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 by Karen Armstrong X
The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 496 pages
    Apr 2007, 560 pages

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List of Maps and Plans

1. THE AXIAL PEOPLES (c. 1600 to 900 bce)
2. RITUAL (c. 900 to 800 bce)
3. KENOSIS (c. 800 to 700 bce)
4. KNOWLEDGE (c. 700 to 600 bce)
5. SUFFERING (c. 600 to 530 bce)
6. EMPATHY (c. 530 to 450 bce)
7. CONCERN FOR EVERYBODY (c. 450 to 398 bce)
8. ALL IS ONE (c. 400 to 300 bce)
9. EMPIRE (c. 300 to 220 bce)


(c. 1600 to 900 BCE)

The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans. The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride and meant something like "noble" or "honorable." The Aryans were a loose-knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. Because they spoke a language that would form the basis of several Asiatic and European tongues, they are also called Indo-Europeans. They had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500, but by the middle of the third millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until they reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. At the same time, those Aryans who had remained behind on the steppes gradually drifted apart and became two separate peoples, speaking different forms of the original Indo-European. One used the Avestan dialect, the other an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 they continued to live peacefully together, sharing the same cultural and religious traditions.

It was a quiet, sedentary existence. The Aryans could not travel far, because the horse had not yet been domesticated, so their horizons were bounded by the steppes. They farmed their land, herded their sheep, goats, and pigs, and valued stability and continuity. They were not a warlike people, since, apart from a few skirmishes with one another or with rival groups, they had no enemies and no ambition to conquer new territory. Their religion was simple and peaceful. Like other ancient peoples, the Aryans experienced an invisible force within themselves and in everything that they saw, heard, and touched. Storms, winds, trees, and rivers were not impersonal, mindless phenomena. The Aryans felt an affinity with them, and revered them as divine. Humans, deities, animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the same divine "spirit," which the Avestans called mainyu and the Sanskrit-speakers manya. It animated, sustained, and bound them all together.

Over time the Aryans developed a more formal pantheon. At a very early stage, they had worshiped a Sky God called Dyaus Pitr, creator of the world. But like other High Gods, Dyaus was so remote that he was eventually replaced by more accessible gods, who were wholly identified with natural and cosmic forces. Varuna preserved the order of the universe; Mithra was the god of storm, thunder, and life-giving rain; Mazda, lord of justice and wisdom, was linked with the sun and stars; and Indra, a divine warrior, had fought a three-headed dragon called Vritra and brought order out of chaos. Fire, which was crucial to civilized society, was also a god and the Aryans called him Agni. Agni was not simply the divine patron of fire; he was the fire that burned in every single hearth. Even the hallucinogenic plant that inspired the Aryan poets was a god, called Haoma in Avestan and Soma in Sanskrit: he was a divine priest who protected the people from famine and looked after their cattle.

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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