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The Age of the Sages

The Axial Age in Asia and the Near East

By Mark W. Muesse

Publication Year: 2013

The years 800-200 BCE comprise one of the most creative and influential eras in world history. Karl Jaspers termed this epoch “the Axial Age,” to indicate its pivotal importance in the evolution of human thought. The ferment of religious and philosophical activity centered in four distinct regions of civilization: East Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and the Northeastern Mediterranean. Each of these areas witnessed the emergence of several imaginative individuals whose exemplary lives and teachings prompted their followers to create the traditions that led to the birth of the world religions. Zoroaster, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle side by side, we are able to see more clearly the questions with which they struggled, their similarities and differences, and how their ideas have influenced religious thought down to our day.

Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

The Age of the Sages is unlike most other introductory books in the study of religion. Most foundational religious studies texts approach their subject in one of a few basic ways. Some works focus on a single tradition, such Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. Books of this sort usually unfold chronologically, starting from the tradition’s inauguration (or shortly before) and proceeding...

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pp. xv-xvi

Although I did not recognize it at the time, this book was conceived over thirty years ago when I was a graduate student. During that time, I was fortunate to study with many brilliant theologians and religious theorists, but two teachers stand out as inspiration for this particular volume: the director of my graduate program, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and the director of my doctoral thesis, Gordon...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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Introduction: What Was the Axial Age?

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pp. 1-6

The years between 800 and 200 BCE constitute one of the most astonishing periods in the history of humanity. During this epoch, a cohort of brilliant individuals appeared whose teachings radically changed the way human beings thought about themselves and the world around them. So pivotal and revolutionary were their ways of thought that we refer to this era as the Axial...

Part I. West Asia

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pp. 7-8

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1. The Noble Ones

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pp. 9-20

Our study of the Asian Axial Age begins neither in the axial centers nor even in the Axial Age. We start, rather, with a collection of peoples who lived in Central Asia several millennia before the Axial Age got under way. Known today as the Indo-Europeans, these individuals were the ancestors of the axial communities of West and South Asia. Understanding the Indo-Europeans...

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2. The Life of Zoroaster

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pp. 21-26

Precious little is known about Zoroaster beyond his name. Most scholars agree that a biographical account of him would be tenuous at best, and wildly varying speculations have been put forth as to when and where he lived. Some research puts his birth anywhere between 1500 and 1000 BCE or even earlier. Mary Boyce, one of the leading specialists in this area, dates him to around...

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3. Zoroaster’s Legacy

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pp. 27-36

Zoroaster was both a zealous prophet calling for a return to old-time religion and a grand visionary with startling new ideas. The result of his teachings was one of the most compelling and influential worldviews in history. In terms of its effects on other religions, Zoroastrianism may well have had the greatest impact of any single religion in the world. In this chapter, we will continue to explore...

Part II. South Asia

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pp. 37-38

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4. South Asia before the Axial Age

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pp. 39-48

We now direct our attention to South Asia and especially the area we know as the Indian subcontinent. In coming chapters, we will discuss the evolution of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in this region. But first, we start with a sketch of this location before the axial ferment to help us understand the transformations that led to the birth of these religions.
We are already...

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5. The Start of the Indian Axial Age

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pp. 49-58

Our first look into the religious environment of ancient India revealed a world of gods and goddesses controlling the various aspects of existence that were of particular concern to the inhabitants of the Indus Valley and their Aryan successors. The interest that the Aryans and Indus dwellers had in their gods seemed to focus on the ways these powerful beings could help sustain and...

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6. Death and Rebirth

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pp. 59-66

At the end of the previous chapter, we identified a significant period of transition in Indian religious history. The Vedic age was drawing to a close, and the era of classical Hinduism was emerging, a period that coincided with the start of India’s Axial Age. Of course, there is no distinct point in time at which we can definitively say the Vedic period has ended and the classical Hindu...

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7. The Quest for Liberation

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pp. 67-74

So far, we have observed the development of two key ideas about the nature and destiny of human beings that arose in India during the early Axial Age. The first was rebirth, the concept that our present earthly existence is only one in a series of lifetimes; and the second was karma, the belief that our deeds have positive or negative consequences that return to the agent according to...

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8. The Vedantic Solution

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pp. 75-84

The Upanishads were composed by sages seeking to unlock the deepest mysteries of existence. Essentially, they wanted to know two things: the nature of ultimate reality and the true nature of the self. Apprehending these, they believed, would confer the liberating knowledge that would halt the samsaric cycle and bring about a state of utter bliss.
The Upanishads thus take two...

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9. The One and the Many

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pp. 85-96

According to the Upanishads, it is not enough for the mind to grasp the concepts of atman and Brahman. Merely knowing the identity of self and ultimate reality in a theoretical or conceptual way does little good unless it is apprehended by the core of one’s being. Only then does it become the liberating knowledge that leads to moksha. Without this deep, existential...

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10. The Life of Siddhattha Gotama

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pp. 97-106

Among the thousands of intrepid individuals who sought to end samsara in the forests of northeastern India in the Axial Age was a young man by the name of Siddhattha Gotama. Like many others, Gotama had been convinced that conquering the anguish of samsaric existence was life’s highest aspiration. Nothing else could be more important, and he was willing to give up...

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11. “I Am Awake”

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pp. 107-114

For six years following his departure from palace life, Siddhattha Gotama fervently practiced the contemplative and ascetic arts. At last, he concluded that he was no closer to liberation than when he had begun. It occurred to him that all his life, he had been an extremist. As a youth in his father’s house, he knew nothing but pleasure and delight. Following his renunciation, he knew nothing...

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12. Why We Suffer

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pp. 115-122

The Four Noble Truths have often been compared to the way a physician might treat a disease. The Buddha thought of himself more as a healer with specific remedies for specific problems than as a philosopher with opinions about metaphysical questions. In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha determined the illness and its symptoms. In the Second Truth, he provided an etiology, a...

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13. The Noble Path

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pp. 123-132

In a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled “The Preachers of Death,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the Buddha: “There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and to long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and...

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14. From Buddha to Buddhism

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pp. 133-142

The five bhikkhus who first heard the Buddha expound his Dhamma were duly impressed by their former teacher’s new insights. According to myth, even the cosmos itself and the vast pantheon of devas recognized the supreme significance of this teaching: “And when the Wheel of the Dhamma had been set in motion by the Blessed One, the earth-dwelling devas raised a cry: ‘[I]n the Deer Park...

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15. Jainism

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pp. 143-152

With the transition from Buddhism to Jainism, we move from one of the world’s largest religions to one of the smallest. A recent estimate puts the number of Buddhists in the world today at around 535 million1 and the number of Jains at just over 4 million, almost all of them in India.2 To put this in other terms, Buddhists make up about 8 percent of the world’s population, and...

Part III. East Asia

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pp. 153-154

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16. East Asia before the Axial Age

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pp. 155-164

The final destination on our journey through the development of Asian religions in the Axial Age is the civilization of the Yellow River in the northeastern region of present-day China. The name China is actually an anachronism for this culture during the Axial Age. The people we will be discussing would not have called themselves “Chinese,” because the term China...

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17. The World of Confucius

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pp. 165-174

In our first glimpse of China’s religious history, we discussed the prominent practices and beliefs of the preaxial period, which included divination, ancestor reverence, ritual sacrifices, and gods and ghosts. Those ancient concepts and practices endured into the Axial Age and up to modern times. In this chapter, we will examine the transition to the Axial Age and introduce the most...

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18. The Foundations of Confucianism

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pp. 175-184

Although many have regarded Confucius as China’s most profound and influential thinker, Confucius did not consider himself a great mind. He claimed no originality for his ideas: “I transmit but I do not create. Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity.”1 Confucius believed that the example of the early Zhou dynasty provided his contemporaries with all the resources...

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19. The Cultivation of Virtue

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pp. 185-192

Confucius’s answer to the social and political disorder of his day was to cultivate persons of virtue. He understood that the problems facing his society were too profound to be resolved by mere legislation or decree and the extensive policing of the populace. In his view, the evils confronting China were rooted in spiritual defilements: greed, hatred, the love of power, self-centeredness, and...

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20. Early Confucianism and the Rise of Daoism

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pp. 193-202

Mention the name Confucius, and many Americans will conjure the image of an old Chinese man sporting a Fu Manchu beard and moustache spouting wise sayings that are just pithy enough to fit on those little slips of paper in fortune cookies. This impression of Confucius is due mainly to the immense popularity of the forty-four Charlie Chan movies made in 1930s and ’40s. These...

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21. The Daodejing

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pp. 203-212

The Daodejing is a book of mystery. We are not certain of its origins or authorship, nor is there much certainty about its meaning. The book’s style is poetic, impressionistic, and evocative. And it is very brief, comprising eightyone chapters, each no longer than a page. It was written, of course, in Chinese, which is notoriously ambiguous and difficult to translate. The combination of...

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22. Daoist Politics and Mysticism

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pp. 213-222

The Daodejing was initially intended to provide advice on how to manage government rather than one’s personal life. In this case, however, the paths for governing a state well and living one’s life well coincide. The qualities that make one a sage are the exact qualities that characterize a good ruler. In short, the Daodejing advocates letting the wise rule....

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Conclusion: Reflections on the Axial Age

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pp. 223-232

More than two thousand years now separate us from the Age of Sages. As we pause to reflect on our study of this era, we might well ask what significance this period has for us today as persons of the twenty-first century. Answers to this question will fall into two categories: historical and theological. In the first category, this study of the Axial Age has revealed certain dynamics involved...


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pp. 233-252


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pp. 253-260


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pp. 261-274

Back Cover

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p. 294-294

E-ISBN-13: 9781451438611
E-ISBN-10: 1451438613
Print-ISBN-13: 9780800699215
Print-ISBN-10: 0800699211

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013