“If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them. So of course, it kills them. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure that they will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms.
The central message of many of the great teachers of wisdom that have come along, as well as the multitudes we do not know about, and yet who have entered each of our lives at some point in time, is that they all stressed a spiritual awakening, and the need to rise above materialism, fear, inequality, and/or persecution. They appear to help us rid ourselves of the physical substances we identify with such as the essential natures of who we are which only keeps the ego, the collective madness of our species, in place and imprisons each of us separately within our own conditioned personalities and the voices in our heads.
In many cases these teachers are simple, humble heroes, courageously facing off against the forces of greed, fear and the lust for power. Forces that are forever being pushed along by humanity’s ego and which have a thirst made never to be satisfied. Its infection comes by way of warfare and violence, and its presence has tainted nations, religions, beliefs, and personal relationships. This gap between the way human behaviour is and the way it ought to behave, is from where many philosophers speak and teach. They realize that empathic consciousness overcomes this gap; for there is no dividing line between what one is and what one should be, for they are one in the same.
The earliest of prophets taught about the need for enlightenment, salvation, and awakening. They were talking about transformation. They spoke of sin, suffering and delusion and they also shared the insight of a transformation of the nature of the human condition and of what lies within our consciousness. Trying to become a better human being is a great idea, but unless there is a change of consciousness it is yet another form of self enhancement, the desire for a better self image. One cannot become good by trying to be good. One must find the good that is already within us, and allow it to emerge. But to emerge, there has to be a change in our state of consciousness.
In most cases, the message that the prophets were trying to get across arose from their concern for their people, and their collective sense of existence. What they are trying to communicate often times goes against the grain of the framework that our sense of existence is based on, our world-view. Strangely enough many of us don’t really acknowledge a world view, but most prophets had a very good understanding of this. The world-view is what was created by individuals who ran and continue to run societies and are basically behaviour control methods. They include laws, patriotism, religion, propaganda and nationalism and operate nationally, at the community level and the unconscious level. The princes of capitalism don’t like people walking around preaching spirituality and world peace, let alone inner peace.
For many of the prophets, after they had been ridiculed, reviled, spat on, stoned, beaten, imprisoned, or killed, their messages would often be misinterpreted, distorted, and misunderstood by the disciples that followed them. Other men took the teachings and organized them into books; and the belief of a religion came to be. Soon there was no more need to seek enlightenment, but instead, in the belief of one god, and to serve and worship him on the basis of guilt.
And that was one of the main problems with the teachings of many of the prophets, especially before the 16th century. Nearly all religions had stubbornly resisted any attempt to translate their sacred texts into languages everybody could understand. It became more important to believe, but not think.
Over the years many things were added and edited that had nothing to do with the prophet’s original intentions and lessons. Incredible publicity campaigns grew up after them, spreading the word. With the best scribes and much influence from the literate elite of society who attained much wealth along the way, the original teachings of many of the prophets, and the changes they brought about, created cultures. Culture became the beliefs, values, behaviour, and material objects that constitute many peoples’ way of life. Our culture and where we live, not only shapes what we do, it also forms our personalities. The religions that formed from these original teachings became divisive and not unifying at all, because they brought more violence, hatred and racism and a greater lack of tolerance for other people and other religions. They became ideologies, belief systems that people could identify with and use to enhance their false sense of self. They who believed were right while all others were wrong. Others were either nonbelievers or wrong believers and could be killed because of it. Convert and repent or die. If you did not think as they did, you were considered evil. As religions grew it soon became all about conflict between the dominant and disadvantaged, the rich and poor, the black and white, Aboriginal and Anglo-Saxon, Westerner and Asian, Christian and Muslim and on and on and on.
Far too many people do not realize the differences between spirituality and religion. Having a set of thoughts regarded as the absolute truth, dictated by a belief system, does not make you spiritual. The more one tries to make these fabricated beliefs a part of their thoughts and identity, the more one moves away from the spirituality within themselves. That is why the original teachings of many prophets, such as the need for mankind to transform consciousness, have arisen again, but this time outside the structures of most organized religions. Though structures are still needed in modern societies because of the size of our population and the fact that our species is flawed, in that we are a menace to ourselves because we continue to fall into disasters caused by our passions. Thus man-made systems have to be created and put into place to keep our desires in check and on an even keel.
Many of the prophets were spiritually enlightened individuals who liberated themselves from attachments that led to selfish desires. They were people who preoccupied themselves with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations for their fellow human beings. True prophets believe in the value of human life, any human life. Both preaching and open dialogue are used. And more often than not, the messages indicate that there is always a reason for what happens in our lives. It may not be the most obvious reason, but if you look hard enough you will find it, as nothing really happens by chance. The proof lies in the universe itself, which has proven time and time again, and against all odds, that it is a very meaningful place indeed.
Appropriately enough, the journey to enlightenment, bears many comparisons to the composition of the classical heroes’ tale. Though a few prophets do reach the final stage of enlightenment, the reality is, it is very rare. The majority of prophets are simply, mere mortals, who have flaws just like everyone else; ambitions and regrets, wives, sons and daughters. But something inside them would arise, and above all they held dear, even their own personal safety, they felt compelled to throw themselves onto the tears in the fabric of our existence. To stand up and say what was needed to be said. And if they were righteous and true in their stance and point of view, many would come to support them, and to revile them.
Reaching enlightenment is where one feels to be a part of the realization of spirit, of the energy that exists in the global human community. The enlightened do not necessarily believe in a god, but they seem to carry a grace that makes them more aware and complete than other fellow humans. They do not think of themselves as perfect, rather they think of all humans and nature, and hold dear the aspect of each.
The enlightened are able to get along with anybody, and are able to have dialogue with all people, no matter their stage of spirituality or faith-based tradition. They live each moment as it happens. The problems the enlightened and many prophets have, as mentioned earlier, are the structures that make up our societies, the world-view that has been constructed by despotism and religions. These structures are what we sustain ourselves with for personal and corporate survival and which are significant, to our existence. Structures of institutions, habits, culture, and tradition, are the things that people cherish, and which brings about social cohesion, religious faith and national pride. But if these values disappear and we no longer have our distractions and allegiances of the ego, then the majority of the populations of most countries would then clearly see their exploitation and with the curtain drawn back would see the flagrant, harsh, and unadorned reality of the differences between the corporate elite and the worker. It is why many who reach enlightenment are murdered at the hands of those who they had hoped to change.
According to Ken Wilber’s “Integral Spirituality,” there are six stages of spiritual evolvement. The first stage on the road to enlightenment begins when we reach about the age of seven years. Before and after birth we make no distinctions at all about anything. By seven, our thoughts are made up by what we’ve learned from our parents, the surroundings of our childhood and interactions with other children. As for spirituality, our thoughts are made up of unconscious and mostly religious fantasy. The next stage is when we begin to hold certain aspects of these myths as literal and absolute truths. We also start believing in miracles. The third stage is when we move beyond our family’s faith and start accepting the judgments of others, such as teachers, the media, and priests. This is when we first start developing a loyalty to a certain ideology, group or lifestyle, whether it is religious, the military, artistic, sport, economic, or political.
The fourth stage is where self, our inner being, comes into contact with the ego. Spirituality suddenly becomes more of an individual struggle. One becomes more reflective, concerned about achieving their full potential through creativity, independence, and a grasp of the real world, and to take more responsibility for their beliefs. It is the time one starts asking if there is anything beyond this deity-ruled world. Much of what they seek is hidden behind words and language. It becomes a time when one stops ignoring those little voices in our head that are forever questioning orthodoxy and when one will begin to seriously examine other religions and belief systems and many times coming to the realization that some of one’s personal convictions are very relative to them. Many organized religions fearfully believe that this stage is the “mortal sin” of humans in thinking of self and not ego controlled thoughts. To seek knowledge and to ask questions, to be more confident or to use reason have all been deemed “evil thoughts” by many of the faithful. The most important characteristic of this stage is when we realize that each one of us has a choice in how we live our lives. Allowing the masses to know they have a choice is what most scares the few at the top.
The fifth stage is integration. It is when we recognize our weaknesses and can see truth over contradictory and absurd beliefs. We no longer take literally the stories of spiritual and cultural traditions, but instead seek the truth which is deep within each one of us. We study all the philosophers and scriptures, using their symbolism to bridge the gap between rational and intuitive. Both sides of our brain working together allows us to seek that which is not directly visible in the material world.
The final stage is enlightenment and being aware of each moment of each day. It has nothing to do with what you do with your body or mind; it has to do with what you do with your soul. One does not need classes, religious ritual, or seminars to find out who they are. Love without exception, without requirement, and without wanting or needing anything in return. One achieves enlightenment when their life possesses happiness, peace, and wisdom, and they share these with others. They see that life is no longer just about them, but instead is about everyone else that their spirit touches. It is this final stage of enlightenment that the earliest priests and rulers tried to hide from the masses.
After the first cities arose more than five thousand years ago, they had quickly begun expanding outwards. In conquering nearby lands for room to grow more food to feed and work their increasing populations, they rolled over other cultures and cities for their wealth, natural resources and people, who would become their slaves with generation after generation of warfare, enslavement and bloodshed, compounded regularly by drought, famine or flood. Every city-state was busily rushing around using humanity as fodder with each frantically trying to claim the biggest piece of the pie.
No doubt because of this Dynastic Age world-view, which lasted two thousand years, in about 800 BC, many cultures would come to similar solutions to the war and violence that plagued their respective societies. Before this time, the majority of the planet was ruled by their kings, pharaohs, priests, and hundreds of gods, with two prophets, Abraham and Moses standing out because they would be among the first to believe in only one god, were respected and feared leaders of their own distinct tribe and their stories would become written word.
But after 800 BC, what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers would call the Axial Age began and gradually ended about seven hundred years later. The Axial Age was an explosion of spiritual growth and influx of prophets all over the planet. It was like the world had decided to come up for air, and by taking a big breath, it brought out its consciousness. But then that is what a true prophet’s role in society is, promoting change, based on their messages and actions.
The similar solutions these respective societies would come to, was the development of four great religious traditions; Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Monotheism, from which would arrive Judaism, and later on, Christianity and Islam and the philosophical rationalism in Greece.
By 800 BC the Hebrew tribes had conquered all of Palestine and Israel and finally laid claim to their promised land. At last there was a measure of peace. The scribes began writing and copying the books of the Torah, which would become known as the Old Testament and be written for only the Jewish people. The stories of Abraham, Moses, the history of the Hebrew tribes, and the belief in only one god, were finally being recorded and fine tuned, though all around them were tribes who believed in many gods. The preceding centuries had created much waste and injustice from mankind’s unending and brutal violence upon itself. And it would have an effect on the Hebrew, where, though their god was still the father, demanding, and threatening, and still existed outside of humanity, he would now become more of a personal god, more responsive and the sole creator of the universe.
At nearly the same time, the Greeks, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle threw themselves into the roles of being prophets of humanity and nature, through the theory that reason provides the primary basis for knowledge rather than experience, authority, or spiritual revelation. They also brought about a new system hoping it would end the carnage of the past. It was a system where the exchange and discussion of ideas were allowed, a system that protected the right of each citizen to hold their own view and opinion, no matter their strength. This system, based on interaction, would become democracy.
In the East, Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tzi brought forth simplicity and inner and cultural peace by taking the concept of a god and accepting it as a force, but a force that could only be found through enlightenment. God became a consciousness one could be connected to on the inside, instead of a god one had to please by obeying his laws and rituals. It was a shift in awareness for the Chinese, an opening that brought their collective consciousness into harmony and security.
Oceans away, the Olmecs and Aztec would soon construct their pyramids and temples, and begin sacrificing the blood of their people to appease their own gods.
Many of the Axial Age prophets were not concerned with doctrine or the supernatural. The belief was in the behaviour of humanity. “What mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved,” behaviour that was characterized by an emptying of the self, the abandonment of egotism and materialism, and having compassion for others. The focus was now about how one treated their fellow man, and the idea that there was nothing wrong with who or what you believed in, as long as those beliefs impelled you to act with consideration toward others, especially strangers. These were new ideas to many people of the Axial Age, especially the realization that one’s behaviour, rather than one’s belief, was what was important in both life and community.
The main principle these prophets gave was hope. They made changes that in practical terms, brought people out of an abyss. They taught that the quest for happiness and harmonious interaction between individuals and groups, involved some kind of spiritual journey, whose completion, though sometimes beyond the limits of human emotion and ordinary understanding, would bring fulfilment and remove the pain, tribulation, tragedy, worry, and confusion. A sense of purpose of why we are here began to develop. They also emphasised the importance of resolution, of being vigilant and aware of one’s path. And most importantly, when journeying to fulfilment, one should not look back.
The concepts of the Greeks, Asians, and the knowledge contained in Babylon, would have a profound effect on what would eventually become the Bible and later the Qur’an, as well as on the rest of the world. But unfortunately much of what was envisioned during the Axial Age would be pushed to the sidelines, hidden and banned with Christianity, and then Islam, arising after the Greeks and the Romans were no more. By 900 A.D., most Western cultures would revert back to adopting a religious view that society expressed God’s will. Christianity and Islam saw their societies and their worlds as the product of supernatural forces and lived their lives guided by selfish human nature and the worship of different versions of the same god. Social thought became focused on what society ought to be. And it would not be until 1500 A.D. that social thought would be based on the need to understand society as it existed. The changes in the spirituality of humanity during the Axial Age had profoundly affected people, and it had continued to run deeply until the 16Th century, where it once again arose from the mist, and sprouted the prophets, thinkers, and philosophers of the Scientific Revolution and humanity would develop a new world-view of heaven and earth. Then arrived the Age of Enlightenment in late 18Th century Europe, which would begin to shape the modern Western world.
The words of the prophets do overlap on many issues and what was and continues to be written of their teachings; identifies fundamental points of observances and rituals, and characterize ancient wisdom with contemporary language. They seem to share a common resource and spiritual heritage which allows its believers within a particular tradition, to identify, support, and commune with others, though not all of their new found knowledge went to the common people. In many cases, the theories and discussions and understandings were for the elite of society, who in most cases were the only ones who had the idle time to spend their days arguing points of philosophy and life, as well as being, in most cases, the only ones who could read.
The Greek philosophers, as well as men like Confucius taught only aristocratic men, sharing their wisdom with just a privileged few, mostly males of noble birth. Throughout much of human history, formal schooling was generally only available to the wealthy. Indeed, the Greek root of the word school, is leisure. Many of their beliefs and philosophies did eventually make it to the common man, but unfortunately not until hundreds of years later.
Many prophets were simply figureheads, patriarchs of beliefs that arose from their visions, meditations and reflections. Some scholars suggest that the visions and insights of the earliest prophets could very well have been a result of schizophrenia. And though some of the teachings of the prophets might very well have been based on haphazard fantasy, undeniably most are based on some sort of a sense of other levels of reality; forms of awareness that we in the modern West gave up in order to develop a more rational and more efficient way of thought.
Virtually all the brilliant thinkers of the ancient world were more interested in envisioning the “ideal” society rather than caring about the actual society around them. What they achieved worked its way down the chain eventually, but even then, only to the educated.
Other prophets dealt with issues, for social change, and brought forth values and norms for society. Values that would serve as guidelines for social living, and which would be culturally defined standards, such as desirability, goodness, and beauty, while beliefs would become specific statements on what the people held to be true and of what ought to exist in their lives. The norms of cultures are the rules and expectations by which a society guides the behaviour of its people. Values and norms do not describe actual human behaviour as much as prescribe how people of a society should act. The most important thing many prophets brought, besides hope, was change, because it is a fact, that new ideas create change in sociological thinking within a culture.
Since the first ancient civilizations, our lives have been framed by the social forces at work in our particular time and environment in which we happen to live in. Society is a complex system, and has always been characterized by inequality and conflict, which at times has created social change. However division in society has always been based on social inequality. Unequal distribution of wealth, income, education, power and prestige are all linked to the factors of race, ethnicity, gender, and age.
Typically, social structure benefits some while depriving others. But what often rises above these truths is the fact that shared values or social interdependence generates unity among members of society. And this is where most prophets have made their mark.
In religion, a prophet (or a prophetess) is a person who has encountered the supernatural or the divine, often one who serves as an intermediary with humanity, an agent of god. Though there are also prophets in music, science, philosophy, literature, and even in our daily lives, all of whom made a difference to our sense of existence, and who are not divine or supernatural in any way. That is why authentic prophets by some are false prophets to others.
But ethical leadership is what the world desperately needs today. Our modern age came about after an age of enlightenment, while today it has become an age of entitlement. There is less gratitude and more attitude in today’s society because too many are living lives of flagrant consumption and yet at the same time acting so hard done by. Our attitude of not appreciating what we have, because of so much concern with what we want and can get is what is not allowing us to behave in a civilized manner anymore, to ourselves and to others.
This essay contains only a few of the untold numbers of prophets who have made a difference in their fellow human beings lives’, whether culturally, spiritually, scientifically, or behaviourally. It also includes prophets who preached a simple life apart from the materialistic world, and some who were prophets for justice, equality and peace, and strangely enough, most of the greatest prophets seem to always show up when their neighbours, people or culture, needs them most. Many of these prophets have also admitted, at least once in their lives, that when everything is said and done, “the most cherished thing we could do for each other, is to simply be a little kinder.” Or as the respected Jewish rabbi, Hillel, once answered a skeptic who had asked him to teach him the Torah, ” What is hateful to yourself do not do to another. This is the whole Torah, go and study it, the rest is commentary.”