Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

Book Review: The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions – by Karen Armstrong (Anchor Books 2006) 

This was a great read. It examines the history of religion from four regional/ethnic perspectives through a pivotal period known as the Axial Age. The regions are India, China, Greece, and the Middle East. The Middle Eastern perspective is mainly that of the Hebrews. This book, akin to a textbook, tracks along through time periods and goes through philosophical and religious theory and praxis in each place and time in tandem. It is a great way to examine the history of ideas as well. In particular, this book traces the development of religious ideas in what philosopher Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age (900 B.C. to 200 B.C.). The Axial sages include Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Jeremiah, Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and the sages of the Upanishads. I am not sure this idea of Axial Age insights is the best way to study religious history but it is one way. Armstrong is certainly a great scholar but I don’t always agree with her assessments. I think she may overgeneralize or “model-fit” a bit too much.
The motivation for religion, as she shows, is often as a reaction against violence, and yet the dogma of religion is often the motivation for violence. She sees this pivotal age as the one that codified compassion and the Golden Rule as ideals. Charity, benevolence, and empathy were also emphasized. Pre-Axial practices included periodic ritual re-enactments of creation myths and animal sacrifice to integrate the cycles of life and death. The insights of the Axial Age came upon different peoples in different time frames and not all at once as Jaspers originally thought, as more recent dating has revealed.
She begins with a description of the Aryan peoples and Avestan Aryans. The Aryans (or Proto-Aryans) of the steppes began trading across the Caucasus with Mesopotamians in the 2nd millenium BC. Metal weapons and traditions of warfare were well-developed by now. She thinks Aryan cattle rustling and skirmishing and the veneration of Indra was escalating violence across the steppes. She thinks Zoroaster lived around 1200 B.C. and reacted to this violence amidst the veneration of Indra and the devas, by favoring other gods: Varuna (who may have become Ahura Mazda) and Mithra. Indra and the devas were demonized. This was arguably the first reformist religion and also perhaps the first religion to operate with a good vs evil dualism and this evil was equated as well to the violence and behavior of the Vedic gods. This first reform which included the concepts of heaven and hell, good and evil, and apocalyptic vision, would later influence all the Abrahamic religions, especially when the Jews were captives of Babylon and liberated and influenced by the Zoroastrian Persians. She goes on to describe the religion of the Vedas. She seems to think the Vedas featuring Indra came after the Avestan Aryan period where chief asura Varuna ordered the world from his distant palace in the sky. Among the Avestan-Aryans and Zoroastrians the cosmic order was called asha and among the Vedic Aryans it was called rita. Vedic religion was characterized by the revealed teachings of the seers, the rishis. Other Indo-European ritual structures such as the fire sacrifice, the patron-priest association and the tripartite castes of the society are described. The Vedic Aryans practiced raiding, cattle stealing, and sacred intoxication through the soma plant. Aryans were tribal and they separated themselves from non-Aryans. Their rituals, lifestyles, and beliefs tended to be dominant over the areas that they roamed. The Vedic Aryans migrated eastward into the Ganges region between 1000 and 500 BC. And soon thereafter Gotama Buddha, Mahavira, and other sages would be born among them. 

One late Vedic idea was the notion of Brahman as the fundamental principle that enabled all things, the Supreme Self. Also, in the late Vedas during the Hymn to Prajapati there appears the idea of a brahmodya, a series of metaphysical questions that leads to silence, the silence of unknowing the unfathomable. Another late Vedic development was the Hymn to Purusha (the Supreme Person). Both Prajapati and Purusha had no known mythology and their hymns are thought to be newly developed creation myths that perhaps reach beyond the necessity for violence in nature and set the stage for the Axial Age, which flowered first and most potently in India.

The story of China begins with the Shang Dynasty which began in the 16th century B.C. Kings were considered sons of the Supreme deity, Di. It was said that the Shang kings and people remembered the legendary sage-kings of the 23rd century B.C., Yao and Shun, who ruled over a golden age of peace and prosperity. As well as the sky god there were nature deities who belonged to the Earth. Of greatest importance was the cult of ancestors which was elaborate. Kings were divinized after death and the fate of the dynasty was thought to depend on their good will. The Shang were basically shamanists who relied on their sky god, Di, and the ancestors. The king was microcosm of Di. The Shang kings were the ‘sons of heaven’ and were given elaborate funerals. Around 1045 BC the Zhou invaded the Shang and took over. Their deity, Tian, was similar to Di, and many rites were also similar. The duke of Zhou established a feudal-like system. He adopted worship of the ancestral Shang kings and justified the Zhou takeover as a retribution ordained by Di. The Zhou also introduced an ethical component into the kingship, based on some degree of justice and compassion required to rule well.

The Middle Eastern saga begins with the “sea peoples” presumably from Anatolia and Crete who fled possibly climatic disruption and famine to invade Egypt and the Levant. Around 1200 BCE Egypt, the Mycenaean Greeks and the Hittites were affected. Arising from the ashes of this chaotic period were a confederation of rural tribes near Canaan which included the Hebrews and in Greece the post-Mycenaean Greeks – both of which would eventually develop “Axial Age” doctrines. The Semitic tribes were bound by kinship and the times were violent. Eventually the mountain god Yahweh would reign as the chosen deity but now he shared power with many other deities. He shared many attributes of the Canaan god El and indeed many Canaanites were likely part of the tribal confederation. The later Canaanite god Baal and the Babylonian Marduk also resembled and influenced the development of Yahweh. They were tribal demon-slaying gods of war and storms. The worshippers of Yahweh seemed to develop the concept of holy war. As Mircea Eliade noted, the Hebrews began to celebrate their epics in terms of historical time rather than mythical or “sacred time” which may well have been a consequence of their development of alphabetic writing which became a new means of preserving history. 

The Mycenaean Greeks were more militant and aggressive than the Minoan Cretans they conquered. Little is known about the religions of either of these peoples. After their decline the Archean Greeks arose and took on what are thought to have been Mycenaean deities: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and Dionysus. The tale of the Trojan War is a tale of Mycenaean times. Armstrong suggests that the Greeks held a sense of tragedy in their beliefs from whatever tragedies caused the decline of the Mycenaeans up through the prominence of Greek tragedy in 6th century BC Athens. She goes through the origins of the gods as told by Hesiod in his Theogony and notes that the Greeks kept a shadow side of their gods in the form of the chthonic gods as forces below the earth. They noted the concept of miasma, a contagious and contaminating force brought about by unnatural and cruel deeds. Like many Indo-European peoples they strongly believed in fate, ordained destinies that could be determined but not changed. Armstrong presents the Greek Thesmophoria, the ritual enactment of the myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, as a tragedy of sorts where life was totally disrupted for a few days. The Anthesteria festival of Dionysus also had overtones of death and tragedy. She notes that the Axial Age in all four regions was characterized by a realization that to acknowledge suffering rather than deny it was a requirement for healing and understanding. The Greeks called such purification catharsis. This would appease and disperse the miasma and lead to ekstasis, “stepping out.” 

Some early groups of Hebrew prophets sought to worship Yahweh alone and not include the other local and regional gods. Prophecy was well established in the Near East. Often, prophets were soothsayers working for kings. The early Hebrew monolatrists, on the other hand, were not employed by monarchs and often criticized them. Each region had their appointed chief god but these Yahwists wanted their god to be supreme. At first they likely just wanted to keep other gods out of their region but later they sought to expand. She recounts the story of Elijah and how he no longer found God “in” the forces of nature, but now found him “beyond” them. She refers to this as leading to a “transcendental breakthrough” of the Axial Age. In the late ninth century BCE when peace ensued and Judea was part of an Assyrian empire, the Yawhists could expand their “monolatry,” or belief in a single god among many, since they had yet to develop monotheism as they recognized other gods as valid but inferior.

Ninth century BCE China involved a weak government held together by the national cult and reverence for Zhou traditions but otherwise a fiefdom of smaller enclaves. The king, as Son of Heaven, was honored in cult but ignored in regular affairs. The king’s ceremonial actions were thought to bring harmony to the seasons as was the ancestral cult. The supreme ancestor was called Tian Shang Di. The Way of Heaven was a ceremonial attitude, a way of mirroring the divine. The king’s task was to harmonize humans and nature. He utilized seasonal correspondences to harmonize with the seasons. This possibly formed the basis of some parts of Traditional Chinese Medicine. If there were problems then rituals to restore cosmic order would be performed. In the ninth century the rites became more public. The rites were said to be choreographed in detail, requiring everyone to play a role. Performing the ritual itself was likely cathartic in several ways: connecting with ancestral tradition, energized enthusiasm, applying rehearsed skills, a beautiful social coordination, etc.

In 9th century BCE India there was a liturgical reformation among Vedic Brahmins. Aryan life was shifting more towards agriculture and away from pastoralism and accompanying rites of raiding and violence. This reformation away from violence is preserved in the ritual texts, the Brahmanas, she notes. The style of sacrifice changed from an imitation of Indra slaying Vittrya to suffocation meant to be less painful and the sacrifice was performed outside of the rite. Sometimes the animal victim was spared and offered to the priest. This move away from violence is the first evidence toward the ideal of ahimsa, or non-violence. The ksatriya, or warrior class agreed to the change. The war games and rites were expunged and any other aggressive activity. The war references remaining in the rites apparently show well that this reform took place with once aggressive chants and actions replaced with calm and gentle ones. The change is also recorded in the story of the creator Prajapati when he defeated and swallowed Death in a competitive sacrifice by using the new ritual techniques rather than traditional weapons. Prajapati showed that killing was not the way to defeat death but one could defeat death by taking it within utilizing the new rites. Prajapati had “internalized” the rite. The idea of the “inner self” was emerging. Prajapati was merged with Purusa, the archetypal/universal/cosmic person (introduced in the late Vedic period) who allowed himself to be immolated  - so that Purusa, the new archetypal sacrificial victim, was identified with Prajapati, the new archetypal sacrificer. The new sacrificer now sacrificed himself. This is perhaps echoed in the Scandinavian god Odin who sacrifices himself to himself, which suggests that the Odinic myth was much later than the millenniums earlier Germanic breakaway from the Indo-European homeland on the steppes. Prajapati’s weapon in the contest against death was knowledge of the heavenly and earthly correspondences, presumably the magical connections between things explained by the lore. The priests now required mental effort to be a key part of the rites. Each sacrifice now recalled the archetypal sacrifice of Prajapati as Purusa by Prajapati. Prajapati was the archetypal ascetic whose ascetic heat emanated the world but in doing so lost his unity so Agni put him back together and after that each fire hearth constructed became the archetypal act of reassembling Prajapati. She describes a ritual where the initiate undergoes a symbolic rebirth from a symbolic womb. As per the reform the new Brahmin rites reoriented from creating wealth to creating the atman, or inner self, inner fire. The rite became internalized to such an extent that to know the ritual science and meditate on it was as good as the rite for some. Since all have the atman, the inner spark, one need not sacrifice to the gods, the daevas, but do self-sacrifice. One could now focus on becoming divine through asceticism in imitation of Prajapati. Through this reform of Vedic ritual, she notes, the focus changed from being on external gods to being on liberation of the inner self. 

Eighth century BCE Judah and Israel saw writing developed to preserve stories, rites, and royal history. Early in this century the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, was probably written down. There was some class strife with the Hebrew king under the Assyrian empire as the king used forced labor. By 780 the prophet Amos appeared in the midst of this political turmoil to denounce the king as a vassal of Assyria and to warn that the king would be destroyed by Yahweh for neglecting the poor. The message of Amos was one of war, of making war on the Assyrians. Amos thought that God, Yahweh, was speaking through him. Another prophet, Hosea, seemed to have a goal of discrediting Baal worship. Baal, as a fertility deity, was important for agriculture and good harvests. Hosea saw the Baal cults as corrupt and unethical, perhaps due to his wife becoming a “sacred prostitute” as the story goes. The issue of idolatry came about, first mentioned with Moses but likely applied to Canaanite and Egyptian fertility cults. The author notes that these two prophets also sought an ethical revolution. They advocated Yahweh as more than just a storm god - and like Elijah – wanted him to be the premier god, the one god. The will and inner life of God/Yahweh was contemplated and with ethics became more important than sacrifices and ceremonies. 

The idea of God as transcendent rather than immanent in nature continued to evolve. The idea that God was separate and other (qaddash) was promoted and now Yahweh could be seen not only as a tribal god but a god for all. With writing more popular, Yahweh could now be a god of history. The prophet Isaiah instructed King Ahaz to rely on Yahweh alone, more exclusivity of God. One aspect of the idea was that Yahweh was not just a god for Israel but a god who could control other nations as well. Earlier prophecies had Yahweh stating that he was punishing Israel through Assyria. She goes through much of early Jewish history. Around 715 BCE the temple at Jerusalem became the only official place to worship as rural shrines were abolished. This did not last as the rural fertility cults were quite popular. The policy of relying on Yahweh against the Assyrian forces was not successful either. 

By the end of the 8th century the Greeks had developed city-states, new forms of government, arts, and writing was spreading there as well. Hellenic culture was ascending. Early Greek government was egalitarian and included farmers and workers. Everyone had to learn politics and debate. This perhaps led to the development of abstract ideas of justice and morality that philosophers like Plato would later take up. Indo-European competitiveness was strong with the Greeks, it seems. The city-states were competitive and sometimes warred but there were Panhellenic festivals and acknowledgement of cultural unity across the Greek world. Warriors were venerated and the cult of the hero became quite popular. The cult of Apollo established the oracle at Delphi. Delphi was not connected to a city so was more independent and pilgrims could come from different cities to consult the oracle. The stories collected by Homer became the basis for remembered mythology as it could now be preserved in the adapted Phoenician script that the Greeks developed. The deeds of the hero offered immortality through being remembered. The skilled warrior strived for aristeia, the “victorious rampage,” the hyper aware battle ecstasy. The Greeks didn’t really adopt non-violence as an ideal like the other Axial Age peoples. The heroic ideal prevented it and this led to inner conflict as a hero’s fate is often the tragedy of death amidst the glory of it. She notes the story of Troy where a bitter Achilles kills Hector and drags around his corpse and later old King Priam slips unseen into his tent and they share tears of their losses. It was believed then that for men to share tears was a way of bonding. The bitterness that led to undignified warfare was changed a bit and the tenderness balanced the savagery for a bit. This, she says, was a representation of an Axial Age ideal. The Greeks developed a detailed pantheon of gods that inspired the related behaviors of humans. However, the gods were not prone to compassion. The Greek pantheon was organized, coherent, and given like an extended family of gods. An idea like monolatry, worship of only one of the many gods, was seen as extreme and was punishable. 

8th century BC China saw the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period (772-481 BC) where the monarchy weakened into city states but a unity of empire strengthened. Land was cleared for agriculture accompanied by deforestation and natural resources became scarce. The junzi (gentleman) now spent more time at court refining the rites and etiquette. The rules of etiquette were becoming institutionalized and written down. The Chinese Classics would be written down during this period, including the ritual code known as Lijing by the ritualists of Lu. They venerated the ancient kings Yao and Shun who ruled through gentleness rather than force. 

In India the 8th century brought the samnyasins, renunciates who would go forth homeless and become  forest ascetics. This would become the spiritual ideal in India rather than the Brahmin priest or householder, though there were likely precursors like the indigenous devotees of Rudra mentioned in the Rig Veda. They also resembled the Vratya brotherhoods which may have been Aryan wanderers and young men being initiated into the warrior bands but later became yogis. They practiced breath control. The new Vedic brahmacarins avoided all violence but also practiced forest asceticism. The renouncers did a rite to internalize the sacred fire so they could carry it within on their wanderings. There were different categories of renouncers from hermits who would dwell alone in the forest or with their families there or those that would always wander, not staying more than two nights in one place, with no possessions. There were matted-haired renouncers and those that shaved their heads and kept strict ahimsa vows. Fasting, celibacy, and tapas (ascetic heat) were now the main rite rather than just preliminaries for Vedic rites. The ascetic heat was the metaphorical sacrificial fire that would transform the renouncer. The rules and rationale for the renouncers was given in the Aranyakas, the Forest Texts. Armstrong titled this chapter, Kenosis, referring to the Greek idea of “emptying,” as the Jewish prophets emptied themselves so they could fill themselves with God. Emptying oneself of preconceptions is a natural prerequisite to initiation of any sort. One must become the unadorned “fool” wandering without expectations, open to all. 

The next century (700-600 BC) in India produced the Upanishads as Vedanta, the end of the Vedas. These followed the Aranyakas and would shape Indian ideas profoundly. The Chandogya Upanisad explained the powers of the sacred sound-syllable OM. OM is brahman, so chanting OM connects us with brahman, the ground of being. The gods were no longer external as in the rites of connecting to the cosmos. Now they were within and so too was the cosmos. The rites were now thoroughly internalized. Atman as Self, or sometimes translated as Soul, identical with brahman, was now the focus of ritual and ascetic practice. A dialectical tradition of sorts came about where questions were asked of sages and answers given. Debates about brahman and other profound topics, the brahmodya, would often end in silence when they got to a point where words failed to grasp the mystery. Several sages taught in the the Upanisads from Videha in the easternmost of the Aryan communities to Kuru-Panchala, the Vedic Aryan heartland. People from Videha, like the sage Yajnavalkya, mingled with indigenous Indians and previously Aryan migrants and Indo-Iranian migrants (including Buddha’s ancestors of the Sakya clan). Atman is undefinable but yet the essence of the self. Yajnavalkya, like some other sages, became a renouncer  and a striver (shramana), going homeless into the forest. Other sages like Uddalaka, from Kuru Panchala, remained a Brahmin householder. Their teachings were in agreement. Uddalaka taught the new doctrine of karma. Metaphysical teachings were combined with practices in concentration and asceticism. The teacher-student relationship was established and ritualized as were the stages of life. In one story it was Prajapati who was the guru who taught devas and asuras. He even taught Indra. The archetype of the successful spiritual human was as the serene one who finds truth, the one who has found both lasting bliss and lasting self-control. The new spiritual technology would work best if one gave up the pursuits of ego like warfare, sex, violence, and laziness.

Ancient Greek city-states in the 7th century were beset by economic and cultural problems and clan rivalries. Hesiod was a farmer, inspired by the Muses like a prophet, and influenced by ideas from the Near East. She notes that Hesiod added the Age of the Hero to the Indo-European Four Ages of Man as Gold, Silver, Bronze, (Hero), and Iron. It was said that the gods favored those who were just. Justice became an ideal but not one easy to practice. Now was the Age of Iron where toiling in the fields was favored rather than the military prowess of the Bronze and Heroic Ages. Hesiod clarified the nature of the gods and how they were related as well as their origin from chaos moving toward greater order. He told the story of Prometheus and the story of Pandora. An Axial Age theme was that suffering is a fact of life. The Greeks discovered that the people united could overthrow the ruling class and this happened much as their form of inclusive government was developed. As India became de-militarized the Greek city-states became militarized. All classes fought together in Greece and that enhanced democracy and equality. Mythos was replaced with Logos, or logical practical dialogue.
Life in China in the 7th century was regulated by the li, the ritual behavior. Moderation and self-control were highly valued and the ritual behavior helped to moderate warfare. The li helped people to be mindful and to feel empowered. The value of Wu Wei, of doing nothing (inactivity), was required of the prince. His behavior was ritualized in detail. They developed an odd but civilized courtly warfare. The junzi (gentleman) had to play by the rules and show kindness and mercy. Yielding was highly valued. It was a matter of etiquette. It was part of the Way of Heaven as was the unquestioned animation by the prince. In the family it was the father who was the unquestioned prince and future ancestor. Filial piety increased shen, the spiritual quality. The son practiced empathy through imitating the father and emulating his current state. This was the empathic virtue called shu. Behavior was quite ritualized even in the family. Moderation and self-control became established as virtues. 

In 656 BC the Egyptians routed out the Assyrians from Israel and some years later young King Josiah of Judea had some sort of religious conversion – probably to worship Yahweh exclusively as polytheism had crept back in previously. He began building the Temple of Solomon and the high priest claimed to have found an ancient text – actually thought to be an early version of Deuteronomy given by Moses before his death. This was a set of new laws called the sefer torah. It is now thought to be an entirely new text rather than a discovery of an ancient text – basically a forgery or a new religious teaching customary attributed to past prophets. Since many of the old prophets had favored Yahweh, the new teaching did also. Josiah was convinced and so went on to abolish all pagan rites. Monotheistic fanaticism was born. History was rewritten. There were some moves toward justice, fairness, and kindness in the new laws. There were also injunctions to destroy the temples of “foreigners.” Priests were killed and massacres occurred. Scriptural orthodoxy was also born. The prophet Jeremiah linked his own calling to the sefer torah, however, he also revealed a tension between prophets and scribes, between oral and written teachings – as written teachings could be changed more easily and distributed. Apparently, none of Josiah’s reforms survived his death.
The 6th century brought more war and suffering to Judea from Egypt and Babylon. In 597 the king and eight thousand high-ranking exiles were deported to Babylon. By 581 two more groups after rebellion were taken into exile. Prophet Jeremiah, who remained in Judea, thought rebellion was folly. He was called pessimistic but was more practical. He was a man of sorrows. He felt the exiles would return but far into the future, with a new covenant. The exiles were treated fairly well in Babylon, with less rights than Babylonians but still with rights. They were not slaves. More scriptural changes occurred among the elite in Babylon. People began to have doubts about Yahweh. Young priest Ezekiel here had his first vision, of Yahweh as a warrior god. He convinced many of the other exiles that Israel’s misfortune was caused by worshipping other gods. After Jerusalem was destroyed Ezekiel had a vision of an inner Solomon’s temple, a replica of the Garden of Eden at the center of the world. Exile was made holy and the temple mobile (as the tent, or tabernacle). No home land or central temple was required. The Jubilee year – every 50 years – was proclaimed, as a renewal involving empathy where slaves were freed and debts forgiven. Secular slaughter was replaced with religious slaughter and other ritual rules changed as well.

In Athens in the early 6th century it was the ruler Solon who pointed out that the gods would not intervene in human affairs and so politics became secularized. The Eleusinian mysteries were practiced now in Athens and Eleusis and though shrouded in secrecy involved a transformative experience relating to the separation and reunion of Demeter and Kore. People had ekstasis, a mystical experience. The rites of Dionysus also involved ecstatic experience and entheos, an experience of the god within. Social stratification was abandoned for the Dionysia festival and slaves walked alongside nobles in the processions – to the outdoor theatre where the myths would be recounted and dramas unfolded. The more marginal sects such as the Orphics venerated another wild hero-deity, Orpheus, whose mythos, like that of Dionysus, was also tragic. The Pythagoreans, also a marginal sect, taught a form of karma, practiced vegetarianism and non-violence, ascetic discipline, as well as an orientation toward science and mathematics and their mystical implications. The Milesian philosophers came up with ideas about the nature of the universe. 

India in the 6th century developed the philosophy known as Samkhya, which explored the nature of the universe but mostly focused on the inner qualities of man that could be developed. It was an atheistic philosophy. It was also a therapeutic philosophy, aimed more toward understanding and inner harmony than theology. Purusa (in a less divine sense than in Vedanta) and prakrti as spirit and matter intertwined formed the basis. Liberation was aimed at unraveling this intertwining. The three strands of nature or prakrti (the three gunas), given here as intelligence, passion, and inertia (sattva, rajas, and tamas), were to be worked to favor intelligence and move toward liberation as purusa. The Samkhya philosophers determined that all life was dukkha, or suffering, and one best accept that rather than deny it. Samkhya also became the basis of classical yoga, and in a modified form of Patanjali’s yoga system many centuries later. She goes through Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga system, assuming it was developed around this time of the 6th century BC. Yoga was a technology to achieve stillness, a cessation of mental activity and subsequent conditioned states, and to become free from suffering.

In 6th century BC China there was warfare, an increasing contempt for ritual and moderation, and a new interest in luxury. Greed, aggression, and materialism threatened the Way of Heaven. Late in the century Confucius appeared to bring back the ritual order, the li. He became a wandering scholar, not an ascetic but a man of the world. He had dreams of the great duke of Zhou. He determined that a true junzi, or gentleman, should be a scholar rather than a warrior. He was pragmatic, focusing more on the world and its problems rather than heaven. He advocated that all classes could be a junzi, not just nobles. Loss of ego in the social rituals was one goal of being a junzi. Mindfulness, patience, and grace in performance of the li was also a goal. Li taught equality in that all were equal partners in performing the ceremony. Altruism was also essential to the social rites. The so-called Golden Rule was also a key feature. Confucius sought to bring out human dignity, nobility, and inner holiness.
Cyrus ascended to the throne of Persia in 559. In 539 he invaded Babylon. He was greeted as a liberator. He was venerated by the Egyptians, Babylonians, and the Judeans and established the largest empire the world had ever known. He was called a servant of Yahweh. There was a prophet called second Isaiah, his oracles preserved in the same scroll as Isaiah. He would extol the powers of Yahweh as the supreme god of gods, the only true God, just before the Israelites were freed to return home from exile. He coined the phrase, “There is no other god besides me.” This was the beginning of monotheism among the Israelites. Many of the exiles, perhaps most, preferred to remain in Babylon. The ones that returned had altered the religion much in 70 years of exile. There was a clash of prophecies as some of the non-exiles rejected the prophecies from Babylon, particular those of second Isaiah. Other tribes had come into Judea and there was now a more mixed population. There was also rejoicing at the reuniting of the exiles.

In the late 6th century the Greeks further developed their egalitarian councils consisting of aristocrats, traders, and farmers. Political life was sacred and aimed to be just. Heraclitus (540-480) from Ephesus, was a philosopher who left political life. He emphasized “flux” as a characteristic of life yet noted that there was stability in the flux. He was known for his teaching in enigmatic riddles. Xenophanes (560-480) rejected the Olympian gods as mere anthropomorphic projections. He left for Elea in Italy. Also in Elea was Parmenides who noted that nothing could be meaningfully said of something that does not exist. He also stated that Being was eternal and change was an illusion. In Athens the Great Dionysia festival dramatically depicted tragedies, usually of the past, where people would be moved to weeping, achieving katharsis, or “cleansing.” Healing tragic drama was a way to come to terms with the horrors of life, particularly life filled with war. Suffering was put on a stage. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the most famous tragedians and lived in the 5th century. 

In India the nomadic Vedic peoples joined those in cities and asceticism was less applicable to city life. Territory replaced kinship as the basis of loyalty. The Ganges Basin favored trade and government by councils of elders more than monarchy. The caste system of Vedic society was compromised somewhat in the cities. Many new metaphysical schools and teachers of dharma sprang up. Makkhila Gosala (d. ~385) founded the Ajivaka school and taught that humans were destined to live a fixed number of lives according to karma, an idea that had taken hold. Gosala was a student of Mahavira, the “Great Hero” and founder of the Jain tradition. Both were avid ascetics, enduring much self-induced hardship in order to overcome reactionary suffering and gain peace of mind. The key for attaining moksha, or liberation, for Mahavira, was ahimsa, non-violence. Through fasting and meditation he attained a deva-like state. It was an indescribable state of absolute friendliness. Ahimsa became the most important ideal for the Jains. They also practiced yamas, or prohibitions, similar to Patanjali’s yoga system. They also valued equanimity and practiced meditation and developing a friendly feeling toward all beings. 

Ethnic and tribal clashing was still a threat in 5th and 4th century Israel. The returned exiles seemed to be most exclusive, reviling those who did not conform to their form of Yahweh veneration and religious customs. That would eventually change and the Old Testament does consider the different tribal origins of some like King David, whose mother was a Moabite. 

Zeno, a Greek student of Parmenides, demonstrated his master’s ideas through his paradoxes which highlighted the limits of reason. The nature of reality and the building blocks of nature were now contemplated by many philosophers including Empedocles, Anaxagoras of Smyrna, and Democritus, the latter saying that matter was composed of tiny indivisible particles called atomos. Empedocles spoke of a struggle between the poles of Love and Strife, attraction and repulsion. These ideas would eventually model the modern sciences of physics and electromagnetism, respectively. The Sophists would use logic and oratory skills to win debates even though their arguments often would fall under closer scrutiny. The Sophists did, however, offer to teach for a fee, and thus implemented education. They were not renunciates like many other philosophers. The Sophist, Protagoras, was not interested in rhetoric. He praised subjectivity as worthy and noted that the nature or existence of the gods was unknown and could not be demonstrated. He and Anaxagoras were expelled from Athens for teaching such agnosticism. Protagoras’s student, the tragedy playwright Euripides, noted that the mind, or nous, of each one of us is a god. A new philosophic development came with Socrates and his rigorous and radical dialectical approach designed to draw out false beliefs and approach philosophical truth. His ideas are known through the dialogues of his student Plato, who first wrote them down, often with Socrates as a main character. Socrates would die for “corrupting” the youth and not respecting the gods and he did willingly for truth.

After the death of Confucius China entered the Warring States period (485-221 BC). War was no longer a ritualized affair but was an efficient quest for territory and control plotted by more ruthless military experts. Society was changing fast. Times were pragmatic and the teachings of Confucius were thought to be too idealistic. Mozi, or “Master Mo,” (480-390) taught non-violence and egalitarianism. The Mohists did practice defensive warfare as many had to do. Mozi was utilitarian and pragmatic but also had hopes of an ideal happy utopian society. Sick of war he taught jian ai, sometimes translated as “universal love” but probably more in tune with social justice, fairness, and benevolence. It is “concern for everyone.” He was not a fan of the rituals (li), finding them extravagant and impractical. Mozi wrote a book called Rejection of Aggression where he (and likely later Mohists) argued that the detriments of war far outweighed the benefits. His philosophy was based in society rather than in the family which was new for the Chinese. Mozi was more popular than Confucius during the Warring States period but Confucius’s popularity would rise again later. 

The story of Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha, is next. He was a prince kept from the horrors of the world but when he discovered the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, he set out on the ascetic path in search of truth. He practiced yoga, meditation, fasting, and ascetic discipline. He excelled quickly in the realizations known at the time and went beyond to new insights. His enlightenment brought out his first teaching to his five former companions – the teaching of the Four Noble Truths (truths of noble ones): suffering, its cause, its ending, and the path that leads to its ending. His only claim was that he was truly “awake.” He destroyed the craving, greed, and selfishness within. Among his insights he experienced great compassion for the suffering of other beings. Among his meditations were the “immeasurables:” universal friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. His attainment was called nibbana, or complete cessation or extinction of greed, hate, illusion, and all egoic thought. This was a natural state, an inherent capacity of all beings. Another of his insights was “selflessness,” (anatma), the realization that what we normally considered to be the self is illusory. He was concerned with freedom from suffering rather than any metaphysical doctrine and noted that belief in God or gods was not important. Like Socrates and Confucius, Buddha became an exemplary being, an archetype of fulfilled human potential.

4th century BC China involved a continuation of war but also economic and social upheavals. In mid-century came Master Yang, or Yangzi. He advocated a retreat from seeking political office which was wrought with corruption. These hermits from society advocated individualistic goals of self-preservation and spontaneity. They did seem to practice an “inward training” akin to yoga and meditation. Chinese mystics practiced Qi management. Mohists, Confucians, and Yangists practiced dialectical debates. One dialectician was Huizi (370-319). He contemplated the idea of “center” as a unifying principle for the warring states. He was a prime minister but quite philosophical. His tenets were paradoxical and his “One” seems somewhat similar to Plato. He leaned toward Mohist ideas of universal love also. He was friends with the Yangist hermit Zhuangzi (370-311). The two would have friendly philosophical debates. Zhuangzi realized that the hermit’s life was somewhat of a cop-out: that one could not fully isolate oneself from society and its sufferings. He learned to accept death as a natural transformation of Qi. Zhuangzi composed dialogues with Confucius taking part to illustrate his philosophy. One had Confucius saying to listen not with your ears or even your mind but to a deeper level – to listen with your qi. Zhuangzi talked about a unity of mind called the Great Knowledge which was indefinable but brought one to the hub of the wheel, to the axis of the Way. He was considered a Daoist. He talked about the state of becoming lost in a state of concentration during mastery of a task. Part of his method involved giving up previous habits of thought. On the other hand, the sage Meng Ke, better known as Mencius (371-288) favored being among the people in public life. Mencius was a Confucian. He advised rulers or at least tried to convince them. He was more practical minded than Confucius who favored ritual alone. Mencius thought of the great Zhou kings Yao and Shun as engineers. He did favor an attitude of loving concern for the people. He believed that human nature was basically good. He taught that all humans had four fundamental impulses that when cultivated could be changed into: benevolence, justice, courtesy, and the wisdom to distinguish correct action. He was an optimist who favored yu wei (self-effort) over wu wei (doing nothing). By practicing this self-effort one might arrive at hao jan chi qi, the “flood-like qi,” a qi which unites rightness and the Way. He stated that the Golden Rule was the shortest way to benevolence. A true junzi unites earth and heaven. 

In 4th century India she sees the epic Mahabharata, though a set of tales from an earlier time, becoming well-known at this time. It reflected an ethic of the warrior class. She makes the interesting observation that a central theme in the epic, the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas was like a historical version of the mythic war between the devas and asuras. She thinks the epic invokes the fear inspired by the Vedic sacrificial contests before they were reformed by the ritualists. The battle itself was a sacrifice, she notes. Krishna here was the earthly counterpart of Vishnu. She thinks that one aspect of the epic was the inner conflict around the failing old Vedic faith which sustained the lay people who could not all just become renouncers. She notes the sage Yudishthira as a man of the Axial age. He found the dharma of the warrior class repugnant. Warfare, rather than a sacrifice acceptable to the gods, was an atrocity. Violence only bred more violence. 

Plato believed that a seasoned enlightened philosopher could and should also be a ruler. He traveled the world after the death of his teacher, Socrates. He learned from Pythagoreans and Egyptians. He returned to Athens and founded his famed Academy. The Socratic manner of the dialectic was the way of teaching. He formulated his “Ideals” which explored idea-forms as independent abstract concepts. These archetypal forms were postulated as static, in contrast to the flux of the world that was always changing, or becoming something else. These two modes he called Being and Becoming. The dialectical process was compared to a mystical process - using precise rationality to achieve an intuitive state. Plato devised an outer and an inner cosmology based on rationality in his Timaeus. The cosmos itself was like man, with a nous, or rational mind and a psyche, or soul. The nous of each human and the cosmos had a divine spark, a daimon, akin to a “higher self.” That idea may well have originated among the Pythagoreans and they may have derived it from previous versions. His cosmology replaced the cosmology of the Olympians but also complemented it. It was perhaps a way for philosophers to utilize rationality rather than mythical thought in metaphysics. Armstrong notes that Plato became more intolerant in old age and sought to impose his ethics and ideas on others. His most famous pupil was Aristotle (384-322). As Plato had considered the realm of forms, of Being, more real than the material world, Aristotle flip-flopped and favored the reality of the worldly, the realm of Becoming. He basically became a biologist and a naturalist. He proclaimed theoria, the pursuit of truth for its own sake, as the goal of man. He followed Plato’s cosmology and continued the deification of rationality that Plato had begun. God was pursued and experienced in philosophical terms rather than in religious or mythical terms. God was depicted as the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover. His ideas laid a foundation for the development of Western science.

3rd century China brought realism and the Legalists who were inclined toward controlling social behavior. Shang Yang, or Lord Shang (390-338), thought a virtuous sage would make a poor ruler. He was rather cynical and was suspicious of Confucians. He made draconian reforms but they were successful. Legalists after him, like Han Fei (280-233) were more concerned with the happiness of the people than was Lord Shang. Xunzi (340-245) created a synthesis of Confucian, Mohist, Yangist, Legalist, and Daoist thought. He did not like the ruthless pragmatism that was prevalent and favored the li as a means to restrain ambition. He was a Confucian that harmonized other ideas. He favored the courtesy and humility of the li but with a more practical orientation toward nature than the more mystical Daoist Way of Heaven. He venerated the qualities of “emptiness, unity, and stillness.” The middle of the 3rd century BC saw the new text called the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Its Potency) by the mysterious Laozi. The Legalists embraced the text because it differed from Confucianism and favored wu wei, that the ruler “do nothing.” It was written for the benefit of a prince. The text was enigmatic, paradoxical, mystical, and contemplative. It was a means to empty the mind of preconceptions. Goal-directed (yu-wei) behavior was problematic, according to the text, as it led to the aggressive scheming that plagued the states with wars. He admonished to ‘love the world as one’s self.’ She sees Laozi’s vision as utopian, but as a more general than specific guide to rulership. I see it as potentially practical. Alas, it was the Legalist state of Qin that ended the Warring States period by unifying the kingdoms into an empire. 

3rd century Greece began with the downfall of Alexander’s empire. Alexander’s army had penetrated India and been awed by the weather, fauna, and war elephants, but also by the “naked philosophers” that Armstrong thinks were Jains. Others had thought they were Buddhists. Others thought they were Ajivakas. By these times the Greeks, Jews, and Indians had significant interactions, yet the Chinese were still isolated. Hellenistic learning spread throughout Alexander’s empire in a mixed form with near-eastern ideas. Since he was tutored by Aristotle he was quite keen on this Greek learning. Zoroastrian Persians hated Alexander because he killed their priests, damaging their oral tradition. The age of city-states gave way to the age of empires. New philosophies emerged in Greece. Epicurus (341-270) advocated pleasure as the meaning of life, not self-indulgence, sensuality, and hedonism as he became associated with, but freedom from pain (ataraxia). Worry about death, he note, was pointless as it was simply the extinction of consciousness. Zeno (342-270), a Hellenized Phoenician from Cyprus, began the Stoic philosophy. He taught that all of nature was animated with intelligence. Sobriety and avoidance of extremes were practiced by the Stoics. Pyrrho of Elis (365-275) also taught the goal of ataraxia, or tranquility, which was the natural stress-free result of the practice of suspending judgment about what is unknown or non-evident. His doctrine, or rather, therapy, was known as Skepticism. This should be distinguished from the later Academic Skepticism which was more of a nihilistic doctrine. Armstrong sees Zeno, Epicurus, and Pyrrho as different from the Axial thinkers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the tragedians. The Axial thinkers sought a heroic ethics based on striving and facing suffering head-on. The new philosophers preferred a quiet life. They acknowledged suffering but sought to subdue it in a different manner, not by direct confrontation, but perhaps by accepting it and seeking to transcend it in a gradual and more gentle manner. Religious tolerance was more acceptable and widespread in Hellenic times than it had been. The new philosophers favored a more scientific worldview. 

Meanwhile in India the Mauryan Empire was established (c. 321). Different rulers favored Jains, Ajivakas, or Buddhists. Ashoka was enthroned in 268 and favored the Buddhists. He was a ruthless ruler and warrior until he became shocked seeing the massive casualties his army had wrought in a battle in 260. In light of this the ideals of compassion and ahimsa convinced him to change the traditional tactics of conquering neighboring peoples. Ashoka was known for his rock edicts depicting writings proclaiming that war was mostly not necessary and must be fought humanely if at all. His edicts included Buddhist symbols and he tried to govern through dhamma, though not specifically Buddhist. She notes that the fact that he thought his policies would be feasible suggests that the ideas of compassion and ahimsa had taken root among the populace. Other edicts proclaimed the power of kindness, goodness, and generosity. He did not impose Buddhism but specifically called for religious freedom and diversity. Ashoka died in 231. After this India was said to have entered a dark age when not much is known of its history. It is thought that iconography and monotheism arose during this time, she notes. The marginal Vedic deity, Rudra, was thought to have merged with an indigenous deity, to become Lord Shiva, a personalized embodiment of brahman. He became the god within. She mentions the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, thought to have been composed in the late 4th century BC as the beginning of these ideas. It seems to be a synthesis of many ideas: Samkhya, yoga, and previous Upanishadic ideas (mostly non-theistic) conjoined with theistic ideas of a creator God. The last verse of this text is the first mention of love or devotion for God. The word for devotion is bhakti. The Bhagavad-Gita (The Song of God) is thought to have been a later insertion into the epic Mahabharata. It is here that Krishna, as Arjuna’s charioteer, reveals his divine nature. Krishna taught him the necessity of duty as karma-yoga. He taught that it was not actions that bound humans to karma and rebirth but attachment to the fruits of actions. He taught bhakti-yoga, devotion, specifically to Vishnu, who Krishna was in human form. The Bhagavad-Gita became immensely popular, likely due to its accessibility and applicability for all, not just the renouncers.

The Legalists came to rule from Qin in China. They also had an affinity with Daoism. By the 2nd century Confucianism among the Han would rise again but other schools would remain as well. The meritocracy of the Confucians would become popular. The new peaceful times also included co-existence, inclusiveness, and synthesis of doctrines. That inclusiveness would add Buddhism a few centuries later. Later it would be said that each “faith” has its sphere. 

She suggests that after Indo-Greek Bactrians invaded the Indus Valley and after that Scythians and Parthians, since the Brahmins considered them “unclean” they migrated toward non-Vedic religions, particularly Buddhism and Jainism. She thinks those were the two most popular religions in India between 200 BC and 200 CE. Certainly the Indo-Greek colonies were quite syncretic with Greek, Indian, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, and shamanic elements. She notes that the new bhakti faith was also quite popular. Later that would continue as Shiva and Vishnu became the supreme Gods of Hinduism. The bhakti cults would later become religions of the people with colorful temples and services. The icon or image (murti) of the deity was said to be an avatar of the deity, of Shiva, Vishnu, or Krishna. This idea took hold all over as statues were made of not only those deities but of Buddha and Mahavira and their entourages. The Mahayana was a new development in Buddhism and the veneration of the bodhisattva as a spiritual hero encompassed a new model of compassion where the aspirant aspired to gain enlightenment for the benefit of others rather than for personal benefit.

She notes that the Jewish Axial age came late. Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by the Romans with considerable difficulty around 70 CE. The Essenes and Qumran sects had previously dropped out of mainstream society and had resumed the apocalypticism that periodically inspired the Hebrews. However, the Jews in Palestine were Pharisees and went on to develop an inclusive, somewhat secular society based on loving-kindness and charity. Rabbi Hillel (c.80 BC – c.30 CE) who came from Babylonia, advocated the Golden Rule, which he famously stated was the key message of the Torah. The Pharisees did not take part in the resistance against Rome, which they considered foolish. Indeed, Rabbinic Judaism would come to generally reject violence on principle and reduce dependence on pure dogma. Jesus also taught the Golden Rule and non-judgment of others. Paul would bring Christianity to the gentiles. Concern for everyone was an aspect of the teachings. Kenosis (emptying {preconceptions}) and love were the themes of the earliest Christianity. Eventually faith would be equated with belief and Christian orthodoxy would enforce the “correct teaching.” Much later in the 7th century CE it would be Muhammed who would start a new religion. He lived in violent times in a violent culture. The Quran would venerate compassion, generosity, justice, and respect. Early Arabs equated the God of the Quran, Allah, with the God of the Jews and Christians, many making the hajj pilgrimage to the Kabah in Mecca. Jews and Christians were considered “people of an earlier revelation,” and so were to be treated with respect. Thus was the trio of Abrahamic religion connected. However, this was not to be the way in practice as conquest and expansionism loomed. Jihad, meaning “struggle” in the Quran came to mean “holy war” and it ended up glorifying future conquest and expansionism. Muhammed was a prophet receiving various revelations from Allah and angels.

Today Christians and Muslims make up the vast majority of people on Earth. The teachings of these religions inform the actions of the people often for good but sometimes for ill. She thinks that we should look for common themes of value in the religions and exalt them such as the Golden Rule, some form of ahimsa, kindness, generosity, etc. Indeed such ideas should form an important part of secular society, preferably in a non-religious context, as I see it. We humans have a tendency to pit our beliefs against the beliefs of others. Religion is often like politics – a “pissing contest” as they say. She notes the connection between violence and the sacred: from guilt about killing among Paleolithic hunters and the animal sacrifices of agricultural and pastoral peoples to the religious justification for killing and wars that is rampant in history. Her remedy for violence includes: self-criticism and taking effective action to reorganize the doctrines away from violent behavior. Certainly, these literalist religions are in need of reform in this respect. However, a deeper problem, I think, is the notion of literalism itself, the notion of the infallibility of doctrine. No doctrine is infallible, I would say. Doctrines can be twisted to extremes leading to people practicing cruelty, torture, rape, and murder as religious duty. We need to learn to see ourselves in all beings, to reduce the separation between self and other, in order to bridge the gaps that sustain conflict and violence. Of course, this is no easy task, but emphasizing practices like empathy, kindness, generosity, love, compassion, charity, and respect in a secular fashion over literalism and doctrine in the religious fashion – is a step in the right direction, I would think.      


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