The Bold Voice of J&K

Deification of Prophets After Death: A Common Theme Across All Religions


On May 26, Christians celebrated Ascension Day, the day—40 days after his resurrection on Easter—that Jesus ascended to heaven in bodily form. Meanwhile, the Baha’i faith holds May 29 to be a holy day in their calendar, as it is the anniversary of the bodily death of the founding prophet Baha’u’llah.
Both religions believe in an afterlife, so death for all people is seen as just the start of a new journey; indeed, the same can be said about all religions. But there is obviously more special significance to the death of prophets across religions.
Most religious traditions have come to deify their prophets in one form or another, viewing them as something more than human, especially after their deaths.
Deification of prophets after their death is one main avenue whereby these individuals are elevated to a status that is fundamentally beyond humanity. And as with mysterious birth narratives, these stories are up to interpretation: we can accept the literal meaning that there are gods who appear on Earth and walk among us in human form, or we can understand them more as expressions of deep reverence for prophets, who should be seen as exemplars of moral behavior and wisdom.
I used to believe, for instance, that Lord Krishna was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and literally incarnated and walked around on Earth as a human being. And though I have come to interpret this more metaphorically later in life, many Hindus—including my mother—do indeed continue to believe this literal version, just as most Christians believe that Jesus was and is a living incarnation of the Abrahamic God.
It is no wonder why religious communities would think of their prophets as such special beings: they give birth to new worldviews and community practices and structures that transcend vast geographical and generational expanses. Stories of their deification keep religions alive even after their founders have passed away.
The followers of prophets across religions have also always had a vested interest in deifying their leader—by pronouncing them as gods, the teachings attributed to them became absolute and unquestionable. This is the way followers are recruited, and unfortunately it also opens the door to abuses of power as religious leaders seek to gain control over their followers by appealing to authoritative scriptures that cannot be argued against or by claiming to be in direct contact with these prophets or with God.
One example of a prophet deified after death is Confucius, but Confucius was never thought of as a prophet during his life—indeed, though he was much beloved by his students, he along with his teachings did not achieve much fame during his life. Nevertheless, his teachings have been gospel in China for thousands of years, having an overwhelming influence on the cultural and educational direction of the nation matched by none. In this sense, it is perhaps his teachings more so than him as an individual which have been deified.
-Akhil Gupta

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