Spirituality that determined history's course
In this very lucid narrative, Karen Armstrong, by now an accomplished writer on comparative religion with such works as A History of God, Islam: A Short History, The Bible, and important biographies of Muhammad and Buddha behind her, explains how and why people of varied environment and cultures took to developing the fundamental spirituality that shapes the world even today. They did it without even knowing each other, their actions were based on very different realities, but there is a surprising coherence in the core message they left for us. Armstrong writes in a chronological story-telling fashion how people from different regions went about developing the core spirituality defining the Axial Age. In the very first chapter (The Axial Peoples: 1600 to 900 BC), she tells the story of the journey of Aryans from the south Russian steppes into Northern India, how the terrain and the social realities gave rise to the Vedic sages' spirituality which would ultimately lead to the later very mature Upanishadic spirituality.
She speaks of people under China's Shang dynasty and their ritual behaviour that gave rise to latter day Chinese versions of the Axial Age spirituality. Also in the twelfth century BC, the eastern Mediterranean was engulfed in a crisis of mysterious origin (maybe climate driven). "Two of the Axial peoples emerged during the ensuing dark age. A new Greek civilization rose from the rubble of Mycenae, and a confederation of tribes called Israel appeared in the highlands of Canaan". These two peoples would give rise to Axial Age spirituality in two different regions of the world. Having introduced us to the peoples who would ultimately shape the Axial Age, Armstrong tells us in wisdom common to the very Axial Age that she so admires: "(before the beginning of The Axial Age) … All these traditions were characterized by a high level of anxiety. Before life on the steppes had been transformed by the violence of the cattle rustlers, Aryan religion had been peaceful and kindly, but the shock of this unprecedented aggression had impelled Zoroaster to evolve a polarized, agonistic vision. In Israel and India too, insecurity and the difficulties of maintaining a society in new, hostile territory introduced violence and aggressive imagery into the cult. But people cannot live indefinitely with this degree of tension. Ritual taught them to look into the abyss, and realize that it was possible to face up to the impossible and survive. In the ninth century (BC), the Greeks, the fourth of our Axial peoples, were starting to emerge from their dark age; their experience showed how the dramas of ritual helped the people of the ancient world to deal creatively with historical catastrophe and despair". This is the
very essence of this book understanding the social context that gave rise to tension, and then the use of rituals that helped to tackle the situation and going on to a gradual reinvention of spirituality to find inner peace in the face of turmoil.
In subsequent chapters, Armstrong develops her narrative to describe in detail how all this happened. Chapter 2 (Ritual: 900 to 800BC), chapter 3 (Kenosis: 800 to 700 BC), chapter 4 (Knowledge: 700 to 600 BC), chapter 5 (Suffering: 600 to 530 BC), chapter 6 (Empathy: 530 to 450 BC), chapter 7 (Concern for everybody: 450 to 398 BC), chapter 8 (All is one: 400 to 300 BC), and chapter 9 (Empire: 300 to 220 BC) slowly and in exquisite detail unveil the complete story.
Chapter 10 is a summary of it all: "The spiritual revolution of the Axial Age had occurred against a backcloth of turmoil, migration and conquest. … in China, the Axial Age finally got under way after the collapse of the Zhou dynasty and came to an end when Qin unified the warring states. The Indian Axial Age occurred after the disintegration of the Harappan civilization and ended with the Mauryan empire; the Greek transformation occurred between the Mycenaean kingdom and the Macedonian empire. The Axial sages had lived in societies that had been cut loose from their moorings. … Even the Jews, who had suffered so horribly from the imperial adventures in the Middle East, had been propelled into their Axial Age by the terrifying freedom that had followed the destruction of their homeland and the trauma of deportation that severed their link with the past and forced them to start again. But by the end of the second century (BC), the world had stabilized. In the empires that were established after the Axial Age, the challenge was to find a spirituality that affirmed the new political unification". She ends her story of this human saga with mention of Jesus and Muhammad, who she thinks were the bearers of the true Axial Age spirituality. In the final pages, she summarises the importance of the Axial Age to the present day context. The Axial sages showed us path to overcome pain, fear, suffering, turmoil and look for the inner dimensions of the greater truth.
The Axial Age is a guiding beacon for people to search for enlightenment. In such a context, we can understand that Judaism, Christianity and Islam were logical responses to their respective times and "were all latter-day flowerings of the original Axial Age". In retrospect, it is most shocking to see that those Axial Age visions were sometimes so radical that later generations diluted some of the core messages and in turn created something which the Axial sages wanted to get rid of in the first place.
Within the narrative, the author also explains the social, cultural and spiritual settings in which some of the most influential religious scriptures (Rig Veda, Upanishads, Avesta, etc) were compiled. Among these books, we come to learn about the compilation of the Bible (Old Testament part) when Jews were en masse deported to Babylon, which is where the Old Testament is believed to have been finally written down after being orally transmitted for centuries.
Armstrong does not explain the full the history of the different layers of the Bible or how it was translated and the various versions seen now (for which please read Karen Armstrong's The Bible or Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg's The Book of J). However, the point is that on many occasions, it was contemporary emotions that influenced the compilation of the great texts.
If you are interested in the history of how some present day spirituality or religion evolved, then this book is for you. It speaks the saga of peoples as they try making sense of their surroundings, from very ancient times until today. The book has about 35 pages of notes providing original references, a glossary of important terms and an extensive bibliography. With maps and illustrations, this book is a real page-turner for the true connoisseur of comparative religion and history.
The writer is a full-time bookworm and engaged in electrical engineering research.