The Savior Archetype


Adapted from N. F. Gier, "The Savior Archetype," Journal of
4 [1979], pp. 255-267, with additions and deletions.

"He who knows me as the unborn, as the beginningless, as the Supreme
Lord of all the worlds he, undeluded among men, is freed from all sins."

–Krishna, The Bhagavad-gita (10:3)

"For I have taken upon myself, by my own will, the whole of the pain of
all things living….I resolve to dwell in each state of misfortune through countless
ages…for the salvation of all beings…for it is better that I alone suffer than all
beings sink to the worlds of misfortune. There I shall give myself into bondage, to redeem
all the world…from the realm of death."

–a Buddhist Bodhisattva

One of the national sensationalist newspapers recently carried a headline to
the effect that Elvis has risen and has been seen! Elvis devotees had earlier predicted
that Elvis would come back from the grave and sing again. For some people this is just a
natural extension of the profuse adoration Elvis received in his lifetime.

A similar effort was made to make George Washington a savior after his death.
People still repeat legends about Washington, such as his praying at Valley Forge and the
Capitol Prayer Room has a huge picture of this fictitious event. Reacting to this
phenomenon, John Adams felt obligated to point out: "I loved and revered the man, but
it was his humanity only that I admired. In his divinity I never believed"
(quoted in
Page Smith, John Adams [Westport, CT, 1962], Vol. 2, p. 1084.)

The tendency to deify Elvis and Washington reveals the operation of what I
call the Savior Archetype, a seemly innate psychological disposition to attribute divine
attributes and powers to great religious leaders. Let us first define our terms.  The
word savior (from the Latin salvo = to save) means one who saves humankind,
one who redeems them from sin, suffering and/or death; and the word archetype (from
the Greek archetypon = first type) means primal pattern, in our case, a
psychological one.

Descriptive Psychology

I am not using the term archetype in its Jungian sense; that is, I am not
holding any of the questionable assumptions of Jungian psychology.  Furthermore, I am
not going to speculate about the mechanics of how the archetype originates or operates in
the human mind. I am offering this thesis as a descriptive psychology of religion. The
objective data are the sacred scriptures of the world’s religions as they stand.
 I am taking these scriptures at face value as empirical testimony of how religious
peoples have responded to their respective saviors.

The world’s scriptures are not experimental evidence in the strict
sense, but they certainly must be taken as reliable testimony for the psychological basis
of the world’s religious beliefs and practices.  As Eduard Spranger
states: "Psychological experience is not gained only in the laboratory or the clinic
or merely from contemporary human beings, but also from the vast number of men of the past
of whom we know only through literary documents….What is the value of the most
comprehensive mass-statistics compared to the enormous material of different psychic
structures which history transmits to us?"(Types of Men, trans. P. J. W.
Pigors [Halle: Niemeyer, 1928], pp. xi-xii.)

Close scrutiny of the accounts of the alleged saviors of the world’s
religions shows significant parallels in the saviors’ attributes, experiences, and
plans for human redemption.  From this material I have extracted what seem to be the
most distinctive conditions for being a savior:

The savior’s birth and life are foretold in prophecy; the savior has a
miraculous birth; the savior has a royal genealogy; the savior is threatened in infancy;
the savior is tempted by demons; the savior works miracles; the savior is a deity with a
triune nature; the savior offers redemption through grace; there is a baptism of water;
there is a communion of bread and wine (water); the savior condemns those who do not
believe; the savior transfigures himself; and the savior rises from the dead and ascends
into heaven.

It is my general thesis that the Savior Archetype was not the result of a
direct interchange of ideas; rather, it was sui generis to the various religious
cultures. The Savior Archetype manifests itself as something deeply psychological, and,
therefore, it is not primarily due to religious syncretism. Edward Carpenter’s
assessment is correct: "It is impossible, I think, not to see that the myriad worship
of saviors all over the world, from China to Peru, can only be ascribed to the natural
workings of some…law of human and tribal psychology springing up quite spontaneously and
independently, and (so far) unaffected by mere contagion of local tradition"
and Christian Creeds
[New York: Harcourt, Brown & Co., 1924], p. 155. Carl G. Jung
concurs:  "The astonishing parallelism between the images and the ideas they
serve to express has frequently given rise to the wildest migration theories, although it
would have been far more natural to think of the remarkable similarity of the human psyche
at all times and in all places" (Commentary to The Tibetan Book of the Dead,
ed. W. Y. Evans-Wentz [New York:  Oxford University Press, 1960], p. xliv).

This is not to say that some interchange of religious ideas, especially
between India and Western Asia, did not take place. A circumstantial case for direct
influence can be made for the influx of Zoroastrian ideas into Judaism during the
Babylonian captivity and during the later Hellenistic Age.  An interesting, but not
as convincing, case has been made for Persian influence on the savior religion of Pure
Land Buddhism. (See the works of E. J. Ertel and Helmut Hoffman cited in S. G. F. Brandon,
ed., The Saviour God [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980], p. 184.)

The best scholars disagree about the possible influence of Buddhism on the
religions of Western Asia.  Scholars such as A. J. Edmunds base their claim of direct
influence on the historically documented missionary effort launched by the Buddhist
Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C.E. (Buddhist and Christian Gospels
[Philadelphia:  Innes & Sons, 1914], Vol. I, p. 58). But Rhys Davids states:
"I can find no evidence whatever of any actual and direct communication of any of
these ideas from the East to the West.  Where the Gospel narratives resembles the
Buddhist ones, they seem to me to have been independently developed…The similarities of
ideas are evidence not of any borrowing from the one side or the other, but of similar
experiences. (Lectures [Rachna Prakashan, 1972], pp. 151-52.) The influence of the
religion of Krishna outside of India has been minimal (at least until the 20th century)
and the story that the Apostle Thomas evangelized in India has been discredited. (See
Richard Garbe, India and Christendom: The Historical Connections Between Their
, trans. L. G. Robinson [La Salle, Ill.:  Open Court, 1959], pp.

If there was any substantial historical influence, it would have to have been
from East to West, as the Asian saviors antedate Jesus Christ by many centuries. There is,
however, a good reason to doubt much historical interchange, outside of the direct
influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism. Our research has shown solid parallels in terms of the general
characteristics of the archetype, but the specific details are most always different. This
leads us to conclude that although the Savior Archetype was in place, each religion
supplied its own detail according to its own cultural and religious history.
For example, Zoroaster’s birth and life are foretold in prophecy in a
way that shows a unique Persian religious tradition and culture. Both Gautama Buddha and
Krishna have miraculous births, but none of the details appear to have been borrowed, even
though each religion arose in close proximity to each other in Northern India. Some
scholars have suggested, however, that the Maitreya Buddha (the Buddha of the future) was
inspired by the Zoroastrian Saosyant. Another example is the belief in reincarnation which was held by some Greeks,
the Egyptians, and the Indians; but rejected by Moses, Zoroaster, and Jesus.
 Redemption through  a blood sacrifice is central to primordial religions, some
Hellenistic mysteries, and Christianity, but absent from Buddhism, Hinduism,
Zoroastrianism, and the Chinese religions.

Our principal concern in the remainder of this essay is to show how well the
general characteristics of the Savior Archetype apply to the various saviors.  The
best compliance occurs with Jesus Christ, Krishna-Vasudeva, Gautama Buddha, and Zoroaster.
 The major divergence in the case of Zoroaster is that he is not the redemptive
agent.  A separate being (sometimes plural), Saosyant, is the future savior.  He
is included because of the otherwise good match with the archetypal characteristics.
 Also included are references to the Hellenistic mystery religions and other
religions at appropriate points in the discussion.

Features of the Archetype: The Savior’s Birth and Life is Foretold in

Prophecy concerning the birth and life of the savior plays a central role in
the accounts surrounding Jesus, Gautama Buddha (567-487 B.C.E.), Krishna (ca. 900-800
B.C.E.) (Traditionally scholars have taken Krishna to be a fully mythical figure, but some
have attempted to reconstruct the historical Krishna. The dates given are those of B.
Majumdar in Krishna in History and Legend [Calcutta, 1969], and Zoroaster (ca. 1000
B.C.E.). The accounts of Jesus are omitted, taking it for granted that they are well
known. The story of Jesus was also used as a model for choosing the features.

Right after Gautama’s miraculous conception, a voice from the sky speaks
to King Suddohana foretelling that the Buddha, the Enlightened One, will be born of his
wife.  The King then brings in 64 brahmin priests who prophesy that if Gautama
remains in the royal palace he will become a monarch; but if he leaves the palace, he will
live the life of an ascetic and eventually become the Buddha.

A wiseman by the name of Asita (a Buddhist Simeon, see Luke 2:25-34) comes to
the palace saying that a voice from Heaven had told him that a child who would attain
supreme knowledge had been born. Like Luke’s Simeon, Asita is just about to pass away
and his greatest joy is that he has seen the savior before he dies.

Sources: Lalita Vistara, used primarily in A. F. Herold’s The
Life of the Buddha
(Tokyo: C. E. Tutle, 1954), pp. 9-10; Buddhacarita, I.
54-82; Nalaka Sutta, Sacred Books of the East, ed. Max Miller (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1880-97), Vol. X, Part 2, pp. 124-30 (hereafter cited as SBE); Jatakas, ed.
& trans. Rhys David, Buddhist Birth-Stories (London, undated), pp. 150, 157 ff.

The Hindu scriptures contain prophecies concerning the birth and life of
Krishna. The Ghata Jataka tells of a prophecy that a son born of Devaki will
destroy the demon-prince Kansa.  The Bhagavata Purana repeats the same
prophecy, and also contains a prophecy (a voice from the sky to Kansa) that the eighth
child of Devaki will kill him.

Sources: Ghata Jataka, quoted in B. Majumdar, op. cit., pp. 57-8; Mahabharata,
trans. P. Lal (Calcutta, 1971), Vol. 33, p.  14; Bhagavata Purana, Tenth
Canto, trans. A. C. Bhaktivedanta (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1970), Vol. 1,
p. 3.

Zoroaster’s coming into the world is foretold in prophecy 3,000 years
before his birth.  A certain King Yim forewarns the demons that they will be
destroyed by a "glorious manchild." Three centuries before Zoroaster’s
birth an ox speaks and foretells Zoroaster’s mission to the world.(Yasnas,
SBE, Vol. 31, pp. 10-11; Dinkard, SBE Vol. 47, p. 31. ) Critics say that these
prophecies are contained in material that probably came after Zoroaster’s birth. We
are however concentrating on what devotees claim, not what historical- critical analysis
can establish.

Savior has a Miraculous Birth

The idea of a miraculous birth among the saviors of the world is so
widespread that a full listing would be prohibitive.  Even people not considered
saviors, like the philosopher Plato, were said to be born of a virgin. Mahavira, the 24th
Tirthankara (liberated one) of the Jains, was born of a virgin. So were some of the Roman
caesars; the Mexican savior Quetzalcoatl; the Chinese saviors; the Greco-Roman gods
(including Attis born of the Virgin Nana); and of course Krishna, the Buddha, and
Zoroaster. Some of the details are, of course, different; but some form of parthenogenesis
is present, although the savior’s mother is not always a virgin.  The
traditional Christian objection that the pagan mothers had carnal relations with the gods
applies only to some of the Greco-Roman saviors.

Before Gautama’s miraculous conception, Queen Maya makes a vow of
abstinence and asceticism.  One night in a dream a white elephant, symbolizing what
Christians would call the Holy Spirit, enters her womb, and effects the divine conception
of the Buddha. Gautama is miraculously born out of the side of Maya apparently for the
sake of not defiling the birth canal.

Appropriately, there is an earthquake at his birth as well as at his
conception.  At his birth there are celestial signs; the sick are cured; the hungry
are fed; madmen regain their sanity; prisons open their gates; and the wicked are cleansed
of all evil.(Jatakas, pp. 150-152; Buddhacarita, I.25-45; Lalita Vistara,
pp. 13-14.)

At the time of Krishna’s birth there are auspicious celestial
configurations.  One star, Rohini, is especially important.  Krishna is
conceived by the supreme God Vishnu implanting a black hair in the womb of Devaki.
 Conception is achieved without the aid of Krishna’s earthly father, Vasudeva.
 Heaven and earth rejoice at their birth of Krishna; and the Vedic gods, particularly
Indra, bow down to him. (Bhagavata Purana, Vol. 1, p. 23; Mahabharata, Lal
trans., Vol. 33, p. 15.

Zoroaster’s mother has an immaculate conception, as she is
 transformed by the divine light of the supreme God, Ahura Mazda.  Her intimacy
with God makes her shine so much that her father sends her away as one possessed.
Zoroaster is conceived by the same divine light as his mother.  The earliest
scriptures tell of celestial and terrestrial signs that attend the birth of Zoroaster:
 all of nature rejoices and the demons flee to the depths of the earth.
SBE, Vol. 31, p. 235; Yashts, SBE, Vol. 23, pp. 212, 274; Dinkard,
, Vol. 47, pp. 18-20.)

Savior has a Royal Genealogy

Jesus, Gautama, Krishna, and Zoroaster all are said to have descended from
kings.  Gautama is born into the royal Sakhya family and before his enlightenment, he
lives the life of a prince.  Krishna comes from a royal family, the Sattvata family
of the Yadu dynasty in Northwest India.  But because of the threats of the
demon-prince Kansa, he is raised by cowherds in the countryside.  As in the case of
Jesus, Zoroaster’s genealogy is traced from the first man, an Iranian Adam called
Gayomart, through a royal line of ancient Persia to his own father.  

Some of the scripture offers conflicting genealogy for the same savior, Jesus
and Gautama being good examples.  Scholars speculate that the discrepancies in the
genealogies of Luke and Matthew were due to regional preferences.  The same appears
to be true for the Buddha, with conflicting northern and southern lines of descent.

Savior is Threatened in Infancy

Jesus, Krishna, and Zoroaster were all threatened in infancy by a demon
prince or king.  Herod’s slaughter of the infants is not mentioned by Josephus,
the Jewish historian who hated Herod and chronicles his life in great detail.  If
this incident in Jesus’ life is set in the context of similar accounts in the lives
of Krishna and Zoroaster, an explanation from the Savior Archetype readily offers itself.

Because of the prophecy to Kansa that a child of Devaki would usurp his
throne, Kansa imprisons Devaki and Vasudeva and kills each of their children in turn. When
the eighth child Krishna is born, divine intervention allows Vasudeva to break out of
prison and cross a flooding river, aided by a miracle wrought by the infant Krishna.
Krishna is exchanged for a girl born at the same time in a cowherd camp.
Kansa comes the next morning and murders the infant girl. Knowing that a trick has been
played on him, he orders a general massacre of all male infants in his realm.
 Krishna, like Jesus, escapes this fate. (Bhagavata Purana, Vol. 1, p. 32-36.)
The Zoroastrian Dinkard tells the story of a wicked ruler who
repeatedly and vainly attempts to kill the young Zoroaster.  For example, Zoroaster
is cast into a fire and miraculously saves himself. (Dinkard, pp. 29-30, 37.)

Savior is Tempted by Demons

After finally leaving his palace, Gautama fasts, meditates, and is
continually tempted and threatened by the demon Mara.  In the first temptation the
evil Mara offers Gautama the  greatest kingdom in the world and Gautama of course
refuses. (Jatakas, pp. 190 ff.; Pali scripture quoted in E. J. Thomas, The Life
of the Buddha as Legend and History
[London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1927],
p. 54.)  Throughout his childhood, Krishna is tempted and threatened by demons.
 He succeeds in avoiding or killing them all. For seven years Zoroaster wanders alone in the desert, having visions and
talking with God himself.  He is also tempted by demons; they offer him an empire and
propound riddles.  Devils flee at his sight (just like Jesus), because they know of
his ultimate power (Yashts, p. 305; Venidad, SBE, Vol. 4, pp. 208-217).

Savior Works Miracles

During his childhood Gautama amazes his teachers with his knowledge and his
miracles.  Other miracles attributed to Gautama are throwing an elephant over a moat,
shooting an arrow ten miles, and flying through the air.  His disciples could also
fly, and one of his disciples walked on water upon the beckoning of the Buddha.(Jatakas,
pp. 164-5; Buddhacarita, II.24; Lalita Vistara, pp. 24-27.)
From the beginning, Krishna worked miracles, usually in his battle against
evil.  His first miracle as a newborn infant is the calming and apparent splitting of
the flood waters of the Yamuna river.  He also heals and brings the dead back to
life, e.g., reviving a stillborn child.(Bhagavata Purana, Vol. 1, p. 31; Mahabharata,
a condensed version ed. C. V. Narasimhan (New York: Columbia, 1965), pp. 196-7.)
Zoroaster performs many miracles, especially in his fights with demons. He
divides the seas so that he can cross; he heals; he is immune from a raging fire into
which he is cast by demons (Dinkard, pp. 37, 66).

Savior is a Triune Deity

The tendency for religious peoples to deify their spiritual and political
leaders is readily apparent in all cultures.  The best scholars disagree about how
soon the deification of Gautama took place. Rhys David believes that it took place soon
after his death, but other scholars contend that it took place somewhat later with the
rise of Mahayana Buddhism. The Pali Dhammapada states that the Buddha is an
omniscient mahapurisa, a superperson.  The Sanskrit scripture makes no secrets
of his divinity:  he is "a god surpassing all gods" (devatideva) and
in the Buddhacarita the infant Gautama is worshiped by all the Vedic gods. (T. W.
Rhys Davids, Buddhism (New York: Young & Co., 1899), pp. 182-3. Lalita
, p. 23. See also David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy:  A
Historical Analysis
, p. 117.)

Mahayana Buddhism believed that the Buddha had three manifestations or
bodies:  the Body of Bliss, the Body of Law, and the Body of Transformation (the
historical Gautama).  The Body of Law (Dharmakaya) is like the Christian
Godhead or God the Father, while the Body of Bliss corresponds to the Christian Holy
Spirit, for it manifests itself in the heart of the devotee.

Krishna is the human incarnation of the God Vishnu, whom Krishna devotees
consider to be the supreme God.  For devotees Krishna is the supreme personality of
the Godhead and is the source of all the other eight incarnations of Vishnu.
 According to Hari Krishna scholars, the Godhead is triune with Brahma, Paramatma as
the Oversoul or Holy Spirit, and the human form of Krishna being the three
manifestations. (Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami, Readings in Vedic Literature, pp. 21-25.)

Zoroaster has a pre-existent spiritual body and is the incarnation of the
second person of Ahura Mazda, divine wisdom or reason. Yasht XIV portrays him as a
perfect being:  "He thought according to the Law, spoke according to the Law,
and did according to the Law:  so that he was the holiest in holiness in all the
living world, the best ruling in exercising rule, the brightest in brightness, and the
most victorious in victory."

The Zoroastrian Godhead is seven-fold rather than triune.  But this
heptad does contain two trinities under Ahura Mazda:  a masculine trinity and a
subordinate feminine trinity.  The religion of Mithra, a later development of
Zoroastrianism, does return to a three-fold deity with Ahura Mazda as Father, Mithra as
Son, and Anashita, a goddess, as the third person.

For more on the Trinity see

Savior Offers Redemption Through Grace

Mahayana Buddhism in its devotional forms requires a personal relationship
with a Bodhisattva (an intermediary for the heavenly Buddha) for salvation.  The
Bodhisattva is a suffering savior who "will give up his body and his life for the
deliverance of humankind. In the Sikasamuccaya of Shantideva we find the following
monologue of a Bodhisattva: "For I have taken upon myself, by my own will, the whole
of the pain of all things living.  Thus I dare try every abode of pain, in…every
part of the universe, for I must not defraud the world of the root of good.  I
resolve to dwell in each state of misfortune through countless ages…for the salvation of
all beings…for it is better that I alone suffer than all beings sink to the worlds of
misfortune.  There I shall give myself into bondage, to redeem all the world from the
forest of purgatory, from rebirth as beasts, from the realm of death" (excerpted in The
Buddhist Tradition
, ed. W. T. deBary [New York:  Vintage, 1972], p. 85). The
Buddhist theologian Asanga makes it clear that the Buddha himself, through the medium of
his Dharmakaya, initiates all salvation. This unconditional love redeems all humankind.
See The World of the Buddha, ed. L. Stryk (New York:  Doubleday, 1969), p.

Unique to the bhakti-yoga of the religion of Krishna is the idea of
personal devotion to the savior. According to the Gita (2:12) all those, regardless
of class or race, who seek refuge in Krishna will be saved by his grace; they shall also
gain eternal life in an individualized soul. Krishna killed many demons who were
immediately liberated, their souls merging with Krishna’s or being dispatched
immediately to heaven. These are obviously cases of unconditional redemption. In some
versions of the Mahabharata the hunter who accidentally kills Krishna is
immediately dispatched to heaven, without any evidence that he had devoted himself to
Krishna. In the Gita Arjuna is completely confused and during Krishna’s
transfiguration is frightened to the edge of his life.  It is obvious that Arjuna is
not yet a devotee and Krishna bestows his grace on Arjuna in a very special way.
 "Arjuna said, my dear Krishna, 0 infallible one, my illusion is now gone. I
have regained my memory by your mercy, and I am now firm and free from doubt and am
prepared to act according to your instructions" (18:73).

Baptism of Water

Baptism is a pre-Christian practice.  The Jews performed baptism only
after their return from Babylonian captivity.  The Hindu Vedas, the oldest
known religious writings, already contain baptismal formulas that have led to the practice
of daily purification in the sacred water of Indian rivers. The Rig-Veda states:
"Whatever is sin is found in me, whatever evil I have wrought, if I have lied or
falsely sworn, Waters, remove it far from me" (I.23.22).

A Communion of Bread And Wine

A communion or sacred meal also comes from pagan sources.  The Rig-Veda
again is the oldest source:  "By Holy Law long lasting food they bring us"
(IV. 23.9).  The soma sacrifice of the Hindus gave the participants intimations of
immortality.  Zoroastrians mixed the soma juice with bread and water for their

The cultic meal of Mithra was so much like Christian Communion that
Tertullian (155-230 C.E.) and Justin Martyr (110-165 C.E.) propounded the fable that Satan
must have given the Communion to the Mithraists so as to mislead Christians.(Justin
Martyr, The First Apology, 66.) Before his ascent into
Heaven, Mithra had a sacred meal of bread and wine with his twelve disciples. See E.
Wynee-Tyson, Mithras (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1958), p. 139. See also
Joscelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World (San Francisco: Harper
& Row, 1981), p. 99.

Sacred meals of bread and wine were also eaten in the rites of Dionysos,
Orpheus, Cybele, and Attis. Margaret A. Murray has shown that the idea of a religious
leader eating a sacred meal with twelve disciples is a central feature of many pagan
cults. (See her God of the Witches [New York: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 68
and passim.) One Persian Mithraic text parallels the famous passage in Jn. 6:53-58:
 "He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made
one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation"(quoted in Godwin, op.
cit., p. 28).

Savior Condemns Unbelievers

Early on Buddhism developed doctrines of heaven and hell just as detailed as,
and in many ways similar to, the Christian accounts.  In the Gita (1:44)
Krishna elaborates in detail the fate of those who do not turn to him:  the hell of
eternal rebirth.  Krishna acts in the same capacity as the second person of the
Christian Trinity:  "I am the creator of all objects that exist.  Knowing
no change myself, I am also the destroyer of all creatures that live in sinfulness" (Mahabharata,
ed. Narasimhan, p. 195). As we have seen, the Zoroastrian doctrines of heaven and hell
were strong influences on Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity.

Savior Transfigures Himself

A transfiguration is an act by the savior in which his divinity is revealed
in its fullness.  Jesus transfigures himself before his disciples in Mk. 9 and Matt.
17.  There are at least three transfigurations in the life of Krishna:  at his
birth, during the Bharata War, and just before his ascension into heaven at his death. (Bhagavata
, Vol. 1, pp. 24 ff; Gita, Chapter 11.)

Transfigurations of Gautama Buddha occur at his birth, during his fights with
the demon Mara, and at his death.(Buddhacarita, I.30; Lalita Vistara, p.
286; Nipato Sutta, SBE, Vol. 10, p. 126; Thomas, p. 74.) After sacrificing himself
and bleeding to death under a pine tree, Attis is transfigured as a transcendent solar
deity.(See Godwin, pp. 116-117.)

Savior Rises from the Dead and Ascends into Heaven

At his birth Gautama prophesies that this will be his last life.  In the
Buddhacarita and the Pali accounts of his life, the Buddha escapes death and the
cycle of rebirth, transfigures himself, and passes into Nirvana.  One of his
disciples and Gautama’s mother also ascend directly into heaven.(Lalita Vistara,
pp. 21, 286; Buddhacarita, II. 18. Godwin, pp. 118-9. Edmunds, op. cit., Vol. 2, p.

After the resurrection of Attis, both he and Cybele ascent together into
Heaven.  In the Gnostic Gospel of Peter, Jesus ascends directly into Heaven from the
cross.  Most Gnostic Christians, primarily because of their belief that the flesh was
evil, did not believe in bodily resurrection. Furthermore, in contrast to Christian
belief, there was still a body to burn after Gautama’s ascension.

Krishna himself and wise sages foretell his death and the demise of his
tribe.  His own people, the Yadavas, betray him and set about on a course of
self-destruction, which together with Krishna’s own death, is traditionally
interpreted as having redemptive significance.  Krishna transfigures himself and
prepares to leave his body as death approaches.  Krishna then ascends immediately
into Heaven, "filling the entire sky with splendor"(Mahabharata,
Narasimhan ed., pp. 203, 205; Majumdar, pp. 163-4; W. G. Archer, The Loves of
(London: Allan & Unwin, 1957), pp. 68-9, 117.)

The earliest example of a dying and rising god is the Egyptian Osiris. In a
brilliant article, S. G. F. Brandon argues that Paul’s unique formulation of the
meaning of Jesus’s sacrifice followed the "principle of ritual assimilation,
which in its practice constituted [a] remarkable parallel to the ritual pattern so long
observed in Osirianism " (S. C. F. Brandon, "The Ritual Technique of Salvation
in the Ancient Near East" in The Saviour God, ed. Brandon, pp. 32-3). Brandon
does not argue for religious syncretism, but simply points out an important
phenomenological coincidence.

Ezekiel (8:14) tells of women weeping for the dead god Tammuz, whose
resurrection was celebrated in the spring, when the Syrian rivers ran red with the blood
of Tammuz (probably the fallen blooms of the red anemone).(James G. Frazer, The Golden
[New York: Macmillan, condensed version, 1960], p. 382.) True to form, the
savior brings the earth back to life after the death of winter.

Devotees of Attis, to whom we have alluded earlier, made an effigy of their
dead god, tied it to a pine log, offered their own blood in imitation, placed the effigy
in a tomb, and sang resurrection hymns such as this one:  "Be of good courage,
oh ye of our mystery, for our God is saved, for us there shall be salvation after our
sorrows." (L. R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States [Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1896], Vol. 3, p. 301; see also Vol. 2, pp. 644-45. For the vicarious suffering of
Attis, see W. F. Albright, op. cit., p. 329.) It should be emphasized that these accounts
may be post-Christian, so it would be difficult to argue for any direct influence on

Objections and Response

Various objections have been raised with regard to the Savior Archetype, and
it is appropriate that we respond to these in turn.  First, Brandon himself suggests
that Attis and Tammuz are not real saviors, because they do not appear to offer postmortem
salvation; rather, these rites appear to focus exclusively on this-worldly concerns, like
the return of the seasons and relief from suffering (Brandon, op. cit., p. 29). In other
words, the blood of Attis redeems this life only and does not, like the blood of Christ,
secure a supranatural life after the grave. We have no desire, however, to restrict our
definition of a savior so severely.  Such strictures would eliminate all talk of the
pre-exilic Yahweh as savior as well as any of the Chinese saviors.

Some critics say that Christianity cannot be compared to the mystery
religions, because they have a cyclical view of time connected with the seasons, while
Judeo-Christian history is linear, with God intervening at specific points in time in a
unique way (e.g., the Exodus, Sinai, the Cross). Mythical figures such as Attis and Adonis
save the world every year in an unending cycle of death and rebirth, but an historical
Jesus saves humankind once and for all in one unique, redemptive act.

This distinction is correctly drawn, but the point is ultimately irrelevant
for the Savior Archetype. By definition an archetype is a primal pattern which is
essentially formal and ahistorical.  The psychological effect of the archetype is the
same whether the figures are historical or mythical, or whether time is cyclical or
linear.  Both the Jews and Christians historicized mythological motifs, but this in
no way eliminates the fact that the motif had ahistorical origins.  It is the motif
(the archetype) with which we are concerned, not the particular interpretations of
individual religions.

The foregoing criticism is usually linked to another involving the Oriental
idea of many avatars, incarnations of saviors.  It is maintained, and quite
correctly, that Krishna is just one of many incarnations of Vishnu, and that there are
many different Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. Hindus who worship Krishna tolerate
those who find salvation through Shiva, and Buddhists recognize the efficacy of any of the

Again these are only variations in the Savior Archetype, not fundamental
divergences. In the Gita (9:23) Krishna makes it clear that the Hindu Godhead is a
unity and that those who worship other gods are actually in contact with him. In Mahayana
Buddhism all Bodhisattvas are ultimately expressions of the one Dharmakaya, the Buddhist
Godhead.  Furthermore, the savior of Zoroastrianism, Saosyant, is unique, and Persian
salvation history is linear and not cyclical.

Although the Indian tradition does not have any strong historical sense, it
is incorrect to say that it is deficient altogether.

The Buddhists had a clear grasp of the historical development of their faith.
 For example, the Buddha, after reluctantly giving in to those who wish to allow
women into the Sangha, predicted that Buddhism would decline after 500 years because of
this compromise. At the beginning of the common era, Mahayana Buddhists used this prophecy
as an apologetic for the particular innovations they proposed.

The Buddhist sense of history is most keenly manifest in the phenomenon of
the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the Future. Maitreya is a future incarnation of a
distant friend of the Buddha, who made a pack with him saying that after I come as
Siddhartha Gautama you will come later to save a future generation of humans.  D.
Howard Smith describes this most important figure of Buddhist messianism: "There was
a period, during the fourth and early fifth centuries C.E., when Maitreya occupied an even
more prominent place than Amitabha. The ardent hopes and expectations which were aroused
by the thought that on the completion of a thousand years after Gautama’s
enlightenment some new revelation would appear on earth, coupled with a belief that human
society was rapidly deteriorating, no doubt stimulated faith in Maitreya, the Coming One,
who, at the command of Buddha, would descend from…Heaven…and establish a great
millennial kingdom"("Saviour Gods in Chinese Religion" in The Saviour
, p. 187).

Critics also point out that the Asian saviors effect a salvation that is
transpersonal. This is certainly true for Buddhism, which, in all of its forms, maintains
that liberation in Nirvana means the dissolution of the skandhas and the extinction
of all desire.  Even the Heaven of Amitabha, with all of its blissful personal
relations, is pre-Nirvana.  The Pure Land is just the last stage before the final

But again the Savior Archetype must be broad enough to include both personal
and transpersonal eschatologies.  Furthermore, Christianity is not unique on this
point, for Zoroastrianism promises salvation for all humankind and eternal personal bliss
with Ahura Mazda. In a brilliant article, R C. Zaehner shows that the Mahabharata
(which contains the Bhagavad-gita) contains an underlying view of heavenly bliss in
which individuality is not lost, for the "Self is seen by means of the self"(R.
C. Zaehner, "Salvation in the Mahabharata" in The Saviour God, p. 224).

Commentators also contend that the idea of Incarnation is unique to the
Christian tradition. It can be argued, however, that the concept of the man-god is
actually a pagan intrusion into the Judeo-Christian tradition. Furthermore, the notion of
God becoming flesh was just as scandalous to some Hindus as it was to the Jews. Otherwise,
Krishna would not have had to say that "fools scorn me" in the human form he had
assumed (Gita, 9:11).

The great Buddhist scholar Edward Conze claims that Christianity and Buddhism
part ways completely on the question of the forgiveness of sins.(Edward Conze,
"Buddhist Saviours" in The Saviour God, p. 79.) Conze contends that none
of the Buddhist schools compromise their adherence to the basic law of karma:  one
must eventually "pay for every act." One of the great ironies in Hinduism and
Buddhism, which generally subordinate or even dissolve the individual, is that the law of
karma requires a genuinely individual actor. The notion of karmic debt loses its meaning
without this assumption.

This basic inconsistency in Indian philosophy can be explained in terms of
religious syncretism. The idea of karma appears to come from the indigenous cultures of
India, not from the Aryans. There is still a wide consensus about Heinrich Zimmer’s
thesis that philosophical monism, which in its absolute form destroys the individual, was
an Aryan contribution.  Therefore, the law of karma goes hand-in-hand with another
strong non-Aryan philosophy: Sankhya-Yoga dualism with its plurality of individual souls (purushas).

With these points in mind, let us now respond to Conze’s proposal.
Mahayana Buddhism believes in the "dedication of merit," a means by which
Bodhisattvas who have an excess of good karma can give this merit to those whose karmic
debt otherwise dooms them to an endless cycle of death and rebirth.  If karma is
based on individual acts and our being responsible for these acts, there is no way that
this transfer of merit can work without undermining the traditional view of karma.

While the Bodhisattva’s act is not actually a forgiveness of sins,
sinners do indeed receive something that they have not earned; they are being given credit
for acts which they have not performed.  This represents a significant transformation
of the doctrine of karma and firmly establishes the idea of grace in Buddhism.
 Unmerited grace is of course central to the savior religions.

In his article "Buddha and Christ," Ninian Smart shows that
Christian soteriology also has the idea of the "dedication of merit." He
explains:  "The self-sacrificing Bodhisattva can out of the treasury of his
merit…convey some of it to the otherwise unworthy devotee.  This gives to Buddhist
mythology a strong flavour of the Christian idea of Christ’s sacrifice as bringing
about an immense or infinite abundance of merit available to the faithful"("The
Work of the Buddha and the Work of Christ" in The Saviour God, p. 169).

Smart goes on to point out two differences:  (1) Conze’s contention
that the Buddhist concept remains within karmic laws, while Christian redemption is
effected by a direct act of God; and (2) the self-sacrifice of the Bodhisattvas is moral,
while Jesus’ act was a ritualistic death on the Cross.

We have already responded to Conze’s argument, but one more point is
appropriate.  Both Conze and Smart recognize that Buddhist soteriology ranges from
the appeal to "self-power" by Theravadin and Zen monks to the total reliance on
"other-power" in the radical fideism of Shinran.  Conze points out,
however, the notorious problems which most Buddhists have with the problem of
individuation.  He concludes that while Christians have no trouble in separating self
and God, the Buddhists have no satisfactory way of maintaining a real distinction between
self-power and other-power.

Conze’s thesis is tenuous on at least two counts.  First, our
Savior Archetype is a descriptive psychology which withholds judgment about the
historicity of the various scriptural accounts and about the philosophical success of any
particular theological doctrine.  For example, Shinran unequivocally denies the
efficacy of self-salvation and insists that salvation comes from a direct act of the
Amitabha Buddha.  Whether Shinran is able to defend this soteriology within the
framework of Buddhist philosophy is not our concern in the Savior Archetype. Second, Conze
appears to be unaware of the notorious difficulties surrounding Paul’s psychology.
Exegesis reveals a tripartite soul o"not I but Christ" in me which rules the
Christian’s life. Paul definitely did not solve, nor has any other Christian
theologian to my knowledge, the problem of the exact relationship between the old man and
new man in Christ. The problems of self-power and other-power are just as
 intractable in Christianity as they are in Buddhism.

In response to Smart’s second point above, let me just say that the
Savior Archetype must include both the ritualistic soteriology of primordial religion, the
mysteries, and Christianity, as well as the higher moral theories of redemption in
Buddhism and Hinduism. As we have already seen, Jesus Christ was not the first dying and
rising god, and he was not the first whose blood is supposed to redeem human sin.

The taurobolium (bull-sacrifice) in Mithraism and the rites of Cybele
and Attis, in which the initiate was bathed and reborn in the animal’s blood, was
usually reserved for rich people. As Godwin relates: "Poorer people made do with a criobolium,
in which a ram was killed, and [they] were washed in the blood of the Lamb" (Godwin,
op. cit., p. 111).

One last difference between Christianity and Hinduism-Buddhism should be
mentioned. For Christians the original sin was, and continues to be, man’s refusal to
obey God’s will. In Hinduism and Buddhism the primal sin is ignorance, the human
condition which keeps us separate from Atman-Brahman or the Dharmakaya. The former can be
called a religion of obedience (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); and the
latter can be called a religion of knowledge, or a gnostic religion. (Religions of praxis,
a third type, may be used to describe the Chinese religions Daoism and Confucianism.) The
appropriate response to Christian sin is repentance and contrition; but the solution for
most Buddhists (Pure Land sect excluded) is to gain knowledge. (For them Adam did no wrong
by eating the forbidden fruit.) This distinction relates to the difference mentioned above
between a moral and epistemological salvation and a ritualistic blood redemption.

One general conclusion can be drawn from the Savior Archetype: devotees of
great spiritual leaders have been led by social-psychological reasons to attribute certain
characteristics and experiences to the nature and life of their masters. They have deified
them with supranatural attributes; they have produced similar legends about their births
and lives; and they have celebrated similar sacred rituals and sacraments in their names.

Adapted from N. F. Gier, "The Savior Archetype," Journal of
4 [1979], pp. 255-267, with additions and deletions.

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