Ancient History & Civilisation



The spiritual revolution of the Axial Age had occurred against a backcloth of turmoil, migration, and conquest. It had often occurred between two imperial-style ventures. 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. Karl Jaspers suggested, “The Axial Age can be called an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”1 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, 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.

The Chinese had yearned for peace and integration for a very long time. When Qin conquered the seven remaining states and established a centralized empire in 221, many must have been relieved, but they had a shocking introduction to imperial rule. The triumph of Qin had been a great victory for the Legalists. Even the legendary sage kings, who had been feudal suzerains, had not achieved an empire of this kind. Qin knew that it had no precedent in China, and the king styled himself “the first emperor.” The court historian exulted: “Now within the four seas everywhere, there are commanderies and counties, decrees issue from a single centre, something that has never been from the remotest past.”2 Because this was a new era, the emperor did not claim that he had received the mandate of Heaven. Instead he broke with tradition and appealed to a school of philosophers who had taken no part in the Chinese Axial Age. The court diviners, annalists, and astronomers had probably always been more important than Mohists or Confucians to the rulers of the big competitive states, and they now provided a rationale for Qin rule.


Later this cosmology—a form of magical proto-science—would be known as the School of Yin and Yang, and between the third and the first centuries, it took strong hold on the Chinese imagination.3 As we have seen, the concept of yin and yang probably originated with the peasant communities of China, and the correlative cosmology adopted by the Qin could date back to the Neolithic period. Its resurgence at this point represented an intellectual regression, almost an escape from the challenging demands of the Axial Age. Its aim was to find correspondences between human and natural phenomena. The court philosophers claimed that current events were predictable and controlled by larger, cosmic laws, and this gave people the comforting feeling that they were “in the know” at this time of major transition. The theory had been formulated by the fourth-century philosopher Zou Yan, who argued that the five basic elements—earth, wood, metal, fire, and water—followed each other in strict sequence: wood produced fire; fire produced ash or soil; soil produced metal; metal produced water. Each element was associated with one of the seasons, and each gained ascendancy over its predecessor, in the same way that autumn followed summer. Fire, for example, consumed wood, and soil tamped out fire. The Axial philosophers had little time for this type of speculation. Mohists had curtly pointed out: “The five elements do not always win ascendancy over one another.”4 Zou Yan, however, believed that he could also apply this scheme to the historical succession of the great dynasties. The Yellow Emperor was linked with the ocher-colored earth of China, the Xia with wood, the Shang with their bronze metal, and the Zhou with fire. The new Qin dynasty must, therefore, be dominated by water, which was associated with the season of winter.

The first emperor seized upon this idea as an endorsement of his rule. He dressed in black, the color of winter, which seemed appropriate to the dark, cold policies of Legalism, with its “resolute harshness, deciding all things by law, incising and deleting without benevolence, generosity, mildness or righteousness.”5 At the same time, he supported the latest experiments to find the elixir of life. Some of Zou Yan’s disciples in the Qin court were trying to concoct herbal and mineral recipes for immortality—a debased form of magic that would later be associated with philosophical Daoism.6 Some of these early scientists experimented with medicines; others cultivated longevity by breathing and gymnastic exercises; geographical expeditions were even dispatched to find the Isles of the Blest off the northeast coast of China, where, it was thought, privileged human beings could live forever. All this represented a desire to achieve control, to predict the future and keep death at bay by physical rather than spiritual means, but it was also a retreat from the vision of the Axial sages, who had believed that the quest for this type of permanence and security was immature and unrealistic.

The first emperor had to decide how to organize the vast territories he had conquered. Should he give his sons feudal domains, like the Zhou? His prime minister, Li Si, Xunzi’s old pupil, advised him to grant his sons stipends instead of land, and to maintain absolute control of his empire. When in 213 a court historian criticized this breach with tradition, Li Si presented the emperor with a fateful memorandum. In the old days, he argued, people had consulted independent scholars and followed different schools of thought, but this could not be allowed to continue:

Your Majesty has united the world. Yet some with their private teachings mutually abet each other, and discredit our laws and customs. If such conditions are not prohibited, the imperial power will decline above and partisanships will rise from below.7

Li Si therefore counseled that “all historical records, save those of Qin, all the writings of the hundred schools, and all other literature, save that kept in the custody of the official scholars, and some works on agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, divination, and arboriculture should be delivered to the government and burned.”8 Not only was there a massive book burning, but 460 teachers were executed. The Axial philosophers of China had arrived at a spiritual apprehension of the unity of all things. For Li Si, unification meant the violent destruction of the opposition. There was one world, one government, one history, and one ideology.

Fortunately, the emperor allowed the seventy official philosophers of the regime to keep copies of the Chinese classics, or everything might have been lost. But these savage policies were counterproductive. After the death of the first emperor in 209, the people of the empire rose up in rebellion. After three years of chaos, Liu Bang, a commoner who had started life as a local administrator, led his forces to victory and founded the Han dynasty. He wanted to preserve the centralized political system of the Qin, and even though he could see that Li Si’s policy had been misguided, he knew that the empire needed the realism of the Legalists as well as a more edifying ideology. He found a compromise in the philosophy known as Huang Lo, a synthesis of Legalism and Daoism.9The two schools had always felt an affinity, and they probably chose Huang Di, the legendary Yellow Emperor, as their patron because he had never been important to the Confucians or the Mohists. People were weary of arbitrary imperial rule, and, it was said, Huang Di had ruled by “doing nothing.” The emperor must delegate power to his ministers and refrain from personally intervening in public policy; there would be a rational penal law, but no draconian punishments.

The last Chinese sages of the Axial Age had been wary of dogmatic adherence to a single orthodox position, and were moving toward syncretism. But many people felt confused and found it hard to choose between the different schools. The author of the essay “Under the Empire,” which was probably written in the early years of the Han, felt that the spiritual world of China was disintegrating. The teaching of the sage kings had been crystal clear. But now:

Everywhere under Heaven is in great disarray, the worthy ones and the sages have no light to shed, the Tao and Virtue [de] are no longer united, and the whole world tends to see only one aspect and think that they have grasped the whole of it.10

The Chinese had absorbed an important lesson of the Axial Age. They knew that no school could possibly have the monopoly on truth, because the dao was transcendent and indescribable. At this time, Daoism was in the ascendancy. For the author of “Under the Empire,” nearly all the sages had important insights, but Zhuangzi was the most reliable. He had “taught what he believed, yet was never partisan, nor did he view things from just one perspective.” Because he was so open-minded and unfettered by human orthodoxy, he was “in accord with the Dao and went to the highest heights.”11

But gradually the merits of Confucianism became apparent.12 The Han emperors had always appreciated the importance of ceremony and ritual. The first Han emperor had commissioned the local ritualists to draw up a court liturgy and when it was performed for the first time, he had cried: “Now I realize the nobility of being a son of Heaven!”13 Once people had recovered from the trauma of the Qin inquisition, Daoism began to seem impractical. It had always had more than a hint of anarchy and lawlessness, and it was felt that the people needed some kind of moral guidance. Whatever the merits of wu wei, the emperors could not rule entirely by “emptiness.” The popularity of Huang Lo peaked during the reign of the Han emperor Wen (179–157), and after that the regime was ready for change.

In 136, the court scholar Dong Zhongshu presented a memorial to Emperor Wu (140–87), arguing that there were too many competing schools and recommending that the six classics, taught by the Confucians, should become the official teaching of the state. The emperor agreed, but instead of abolishing all the schools, as the Qin had done, he permitted the other schools to continue. Confucian philosophy endorsed the meritocratic system of the Han, which now selected its civil servants by means of a public examination. The Confucians had always believed that a man of virtue and learning should take a high position in government, regardless of his birth. They supported the family, the basic unit of society, and above all, they were scholars as well as thinkers, intimately familiar with the cultural history that was essential to the Chinese national identity.

By the first century, therefore, Confucianism was very highly regarded, but the Chinese still appreciated the insights of the other philosophies of the Axial Age. In his account of the main schools of China, the historian Liu Xin (c. 46 BCE–23 CE) argued that the Way of the ritualists was “the loftiest of all.” They “take pleasure in the elegance of the Six Classics, lodge their thoughts within the bounds of Benevolence and the Right, pass on the tradition of Yao and Shun, and have kings Wen and Wu as their authorities and Confucius as their founder.” But Confucianism did not have the whole truth: “There are gaps in its knowledge, which can be filled by the other schools.” Each philosophy had its strengths and weaknesses. The Daoists knew how to get to the center of the spiritual life, “grasp the crucial, cling to the basic, maintain oneself by clarity and emptiness, uphold oneself by humility and yielding,” but they underestimated the role of ritual and the rules of morality. The cosmologists could instruct the people in natural science, but this school could degenerate into superstition. The Legalists knew that government depended upon laws and deterrents; their failing was to jettison benevolence and morality. The Mohists’ condemnation of extravagance and fatalism and their “concern for everybody” were valuable, but Liu Xin was not happy with their rejection of ritual and their tendency to ignore “the distinction between kin and stranger.”14

The Chinese understood that nobody had the last word on truth; no orthodoxy, however august, could claim anybody’s entire allegiance. Respect for others’ opinions was more important than achieving a single, infallible vision. China’s inclusive spirit is unique.15 Later the Chinese would be able to absorb Buddhism alongside their homegrown spiritualities. In India and the West, religions are often aggressively competitive, but in China it is often said that a person can be a Confucian by day and a Daoist at night. Not even Legalism was discarded. The Chinese needed its insights as their empire expanded, so much so that orthodox Confucians often accused their rulers of being “Confucians in appearance but Legalists in practice.”16 It is generally acknowledged that each faith has its proper sphere—an Axial attitude that is sorely needed in our own time.


In India, the Mauryan empire rapidly disintegrated after the death of Ashoka in 232. Regional kingdoms developed in the south, Magadha lapsed into obscurity, while Greek invaders from the Greco-Persian colony of Bactria in northern Afghanistan gained control of the Indus Valley. By the middle of the first century, the Greeks were supplanted by invasions of Scythian and Parthian tribes from Iran and central Asia. These foreign rulers were not hostile to Indian religion, but because the Brahmins regarded them as unclean, they tended to gravitate toward the non-Vedic sects. Between 200 BCE and 200 CE, Buddhism and Jainism were probably the most popular religions in India. There was also a powerful explosion of bhakti faith, reflecting a yearning for a more intimate, personal, and emotional spirituality that almost amounted to a popular revolution.

We have only a fragmentary idea of events after the collapse of the Mauryan state, because India entered a dark age that lasted until the rise of the Gupta dynasty in Mathura in the north (319–415 CE) and the Pallava rulers in southern India (300–888 CE), which swept away the so-called heretical movements. Buddhism, however, took root in Sri Lanka, Japan, southeast Asia, and China. In India, classical Hinduism achieved preeminence, but it was very different from the Vedic religion of the Axial Age. The severe aniconic faith was replaced by a dazzling array of colorful deities, effigies, and temples. Indians, who used to experience the divine in sound, now wanted to see the sacred in images, which, they believed, housed the gods’ physical presence. Because the divine was infinite, it could not be confined to a single expression; each deity enshrined a particular aspect of the impersonal brahman. But the most popular gods were Shiva and Vishnu, the gods of bhakti. In some respects, it seemed that the elite religion of the Vedas had been submerged by the less developed faith of the masses.

It is, however, unwise to talk in too schematic a way about the development of Indian religion. Some of these apparently “new” devotions could date back to the Indus Valley civilization or to the non-Aryan Dravidian culture of southern India,17 and despite appearances, Vedic religion was far from dead. Indeed, Brahminical religion made important developments after the collapse of the Mauryan empire.18 New ritual texts reinterpreted the domestic sacrifices of the householder along Axial lines. They were no longer seen as a pale shadow of the public rites but as their quintessence. Provided that the householder knew what he was doing, a simple action, such as throwing a cup of milk into the sacred fire, could epitomize the entire complex ceremonial of the sacrificial cult and discharge all his sacrificial obligations. Very few people could afford to commission an expensive Vedic ceremony, but anybody could throw a fuel stick into the fire as a symbol of his own “self-sacrifice.” “He must recite a portion of the Veda, even if it is only the syllable Om. That fulfils the sacrifice to brahman.19 By these minimal actions, the householder not only paid his “debts” to the gods, but made reparation for the inescapable violence of his daily life. The Axial ideal of ahimsa was now deeply rooted in the Indian religious consciousness. People were acutely aware of the harm that could be inflicted upon apparently inanimate objects. These new texts noted that the householder had five “slaughterhouses” in his home—the hearth, the grinding stone, the broom, the mortar and pestle, and the water jar—that “bind” him every day with the sin of “killing.” The conscious performance of these scaled-down domestic rites constituted an act of “redemption.”20

These texts also record a development that diverged sharply from the Axial ideal.21 There had probably long been an “untouchable” caste in India; it has been suggested that the Brahmin and the “untouchable” classes had been established at about the same time, as opposite poles of the hierarchy.22 But the Law of Manu did not reject this archaic idea, and affirmed the degradation of the three lowest ranks. The carpenters, carvers, and fierce “untouchables” (candelas) were the result of mixed marriages between vaishyas, kshatriyas, and Brahmins, respectively. They must be totally excluded from Vedic society, live on the outskirts of the villages, and perform such menial and polluting tasks as leatherwork and sweeping dung from the village.23

The bhakti revolution tried to adapt the austere religion of the Brahmanas and renouncers to the ordinary people. The popularity of these devotional cults revealed the new hunger for theism. Not everybody wanted to merge with the impersonal brahman; they preferred a more human encounter with a god to whom they could relate. Bhakti was defined as “the passionate longing for the Lord from one’s whole heart”; the love of the Lord would take people beyond their selfishness, making them “perfect, satisfied, free from hatred, pride and self-interest.”24 Bhakti was, therefore, another way of emptying the heart of egotism and aggression. People who could not model their lives on an interior, intellectualized paradigm of humanity could imitate a god whose love and selflessness were easily apparent. Thus Krishna had instructed Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita:

Focus your mind on me,

Let your understanding enter me;

Then you will dwell

In me without doubt.

If you cannot concentrate

Your thoughts firmly upon me

Then seek to reach me, Arjuna,

By discipline in practice.25

The bhakti religions recognized that not everybody had the same powers of concentration; some might find the disciplined imitation of Krishna in their daily lives easier than long hours of meditation.

This was not a daunting faith; it could be cultivated over time by simple acts of devotion. Devotees could begin by listening to talks about Vishnu/Krishna; then they could start to recite his names, while thinking about his great feats of love for humanity. They could make a simple offering before his shrine and learn to consider him as a friend, until eventually they were able, without any excessive straining, to surrender to him entirely.26 Self-surrender was the central act of bhakti; it was an act of kenosis that transformed the person into a bhakta. At this point, the worshiper stopped resisting the Lord and learned to behave as lovingly toward others as he did. The Bhagavad-Gita gave the highest praise to the bhakta who had learned to practice what the Confucians called shu, “likening to oneself.”

When he sees identity in everything

Whether joy or suffering,

Through analogy with the self,

He is deemed a man of pure discipline.27

Bhakti encouraged the worshiper to acknowledge his helplessness and need, and this experience of his own vulnerability made it possible to empathize with others. The new spirituality was, therefore, deeply in tune with the Axial Age.

The Lord himself was the exemplar of love. Central to the cult of Vishnu was the avatara, a “manifestation” or “descent” of the god into an earthly or human form. At times of historical crisis, Vishnu gave up the bliss of heaven to save the world.28 It was said that he had made ten such appearances: Krishna was the most important of these avatars, but Vishnu had also become manifest as a fish, a bear, a dwarf, and a tortoise—creatures that may have been the symbols of indigenous deities, which were thus grafted onto the Vedic system. The development of the avatara idea is complex: it probably derived from the amalgamation of many different cults, some of which could have been extremely ancient. But in bhakti, they acquired Axial significance. By making the loving “descent” into his avatara, Vishnu revealed himself to be the savior god par excellence, who laid aside the outward trappings of divinity to help suffering humanity.

Vishnu had always had this potential. He had been mentioned only infrequently in the Rig Veda, but his name probably derived from vish: “to enter.”29 Not only did he participate in and pervade the world, but he was the axis mundi that tirelessly supported the earth upon his shoulders. He was also a creator god, but unlike Indra, he had not brought order out of chaos by violence and deception. Instead he had conquered the world for gods and humans by taking three giant strides that encompassed the entire cosmos, “widely pacing, with three steppings forth over the realms of earth for freedom and for life.”30 A benevolent god, he was the friend of human beings and the protector of the unborn child.31 The Brahmanas identified him with the healing power of sacrifice; in Vedic lore he was associated with the Purusha, the primordial Person who had voluntarily laid down his life to enable the world to come into being, and thus enshrined the principle of self-emptying love.

Shiva, the other god of bhakti, was very different.32 Linked with the terrifying Rudra, the uncanny mountain god whom people implored to stay away from their settlements and cattle, he was frightening as well as gracious. There was violence in his mythos, but he was also the source of great happiness. Shiva was implacable if you did not worship him, but would always save his bhakta. Yet he was a jealous god. In one of the earliest tales, he killed Daksha, a devotee of Vishnu, who had refused to invite Shiva to his sacrifice; there was fierce rivalry between the two sects. However, as the lover of Parvati, Shiva became the enchanting Lord of the Dance and an icon of salvation: the dwarf under Shiva’s foot was an image of the evil that Shiva had subdued; his outstretched hand a sign of grace; his raised foot an emblem of freedom; and the snake around his neck a symbol of immortality. Shiva was creator and destroyer, a householder as well as a great yogin. In his person, he synthesized the apparent contradictions of the spiritual life and gave his worshipers intimations of transcendence and unity that went beyond earthly categories.

The effigy was very important in bhakti: the image (murti) of Shiva, Vishnu, or Krishna was their “embodiment,” thought to contain a real and physically manifest divine presence.33 The god had descended into his statue at the moment of its consecration, so that it became the abode of the divine. In some of the old temples, it was said to have been “found,” sent by a god, or its whereabouts revealed in a dream. The statue was, therefore, itself an avatara, manifesting the self-sacrificing love of the god. Some texts even spoke of the god’s suffering when he compressed himself into the man-made image out of compassion for humanity. When it became the focus of contemplation, the statue was thus an icon of altruism. Buddhists and Jains were also influenced by this new Hindu devotion. In the first century CE, as never before, they began to create statues of the Buddha and of the twenty-four spiritual leaders called tirthankaras (“ford-makers”), who had preceded Mahavira in charting the path to enlightenment. These images first appeared in Gandhara in northwest India and Mathura on the Yamuna River.

The Buddha had always discouraged the cult of personality and had tirelessly deflected the attention of his disciples from himself to the message and method that he taught. Devotion to a human being could be a “fetter” that encouraged unenlightened habits of dependence and attachment. In the centuries that followed his death, Buddhists would have felt it unseemly to honor a statue of the Buddha, because he had “gone” into the bliss of nibbana. But the icons of the Buddha would become very important. When they looked at the serenity and fulfillment of his face, people became aware of what a human being could become. He was an image of enlightened humanity, so suffused with the ineffable nibbana that he was identical with it. In an important sense, therefore, he was nibbana, and expressed the transcendent reality in a human form.

By this time, Buddhism had split into two separate schools, both regarded as authentic versions of the faith. Historically there has been little animosity or rivalry between the two. The more austere and monastically inclined Theravada retired from the world, and sought enlightenment in solitude. The Mahayana was more democratic and emphasized the virtue of compassion. They pointed out that the Buddha had returned to the marketplace after his enlightenment and worked for forty years to show people how to deal with the ubiquitous pain of life. In the first century CE, this gave rise to a new Buddhist hero: the bodhisattva, a person who was on the brink of achieving enlightenment. Instead of disappearing into the bliss of nibbana, however, the bodhisattvas sacrificed their own happiness for the sake of the people and returned to the world of samsara to teach other people to find liberation. They were not unlike the savior gods of bhakti, who descended from heaven to help suffering humanity. As this first-century text explained, the bodhisattvas were not interested in achieving a privatized nibbana.

On the contrary, they have surveyed the highly painful world of being, and yet desirous of winning supreme enlightenment, they do not tremble at birth-and-death. They have set out for the benefit of the world, for the ease of the world, out of pity for the world. They have resolved: “We will become a shelter for the world, the world’s place of rest, the final relief of the world, islands of the world, lights of the world, and the guides of the world’s means of salvation.”34

The bodhisattva was a new model of compassion, one that translated the old ideal of the Axial Age into a new form.

The Jewish Axial Age had been cut short, stifled, perhaps prematurely, by the difficulties of dispersion and resettlement, but it was brought to fulfillment by marvelous secondary and tertiary flowerings. During the first century CE, when the Holy Land had been occupied by the Roman empire, the country was in turmoil. A group of political Jewish zealots fiercely opposed Roman rule and in 66 CE orchestrated a rebellion that, incredibly, held the Roman armies at bay for four years. Fearing that it would spread to the Jews of the diaspora, the Roman authorities crushed the insurgency mercilessly. In 70 CE, the emperor Vespasian conquered Jerusalem and burned the temple to the ground. This second destruction was a bitter blow, but, with hindsight, it seems that the Jews of Palestine, who tended to be more conservative than the diaspora Jews, had already prepared themselves for the disaster. The Essenes and the Qumran sect had already withdrawn from mainstream society, believing that the Jerusalem temple was corrupt; their purified community would be a new temple of the spirit. They had imbibed the apocalyptic piety that had developed after the Axial Age and, like the Zoroastrians, looked forward to a great battle at the end of time between the children of light and the children of darkness, internalizing the violence of their time and giving it sacred endorsement.

But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees, who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law. Perhaps the greatest of the Pharisees was Rabbi Hillel (c. 80 BCE–30 CE), who migrated to Palestine from Babylonia. In his view, the essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit, which he summed up in the Golden Rule. In a famous Talmudic story, it was said that one day a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied simply: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.”35

The Pharisees wanted no part in the violence that was erupting destructively around them. At the time of the rebellion against Rome, their leader was Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, Hillel’s greatest student. He realized that the Jews could not possibly defeat the Roman empire, and argued against the war, because the preservation of religion was more important than national independence. When his advice was rejected, he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem hidden in a coffin in order to get past the Jewish Zealots who were guarding the city gates. He then made his way to the Roman camp and asked Vespasian for permission to live with his scholars in Javne, on the coast of southern Palestine. After the destruction of the temple, Javne became the new capital of Jewish religion. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age.

The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear:

It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: “Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.” Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’ ”36

Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.”37 When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.”38 When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst.39

Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.”40 To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.”41 God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity.42 To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image.43 To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God.44 Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.

In Rabbinic Judaism, study was as important as meditation in other traditions. It was a spiritual quest: the word for study, darash, meant “to search,” “to go in pursuit of.” It led not to an intellectual grasp of somebody else’s ideas, but to new insight. So rabbinic midrash (“exegesis”) could go further than the original text, discover what it did not say, and find an entirely fresh interpretation; as one rabbinic text explained: “Matters that had not been disclosed to Moses were disclosed to Rabbi Akiba and his generation.”45Study was also inseparable from action. When Rabbi Hillel had expounded the Golden Rule to the skeptical pagan, he told him, “Go and study it.” The truth of the Golden Rule would be revealed only if you put it into practice in your daily life.

Study was a dynamic encounter with God. One day, somebody came to Rabbi Akiba and told him that Ben Azzai was sitting expounding the scripture with fire flashing around him. Rabbi Akiba went to investigate. Was Ben Azzai, perhaps, discussing Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot, which inspired the mystically inclined to make their own ascent to heaven? No, Ben Azzai replied.

I was only linking up the words of the Torah with one another, and then with the words of the prophets, and the prophets with the writings, and the words rejoiced, as when they were delivered from Sinai, and they were sweet as at their original utterance.46

Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation. This dynamic vision could set the world afire.

There were, therefore, no “orthodox” beliefs. Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think. In one seminal story, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was engaged in an intractable argument with his colleagues about a point of Jewish law. He could not convert them to his point of view, so he asked God to back him up by performing some spectacular miracles. A carob tree moved four hundred cubits of its own accord; water in a conduit flowed backward; the walls of the house of studies shook so dramatically that the building seemed about to collapse. But Rabbi Eliezer’s companions were not impressed. Finally, in desperation, he asked for a “voice from heaven” (bat qol) to come to his aid. Obligingly the divine voice declared: “What is your quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer? The legal decision is always according to his view.” But Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet and quoted the book of Deuteronomy: “It is not in heaven.” The teaching of God was no longer confined to the divine sphere. It had been promulgated on Mount Sinai, and was therefore the inalienable possession of every single Jew. It did not belong to God anymore, “so we pay no attention to a bat qol.47

The rabbis fully accepted the Axial principle that the ultimate reality was transcendent and ineffable. Nobody could have the last word on the subject of God. Jews were forbidden to pronounce God’s name, as a powerful reminder that any attempt to express the divine was so inadequate that it was potentially blasphemous. The rabbis even warned Israelites not to praise God too frequently in their prayers, because their words could only be defective. When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were careful to distinguish those traits of God that he allowed us to see from the divine mystery that would always be inaccessible to us. They liked to use such phrases as the “glory” (kavod) of God; the “Shekhinah,” the divine presence; and the “Holy Spirit” rather than “God” tout court, as a constant reminder that the reality they experienced did not correspond to the essence of the Godhead. No theology could be definitive. The rabbis frequently suggested that on Mount Sinai, each of the Israelites had experienced God differently. God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person “according to the comprehension of each.”48 What we call “God” was not the same for everybody. Each of the prophets had experienced a different “God,” because his personality had influenced his conception of the divine. This profound reticence would continue to characterize Jewish theology and mysticism.

Christianity began as another of the first-century movements that tried to find a new way of being Jewish. It centered on the life and death of a Galilean faith healer who was crucified by the Romans in about 30 CE; his followers claimed that he had risen from the dead. They believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Jewish messiah, who would shortly return in glory to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. He was the “son of God,” a term they used in the Jewish sense of somebody who had been assigned a special task by God and enjoyed a privileged intimacy with him. The ancient royal theology had seen the king of Israel as the son and servant of Yahweh; the suffering servant in Second Isaiah, who was associated with Jesus, had also suffered humiliation for his fellow humans and had been raised by God to an exceptionally high status.49 Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion and was deeply Jewish. Many of his sayings, recorded in the gospel, were similar to the teachings of the Pharisees. Like Hillel, Jesus taught a version of the Golden Rule.50 Like the rabbis, he believed that the commandments to love God with your whole heart and soul and your neighbor as yourself were the greatest mitzvoth of the Torah.51

The person who made Christianity a gentile religion was Paul, the first Christian writer, who believed that Jesus had also been the messiah, the anointed one (in Greek, christos). Paul was a diaspora Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia; a former Pharisee, he wrote in koine Greek. Bridging both worlds, he was convinced that he had a mission to the goyim, the foreign nations: Jesus had been a messiah for the gentiles as well as the Jews. Paul had the universal—“immeasurable”—vision of the Axial Age. God felt “concern for everybody.” He was convinced that Jesus’ death and resurrection had created a new Israel, open to the whole of humanity.

Writing to his converts in Philippi in Macedonia during the mid-fifties, about twenty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul quoted an early Christian hymn that shows that from the very beginning, Christians had experienced Jesus’ mission as a kenosis.52 The hymn began by pointing out that Jesus, like all human beings, had been in the image of God, yet he did not cling to this high status,

But emptied himself [heauton ekenosen]

To assume the condition of a slave. . . .

And was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.

But because of this humiliating “descent,” God had raised him high and given him the supreme title kyrios (“Lord”), to the glory of God the Father. This vision was not dissimilar to the ideal of the bodhisattva, who voluntarily laid aside the bliss of nibbana for the sake of suffering humanity. Christians would come to see Jesus as an avatara of God, who had made a painful “descent” out of love in order to save the human race. But Paul did not quote the hymn to expound the doctrine of the incarnation. As a former Pharisee, he knew that religious truth had to be translated into action. He therefore introduced the hymn with this instruction to the Christians of Philippi: “In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus.” They must also empty their hearts of egotism, selfishness, and pride. They must be united in love, “with a common purpose and a common mind.”53

There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.54

If they revered others in this selfless way, they would understand the mythos of Jesus’ kenosis.

Jesus was the paradigmatic model of the Christians. By imitating him, they would enjoy an enhanced life, as “sons of God.” In the rituals of the new church, they made a symbolic descent with Christ into the tomb when they were baptized, identified with his death, and now lived a different kind of life.55 They would leave their profane selves behind and share in the enhanced humanity of the kyrios.56 Paul himself claimed that he had transcended his limited, individual self: “I now live not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.”57 It was the old archetypal religion in a new Axial configuration, dominated by the virtue of love. Later Christians would set great store by orthodoxy, the acceptance of the “correct teaching.” They would eventually equate faith with belief. But Paul would have found this difficult to understand. For Paul, religion was about kenosis and love. In Paul’s eyes, the two were inseparable. You could have faith that moved mountains, but it was worthless without love, which required the constant transcendence of egotism:

Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.58

Love was not bursting with self-importance, clinging to an inflated idea of the self, but was empty, self-forgetful, and endlessly respectful of others.

The gospels, written between 70 and about 100 CE, follow Paul’s line. They did not present Jesus teaching doctrines, such as the Trinity or original sin, which would later become de rigueur. Instead they showed him practicing what Mozi might have called jian ai, “concern for everybody.” To the dismay of some of his contemporaries, Jesus regularly consorted with “sinners”—prostitutes, lepers, epileptics, and those who were shunned for collecting the Roman taxes. His behavior often recalled the outreach of the Buddha’s “immeasurables,” because he seemed to exclude nobody from his radius of concern. He insisted that his followers should not judge others.59 The people who would be admitted to the kingdom would be those who practiced practical compassion, feeding the hungry and visiting people who were sick or in prison.60 His followers should give their wealth to the poor.61 They should not trumpet their good deeds, but live gentle, self-effacing lives.62

It seems that Jesus was also a man of ahimsa. “You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” he said to the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount, “but I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.”63 When he was arrested, he would not let his followers fight on his behalf: “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”64 And he died forgiving his executioners.65 One of his most striking—and, scholars tell us, most probably authentic—instructions forbade all hatred:

You have heard how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good and his rain to fall on honest men alike. For if you love those who love you, how can you claim any credit? Even the tax-collectors and the pagans do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.66

The paradox “Love your enemies” was probably designed to shock his audience into new insight; it required kenosis, because you had to offer benevolence where there was no hope of any return.

The final flowering of the Axial Age occurred in seventh-century Arabia, when the prophet Muhammad brought the Qur’an, a divinely inspired scripture, to the people of the Hijaz. Muhammad, of course, had never heard of the Axial Age, but he would probably have understood the concept. The Qur’an did not claim to be a new revelation, but simply to restate the message that had been given to Adam, the father of humanity, who was also the first prophet. It insisted that Muhammad had not come to replace the prophets of the past but to return to the primordial faith of Abraham, who lived before the Torah and the gospel—before, that is, the religions of God had split into warring sects.67 God had sent messengers to every people on the face of the earth, and today Muslim scholars have argued that had the Arabs known about the Buddha or Confucius, the Qur’an would have endorsed their teachings too. The basic message of the Qur’an was not a doctrine—indeed, it was skeptical of theological speculation, which it called zannah,“self-indulgent guesswork”—but a command to practical compassion. It was wrong to build a private fortune selfishly, at the expense of others, and good to share your wealth fairly and create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people were treated with respect.

Like all the great Axial sages, Muhammad lived in a violent society, when old values were breaking down. Arabia was caught up in a vicious cycle of tribal warfare, in which one vendetta led inexorably to another. It was also a time of economic and material progress. The harsh terrain and climate of the Arabian Peninsula had isolated the Arabs, but in the late sixth century CE the city of Mecca had established a thriving market economy and its merchants took their caravans into the more developed regions of Persia, Syria, and Byzantium. Muhammad was himself a successful merchant, and delivered his message to the Meccans in an atmosphere of cutthroat capitalism and high finance. The Meccans were now rich beyond their wildest dreams, but in the stampede for wealth, old tribal values, which demanded that the community take care of the weaker members of the clan, had been forgotten. There was widespread malaise, and the old pagan faith, which had served the Arabs well in their nomadic days in the desert, no longer met their altered circumstances.

When Muhammad received his first revelations, in about 610 CE, many of the Arabs had become convinced that Allah, the High God of their pantheon,* 8 was identical with the God of the Jews and Christians. Indeed, Christian Arabs often made the hajj pilgrimage to the Kabah, commonly regarded as Allah’s shrine in Mecca, alongside the pagans. One of the first things that Muhammad asked his converts to do was to pray facing Jerusalem, the city of the Jews and Christians whose God they were now going to worship. No Jews or Christians were required—or even invited—to join the new Arab religion unless they particularly wished to do so, because they had received valid revelations of their own. In the Qur’an, God told the Muslims that they must treat the ahl al-kitab, “people of an earlier revelation,” with respect and courtesy:

Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in the most kindly manner—unless it be such of them as are bent on evildoing—and say: “We believe in that which has been revealed to us from on high, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto him that we all surrender ourselves.”68

This remained the policy of the Muslim empire long after Muhammad’s death. Until the middle of the eighth century CE, conversion to Islam was not encouraged. It was assumed that Islam was the religion of the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, as Judaism was the religion of the children of Isaac and Jacob, and Christianity was for the followers of the gospel. Today some Muslims denigrate Judaism and Christianity, and some extremists speak of the Muslim duty to conquer the entire world for Islam, but these are innovations that break with centuries of sacred tradition.

Eventually Muhammad’s religion would be called islam (“surrender”); “Muslims” are men and women who have made an existential surrender of their lives to God. This takes us immediately to the heart of the Axial Age. When Muhammad asked that his converts prostrate themselves in prayer (salat) several times a day, this was hard for the Arabs, who did not approve of monarchy and found it degrading to grovel on the ground like slaves. But the posture of their bodies was designed to teach them at a level deeper than the rational what islam required: transcendence of the ego, which prances, preens, and postures and continually draws attention to itself.

Muslims were also required to give a regular proportion of their income to the poor. This zakat (“purification”) would purge their hearts of habitual selfishness. At first, it seems, the religion of Muhammad was called tazakkah, an obscure word (related to zakat) that is difficult to translate: “refinement,” “generosity,” and “chivalry” have all been suggested as English equivalents, but none is entirely adequate. By tazakkah, Muslims were to cloak themselves in the virtues of compassion and generosity. They must use their intelligence to cultivate a caring and responsible spirit, which made them want to give graciously of what they had to all God’s creatures. They must carefully observe Allah’s bounteous behavior to human beings by observing the “signs” (ayat) of nature:

The earth he has spread out for all living beings, with fruit hereon, and palm trees with sheathed clusters of dates, and grain growing tall on its stalks and sweet-smelling plants.69

By meditating on the mysteries of creation, Muslims must learn to behave with similar generosity. Because of Allah’s kindness, there was order and fruitfulness instead of chaos and sterility. If Muslims followed his example, they would find that their own lives had been transfigured. Instead of being characterized by selfish barbarism, they would acquire spiritual refinement.

The new religion enraged the Meccan establishment, which did not approve of its egalitarian spirit; the most successful families persecuted the Muslims, tried to assassinate the prophet, and eventually Muhammad and seventy Muslim families were forced to flee to Medina, some 250 miles to the north. In the context of pagan Arabia, where the blood tie was the most sacred value, this amounted to blasphemy. It was unheard of to leave your kin and take up permanent residence with a tribe to whom you were not related. After their migration (hijrah), the Muslims faced the prospect of war with Mecca, the most powerful city of Arabia. For five years, they fought a desperate battle for survival. In pre-Islamic Arabia, warriors were merciless. If they had managed to conquer the Muslim community, the Meccans would certainly have exterminated every man, and enslaved every woman and child.

During this dark time, some of the revelations of the Qur’an instructed Muslims about conduct on the battlefield. Islam was not a religion of ahimsa, but the Qur’an permitted only defensive warfare. It condemned war as “an awesome evil,” and forbade Muslims to initiate hostilities.70Aggression was strictly prohibited; there must be no preemptive strikes. But sometimes it was regrettably necessary to fight in order to preserve decent values.71 It was permissible to defend yourself if you were attacked, and while the war lasted, Muslims must fight wholeheartedly, pursuing the enemy vigorously in order to bring things back to normal. But the second the enemy sued for peace, hostilities must cease, and Muslims must accept any terms that were offered.72 War was not the best way of dealing with conflict. It was better to sit down and reason with the enemy, as long as arguments were conducted “in the most kindly manner.” It was much better to forgive, and be forbearing, “since God is with those who are patient in adversity.”73

The word jihad did not mean “holy war.” Its primary meaning was “struggle.” It was difficult to put God’s will into practice in a cruel, dangerous world, and Muslims were commanded to make an effort on all fronts: social, economic, intellectual, and spiritual. Sometimes it might be necessary to fight, but an important and highly influential tradition puts warfare in a subordinate position. It is said that on returning from a battle, Muhammad told his followers: “We are leaving the Lesser Jihad [the war] and returning to the Greater Jihad,” the infinitely more momentous and urgent challenge to reform our own societies and our own hearts. Later Muslim law elaborated on these Qur’anic directives. Muslims were forbidden to fight except in self-defense; retaliation must be strictly proportionate; it was not permitted to make war on a country where Muslims were able to practice their religion freely; civilian deaths must be avoided; no trees could be cut down; and buildings must not be burned.

During the five-year war with Mecca, atrocities were committed on both sides, as was customary in the bloodbath of pre-Islamic Arabia. Bodies were mutilated, and after one of the Jewish tribes of Medina tried to assassinate the prophet and plotted with Mecca to open the gates of the settlement during a siege, the men of the clan were executed. But as soon as the balance shifted in his favor, Muhammad cut the destructive cycle of strike and counterstrike, and pursued an astonishingly daring nonviolent policy.

In 628 CE he announced that he wanted to make the hajj pilgrimage and invited the Muslim volunteers to accompany him. This was extremely dangerous. During the hajj, Arab pilgrims could not carry arms; all violence was forbidden in the Meccan sanctuary. It was even forbidden to speak a cross word or kill an insect. In going unarmed into Mecca, Muhammad was, therefore, walking into the lion’s den. Nevertheless, a thousand Muslims chose to accompany him. The Meccans sent their cavalry to kill the pilgrims, but local Bedouins guided them into the sanctuary by another route. Once they had entered the sacred territory, Muhammad made the Muslims sit down in a peaceful demonstration, knowing that he was putting the Meccans in a difficult position. If they harmed pilgrims in the holiest place of Arabia, blasphemously violating the sanctity of the Kabah, their cause would be irreparably damaged. Eventually, the Meccans sent an envoy to negotiate, and to the horror of the Muslims present, Muhammad obeyed the directives of the Qur’an and accepted conditions that seemed not only to be dishonorable but also to throw away all the advantages that the Muslims had fought and died for. Nevertheless, Muhammad signed the treaty. The Muslim pilgrims were furious, and even though mutiny was narrowly averted, they started the ride home in sullen silence.

But during the homeward journey, Muhammad received a revelation from God, who called this apparent defeat a “manifest victory.”74 While the Meccans, inspired by the violence of the old religion, had “harboured a stubborn disdain in their hearts,” God had sent down the “gift of inner peace [sakinah]” upon the Muslims, so that they had been able to respond to their enemies with calm serenity.75 They were distinguished by total surrender to God, and this separated them from the pagan Meccans and linked them with what we would call the religions of the Axial Age. The spirit of peace, said the Qur’an, was their link with the Torah and the gospel: “They are like a seed that brings forth its shoot, and then he strengthens it so that it grows stout, and in the end stands firm upon its stem, delighting the sowers.”76 The treaty that had seemed so unpromising led to a final peace. Two years later the Meccans voluntarily opened their gates to Muhammad, who took the city without bloodshed.

In every single one of the religions of the Axial Age, individuals have failed to measure up to their high ideals. In all these faiths, people have fallen prey to exclusivity, cruelty, superstition, and even atrocity. But at their core, the Axial faiths share an ideal of sympathy, respect, and universal concern. The sages were all living in violent societies like our own. What they created was a spiritual technology that utilized natural human energies to counter this aggression. The most gifted of them realized that if you wanted to outlaw brutal, tyrannical behavior, it was no good simply issuing external directives. As Zhuangzi pointed out, it was useless for Yan Hui even to attempt to reform the prince of Wei by preaching the noble principles of Confucianism, because this would not touch the subconscious bias in the ruler’s heart that led to his atrocious behavior.






















When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do. The hatred and horror infiltrate their dreams, relationships, desires, and ambitions. The Axial sages saw this happening to their own contemporaries and devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome this. The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked. Regardless of their theological “beliefs”—which, as we have seen, did not much concern the sages—they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity. In one way or another, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule. This, they found, introduced people to a different dimension of human experience. It gave them ekstasis, a “stepping out” from their habitual, self-bound consciousness that enabled them to apprehend a reality that they called “God,” nibbana, brahman, atman, or the Way. It was not a question of discovering your belief in “God” first and then living a compassionate life. The practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield intimations of transcendence. Human beings are probably conditioned to self-defense. Ever since we lived in caves, we have been threatened by animal and human predators. Even within our own communities and families, other people oppose our interests and damage our self-esteem, so we are perpetually poised—verbally, mentally, and physically—for counterattack and preemptive strike. But if we methodically cultivated an entirely different mind-set, the sages discovered, we experienced an alternative state of consciousness. The consistency with which the Axial sages—quite independently—returned to the Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our nature.

If, for example, every time we were tempted to say something hostile about a colleague, a sibling, or an enemy country, we considered how we would feel if such a remark were made about us—and refrained—we would, in that moment, have gone beyond ourselves. It would be a moment of transcendence. If such an attitude became habitual, people could live in a state of constant ekstasis, not because they were caught up in an exotic trance but because they would be living beyond the confines of egotism. The Axial programs all promoted this attitude. As Rabbi Hillel pointed out, this was the essence of religion. The Confucian rituals of “yielding” were designed to cultivate a habit of reverence for others. Before an aspirant could undertake a single yogic exercise, he had to become proficient in ahimsa, nonviolence, never betraying antagonism in a single word or gesture. Until this was second nature, his guru would not allow him to proceed with his meditation—but in the process of acquiring this “harmlessness” he would, the texts explained, experience “indescribable joy.”

The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda. For them, religion was the Golden Rule. They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from—their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence. What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle. If people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to and became dogmatic about it, they could develop an inquisitorial stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, “unskillful.”

This is not to say that all theology should be scrapped or that the conventional beliefs about God or the ultimate are “wrong.” But—quite simply—they cannot express the entire truth. A transcendent value is one that, of its very nature, cannot be defined—a word that in its original sense means “to set limits upon.” Christianity, for example, has set great store by doctrinal orthodoxy, and many Christians could not imagine religion without their conventional beliefs. This is absolutely fine, because these dogmas often express a profound spiritual truth. The test is simple: if people’s beliefs—secular or religious—make them belligerent, intolerant, and unkind about other people’s faith, they are not “skillful.” If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound. This is the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major traditions.

Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual kernel. A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact: it is a program for action. Paul quoted that early Christian hymn to the Philippians not to lay down the law about the incarnation, but to urge them to practice kenosis themselves. If they behaved like Christ, they would discover the truth of their beliefs about him. Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity was meant in part to remind Christians that they could not think about God as a simple personality, and that the divine essence lay beyond their grasp. Some have seen the doctrine of Trinity as an attempt to see the divine in terms of relationship or community; others have discerned a kenosis in the heart of the Trinity. But the object of the doctrine is to inspire contemplation and ethical action. In the fourteenth century CE, Greek Orthodox theologians developed a principle about theology that takes us to the heart of the Axial Age. Any statement about God, they said, should have two qualities: it must be paradoxical, to remind us that the divine cannot fit into our limited human categories, and apophatic, leading us to silence.77 A theological discussion, therefore, should not answer all our queries about the ineffable deity, but should be like a brahmodya, which reduced contestants to speechless awe.

Centuries of institutional, political, and intellectual development have tended to obscure the importance of compassion in religion. All too often the religion that dominates the public discourse seems to express an institutional egotism: my faith is better than yours! As Zhuangzi noted, once people interject themselves into their beliefs, they can become quarrelsome, officious, or even unkind. Compassion is not a popular virtue, because it demands the laying aside of the ego that we identify with our deepest self; so people often prefer being right to being compassionate. Fundamentalist religion has absorbed the violence of our time and developed a polarized vision, so that, like the early Zoroastrians, fundamentalists sometimes divide humanity into two hostile camps, with the embattled faithful engaged in a deadly war against “evildoers.” As we have seen to our cost, this attitude can easily segue into atrocity. It is also counterproductive. As the Daodejing pointed out, violence usually recoils upon the perpetrator, no matter how well intentioned he might be. You cannot force people to behave as you want; in fact, coercive measures are more likely to drive them in the opposite direction.

All the world religions have seen the eruption of this type of militant piety. As a result, some people have concluded either that religion itself is inescapably violent or that violence and intolerance are endemic to a particular tradition. But the story of the Axial Age shows that in fact the opposite is the case. Every single one of these faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time. The Axial Age began in India when the ritual reformers started to extract the conflict and aggression from the sacrificial contest. Israel’s Axial Age began in earnest after the destruction of Jerusalem and the enforced deportation of the exiles to Babylonia, where the priestly writers started to evolve an ideal of reconciliation and ahimsa. China’s Axial Age developed during the Warring States period, when Confucians, Mohists, and Daoists all found ways to counteract widespread lawless, lethal aggression. In Greece, where violence was institutionalized by the polis, despite some notable contributions to the Axial ideal—especially in the realm of tragedy—there was ultimately no religious transformation.

Nevertheless, the critics of religion are right to point to a connection between violence and the sacred, because homo religiosus has always been preoccupied by the cruelty of life. Animal sacrifice—a universal practice of antiquity—was a spectacularly violent act designed to channel and control our inherent aggression. It may have been rooted in the guilt experienced by the hunters of the Paleolithic period when they slaughtered their fellow creatures. The scriptures often reflect the agonistic context from which they emerged. It is not difficult to find a religious justification for killing. If seen in isolation from the tradition as a whole, individual texts in, for example, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Qur’an can easily be used to sanction immoral violence and cruelty. The scriptures have constantly been used in this way, and most religious traditions have disgraceful episodes in their past. In our own day, people all over the world are resorting to religiously inspired terrorism. They are sometimes impelled by fear, despair, and frustration; sometimes by a hatred and rage that entirely violates the Axial ideal. As a result, religion has been implicated in some of the darkest episodes of recent history.

What should be our response? The Axial sages give us two important pieces of advice. First, there must be self-criticism. Instead of simply lambasting the “other side,” people must examine their own behavior. The Jewish prophets gave a particularly strong lead here. At a time when Israel and Judah were threatened by the imperial powers, Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah all told them to scrutinize their own conduct. Instead of encouraging a dangerous righteousness, they wanted to puncture the national ego. To imagine that God is reflexively on your side and opposed to your enemies was not a mature religious attitude. Amos saw Yahweh, the divine warrior, using Assyria as his instrument to punish the kingdom of Israel for its systemic injustice and social irresponsibility. After his deportation to Babylon, when the exiles had been the victims of massive state aggression, Ezekiel insisted that the people of Judah look into their own violent behavior. Jesus would later tell his followers not to condemn the splinter in their neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own.78 The piety of the Axial Age demanded that people take responsibility for their own actions. The Indian doctrine of karma insisted that all our deeds have long-lasting consequences; blaming others without examining how our own failings might have contributed to a disastrous situation was “unskillful,” unrealistic, and irreligious. So too in our current predicament, the Axial sages would probably tell us, reformation must start at home. Before stridently insisting that another religion clean up its act, we should look into our own traditions, scriptures, and history—and amend our own behavior. We cannot hope to reform others until we have reformed ourselves. Secularists, who reject religion, should also look for signs of secular fundamentalism, which is often as stridently bigoted about religion as some forms of religion are about secularism. In its own brief history, secularism has also had its disasters: Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein show that a militant exclusion of religion from public policy can be as lethal as any pious crusade.

Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action. When they confronted aggression in their own traditions, they did not pretend that it was not there but worked vigorously to change their religion, rewriting and reorganizing their rituals and scriptures in order to eliminate the violence that had accumulated over the years. The ritual reformers of India took the agon out of the sacrifice; Confucius tried to extract the militant egotism that had distorted the li; and “P” took the aggression out of the ancient creation stories, producing a cosmogony in which Yahweh blessed all his creatures—including Leviathan, whom he had slaughtered in the old tales.

Today extremists have distorted the Axial traditions by accentuating the belligerent elements that have evolved over the centuries at the expense of those that speak of compassion and respect for the sacred rights of others. In order to reclaim their faith, their coreligionists should embark on a program of disciplined and creative study, discussion, reflection, and action. Instead of sweeping uncomfortable scriptures and historical disasters under the carpet in order to preserve the “integrity” of the institution, scholars, clerics, and laity should study difficult texts, ask searching questions, and analyze past failings. At the same time, we should all strive to recover the compassionate vision and find a way of expressing it in an innovative, inspiring way—just as the Axial sages did.

This need not be a purely intellectual campaign; it should also be a spiritual process. In these perilous times, we need new vision, but, as the Axial sages tirelessly explained, religious understanding is not simply notional. Many opposed the idea of a written scripture, because they feared that it would result in slick, superficial knowledge. A self-effacing, compassionate, and nonviolent lifestyle was just as important as textual study. Even Indra had to change his belligerent way of life and live as a humble Vedic student before he could understand the deepest truths of the tradition. It also took him a long time. Because we live in a society of instant communication, we expect to grasp our religion instantly too, and can even feel that there is something wrong if we cannot appreciate it immediately. But the Axial sages tirelessly explained that true knowledge is always elusive. Socrates believed that he had a mission to make the rational Greeks aware that even when we are most rigorously logical, some aspect of the truth will always evade us. Understanding comes only after intellectual kenosis, when we realize that we know nothing and our mind is “emptied” of received ideas. The Axial sages were not timid about questioning fundamental assumptions, and as we face the problems of our time, we need to have a mind that is constantly open to new ideas.

We are living in a period of great fear and pain. The Axial Age taught us to face up to the suffering that is an inescapable fact of human life. Only by admitting our own pain can we learn to empathize with others. Today we are deluged with more images of suffering than any previous generation: war, natural disasters, famine, poverty, and disease are beamed nightly into our living rooms. Life is indeed dukkha. It is tempting to retreat from this ubiquitous horror, to deny that it has anything to do with us, and to cultivate a deliberately “positive” attitude that excludes anybody’s pain but our own. But the Axial sages insisted that this was not an option. People who deny the suffering of life and stick their heads, ostrichlike, in the sand are “false prophets.” Unless we allow the sorrow that presses in on all sides to invade our consciousness, we cannot begin our spiritual quest. In our era of international terror, it is hard for any of us to imagine that we can live in the Buddha’s pleasure park. Suffering will sooner or later impinge upon all our lives, even in the protected societies of the first world.

Instead of resenting this, the Axial sages would tell us, we should treat it as a religious opportunity. Instead of allowing our pain to fester and erupt in violence, intolerance, and hatred, we should make a heroic effort to use it constructively. The trick, Jeremiah told the deportees, was not to give free rein to resentment. Vengeance was not the answer. Honor the stranger in your midst, “P” told the Jewish exiles, for you were strangers in Egypt. The memory of past distress brings us back to the Golden Rule; it should help us to see that other people’s suffering is as important as our own—even (perhaps especially) the anguish of our enemies. The Greeks put human misery onstage so that the Athenian audience could learn sympathy for the Persians who had devastated their city only a few years earlier. In the tragedies, the chorus regularly instructed the audience to weep for people whose crimes would normally fill them with abhorrence. Tragedy could not be denied. It had to be brought right into the sacred heart of the city and made a force for good—as, at the end of the Oresteia, the vengeful Erinyes were transformed into the Eumenides, the “well-disposed ones,” and given a shrine on the Acropolis. We had to learn to feel with people we have hated and harmed; at the end of the Iliad,Achilles and Priam wept together. Rage and vicious resentment can make us inhuman; it was only when Achilles shared his grief with Priam, and saw him as his mirror image, that he recovered the humanity he had lost.

We must continually remind ourselves that the Axial sages developed their compassionate ethic in horrible and terrifying circumstances. They were not meditating in ivory towers but were living in frightening, war-torn societies, where the old values were disappearing. Like us, they were conscious of the void and the abyss. The sages were not utopian dreamers but practical men; many were preoccupied with politics and government. They were convinced that empathy did not just sound edifying, but actually worked. Compassion and concern for everybody was the best policy. We should take their insights seriously, because they were the experts. They devoted a great deal of time and energy to thinking about the nature of goodness. They spent as much creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer. We have different preoccupations. The Axial Age was a time of spiritual genius; we live in an age of scientific and technological genius, and our spiritual education is often undeveloped.

The Axial Age needed to craft a new vision because humanity had taken a social and psychological leap forward. People had discovered that each person was unique. The old tribal ethic, which had developed a communal mentality to ensure the survival of the group, was being replaced by a new individualism. This is why so many of the Axial spiritualities were preoccupied by the discovery of the self. Like the merchant, the renouncer was a self-made man. The sages demanded that every single person become self-conscious, aware of what he was doing; rituals had to be appropriated by each sacrificer, and individuals must take responsibility for their actions. Today we are making another quantum leap forward. Our technology has created a global society, which is interconnected electronically, militarily, economically, and politically. We now have to develop a global consciousness, because, whether we like it or not, we live in one world. Even though our problem is different from that of the Axial sages, they can still help us. They did not jettison the insights of the old religion, but deepened and extended them. In the same way, we should develop the insights of the Axial Age.

The sages were ahead of us in recognizing that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to cultivate what the Buddhists call an “immeasurable” outlook that extends to the ends of the earth, without excluding a single creature from this radius of concern. The Golden Rule reminded the fledgling individuals of the Axial Age that I value my own self as much as you do yours. If I made my individual self an absolute value, human society would become impossible, so we must all learn to “yield” to one another. Our challenge is to develop this insight and give it a global significance. In the Holiness Code, “P” insisted that no living creature is unclean and that everybody—even a slave—has sovereign freedom. We have to “love” our neighbor as ourselves. As we have seen, “P” did not mean that we had to be filled with emotional tenderness for everybody; in his legal terminology, “love” meant being helpful, loyal, and giving practical support to our neighbor. Today everybody on the planet is our neighbor. Mozi tried to convince the princes of his day that it made good, practical sense to cultivate jian ai, a deliberate and impartial “concern for everybody.” It would, Mozi argued, serve their own best interests. We now know this to be the case. What happens in Afghanistan or Iraq today will somehow have repercussions in London or Washington tomorrow. In the last resort, “love” and “concern” will benefit everybody more than self-interested or shortsighted policies.

In The Bacchae, Euripides showed that it was dangerous to reject “the stranger.” But acceptance of the alien and the foreign takes time; displacing the self from the center of our worldview demands a serious effort. Buddhists recommended meditation on the “immeasurables” to cultivate a different mentality. But people who have neither the time nor the talent for yoga could repeat the Buddha’s poem “Let All Beings Be Happy”—a prayer that demands no theological or sectarian belief. The Confucians also recognized the importance of a program of self-cultivation. The rituals were designed to create a junzi, a mature, fully developed human being who did not treat others carelessly, perfunctorily, or selfishly. But they also transformed the person who was the object of ritual attention and brought out his or her unique holiness. A practically expressed respect for the other is probably indispensable for a peaceful global society and perhaps the only way to “reform” rogue states. But this respect must be sincere. As the Daodejing pointed out, people always sense the motives behind our actions. Nations will also be aware if they are being exploited or humored out of self-interest.

Suffering shatters neat, rationalistic theology. Ezekiel’s terrifying, confusing vision was very different from the more streamlined ideology of the Deuteronomists. Auschwitz, Bosnia, and the destruction of the World Trade Center revealed the darkness of the human heart. Today we are living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple answers; the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other people’s point of view. If religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need, as Mencius suggested, to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all our traditions.

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