Essay on Shamans, Priests and Prophets (3196 Words)

Here is your Essay on Shamans, Priests and Prophets.


(1) Weber Understands of the Priest:


In the opinion of Weber, the priest is a functionary who performs regular, permanent and acts functions related to the divine.

(i) He performs this function through the act of worship either on behalf of an individual or for society as a whole.

(ii) He belongs to a social organization and occupies a hereditary office. He is expected to have some specialized knowledge of texts and doctrines.

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(iii) He would have attained significant social and religious status through both rigorous training and by virtue of being born into a particular social group.

(iv) The priesthood is based on a code of behaviour and ethics. He dedicates his life to task of communicating with the Gods and is associated with either a place of worship, a social group of a following of disciples.

(2) Priests and Priesthood: An Overview:

Priests and associated organizations are present in both societies-simple and modern. The rise of priests is associated with the need felt by primitive man to come to terms with the supernatural world.


In simpler societies, priests as well as Magicians are associated with the ability to communicate with the divine world.

In both primitive and advanced society’s priests and Magicians through their specialized knowledge and powers, are associated with and overcome malevolent and benevolent forces. Such duality was considered necessary so that the unknown supernatural powers should not harm the human; but would bring prosperity and goodwill.

These early religious and Magical practitioners, who guided in such Matters, are regarded as the pioneers of an organized priesthood. In the early periods of religious evolution, there is no priesthood and men perform Rituals or invoke the Gods themselves. Some tribals of Melanesia and Australia even today do the religious and Magical rites themselves taking no help of any intermediaries or specialists.

Often in the early ages in a collective group, one person would become significant due to his ability to deal with the supernatural or predict certain events or even acquire an expertise in performing certain Ritual acts. Such a person used to be soon regarded as an intermediary and gain priestly functions. For example, in certain Dravidian tribes, the head of the household was the officiating priest at any type of family event. Before the rise of regular priesthood men, other than priests, performed specialized functions as under:

(i) Those persons who underwent ecstatic experiences by going into trances and then would make predictions such as a darvesh,

(ii) Those persons who looked after places acquired a sacred significance and considered holy,

(iii) Those persons or ‘holy men’ who exercise some religious authority by performing miracles or curing illnesses.

Besides, the above mentioned functionaries, magician also had a role to play in the lives of the people, for both their well-being and for inflicting harm. Those individuals who, by the passage of time exercised greater authority came, to form a category of specialists who officiated for individuals and groups and were both respected and feared.

(3) Priests and Royalty:

In most societies, relationship was established between priestly authority and the royalty. There were many kings who were priests also, such as, among the tribes of Polynesia and Melanesia or even in India where ancestor worship made it necessary for the king or family head to perform priestly functions.

Some kings were raised to the status of divinity essence or life of the tribe or nation. In this way, if a king weakened or become ill, it signified misfortune for the whole social group. There are examples of a close relationship between priesthood and kingship and each was dependent on the other. In some societies the Priest is found performing the sacerdotal role of bestowing upon the king his rights as a ruler.

For example, in the coronation of the king as found in Europe, where the Church played an important role, or in the form of the raja abhisheka of the Indian kings performed by the Brahman priest the king took over the duty to protest the Religion of the State and the priests respectively.

(4) Priestly Qualifications:

Certain qualifications are laid down as being basic to priesthood as under:

(i) Priesthood is usually a hereditary institution.

(ii) The priests communicate with the divine through prayer, worship, Rituals and so on.

(iii) Priests are required to undergo initiation into the profession.

(iv) A certain self training is essential:

(a) To medicate between the human and divine,

(b) To uphold their status through knowledge of natural phenomena and the elements to have an eccentric appearance and be able to perform miracles.

(c) A certain aura of mystery should surround them.

(i) They should maintain certain restrictions in their personal life particularly in relation to the sexual realm, food and language.

(5) The Hindu Priesthood:

The priest in traditional India might assist in the performing a Ritual, at home, or in a temple. In Hinduism, he is born into a priestly caste, due to which he gains these functions:

(i) Vedas:

In the Vedas it is mentioned that the social group of Brahmana was the priestly class. In the Rig Veda, there is description of the priestly activities of some of the families of the Vedic tribes. In the Samhita, the title of Brahmana is given to that priestly class who worked for kings and wealthy nobles.

There priests whole- heartedly adhered to their occupation and possessed a knowledge of medicine too. In the Rig Veda there is mention of subdivisions within the priestly class, on the basis of functions and Rituals performed. Two important priests found mentioned are:

(a) The hotr or one who recites hymns to celebrate the Gods and make offerings to them;

(b) The prashastr or one who makes the hotr recite his hymns. In the Rig Veda there is also mentions of a third office, that of the purohita. He was the domestic priest of either the king or a noble. He often assisted the king in other activities as well.

(ii) Brahmanas:

In the Brahmana literature the priests are seen as a separate and hereditary class. It was expected to maintain its distance and purity from others. The priests performed sacrifices. There arose subdivisions within the priestly class on the basis of functions performed.

(iii) Upanishads:

By this time priestly functions had become more differentiated. The priest performed sacrificial functions. He was expected to engage in philosophical studies and to take on disciples and pupils. The Upanishads also specify the four stages of life or the ashramas brahmacharaya, grihastha, vanaprastha and sanyasa as the four phases in a man’s life.

(iv) Early Hinduism:

In early Hinduism the priests are seen to have full control over the divine and the power of the king. Many priests had gained knowledge of not only Rituals and worship but also of administration e.g. Chanakya. However, the priest used to become learned in astrology, divination and magic as well. Examples of such priests are found in the Jataka kath.

(v) Medieval and Modern Hinduism:

A division of the priestly class is seen into tightly knit endogamous and hereditary subunits. The purohits along with his priestly functions also came to perform astrological horoscope preparations, fortune telling and the performance of Magic.

The temple priest came to look after the village temple deity. A group of priests arose Who concerned themselves mainly with the imparting of knowledge and learning and came to be recognized as the guru. Mostly the functions of the temple priest and the guru were combined along with the ability to perform Magic and miracles as among the left handed tantrics. The tantrics were feared as well as respected. Corresponding to the tantrics were the ascetics. The latter undertook penance and sought to achieve ecstatic states and salvation.

Later on, the sacrifices of the Vedic period were replaced by temple Rituals and popular festivals such as Holi, Deewali, Makarasankranti and so on. The religious movements such as the bhakti tradition rose. The priest were the wandering poet, musician and teacher who challenged Hindu orthodoxy. The brahmans as a priestly class were criticized.

(vi) Tribal Context:

The role of the priest in the tribal context was of a medicine man, a healer and a person who has divine powers as well as powers of Magic and sorcery. There are examples of temples being built by tribals, served the non-brahman priests such as among the Tiyans of Malabar.


Weber on the Magician:

Weber, in his work on religious specialists, has not made any mention of the shaman. He does, however, talk about the Magician.

It is opined by Weber that the relationship between the human and the supernatural could be expressed through religious worship assisted by a priest as well as through Magical chants or sorcery. In Magic itself prayer and sacrifice have their origin. Sacrifice is a major method of coercing the Gods into submission to a supplicant’s needs as well as directing the anger of the Gods towards another object.

Weber opines that Magician is one who deals with evil spirits on an individual level. His efforts may have both positive and negative consequences. The Magician is usually self-employed though he may be the member of a hereditary caste or an organized guild. He may by using a specialized doctrine of knowledge, enhance his influence.

The Shaman:

Shaman represents all the feature of Magician as a specialist and more. He uses his Magical abilities for purposes of well-being as well as for harming, usually in the context of pre-literate society. A shaman may engage in an act of Magic of sorcery to cure in illness, exercise a possession, inflict injury or illness on someone or influence the forces of nature to bring rains. His multifunctional role gives him his status and respect.

The shaman occupies an important positioning in most tribal societies. French Structuralist, Claude Levi-Strauss, has pointed out that the shaman provides for the sick, a language that helps them to express their condition which they normally would not be able to do.

(1) The Functions and Role of a Shaman:

The shamanism is a native Religion. The word shaman is of North-East Asian origin and comes from the Tungusic word saman meaning one who is “excited, moved or raised”. Shaman is usually seen as a medicine-man who employs exorcism and sorcery as his tools. He derives his powers from association with the supernatural.

The belief is that he is assisted by a medium or a spirit to attain his ends. Shamans belonging to different tribes would use different means to achieve their ends. Certain common factors are as follows:

(a) Either the office is hereditary or one’s personality allows one to be chosen to the office;

(b) The shaman may have a peculiar mental state or even a physical shortcoming and, therefore, may be considered neurotic or epileptic;

(c) The above maintained abnormal qualities are central to his role;

(d) He may have some training and austerities under the tutorship of an older shaman. A Shaman may develop a peculiar disposition; may go into a trance or enter into an excited condition to cure the illness or get rid of a spirit. A shaman combines the functions of priest, prophet and Magician, all in one. He performs priestly functions and uses sacrifice as a central act in the process of healing and divination. He also performs Ritual of sacrifice and appeasement to the Gods or spirits.

Due to fear of the shaman and his powers, he acquires a charismatic personality and qualities of leadership similar to a prophet. He may have unusual jewellery and clothing, hair long and Mathted, paint his body with colour or ash and carry either musical instruments or bones. Due to his eccentric appearance and qualities he is often given the name of a neurotie and trickster.

(2) Organisation:

The hierarchic organization of the shamans is not clearly identified as that of the priests. Within the community he has particular ranks, however, on the basis of the power and control over spirits. They are also classified on the following bases:

(i) Whether they perform Positive Magic (or white Magic) in the well-being of a person, or

(ii) They perform Negative Magic or black Magic to make someone ill. As such, they are either revered or feared and have higher or lower status. Unlike priesthood, the shamanistic category has some women too. Female shamans called shamanin are usually associated with witchcraft and with sorcery.

The shaman is buried in a special way. Often where a shaman is buried a sacred site is created, entry into which is restricted. A dead shaman’s body may even become the object of a cult. The shaman plays a significant role amongst the people of Tibet, Nepal, the Red Indians in America and in some south Asia communities. In India they play an important role in some tribal communities.

(3) The Oraon Shama:

The shaman is closely associated with tribal life and medicine. The shaman has great significance among the Dravidian tribe of Oraons found in east India in the Chota Nagpur plateau. The shamans here and the tribe in general, were first studied by the Indian social anthropologist S.C. Roy, in the 1929s. The Oraons live in a hilly and forested region.

The men and women both share in farming. Their life is colored by festivals and they have sacred groves for their village deity. In the life of the oraon the bhagat or the shaman is of great importance. One can identify his residence by colored flags on bamboo poles that stand outside it. These flags represent the Gods and Goddesses that are worshipped by the bhagat.

It also Goddess, that are worshipped by the bhagat. It also includes the flag special deity that enters the bhagat during his trances, and help giving him to heal and cure. The position of the bhagat is hereditary.

The bhagat usually deals with illnesses which originate from democratic possession; or illness or madness that comes from psychological stress. The treatment can be in the form of a healing Ritual or an exorcism, better known as jharphook. The bhagat is known to go into trances and an ecstatic condition to reach the root of his patient’s malady. It may be pointed out here that the range of a shaman and his personal power very greatly from one societal context to another.


The Prophet:

The prophet is also a religious specialist. However, he is not of the kind that the priest and Magician (shaman) are.

(1) Prophet is more recognizable as a leader of a religious movement rather than as a functionary fulfilling a role within a movement.

(2) Prophets have also been the source of new world Religions such as Islam , or Zoroastrianism, or

(3) Prophets have also been leaders of sectarian Religions.

Weber on the Prophet: In his book on Religion, Weber defines the prophet 1 as an individual who is capable of proclaiming a religious doctrine or a divine commandment due to his charismatic qualities. The major difference between the priest and prophet is as under:

(i) The prophet regards his mission as a “personal call”.

(ii) He drives his authority from personal revelation and charisma or an exceptional quality.

(iii) The core of the prophet’s mission is to carry forward the commandment or doctrine that he has received as revelation.

(iv) The prophet may use Magic to establish his authority.

(v) The prophet is usually successful and respected till his ability to convince and prove his uniqueness of purpose in intact.

(vi) Prophets also engage in healing and counseling.

(vii) The prophet usually does not belong to an organization nor does he receive economic rewards for his ideas. He is not a professional.

(viii) Prophet has a following of disciples or a laity because they believe in him or have faith in him.

(ix) The prophet makes prophecies. The latter becomes often the guiding principles of a religious sect or cult or even an entire religious movement.

(x) The Prophet makes prophecies as well as is a teacher of religious and philosophical wisdom.

(xi) The prophet is an individual who is an instrument for carrying forward the will of God. He is obeyed because of the ethical nature of his mission. He may set an example of attaining salvation as did Buddha. This latter form of exemplary prophetism has been found particularly in India.

(xii) The prophet does not belong to an institution as such and may be on a purely personal mission.

(xiii) Prophets have varied in nature from Religion to Religion and society to society, depending upon the nature of their mission. This has also determined the nature of the prophecies they have made. The category of the prophet is absent in India’s indigenous religious traditions. In other words the idea of the prophet such as Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, who bring to mankind a message or a commandment from God is not present in India.

In India, we have another category of prophet who due to his ability to forsee, to predict and to use clairvoyance, transcends time and space and makes prophecies about the future. He often is seen using Magic or miracle-making to convince the followers about the truthfulness of his prophecy.

Sathya Sai Baba:

Sathya Sai Baba is regarded as modern India’s most famous miracle maker and deity saint. One may recognize him by his appearance and clothes. The major part of his devotees belongs to the high caste middle and upper-middle classes in India. He can be regarded as a deity as he receives the homage of his devotees and returns these with blessings and grants boons. He is known for his ability of making miracles and predictions that come true. His devotees regard him as an avatar or manifestation of God on earth.

Sai Baba receives this special status not due to any mission which he heads or Religion that he leads but due to his unusual capabilities and charismatic personality. His birth in 1926 in a village in Andhra Pradesh is seen as divine because of the mysterious occurrences that took place then, such as a cobra suddenly appearing under his bed.

At the age of thirteen he is believed to have suffered a seizure and then began performing miracles and later claimed to be ‘Sai Baba’, the savior of his people, and a reincarnation of the earlier saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi.

In 1940 he left his home and set out on a career as a holy man and accepted devotees. He by now had begun performing the act of producing ash or vibhuti and other items. Besides, being famous for his miracles, he also came to be known for his ability to cure and heal. In 1950, an ashram was constructed in the village of his birth and he had come to be recognized all over India as a God man, with a large following.

He has predicted that there will be one more incarnation of Sai Baba, after him in Karnataka next. He claims himself to be an incarnation of Shiva and Shakti.

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