Practice Question – Write Short Note on the following from a sociological perspective –  Millenarian Movements [UPSC 2012]

Approach – Introduction, The background and reasons for emergence of Millenarian movements, their social relevance and impacts, About such movements in the contemporary times, Examples for such movements, Conclusion. 


A weakening or disruption of the old social order, social unrest and loss of power result in religious movements that may be called millenarian. Millenarian movement believes in the coming of new world in part through supernatural action. These are religious born of frustration, despair or bewilderment which seek to cut through a hopeless situation with a promise of the millennium- a promise of good government, great happiness and prosperity. Millenarists call for complete change. Their main theme is moral regeneration and the creation of a new kind of person. Such aspirations are often articulated or symbolized in a hero or prophet.


The term millenarianism, and its alternatives millennialism and chiliasm, are derived from the last book of the Christian Bible, Apocalypse (or Revelation), in which the prophet John recounts his vision of a thousand year godly kingdom, the return of Christ, and the end of time itself (20:1-7). In the social sciences, the term is applied to all movements and organizations that hold as a central belief the imminent arrival of a divinely inspired and this worldly society, whether a religious golden age, messianic kingdom, return to paradise, or egalitarian order. Such movements can take on an active or passive, violent or peaceful, even revolutionary role. They are found the world over and throughout recorded history. Some writers extend the term to deep seated beliefs in secular utopias such as revolutionary communism, certain environmental and scientistic technological movements such as eugenics and cryonics and racist movements such as white supremacy. Jewett and Lawrence argue for the existence of a contemporary form of millenarianism in the United States that reunites the secular and religious, calling it ”millennial civil religion.” They find it in popular culture, the politics of the New Right, Reaganism, Bushism, and the ”war on terror.”

The most documented cases occur within cultures significantly affected by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though there is a mainly historical and theological literature on millenarianism in Hinduism (the coming of Kalki), and most of the Buddhist and some Daoist traditions, e.g., the coming of Maitreya, the Bodhisattva, and the future messiah of the secret ”White Lotus” sects.


Millenarianism has its roots in the religion founded by Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism (900 BCE). From around 600 BCE, its believers sub scribed to a future this worldly savior, the Saoshyant, as well as to their founder prophet.

In Judaism, movements date back to the period 200 BCE-100 CE with the sects of the monastic style Essenes, the peasant driven and violent Zealots, and the very early Jewish Christians: all fervent believers in the imminent coming of a political religious messiah. Since then, millenarianism has appeared at varying times within Judaism, and especially in the Sabbatian movement of the 1660s (followers of messiah Sabbatai Zevi) that affected most Jews of the period, surviving today as an underground movement in both Judaism and Islam.

In christianity, the millenarian biblical reference in Apocalypse is partnered by earlier ones in Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians. High millennial points in christian history were the late medieval Taborites, who set up millennial and egalitarian communities outside the Czech city of Prague (1420-30). With the Protestant Reformation (from 1517), and freedom of access to the Bible, a spate of millenarian movements developed in the northern half of Europe, many from the Anabaptist sects. While followers of Menno Simons and Jakob Hutter were passive millenarians, those inspired by the anti Lutheran Thomas Miinzer (d. 1524) took up arms to set up the ”Kingdom of God” in the city of Munster, Germany (1534-5).



From the 1950s, there was an accelerated interest in the subject, beginning with Worsley’s (1957) study of cargo cults, Cohn’s (1957) classic on medieval movements, and, later, Wilson’s (1973) reappraisal of tribal and third world millenarianism. These better known studies were accompanied by the work of many other sociologists, anthropologists, and historians on African, Asian, and Native and Latin American millenarianism. The approach of the second Christian millennium led to an increasing number of studies on US millenarianism (e.g., Robbins & Palmer 1997) and con temporary millenarian sects worldwide (e.g., Barkun 1996; Hunt 2001). Contemporary mass media have focused on Doomsday Cult massacres: the Jim Jones’s People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana (1978), Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack in the Tokyo metro (1993), David Koresh’s Branch Davidian sect at Waco, Texas (1993), and the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland (1994).



Modern India has been awash with millenarian ideological projects — from the Left rising in West Bengal of 1970-1972 that ended with the slaughter of 5,000 young people or more by the State and criminal militia; the ethnic-religious carnage let loose from the late-1980s by jihadists in Kashmir or Khalistanis in Punjab. Indian millenarianism has deep historical roots. In its Hindu variant, it is embedded in the medieval encounter with Islam. India’s millenarian impulse isn’t, of course, exclusively Hindu. In 1920, tens of thousands responded to calls to make hijrat, or migrate, to Afghanistan, and build a shari’ rather than live in British-ruled India. Large numbers of migrants, the historian Deitrich Reetz has recorded, were killed by hunger or looters; the Khyber Pass, contemporary accounts record, was littered with corpses.

(Do not confuse Millenarianism in Sociology with the term ‘Millenials’.  Millennials, also known as Generation Y or Gen Y, are the demographic cohort following Generation X and preceding Generation Z. Researchers and popular media use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years, with 1981 to 1996 being a widely accepted defining range for the generation.)

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