DISCIPLESHIP . Scholars of the world's religions have contributed much to the study of discipleship in the settings of specific religious communities. But there remains much to be done in framing a general estimate of the social meaning and historical impact of discipleship as a communal pattern in the history of religions. The present entry, therefore, offers a model of discipleship that might be helpful in organizing comparative studies of this important type of religious society.
Religious discipleship, in the sense defined below, seems to be specifically rooted in the great civilizational religious and philosophical systems that arose in the Mediterranean world, Mesopotamia, South Asia, and East Asia from the middle of the first millennium bce through the middle of the first millennium ce. Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Daoism, and Zoroastrianism are the most influential traditions to have emerged or reached classical expression during this period. At the conceptual center of each stands a moral seriousness that challenges adherents to transform themselves in light of a comprehensive vision of the place of human life in the cosmic order. At the social center of these traditions stand strikingly similar types of authoritative figures—literate intellectuals (priests, scribes, teachers, or prophets) who claim, on the basis of learning in ancient tradition or personal insight, to mediate wisdom about the essential purposes of life. Communities established for the perpetuation and transmission of such wisdom were probably the earliest settings for the practice of religious discipleship.
A Working Model of Discipleship
Discipleship can be defined most generally as a particularly intense mentoring relationship in which a body of knowledge deemed essential to the wise conduct of life is transmitted from the mentor (or master) to the protégé (or disciple). This wisdom, about how to properly live, necessarily combines practical matters of daily life with more esoteric bodies of theory or doctrine. In the practice of discipleship, moreover, such wisdom is believed to be available only within the mentoring relationship. The disciple's belief that the master is uniquely capable of communicating wisdom is crucial to the master's continuing authority in the relationship. It is also crucial to the disciple's ongoing willingness to emulate those elements of the master's way of living that are taken to embody the latter's own possession of wisdom.
Indeed, emulation of the master is the essence of the master–disciple relationship. It is both a primary strategy in the disciple's quest for wisdom and proof that this knowledge has been properly mastered. So, for example, the disciples of Stoic philosophers in the Hellenistic world would seek to embody the attitude of apatheia (indifference to pleasure or pain) modeled in the lives of such masters as Epictetus (50–130 ce). Similarly, initiates into Islamic Ṣūfī circles would be expected to emulate the specific discipline or path (ṭarīqah ) modeled by the guide (shaykh ). Another common aspect of emulation involves, as in early rabbinic Judaism (from about the third century ce) and Tibetan Buddhist monastic settings even in contemporary times, memorizing the master's formal teaching in oral or written texts, and interpreting their meaning in oral instructional settings.
In many cases, orally recited stories that first circulated among disciples about the deeds of a master were written down to provide hagiographic material for circulation both within and beyond the immediate circle of disciples. The diverse oral collections of Jesus' sayings and deeds that underlie the canonical and extra-canonical Gospels may well have been collected by Jesus' disciples prior to the point at which they were combined into a broader evangelical literature. Later, more formal examples of hagiography in the Christian tradition include the Life of Anthony and the Life of Pachomius, both of which were fundamental to the development of fourth-century asceticism as a pattern of Christian discipleship. Comparable writings are transmitted in Sufism (e.g., The Way of Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī ar-Rifāʿī of the twelfth century), Jewish contemplative circles (The Life of the Holy Lion Rabbi Isaac Luria of the early seventeenth century), and Daoism (Collected Accounts of the Perfected of the tenth century), among many others.
Emulation of the master necessarily involves disciples in intense psychological identification with, and dependence upon, their mentors. Thus the virtue of humility or self-effacement before the master is a prized trait of the disciple. Symbolic postures of subordination can be as simple as carefully observed protocols governing, for example, which rabbinic disciples walked to the left or the right of the sage, and which the sage actually chose to lean upon when walking. In this context, it is not unusual for disciples to expect and receive corporal punishment as a form of discipline, as specified, for example, in the Rule of the Christian monastic order of Saint Benedict. In other systems of discipleship, as in some Tantric traditions of India or in ancient Greek philosophical discipleship, identification with or subordination to the master can also be expressed via sexual intimacy.
Discipleship and Social Hierarchy
The basic social protocol of discipleship involves practices for ordering human relationships in view of hierarchy of power and authority. The fundamental purpose of that relationship is to authorize the transmission of knowledge and wisdom from the superior (the master) to the subordinate (the disciple). The nature of this knowledge will be discussed below. For now, it is important to focus upon the nesting of the discipleship relationship within a web of other types of hierarchical institutions in which the transmission of knowledge is also an essential goal.
Most historical examples of religious discipleship involve not simply a teacher and a student, but a group. This group is the discipleship community. Such communities, in many respects, are analogous in intention and structure to such common social institutions as kinship systems and schools. The social hierarchy created within the discipleship community is different from that of family and school, but dependent upon both. In discipleship, the community is a kind of school that recapitulates at a more refined level the cultural task of the family. Here the disciple returns to the psychological situation of childhood to be fundamentally re-formed as a human being. Now the task of emulation involves absorbing the teaching of a master in such a way as to embody the master's own achievement.
What is that achievement? It is at this point that the question of special knowledge and wisdom arises. The master's achievement is greater than that of the biological parent or other elder, who has merely become a participant in the received cultural or religious tradition. The master, by contrast, has reached that form of human perfection held out by tradition as the highest attainable. The master, then, is a parent, but more so. Often called "Father" or "Mother," the master can displace the biological parents in the disciple's scale of loyalties and affections. Certain Greco-Roman philosophical paths, echoed by some rabbinic teachers of the early common era, as well as medieval Ṣūfī masters, held, for example, that a disciple owes more respect to a master than to a biological parent. The reason should not be hard to predict: parents only bring their child into physical life, whereas the master, by contrast, brings the disciple into eternal, life-transforming knowledge.
The master is also more than a teacher, for a system of discipleship is more than a school. Schools transmit the knowledge expected of functional participants in the religious tradition or culture. Whether at a relatively fundamental or at a more sophisticated level, they transmit "formative" knowledge, knowledge that shapes the cultural and autobiographical identity of the knower and enables one to both share in and contribute to creativity in the culture. In the setting of discipleship, however, students are trained to reconceive their own human perfection in emulation of the model presented by their master. In this sense, the knowledge offered in the discipleship relationship is not formative but "transformative." It holds out to the disciple the promise of becoming in some fundamental sense a new being. In possessing the master's transformative knowledge and embodying it, one passes from a state of ignorance to one of wisdom, illumination, or grace, depending upon the symbolic vocabulary native to the traditions that nourish specific discipleship communities.
Characteristics of Transformative Knowledge
As mentioned above, transformative knowledge can be known only through a direct relationship of discipleship with the master. Familiarity with a master's teaching alone, either as oral tradition or written text, does not constitute a transformative appropriation of the master's knowledge. Rather, it is necessary to hear the master's own teaching accompanied by the master's explanation; it is necessary to observe the master's behavior in various settings, in order to emulate the ways in which the master's teachings are embodied in concrete models of execution.
The master, from this perspective, is a living medium through which a truth, otherwise hidden from natural sight, is disclosed and made tangible. The master is a disclosure of truth, and this disclosure is only in part mediated through specific verbal teachings. Its fullness must be found in the actual existence of the master. Thus the disciple commonly views the master as a kind of text to be decoded and interpreted. The full, transformative knowledge imparted by the master is available only to the disciple who knows how to read the master's text—and this text includes more than the master's verbal utterances. It includes the entire being of the master as it is disclosed to the disciple in the personal encounter.
In the history of religions, the nature and significance of the transformative knowledge made available to disciples by masters is always linked to broader cultural and religious traditions within which the discipleship communities themselves have emerged. In other words, masters control, focus, and refine symbol systems that penetrate widely throughout a given culture. They transform "culture" into a disciplinary path that creates a "subculture," a community living out the larger values of a cultural tradition in particularly intense and concentrated form. Monasticism in the diverse Christian and Buddhist traditions are examples of discipleship communities that are perceived, by both insiders and their lay or royal patrons, to represent the purest representation of the path of life defined by Christ or the Buddha. Depending upon circumstances, however, discipleship communities can define themselves, under a master's guidance, in an adversarial relationship to the larger cultural and religious tradition. A "subculture" of discipleship, in other words, can become a "counterculture."
Thus the so-called Dead Sea sect of second-century bce Jewish Palestine, founded by a priest known as the Righteous Teacher (moreh tzedek ), was certainly a discipleship community that framed itself in opposition to the existing culture of the Jerusalem Temple priesthood. It is highly probable as well that the original discipleship communities surrounding Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, were defined in some sort of adversarial relationship to socially dominant forms of Hindu asceticism and Brahmanic traditionalism. Buddhism and Christianity, from this perspective, are examples of countercultural discipleship communities that ultimately became comprehensive religious civilizations in their own right, and that lived to spawn further subcultures of discipleship.
The precise social agendas of discipleship communities are distinct, at least theoretically, from the specific sorts of transformative knowledge that they offer to their members as the pinnacle of and reward for a life of self-discipline. For the present introductory purpose, it will be helpful to organize the patterns of transformative knowledge transmitted within discipleship communities into the following clusters: (1) knowledge concerning the cultivation and interpretation of visions; (2) knowledge concerning the cultivation of conditions of ego-lessness and loss of self-consciousness; and (3) knowledge concerning self-mastery in view of ultimately authoritative laws or norms. It is important to remember that, like all typological exercises in the history of religions, these types rarely appear in "pure" form. Rather, students should be prepared to find various degrees of admixture of one or more of these patterns in any given discipleship community.
The cultivation of visionary experience, especially associated with healing, is, according to some historians of religion, among the oldest forms of religious activity. Often referred to under the general rubric of shamanism, its roots lie in the preagricultural societies of hunters and gatherers, and it continues in a variety of forms into contemporary times. It is impossible to know how prehistoric shamanic experiences were transmitted or whether training in the cultivation of such experiences took the form of discipleship communities as defined here. It is clear, however, that guidance in the shamanic arts among contemporary practitioners often takes forms quite similar to discipleship, although the life-defining vision that inaugurates the life of the shamanic healer is commonly sought in isolation.
The point is that the formation of discipleship communities for the cultivation of extraordinary visions is not limited to classical shamanic rites of healing. The prophetic guilds of ancient Israel and other Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cultures also cultivated visionary experiences. Here, however, the healing of individuals was not a primary concern, but rather the disclosure of divine purposes in relation to communities or to society as a whole. Many scholars have suggested, moreover, that the tradition of pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literary prophecies of Second Temple period Judaism (c. 520 bce–70 ce) and early Christianity (c. 30 ce–120 ce) had its roots in visionary discipleship communities formed among scribes in particular. The ability to receive visions of a heavenly world, to interpret their meaning for others, and to cultivate new visions, was read as a sign of the visionary's transformation into a new being, no longer entirely earthbound, but capable of tasting in this life the immortality of the divine world. This form of visionary pursuit proved to be of particular salience among the various Christian communities of Late Antiquity labeled by their Orthodox Christian theological opponents as Gnostics. It was richly apparent as well among neighboring Jewish communities associated with heavenly ascent to the merkavah, or divine Throne, who witnessed angels bathed in divine light and surrounded by rivers of fire singing hymns to the hidden God of Israel.
The cultivation of experiences of ego-lessness and loss of self-consciousness is commonly found among contemplative traditions frequently defined as mysticism. It is entirely fair to assert that mysticism is among the most frequent settings for the flourishing of discipleship communities. Contemplative exercises associated with yogic disciplines for focusing awareness beyond the self, necessarily mediated by a guide or gurū, have very ancient roots in the Indian subcontinent and continue to be widely practiced in traditional and westernized forms. Equally well known are the contemplative traditions of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, some forms of Jewish Qabbalah, and a host of Christian meditative practices cultivated primarily in monastic settings. All of these require protracted periods of discipleship to a master in order to achieve and control the interpretation of various states of loss of self.
In one sense, the search for self-mastery in view of ultimately authoritative norms or laws is common to any form of discipleship, for the essence of discipleship is the incorporation of a discipline framed by rules. In certain types of discipleship circles, however, self-mastery is viewed not merely as a means toward the acquisition of transformative knowledge, but as the essence of wisdom itself. This is particularly so when heroic cultivation of memory is regarded as part of the discipline of self-transformation. Scrupulous Brahmanic performance of ancient Vedic rituals, associated with the memorization of vast corpora of orally transmitted Sanskrit texts, is one of the oldest continuous traditions of this sort of discipleship community. In Judaism, this type of discipleship became prominent in the rabbinic communities of late antiquity (c. 200 ce–700 ce). Disciples in this tradition studied under masters who had memorized the traditions of Oral and Written Torah that had been revealed on Sinai to Moses and incorporated them into their very being. Like their masters, disciples sought to be transformed into "living books" from which the revelation of God could be read.
Some Questions for Further Study
As stated above, the comparative study of discipleship as a pattern of religion remains relatively undeveloped, especially in light of the massive documentation of discipleship communities in specific religious traditions. It is useful, therefore, to pose some pointed questions for further research on the nature of discipleship and the relationship of discipleship communities to the larger patterns of the religious cultures in which they emerge.
The first is as follows: What structural and historical roles have discipleship communities played in forming and transmitting traditions central to religious traditions as a whole? To what degree, in other words, does the discipleship community constitute a formative, culturally influential context for the production and transmission of aesthetic, ideological, ritual, or other traditions? Are there religious civilizations that appear to have been largely generated by discipleship communities; are there others in which discipleship communities appear relatively late in the articulation of the tradition? What historical or ideological factors might explain such differences?
The second question concerns the wisdom cultivated within discipleship communities. How is transformative knowledge constructed in relationship to the sorts of ritual or theological knowledge mediated beyond the discipleship community? That is, in what settings do discipleship communities represent themselves as self-selecting elites who must protect their special knowledge from outsiders? What conditions account for moments in which discipleship communities seek to expand the circle to include and transform those originally outside the circle? How have discipleship communities been involved in the politics of knowledge within their several host cultures?
A third question focuses upon the media in which transformative knowledge is communicated in the situation of disciple mentoring. Discipleship as such seems to be largely associated with religions in which literacy and the interpretation of writings play important roles. Yet the importance of the mentoring relationship commonly places a premium on orally transmitted knowledge. Can the study of discipleship communities shed light on the relative importance of written and oral forms of communication within the broader religious traditions in which they participate? Many discipleship communities are profoundly hostile to, or at least ambivalent about, the use of written sources in the teaching of disciples. These include the following: Brahmanic priests, rabbinic sages, Hindu sants, Greco-Roman philosophers, and Christian monastic ascetics, among others. How do such attitudes mirror broader cultural attitudes regarding the authority of books and teachers as repositories of knowledge?
Finally, a fourth question: To the degree that the discipleship community is constructed hierarchically, how does its hierarchy replicate or undermine other social hierarchies beyond the community? At times, for example, initiation into discipleship communities offers relief from confining gender roles (as in female monasticism in Buddhism and Christianity). What principles explain this creation of a space in which normal gender practices are suspended? Why are such principles absent in other discipleship traditions, such as those created in Judaism, where—with the possible exception of the first-century Therapeutrides of Alexandria—female discipleship is largely unknown?
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