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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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 496 pages
    Apr 2007, 560 pages

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The Aryans had no elaborate shrines and temples. Sacrifice was offered in the open air on a small, level piece of land, marked off from the rest of the settlement by a furrow. The seven original creations were all symbolically represented in this arena: Earth in the soil, Water in the vessels, Fire in the hearth; the stone Sky was present in the flint knife, the Plant in the crushed soma stalks, the Bull in the victim, and the first Man in the priest. And the gods, it was thought, were also present. The hotr priest, expert in the liturgical chant, would sing a hymn to summon devas to the feast. When they had entered the sacred arena, the gods sat down on the freshly mown grass strewn around the altar to listen to these hymns of praise. Since the sound of these inspired syllables was itself a god, as the song filled the air and entered their consciousness, the congregation felt surrounded by and infused with divinity. Finally the primordial sacrifice was repeated. The cattle were slain, the soma pressed, and the priest laid the choicest portions of the victims onto the fire, so that Agni could convey them to the land of the gods. The ceremony ended with a holy communion, as priest and participants shared a festal meal with the deities, eating the consecrated meat and drinking the intoxicating soma, which seemed to lift them to another dimension of being.

The sacrifice brought practical benefits too. It was commissioned by a member of the community, who hoped that those devas who had responded to his invitation and attended the sacrifice would help him in the future. Like any act of hospitality, the ritual placed an obligation on the divinities to respond in kind, and the hotr often reminded them to protect the patron's family, crops, and herd. The sacrifice also enhanced the patron's standing in the community. Like the gods, his human guests were now in his debt, and by providing the cattle for the feast and giving the officiating priests a handsome gift, he had demonstrated that he was a man of substance. The benefits of religion were purely material and this-worldly. People wanted the gods to provide them with cattle, wealth, and security. At first the Aryans had entertained no hope of an afterlife, but by the end of the second millennium, some were beginning to believe that wealthy people who had commissioned a lot of sacrifices would be able to join the gods in paradise after their death.

This slow, uneventful life came to an end when the Aryans discovered modern technology. In about 1500, they had begun to trade with the more advanced societies south of the Caucasus in Mesopotamia and Armenia. They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and also discovered new methods of transport: first they acquired wooden carts pulled by oxen, and then the war chariot. Once they had learned how to tame the wild horses of the steppes and harness them to their chariots, they discovered the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. The Aryans had become warriors. They could now travel long distances at high speed. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops. This was far more thrilling and lucrative than stock breeding. Some of the younger men served as mercenaries in the armies of the southern kingdoms, and became expert in chariot warfare. When they returned to the steppes, they put their new skills to use and started to rustle their neighbors' cattle. They killed, plundered, and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans, who were bewildered, frightened, and entirely disoriented, feeling that their lives had been turned upside down.

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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