The Great Transformation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong, who has written several significant works on the history and function of human religions, considers a period identified by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers as the Axial Age. It was at this time, from the ninth to the fifth century b.c.e., that philosophers, theologians, and mystics throughout the civilized world promulgated the concepts that would become the bases for today’s major religious traditions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism>Hinduism, and Confucianism-Daoism. It was a time, argues Armstrong, of a very great transformation, in which modern religious traditions commenced. Armstrong points out that there is an urgent need to understand the Axial Age and the transformations it produced because humankind is currently in a new Axial Age of scientific and technological achievement that threatens to obscure the religious and philosophic achievements of the Great Transformation, achievements which, in a dangerous and complicated world, people desperately need to retain.

Armstrong commences her study with those people she identifies as the earliest Axial thinkers, the Aryans or Indo-Europeans, living on the steppes of southern Russia around 1600 b.c.e. These people called their gods daevas, the shining ones. Daevas were not immortal. They were subject, as was all matter, to the laws of the universe, and they shared with all other living creatures a spirit. It was thus a serious matter to take the life of any animate thing, for it had, as did humans, a transcendent inner life. It was therefore especially serious to take the life of another human. This belief did not stop the increasing intertribal warfare of the Indo-Europeans. Against this background of violence, the first major Axial philosopher-theologian appears: Zoroaster (c. 1200 b.c.e.). His people were highly conflicted between a desire for peace and a need to destroy their enemies. Zoroaster saw this situation as a conflict between the gods of goodness and those of evilness. He advocated a continuous conflict, but he also introduced the novel idea that when good people triumphed over evil ones, they need not act toward their enemies as their enemies had acted toward them. In their triumph the good must show restraint. With this radical idea, Zoroaster created a preview of the Axial Age’s interest in what would ultimately become the human concept of compassion. This compassion could not be legislated but, to be effective and enduring, must come from within the individual who had emptied him or herself of the constraints of the ego. It would be some time before peoples of the Axial Age would understand and embrace such a concept. In India the idea would be enforced by the rishis, holy men who developed techniques of concentration that allowed them to break into the unconscious mind. The rishis also told the story of the first man, Purusha, who, like Christ, allowed himself to be sacrificed to bring divine order to the cosmos. These priests introduced introspection and self-sacrifice, the fundamental ideals of the Axial Age.

Elsewhere, the great transformation was slower in getting started. China was embroiled in tribal wars for centuries, and the normal practice throughout the region was to try to reach the holy gods through ritual that featured sacrifice of animals and other matter. However, in the ninth century b.c.e. the powerful Zhou dynasty of Chinese kings began to advocate the practice of compassion to go along with the sacrificial rituals. Like the Aryans and Chinese, the Greeks were overwhelmed with wars between the various city-states, as well as outside invaders, culminating in the vast violence and destruction of the Trojan War. This history of violence is reflected in the tales of the Greek gods and of the creation of the cosmos as a duel between Gia, Mother Earth, and Chaos, ruler of heaven. Israel also had a prehistory of turbulence and warfare, so that violence is part of the early history and theology of the Hebrew peoples as well. In an attempt to reach out in some effective manner to spirits beyond themselves and to deal with the culture of violence in which they existed, the early Axial peoples all turned to religious ritual in the eighth century b.c.e.

To make the religious rituals even more complicated was the problem that throughout China, India, Greece, and even Israelwhere Bal, in addition to Yahweh, continued to be worshippedthere was no concept of a single God,...

(The entire section is 1892 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2006): 21.

Library Journal 131, no. 6 (April 1, 2006): 99.

The New York Times 155 (April 21, 2006): E34.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 30, 2006): 21.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 3 (January 16, 2006): 58.

The Spectator 300 (March 25, 2006): 42-43.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 30, 2006, p. 28.

The Wilson Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 106-107.