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






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *