In the ninth 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. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all secondary flowerings of the original Israelite vision. Now, in The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal 'Axial Age' can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times.
Having already recounted "a history of God," the redoubtable Armstrong here narrates the evolution of the religious traditions of the world from their births to their maturity. In her typical magisterial fashion, she chronicles these tales in dazzling prose with remarkable depth and judicious breadth. Taking the Axial Age, which spans roughly 900 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E., as her focal point, Armstrong examines the ways that specific religious traditions from Buddhism and Confucianism to Taoism and Judaism responded to the various cultural forces they faced during this period. Overall, Armstrong observes, violence, political disruption and religious intolerance dominated Axial Age societies, so Axial religions responded by exalting compassion, love and justice over selfishness and hatred. Thus, the central Buddhist and Jain practice of ahimsa, doing no harm, developed in India in reaction to the self-centeredness of Hindu ritual, and Hebrew prophets such as Amos proclaimed that justice and mercy toward neighbors offered the only correct way of walking with God. Accounts of the world's religions often present them as discrete entities developing apart from each other in a vacuum. Armstrong's magnificent accomplishment offers us an account of a violent time much like ours, when religious impulses in various locations developed practices of justice and love. (Apr. 3) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 01, 2006
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Excerpt from The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong
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.