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.