The Axial Age and its Characteristics Journal

Buddha” by Karen Armstrong and its Relation to the Axial Age

In her book, “Buddha,” Karen Armstrong examines the life, journey, and teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, against the backdrop of a particularly pivotal time in human history, referred to as the “Axial Age” by philosopher, Karl Jaspers. This paper will examine this period, and four of the spiritual developments representative of the Axial Age, Greek Philosophy in Ancient Greece, Confucianism in China, Monotheism in Israel, and, in particular, Buddhism and the Buddha in India.

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The Axial Age and its Characteristics:

In “Buddha,” Armstrong sets the context of the Buddha’s life, and its impact on subcontinent India, during a time when great transformative religions appeared, not only in India, but also simultaneously in China, Greece, Iran and Palestine. It was a pivotal time that Karl Jaspers, the philosopher, coined “The Axial Age.” Key religious thinkers, who came from separate corners of the globe, were reacting to similar, economic, social, and spiritual changes that were simultaneously affecting their particular societies. The way the thoughts and ideals of these prophets and sages developed, and then permeated human society, remains with us still, in the root foundations of the great religions of today (Armstrong, p 11).

The Axial Age, roughly 800 BCE to 200 BCE, was a time of immense political, cultural and social change for these particular countries. Traditional religion was no longer speaking to people whose experience of suffering in these core territories seems to have reached a climatic level (p 22). Some historians suggest that the invasions of the nomadic, Indo-European, horseman was one common factor in these territories (p 23). These Aryans came from Central Asia and eventually reached the Mediterranean, India and Iran by 1200 BCE. Eventually they made their way to China (p 23). They brought to these predominately agrarian cultures, “a sense of vast horizons and limitless possibilities and, as a ‘master race,’ they replaced the old stable, more primitive communities after a period of ‘intense conflict” and distress,” which Armstrong believes may partially account for the Axial Age’s discontent and overall “malaise”(p 23). The Aryan culture also brought innovative ideas, particularly in the marketplace, which had attained a new centrality by the sixth century BCE (p 27).

Power was passing to a new class of merchants who were developing a much more flexible economy (p 20). This market economy began to undermine the status quo, and merchants no longer deferred to the aristocracy. This new urban class valued self-reliance and was determined to take their fate into their own hands (p 20). Traditional values were wearing away, the familiar way of life was disappearing, and a new order was developing, that was both frightening and exhilarating (p 23). Out of this pivotal period, religious leaders and sages began to develop a comprehensive “world view,” of human nature no longer tied to any particular group. They also argued that the main task was to “remake present reality,” corrupt and imperfect as it was, to be in harmony with a higher moral order. Further, the religious leaders’ legitimacy was no longer dependent on political or kinship ties but on the individuals’ own qualifications and ability to reflect or model the ideals, they were espousing.

All of these cultures, Greece, India, China, Iran, and Palestine, experienced a “different” world where the security of traditional ways was fracturing and filled with “struggle,”(p 11) but was ripe with opportunity. This Axial period also marks a time when human beings became convinced that it was necessary to “turn away” from a violent, suffering world and seek the answers from a more “absolute” or higher truth they could only find within themselves (p 11).

The Axial Age Transformations in Greece, China and Palestine:

In Greece, spirituality and philosophy flourished as the Mycenaean kingdom gave way to the Macedonian empire. The brutality of the Peloponnesian War and the tradition of vengeance gave way to a different kind of world view, forged by Socrates, who argued that retaliation was always unjust and that the key to enlightenment was in acting with virtue and patience with friend and enemy alike, a kind of equanimity similarly espoused by the Buddha. This was a radical change from the Homeric, warrior values of the past. The two lines of thinking that emerged from the Greek Axial Age, i.e. philosophical speculation about the cosmos and consciousness itself, and the reconstruction of the political order into a proto-democratic ideal, did not merge into a holistic world-view. The Greeks transcendental, higher vision developed into a proto-scientific exploration of the cosmos, where nature and consciousness became the subject and where “to reason,” and question self-evident truths, became a vehicle to reach a higher moral ideal. But the practical change that came out of these speculations was grounded more in a social political vision of human nature rather than an “other-worldly” one; an ideal of a higher moral order as displayed in “justice” in the social political order. This was unique to Greek thought.

China, in contrast, developed no thought of a shared responsibility of its citizens for political ordering, as they could not conceive of any idea of order without a monarchy. The early Confucian masters were not concerned with cosmology or new political configurations. Confucians saw their salvation in developing internal peace, by fostering an already existing “inner goodness” through self-discipline and education in adhering to an established norm. What was radical about this for the Chinese was that everyone could achieve this higher moral order or basic goodness, not just the nobles. The record of the past, and respect again for the ancestors, could be a guide for people to find the right patterns to follow. In fact, to achieve true nobility one needed to develop this “inner goodness” and to consciously examine and foster the ancient ideals (19).

For the Jewish Prophets of Israel, the Axial Age was a time of newer, more fluid boundaries, politically, socially and economically, and an emergence of a monotheistic concept of a transcendent God who created the Universe and imposed His will and law upon it. It was a God of many nations, but who recognized the Israelites as the “chosen people” with whom a special covenant had been formed. This resulted in an emphasis on the ethical dimension of the religious experience where each person was responsible for his own salvation, not on a set of codified rites (18). The prophets became the special carriers and models, not tribally elected, but accepted by the people across tribal affiliations for their visionary experience and the values they embodied.

Axial Age sages and prophets saw exile, tragedy, and suffering all around them, but the truth they sought enabled them to find peace” regardless of their external circumstances (18). The new world-views were about seeking an inner depth and no longer relying on external, magical means. For Socrates, men already had this truth within them, but it was obscured in their memories and they needed to bring it forth into consciousness. Confucius studied the ancient customs of his ancestors and made these ideas “explicit that had been only intuited before” (18). He felt that human beings had to “study themselves and analyze the reasons for their failures” to return to a sense of harmony and beauty in the world (19).

Nowhere, was this inner search more developed, than in Buddhism. When Siddhartha Gotama was born, there was a spiritual crisis in the northern Ganges region. The widespread feeling of alienation and disillusionment was particularly acute in the northern Ganges region where Gotama was born. Ascetics in India, at this time, were seen as ‘pioneers” exploring the inner world of the spirit in order to bring relief from suffering (11). Like other Axial Age societies, people in the urban areas were becoming more independent and were questioning the caste system as a new, mercantile group emerged that did not fit into the traditional Brahmin, warrior, farmer, outcast model. These merchants did not feel beholden to the Brahmin, aristocratic ruling class and wanted to take their destination into their own hands. The whole society was also “recoiling” from the violence of the new kingdoms that the Aryan culture had brought. They were questioning the efficacy of ritual and animal sacrifice, which seemed cruel and wasteful, now that this part of India had moved to a more agricultural and merchant economy.

People were looking for a better society and a better way of being human.

Gotama uniquely mirrored the values of the Axial Age and brought his own special genius to bear in developing a “path of action” to deal with the human dilemma of “dukkha” (17). When Gotoma encountered the “truth of suffering” he left his home, and his palace of pleasures, determined to seek a lasting truth that would free him from the impermanence and ‘dis-ease’ he experienced all around him. Gotama was “less interested in metaphysical speculations about the universe, or about the nature of reality, but was concerned with ‘personal liberation’ (28). At first he “went forth,” literally walking away from the Brahmin society he knew, by joining the “forest monks,” a group of honored rebels, seekers of truth, and engaged in many yogic trances and ascetic deprivations with them. This proved unfruitful, however, and only by seeking out his own self-liberation, with a determination to find the truth within himself, did he realize the way out of the cycle of constant suffering. Like his contemporaries, he discovered that the “truth that lies within” led to a universal understanding of the need for “compassion” to set a person free. That is, when one gave up the “self” or ego-binding grasping, and discovered the truth of the emptiness of “self,” simultaneously embracing all sentient beings with loving kindness, equanimity and compassion, then, and only then, could one achieve true freedom from suffering. Not keeping his discoveries to himself, he spent the rest of his life, like his contemporaries in Greece, China and Israel, bringing his skillful means and path of “enlightenment” to others.

According to Armstrong, all the prophets and sages of the Axial Age discovered, simultaneously, that the way to a higher, transcendent, more fully human life was by looking within and discovering self-existing, self-liberating, inner truths. Common to these spiritual movements, as well, was that ‘compassion towards others’ would lead to a more meaningful, freer life in this world. It was a pivotal, revolutionary thought that, centuries later, is still at the root of our traditional religions and still presents a challenge, while resonating an inner conviction of its truth.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. Buddha. New York: The Penguin Group, 2001


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