Summary and book reviews of The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

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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Book Summary

In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Now, Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal "Axial Age" can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times.

In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all secondary flowerings of the original Israelite vision. Now, in The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal "Axial Age" can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times.

Armstrong traces the development of the Axial Age chronologically, examining the contributions of such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. All of the Axial Age faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time. Despite some differences of emphasis, there was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. With regard to dealing with fear, despair, hatred, rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people and give us, Armstrong says, two important pieces of advice: first there must be personal responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed by practical, effective action.

In her introduction and concluding chapter, Armstrong urges us to consider how these spiritualities challenge the way we are religious today. In our various institutions, we sometimes seem to be attempting to create exactly the kind of religion that Axial sages and prophets had hoped to eliminate. We often equate faith with doctrinal conformity, but the traditions of the Axial Age were not about dogma. All insisted on the primacy of compassion even in the midst of suffering. In each Axial Age case, a disciplined revulsion from violence and hatred proved to be the major catalyst of spiritual change.

Contents

List of Maps and Plans
Acknowledgments
Introduction

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)
10. THE WAY FORWARD

Notes
Glossary
Bibliography
Index


ASRA
THE AXIAL PEOPLES
(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" ...

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About This Book

In the period from the ninth century to the second century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal era—whose ideas share the values of selflessness, empathy, and respect for others—can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Armstrong suggests that we should not see one or another doctrine as right or wrong in of itself, but instead should look for the spiritual concept that lies at the root of each to find the commonalities of compassion and tolerance. Of course, the idea that we can solve the world's problems by finding common ground between religions is hardly a new idea. However, Armstrong's grasp of history and her ability to so lucidly explain it to us raises The Great Transformation well above the level of mere platitude.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (556 words).

Media Reviews

The Globe and Mail

The Great Transformation can serve the needs of new readers interested in a popular work that synthesizes scholarship. . . . [U]seful to anyone seeking an integral sense of world religions.

The New York Times - William Grimes

For the general reader The Great Transformation is an ideal starting point for understanding how the crowded heaven of warring gods, worshiped in violent rites, lost its grip on the human imagination, which increasingly looked inward rather than upward for enlightenment and transcendence.

Library Journal - Gary P Gillum

Both liberals and conservatives in all the world's religious and political camps could benefit from the historical insights gathered in this eminently significant volume.

Kirkus

A useful text for an intolerant and uncompassionate time.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Armstrong's magnificent accomplishment offers us an account of a violent time much like ours, when religious impulses in various locations developed practices of justice and love.

Booklist - Ray Olson

Starred Review. Magisterially but companionably, she unfolds the successive movements that molded religious consciousness in each nation, explaining them with such clarity that this book ranks with A History of God as one of her finest achievements and an utterly enthralling reading experience.

The Sunday Times

Armstrong has a dazzling ability: she can take a long and complex subject and reduce it to the fundamentals, without oversimplifying.

Reader Reviews

Rupa

Misinterpretation of Mahabharata
In “The Great Transformation”, Karen Armstrong writes about Hindu epic Mahabharata: “The five Pandava brothers were all married to their sister, Draupadi. This was clearly unconventional, but the marriage recalled the ancient ritual of the Asmavedya...   Read More

Glen Sanderson

Another useful perspective
This book is probably more directed to the lay reader who does not have a theology or philosophy background. Like her other books, it is well written. I believe Karen Armstrong, more than most authors, writes clearly and can take very complex ...   Read More

Martin Kent

A feel good read?
The Great Transformation is typical of Armstrong's popularizing work. If you like to imagine great spiritual ideas emerging out of the human soul, this is a book for you. If you want to understand religion and its role in society you will need to ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a nun in the Catholic Society of the Holy Child Jesus during the 1960s and later wrote a tell-all book, Through the Narrow Gate (1982) that bemoaned the restrictive life.

She teaches Christianity at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism. It was her first trip to Jerusalem in 1983 that ...

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