Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 700 to 600 BCE)

Vedic religion came of age in the scriptures known as the Upanishads, also called the Vedanta, “the end of the Vedas.” The ancient Vedic religion had been inspired by ceaseless migration and the appropriation of new territory. It had emerged from a world of violent conflict. In the Upanishads, a group of mystics embarked on the peaceful conquest of inner space. This marked a major step forward in religious history. External ritual was replaced by rigorous introspection, and yet this was regarded not as an innovation but as the fulfillment of ancient tradition. The thirteen classical Upanishads, produced between the seventh and second centuries, were accorded the same status as the Rig Veda. They too were shruti, “revealed,” regarded as scripture par excellence. They are not easy to interpret, but they have been more influential in shaping Hindu spirituality than any other part of the Vedic corpus.

The two earliest Upanishads emerged seamlessly from the world of the Brahmanas. Like the Aranyakas, or Forest Texts, they were esoteric sections added onto the Brahmana commentaries of the different priestly schools. The first of the Upanishads actually called itself an Aranyaka. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is the “Great Forest Text” of the White Yajur Veda School. It opened with a discussion of the Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important of the royal ceremonies and the speciality of the White Yajur Veda. The author of the Upanishad pointed out bandhus (“connections”) in the traditional way, identifying various parts of the horse with the natural world. The stallion’s head was the dawn, his eyes were the sun, and his breath was the wind. But in the Upanishad, the ritual could be performed and completed mentally. It had ceased to be linked with a physical, external sacrifice but took place entirely in the mind of the sage (rishi).

The Chandogya Upanishad was the Vedantic text of the Udgatr priests who were responsible for the chant, and it began appropriately with a meditation on the sacred syllable “Om,” with which the Udgatr priest began each hymn. Sound had always been divine in India; it was the primal reality, because, it was said, everything else derived from it. Now, the Chandogya Upanishad made this single syllable stand for all sound and for the entire cosmos. Om was the essence of everything that existed—of the sun, moon, and stars. It was the brahman in form of sound, the vital power that held everything together: “As all leaves are held together by a stalk, so all speech is held together by Om. Verily, the whole world is nothing but Om.1 But the chant was not merely a transcendent reality external to the priest who intoned it. It was also one with the human body, with the atman, with breath, speech, ear, eye, and mind. The Chandogya Upanishad directed the attention of the audience back to the inner self. When a priest intoned this sacred syllable with these “connections” firmly in his mind, he attained the goal of the spiritual quest. Because Om was the brahman, it was “the immortal and the fearless.”2 A person who chanted this immortal and fearless sound while contemplating these bandhus would himself become immortal and free from fear.

This brings us to the heart of the Upanishadic vision. The focus was no longer on the external performance of a rite, but on its interior significance. It was not sufficient simply to establish the connections (bandhus) between the ritual and the cosmos; you had to know what you were doing, and this knowledge would take you to the brahman, the ground of being. The worshiper no longer directed his attention to devas outside himself; he turned within, “for in reality each of these gods is his own creation, for he himself is all these gods.”3 The focus of the Upanishads was the atman, the self, which was identical with the brahman. If the sage could discover the inner heart of his own being, he would automati-cally enter into the ultimate reality and liberate himself from the terror of mortality.

To an outsider, this sounds frankly incredible—a series of abstract statements that are impossible to verify. And indeed, it is very difficult to follow the teachings of the Upanishads.4 The sages did not give us rational demonstrations of their ideas. The texts have no system and the logic frequently seems bizarre. Instead of reasoned arguments, we have accounts of experiences and visions, aphorisms and riddles that are hard to penetrate. Certain phrases recur that clearly bear a weight of meaning that the Western reader cannot easily share. “This self is the brahman”—Ayam atma brahman—the sage tells us. “That is the teaching.”5 The Chandogya is even more elliptical: “That you are!” the sage tells his son. Tat tvam asi.6 These are the “great sayings” (maha-vakyas), but it is hard to see why we should accept them. Instead of developing an argument systematically, the sages often presented their audience with a string of apparently unrelated insights. Sometimes they preferred to give negative information, telling us what was not the case. Thus Yajnavalkya, the most important rishi in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, refused to define what he meant by atman:

About this self [atman], one can only say “not . . . not” [neti . . . neti]. He is ungraspable, for he cannot be grasped. He is undecaying, for he is not subject to decay. He has nothing sticking to him, for he does not stick to anything. He is not bound; yet he neither trembles in fear nor suffers injury.7

Often a debate ends in one of the contestants falling silent, unable to proceed, and this gives us a clue. The sages are conducting a brahmodya, the contest in which the competitors tried to formulate the mystery of the brahman. The competition had always ended in silence, indicating that the reality lay beyond the grasp of speech and concepts. The “great sayings” are not accessible to normal, secular modes of thought. They do not proceed from logic or sense perception, but can be apprehended only after a long period of training, meditation, and cultivating a habit of inwardness that transforms our way of looking at ourselves and the world. A reader who has not adopted the Upanishadic method will not be able to comprehend its conclusions.

The word “Upanishad” meant “to sit down near to.” This was an esoteric knowledge imparted by mystically inclined sages to a few spiritually gifted pupils who sat at their feet. It was not for everybody. Most Aryans continued to worship and sacrifice in the traditional manner, since they lacked either the talent or the desire to undertake this long and arduous quest. The sages were exploring new ways of being religious. In penetrating the uncharted world of the psyche, they were pioneers, and only a talented few would be able to accompany them. But life was changing, and this meant that some people needed to find a spirituality to meet their altered circumstances. The first Upanishads were set in a society that was at the very beginning of the process of urbanization.8There is little agricultural imagery in these texts, but many references to weaving, pottery, and metallurgy. People were traveling long distances to consult these sages, which meant that transport was improving. Many of the debates took place in the court of a raja. Life was becoming more settled, and some had more leisure for contemplation. The Brhadaranyaka was almost certainly composed in the kingdom of Videha, a frontier state on the most easterly point of Aryan expansion in the seventh century.9 Videha was scorned as an unsophisticated, newfangled place by the Brahmins in the “Land of the Arya” to the west, but there was a great admixture of peoples in these eastern territories, including Indo-Aryan settlers from earlier waves of migration, tribes from Iran (later known as the Malla, Vajji, and Sakya), as well as peoples who were indigenous to India. These new encounters were intellectually stimulating. The renouncers were also generating fresh ideas, as they experimented with their ascetic lifestyle.

Certainly the two earliest Upanishads both reflect this intense intellectual and spiritual excitement. Neither the Brhadaranyaka nor the Chandogya was written by a single author; they were anthologies of separate texts that were put together later by an editor. Authors and editors alike all drew upon a common stock of anecdotes and ideas circulating in the courts and villages. People thought nothing of traveling from Gandhara to Videha, which were a thousand miles apart, to consult one of the distinguished teachers of the day: Sandiliya, who speculated about the nature of the atman; Janaka, king of Videha; Pravahna Jaivali, king of Kuru-Panchala; Ajatashatru, king of Kashi; and Sanatkumara, who was famous for his lifelong celibacy.10 The new ideas may originally have been developed by Brahmin priests, but kshatriyas and kings also took part in the debates and discussions, as did women—notably Gargi Vacaknavi and Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya’s wife. Both women seem to have been accepted by the other contestants in the brahmodya, and their contributions were included by the editors as a matter of course. But the two most important rishis in the early Upanishads were Yajnavalkya of Videha and Uddalaka Aruni, a famous teacher of the Kuru-Panchala region, both of whom were active in the second half of the seventh century.11


Yajnavalkya was the personal philosopher of King Janaka of Videha, who was himself a leading exponent of the new spirituality. Like all the Upanishadic sages, Yajnavalkya was convinced that there was, as it were, an immortal spark at the core of the human person, which participated in—was of the same nature as—the immortal brahman that sustained and gave life to the entire cosmos. This was a discovery of immense importance and it would become a central insight in every major religious tradition. The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being. It could, therefore, be discovered in the depths of the self, the atman. The Brahmanas had already concluded that the core of the human being—variously identified as breath, water, or fire—was identical to the sacrifice, and that the power at the heart of the sacrifice was brahman, the essence of everything that existed. Yajnavalkya and the other Upanishadic sages developed this concept and freed it from external ritual. The atman was no longer simply the breath, which gave life to the human being, but that which inhaled and exhaled; it was the agent behind all the senses and was, therefore, beyond description. “You can’t see the Seer who does the seeing,” Yajnavalkya explained. “You can’t hear the Hearer who does the hearing; you can’t think with the Thinker who does the thinking; and you can’t perceive the Perceiver who does the perceiving. The Self within the All [brahman] is this atman of yours.”12 For the first time, human beings were systematically making themselves aware of the deeper layers of human consciousness. By disciplined introspection, the sages of the Axial Age were awakening to the vast reaches of selfhood that lay beneath the surface of their minds. They were becoming fully “self-conscious.”

Because the self was identical with the immortal, unchangeable brahman, it was also “beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death.”13 It was, Yajnavalkya explained to his wife, Maitreyi, “imperishable . . . indestructible.” But like the brahman itself, it was transcendent, “ungraspable.” It was only possible to define or comprehend something when there was duality. A person can see, taste, or smell something that is separate and apart from him- or herself. But when “the whole [brahman] has become a person’s very self [atman], then who is there for him to see and by what means? Who is there for me to think of and by what means?”14 It was impossible to perceive the perceiver within oneself. So you could only say neti . . . neti (“not this”). The sage affirmed the existence of the atman while at the same time denying that it bore any similarity to anything known by the senses.

Yet the goal of the new spirituality was knowledge of the unknowable atman. How could this be achieved? Yajnavalkya did not impart factual information, but used the traditional form of the brahmodya debate to show his interlocutor that when he considered brahman or atman, he had come to the end of what the ordinary thought processes could usefully do. It was a technique similar to the dialectic method developed later by Socrates. By eliminating his opponent’s inadequate definitions of the atman, taking them apart one after the other, Yajnavalkya gradually led him or her from the consideration of external phenomena to an apprehension of the more elusive realities of the internal world. When, for example, King Janaka listed what other Brahmins had told him about the atman—that it was speech, breath, the eye, the wind, or the heart—Yajnavalkya insisted that these answers were only half true.15 The reality they were looking for lay at the base of these phenomena, supporting them like the foundations of a house. They could not define but only participate in this more fundamental reality, live in it, as in a home. By systematically removing layer after layer of superficial knowledge, Yajnavalkya led his disciples to perceive everyday realities as manifestations of the absolute and to see that the core of the self was not the individual “I” that ruled our daily lives, hemmed in as it was with physical needs, desires, and fears, but an ultimate reality in its own right. They must undertake a long, slow quest for self-discovery. This was one of the clearest expressions of a fundamental principle of the Axial Age. Enlightened persons would discover within themselves the means of rising above the world; they would experience transcendence by plumbing the mysteries of their own nature—not simply by taking part in magical rituals.

Instead of discussing the external ceremonies of the cult, as the ritual reformers had done, Yajnavalkya had begun to explore the psychological makeup of the human being in an attempt to locate the true self, the inner person that controlled and animated the “I” of our mundane experience. We had to go beyond this “I” and discover modes of being that were different from our normal consciousness, which was dominated by sense perception, common sense, and rational thought. Yajnavalkya taught his disciples to consider their dreaming state, when they were no longer bound by space or time. In our dreams, we take the external world apart and create our own joys, pleasures, and delights. We become creators like Prajapati, bringing pools, wagons, roads, and teams of oxen into existence, and building up a whole new world by means of “the inner light that is in our heart.”16 In dreams, we become aware of a freer and higher self, since, for a short time, we are released from the constraints of the body. We also have nightmares, however, when we become acutely aware of our pain, fear, and desire. But in deep sleep, which is dreamless, the self is liberated from even these mental appearances of activity. In deep sleep, a person is “beyond fear.” Deep sleep, Yajnavalkya believed, was not oblivion, but a state of unified consciousness. He compared it to the experience of sexual intercourse, when “a man embraced by a woman he loves is oblivious to everything within or without.” He loses all sense of duality: “There isn’t a second reality there that he could see as something distinct and separate from him.”17 Conscious only of oneness, the self experiences ananda, the “bliss” of brahman.

But the temporary release that we experience in sleep or orgasm is only a foretaste of the permanent liberation that is the goal of the spiritual quest, an experience of complete freedom and serenity. This enlightened state comes when the sage experiences the atman. At one with the inner core of his being, he “becomes calm, composed, cool, patient and collected,” because he is in the world of the brahman. Suffused by the immortal, fearless brahman, he is “free from evil, free from stain, free from doubt.” Because he knows the “immense and unborn self, unaging, undying, immortal and free from fear,” he knows the brahman and is himself released from terror and anxiety.18

Thus knowledge of the self was an experience of pure bliss, an ekstasis. This knowledge lay beyond concepts and did not depend upon logical deduction. It was rather an awareness of an “inner light within the heart,” a direct and immediate intuition, beyond any ordinary joy. This “knowledge” transformed the individual. It could be attained only after a long training in inwardness, which the aspirants could achieve by practicing Yajnavalkya’s dialectical method: systematically dismantling normal habits of thought; cultivating an awareness of their interior world, their dreams, and subconscious states; and by constantly reminding themselves that the knowledge they sought was beyond words and of an entirely different order from their secular thoughts and experiences. Yajnavalkya could not impart this knowledge, as if it were ordinary, factual information. He could only teach the method that enabled his disciples to arrive at this state.

Yajnavalkya believed that a person who knows thus—who had realized his or her identity with brahman—would go to brahman at death, taking their “knowledge” with them. In the traditional Vedic ritual, a person constructed the self that would survive in the world of the gods by means of his liturgical action (karma). But for Yajnavalkya, the creation of an immortal self was not achieved by external rites, but by this carefully acquired knowledge. The ritualists had believed that the self was built by accumulating a stock of perfectly executed sacrifices, but Yajnavalkya was convinced that the eternal self was conditioned by all our actions and experiences. “What a man turns out to be depends on how he acts and on how he conducts himself. If his actions are good, he will turn into something good. If his actions are bad, he turns into something bad.” Yajnavalkya was not simply talking about our external deeds. Our mental activities, such as our impulses of desire and feelings of attachment, were also crucial. After his death, a man whose desires were fixed on the things of this world would return to earth, after a brief stay in heaven. His mind and character still clung to the mundane, and so he would be born again to endure a new life here below, “back to this world, back to action.” But a man who sought only his immortal self, and was not attached to this world, belonged to the brahman: “A man who does not desire—who is without desires, who is freed from desires, whose desires are fulfilled, whose only desire is his self—his vital functions do not depart. Brahman he is, and to brahman he goes.”19 He would never again return to this life of pain and mortality.

This is the first time we hear of the doctrine of “action” (karma), which was about to become crucial to Indian spirituality. In Yajnavalkya’s time, however, it was a new and controversial idea. When his Brahmin friend Artabhaga asked Yajnavalkya what happened to a person after death, he replied, “We cannot talk about this in public. Take my hand, Artabhaga, let’s go and discuss this in private.”20 The new doctrine of karma seemed subversive. Sacrifice was supposed to ensure permanent residence in heaven, but some people were losing faith in the efficacy of ritual. Yajnavalkya and the other Upanishadic sages were beginning to believe that, however many perfectly executed sacrifices he performed, a person might have to return to this world of pain and death again and again. He would not only have to undergo a traumatic death once, but would have to endure sickness, old age, and mortality repeatedly, with no hope of final release. He would be liberated from this ceaseless cycle (samsara) of rebirth and redeath only by the ecstatic knowledge of the self, which would free him of the desire for ephemeral things here below.

But to become free of desire and attachment is extremely difficult. We instinctively cling to this life and to our personal survival. We think that our individuality is worth preserving, but, the sages insisted, this is an illusion. Once a person became aware that his or her self was identical with the brahman, which contained the whole universe, it became crystal clear that there was nothing to be gained by hanging on to this present, limited existence. Some of the sages were convinced that the best way to attain this liberating knowledge was to become a renouncer, giving up worldly gain, and eliminating desire by a life of austerity. This was not yet considered obligatory, but eventually Yajnavalkya embraced the life of a “striver” (shramana), leaving his wife, departing from the court, and going into “homelessness” in the forest.21

But Uddalaka Aruni, one of the most important sages of the Chandogya Upanishad, remained a Brahmin householder in the region of Kuru-Panchala all his life. This Upanishad ended by affirming the value of a devout existence in the world. Once a householder had completed his period of study as a brahmacarin, he must return home and put into practice everything that he had learned from his teacher. He must chant the sacred Vedas, bring up his children, meditate, and practice ahimsa, refraining from violence and acting with kindness to others. “Someone who lives in this way all his life,” the text concludes, “attains the world of brahman, and he does not return [to this world] again.”22 A gentle, kindly man, Uddalaka agreed in essentials with Yajnavalkya. He saw brahman, the ultimate reality, as identical with the atman of a human being, taught the new doctrine of karma, and meditated on the experience of sleep as a foretaste of enlightenment. Like Yajnavalkya, he was convinced that liberation (moksha) from the painful cycle of death and rebirth was the goal of the spiritual life, and that it could not be achieved by external ritual practice, but only by the quest for interior knowledge.

In chapter six of the Chandogya, we see Uddalaka initiating his son Shvetaketu into the esoteric lore of the new spirituality, a precious glimpse of the way this teaching was transmitted. Shvetaketu would eventually become an important sage in his own right, but in this chapter he had only just finished his twelve-year stint as a brahmacarin and had returned home, “swell-headed and arrogant,” thinking that he knew everything there was to know about Vedic life.23 Uddalaka patiently undermined this misplaced confidence, teaching his son a different way of perceiving the world, himself, and the ultimate. He began by explaining that the identity of any object was inseparable from the material of which it was made—clay, copper, or iron. The same was true of the universe, which had originally consisted of being itself—absolute, undivided simplicity: “One only, without a second.”24 Like Prajapati, the One propagated itself by means of heat (tapas), which eventually brought forth, from itself, the entire range of creatures. In this way, the One became the origin, the essence, and therefore, the true self of every single creature: “The finest essence here—That constitutes the self of this whole world,” Uddalaka explained, again and again. “That is the truth; That is the self [atman]. And you are That, Shvetaketu.”25 These sentences run like a refrain through the whole chapter, reinforcing the central teaching. Shvetaketu was brahman, the impersonal essence of the universe, which Uddalaka, like other sages, refers to as the neutral, elliptical “that.

But metaphysical instruction alone would not suffice. Shvetaketu had to appropriate this knowledge internally, make it his own, and fuse these external teachings with his personal mental landscape. He had, as later thinkers would put it, to “realize” them, make them a reality in his own life, and Uddalaka had to act as a midwife, slowly and carefully bringing this new insight to birth within his son. This was not a wholly academic, abstract education. Shvetaketu had not only to listen to his father’s metaphysical explanations, but to perform tasks that made him look at the world in a different way. Uddalaka drew upon everyday examples, and made Shvetaketu take an active part in a series of experiments. In the most famous of these, he told his son to leave a chunk of salt in a beaker of water overnight. The next day, the lump had completely dissolved, but when his father made him take a sip from various parts of the cup, asking each time how it tasted, Shvetaketu had to reply: “Salty.” The salt was still there, in every part of the beaker. “You, of course, did not see it there, son, yet it was always right there.” So too was the invisible brahman, essence and self of the whole world. “And you are that, Shvetaketu.”26

Like the salt, the brahman could not be seen, but it could be experienced. It was manifest in every single living thing. It was the subtle essence in the banyan seed, from which a great tree grows, yet when Shvetaketu dissected the seed, he could not see anything. The brahman, Uddalaka explained, was the sap that was in every part of the tree and gave it life.27 It was, therefore, the atman of the tree, as it was the atman of every single human being; all things shared the same essence. But most people did not understand this. They imagined that they were special and unique, different from every other being on the face of the earth. Instead of appreciating the deepest truth about themselves, they clung to those particularities that, they thought, made them so precious and interesting. But in reality, these distinguishing characteristics were no more durable or significant than rivers that flowed into the same sea. Once they had merged, they became “just the ocean” and did not stridently assert their individuality, crying, “I am that river,” “I am this river.” “In exactly the same way, son,” Uddalaka persisted, “when all these creatures reach the existent, they are not aware that ‘we are reaching the existent.’ ” They no longer cling to their individuality. Whether they were tigers, wolves, lions, or gnats, “they all merge into that,” because that is what they have always been, and they can only ever be that. To cling to the mundane self was, therefore, a delusion that would lead inescapably to pain and confusion. People could escape this only by acquiring the deep, liberating knowledge that the brahman was their atman, the truest thing about them.28

But this knowledge was not easy to acquire. How could you find the unknowable atman? The atman was not what Western people call the “soul” or the psyche.29 The Upanishads did not separate body from spirit, but saw human beings as a composite whole. Uddalaka made his son fast for fifteen days, allowing him to drink as much water as he liked. At the end of this, Shvetaketu was so weak and malnourished that he could no longer recite the Vedic texts that he had mastered so competently with his guru. He had learned that the mind was not pure intellect but was also “made up of food, of breath, of water, and speech, and heat.”30 The atman was physical and spiritual; it was immanent in the heart and in the body, the ultimate, immutable, inner core of all things, material and ephemeral. It could not be identified with or compared to any single phenomenon. It was “no thing,” and yet it was the deepest truth of everything.31 It could be discovered only within the human being, after a long, disciplined effort.

It took years to open up the depths of the self, through silence and a spiritual discipline that led the aspirant to realize the futility of desiring things that were only transient, and that it was stupid to prize individual qualities that were of no more importance than the grains of pollen that eventually made up a pot of honey.32 The pupil must work patiently with a guru, who would help him to see what was really there, what was really important.

The early Upanishads were not rebelling against the old Vedic ritualism so much as moving beyond it. Unless a sage learned to look through the external rites to their inner meaning, he would never become aware of the absolute reality of brahman at their core. The Chandogya said that priests who chanted the syllable Om mindlessly and mechanically were like dogs baying for food.33 The gods had faded into the background. In these early Upanishads, Prajapati, the personalized expression of brahman, was no longer the lofty creator god but had become an ordinary guru, who taught his pupils that they must not regard him—Prajapati—as the highest reality, but seek their own atman: “The self that is free from evils, free from old age and death, free from sorrow, free from hunger and thirst,” he told them, “that is the self that you should try to discover.”34

Devas and asuras also had to learn this important truth and had undergone exactly the same arduous training in inwardness as human beings. The Chandogya tells a story about the moment when devas and asuras first heard about the atman. “Come,” they said to one another, “let us discover that self by discovering which one obtains all the worlds and all one’s desires are fulfilled.”35 So Indra, representing his devas, and Virocana, one of the leading asuras, arrived on Prajapati’s doorstep as humble Vedic students, carrying wood for their teacher’s fire. They studied with Prajapati for thirty-two years but were still no closer to finding the atman. Prajapati told them to dress up in their best clothes and look at their reflections in a pan of water. What did they see? A replica of themselves, beautifully attired and spruced up, they replied. “That is the atman; that is the immortal,” Prajapati told them, “that is the one free from fear; that is brahman.36 They left, delighted with themselves, and Virocana took this knowledge back to the asuras. The body was the atman, he told them; a person could win his heart’s desire in this life and the next simply by taking care of his physical needs: there was no need for sacrifice or ritual.

But before Indra returned to heaven, he stopped in his tracks. Even an elegantly clothed body, he realized, would become old, sick, and eventually die. So he returned to Prajapati, carrying his firewood, and studied for another sixty-nine years, going deeper and deeper into himself. Prajapati told him that the atman was found in the dreaming state, when the self was free from physical constraints, and at first Indra was happy with this explanation. But then he reflected that in sleep a person could feel afraid, fear death, and even weep. So he returned to Prajapati again. This time Prajapati told Indra that he would find the atman in profound, dreamless sleep, when he was “totally collected and serene . . . that is the self; that is the immortal; that is the one free from fear; that is brahman.37 Again, Indra was attracted by this idea, but after a while found it disappointing; in such profound unconsciousness, a person might as well be dead. So he stayed with Prajapati for another five years, until he was ready to hear the truth.

Finally Prajapati told Indra that the enlightened person had to learn to look beyond his mind and his body before he could find the inner self that was independent of all his physical and mental functions. The atman was that which enabled a man to smell, to see, to think:

The one who is aware: “Let me say this”—that is the self; the faculty of speech enables him to speak. The one who is aware: “Let me listen to this”—that is the self; the faculty of hearing enables him to hear. The one who is aware: “Let me think about this”—that is the self; the mind is his divine faculty of sight. This very self rejoices as it perceives with his mind, with that divine sight, these objects of desire found in the world of brahman.38

The story illustrates the long process of self-discovery. The teacher could not simply give his pupil the answers, but could only lead him through the stages of introspection. Just when it seemed that they had got to the root of the matter, the student discovered for himself that this was not the end of his quest, and that he had to go still deeper. Even the mighty Indra took 101 years to discover the atman that gave the gods immortality.39

The sages of the Upanishads were seeking the essence of the personality, and in the course of that process some experienced an ineffable joy and peace. Guru Prajapati called the person who had made this interior journey “the deeply serene one,” who “emerges in his own true appearance.”40 He had somehow come to himself, not by receiving privileged information, but by living differently. The process was just as important as the achievement of the final goal. Somebody who merely reads the text of the Chandogya, however, cannot have this experience. There could be no enlightenment unless the student had actually made the meditation, and gone through the long and difficult journey of introspection. Most important, metaphysical contemplation was only a small part of the initiation. Like a brahmacarin, the Upanishadic student had to live in a humble, self-effacing way, and this was as crucial as the intellectual content of the quest. Indra, a god who never stopped boasting about his exploits, had to gather wood for his teacher, look after his fire, clean Prajapati’s house, be chaste, give up warfare, and practice ahimsa. Human sages and gods were discovering a spiritual technology that would work only if people abandoned the aggressively self-assertive ego.

Meanwhile, the Greeks were taking an entirely different path. Where the Indian sages of the Axial Age were abandoning their heroic code and reducing Indra, the archetypal Aryan warrior, to a lowly Vedic student, the Greeks were militarizing the entire polis. The gods of India were beginning to merge into the mental processes of the renouncer, but the Greeks were giving their gods greater definition than ever before. In one sense, the Hellenic world prospered during the seventh century. At this point, Athens lagged behind the other poleis, but some cities were thriving, especially in the Peloponnesus.41 This was the century of Corinth, which was superbly placed for Mediterranean trade, had a thriving crafts industry, and, under the influence of Egypt, was experimenting with monumental architecture. The most radical state, however, was Sparta, which had a unique political system that subjugated the interests of the individual wholly to the polis.42 Citizens were known as homoioi (the “equal” or the “uniform” ones). In some ways this system was a parody of the Axial ideal of self-surrender, because the kenosis of Sparta was geared not to ahimsa but to military efficiency. Further, the equality of the Spartan citizens depended upon the ruthless subjection of others. At the end of the eighth century, Sparta had conquered Messenia to the southwest, appropriated its land, and divided it among the Spartan homoioi. The helots, the native people of Messenia, became their slaves. Such a system was bound to generate tension. In 670, Messenia broke away from Sparta, only to be reconquered after a brutal war.

But Sparta was not the only trouble spot. Despite its new economic prosperity, the Greek world was in crisis.43 At first, colonization had been a solution to the internal problems of the poleis: troublemakers were simply sent away to found another settlement. But by the middle of the seventh century, contact with the more developed societies in the east led to widespread discontent with conditions at home. People wanted to enjoy the material luxuries they had seen abroad, but demand outstripped resources. Some families became rich, while others lived beyond their means and fell into debt. By 650, there were intense clan rivalries, bloody battles, and factional strife in many of the city-states. The details of the crisis remain obscure, but it seems that to solve their financial problems, some of the aristocrats tried to exploit the poorer farmers, reserving public land for their own use. Some tenants were obliged to give a sixth of their produce to the local nobility, and as the aristocrats controlled the courts, they had little hope of redress. A dangerous gap was developing between the nobility and the farmers, who were the mainstay of the economy.

The farmers had troubles of their own. Greeks had learned new methods of agricultural production from the east, and were beginning to invest in the future, planting vineyards and olive trees, which take ten years to bear fruit. They were also developing their livestock for long-term productivity. But in the meantime, many were finding it hard to make a living, and were either spending capital or selling land to fund their projects. There were bad cases of debt, which often ended in the enslavement of a debtor who failed to pay his creditors. All this unrest led to broader social problems. The old values seemed to be eroding. The poet Hesiod, writing in the early seventh century, noted that in some of the poleis, children were no longer obedient to their parents, generations were estranged from one another, and elders could no longer guide the young. His poetry was an attempt to fill this moral vacuum.

Hesiod was a different kind of poet from Homer, and perfectly placed to assess the crisis.44 He was not a member of the warrior aristocracy, but a farmer in Boetia, and was inspired by many of the newer ideas coming from the east. His father had migrated from Asia Minor to the Greek mainland, and in some ways Hesiod seemed more at home with Near Eastern, Hurrian, or Hittite mythology than with the Greek heroic tradition. He certainly saw himself as a Greek bard and once even won a prize for his poetry, but he used the heroic formulae awkwardly and may have composed his poems in writing rather than orally.45 He was the first Greek poet to write in his own voice and put a name to his compositions. In some ways, Hesiod was more like a Hebrew prophet than a Homeric bard. Like Amos, he felt the first stirrings of divine inspiration “while he was shepherding his lambs.” The Muses, the daughters of Zeus, commanded him to speak the truth, and then

Plucked and gave a staff to me,

A shoot of blooming laurel, wonderful to see,

And breathed a sacred voice into my mouth

With which to celebrate the things to come

And things which were before.46

He experienced his poetry as a revelation; it could soothe men’s hearts and build a bridge to the gods.

So did the practice of social justice. This preoccupation brought Hesiod even closer to Amos. In Works and Days, a long hymn to the sacred task of agricultural labor and wise husbandry, Hesiod explained that he was involved in a dispute with his brother Perses. Their inheritance had been divided between them, but Perses had tried to get more than his share, and had brought his case before the local basileis. Hesiod had little faith in the legal system, and warned Perses that the only people who would benefit from this litigation were the aristocrats themselves, who would charge a crippling fee. Hesiod’s personal experience gave him a special insight into the agricultural crisis that was escalating into a major political dispute all over Greece. Like a prophet, Hesiod warned the basileis:

You lords, take notice of this punishment.

The deathless gods are never far away. . . .

The eye of Zeus sees all, and understands,

And when he wishes, marks and does not miss

How just a city is, inside.47

Individual legal decisions (dikai) came from the goddess Dike (Justice), who was hurt when a judgment was perverted; she immediately informed her father, Zeus, when a basileus took bribes or committed perjury to feather his own nest, and Zeus, the protector of society, punished the guilty polis with plague, famine, and political disaster.48 This was a naïve solution, requiring direct divine intervention, which, presumably, was not often forthcoming. But it marked a change. The old aristocratic code of honor had been essentially self-regarding. The development of the polis, which required the close cooperation of basileis and farmers, had brought the heroic ideal into conflict with the ordinary people’s need for fair and equal opportunity. Hesiod believed that his generation faced a stark choice. Would justice (dike), or the prideful, selfish excess (hubris) of the heroic warrior, characterize Greek society?

To bring his point home, Hesiod created a new version of the old Indo-European myth of the Four Ages of Men.49 Traditionally, there were four successive eras, each more degenerate than the last and each named after a metal: Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. But Hesiod altered the story by adding the Heroic Age, which he inserted between the Bronze Age and the current Age of Iron, the worst era of all. In the Golden Age, at the very beginning of human history, there had been no gulf between men and gods; human beings had lived happy lives, and knew neither sickness nor old age. Death came to them as naturally and as peacefully as sleep. They did not have to work for their living, because “the fertile land gave up its fruits unasked.” This race passed, so the Olympian gods fashioned a Silver race of human beings, who took a very long time to mature, but when they eventually reached their prime lived “brief, anguished lives,” dominated by hubris. They “could not control themselves” and recklessly, heedlessly exploited and injured one another, neglecting the worship of the gods. Angrily, Zeus replaced them with the men of Bronze, who were even worse. They were “strange and full of power,” addicted to “the groans and violence of war,” “terrible men,” their hearts “flinty hard,” their limbs massive and invincible. This society was so self-indulgent and aggressive that the men of the Bronze Age eventually destroyed one another. So Zeus made the race of Heroes. These men were demigods, “just and good,” who turned their backs on the hubris of their forebears, but even so, they fought the terrible Trojan War, which finally destroyed them. Now the heroes lived on in the Blessed Isles at the very edge of the world.

The Heroic Age was succeeded by the Age of Iron, the contemporary era. Ours was a world turned upside down, lurching toward inevitable destruction. Life was hard and hopeless. “By day, men work and grieve unceasingly,” Hesiod reflected; “by night they waste away and die.”50 But the gods still granted human beings some blessings. In the Iron Age, good and evil, pain and pleasure were inseparable: people could eat and thrive only if they engaged ceaselessly in backbreaking toil. It was a time of ambiguity and ambivalence. Everything was mixed up together. But the men of Iron had a choice. They must either submit to the demands of justice or abandon themselves to the aristocratic sin of hubris. If they neglected dike, they would witness the triumph of evil, where might was right, where fathers felt nothing for their sons, where children despised their aged parents, and the old brotherly love of past ages would vanish. “Nothing will be any longer as it was in days past.”51

The moral of the story was clear. Those races that practiced social justice were loved and honored by the gods. The violent warriors of the Bronze Age were killed; the heroes were transported to a happy, carefree life. Justice brought mortals closer to the gods, so they must behave decently to one another, and honor the Olympians in sacrifice. They must also know their place. The Age of Heroes was over. It was, therefore, Hesiod implied—though he did not explicitly say so—time to abandon the old, self-destructive warrior ethos. The men of Iron could not behave as if they were Achilles or Odysseus; they were mere farmers, tillers of the soil, involved in a humbler kind of strife (eris), the struggle with the land. Instead of trying to emulate their rivals’ military prowess, they should be spurred on to healthy competition with a neighbor who had produced a good crop. This was the strife that made the farmer dear to the gods. This period of history was different from the Golden Age, when there had been no need to plow a field. In the Iron Age, Zeus had decreed that men could thrive only if they accomplished the hard, disciplined toil of husbandry, which was a form of sacrifice, a daily act of devotion to the gods.52

Hesiod explored these ideas more fully in his Theogony, which described the triumph of the Olympian gods over their rivals.53 It became a textbook of Greek religion. Many were confused about some details of the mythology that had emerged from the obscurity of the dark age. How exactly were the various chthonic powers related to one another? Why had the Titans revolted against Zeus? What had caused the separation of men and gods? Hesiod tied up these loose ends, making use of Mesopotamian and other Near Eastern mythology. He told the traditional story in a way that made the horrible struggle of the theogony—the emergence of the gods from primal formlessness—represent a striving for greater clarity, order, and definition. This had begun when the bottomless abyss of Chaos was replaced by the more solid realities of Gaia and Uranus; it ended with the victory of the Olympians over those Titans who had opposed the rule of law. Hesiod wanted these frightening stories of divine fathers and sons murdering and mutilating one another to warn the Greeks of the dangers of the current internecine strife in the poleis. In his hands, the just and regulated regime established by Zeus was in pointed contrast to the unnatural chaos that had gone before. Hesiod’s Theogonyalso raised questions that would later preoccupy the Greek philosophers: What were the origins of the cosmos? How did order come to prevail over chaos? How could the many derive from the one? How could the formless relate to what was defined?

Hesiod also fixed the place of human beings in the divine scheme, by telling the story of the Titan Prometheus.54 During the Golden Age, gods and human beings had lived on equal terms and had regularly feasted together. But at the end of the Golden Age, the gods began to recede from the world of men; now the only way for humans to maintain contact with the Olympians was the ritual of animal sacrifice, when gods and men consumed their allotted portions of the victim. But Prometheus thought that the arrangement was unfair and wanted to help humans to improve their lot. After one of these sacrifices, he tried to trick Zeus into accepting the inedible bones of the victim, so that men could enjoy the meat. But Zeus saw through the ruse: gods did not need food; they could sustain themselves on the smoke that rose when the victim’s bones were burned on the altar. Sacrifice, therefore, revealed the gods’ superiority to mortals, who could survive only by eating the flesh of dead animals. Angered by Prometheus’s crafty stratagem, Zeus decided to penalize humans by depriving them of the fire they needed to cook their food. Yet again, Prometheus defied him, stole the fire, and gave it back to humanity. Zeus took his revenge by chaining Prometheus to a pillar, and this time he punished humans by sending them a woman who had been put together by the divine craftsman Hephaestus. In the Golden Age, there had been no division between the sexes; humans had not been defined by gender. Pandora, the first woman, was a “beautiful evil.” She carried a jar that she opened “and scattered pains and sufferings among men.” Men were fatally paired with womankind, who brought sickness, old age, and suffering into their world.

This is one of the few overtly misogynous moments of the Axial Age. Hesiod intended it to illustrate the ambiguous nature of life in the Iron Age, representing humanity’s fall from grace.55 Henceforth good and evil were inextricably combined. Sacrifice brought men and gods together, but it also revealed the impassable distinction between them. Suffering was now an inescapable fact of life—a major theme of the Axial Age. In India, the sages were determined to create the spiritual technology that would enable human beings to transcend pain and mortality. Hesiod had no such ambition. Indeed, he was convinced that men should not seek to ascend to the divine world. The story of Prometheus put humans firmly in their place, midway between gods and animals and surrounded on all sides by the evils released by Pandora. Men of the Iron Age could not escape their suffering. They might want to rebel like Prometheus, but hubris was self-destructive: all that Prometheus’s rebellion had achieved was pain for himself and ceaseless toil for humanity.

Other Greeks felt that resignation was not the answer. Increasingly, as the political crisis became more acute, farmers and peasants demanded economic relief, return of confiscated property, and security before the law, and gave their support to ambitious aristocrats who championed their cause, using this popular acclaim to achieve political power.56 The first tyrannos gained control of Corinth in 655, and other poleis followed suit. These new rulers were not “tyrants” in our modern sense, but simply leaders who seized power unconstitutionally and ruled outside customal laws for the benefit of the people.57 As the champion of justice, the tyrant was initially respected, but tyranny was not a sustainable political system. Inevitably the masses, who had been empowered by the tyrant, became more confident. By the time he died, his unconstitutional rule began to appear brutal and arbitrary, so the people usually rose up against his successors, and remembered the tyranny with hatred. But the experiment showed the people that, properly organized, they could put a brake on exploitation by the ruling class and take their destiny into their own hands.

Of still greater significance was a military innovation that coincided with the rise of tyranny. By the end of the eighth century, the manufacture of weapons had advanced considerably, and the poleis now had the military technology to equip large armies instead of relying on a small aristocratic squadron of charioteers.58 Between 700 and 650, the city-states began to rely on heavily armed infantry, and the old-fashioned Homeric-style warriors, who had fought in single combat, were phased out. Manpower was crucial, and warfare could no longer be the privilege of the nobility. Henceforth anybody who could afford to equip himself with the requisite weapons (hopla)—be he lord or farmer—could join this prestigious troop, regardless of rank or birth. With the hoplite army, a new equality was born.

Hoplite fighting was distinguished by the phalanx, a tightly packed body of men, standing shoulder to shoulder, eight deep. Each soldier held his circular shield to protect his left side and gripped the right shoulder of the man next to him. The phalanx would push forward as one against the enemy, stabbing above and below the wall of shields. Eventually one side would break and run. The phalanx proved to be extraordinarily effective, but it inflicted particularly horrible wounds on the enemy. The hoplite army was a people’s army, drawing on a larger proportion of the male population than ever before. And conversely, that meant that the people, the demos, were now essentially an army. In India, fighting had become the sole prerogative of the kshatriya class; warfare was now a specialized activity, from which the other three classes were barred. It was thus circumscribed and contained and, as the ideal of ahimsa took hold, was regarded increasingly as impure, tragic, and evil. But not so in Greece, which was going in the opposite direction. During the seventh century, the entire polis had become militarized. The citizenry had become an army, which could be mobilized at very short notice.

This was a radical break with the past. Hesiod had suggested that it was time to abandon the traditional heroic ideal; the hoplite army effected this severance. The individual warrior, yearning for personal glory, had become an anachronism: the new ideal was collective. The hoplite soldier was essentially one of a team. Hoplites fell or succeeded together, en masse; there could be no private glory. The hubris of an Achilles, which had put the whole army at risk, was now redundant. “Excellence” (arete) was redefined: it now consisted of patriotism and devotion to the common good. Writing in the late seventh century, the Spartan poet Tyrtaios described the new hero:

This is excellence, this the finest possession of men,

The noblest prize that a young man can win:

This is the common good for all the city and all the people;

When a man stands firm and remains unmoved in the front rank

And forgets all thought of disgraceful flight

Steeling his spirit and heart to endure

And with words encourages the man standing next to him.59

Instead of aggressively seeking his own fame and glory, the hoplite submerged his own needs for the good of the entire phalanx. Like the Axial ideal of kenosis, it promoted an ethic of selflessness and devotion to others. The difference was that this self-surrender was acted out on the battlefield in a savagely effective killing machine.

The hoplite reform transformed Greece and laid the foundations of democracy. A farmer who fought next to a nobleman in the phalanx would never see the aristocracy in the same way again. Old habits of deference could no longer be maintained. It would not be long before the lower classes demanded that their organization—the people’s assembly—should take a central role in the government of the city. The hoplite reform altered the self-image of the polis. It was a peaceful revolution; instead of eliminating the upper classes, the farmers and peasants adopted the aristocratic ethos, so that the entire city became, in effect, a class of gentlemen warriors.

Free speech was originally the privilege of the noble hero. In Homer, the basileis of the Greek army were all at liberty to speak their minds forcefully to King Agamemnon. Now this right was extended to all members of the phalanx. The new army spoke a different language. Logos (“dialogue speech”) was quite different from the allusive poetry of Homer and the Heroic Age.60 Mythical discourse attempted to express the more elusive truths, and was not expected to conform too closely with objective realities in the external world. Logos, however, had to be practical, effective, and accurate. On the battlefield and in councils of war, soldiers confronted questions of life and death. Instead of asking, “What is the ultimate meaning of this event?” the men of logos asked, “What happened?” and “What shall we do?” Logos was driven by immediate, practical need, and it was vital that any soldier feel able to challenge the battle plan that would affect all alike, because the group needed all the expertise available. The logos of the hoplites would never replace the mythos of the poets. The two coexisted, each with its own sphere of competence. But as more citizens became hoplites, logos became the distinctive language and mode of thought of government.

In the seventh century, Sparta was the state that most perfectly enshrined the hoplite ethos.61 By 650, all male citizens were hoplites, and the demos, the people, were sovereign. Ancient rituals were put to new, brutally pragmatic use. In the ancient fertility ritual of the Orthia, young boys had tried to steal cheeses from the altar of Artemis and were beaten away by other youths. In hoplite Sparta, the rite was used to teach young warriors fighting skills. It was no longer a mock battle, but was for real, and blood flowed freely. Instead of simply sending their young men into the wilderness, to learn courage and self-reliance during their initiation into civic life, the Spartans selected budding hoplites for special sodalities. By day, they were kept out of sight, but at night they were sent out into the countryside to kill as many of the helots as they could lay their hands on. In India, the emerging ethic of the Axial Age had extracted the violence from the ancient rites; in Greece, the old rites were being transformed by the demands of the military.

The Chinese, however, were attempting to moderate warfare by subordinating practical utility to the beauty of ritual. The seventh century was a turbulent time in the Yellow River region, but despite the constant wars between the principalities, violence was successfully kept within bounds. This was due, in no small measure, to the ritual reform initiated by the literati of Lu. By the seventh century, life in the principalities was minutely regulated by the li, so much so that social, political, and military life began to resemble the elaborate ritual ceremonies of the Zhou court. Even though, at first sight, this regularized conformity seems far from the spirit of the Axial Age, some of these rites had considerable spiritual potential. As yet, the Chinese did not realize this; they would not begin their Axial Age for another two hundred years, but the specialists of Lu were laying a strong foundation for the future, even though in the seventh century their primary aim was to create a society of gentlemen, who lived gracious lives of moderation and self-control.

The Zhou king had virtually retired to the royal domain, and was no longer at the forefront of political life. His place had been taken by the princes who ruled the ancient cities, which were collectively known as the jung kuo, “cities of the center.” The prince had taken over many of the ritual attributes of the king.62 He had become a holy figure. His vassals had to fast and purify themselves before they entered his presence, because, as Heaven’s counterpart on earth, he had to be shielded from contamination and impurity. He too possessed the power that had radiated from the king, but—an important point—this daode depended upon and was nourished by his vassals’ faithful performance of the courtly rites. Lu’s ritual reform was based on a principle of far-reaching significance: the li not only transformed the person who practiced the rites; they also enhanced the sanctity of the one who received this ceremonial attention. This was an essentially magical notion, but it was based on a profound psychological insight. When people are consistently treated with the utmost respect, they learn to feel worthy of reverence; they realize that they have absolute value. So in China, the li sacralized relationships and conferred holiness on other people. When the vassals stood before their prince in the prescribed posture—with bodies bent, sashes hanging to the ground, their chins stretched out, like gargoyles on the eaves of a house, and their hands “clasped together, and as low as possible,” their respectful attitude maintained and increased the prince’s virtue.63

But the prince’s own life was also minutely regulated. The potency of his office did not give him carte blanche to do as he pleased. In fact—another principle that would later inspire the philosophers of the Axial Age—his behavior should be characterized by wu wei (“doing nothing”). He was not like a modern head of state, who must formulate policies and objectives that express his vision for the country. The prince had to be entirely passive. He did not direct the administration; he gave no orders. His sole task was to concentrate the potency within himself and delegate it to the officers who acted on his behalf. To achieve this, he had to obey strict rules. If he made a mistake, it was the duty of his vassals to call him to order. An annalist noted down his every word and gesture. He was not allowed to play games or to joke; he could only listen to carefully selected music, and eat prescribed meals, prepared according to the ritual code.64 His vassals must move energetically in his presence, showing that they were activated by the power that emanated from him. They must walk quickly “with their elbows spread out like the wings of a bird,” whereas the prince had to walk with exactly measured steps or remain “immobile, inactive, and almost dumb.”65 In council, the prince made no eloquent speeches. If his ministers asked permission to undertake a certain course of action, he could reply only with a simple “Yes,” but once that command had been given, the new policy had already come into effect: as the ancient song had expressed it, “when he thinks of horses, they break into a gallop.” The ritualists of Lu claimed that Shun, the ancient sage king, had concentrated the potency so perfectly within himself that he did nothing at all, except stand in the correct position. His daode was so great that it sufficed by itself to guide and transform his subjects. He “ruled by inactivity [wu wei]. . . . For what action did he take? He merely placed himself gravely and reverently with his face due south; that was all.”66

The rites were designed to enhance the status and prestige of the junzi, the “gentleman.” But if performed in the right spirit, they also took the egotism out of government. There was a paradox here, which was also evident in the li of the battlefield. During the seventh century, the principalities began to wage a form of courtly warfare that was strictly regulated by the new spirit of moderation.67 The rituals strictly limited the violence permitted in battle, and forbade warriors to take advantage of the enemy’s weakness. Warfare became an elaborate pageant, governed by courtesy and restraint. In an aristocratic society where the noble families were obsessed with their honor, vendetta was a constant danger. The li attempted to restrain this tendency and ensure that warriors fought like gentlemen. Wars were usually quite short. They could not be waged for personal gain, but only to repel barbarian invasion or bring a rebellious city to heel, thus restoring the Way of Heaven. Warfare was regarded as a penal exercise; convicted criminals were pardoned on condition that they vowed, if necessary, to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield. Victory revealed the righteousness of the winning side, but only if the battle had been conducted according to the li.

The prince accompanied his troops, but, of course, the minister of war made all the decisions. To determine the manpower and weaponry at his disposal, he began by taking a census, which was itself an act of defiance and had immediately to be balanced by an act of generosity. “When the great census had been taken,” explained the author of the Zuozhuan, a commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, “debtors were set free, alms were given to the poor and widows, the guilty were pardoned.”68 Next the army assembled in the temple of the ancestors, and weapons were distributed. As they were thought to exude a malign influence, they were usually kept under lock and key, and warriors had to fast before they took them in their hands.69 Finally the men gathered around the Earth altar, while the prince performed a sacrifice.

The army set off, marching, as far as possible, with their faces in a southerly direction. The infantry consisted of conscripted peasants, who had been dragged away from their fields without hope of return; reluctant soldiers, they lamented so loudly and continuously that they were gagged during the march. Their role, however, was strictly peripheral. They did not take part in the fighting, but were simply carriers, valets, and servants, marching separately from the main army and camping on the edges of the forest.70 The noblemen, in contrast, were calm and cheerful, riding in their chariots to the accompaniment of lutes; each chariot team consisted of an archer, a lancer, and a driver, their weapons brightly painted and beribboned The horses were draped in furs and skins, and the bells on their harnesses were supposed to ring in time with the music.71

When they pitched camp, facing the enemy, the layout of the encampment exactly replicated that of the city. Warfare was a religious rite; it began with a spiritual retreat, and prayers and sacrifices were offered to the ancestors. At this time, the war minister had to gauge the enemy’s intentions: Did they really intend to fight?72 If the enemy was a barbarian tribe or a prince who had lost the Way, it would be a battle to the death: in these very exceptional circumstances, the war minister marched toward the enemy lines at the head of the pardoned criminals, a suicide squad, who, with a bloodcurdling cry, cut their own throats in unison at the first encounter, and battle was joined. Usually, however, warriors were required to fight politely, and the battle became a courtesy contest. On both sides, the junzi vied with one another to perform ever more outrageous acts of generosity and noblesse oblige.

The li demanded an external attitude of “yielding” (rang) to the enemy, but they were generally performed in a spirit of pride and bravado. In this chivalric game, the sport was to bully the enemy with acts of kindness. Before battle was joined, warriors boasted loudly of their prowess, and sent pots of wine over to the enemy, removing their helmets whenever they caught sight of their prince. If its driver paid a ransom on the spot, a true junzi would always let an enemy chariot escape. During a battle between Chu and Jin, a Chu archer used his last arrow to shoot a stag that was blocking the path of his chariot, and his lancer immediately presented it to the team in the Jin chariot bearing down upon them. The Jin at once conceded defeat, crying in admiration: “Here is a worthy archer and well-spoken warrior! These are gentlemen!”73

A nobleman lost status if he killed too many people. A prince once rebuked a warrior who was boasting that he had slain six enemy soldiers: “You will bring great dishonour on your country. Tomorrow you will die—victim of your proficiency!”74 After a victory, it was essential that a junzi not get carried away. A truly noble warrior was never supposed to kill more than three fugitives and, ideally, was supposed to shoot with his eyes shut. Courtesy should always take precedence over efficiency. On one occasion, when two chariots were locked in combat, one of them turned aside and seemed about to retreat. The archer in the winning chariot shot, missed, and was about to take aim again, when the enemy archer cried: “You must let me exchange my arrow for yours, or it will be an evil deed!” So without more ado, the first archer took the arrow from his bow and calmly waited for death.75 The battle was a clash of competing honors, and the clash of arms was secondary.

In 638, the duke of the principality of Song was waiting for the arrival of the Chu army, which greatly outnumbered his own. When they heard that the Chu were crossing a nearby river, the duke’s vassals urged him to attack at once, but he refused. He also rejected the suggestion that he should attack the Chu while they were drawing up their battle lines. When finally the fighting began, Song was defeated and the duke badly wounded, but he was unrepentant. “A junzi worthy of the name does not seek to overcome the enemy in misfortune,” he said. “He does not beat his drum before the ranks are formed.”76 A few years later, the large state of Jin was preparing for war with Qin, one of the peripheral states in the Wei Valley. The Qin sent a messenger to the Jin, telling them to be ready to fight at dawn, but the Jin commander noticed that the messenger looked very nervous. Some of his officers were jubilant: Qin was afraid! They should herd them toward the river immediately! But the commander quoted from the battle code: “It is inhuman not to gather up the dead or wounded. It is cowardly not to wait for the time arranged or to press the enemy in a dangerous passage!”77

There must be no unseemly gloating in victory. One victorious prince refused to build a monument to commemorate his triumph: “I was the cause that two countries exposed the bones of their warriors to the sun! It is cruel!” he cried. This was not like the battles that the first Zhou kings had fought against evildoers. “There are no guilty here,” the prince concluded, “only vassals who have been faithful to the end.”78 A junzi was quick to pardon and show mercy, because it added to his prestige. Most ministers refused to make hard terms, for fear of future reprisals. Many liked a qualified victory better than an out-and-out success, and some even preferred temporary defeat with minimum casualties. Victory could be dangerous. A prince would have to give conquered territory to a vassal, who, with these extra resources, might then be tempted to rebel against his rule. The feudal system depended upon everybody keeping his place. If a vassal became too powerful, he could endanger the delicate equilibrium of the state.

In court life too, each junzi must keep to the role assigned to him and thus contribute to the beauty and elegance of the palace.79 A gentleman should always be perfectly dressed; his manner must be “grave, majestic, imposing, and distinguished,”80 and his expression “sweet and calm, the forms and dispositions conformable to the rules.”81 Instead of expressing his individuality, the vassal surrendered his entire being to the chivalric archetype. This “yielding” must be wholehearted. The first duty of a junzi was cheng: “sincerity.” He could not conform to the li in a shallow, grudging, or hypocritical manner; his goal was to give himself up so thoroughly to the rules of etiquette that they became integral to his personality. By wholly identifying with the paradigmatic junzi, he would become a fully humane person. His personality would be perfected by this artifice, in the same way as a block of untreated jade was transformed by an artist into a beautiful ritual vessel. Court life was thus an education in true humanity. “The liteach us,” the ritualists of Lu explained, “to give free rein to one’s feelings, to let them follow their bent is the Way of barbarians. The Way of li is quite different. The ceremonial fixes degrees and limits.”82 If the rites became an authentic part of his being, the gentleman learned moderation, self-control, and generosity, because the li were designed to hold violence and hubris in check: “Rites obviate disorders, as dykes obviate floods.”83

The archery contest revealed a junzi’s quality. This was not simply a test of skill and military efficiency, but a musical ceremony designed to promote peace and concord. Any barbarian could hit the target, but the junzi was aiming for nobility. He did not really want to win, because it was more honorable to lose. He had to pretend that he wanted to win, but that in itself was an act of humility, since naked ambition was vulgar, the sign of an inferior person. The presentation of the cup to the losing contestant was, therefore, really an act of homage. Before he picked up his bow, each competitor must have a sincere (cheng) attitude of mind, as well as an upright (che) bodily posture, or he would besmirch the power of his prince.84 They both had to shoot their arrows at exactly the same moment, in time with the music. As it flew, whirring, from the bow, each arrow must sing out the correct note. Instead of hitting the target, the arrows were supposed to meet in midair: violence and confrontation had been deflected into concord and harmony. At the end of the contest, both archers wept: the winner out of pity for the defeated competitor, and the vanquished out of compassion for the victor, who, of course, was the real loser. The two warriors would kneel and promise to live henceforth as father and son.

The li were designed to check the aggressive chauvinism that could so easily inspire a vendetta. The spirit of “yielding” was also supposed to characterize political life.85 Instead of vehemently expressing their own opinions and jockeying for position, counselors of the prince ceremonially deferred to him and to one another. Because they all derived whatever insight they had from the prince’s power, serious conflict was a contradiction in terms. Even if he disagreed with a policy, once the prince had said yes, a vassal must carry it out to the best of his ability. Rejecting the decision would cut him off from the group, because it amounted to a denial of the power that animated the entire court. If he was convinced that the prince was departing from the Way of Heaven, the counselor had a duty to correct him. But he must not do this in a spirit of righteous indignation. Once he had registered his protest, the vassal must resign his office and leave the country—an act that involved the loss of his very self, because he broke with the daode of the court. For three months, he must remain in exile, putting pressure on the prince by this act of ritual suicide in the hope that he would return to the Way.

Family life was regulated by the same spirit. The relationship of father and son was based not on natural affection but on the bond between the prince and his vassal.86 Chinese ritual always attempted to refine and improve upon the biological, and the li created the filial link between a father and his son, which did not exist at the son’s birth. For the first thirty years of his life, a son scarcely saw his father. As a small child, he lived in the women’s quarters and then went to study the li in the house of his maternal uncle. Only when his education was complete could he begin to perform the acts of service that affiliated him to his father and created the sacred link between them. Respect and reverence were far more important than affection or intimacy. Like a prince, a father was the representative of Heaven; the bond between the two was supposed to be remote and stern. It would be as inappropriate for him to be on familiar, friendly terms with his sons as for a prince to fool around with his vassals.

The son revered his father as a future ancestor. His meticulous performance of the rites of filial piety created within his parent the holiness that would make him a heavenly being after death. The rites nourished the shen, the divine, numinous quality that made each human being unique. If the shen was strong, this sacred individuality would survive the death of the body. By treating his father with absolute reverence, therefore, the eldest son empowered him to fulfill his humanity. Each morning, he rose at dawn, dressed carefully in full ceremonial costume, and waited upon his parents, together with his wife. He could not belch, sneeze, cough, or yawn in his father’s presence. He never trod the same staircase as his father, never used his father’s bowl, staff, or cup. He mended and washed his parents’ clothes, prepared the eight ritually prescribed dishes, and waited on his parents while they ate, respectfully urging them to make a hearty meal. A son always addressed his father in a low, humble voice. If he believed that he was losing the Way, he should reprove him, but must express his views gently and pleasantly, with a modest expression. If his father persisted in wrongdoing, the son’s behavior must be even more courteous, and he must never express anger or resentment. At seventy years old, the father retired from public life. In this last phase, the son’s duty was to empathize with his every mood; he must be happy when his father was well, sad when he was ill, eat when his father had a good appetite, and fast when the old man was ailing.87He thus learned the empathic virtue of shu (“likening to oneself”), which would become central to the Chinese Axial Age.

When his father passed away, the son shared the experience of death insofar as he could. He withdrew from the family home, lived in a hut, slept on the ground with a clod of earth for a pillow, kept silence, fasted, and so weakened himself that he could rise only with the help of a staff. For three years, the son officiated at the rites of mourning that transformed the father’s ghost into shen, while the deceased gradually made his way toward those forefathers who had also earned personal survival. At the end of the mourning period, his father’s apotheosis was complete, and the son then presided over his cult. For ten days, he prepared for the bin (“hosting”) ritual by making a spiritual retreat, during which he fasted and thought only about the way his father had behaved, smiled, and talked. At the bin ceremony, his own son played the part of the newly deceased and during the ritual felt that his grandfather’s spirit was alive in him. When the bereaved son finally saw his “father” arriving at the banquet, he bowed low and escorted him to his place at the table, knowing that his task was done. He had, as the Record of Rites observed, communed with the “refulgent shen of his ancestor” and gained “a perfect enlightenment.”88

Even after his father’s death, the son did not own his life, but devoted all his talents to cultivating his father’s honor, just as he promoted the power of his prince on the battlefield. He had a duty to take care of his health, because his body was the property of the family. He must not take unnecessary risks, but must “preserve his nature intact,” keeping himself alive and well for as long as possible—an attitude that would also surface in a new form during the Chinese Axial Age. In many ways, the cult of filial piety is abhorrent to the modern sensibility, because it seems to reduce the son to a mere cipher. But in fact the Chinese family was organized to prevent paternal tyranny. The authority of the father was qualified by other figures. The rights of the eldest uncle were equal to and even could supersede those of a father. The son became a parent himself, and received homage from his children at the same time as he was serving his father. At the bin ceremony, when he greeted the shen of his “father,” he was actually bowing before his own son. There was, therefore, an interchange of reverence. The chief duty of a younger son was not to serve his father but to revere and support his older brother. Many siblings would have older and younger brothers. The system was so designed that each family member received a measure of absolute respect. While the li required a son to submit to his father, the father was also obliged to behave fairly, kindly, and courteously to his children. We have no idea how thoroughly the Chinese followed these li in practice. The Record of Rites may have been a utopian rather than a historical reality. Nevertheless, by the seventh century the ideal does seem to have transformed Zhou China from a society addicted to rough extravagance into one that prized moderation and self-control.89 The ideal would set the Chinese Axial Age in motion, and give it unique direction.

At this point, even the less traditional states on the periphery of the great plain—Qi, Jin, Chu, and Qin—accepted the ritual imperative. But times were changing. During the second half of the seventh century, the barbarian tribes of the north began to invade the Chinese states more assiduously than ever before. The new southern state of Chu was also becoming a serious problem. Eager to expand, Chu increasingly ignored the rules of courtly warfare and threatened the principalities. The Zhou king was too weak to provide effective leadership against Chu, so in 679 Prince Huan of Qi called himself the “first noble” (pa) of China and founded a league of defense.90

At this point, Qi was the most powerful Chinese state and Prince Huan was an enlightened ruler, with Zhou connections. He organized conferences to discuss principles of cooperation between the states; the states and principalities that joined his league bound themselves by an oath, and this gave the political arrangement a religious character. An ox was sacrificed, delegates moistened their lips with the victim’s blood, and everybody present repeated the words of the pact, calling upon the local gods, mountains, rivers, and ancestors:

We all, who swear this treaty together, we will not gather up the harvests, we will not monopolise profits, we will not protect the guilty or harbour troublemakers; we will help those who are victims of calamity or disaster. We will have compassion on those in misfortune or trouble. We will have the same friends and the same enemies. We will help the royal house.91

The purpose was to create solidarity. These rites of alliance created family ties between the princes of the different states, who even promised to observe the funeral rites of their new “kin.” Anyone who betrayed the league risked fearful penalties, which were endorsed by the gods and ancestors: “He shall lose his people, his appointment shall fail, his family perish, and his state and clan will be utterly overthrown.”92 The first noble collected tribute from the member states and supervised common defense; even though he still recognized the sovereignty of the Zhou monarchy, he had in fact replaced the king. This league did not survive, however. After King Huan’s death in 643, his sons fought for succession, and Qi never fully recovered from this civil war. Chu resumed its aggression and the prince of Jin organized a new confederation, but in 597 Chu defeated the league.

It seemed as though brute force had triumphed over moderation. But in the face of the growing menace of Chu, the old principalities clung even more closely to their rituals and customs. They could not compete with the military power of the new states, so they turned to diplomacy and persuasion. But the larger peripheral states were beginning to turn away from the ideals of concord and “yielding.” People had noticed that even though the states had bound themselves to the league with the most ferocious oaths, the spirits failed to punish defectors; indeed, states that remained true to the covenant suffered most.93 A growing skepticism was beginning to undermine old assumptions.

In Israel, the seventh century was a watershed that saw the beginnings of the religion of Judaism. Hezekiah had left a grim legacy. Determined not to repeat his father’s mistakes, his son Manasseh (687–642) remained a loyal vassal of Assyria, and Judah prospered during his long reign.94 The Assyrians did not expect their allies to worship Asshur, their national god, but inevitably, some of their religious symbols became highly visible. Manasseh was not interested in the worship of Yahweh alone. He rebuilt the rural shrines that Hezekiah had destroyed, set up altars to Baal, brought an effigy of Asherah into the Jerusalem temple, set up statues of the divine horses of the sun at the entrance of the temple, and instituted child sacrifice outside Jerusalem.95 The biblical historian was appalled by these developments, but few of Manasseh’s subjects would have found them very surprising, since, as archaeologists have discovered, many had similar icons in their own homes.96 Nevertheless, there was widespread unrest in the rural districts, which had been devastated during the Assyrian invasions.97 Even though Hezekiah’s nationalist policies had been so disastrous, some may have harbored dreams of a golden age when their forefathers had lived peacefully in their land, without the constant threat of enemy invasion and domination by foreign powers. This smoldering discontent erupted after the death of Manasseh. His son Amon reigned for only two years before he was assassinated in a palace uprising led by the rural aristocracy, whom the Bible calls am ha-aretz (“the people of the land”).98


The leaders of the coup put Amon’s eight-year-old son, Josiah, on the throne; because his mother came from Bozkath, a small village in the Judean foothills, he was one of their own.99 Power had shifted away from the urban elites to the leaders of the countryside, and at first everything seemed to be going their way. By this time, Assyria was in decline and Egypt was in the ascendancy. In 656 Pharaoh Psammetichus I, founder of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, forced the Assyrian troops to withdraw from the Levant. With astonishment and joy, the Judahites watched the Assyrians vacating the territories of the old northern kingdom of Israel. True, Josiah had now become the vassal of Egypt, but Pharaoh was too busy taking control of the lucrative trade routes in the Canaanite lowlands to bother about Judah, which—for the time being—was left to its own devices.

When Josiah was about sixteen years old, he had some kind of religious conversion, which probably meant that he wanted to worship Yahweh exclusively.100 This principled devotion to the national god could also have been a declaration of political independence. In 622, some ten years later, Josiah began extensive building work on Solomon’s temple, the great memorial of Judah’s golden age. During the construction, the high priest Hilkiah made a momentous discovery, and hurried to Shaphan, the royal scribe, with this exciting news: “I have found the book of the law [sefer torah] in the temple of Yahweh.”101 This, he said, was the authentic Law, which Yahweh had given to Moses on Mount Sinai. At once Shaphan took the scroll to the king and read it aloud in his presence.


Most scholars believe that the scroll contained an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, which describes Moses gathering the people together on Mount Nebo in Transjordan shortly before his death, and delivering a “second law” (Greek: deuteronomion). But instead of being an ancient work, as Shaphan and Hilkiah claimed, it was almost certainly an entirely new scripture. Until the eighth century there had been very little reading or writing of religious texts in either Israel or Judah. There was no early tradition that Yahweh’s teachings had been written down. In J and E, Moses had passed on Yahweh’s commands by word of mouth, and the people had responded verbally: “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.”102 J and E did not mention the Ten Commandments; originally the stone tablets—“written with the finger of God”103—probably contained the divinely revealed plans for the tabernacle where Yahweh had dwelt with his people during the years in the wilderness.104 It was only later that the Deuteronomist writers added to the JE narrative, explaining that Moses “wrote down all the words of Yahweh” and “took the scroll of the covenant [sefer torah] and read it in the hearing of the people.”105 Now Shaphan claimed that this was the very scroll that Hilkiah had discovered in the temple. For centuries this precious document had been lost, and its teachings had never been implemented. Now that the sefer torah had been discovered, Yahweh’s people could make a new start.

This was not a cynical forgery, however. At this time, it was customary for people who wished to impart a new religious teaching to attribute their words to a great figure in the past. The Deuteronomists believed that they were speaking for Moses at a time of grave national crisis. The world had changed drastically since the time of the exodus, and the religion of Yahweh was in danger. In 722, the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed, and thousands of its citizens had disappeared without trace. The kingdom of Judah had narrowly escaped extermination in the days of King Hezekiah. Only Yahweh—not the gods whose cult Manasseh had revived—could save his people. Many of the prophets had urged the people to worship Yahweh alone, and now at last Judah had a king who could revive the glories of the past. This was what Moses would say to Josiah and his people, if he were delivering a “second law” today.

As soon as he had heard the words on the scroll, Josiah tore his garments in great distress. “Great indeed must be the anger of Yahweh blazing out against us,” he cried, “because our ancestors did not obey what this book says by practising everything written within it.”106 The switch from the oral transmission of religion to a written text was a shock. Here—as elsewhere in the Bible—it evoked a sense of dismay, guilt, and inadequacy.107 Religious truth sounded completely different when presented in this way. Everything was clear, cut-and-dried—very different from the more elusive “knowledge” imparted by oral transmission. In India, people did not believe that it was possible to convey a spiritual teaching in writing: you could not, for example, understand the full meaning of the Upanishads simply by perusing the texts. But the Deuteronomists made Yahwism a religion of the book. Henceforth in the West, the benchmark of religious orthodoxy would be a written scripture.

Josiah immediately consulted the prophetess Huldah, for whom the sefer torah meant one thing and one thing only. She received an oracle from Yahweh: “I am bringing disaster on this place and those who live in it, carrying out everything said in the book the king of Judah has read, because they have deserted me and sacrificed to other gods.”108 Reform was clearly essential, and Josiah summoned the whole people to listen to the clear directives of the scroll:

In their hearing, he read out everything that was said in the book of the covenant found in the Temple of Yahweh. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before Yahweh, to follow Yahweh, keeping his commandments, his decrees and his statutes, with all his heart and soul, to perform the words of the covenant as written in that book. All the people gave their allegiance to the covenant.109

Josiah at once inaugurated a program that followed Yahweh’s torah by the book.

First he eradicated the cultic traditions that his grandfather Manasseh had reintroduced, burning the effigies of Baal and Asherah, abolishing the rural shrines, pulling down the house of sacred male prostitutes in the temple, the furnace where Israelites had sacrificed their children to Moloch, and the effigies of the Assyrian horses of the sun. It reads like an orgy of destruction. When he turned to the old territories of the kingdom of Israel, however, Josiah was even more merciless. There he not only demolished the ancient temples of Yahweh in Bethel and Samaria, but slaughtered the priests of the rural shrines and contaminated their altars.110

The sefer torah revealed that for centuries the kings of Israel and Judah had condoned practices that Yahweh had expressly forbidden from the very beginning. It showed that Yahweh had sternly demanded exclusive allegiance: “Listen, Israel,” Moses had told the people on Mount Nebo, “Yahweh is our elohim, Yahweh alone!” They must love him with all their heart and soul.111 The love of Yahweh meant that Israelites must not “worship other gods, gods of the peoples around you.”112 Moses had insisted that when the people entered the Promised Land, they must have no dealings with the native inhabitants of Canaan. They must make no treaties with them, show them no pity, and wipe out their religion: “Deal with them like this: tear down their altars, smash their standing-stones, cut down their sacred poles, and set fire to their idols.”113 In his reform, Josiah had obeyed the clear instructions of Yahweh—to the letter.

The Deuteronomists claimed to be conservatives, who were returning to the original faith of Israel. In fact they were radically innovative. They outlawed symbols such as the sacred pole (asherah) and the “standing stones” (masseboth) that had always been perfectly acceptable.114 In their law code, they introduced some startling new legislation.115 First, the worship of Israel was stringently centralized: sacrifice could be offered only in one shrine, the place where “Yahweh had set his name.”116 Jerusalem was not mentioned explicitly, but by the seventh century it was the only temple capable of fulfilling this role. This meant that the other temples and the rural shrines, where the people had worshiped Yahweh for centuries, must be destroyed. Second, the Deuteronomists condoned the secular slaughter of animals.117 In the ancient world, it was generally permissible to eat only meat that had been sacrificed ceremonially in a sacred area. But now that the local temples had been abolished, people who lived too far away from Jerusalem were allowed to slaughter an animal in their hometown, provided that they did not eat its blood, which contained the life force, but poured it reverently on the ground.

The Deuteronomists had created a secular sphere, with its own rules and integrity, functioning alongside the cult.118 The same principle applied to the Deuteronomists’ judicial reform. Traditionally, justice had been administered by tribal elders in the local shrines, but now the Deuteronomists appointed state judges in every city, with a supreme court in Jerusalem for problematic cases.119 Finally, the Deuteronomists stripped the king of his traditional powers.120 He was no longer a sacred figure. In an astonishing departure from Near Eastern custom, the Deuteronomists drastically limited the sovereign’s prerogatives. His only duty was to read the written torah, “diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandments, either to the right or the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.”121 The king was no longer the son of God, the special servant of Yahweh, or a member of the divine council. He had no special privileges but, like his people, was subject to the law. How could the Deuteronomists justify these changes, which overturned centuries of sacred tradition? We do not know exactly who the Deuteronomists were. The story of the discovery of the scroll suggests that they included priests, prophets, and scribes. Their movement could have originated in the northern kingdom and come south to Judah after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel in 722. They may also reflect the views of the disenfranchised am ha-aretz, who had put Josiah on the throne.

Josiah was crucial to the Deuteronomists. They revered him as a new Moses and believed that he was a greater king than David.122 Besides reforming the law, the Deuteronomists also rewrote the history of Israel, which, they believed, had culminated in the reign of Josiah. First, they edited the earlier J and E narratives, adapting them to seventh-century conditions.123 They made no additions to the stories about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who did not interest them, but concentrated on Moses—who had liberated his people from slavery in Egypt—at a time when Josiah was hoping to become independent of the pharaoh. Next, they extended the chronicle of the exodus to include the book of Joshua and the story of his conquest of the northern highlands. The Deuteronomist historians saw the time of Joshua as a golden age, when the people were truly devoted to Yahweh,124 and were convinced that Israel was about to embark on another glorious era. Like Moses, Josiah would shake off the yoke of Pharaoh; like Joshua, he would conquer the territories vacated by Assyria, and restore the true faith of Yahweh. Finally, in the books of Samuel and Kings, the Deuteronomists wrote a history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which strongly condemned the northern kingdom and argued that the Davidic kings of Judah were the rightful rulers of the whole of Israel. The Deuteronomic corpus thus gave powerful endorsement to Josiah’s religious and political programs.

But this was not cheap propaganda. The Deuteronomists were learned men and their achievement was remarkable. They drew on earlier materials—old royal archives, law codes, sagas, and liturgical texts—to create an entirely new vision, making the ancient traditions speak to the new circumstances of Israel under Josiah. In some ways, Deuteronomy reads like a modern document. Its vision of a secular sphere, an independent judiciary, a constitutional monarchy, and a centralized state look forward to our own day. The Deuteronomists also developed a much more rational theology, discounting much ancient myth.125 God did not come down from heaven to speak to Moses on Mount Sinai; you could not actually see God, as some of the Israelites believed, nor could you manipulate him by offering sacrifice. God certainly did not live in the temple: the authors put a long prayer on the lips of Solomon after his dedication of the temple, which made it clear that the shrine was simply a house of prayer, not a link between heaven and earth. “Can God really live with man on earth?” Solomon asked incredulously. “Why the heavens and their own heaven cannot contain you—how much less this house that I have built!”126 Israel did not own its land because Yahweh had chosen to dwell on Mount Zion, as the old mythology had claimed, but because the people observed Yahweh’s statutes and worshiped him exclusively.

It was also essential that the Israelites behave with justice and kindness to one another. They would possess the land and succeed in their enterprises only if they gave a portion of their income to orphans and widows, or set aside for the poor some of their grapes, olives, or wheat in the fields after the harvest. They must remember that they had been oppressed in Egypt and imitate the generosity of Yahweh himself.127 “You are not to toughen your hearts; you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy one,” Moses told the people. “Rather you are to open—yes, open your hand to him.”128 Israelites must secure the inheritance of wives abandoned by their husbands, secure the rights of the resident alien (ger), and free their slaves after six years of service.129 The Deuteronomists’ passionate insistence upon the importance of justice, equity, and compassion went even further than the teaching of Amos and Hosea.

If their reform had been fully implemented, the Deuteronomists would have completely altered the political, social, religious, and judicial life of Israel. This is an important point. The Deuteronomist lawyers and historians had given a wholly new centrality to the written text. Today people often use scripture to oppose change and to conserve the past. But the Deuteronomists, who pioneered the idea of scriptural orthodoxy, used the texts they had inherited in order to introduce fundamental changes. They rewrote the old laws of the ninth-century Covenant Code, inserting phrases and altering words to make it endorse their novel legislation about secular slaughter, a central sanctuary, and the religious calendar.130 Instead of allowing the old laws, oral sagas, or cultic customs to impede or confine their reform, they used these traditions creatively. The sacred lore of the past was not cast in stone; the Deuteronomists saw it as a resource that could shed light on their current situation.

The Deuteronomists made Judaism a religion of the book. But it seems that there was considerable opposition to this development. Literacy changed the people’s relationship with their heritage, and not always for the better. In India, for example, oral transmission required a long apprenticeship, dynamic interchange with a charismatic teacher, and a disciplined, self-effacing lifestyle. But solitary reading encouraged a more individual and independent education. The pupil was no longer reliant on his guru, but could peruse the texts by himself and draw his own conclusions, and his knowledge might be shallower, because he might see no need to look beneath the words on the page or experience the luminous silence that took him beyond its words and concepts.

The prophet Jeremiah began his ministry at about the same time as Hilkiah discovered the scroll. He linked his own calling with the finding of the sefer torah, and even though he was not himself a scribe, his disciple Baruch committed his oracles to writing. Jeremiah greatly admired Josiah and probably had connections with Hilkiah and Shaphan. At several points, the book of Jeremiah shared the style and vision of the book of Deuteronomy.131 And yet he had reservations about the written torah: “How dare you say: ‘We are wise, and we possess the law of Yahweh’?” he asked his opponents. “See how it has been falsified by the lying pen of the scribes!” The written text could subvert orthodoxy by a mere sleight of the pen, and distort tradition by imparting information rather than wisdom. The scribes, Jeremiah concluded, would be dismayed and confounded. They had “rejected the word [davar] of Yahweh, so what is their wisdom?”132 In biblical Hebrew, davar was the spoken oracle of God, uttered by the prophets, and “wisdom” (mishpat) referred to the oral tradition of the community. Already at this early stage, there was concern about the spiritual value of a written scripture.

In a study of modern Jewish movements, the eminent scholar Haym Soloveitchik argues that the shift from oral tradition to written texts can lead to religious stridency, giving a student misplaced clarity and certainty about matters that are essentially elusive and ineffable.133 The Deuteronomists were bold and creative thinkers but their theology was often strident. “You must destroy completely all the places where the nations you dispossess have served their gods,” Moses instructed the people. “You must tear down their altars; smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their name from that place.”134 Yahweh may have instructed Israelites to be kind to one another, but they must have no mercy on foreigners. The Deuteronomist histor-ian described, with apparent approval, Joshua’s massacre of the inhabitants of Ai:

When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open ground and where they followed them into the wilderness, and when all to a man had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and slaughtered all its people. The number of those who fell that day, men and women together, was twelve thousand, all people of Ai.135

Too much certainty and clarity could lead to cruel intolerance.

The Deuteronomist probably ended his history with a description of the first Passover ever held in the Jerusalem temple. After Joshua had destroyed the temples of Samaria and killed their priests, he summoned the whole people to celebrate Pesach, “as prescribed in this scroll of the covenant.” This was another of the Deuteronomists’ innovations. Hith-erto Passover had been a private, family festival, held in the home; now it became a national convention.136 At last, the historian suggests, the people were celebrating Pesach in the way that Yahweh intended.

No Passover like this one had ever been celebrated since the days when the judges ruled Israel or throughout the entire period of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. The eighteenth year of King Josiah was the only time when such a Passover was celebrated in honour of Yahweh in Jerusalem.137

It was the beginning of a new political and religious era. The little kingdom of Judah was about to pass over to a new golden age.

But Josiah’s great experiment ended in tears. The map of the Middle East was changing. The Assyrian empire was in the final stages of its decline and Babylon was in the ascendant. In 610 Pharaoh Psammetichus died, and was succeeded by Necho III, who the following year marched through Palestine to come to the aid of the beleaguered Assyrian king. Josiah intercepted the Egyptian army at Megiddo, and was killed at the first encounter.138 None of the reforms survived his death. The dream of political independence had been shattered, and Judah was now a bit player in the struggle between Egypt and the new Babylonian empire, which threatened its very survival.

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