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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 82 And the great inner warrior, Mahavira, founded the way of the self-conquerors, Jainism, a profound spiritual orientation that still today guides four million souls. In China, this period gave birth to Confucius and Meng Ti (Mencius), and to Chuangzi and Laozi, respectively the progeni- tors of Confucianism and Taoism. These religio-philosophical orientations have profoundly shaped the mind of China—a fifth of the world’s population—for over 2,500 years. In Greece, the Axial Age encompassed the careers of the phi- losophers Parmenides, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno, and the great tragedians, Aeschy- lus, Sophocles, and Euripides. And in Israel, it was the time of the classical Jewish prophets— Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Ezekiel—in whose minds and hearts the monolatry and tribal ethos of the earlier Israelite cen- turies began to be superseded by a more mature and universalist ethical monotheism. Jesus (0–30 ce) and Muhammad (570–632 ce) fall outside the technical boundaries of the Axial Age2 but can be considered as secondary and tertiary flowerings of Israel’s, for notwithstanding their individual charisma, their theological and ethical visions were fully prefigured by the Jewish prophets. These and other Axial Age mystics, philosophers, prophets, and poets formulated ideas and practices that, in departing decisively from those of our tribal past, shaped the fundamental spiritual grammar through which future generations expressed their high- est aspirations, and the horizon of spiritual possibilities mapped out by the Axial Age sages is still ours today. Through them, argu- ably for the first time, humanity became conscious of Being as a whole, laid itself under the categorical imperative of the Golden Rule, and aspired to a previously unknown universalism. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Tra- ditions is Karen Armstrong’s 3 new 400-page study of the Axial Age and its relevance for our times. The first of the book’s ten chapters surveys life and thought in Greece, Israel, India, and China prior to 900 bce. Each of the next eight chapters covers approximately a century of the following period, surveying the religious, political, and social histories of all four of these geographical areas. It’s an organizational strategy, which, though following logically from the die cast in the opening chapter, seemed to this reader less than optimally coherent. The book’s final chapter, “The Way Forward,” discusses the contemporary relevance of the Axial Age. It is here that Armstrong, well aware of how religion today is seen as part of the problem, suggests that a fresh appreciation of Axial Age spiritual genius can help us make religion part of the solution. 2. The Axial Age is said to have ended around 200 bce because that is when the relatively small, independent political entities common to the era began to be absorbed into empires, which, it is surmised, had a chilling effect on the Age’s intellectual ferment. 3. Karen Armstrong is an Englishwoman and former Catholic nun who has be- come one of our era’s most prolific writers on the religions of the world in books like A History of God, Muhammad, The Battle for God, and Buddha. She resides in London.