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Classic review: The Great Transformation

Between 900 and 200 BCE, breakthroughs around the world laid the foundation for the emergence of today's major faiths.

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In this tour de force, Armstrong describes developments in four major civilizations side by side chronologically (century by century) as they pass through the Axial Age in different stages. Again and again, it becomes apparent that major breakthroughs come amid crises.

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In the 9th century BCE, in revulsion against societal violence, Brahman priests in India eliminate violent elements from traditional sacrifical rites. Ritual instead becomes a reconstructive act for the individual, focusing on a changed mental state.

In the 8th century BCE, Jewish prophets insist that ritual is meaningless without ethical behavior, and call for introspection, integrity, and pursuit of justice.

Some philosophers remain skeptical of Jaspers' theory and question the categorizing of such worldviews as Confucianism as religion. Armstrong couches her discussion of such ethical systems in semi-religious language. It's easy to see, however, why individuals from other cultures might perceive some developments differently.

Armstrong's book is a sprawling, highly detailed history that offers readers a stimulating acquaintance with the teachings of figures from Confucius, Mozi, and Laozi in China to Buddha, the Hindu mystics, and Ashoka of India, to the more familiar giants of Greek and Jewish history.

Armstrong also briefly discusses Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as latter-day flowerings of Axial Age Judaism.

She is deeply serious about the import of learning lessons from the Axial sages. They gave us two important pieces of advice, she writes: "First, there must be self- criticism. Instead of simply lambasting 'the other side,' people must examine their own behavior."

(Even as the Jews were being carried off into exile, Jeremiah and Ezekiel insisted they scrutinize their own actions. That led to a great transformation, including the writing of the visionary first chapter of Genesis.)

"Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action," Armstrong continues. They "worked vigorously to change their religion ... to eliminate the violence ... and militant egotism."

Most of all, she calls for striving to recover the vision and practice of compassion. "The sages were not utopian dreamers but practical men.... They were convinced that empathy did not just sound edifying but actually worked.... They spent as much creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer." If we live in an age of technological genius, she says, theirs was one of spiritual genius.

There is much talk of a spiritual awakening today. But Armstrong sets a high standard for such a notion as she describes the profound commitment and energies that gave birth to some of the world's great religious traditions.

Jane Lampman is a former Monitor staff writer.

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