by example, and remind their audience that there are many paths to spiritual fulfilment – however, they have to be followed with a high degree of discipline, each chosen path to be adhered to consistently. The guidelines proclaimed are for individual action. Growing out of the Hindu tradition, the Buddha's teaching represents a prophetic reminder to change course, and to seek righteousness and enlightenment through a specific form of mental discipline. But a more politically activist prophetic mode can also be discerned. If Gandhi was not engaged in prophecy, what was it that he was doing? Similarly, in the African tradition, the prophetic style has often been used to alert the community to external political dangers, and to urge a change in orthodox behaviour to avert disaster. The Sudanese Nuer prophet Ngundeng warned of the impending incursions of colonial powers, following a long-standing prophetic tradition of the Nuer people. While the Xhosa prophetic instruction to kill all cattle to revive the community backfired badly, the Zulu prophet Isaiah Shembe succeeded in linking his message of the revitalisation of the Zulu people to a syncretist mix of Christian and traditional beliefs. Evidently, both the Indian and African traditions of spirituality rely on the bold voice of the one who draws attention to complacency in the name of the divine.

Happily, we can see that the prophetic principle is a universal one. While our Abrahamic traditions nourish a certain image of the prophet, a little effort to shift our focus can reveal the existence of this powerful force in cultures very different from those shaped by the Semitic religions.