Monthly Archives: April 2021

After the Axial Age: From Alexander to Ashoka

(This post follows the last post, on the Axial Age. Some of this post was condensed and adapted from my book, The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World [Shambhala, 2019].)

Although it wasn’t his intention, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) touched off a series of events that put Buddhism on the map, so to speak.

Alexander set out to conquer the world. Although he fell short, at its peak his empire stretched from Europe to the Indus Valley, and dipped into Egypt. The campaign stalled when he reached the Punjab in 326 BCE, however. Alexander had planned to push farther east into the Kingdom of Magadha. But his weary soldiers had heard stories of the vast army of Magadha, and they imagined the mighty Ganges lined with thousands of fresh troops and trumpeting war elephants. They refused to go on, and so Alexander’s legendary conquests ended in the Punjab, and he died three years later in Babylon.

While Alexander was stalled in the Punjab, he was accompanied by a local mercenary named Chandragupta Maurya. In 321 BCE Chandragupta succeeded where Alexander failed by seizing the throne of Magadha. The enterprising Chandragupta expanded his new Mauryan Empire to fill most of modern-day India and a portion of what is now Bangladesh.

After Alexander’s death, the conqueror’s vast territories were claimed by his Macedonian generals. One general, Seleucus I Nicator (ca. 358–281 BCE), came to rule a large part of what is now Turkey and much of today’s Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Seleucus encouraged Greek settlements in his vast territory. These settlements, combined with those left behind by Alexander, introduced considerable Greek influence into west and central Asia.

In 305 BCE, Seleucus marched on Chandragupta’s empire. This adventure did not go well for Seleucus, and the Mauryan Empire grew to include much of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan as a result. Chandragupta abdicated to his son Bindusara in 297 BCE. and retired to be a Jain ascetic. After Bindusara came Ashoka, whose reign began about 268 BCE.

Ashoka the Great (ca. 304–232 BCE) is remembered as a brutally ruthless military conqueror—until about 260 BCE, that is, when he beheld the bloody results of his conquest of Kalinga (near today’s Orissa). In one of the great conversion stories of all time, Ashoka renounced war and conquest and declared that his rule would be guided by the Buddha’s dharma. We know this because Ashoka’s story is told in his own words on the thirteenth of fourteen major “rock edicts” inscribed on boulders and sometimes in caves throughout his empire, along with other sorts of inscriptions. Edicts also were carved on magnificent stone pillars, forty to fifty feet high, which were topped with elaborately carved animals, most often Asian lions. These also often were carved with a dharma wheel, the symbol of Buddhism, with 24 spokes.

Ashoka pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia Commons.

Ashoka’s edicts have been discovered in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, as well as India, written in the local languages of the time. Edicts in the western Mauryan empire were in Greek, and one inscription discovered near Kandahar in 1958 was written in Greek and Aramaic.

In his edicts Ashoka proclaimed his faith in the Buddha and his dharma, but he did not attempt to teach Buddhist doctrines. In fact, all religions were welcome in his empire, he said, as long as they respected each other. The emperor was more interested in the way people manifested the dharma in their behavior. In the second pillar edict, for example, he said, “Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.”

Ashoka also used dharma as a diplomatic tool, sending emissaries carrying his edicts to the rulers of other states, near and far, including the Seleucid Empire, Egypt, Greece, and the island that is today’s Sri Lanka (“Tamraparni”). The mission to Sri Lanka, at least, was a rousing success.

In the fifth major rock edict, Ashoka declared he had appointed dharma mahamatras—dharma officials—to work among the Greeks and other people in his western territory. The mahamatras were charged with the promotion of dharma and the welfare and happiness of all those devoted to dharma. This is significant because, after Ashoka, Buddhism would blossom on the western territories of the Mauryan Empire—today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Ashoka’s words on generosity and religious tolerance and his concern for the welfare of his people are inspiring to read even today. Yet it appears there was some pushback from the Brahmins, who may have felt put out by Ashoka’s call to end animal sacrifices. After Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, his several heirs who hadn’t been ordained showed no interest in the dharma and instead spent the next forty-seven years squabbling over the throne, while such outer provinces as Gandhara, Kashmir, and the Punjab broke away. The last Mauryan ruler was assassinated by an ambitious general during a military review in 185 BCE.

The many rock and pillar edicts remained scattered through much of Asia. However, those written in the various Indo-Aryan languages of his time used a written script that fell out of use, and people forgot how to read it. And the memory of Ashoka himself was lost in India, although he was honored in Sri Lanka. During the Mughal reign of India, 1526-1720, some of the pillars were put to use supporting minarets. When traders of the British East India Company arrived in the 18th century, they were told the pillars were the abandoned walking sticks of a giant. But an East India Company official named James Prinsep deciphered the script in the 1830s, and the story of Ashoka the Great was heard again in the world, at long last.

And when India became an independent nation in 1947, Ashoka’s 24-spoke dharma wheel was placed in the center of the new nation’s flag.

National flag of India

The Axial Age and the Origins of Religion

The Axial Age was a period of history between about 800 and 200 BCE, roughly. It’s called “Axial Age” because it was a pivotal time in world religion and philosophy. I acknowledge that the Axial Age was a trendy thing a few years ago but is widely dismissed in academia today as being too “woo.” Also, Axial Age developments don’t always neatly stay inside those exact centuries. But it’s still interesting.

What is the Axial Age? This is from Britannica:

The phrase originated with the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, who noted that during this period there was a shift—or a turn, as if on an axis—away from more predominantly localized concerns and toward transcendence.

What does “transcendence” mean? The term literally means “to go beyond.” In the case of the Axial Age “revolution” in human thought about the world, “going beyond” has several meanings, according to the Canadian philosopher and sociologist Charles Taylor. Among them are a shift to thinking about the cosmos and the way it works rather than taking for granted that it works, the rise of second-order thinking about the ways that human beings even think about the universe in the first place and come to know it, and a turn away from merely propitiating tribal or civic deities (which Taylor characterized as “feeding the gods”) and toward speculation about the fate of humanity, about human beings’ relationship with the cosmos, and about “The Good” and how human beings can be “good.”

Of the three living, major world religions, there are three that can legitimately claim to be more than 3,000 years old, predating the Axial Age. These are Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. However, Hinduism and Judaism as they exist today mostly took shape during the Axial Age.

In the 1st millennium the tradition we now call Hinduism entered a phase called “Vedanta,” which means “end of the Vedas.” The Vedas are the earliest scriptures of Hinduism; the oldest, the Rig Veda, dates to at least 1200 BCE and is possibly much older. But in the 1st millennium BCE new scriptures emerged called the Upanishads. The principle Upanishads are believed to have been composed between 800 and 300 BCE. While the Vedas are primarily concerned with correct ritual and the propitiation of the gods, the Upanishads are more like sophisticated philosophical treatises that touch on many things, including the nature of reality and the self. Hinduism as we know it today was very much shaped by the Upanishads as well as by the epic poems the Ramayana (ca. 300 BCE) and the Mahabharata, which includes the exquisite Bhagavad Gita, one of the jewels of the world’s religious literature. The Mahabharata is a vast thing composed by many authors over a period of centuries, probably between 400 BCE and 300 CE.

Judaism is honored as the first monotheistic religion. However, genuine monotheism ― the insistence that there is only one God ― didn’t develop within Judaism until well into the 1st millennium BCE. It’s my understanding that most biblical scholars date the current version of the Torah to about the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, during the Babylonian captivity, although some parts of the Tanakh are thought to be considerably older. I confess that I know less about the development of Jewish scriptures than Hindu scriptures, so if someone wants to correct me on that I would be grateful.

Now, what else happened in the 1st millennium BCE?

*The Buddha probably lived sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. He is said to have been born in what is now Nepal, but he spent most of his life in the area of northeast India now contained within the states of Bihar and Utter Pradesh.

*Mahavira, a patriarch of Jainism, also probably lived in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE in what is now Bihar. Jainism is a religion of India that is less well known in the West but still alive in Asia. Its origins can be dated to about 800 BCE, although it claims to be older.

(Note: Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists lived in the same territories and butted heads frequently in 1st millennia BCE India. Both Jains and Buddhists rejected the Vedas, which set them against the Hindus. The Buddha also disagreed with much that was written in the early Upanishads available in his time, while (as I understand it) the Jains were more agreeable with at least some of the Upanishads. This meant Jains and Buddhists disagreed with each other on several core doctrines, although their moral teachings were similar. There are entire sutras in the Pali Canon devoted to the Buddha refuting the doctrines of Jains, who were called “Niganthas” in Pali. What the Jains thought of the Buddha I do not know.)

* The great Kong Fuzi of China, better known in the West as Confucius, probably lived at about the same time as the Buddha, in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.

* The Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching) also was probably compiled sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. However, the author of attribution, Laozi (“old man”), is probably a myth.

*Greek philosophy! The first Greek philosopher of record was a guy named Thales, who lived about 624-545 BCE, sorta kinda maybe. The hugely influential Pythagoras and Heraclitus lived about the same time as the Buddha and Confucius. And I know you’ve heard of Socrates, 469-399 BCE. Plato and Aristotle followed shortly after.

What I don’t know: Was anything similar happening in the Western Hemisphere? I do not know.  What about Africa? I do not know. Here is an article about African spirituality that describes traditions being crushed under the weight of Christian and Islamic missions.

Some Axial Age developments were connected to each other, and some were not. The Hindus (who weren’t called that yet, I don’t think), Jains, and Buddhists were busily disagreeing with each other in India and certainly had connections. Confucians and Taoists intermingled in China. I haven’t said much about the Zoroastrians, but one can find traces of Zoroastrianism in Judaism. This may date to the Babylonian captivity, as Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia at the time. Otherwise, many of these developments happened independently of each other.  Axial Age ideas about the nature of reality, of time and the cosmos, of what it means to be alive and to be human, whether there are gods or no gods, etc., are quite diverse.

You can find very similar basic moral rules in each tradition, but I would argue that’s because those moral rules are necessary for civilization to exist at all. Without agreed-upon rules discouraging homicide and theft and whatnot, for example, there can be no communities. Humans would have remained stuck in caves guarding their lives and flint arrowheads against the people in the next cave. Axial Age people would have internalized such moral codes long before the Axial Age. I do not believe commonality in moral rules points to a common origin of tradition.

However, what happens at the end of the Axial Age, and after, may be more significant. From the 4th century BCE and through the next several centuries, world events happened that brought these diverse civilizations and their religions and philosophies together in ways that scholars are still trying to sort out. I’ll touch on that in another post.

Next — After the Axial Age: From Alexander to Ashoka