MESSIANISM IN INDIA:
ESCHATOLOGIES, REVOLUTIONS AND SAVIOURS
This issue of an Indian - non Muslim - messianism has been raised by Fuchs in his study of Messianic movements in India (1992). As that author has it, eschatological expectations, that is to say the hope for a universal renewal through world catastrophes, revolutions and upheavals, are generated by a clash between two types of culture, "one rather undeveloped and retarded, the other at least technically vastly superior" (Ibid.: 2) giving birth to a feeling of unrest and insecurity. This phenomenon, as argued by Fuchs, is generally associated with the appearance of a charismatic leader, often a "Godman" who, resorting to violence and rebellion, seeks to restore a Golden Age. The same author has found that this type of events has been particularly frequent in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries among tribals and untouchables, although they have also existed among higher caste Hindus and among Sikhs. However, the examples selected by Fuchs to illustrate his theory connect these movements with the colonial period during which such a clash of cultures is likely to have occurred at various levels. In fact the author deals mainly with socio-religious upheavals based on a messianic ideology which is not drawn from older beliefs mirrored in the legends or literature of a particular community, but proposed as a new revelation by some charismatic leader. In other words, Fuchs' messianic movements do not appear as the fulfillment of long nurtured expectations but are generated at the very time of the emergence of a "rebellious prophet". A notable exception represented by two Sikh prophetic movements will be examined further as it has a direct bearing on our subject.
In contradistinction to the type of messianic movements analyzed by Fuchs, the object of this study is a tradition transmitted through oral or written poems reflecting eschatological and messianic trends associated with a particular sect but which did not lead to any political upheaval. It consists in the passive expectation of a messiah at the end of the present Hindu Era of Kali Yuga and, therefore, continues to function as a prophecy. In this respect the theme is more akin to the Epic/Puranic traditions connected with Kalki than to the revolutionary movements described by Fuchs.
On the other hand messianism, as is well known, is a component of the Judeo-Christian and Iranian religious heritages which have in turn influenced some Muslims thinkers. As far as Islam is concerned it has been shown that the figure of the madhi (guide and restorer of justice) (Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986, V: 1230-8 and 1978, IV: 456-7) has been connected with extremist and revolutionary trends (Marquet, 1985: 8-25), as well as with Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. Actually the expectation of this messiah, albeit theoretically shared by all Muslims, became one of the major beliefs of the Shias, whereas it has never been adopted as a central dogma of the Sunni faith. According to Vatikiotis (1981: 109-116), "The Qur'an is free of messianic expectations (. ..) Messianism, as a basic rationalisation of unfulfilled prophecies and a consolation for dissatisfied Muslims, became the rudimentary appeal of the Fatimid (Ismaili) Message and teaching (da'wa)" (. ..) In the Qur'an, however, there is no reference to mahdi. It is rather in later collections of traditions where the concept is given theoretical and historical concretisation". Corbin (1986: 136) refers to the "eschatological ethos" which together with the basic theory of Imamology " dominates the whole Shia consciousness." Sharing this ethos with other trends of Shiism Ismailism has developed the figure of the Qaim (litt. "the riser") identified with the Paraclet announced in Saint John's Gospel (Ibid.: 139). In Shiism the expected madhi came to be referred to as al-qaim in so far as he was supposed to appear during the qiyamat (Resurrection) - at a time when the mahdi would "rise" to rule over the world as a dispenser of justice. According to the philosophy of the Twelver Shias, after his final occultation (gayba) the twelveth Imam, identified with the mahdi, will reappear only at the end of times, whereas the Qaim plays a more complex role in Ismaili philosophy. Many offshoots of Shiism and Ismailism were actually centered around the recognition or rejection of a given Imam or religious leader as the expected mahdi; from the Hanafya movement (Kaysanite sect) to the Qarmatians and the Druzes, many examples can be given to illustrate this phenomenon and the role it has played in the history of Islam (Marquet, 1985: 8-25). Even for the main branches of Ismailism the idea has a powerful attraction. The Fatimid kingdom was firmly established in Egypt by the Caliph Abdallah al Mahdi (910 A.D.) who, as his name indicated, proclaimed himself to be the Imam Qaim (Marquet, Ibid.: 11-12).
Another major event which happened later, during the Persian Nizari period is connected with the fourth master of Alamut: Hasan ala dhikirhi as-salam had declared that he was the expected Imam Qaim and that the time of Resurrection (Qiyamat) had arrived two years after his ascent on the throne, in 1164 (Marquet, Ibid.: 20-22). His successor, however, had to abolish the qiyamat, since history had not been brought to an end. In order to explain the succession of Imams after the proclaimed Resurrection and their return to clandestinity a new interpretation
was given to the concepts of mahdi-qaim and of qiyamat. One of the main characteristics of the Ismaili doctrine will then revolve around a prophecy which "is rythmed by astrological cycles determining on earth the historical cycles. ..the long life of the Universe consisting thus in cycles of seven thousand years" (Marquet, Ibid.: 23). The ideas of the series of seven Imams and of the alternation of clandestinity and manifestation became central. The qiyamat was not to be understood
as a unique event but as a repeated, cyclic phenomenon corresponding to a period of manifestation. As Daftary has explained (1990: 565), the concept of Resurrection does not only refer to the last judgment but "also came to be used in reference to the end of a partial cycle in the history of mankind, with the implication that the entire hierohistory of mankind consisted of many such partial cycles and partial qiyamas, leading to the final qiyama, sometimes called qiyama al-qiyamat. The Nizaris of the Alamut period interpreted the qiyama spiritually as the manifestation of the unveiled truth in the spiritual reality of the current Imam who was also called the Qaim al qiyama".
This last point is of great importance. One must bear in mind the fact that in the Subcontinent the incorporation of indigenous motifs and concepts into the Nizari doctrine was not only the result of precautionary dissimulation (taqiyya) or of a particular strategy of conversion: it fitted into the Ismaili conception of a meta- or hierohistory. In the Islamic context Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus had been accepted as prophets of previous times, Muhammad being the last, the "seal of the prophets". According to the Ismaili philosophy, there had been and would always be prophets, each accompanied by an Imam -Ali being the first Imam of our cycle (Marquet, Ibid.: 23; Daftary, Ibid.: 393-4). Preaching among Hindus the Nizari Pirs did not hesitate to include in the list figures of the Epic and Puranic lore which were familiar to the converted people. The similarity which already existed between the indigenous concept of cyclic time (the yugas and kalpas) and avatars and the Ismaili cycles and manifestations and epiphany of the Divine (mazhar) could serve as a conceptual link bridging both traditions. Through a series of analogies and parallelisms the Hindu/Jain neophytes could thus be led to adhere to the new religion viewed, not as the negation, but as the fulfillment of their own religious beliefs. The Arabic sirat-e-mustaqim and din al-haqq referring to Nizari Ismailism became something like an Indian sect also called "the true path" or Satpanth.
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