Excerpt from The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Great Transformation

The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

By Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2006,
    496 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2007,
    560 pages.

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The Avestan Aryans called their gods daevas ("the shining ones") and amesha ("the immortals"). In Sanskrit these terms became devas and amrita. None of these divine beings, however, were what we usually call "gods" today. They were not omnipotent and had no ultimate control over the cosmos. Like human beings and all the natural forces, they had to submit to the sacred order that held the universe together. Thanks to this order, the seasons succeeded one another in due course, the rain fell at the right times, and the crops grew each year in the appointed month. The Avestan Aryans called this order asha, while the Sanskrit-speakers called it rita. It made life possible, keeping everything in its proper place and defining what was true and correct.

Human society also depended upon this sacred order. People had to make firm, binding agreements about grazing rights, the herding of cattle, marriage, and the exchange of goods. Translated into social terms, asha/rita meant loyalty, truth, and respect, the ideals embodied by Varuna, the guardian of order, and Mithra, his assistant. These gods supervised all covenant agreements that were sealed by a solemn oath. The Aryans took the spoken word very seriously. Like all other phenomena, speech was a god, a deva. Aryan religion was not very visual. As far as we know, the Aryans did not make effigies of their gods. Instead, they found that the act of listening brought them close to the sacred. Quite apart from its meaning, the very sound of a chant was holy; even a single syllable could encapsulate the divine. Similarly, a vow, once uttered, was eternally binding, and a lie was absolutely evil because it perverted the holy power inherent in the spoken word. The Aryans would never lose this passion for absolute truthfulness.

Every day, the Aryans offered sacrifices to their gods to replenish the energies they expended in maintaining world order. Some of these rites were very simple. The sacrificer would throw a handful of grain, curds, or fuel into the fire to nourish Agni, or pound the stalks of soma, offer the pulp to the water goddesses, and make a sacred drink. The Aryans also sacrificed cattle. They did not grow enough crops for their needs, so killing was a tragic necessity, but the Aryans ate only meat that had been ritually and humanely slaughtered. When a beast was ceremonially given to the gods, its spirit was not extinguished but returned to Geush Urvan ("Soul of the Bull"), the archetypical domestic animal. The Aryans felt very close to their cattle. It was sinful to eat the flesh of a beast that had not been consecrated in this way, because profane slaughter destroyed it forever, and thus violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin. Again, the Aryans would never entirely lose this profound respect for the "spirit" that they shared with others, and this would become a crucial principle of their Axial Age.

To take the life of any being was a fearful act, not to be undertaken lightly, and the sacrificial ritual compelled the Aryans to confront this harsh law of existence. The sacrifice became and would remain the organizing symbol of their culture, by which they explained the world and their society. The Aryans believed that the universe itself had originated in a sacrificial offering. In the beginning, it was said, the gods, working in obedience to the divine order, had brought forth the world in seven stages. First they created the Sky, which was made of stone like a huge round shell; then the Earth, which rested like a flat dish upon the Water that had collected in the base of the shell. In the center of the Earth, the gods placed three living creatures: a Plant, a Bull, and a Man. Finally they produced Agni, the Fire. But at first everything was static and lifeless. It was not until the gods performed a triple sacrifice—crushing the Plant, and killing the Bull and the Man—that the world became animated. The sun began to move across the sky, seasonal change was established, and the three sacrificial victims brought forth their own kind. Flowers, crops, and trees sprouted from the pulped Plant; animals sprang from the corpse of the Bull; and the carcass of the first Man gave birth to the human race. The Aryans would always see sacrifice as creative. By reflecting on this ritual, they realized that their lives depended upon the death of other creatures. The three archetypal creatures had laid down their lives so that others might live. There could be no progress, materially or spiritually, without self-sacrifice. This too would become one of the principles of the Axial Age.

Excerpted from The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong Copyright © 2006 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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