Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Part 2: Axial Age
Cultures of pre-Axial age seems to have develop world-wide in a connected fashion. The world was divided into three classes - the rulers or tribal kings, chiefs and priests; the middle class or the demos which included the peasants and merchants; and the slaves. The ruling class grew rich while the demos and slaves grew poorer. These ancient people were fighting more with nature than with themselves, and hence their natural choice of gods was based on nature. 8th century BC was a period of great changes in human civilisation. At several places the demos, especially the merchant class, grew in power. The world became 'more' demo-cratic, however there was no improvement in the condition of slaves. The idea of god evolved with the changing society. It was a time when the intellectual idea of god reached its peak, only to be downgraded later to a more rigid philosophy of worship.
In the beginning there were no great emperors, but states or villages. The democratic states of Greece and village republic of India reduced the power of chiefs and tribal kings. New cities were build, by destroying forests. Great dynasties and empires grew all over the world. Chou dynasty ruled in China. The Neo-Assyrian Empire reached its peak power conquering the Kingdom of Israel as well as nearby countries. Greece colonized other regions of the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. Rome was founded in 753 BC, and the Etruscan Civilization expanded to Italy. The first Olympiad was set at 776 BC. This rapid and mammoth cultural development required huge amount of constructions, and thus, masculine power. This resulted in decrease in the status of females in the society. While men went to work and conquer the world, their female counterparts got restricted in their house taking care of their family and concentrating more on their beauty to please the powerful males. Survival was no more just about making babies, but about winning wars. The fertility goddesses were thus replaced by the powerful male gods.
In the later part of Axial age the first experiment with democracy took a backseat and bigger empires began to form. Religion became part of the politics either to promote harmony or war. In 550 BC Cyrus the Great conquered Medes and formed the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty. Even though he was set to conquer the world, he respected all religions. After defeating the Babylonians he did not impose the Persian gods on his new subjects but restored the effigies of gods belonging to the people conquered by Babylonians. He permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild their temple. Cyrus believed, or wanted his subjects to believe, that god has charged him with the task. Two centuries later Alexander the Great defeated the mighty Persian Empire and dreamt of ruling the world in the name of God. After defeating the hill tribes of Pirsar he ordered his men to build alters to Athena, the patron of war. Athena was Achilles special protector, and Alexander thought of himself as Achilles physical decendent through his mother's family. He called himself the son of Zeus. A century later Ashoka the Great ruled almost whole of India and even part of central Asia. In the tenth year of his rein (254 BC) after defeating all his enemies, Ashoka (as per Buddhist texts) converted to Buddhism and started preaching non-violence. Ashoka was instrumental in promoting Buddhism around Asia.
With the development of socio-economic conditions, intellectual and spiritual development started to take place. The Vedic period of India made way for the Upanishads marking the beginning of Vedanta philosophy. This highly intellectual and spiritual philosophy focused on the deeper understanding of desire and destiny. God, from being a separate entity, became part of all living beings. The main figure in the Upanishads is the sage Yajnavalkya whose teachings influenced later Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. He taught the great doctrine of "neti-neti", the view that truth can be found only through the negation of all thoughts about it. At the same time, around 6th century BC, Buddha, aka Siddhartha Gautama, taught in north eastern part of Indian sub-continent. His teachings helped people achieve nirvana and escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that taught, unlike other religions, that believing in gods was not necessary to attain enlightment. Buddhism spread out of India into greater part of Asia, especially China. Similar religious revolution also took place in China in the form of Taoism and Confucianism in 5th century. Tao or “way” (of life) emphasized on compassion, moderation and humility. Taoist thought focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos, health and longevity, and" wu wei" (action through inaction), which is thought to produce harmony with the Universe. Note the connection between Indian "neti neti" and Chinese "wu wei" philosophy. At the same time Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kǒng Fūzǐ, or K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong", 551–478 BC) taught his complex moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious ideas. The basic philosophy being that human beings are improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavors, especially including self-cultivation and self-creation.
Closer home in Iran the Zoroastrian religion was founded by a priest named Zoroaster. From the little we know about Zoroaster’s life, he was born into Spitama clan and was probably a Vedic Brahmin priest. However he rejected the pagan way of life and worshiped monotheist god Ahura Mazda. He also opposed the animal sacrifices, drinking of Somaras and the rigid caste system. His ideas were not accepted quickly, and he had only one convert, his cousin. As expected, he got opposition from the local religious authorities. After twelve years he left home and went westwards. He was accepted by King Vishtaspa who made Zoroastrism the official religion of his kingdom. Zoroaster later died in his late 70s , but his religion spread far and wide. The philosophy of the Devas spread East, all enemies became Asura. The philosophy of Ahura spread West, and all their enemies became Daevas.
Further west in Greece, in 6th century BC, rational philosophies developed. Logical ideas replaced mythologies. Instead of looking into the internal world like in Asia, these new philosophers investigated the ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. They sought the material principle (archê) of things, and the method of their origin and disappearance. Thales was the first of these philosophers who started the Milesian school. The practical side of philosophy was introduced by Pythagoras of Samos (582-496 BCE). Regarding the world as perfect harmony, dependent on number, he aimed at inducing humankind likewise to lead a harmonious life. Pythagoras’s idea inspired many western philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The ideas of these early philosophers led to the development of mathematics and physics, and thus helped in growth of science, which would later rise against the powerful might of god. But the road would not be an easy one. Many logical thinkers, like Socrates, would be sentenced to death for daring to go against religion.
A different type of religious development took place in Middle East. Yahweeh [YHWH] subdued all other gods and goddesses and became the sole god of the descendents of Prophet Abraham (1800-1500 BC). It marked the end of Goddess’s Golden Age and beginning of modern monotheist religions. YHWH was the god who, according to Bible, sends Moses to save the slaves who were descendents of Abraham. His first temple was constructed by Solomon, king of the ancient Israelites, on mount Moriah, also known as Mount Zion in Jerusalem. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and functioned as a religious focal point in ancient Judaism for the worship of God. The temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BC. The Second Temple was subsequently built ca. 515 BC. It was also destroyed again and subsequently restored under the rule of Herod the Great (37 BCE-4 CE) and, because of this, the restored Second Temple is also known as "Herod's Temple." The Roman legions under the leadership of Titus set fire to the Second Temple in 70 CE, burning it to the ground and destroying it completely. Jewish eschatology includes the belief that a Third Temple will also be built on Mount Moriah.
It is YHWH, the god of Jews, who will later become the god of Jesus and Mohammad, and Mount Moriah will continue to be a sacred place for Jews, and later for Christians and Muslims alike. In the next section we will see the birth of Christianity and Islam, and how these religions will set out to conquer the world. We will see how the other religions react to the onslaught, and how science slowly, but surely, replaces religion. However, the fight still continues till today, a fight to restore the image of god back to the days of its past glory.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Human beings consider themselves as the most intelligent species, the rationale being that they have a highly developed and complex mind that helps them think unlike any other competitor. Wikipedia defines intelligence as below:
Intelligence has been defined in many different ways including as one's capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, planning, creativity and problem solving. It can be more generally described as the ability to perceive information, and retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.
From the perspective of evolution, intelligence is a tool that lets you survive. If survival is a measure of intelligence then the bacteria’s would be right at the top. Human beings would top the chart of macro-organisms. Human beings are not the strongest of animals around, but they have managed to dominate the rest of the animal kingdom by the sheer power of unity. Alone, human beings would have never left the caves. Together they now rule the world. The adhesive that binds them is an idea that is imprinted on several brains so that they can believe in that common idea, common ideology, and a common faith. It helps create a sense of common identity that unites people and thus helps them survive. One of such ideas, probably the most primitive and the most powerful, is the idea of god. This idea is as old as human beings themselves. Since the idea of god helped create unity it was often state sponsored. The priests and the kings shook hands and got into a symbiotic relation and the idea of god flourished.
God or goddesses was the reflection of what human beings wanted to be, powerful, eternal, the ruler of the heaven and earth. He/she was the explanation of all the mysteries that surrounded them, the first cause of all things. With gods came myths or ‘mythos’ or ‘mythas’. Myths were the explanation of the unexplainable, unlike logic or ‘logos’ or ‘sat’. Logos explained ‘how’ the earth formed, ‘how’ human beings came into existence, but mythos explained ‘why’.
Like all ideas, the idea of god evolved. From the early polytheist pagan religion which focused on rituals like animal sacrifice and gods to explain the forces of nature like sky, fertility, wind, fire, sea etc; to the intellectual and spiritual gods of axial age that focused on inner development; to the monotheist religious gods of modern era that focused more on worship. Though the idea of polytheist god seems illogical in the modern era, these pagan religions with multiple gods always had a place for some more. However, the one god concept, though more apt, meant there was no place for another god. It meant more groups, more religions, each religion with their own god, and thus more religious conflicts. With time religion got mixed with politics, and matters became worse. As civilizations grew, the different cultures and faiths clashed. It triggered a fight between different religions, a fight for survival, a fight for glory.
The short series 'God and Glory' is divided into three parts based on the three different evolution phases of god. Though these three different concepts of god does not have any distinct time boundary, in fact some form of all these three ideas were there all the time, they are separated based on the dominant concept of each era- the pre-axial, axial, and the modern.
Part 1: Pre-Axial Age
Part 1: Pre-Axial Age [35000-800BC]
The early world was not as linked as today, but it is fascinating to see that the ideas of god evolve in a similar and connected manner on different corners of the world. Animal sacrifices were common in all ancient religions. It was ritual offering to the deities in exchange of fertility, protection and information. It has been found in all cultures from Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Hindus and Chinese. They were probably supposed to represent something greater – the sacrifice of the animal passions inside human beings and in turn purifying their soul. Or, maybe, it was just a cult.
The gods of the pre-axial era represented forces of nature, like the sun god, sky god, wind god, fire god, sea god etc. God was human beings answer to the mysteries of nature. In the early ages it was the goddess who was dominantly worshiped. The great mother, a naked pregnant woman representing fertility, had been worshipped throughout the world. Statues of her are found in Middle East, Europe and India. These statues date back to the Cro-Magnons of the Upper Paleolithic period. She was the Rhea of Greeks, the Cybele of Romans and the Nu-kua of China.
Most of our knowledge of about the concept of god in this pagan era came from the mythological stories. These stories were written down centuries after they were conceptualized. The original versions got modified and dramatized for people to remember them. But they still give the essence of the philosophies of our ancestors. The Vedas of India (written probably around 2000-500 BC), Enuma Ellish of Babylonia (probably written during Bronge age at the time of Hammurabi), Book of Dead of the Egyptians (Fully evolved around 1600 BC), and the Chineese I Ching (Book of changes probably written around 2953-2838 BC). These books tell us about many ancient believes and myths. These mythological stories are not to be taken literally, but they were a metaphorical way of representing the complex reality.
Every pagan religion had a concept of how the ‘universe’ began, and every religion has more than one version of it. In most of the versions, there was ether chaos or void in the beginning. From this chaos/void was born the gods. Then the gods created life, including the human beings. Some of these early gods were bi-sexual (“great He-She”), others could create life out of their body parts. They were named Nu-Kua in China; Atum (Amun or Amen) in Egypt; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in India; Erebus, Night and Love of Greeks, Apsu and Timat of Mesopotamia and Ginnungagap of Germans. Interestingly the modern science also believes that the universe was created during Big Bang out of chaos/void. From that chaos, different elements emerged, these elements combined to form celestial bodies, from one such celestial body life was created. That life evolved to become human beings.
Another important event that often find a place in myths from different places around the world of the Pre-Axial era was the great flood. The uncanny similarity between the stories of Noah in Book of Genesis, Nuwa (or Nu-Kua) of China, Manu (from which came the words man, man-kind and hu-man) in Bhagavat Purana, the flood myth from the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, and the lesser know flood myth from the Akkadian epic Atra-Hasis makes one wonder if all these people from around the globe were linked some way in the past. The Chinese writing symbols for 'boat' is made up of three words, vessel, eight, and mouth/person (meaning eight persons on a boat). What is amazing is that there were eight persons in the boat of Noah (Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives). As per Chinese mythology these eight mortals came down from heaven and founded the human race. Manu, the founder of humanity (as per Indian mythology) was saved from the great flood by Vishnu disguised as Matsha (fish) avatar. After the flood Manu landed in Manali where there is still a temple build for Manu. It was Ahura Mazda who warned Jamshid (the king of Golden Era) about the great flood in the Zoroastrian myth of Iran.
The stories might be inspired by the finding of fossils of sea animals in the land before the conception of plate tectonics. Some geologist do believe that there were unusual flooding of rivers, lakes and seas in the distance past due to volcanic eruptions (Thera eruption of 1630-1600BC causing Tsunami in Mediterranean sea?) or meteor/comet impact (into the Indian Ocean around 3000–2800 BC, created the 30 kms undersea Burckle Crater, and generated a giant tsunami that flooded coastal lands?) that might have influenced these legends. An archaeological flood at the site of Ur, Mesopotamia, was dated by Dr. C. Leonard Wooly to around 2800BCE. This flood had 8 feet of sediment between levels. But such floods can never cover the entire world. May be, the story originated in a place where the flooding event did take place. Later, the story became famous and was spread by the early traders. The fascinating story found a new home in every corner of the world where it managed to reach. What ever may be the truth, the similarity of the story of flood in remote corners of the world is striking.
The cultures evolved and the power slowly shifted from the kings to the middle class, especially merchants. As culture started to grow, new cities were built. As new cities were built there was a requirement of masculine power. It marked the decline in the status of women in human culture. There was also a decline in worship of The Great Mother as male gods took her throne. The old ideas of god became irrelevant. It marked the beginning of Axial Age (800 to 200BC).
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The moment conscience segregated out of the unconscious, life was born. From that instant life had only one purpose – to survive. But the paradox of life and its survival is that life depended on life itself to survive. In that struggle for survival, both the predator and the prey evolved. Evolution made life more complicated. It created a complex web of food chains. Then came the anomaly of life, Homo sapiens. They evolved to become the most efficient species in fulfilling the motto of survival, but again, at the cost of life itself. Not only did they survive, they grew in numbers and are ruling the world. Using their sophisticated weapon of 'intelligence' they rose rapidly to the top of the food chain, they became the ultimate predator. Alone in the top, they had nothing to fear. Having no other predator to deal with, survival was supposed to become easy. Instead, it became more complicated. As they grew in number they had to fight their own kind for space and food. In that fight, numbers mattered. The more the number of men in a group, the stronger the group was. How to keep these vast number of men together? Where logos failed, mythos took over. The myth of 'identity', be it religion, tribe or totem, kept people together. It made them live together, eat together, pray together and fight together. In that 'intelligent' intra species combat, Homo sapiens became more 'civilised'.With help of their greatest strength 'intelligence', they became the species that now dominate the entire globe. In the Mesozoic the dinosaurs dominated the globe with help of their greatest strength, 'size'. Before they were wiped out, their greatest strength became their biggest weakness. Will human fate be the same? Will Homo sapiens become the index fossil of Anthropocene?
Monday, October 4, 2010
Being a person from the oil industry, I thought this is the best place to begin my search. This search will take us back by 150 years, a time when the most powerful industry of all times was about to take birth. It will take you through the first drop of oil that came out of Drake’s well, through to the drops of oil that came out of the BP well in Gulf of Mexico. The former one came as a pleasant surprise, while the later also did surprise many, but not in a pleasant way. The search will also show us how this new industry grew in power rapidly to decide the fate of nations and changed the history of humanity forever. The industry suffered many setbacks, but it always came back stronger. The industry learned how to self-sustain by controlling the game of demand and supply. The supply was maintained by advancing technologies, moving into challenging areas and by conspiracies to capture big oilfields in the name of war. The demand, on the other hand, was maintained by making people more and more dependent on oil, making them so used to it, that they can never come out of it. And as long as this fine balance between the demand and supply was maintained, the industry could only grow from strength to strength.