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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 81 IN GLASS CASES OF ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUMS lie old stone tools that quietly testify to the emergence of human con- sciousness as far back as three million years ago. It is possible that we may have been religious even then, but on this point the ancient shards are mute. The oldest physical evidence we have of humankind beginning to think or act in a recognizably religious way—the graves of our Neanderthal cousins—is dateable to a mere 100,000 years ago. So let us allow this date—100,000 years ago—to stand for the beginning of religion on planet Earth, for that will enable me to place in the boldest possible relief the historical curiosity around which this review turns. For over the next 97,000 years, religious evolution pauses. So far as we can tell from studying those cul- tures that afford us our deepest glimpses into the religious past, religion remains pretty much the same sort of thing everywhere, an attempt to influence unseen powers to better survive and prosper in a dicey world. Over these millennia the stories told by countless generations of tribal elders picture life as pervaded by the spirits of once-living ancestors and other invisible forces that could as easily help us as hurt us. Religion was the art of communicating with these powers through sacrifice and other rituals to enlist their aid in the maintenance of good fortune and the prevention of disaster and distress. But suddenly—for that is how it seems in the big picture— about 3,000 years ago, something extraordinary began to happen. It would have been momentous had it happened just once, but the astonishing thing is that it seems to have happened multiple times in widely distant places with little or no cross-fertilization. The result was that within less than a millennium, and across a wide swath of Earth, the nature of religion was irreversibly altered. It is not that the old religious mentality disappeared; in fact, it is still widespread today. Rather, a new mode of relationship to the sacred made its world-historical appearance in the most sensi- tive minds of the times, and it carved out a permanent niche in the collective human psyche. Impressing the German philosopher and historian Karl Jaspers as nothing less than a mutation of human consciousness that initiated a new phase in cultural evolution, he dubbed these years, roughly 900–200 bce, the Axial Age. 1 The seeds of this age were sown as many as seven millennia earlier with the discovery of agriculture. This innovation, in leading to larger populations, slowly eroded the old tribal ways and led inexorably to more individualized modes of conscious- ness. Now, after a long gestation, they were ready to bloom in places as different and distant from one another as China, India, ancient Israel, and Greece. In India during this period, Hindu rishis (seers) formulated the revolutionary ideas of the Upanishads, disclosing spiritual vistas unknown to the sacrificial cultists of the earlier Vedas. The Buddha set his wheel of dharma rolling across the earth to un- shackle human beings from craving, aversion, and the false self. THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions By Karen Armstrong Knopf, 2006; 496 pp.; $30 (cloth) REVIEWED BY PHILIP NOVAK One for the Sages REVIEWS The Tree of Paradise, by Seraphine de Senlis, circa 1929. ©ESTATEOFSERAPHINEDESENLIS/SODRAC(2006)/CNAC/MNAM/DIST.RÉUNIONDESMUSÉESNATIONAUX/ARTRESOURCE,NY 1. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953),1-21.