The Age of the Sages
The Axial Age in Asia and the Near East
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers
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Title Page, Copyright Page
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The Age of the Sages is unlike most other introductory books in the studyof religion. Most foundational religious studies texts approach their subject inone 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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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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...c. 2300?1200BCEComposition of the Rig Veda (Central and South Asia)...
Introduction: What Was the Axial Age?
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The years between 800 and 200 bce constitute one of the most astonishingperiods in the history of humanity. During this epoch, a cohort of brilliantindividuals appeared whose teachings radically changed the way human beingsthought about themselves and the world around them. So pivotal andrevolutionary were their ways of thought that we refer to this era as the Axial...
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The Noble Ones
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Our study of the Asian Axial Age begins neither in the axial centers noreven in the Axial Age. We start, rather, with a collection of peoples wholived in Central Asia several millennia before the Axial Age got under way.Known today as the Indo-Europeans, these individuals were the ancestorsof the axial communities of West and South Asia. Understanding the Indo-...
The Life of Zoroaster
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Precious little is known about Zoroaster beyond his name. Most scholars agreethat a biographical account of him would be tenuous at best, and wildlyvarying speculations have been put forth as to when and where he lived. Someresearch 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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Zoroaster was both a zealous prophet calling for a return to old-time religionand a grand visionary with startling new ideas. The result of his teachings wasone of the most compelling and influential worldviews in history. In terms of itseffects onotherreligions, Zoroastrianism may well have had the greatest impactof any single religion in the world. In this chapter, we will continue to explore...
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South Asia before the Axial Age
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We now direct our attention to South Asia and especially the area we knowas the Indian subcontinent. In coming chapters, we will discuss the evolutionof Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in this region. But first, we start witha sketch of this location before the axial ferment to help us understand theWe are already familiar with a major part of the preaxial Indian world from...
The Start of the Indian Axial Age
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Our first look into the religious environment of ancient India revealed a worldof gods and goddesses controlling the various aspects of existence that wereof particular concern to the inhabitants of the Indus Valley and their Aryansuccessors. The interest that the Aryans and Indus dwellers had in their godsseemed to focus on the ways these powerful beings could help sustain and...
Death and Rebirth
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At the end of the previous chapter, we identified a significant period oftransition in Indian religious history. The Vedic age was drawing to a close, andthe era of classical Hinduism was emerging, a period that coincided with thestart of India?s Axial Age. Of course, there is no distinct point in time at whichwe can definitively say the Vedic period has ended and the classical Hindu...
The Quest for Liberation
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So far, we have observed the development of two key ideas about the natureand 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 onein a series of lifetimes; and the second was karma, the belief that our deedshave positive or negative consequences that return to the agent according to...
The Vedantic Solution
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The Upanishads were composed by sages seeking to unlock the deepestmysteries of existence. Essentially, they wanted to know two things: the natureof ultimate reality and the true nature of the self. Apprehending these, theybelieved, would confer the liberating knowledge that would halt the samsaricThe Upanishads thus take two seemingly opposite trajectories. One is in...
The One and the Many
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According to the Upanishads, it is not enough for the mind to grasp theconcepts of atman and Brahman. Merely knowing the identity of self andultimate reality in a theoretical or conceptual way does little good unless itis apprehended by the core of one?s being. Only then does it become theliberating knowledge that leads to moksha. Without this deep, existential...
The Life of Siddhattha Gotama
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Among the thousands of intrepid individuals who sought to end samsara inthe forests of northeastern India in the Axial Age was a young man by thename of Siddhattha Gotama. Like many others, Gotama had been convincedthat conquering the anguish of samsaric existence was life?s highest aspiration.Nothing else could be more important, and he was willing to give up...
“I Am Awake”
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For six years following his departure from palace life, Siddhattha Gotamafervently practiced the contemplative and ascetic arts. At last, he concluded thathe was no closer to liberation than when he had begun. It occurred to him thatall his life, he had been an extremist. As a youth in his father?s house, he knewnothing but pleasure and delight. Following his renunciation, he knew nothing...
Why We Suffer
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The Four Noble Truths have often been compared to the way a physicianmight treat a disease. The Buddha thought of himself more as a healer withspecific remedies for specific problems than as a philosopher with opinionsabout metaphysical questions. In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha determinedthe illness and its symptoms. In the Second Truth, he provided an etiology, a...
The Noble Path
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In a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled ?The Preachers of Death,?Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the Buddha: ?There are those withconsumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and tolong 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...
From Buddha to Buddhism
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The five bhikkhus who first heard the Buddha expound his Dhamma were dulyimpressed by their former teacher?s new insights. According to myth, even thecosmos itself and the vast pantheon ofdevasrecognized the supreme significanceof this teaching: ?And when the Wheel of the Dhamma had been set in motionby the Blessed One, the earth-dwelling devas raised a cry: ?[I]n the Deer Park...
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With the transition from Buddhism to Jainism, we move from one of theworld?s largest religions to one of the smallest. A recent estimate puts thenumber of Buddhists in the world today at around 535 million1 and thenumber of Jains at just over 4 million, almost all of them in India.2 To put this inother terms, Buddhists make up about 8 percent of the world?s population, and...
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East Asia before the Axial Age
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The final destination on our journey through the development of Asianreligions in the Axial Age is the civilization of the Yellow River in thenortheastern region of present-day China. The name China is actually ananachronism for this culture during the Axial Age. The people we will bediscussing would not have called themselves ?Chinese,? because the termChina...
The World of Confucius
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In our first glimpse of China?s religious history, we discussed the prominentpractices and beliefs of the preaxial period, which included divination, ancestorreverence, ritual sacrifices, and gods and ghosts. Those ancient concepts andpractices 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...
The Foundations of Confucianism
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Although many have regarded Confucius as China?s most profound andinfluential thinker, Confucius did not consider himself a great mind. Heclaimed no originality for his ideas: ?I transmit but I do not create. Being fondof the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity.?1 Confucius believed that the exampleof the early Zhou dynasty provided his contemporaries with all the resources...
The Cultivation of Virtue
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Confucius?s answer to the social and political disorder of his day was to cultivatepersons of virtue. He understood that the problems facing his society weretoo profound to be resolved by mere legislation or decree and the extensivepolicing of the populace. In his view, the evils confronting China were rootedin spiritual defilements: greed, hatred, the love of power, self-centeredness, and...
Early Confucianism and the Rise of Daoism
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Mention the name Confucius, and many Americans will conjure the imageof an old Chinese man sporting a Fu Manchu beard and moustache spoutingwise sayings that are just pithy enough to fit on those little slips of paper infortune cookies. This impression of Confucius is due mainly to the immensepopularity of the forty-four Charlie Chan movies made in 1930s and ?40s....
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The Daodejing is a book of mystery. We are not certain of its origins orauthorship, nor is there much certainty about its meaning. The book?s style ispoetic, impressionistic, and evocative. And it is very brief, comprising eighty-one 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...
Daoist Politics and Mysticism
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The Daodejing was initially intended to provide advice on how to managegovernment rather than one?s personal life. In this case, however, the paths forgoverning a state well and living one?s life well coincide. The qualities thatmake one a sage are the exact qualities that characterize a good ruler. In short,Because the well-lived life according to theDaodejingis marked by a preference...
Conclusion: Reflections on the Axial Age
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More than two thousand years now separate us from the Age of Sages. As wepause to reflect on our study of this era, we might well ask what significancethis period has for us today as persons of the twenty-first century. Answers tothis question will fall into two categories: historical and theological. In the firstcategory, this study of the Axial Age has revealed certain dynamics involved...
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Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013