Mysterious Birth of Prophets

Mysterious Birth of Prophets: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Many parts of the Buddhist worldwill celebrate a very special day on Sunday, May 8: the birth of Gautama Buddha, the founding prophet of Buddhism. This occasion is celebrated on different dates by different sects of Buddhists, but all of them mark this as a very meaningful day.

In March, Hindus celebrated the festival of Rama Navami, the birthdate of Rama, the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu. In April, Hindus also celebrated the festival of Hanuman Jayanti, which is the birthdate of the Hindu god Hanuman. Also in April, Jains celebrated the birth of their founding prophet Mahavir.

Birth is magical to begin with. When infused with a breathtaking religious narrative, it becomes the stuff legends are made of. Since prophets and gods come into this world for a special mission, their stories are inevitably accompanied with mysterious births under special circumstances. These stories help sustain the magic of the religious traditions themselves, as the faith of their followers is deepened by finding meaning in these mysterious birth narratives which make their prophets seem all the more special.

There are many such narratives across religion, which have been immortalized and amplified over the years. The births of Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha were all heralded by the appearance of special celestial lights. Jesus was born by immaculate conception to the virgin Mary, and the nativity story comes embellished with wise men and a bright guiding star. The Prophet Muhammad’s birth was marked by the absence of any pain to his mother.

Prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, was born out of his mother’s right side as opposed to a normal uterine birth. The legend describes how, while sleeping, his mother Maya had a vivid dream filled with angels and a white elephant carrying a white lotus entered her body. One story reveals that upon exiting his mother’s womb, he immediately took seven steps and announced that this was his final birth in which he would save the world.

The legendary author of the foundational scripture of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, was named Lao Tzu (which means “Old Master”) because he is said to have been born with gray hair, a sign of his special wisdom.

The births of all these prophets, and more, are celebrated across the world by followers of their respective religious traditions through various festivals, rituals, and storytelling practices, keeping the mystery of their origins, deeds, and wisdom alive.

Christianity

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit […] The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means  ‘God with us’).”

—The New Testament (Matthew 1:18-23), Christian text

“In the Gospels, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would conceive a child through the Holy Spirit, even though she was a virgin. On the night of Jesus’s birth, a star appeared in the sky that led three wise men to a stable, where they believed they had found the ‘King of the Jews.’”

—Carla Mooney, religion writer

Islam

“Remember the one who guarded her chastity. We breathed into her from Our Spirit and made her and her son a sign for all people.”

—The Qur’an (21:91), Muslim text

“[Muhammad’s] mother suffered none of the pangs of travail. At the moment of his coming into the world a celestial light illumined the surrounding country, and the new born child, raising his eyes to heaven, exclaimed: ‘God is great! There is no God but God, and I am his prophet!”

—Washington Irving, short story writer and biographer

Hinduism

“I was born from the nectar of immortality as the primordial horse and as Indra’s noble elephant. Among human beings, I am the king.”

—The Bhagavad Gita (10:27), Hindu text

Buddhism

“Even since the olden times,

This illumination of all of our palaces

Is without precedent.

Has a deva of great merit been born,

Or has a buddha appeared in the world? […]

Possibly a buddha has appeared in the world

To save suffering sentient beings.”

—The Lotus Sutra, Buddhist text

Confucianism

“The Chinese chronicles record that when the earth had solidified and the peoples were settling in the riverlands, Fu His, the ‘Heavenly Emperor’ (2953-2838 B.C.), governed among them[…]He had been born of a miraculous conception, after a gestation of twelve years; his body being that of a serpent, with human arms and the head of an ox. Shen Nung, his successor, the ‘Earthly Emperor’ (r. 2838-2698 B.C.) was eight feet seven inches tall, with a human body but the head of a bull. He had been miraculously conceived through the influence of a dragon[…]Huang Ti, the ‘Yellow Emperor’ (r. 2697-2597 B.C.), was the third of the august Three. His mother, a concubine of the prince of the province of Chao-tien, conceived him when she one night beheld a golden dazzling light around the constellation of the Great Bear. The child could talk when he was seventy days old and at the age of eleven years succeeded to the throne.”

—Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative mythology and religion

Modern Philosophy and Theology

“Images of virgin birth abound in the popular tales as well as in myth.”

—Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative mythology and religion

“Founding myths, above all, work to set apart their subjects from the ordinary lot of humanity. They thus often include stories of special births, which function to mark the founder or saint as someone different and destined for great things. Hence one story of the Buddha’s birth describes how, upon exiting his mother’s womb, he immediately took seven steps and then announced that this was his final birth, in which he would save the world. Similarly, according to a version of Mahavira’s birth narrative, Mahavira was first conceived in the womb of a brahman or Hindu priest but was then transferred to the womb of a member of the warrior caste.”

—Jeffrey J. Kripal, Historian of Religion