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
    Paperback:
    Apr 2007, 560 pages

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Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. A heroic age had be-gun. Might was right; chieftains sought gain and glory; and bards celebrated aggression, reckless courage, and military prowess. The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self-sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in a chariot upon the clouds of heaven. Indra was now the divine model to whom the raiders aspired. "Heroes with noble horses, fain for battle, selected warriors call on me in combat," he cried. "I, bountiful Indra, excite the conflict, I stir the dust, Lord of surpassing vigour!" When they fought, killed, and robbed, the Aryan cowboys felt themselves one with Indra and the aggressive devas who had established the world order by force of arms.

But the more traditional, Avestan-speaking Aryans were appalled by Indra's naked aggression, and began to have doubts about the daevas. Were they all violent and immoral? Events on earth always reflected cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype. The cattle rustlers, who fought under the banner of Indra, must be his earthly counterparts. But who were the daevas attacking in heaven? The most important gods—such as Varuna, Mazda, and Mithra, the guardians of order were given the honorific title "Lord" (ahura). Perhaps the peaceful ahuras, who stood for justice, truth, and respect for life and property, were themselves under attack by Indra and the more aggressive daevas? This, at any rate, was the view of a visionary priest, who in about 1200 claimed that Ahura Mazda had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes. His name was Zoroaster.

When he received his divine vocation, the new prophet was about thirty years old and strongly rooted in the Aryan faith. He had probably studied for the priesthood since he was seven years old, and was so steeped in tradition that he could improvise sacred chants to the gods during the sacrifice. But Zoroaster was deeply disturbed by the cattle raids, and after completing his education, he had spent some time in consultation with other priests, and had meditated on the rituals to find a solution to the problem. One morning, while he was celebrating the spring festival, Zoroaster had risen at dawn and walked down to the river to collect water for the daily sacrifice. Wading in, he immersed himself in the pure element, and when he emerged, saw a shining being standing on the riverbank, who told Zoroaster that his name was Vohu Manah ("Good Purpose"). Once he had been assured of Zoroaster's own good intentions, he led him into the presence of the greatest of the ahuras: Mazda, lord of wisdom and justice, who was surrounded by his retinue of seven radiant gods. He told Zoroaster to mobilize his people in a holy war against terror and violence. The story is bright with the promise of a new beginning. A fresh era had dawned: everybody had to make a decision, gods and humans alike. Were they on the side of order or evil?

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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