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The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

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From Karen Armstrong, the bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase, comes this extraordinary investigation of a critical moment in the evolution of religious thought.In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Armstrong, one of our most prominent religious scholars, examines how these traditions began in response to the violence of their time. Studying figures as diverse as the Buddha and Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Armstrong reveals how these still enduring philosophies can help address our contemporary problems.

Excerpt

ASRA
THE AXIAL PEOPLES

(c. 1600 to 900 BCE)

The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans. The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride and meant something like “noble” or “honorable.” The Aryans were a loose-knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. Because they spoke a language that would form the basis of several Asiatic and European tongues, they are also called Indo-Europeans. They had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500, but by the middle of the third millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until they reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. At the same time, those Aryans who had remained behind on the steppes gradually drifted apart and became two separate peoples, speaking different forms of the original Indo-European. One used the Avestan dialect, the other an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 they continued to live peacefully together, sharing the same cultural and religious traditions.

It was a quiet, sedentary existence. The Aryans could not travel far, because the horse had not yet been domesticated, so their horizons were bounded by the steppes. They farmed their land, herded their sheep, goats, and pigs, and valued stability and continuity. They were not a warlike people, since, apart from a few skirmishes with one another or with rival groups, they had no enemies and no ambition to conquer new territory. Their religion was simple and peaceful. Like other ancient peoples, the Aryans experienced an invisible force within themselves and in everything that they saw, heard, and touched. Storms, winds, trees, and rivers were not impersonal, mindless phenomena. The Aryans felt an affinity with them, and revered them as divine. Humans, deities, animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the same divine “spirit,” which the Avestans called mainyu and the Sanskrit-speakers manya. It animated, sustained, and bound them all together.

Over time the Aryans developed a more formal pantheon. At a very early stage, they had worshiped a Sky God called Dyaus Pitr, creator of the world. But like other High Gods, Dyaus was so remote that he was eventually replaced by more accessible gods, who were wholly identified with natural and cosmic forces. Varuna preserved the order of the universe; Mithra was the god of storm, thunder, and life-giving rain; Mazda, lord of justice and wisdom, was linked with the sun and stars; and Indra, a divine warrior, had fought a three-headed dragon called Vritra and brought order out of chaos. Fire, which was crucial to civilized society, was also a god and the Aryans called him Agni. Agni was not simply the divine patron of fire; he was the fire that burned in every single hearth. Even the hallucinogenic plant that inspired the Aryan poets was a god, called Haoma in Avestan and Soma in Sanskrit: he was a divine priest who protected the people from famine and looked after their cattle.

The Avestan Aryans called their gods daevas (“the shining ones”) and amesha (“the immortals”). In Sanskrit these terms became devas and amrita. None of these divine beings, however, were what we usually call “gods” today. They were not omnipotent and had no ultimate control over the cosmos. Like human beings and all the natural forces, they had to submit to the sacred order that held the universe together. Thanks to this order, the seasons succeeded one another in due course, the rain fell at the right times, and the crops grew each year in the appointed month. The Avestan Aryans called this order asha, while the Sanskrit-speakers called it rita. It made life possible, keeping everything in its proper place and defining what was true and correct.

Human society also depended upon this sacred order. People had to make firm, binding agreements about grazing rights, the herding of cattle, marriage, and the exchange of goods. Translated into social terms, asha/rita meant loyalty, truth, and respect, the ideals embodied by Varuna, the guardian of order, and Mithra, his assistant. These gods supervised all covenant agreements that were sealed by a solemn oath. The Aryans took the spoken word very seriously. Like all other phenomena, speech was a god, a deva. Aryan religion was not very visual. As far as we know, the Aryans did not make effigies of their gods. Instead, they found that the act of listening brought them close to the sacred. Quite apart from its meaning, the very sound of a chant was holy; even a single syllable could encapsulate the divine. Similarly, a vow, once uttered, was eternally binding, and a lie was absolutely evil because it perverted the holy power inherent in the spoken word. The Aryans would never lose this passion for absolute truthfulness.

Every day, the Aryans offered sacrifices to their gods to replenish the energies they expended in maintaining world order. Some of these rites were very simple. The sacrificer would throw a handful of grain, curds, or fuel into the fire to nourish Agni, or pound the stalks of soma, offer the pulp to the water goddesses, and make a sacred drink. The Aryans also sacrificed cattle. They did not grow enough crops for their needs, so killing was a tragic necessity, but the Aryans ate only meat that had been ritually and humanely slaughtered. When a beast was ceremonially given to the gods, its spirit was not extinguished but returned to Geush Urvan (“Soul of the Bull”), the archetypical domestic animal. The Aryans felt very close to their cattle. It was sinful to eat the flesh of a beast that had not been consecrated in this way, because profane slaughter destroyed it forever, and thus violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin. Again, the Aryans would never entirely lose this profound respect for the “spirit” that they shared with others, and this would become a crucial principle of their Axial Age.

To take the life of any being was a fearful act, not to be undertaken lightly, and the sacrificial ritual compelled the Aryans to confront this harsh law of existence. The sacrifice became and would remain the organizing symbol of their culture, by which they explained the world and their society. The Aryans believed that the universe itself had originated in a sacrificial offering. In the beginning, it was said, the gods, working in obedience to the divine order, had brought forth the world in seven stages. First they created the Sky, which was made of stone like a huge round shell; then the Earth, which rested like a flat dish upon the Water that had collected in the base of the shell. In the center of the Earth, the gods placed three living creatures: a Plant, a Bull, and a Man. Finally they produced Agni, the Fire. But at first everything was static and lifeless. It was not until the gods performed a triple sacrifice—crushing the Plant, and killing the Bull and the Man—that the world became animated. The sun began to move across the sky, seasonal change was established, and the three sacrificial victims brought forth their own kind. Flowers, crops, and trees sprouted from the pulped Plant; animals sprang from the corpse of the Bull; and the carcass of the first Man gave birth to the human race. The Aryans would always see sacrifice as creative. By reflecting on this ritual, they realized that their lives depended upon the death of other creatures. The three archetypal creatures had laid down their lives so that others might live. There could be no progress, materially or spiritually, without self-sacrifice. This too would become one of the principles of the Axial Age.

The Aryans had no elaborate shrines and temples. Sacrifice was offered in the open air on a small, level piece of land, marked off from the rest of the settlement by a furrow. The seven original creations were all symbolically represented in this arena: Earth in the soil, Water in the vessels, Fire in the hearth; the stone Sky was present in the flint knife, the Plant in the crushed soma stalks, the Bull in the victim, and the first Man in the priest. And the gods, it was thought, were also present. The hotr priest, expert in the liturgical chant, would sing a hymn to summon devas to the feast. When they had entered the sacred arena, the gods sat down on the freshly mown grass strewn around the altar to listen to these hymns of praise. Since the sound of these inspired syllables was itself a god, as the song filled the air and entered their consciousness, the congregation felt surrounded by and infused with divinity. Finally the primordial sacrifice was repeated. The cattle were slain, the soma pressed, and the priest laid the choicest portions of the victims onto the fire, so that Agni could convey them to the land of the gods. The ceremony ended with a holy communion, as priest and participants shared a festal meal with the deities, eating the consecrated meat and drinking the intoxicating soma, which seemed to lift them to another dimension of being.

The sacrifice brought practical benefits too. It was commissioned by a member of the community, who hoped that those devas who had responded to his invitation and attended the sacrifice would help him in the future. Like any act of hospitality, the ritual placed an obligation on the divinities to respond in kind, and the hotr often reminded them to protect the patron’s family, crops, and herd. The sacrifice also enhanced the patron’s standing in the community. Like the gods, his human guests were now in his debt, and by providing the cattle for the feast and giving the officiating priests a handsome gift, he had demonstrated that he was a man of substance. The benefits of religion were purely material and this-worldly. People wanted the gods to provide them with cattle, wealth, and security. At first the Aryans had entertained no hope of an afterlife, but by the end of the second millennium, some were beginning to believe that wealthy people who had commissioned a lot of sacrifices would be able to join the gods in paradise after their death.

This slow, uneventful life came to an end when the Aryans discovered modern technology. In about 1500, they had begun to trade with the more advanced societies south of the Caucasus in Mesopotamia and Armenia. They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and also discovered new methods of transport: first they acquired wooden carts pulled by oxen, and then the war chariot. Once they had learned how to tame the wild horses of the steppes and harness them to their chariots, they discovered the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. The Aryans had become warriors. They could now travel long distances at high speed. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops. This was far more thrilling and lucrative than stock breeding. Some of the younger men served as mercenaries in the armies of the southern kingdoms, and became expert in chariot warfare. When they returned to the steppes, they put their new skills to use and started to rustle their neighbors’ cattle. They killed, plundered, and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans, who were bewildered, frightened, and entirely disoriented, feeling that their lives had been turned upside down.

Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. A heroic age had be-gun. Might was right; chieftains sought gain and glory; and bards celebrated aggression, reckless courage, and military prowess. The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self-sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in a chariot upon the clouds of heaven. Indra was now the divine model to whom the raiders aspired. “Heroes with noble horses, fain for battle, selected warriors call on me in combat,” he cried. “I, bountiful Indra, excite the conflict, I stir the dust, Lord of surpassing vigour!” When they fought, killed, and robbed, the Aryan cowboys felt themselves one with Indra and the aggressive devas who had established the world order by force of arms.

But the more traditional, Avestan-speaking Aryans were appalled by Indra’s naked aggression, and began to have doubts about the daevas. Were they all violent and immoral? Events on earth always reflected cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype. The cattle rustlers, who fought under the banner of Indra, must be his earthly counterparts. But who were the daevas attacking in heaven? The most important gods—such as Varuna, Mazda, and Mithra, the guardians of orderwere given the honorific title “Lord” (ahura). Perhaps the peaceful ahuras, who stood for justice, truth, and respect for life and property, were themselves under attack by Indra and the more aggressive daevas? This, at any rate, was the view of a visionary priest, who in about 1200 claimed that Ahura Mazda had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes. His name was Zoroaster.

When he received his divine vocation, the new prophet was about thirty years old and strongly rooted in the Aryan faith. He had probably studied for the priesthood since he was seven years old, and was so steeped in tradition that he could improvise sacred chants to the gods during the sacrifice. But Zoroaster was deeply disturbed by the cattle raids, and after completing his education, he had spent some time in consultation with other priests, and had meditated on the rituals to find a solution to the problem. One morning, while he was celebrating the spring festival, Zoroaster had risen at dawn and walked down to the river to collect water for the daily sacrifice. Wading in, he immersed himself in the pure element, and when he emerged, saw a shining being standing on the riv-erbank, who told Zoroaster that his name was Vohu Manah (“Good Purpose”). Once he had been assured of Zoroaster’s own good intentions, he led him into the presence of the greatest of the ahuras: Mazda, lord of wisdom and justice, who was surrounded by his retinue of seven radiant gods. He told Zoroaster to mobilize his people in a holy war against terror and violence. The story is bright with the promise of a new beginning. A fresh era had dawned: everybody had to make a decision, gods and humans alike. Were they on the side of order or evil?


From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Armstrong

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong - The Great Transformation

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It was launched globally in the fall of 2009. Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.  
 

Praise

Praise

“A splendid book. . . . Lucid, highly readable. . . . Relevan[t] to a world still embroiled in military conflict and sectarian hatreds.” —The New York Times“Masterful. . . . Stimulating. . . . A tour de force.” —The Christian Science MonitorThe Great Transformation is Armstrong at her best–translating and distilling complex history into lucid prose. . . . Her call to rededicate our religious selves to compassion, other-directed love and service is downright rousing.” —The Washington Post“Remarkable and persuasive.” —The Independent“Perhaps her most ambitious work to date. . . . Thoroughly researched and readable.” —The San Francisco Chronicle
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“A splendid book. . . . Lucid, highly readable. . . . Relevan[t] to a world still embroiled in military conflict and sectarian hatreds.” —The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation, a wide-ranging study of the great sages of the Axial Age and the ethical philosophies they gave to the world from the bestselling author of A History of God.

About the Guide

In the period from the ninth century to the second century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal era—whose ideas share the values of selflessness, empathy, and respect for others—can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times and teach us to revive the spirit of compassion that is the basis of all religious traditions.

She traces the development of the Axial Age chronologically, examining the contributions of such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. All of the Axial Age faiths began in principled and visceral reaction against the unprecedented violence of their time. Despite some differences of emphasis, there was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. With regard to dealing with fear, despair, hatred, rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people and give us, Armstrong says, two important pieces of advice: that first there must be personal responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed by practical, effective action. In her opening and concluding chapters, Armstrong urges us to consider how these spiritualities challenge the way we are religious today.

The Great Transformation revives for its readers the most wise and sensible of ancient spiritual practices—practices that hold the possibility for healing in our own troubled times.

About the Author

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs, including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, and Buddha. Her work has been translated into forty languages, and she is the author of three television documentaries. Since September 11, 2001, she has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and other media on both sides of the Atlantic on the subject of Islam. She lives in London.

Discussion Guides

1. At the very beginnings of the Axial Age, the Aryans of the steppes of southern Russia developed a concept of the divine: “Humans, deities, animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the same divine ‘spirit.’ . . . It animated, sustained, and bound them all together” [p. 4]. How is this concept of the holiness and interconnectedness of all life further developed and reinforced in the other, later religions discussed in the book?

2. Armstrong notes that the Axial religions all arose out of a revulsion against violence. Zoroaster was incensed at the murderousness of cattle raiders on the steppes [pp. 8–12], Israel’s breakthrough “followed hard upon the heels of a massacre” [p. 77], and in China, the horror of total war on civilians “intensified the quest for a new religious vision” [p. 317]. How did the thinking of the sages seek to put an end to violence? What kinds of approaches do these religions have in common?

3. “In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like brahman. The word ilam (‘divinity’) in Mesopotamia referred to a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. . . . The gods were not the source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they participated in this holiness” [p. 54]. How does this generalized idea of divinity contrast with the monotheism of the Israelites, which developed in the same area?

4. Like the people of most other Axial Age cultures, the Greeks felt that “it was impossible to achieve life and ecstasy unless you had experienced the depths of loss” [p. 68]. How do the examples discussed from Greek tragedy, myth, and ritual—like the Eleusinian mysteries for instance [pp. 219–221]—illustrate this belief in the necessity of suffering for the attainment of spiritual knowledge?

5. The Hebrew prophets, including Moses, Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah, all demonstrate the need for a spiritual leader to tell the truth to his people and to teach self-criticism. Why is self-criticism necessary in any spiritual practice?

6. Consider the idea that life is dukkha, a word that is usually translated as “suffering” but which also means “unsatisfactory, awry” [p. 230]. While this is a central concept in Buddhism, in what ways do other religions also address this problem? To what forms of suffering does dukkha refer?

7. Patanjali, who compiled the yoga sutras, “listed five vrittis (‘impulses’) that held us in thrall: ignorance, our sense of ego, passion, disgust, and the lure of this transient life. These instincts surfaced one after the other, with inexhaustible and uncontrollable energy. . . . [They] had to be annihilated, ‘burned up.’ . . . Only by sheer mental force” [p. 232]. Do these insights into human psychology seem similar to those by later thinkers like Freud and Jung? Does the impulse of the yogins to withdraw from society to pursue a spiritual quest make sense? What should we make of the fact that some paths to spiritual fulfillment are profoundly private and antisocial?

8. While the Xunzi and the Daodejing both contain descriptions of the ideal sage ruler, Armstrong notes the difficulty of reconciling Laozi’s spiritual ideas with political reality in China and elsewhere: “It is difficult to see how a sage who had reached this level of ‘emptiness’ would ever come to power, since he would be incapable of the calculation that was necessary to win office” [p. 414]. Is there a fundamental discrepancy between the ideals of Daoism—like being rooted in stillness and emptiness—and the characteristics needed for political leadership? Why does Armstrong say that Laozi’s “was an essentially utopian ideal” [p. 414]?

9. In discussing the Jewish rabbis Akiba and Hillel, Armstrong emphasizes that they did not hold “orthodox” beliefs: “Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own
situation. . . . Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think” [p. 455]. Why is this an important idea for Armstrong? What qualities make the rabbinical approach to God both humane and civilized?

10. The concept of ahimsa (nonviolence) was put into practice most rigorously by the Jains, who believed that “the dukkha [suffering] that pervaded the entire world was caused by the actions of ignorant people, who did not realize what they were doing when they injured others” [p. 289]. Their desire to do no harm to any living thing was meant to “cultivate a tenderness and sympathy that had no bounds” [p. 290]. What do you think of the lengths to which the Jains took their desire to do no harm?

11. Might the Buddhist ideal of anatta or “no self” [p. 337] be thought of as similar to the ideal of selflessness found in the early Christian Church? Saint Paul said, “There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks
of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead” [p. 458]. “Living beyond the confines of egotism” was promoted by all the Axial philosophies [p. 468]. What, then, do you think of the popular idea in Western psychological thought that developing a strong sense of self gives one the confidence to deal with life’s difficulties?

12. In her conclusion, Armstrong says that the Axial Age sages, who lived in violent times, created “a spiritual technology that utilized natural human energies to counter this aggression” [p. 466]. Discuss her belief that “the consistency with which the Axial sages—quite independently—returned to the Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our nature” [p. 467]. What is she suggesting about the human religious impulse? Is it essentially about preserving life and living peacefully? Is it, in part, an instinct for survival?

13. How does the Buddhist concept of behavior that is “unskillful”—a term that Armstrong uses throughout the book—relate to our relations with others and to our intentions in everyday life?

14. While Armstrong makes clear that the Axial Age religious traditions are based on principles of compassion and self-abandonment, she has also said, “very often, people don’t want to be compassionate religious people. They prefer to be right. Rarely do they want to give up their egotism. . . . They often want religion to give them a sense of strong identity. That means they want to be the one and only believers. This short-circuits the whole of the religious experience” [Interview, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 25, 2006, p. 1]. Do you agree with her sense that many people use their religious identity to achieve a sense of self-righteousness? How often do you see or read about religion being used today as a force of conflict or violence?

15. In her conclusion, Armstrong says, “The sages were ahead of us in recognizing that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to cultivate what the Buddhists call an ‘immeasurable’ outlook that extends to the ends of the earth, without excluding a single creature from this radius of concern. . . . If I made my individual self an absolute value, human society would become impossible, so we must all learn to ‘yield’ to one another. Our challenge is to develop this insight and give it a global significance” [p. 475]. How might these ideas be put into practice, on an individual level as well as on a larger scale?

16. “Auschwitz, Bosnia, and the destruction of the World Trade Center revealed the darkness of the human heart,” Armstrong writes. “Today we are living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple answers; the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other people’s point of view” [p. 476]. Do you agree with her that the best way of dealing with the reality of our own time is to follow Mozi in practicing “concern for everybody” [p. 475]? Discuss the ways in which this book has made you rethink your own experience of religion, or your thoughts about spiritual practice.

17. Armstrong has said, “The Axial Age sages were not interested in orthodoxy. Orthodoxy means correct teaching. They weren’t interested in theology much at all. For them, religion was not about belief or holding onto correct beliefs but about behaving in a way that changed you at a profound level” [Interview, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Apr. 22, 2006, p. B1]. She believes that practicing kindness and compassion can change
people in this way. Do you agree?

Suggested Readings

Harold Bloom, The Book of J; Walter Burkert, Greek Religion; Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka; Mark Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker; René Girard, Violence and the Sacred; Aldous Huxley, ed. The Perennial Philosophy; Karl Jaspers, The Great Philosophers; Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching; Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; Pankaj Mishra, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World; Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy; Orhan Pamuk, Snow; Sharon Salzburg, A Heart as Wide as the World; Colm Tóibín,
The Sign of the Cross; Simone Weil, Waiting for God.

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