First published in Sunday Midday Mumbai on 17 May 2009
Angels are often visualized as winged messengers of God. While angels dominate Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith, similar ideas are found in other cultures too. Thus amongst modern day Parsis (Zoroastrians), there is the belief in the winged guardian known as Fravashi. And many Hindus believe in guardian servants of God such as Vishnu-duta or Shiva-duta.
In the Bible while the scaly serpent, bound to the earth, was associated with the Devil, the angel with bird-like wings came to be associated with the sky and the divine. But angels are not always winged. Wingless messengers of God play a critical role in many Biblical episodes – angels come and tell Abraham that his wife, though old, will bear a child; angels speak of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah; angels appear in the dream of Jacob going up and down a ladder that connects earth with heaven; angels inform Mary that she carries God’s child. In Islam, Gabriel, the angel who announced the birth of Jesus, reveals the Holy Book to the Prophet.
In medieval Europe, scholars and theologians and mystics wrote much about angels. Some, they said, are appointed for celestial service, while others are attached to earth and especially to man. They were meant to mediate between God and man, carry prayers to the throne of God and accompany the dead on their departure from this world. Angels are also the guardians of the nations. With these God sits in council when holding judgment over the world, each angel pleading the cause of his nation. Some angels serve as janitors of the seven heavens, and at each of these heavens stand other angels as seal-bearers.
Scholars also referred to a special class of angels whom the Creator calls into existence for a very short span of time. They are called forth by the breath of the Almighty from the rivers of liquid fire under the throne of the Eternal. They sing a hymn to his glory and then disappear. To execute every behest of God a new angel is created who passes away as soon as he has executed the command.
The essence of the angels is believed to be fire; their fiery breadth consumes men, and no man can endure the sound of their voices. The angels of wrath and anger are wholly of fire; but another group called Ishim is composed half of fire and half of snow. The angel of death is full of fiery eyes, so that everyone who looks at him falls down in dread. According to one tradition, each angel was one-third of a world in size; according to another their length is a journey of five hundred years. Their food is manna, of which Adam and Eve ate before they sinned. On his breast, each angel carried a tablet, in which the name of God and the name of the angel are combined.
Hierarchies of celestial beings were identified – the highest existed only in heaven, and included beings such as Seraphim, Cherum and Ophanim. The Archangels such as Gabriel, Michael, Rafael, belonged to a lower order as they interacted with the material world, with earth and with man. The Angels were the lowest order of celestial beings. It is not known how many angels there are but one figure given in Revelation 5:11 for the number of “many angels in a circle around the throne, as well as the living creatures and the elders” was “ten thousand times ten thousand”, which would be 100 million.
The angels on earth have the function of accompanying and watching over men. Every man has a special guardian angel, and there are accompanying angels. Thus two angels : one good and one evil— accompany man. Every pious and virtuous act accomplished by man produces a tutelary angel. The tutelary angels also have the function of pleading the cause of the just and the pious before the throne of the Eternal. Whenever heroes or pious men meet with a calamity, or are in great distress, they intercede for him before God. Thus when Abraham raised his hand to sacrifice his son Isaac, when Pharaoh intended to kill Moses, hosts of ministering angels prostrated themselves before the Lord and pleaded until the Creator saved them.
There is a school of thought that says that when humans live a life purifying their bodies and shedding all evil, they are transformed into angels by the grace of God on their death. But not everyone agrees with this. Most schools speak of angels as creations of God, different from humans.
Great as is the number and influence of the angels, yet in many respects they are inferior to man. In fact, one story goes, in Islamic tradition, that when God asked angels to bow before man, one of them rebelled. That angel, the fallen angel, who till date hates man, is known today as Satan.