Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 600 to 530 BCE)

During the sixth century, Israel embarked fully upon its Axial Age, and yet again, the catalyst of change was the experience of unbridled, shocking violence. Shortly after Josiah’s untimely death, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, became the undisputed master of the region, and for the next twenty years, the Neo-Babylonian empire contended with Egypt for the control of Canaan. The kings of Judah veered uneasily between the two powers, opting now for one, then relying on the protection of the other. But it proved dangerous to oppose Babylon. Each time Judah rebelled against Babylonian rule, Nebuchadnezzar descended on the little kingdom with his powerful army and subjugated the region, in three brutal military campaigns. In 597, the young King Jehoiachin of Judah submitted to Babylon and was deported with eight thousand exiles; they included members of the royal family, the aristocracy, the military, and the skilled artisans: “all of them men capable of bearing arms, [they] were led into exile in Babylon.”1 It was this first group of deportees who created the new Axial Age vision.

Nebuchadnezzar had torn the heart out of the Judean state, but it struggled on for another ten years, with Zedekiah, a Babylonian appointee, on the throne. When Zedekiah rebelled in 587, Nebuchadnezzar showed no mercy. His army fell upon Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and razed the city to the ground. Zedekiah was forced to watch the slaughter of his sons before his eyes were torn out, and he too was carried off to Babylon, with five thousand more deportees, leaving only the poorer people and those who had defected to Babylon in the devastated land. Judah was incorporated into the administrative structure of the empire, and in 581, a third group was taken into exile.2

This was a period of intense suffering. Recently some scholars have argued that the Babylonian exile was not really very traumatic: about 75 percent of the population remained behind, and life continued as before. The deportees were well cared for in Babylonia. They settled down and made lives for themselves as rent collectors, business agents, and managers of canals. Some even owned fiefs of land.3 But recent archaeological investigations have revealed the fury of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, Judah, and the entire Levant, which was far more destructive than the Assyrian onslaught. The country entered a dark age, one of the most miserable periods of its history.4 Jerusalem and its temple remained a desolate ruin. The book of Lamentations described its empty squares, crumbling walls, and damaged gates; the crowded, prosperous city was now the abode of jackals. People clawed at garbage dumps for food, mothers killed and boiled their babies, and handsome young men roamed the ruined streets with blackened faces and skeletal bodies.5 The people of Israel had looked into a terrifying void, but having lost everything, some were able to create a new vision out of the experience of grief, loss, and humiliation.

The prophet Jeremiah was not deported, because he had consistently supported the Babylonians, realizing that rebellion was utter folly. Some prophets thought that because Yahweh dwelt in his temple, Jerusalem could not be destroyed, but Jeremiah told them that this was dangerous nonsense. It was useless to chant “This is the temple of Yahweh!” like a magic spell. If the people did not mend their ways, Yahweh would destroy the city.6 This was treason, and Jeremiah was almost executed, but after his acquittal he continued to wander through the streets, uttering his grim oracles. His name has become a byword for exaggerated pessimism, but Jeremiah was not being “negative.” He was right. His unflinching and courageous stand expressed one of the essential principles of the Axial Age: people must see things as they really are. They could not function spiritually or practically if they buried their heads in the sand and refused to face the truth, however painful and frightening this might be.


Jeremiah hated being a prophet. He seemed compelled, against his will, to cry “Violence and ruin!” all day long; when he tried to stop, it felt as though his heart and bones were on fire, and he was forced to prophesy again. He had become a laughingstock, and wished he had never been born.7 Like Amos and Hosea, he felt that his own subjectivity had been taken over by God; the pain that wracked his every limb was Yahweh’s pain: God also felt humiliated, ostracized, and abandoned.8 Instead of denying his suffering, Jeremiah presented himself to the people as a man of sorrows, opening his heart to the terror, rage, and misery of his time, and allowing it to invade every recess of his being. Denial was not an option; it could only impede enlightenment.

Shortly after the first deportation, in 597, Jeremiah heard that there were some so-called prophets at work in Babylon, who were giving the exiles false hope. So he wrote an open letter to the deportees. They were not going to return home in the near future; in fact, Yahweh was going to destroy Jerusalem. They must resign themselves to at least seventy years in captivity, so they should settle down, build houses, take wives, and have children. Above all, the exiles must not give way to resentment. This was Yahweh’s message. “Work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you; pray to Yahweh on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends.” If they could face facts, turn their backs on false consolation, and refuse to allow their hearts to be poisoned by hatred, they would enjoy “a future full of hope.”9 Jeremiah was convinced that it was the exiles of 597, not the people who had remained behind, who would save Israel. If they could come through this time of trial, they would develop a more interior spirituality. Yahweh would make a new covenant with them. This time it would not be inscribed on stone tablets, like the old covenant with Moses:

Deep within them I will plant my law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they shall be my people. There will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour, or brother to say to brother, “Learn to know Yahweh!” No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.10

Having lost everything, some of the people of Israel were turning within. Each individual must take responsibility for him- or herself; they were starting to discover the more interior and direct knowledge of the Axial Age.

Far from seeking the welfare of the Babylonians, however, some of the exiles wanted to smash their children’s heads against a rock.11 Exile is not simply a change of address. It is also a spiritual dislocation. Cut off from the roots of their culture and identity, refugees often feel that they have been cast adrift, have lost their orientation, that they are withering away and becoming insubstantial.12 The Judean exiles were reasonably well treated in Babylon. They were not kept in a prison or a camp. King Jehoiachin, who had freely surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar in 597, was under house arrest, but was given a stipend and lived in comfort with his entourage in the southern citadel of Babylon.13 Some of the deportees lived in the capital, while others were housed in undeveloped areas, near newly dug canals.14 They could, to an extent, manage their own affairs.15But they were still displaced persons. In Jerusalem, many had been men of authority and influence; in Babylonia they had no political rights and were on the margins of society, their position lower than that of the poorest of the local people. Some were even forced into the corvée.16 They had suffered a shocking loss of status. When they described the exile, they frequently used words like “bonds” (maserah) and “fetters” (ziggin).17They may not technically have been slaves, but they felt as though they were.

Some of the refugees could no longer worship Yahweh, who had been so soundly worsted by Marduk, god of Babylon.18 The book of Job, based on an ancient folktale, may have been written during the exile. One day, Yahweh made an interesting wager in the divine assembly with Satan, who was not yet a figure of towering evil but simply one of the “sons of God,” the legal “adversary” of the council.19 Satan pointed out that Job, Yahweh’s favorite human being, had never been truly tested but was good only because Yahweh had protected him and allowed him to prosper. If he lost all his possessions, he would soon curse Yahweh to his face. “Very well,” Yahweh replied, “all that he has is in your power.”20 Satan promptly destroyed Job’s oxen, sheep, camels, servants, and children, and Job was struck down by a series of foul diseases. He did indeed turn against God, and Satan won his bet.

At this point, however, in a series of long poems and discourses, the author tried to square the suffering of humanity with the notion of a just, benevolent, and omnipotent god. Four of Job’s friends attempted to console him, using all the traditional arguments: Yahweh only ever punished the wicked; we could not fathom his plans; he was utterly righteous, and Job must therefore be guilty of some misdemeanor. These glib, facile platitudes simply enraged Job, who accused his comforters of behaving like God and persecuting him cruelly. As for Yahweh, it was impossible to have a sensible dialogue with a deity who was invisible, omnipotent, arbitrary, and unjust—at one and the same time prosecutor, judge, and executioner.

When Yahweh finally deigned to respond to Job, he showed no compassion for the man he had treated so cruelly, but simply uttered a long speech about his own splendid accomplishments. Where had Job been while he laid the earth’s foundations, and pent up the sea behind closed doors? Could Job catch Leviathan with a fishhook, make a horse leap like a grasshopper, or guide the constellations on their course? The poetry was magnificent, but irrelevant. This long, boastful tirade did not even touch upon the real issue: Why did innocent people suffer at the hands of a supposedly loving God? And unlike Job, the reader knows that Job’s pain had nothing to do with the transcendent wisdom of Yahweh, but was simply the result of a frivolous bet. At the end of the poem, when Job—utterly defeated by Yahweh’s bombastic display of power—retracted all his complaints and repented in dust and ashes, God restored Job’s health and fortune. But he did not bring to life the children and servants who had been killed in the first chapter. There was no justice or recompense for them.

If Job was indeed written by one of the exiles, it shows that some of the community may have lost all faith in Yahweh. But others responded creatively to the catastrophe and began to develop an entirely new religious vision. The royal scribes continued to edit earlier texts. The Deuteronomists added passages to their history to explain the disaster, while priests began to adapt their ancient lore to life in Babylonia, where the Judeans had no cult and no temple. Deprived of everything that had given meaning to their lives—their temple, their king, and their land—they had to learn to live as a homeless minority, and once again, they were not afraid to rewrite their history, revise their customs, and find a radically innovative interpretation of their traditional sacred symbols.

We can see the development of this Axial vision in the prophetic career of the young priest Ezekiel, who was deported to Babylon in 597 and settled in the village of Tel Aviv—Springtime Hill—near the Chebar Canal. He had a series of visions, which marked his painful passage from agonizing terror to a more peaceful, interior spirituality. In 593, just five years after he had been taken into exile, while Jerusalem and its temple were still standing, Ezekiel had a bewildering vision on the banks of the Chebar.21 There was a strong wind; he saw flashes of lightning, thunder, and smoke; and in the midst of this stormy obscurity, Ezekiel could just make out four extraordinary creatures, each with four heads, pulling a war chariot. They beat their wings with a deafening sound, like “rushing water, like the voice of Shaddai, like a storm, like the noise of a camp.” On the chariot was something “like” a throne, on which sat a “being that looked like a man,” with fire shooting from its limbs, yet it also “looked like the glory of Yahweh.” A hand reached out, clasping a scroll “inscribed with lamentations, wailings, moanings,” and before he could bring the divine message to his people, Ezekiel was forced to eat it, painfully assimilating the violence and sorrow of his time.

God had become incomprehensible—as alien as Ezekiel felt in Tel Aviv. The trauma of exile had smashed the neat, rationalistic God of the Deuteronomists; it was no longer possible to see Yahweh as a friend who shared a meal with Abraham, or as a king presiding powerfully over his divine council. Ezekiel’s vision made no sense; it was utterly transcendent, beyond human categories. The scroll that was handed to him contained no clear directives, like the Deuteronomists’ sefer torah; it offered no certainty, but expressed only inchoate cries of grief and pain. It was a martial vision, filled with the confusion and terror of warfare. Instead of a celestial throne, Yahweh appeared on a war chariot—the equivalent of today’s tank or fighter jet. The message that Ezekiel was to deliver was little more than a threat. He was simply to warn the “defiant and obstinate” exiles that “there is a prophet among them—whether they listen or not.” There could be no tenderness or consolation. Yahweh was going to make Ezekiel as defiant and obstinate as the rest of the people, “his resolution as hard as a diamond and diamond is harder than flint.” Finally Ezekiel was lifted up amidst tumultuous shouting. He felt the hand of Yahweh lying “heavy” upon him; his heart overflowed “with bitterness and anger,” and he lay in Tel Aviv for a week, “like a man stunned.”22

And yet there was consolation. When Ezekiel ate the scroll and accepted its overwhelming sorrow and fear, he found that “it tasted as sweet as honey.”23 And even though Yahweh had brought no comfort, the fact remained that he had come to his people in exile. The temple was still standing, yet Yahweh had left his shrine in Jerusalem and thrown in his lot with the exiles. In later visions, Ezekiel would see that Yahweh had been driven out of his city by the idolatry and immorality of the Judeans who had remained behind.24 But the exiles must realize that they bore some responsibility for the catastrophe. Ezekiel’s mission was to bring this home to the deportees of 597. There were to be no fantasies of restoration; their job was to repent and—somehow—to build a rightly ordered life in Babylon. But they could not do this unless they allowed themselves to experience the full weight of their sorrow.

Ezekiel’s personal dislocation was, perhaps, revealed in his strange, distorted actions—the weird mimes he felt compelled to perform to bring the people’s predicament home to them. When Ezekiel’s wife died, Yahweh forbade him to mourn; another time, Yahweh commanded Ezekiel to lie on one side for 390 days and on the other for 40. Yahweh tied him up, shut him in his house, and stuck Ezekiel’s tongue to the roof of his mouth, so that he could not speak. Once Yahweh forced him to pack his bags and walk around Tel Aviv like a refugee. He was afflicted with such acute anxiety that he could not stop trembling, could not sit still, and had to keep moving about restlessly. This—he seemed to be telling his fellow exiles—was what happened to displaced people: they no longer had normal responses, because their world had been turned upside down. They could not relax or feel at ease anywhere at all. Unless the exiles appreciated this to the full—saw things as they were—they would not be able to heal. It was no good looking on the bright side or telling themselves that they would soon be home, because this was simply not true. They must strip themselves of these delusions.

Ezekiel was a priest, and he interpreted the crisis in terms of the temple rituals, but used traditional liturgical categories to diagnose the moral failings of his people. Sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, Ezekiel had a vision that showed him why Yahweh had been driven out of Jerusalem. Taken on a guided tour of the temple, he saw to his horror that, poised as they were on the brink of catastrophe, the people of Judah were still worshiping gods other than Yahweh. The temple had become a nightmarish place, its walls painted with writhing snakes and repellent animals. The priests performing these “filthy” rites were presented in a sordid light, almost as if they were engaged in furtive, disreputable sex: “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the throne of Israel do in the dark, each in his painted room?”25 In another chamber, women sat weeping for Tammuz, the Anatolian vegetation god. Other Judeans worshiped the sun with their backs to the Holy of Holies, where Yahweh dwelt.

But the people were also rejecting Yahweh ethically as well as ritually. Ezekiel’s divine guide told him that the guilt of Israel and Judah “is immense, boundless; the country is full of bloodshed, the city overflows with wickedness, for they say, ‘Yahweh has abandoned the country, Yahweh cannot see.’ The city is filled with the corpses of murdered men.”26 In this world of international aggression, it is significant that Ezekiel was preoccupied with the violence that Judeans were inflicting upon one another. Reform must begin with an objective, clearsighted examination of their own failings. Instead of blaming the Babylonians for their cruelty, projecting their pain onto the enemy, Ezekiel forced his fellow exiles to look nearer home. Blood was of crucial importance in the temple cult. Most priestly discussions of blood had hitherto centered on the ritual. But Ezekiel now made blood a symbol for murder, lawlessness, and social injustice.27 Ritual was being interpreted by the new moral imperative of the Axial Age. These social crimes were just as serious as idolatry, and Israel had only itself to blame for the impending disaster. At the end of his vision, Ezekiel watched Yahweh’s war chariot fly away over the Mount of Olives, taking the divine glory away from the holy city.

There was no hope for the Judeans who had stayed behind and whose sinfulness and political chicanery would result in the destruction of Jerusalem. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel had no time for these people. But because Yahweh had decided to dwell among the deportees in exile, there was hope for the future. Despite his distress and apparent derangement, Ezekiel had a vision of new life. He saw a field full of human bones, which represented the exiled community; they kept saying: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has gone; we are as good as dead.” But Ezekiel prophesied over the bones and “the breath entered them; they came to life again and stood up on their feet, a great and immense army.”28 One day when they had fully repented, Yahweh would bring the exiles home. But this would not be a simple restoration. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel knew that the suffering of exile must lead to a deeper vision. Yahweh promised: “I will give them another heart, and I will put a new spirit in them. I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies, and give them a heart of flesh instead, so that they will keep my laws.”29 In his first vision, Yahweh had told Ezekiel that he was going to make his heart as hard as flint. But because Ezekiel—and, presumably, some of the exiles—had assimilated their pain, acknowledged their own responsibility, and allowed their hearts to break, they had become humane.

Finally, perhaps toward the end of his life, after the destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel had a vision of a city called Yahweh Sham (“Yahweh is there!”), situated on the summit of a very high mountain. These chapters may have been edited and expanded by some of Ezekiel’s disciples, but the core idea probably came from the prophet himself.30 Even though Jerusalem and its temple lay in ruins, they lived on in the prophet’s mind, and Ezekiel saw their mystical significance. Solomon’s temple had been designed as a replica of the Garden of Eden, and Ezekiel now found himself looking at an earthly paradise. There was a temple in the center of the city; and a river bubbled up from beneath the sanctuary and flowed down the sacred mountain, bringing life and healing to the surrounding countryside. Along the riverbanks, there grew trees “with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails . . . good to eat, and with leaves medicinal.”31 The temple was the nucleus of the whole world; divine power radiated from it to the land and people of Israel in a series of concentric circles. In each zone, the farther it got from its source, this holiness was diluted.

The first circle surrounding the city was the home of the king and priests, the sacred personnel. The next zone, for the tribes of Israel, was a little less holy. But beyond the reach of holiness, outside the land, was the world of the goyim, the foreign nations. In the temple cult, Yahweh had been qaddosh: “separate” and “other.” Now that the temple was gone, Israel could still participate in his holiness by living apart from the rest of the world. This vision of the restored community was not a detailed blueprint for the future or an architectural plan. It was what the people of India would call a mandala, an icon for meditation,32 an image of the properly ordered life, centered on the divine. Yahweh was with his people, even in exile; they must live as though they were still living beside the temple, separately from the goyim. They must not fraternize or assimilate, but gather in spirit around Yahweh. Even though they were peripheral people in Babylonia, they were closer to the center than their idolatrous neighbors, who were scarcely on the map. But given the emphasis on the inner life at this time, it is also possible that the description enabled Ezekiel’s disciples to internalize the temple and make it an interior reality. By contemplating the circles of holiness, they could discover their own “center,” the orientation that enabled them to function fully. The exiles did not analyze the psyche as rigorously as the sages of the Upanishads, but it is possible that while meditating upon this mandala, some were discovering a divine presence at the core of their being.

In his meditation on Yahweh Sham, Ezekiel expended a great deal of time on detailed discussion of sacrifice, vestments, and the measurements and proportions of the temple. In times of social uncertainty, anthropologists tell us, ritual acquires a new importance.33 Among displaced people, in particular, there is pressure to maintain the boundaries that separate the group from others, and a new concern about purity, pollution, and mixed marriage, which help the community to resist the majority culture. Certainly Ezekiel’s vision showed a fortress mentality. No foreigners were allowed in his imaginary city; there were walls and gates everywhere, barricading the holiness of Israel from the threatening outside world.

Ezekiel was one of the last of the great prophets. Prophecy had always been linked with the monarchy in Israel and Judah, and it became less influential as the monarchy declined. But the priests, who had officiated in the temple, acquired a new importance, as the last link with a world that seemed irrevocably lost. They could have fallen into despair after their temple had been destroyed, but instead, a small circle of exiled priests began to construct a new spirituality on the rubble of the old. We know very little about them. Scholars call this priestly layer of the Bible “P,” but we do not know whether P was a single editor or, more probably, a school of priestly writers and editors. Whoever they were, P had access to several old traditions, some written down and others orally transmitted.34 Perhaps they worked in the royal archive housed in the court of the exiled King Jehoiachin. The documents available to P included the JE narrative, the genealogies of the patriarchs, and ancient ritual texts that listed the places where the Israelites were believed to have camped during their forty years in the wilderness. But P’s most important sources were the Holiness Code35 (miscellaneous laws collected during the seventh century) and the Tabernacle Document, the centerpiece of P’s narrative, which described the tent shrine that the Israelites had built in the wilderness to house the divine presence.36 It was called the tent of meeting because Moses consulted Yahweh there and received his instructions. Some of P’s material was very old indeed, and his language was deliberately archaic, but his aim was not antiquarian. He wanted to build a new future for his people.

P made some important additions to the JE saga, and was also responsible for the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Most readers find this priestly lore impossibly difficult; they usually skip the interminable accounts of convoluted, bloody sacrifices and the incomprehensibly detailed dietary laws. Why bother to describe ceremonies that, now that the temple was in ruins, were obsolete? Why such concentration on purity when the exiles were living in an impure land? At first sight, P’s apparent obsession with external rules and rituals seems far removed from the Axial Age. Yet he was preoccupied with many of the same issues as the reformers who had revised the Vedic sacrifices. P wanted the deportees to live in a different way, convinced that, if faithfully observed, these laws would not imprison them in soulless conformity, but would transform them at a profound level.

The first chapter of Genesis, which described how Israel’s God had created heaven and earth in six days, is probably P’s most famous work, and it is a good place to start. When his first audience listened to a creation story, they expected to hear tales of violent struggle. The exiles were living in Babylon, where Marduk’s victory over Tiamat, the primal sea, was reenacted in a spectacular ritual at the new year, and there were many stories about Yahweh slaying a sea dragon when he created the world. So the audience would not have been surprised to hear the sea mentioned in P’s opening words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was wild and waste, there was darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.” But then P surprised them. There was no fighting or killing. God simply spoke a word of command: “Let there be light!” And—without any struggle at all—the light shone forth. God ordered the world by issuing a further series of edicts: “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place!” “Let the earth sprout forth with sprouting growth!” “Let there be lights in the dome of the heavens, to separate the day from the night!” And finally: “Let us make humankind [adam] in our image!” And each time, without a single battle, “it was so.”37 In the same way as the Indian ritualists had systematically taken the violence out of the traditional ritual, P methodically extracted aggression from the traditional cosmogony.

This was a remarkable spiritual achievement. The deportees had been the victims of a horrifying assault. The Babylonians had devastated their homeland, reduced their city to rubble, razed their temple to the ground, and forcibly driven them into exile. We know that some of them wanted to pay back the Babylonians in kind:

Destructive Daughter of Babel,

A blessing on the man who treats you

As you have treated us,

A blessing on him who takes and dashes

Your babies against the rock!38

But this, P seemed to tell them, was not the way to go. His creation story can be seen as a polemic against the religion of their Babylonian conquerors. Yahweh was far more powerful than Marduk. He did not have to fight a battle against his fellow gods when he ordered the cosmos; the sea was not a terrifying goddess, but simply the raw material of the universe; and the sun, moon, and stars were mere creatures and functionaries. Marduk’s creation had to be renewed annually, but Yahweh finished his work in a mere six days and was able to rest on the seventh. He had no divine competition but was incomparable, the only power in the universe and beyond opposition.39

Israelites could be extremely scathing about other people’s faith, but P did not take that road. There were no cheap jibes against Babylonian religion. His narrative was serene and calm. Even though the exiles had experienced such violent uprooting, this was a world where everything had its place. On the last day of creation, God “saw everything that he had made, and here: it was exceedingly good.”40 He also blessed all that he had made—and that, presumably, included the Babylonians. Everybody should behave like Yahweh, resting calmly on the Sabbath, serving God’s world, and blessing all his creatures.

P deliberately linked the building of the tabernacle with the creation of the world.41 In his instructions to Moses about the construction of this shrine, Yahweh ordered that the work should take six days, “but the seventh is to be a holy day for you, a day of complete rest, consecrated to Yahweh.”42 When the tent of meeting was finished, “Moses examined the whole work, and he could see they had done it as Yahweh had directed him. And Moses blessed them.”43 The exodus from Egypt was crucial to P’s vision, but he interpreted the story very differently than the Deuteronomists. P did not describe the covenant made on Mount Sinai, which had become a painful, problematic memory now that Israel had been exiled from the land that Yahweh had promised them there.44For P the climax of the story was not the giving of the sefer torah but the gift of the life-giving presence of God in the tent of meeting.

Yahweh told Moses that he had brought the people out of Egypt “in order to live [skn] myself in their midst.”45 In his mobile shrine, the divine presence accompanied the people of Israel wherever they were. The root word shakan, usually translated as “to live,” originally meant “to lead the life of a nomadic tent dweller.” P preferred this word to yob (“to dwell”), which suggested permanent habitation. God had promised to “tent” with his wandering people. He had no fixed abode, was not tied to any one shrine, but had promised to shakan with the Israelites wherever they went.46 When he edited the JE narrative, P concluded the book of Exodus with the completion of the tent of meeting, when God fulfilled his promise, when the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle (mishkan) and the cloud of his presence covered it:

Whenever the cloud goes up from the mishkan

the Children of Israel march on, upon all their marches. . . .

For the cloud of YHWH is over the mishkan by day

and fire is by night in it,

before the eyes of all the House of Israel

upon all their marches.47

The present tense was of great importance. Yahweh was still with his people in their latest march to Babylonia. Like their God, Israel was a mobile people. Unlike the Deuteronomists, P did not end the saga with Joshua’s conquest but left the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land.48Israel was not a people because it dwelt in a particular country, but because it lived in the presence of its God, who traveled with the people wherever in the world they happened to be.

P’s description of Israel’s encampment in the wilderness revealed the exile’s passion for order.49 When they pitched camp at night or marched during the day, each of the tribes had its divinely appointed position around the tent. In the book of Numbers, Israel’s history, which had been so brutally disrupted, was presented as a stately procession from one place to another. Adding his own priestly lore to the JE narrative, P recast the history of his people, showing that the exile to Babylon was just the latest in a long series of tragic migrations: Adam and Eve had been forced to leave Eden; Cain had become a perpetual wanderer after killing his brother; human beings were scattered over the face of the earth after the rebellion at the Tower of Babel. Abraham had left Ur, the tribes had migrated to Egypt, and Yahweh had liberated them from captivity. But he had “tented” with his people in the Sinai desert for forty years, and—the implication was—he was still living in the midst of his people in this latest migration to Babylon.

The community of exiles probably went in for quite a lot of grumbling and complaining. In his narrative, P developed the stories about Israel’s “murmuring” against God in the wilderness.50 The exiles were also a “stiff-necked generation,” but P showed them the way forward. Even in exile, they could create a community to which God’s presence could return, provided that they all lived according to the ancient priestly laws. This was a startling innovation. P was not reviving old legislation that had fallen into disuse. The ceremonial laws, purity regulations, and dietary rules that had governed the lives of the priests who served in the temple had never been intended for the laity.51 Now, P made an astonishing claim. Israel, whose national temple had been destroyed, was a nation of priests. All the people must live as though they were serving the divine presence in the temple, because God was still living in their midst. P’s legislation ritualized the whole of life, but he used these ancient temple laws to initiate a new ethical revolution, based on the experience of displacement.

Even though the exiles were living in an impure land, P insisted that there was a profound link between exile and holiness. In the Holiness Code, God had told the Israelites: “You must be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy.”52 To be “holy” was to be “separate.” Yahweh was “other,” radically different from ordinary, profane reality. The law proposed by P crafted a holy lifestyle based on the principle of separation. The people must live apart from their Babylonian neighbors and keep the natural world at a distance. By imitating the otherness of God in every detail of their lives, they would be holy as Yahweh was holy and would be in the place where God was. Because exile was essentially a life of alienation, Babylonia was the perfect place to put this program into practice. In Leviticus, Yahweh issued detailed regulations about sacrifice, diet, and social, sexual, and cultic life. If Israel observed these laws, Yahweh promised, he would always live in their midst. God and Israel traveled together. If they chose to disregard his commandments, Yahweh would “walk with them” as a punitive force.53 He would devastate their land, destroy their shrines and temples, and scatter them among the nations. This—P implied—had come to pass. The people of Israel had not lived lives of holiness, and that was why they were now in exile. But if they repented, Yahweh would remember them, even in the land of their enemies. “I will place my ‘Tabernacle’ [mishkan] in your midst and I myself will not despise you. I will walk about among you.”54Babylonia could be a new Eden, where God had walked with Adam in the cool of the evening.

For P, a man of the Axial Age, holiness had a strong ethical component and was no longer a merely cultic matter. It involved absolute respect for the sacred “otherness” of every creature. In the law of freedom,55 Yahweh insisted that nothing could be enslaved or owned, not even the land. In the Jubilee Year, which must be proclaimed every fifty years, all slaves must be freed and all debts canceled. Even though they lived separate, holy lives, Israelites must not despise the stranger: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him like one of your own people and love him as yourselves. For you were strangers in Egypt.”56 This was a law based on empathy. The experience of suffering must lead to the appreciation of other people’s pain. Your own sorrow must teach you to feel with others. P was a realist, however. The commandment to “love” did not require the people to be constantly filled with warm affection. P was not writing about feelings. This was a law code, and P’s language was as technical and reticent as any legal ruling, where emotion would be out of place. In Middle Eastern treaties, to “love” meant to be helpful, loyal, and to give practical support. The commandment to love was not excessively utopian, therefore, but was within everybody’s grasp.

From start to finish, P’s vision was inclusive. Yet at first reading, the dietary laws seem harsh and arbitrarily selective. How could a God who had blessed all the animals on the day of creation dismiss some of his creatures as “unclean” or even as “abominations”? We naturally endow words such as “impure” or “abomination” with ethical and emotional significance, but the Hebrew tamei (“impure”) did not mean “sinful” or “dirty.” It was a technical term in the cult, and had no emotive or moral overtones. As in Greece, certain actions or conditions activated an impersonal miasma that contaminated the temple and drove God out.57 For P, death was the basic and prototypical impurity: the living God was incompatible with dead bodies. It was an insult to come into his presence after contact with the corpse of any one of his creatures. All major pollutants—improperly shed blood, leprosy, discharge—were impure because they were associated with death, and had encroached into an area where they did not belong.58 In the temple, priests who served the divine presence had to avoid all contact with dead bodies and symbols of decay. Now all Israelites must do the same, because they too were living with their God.

But—a very important point—P did not teach that other human beings were unclean or contaminating.59 The laws of holiness and impurity were not designed to keep outsiders beyond the pale; in P, the foreigner was not to be shunned but “loved.” Contamination did not come from your enemies, but from yourself. The code did not command Israelites to avoid impure strangers, but to honor all life. In the dietary laws that forbade the consumption of “unclean” animals, P came very close to the Indian ideal of ahimsa. Like other ancient peoples, Israelites did not regard the ritualized sacrifice of animals as killing. It transformed the victim into a more airy, spiritual substance,60 and it was forbidden to kill and eat an animal that had not been consecrated in this way. P forbade the “secular slaughter” that had been permitted by the Deuteronomists, and ruled that Israelites could sacrifice and eat only the domestic animals from their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. These were the “clean” or “pure” animals that were part of the community and, therefore, shared in God’s covenant with Israel; they were his possessions and nobody could harm them. The “clean” animals must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath, and they could be eaten only if they were given some kind of posthumous life.61

But the “unclean” animals, such as dogs, deer, and other creatures that lived in the wild, must not be killed at all. It was forbidden to trap, slaughter, exploit, or eat them, under any circumstances. They were not dirty or disgusting. Israelites were not forbidden to touch them while they were alive. They became unclean only after their death.62 The law that forbade any contact with the corpse of an unclean animal protected it, because it meant that the carcass could not be skinned or dismembered. It was, therefore, not worthwhile to hunt or trap them. Similarly the animals classed as “abominations” (sheqqets) were not abhorrent during their lifetime. The Israelites must simply avoid them when they were dead, for the same reason. These “swarming creatures” of sea and air were vulnerable and should inspire compassion. Quails, for example, were tiny and easily blown off course. And because they were prolific and “teemed,” they were blessed by God and belonged to him.63 All God’s animals were his beautiful creation.64 P made it clear that God had blessed clean and unclean animals on the day he created them, and had saved pure and impure animals alike at the time of the flood. Harming any one of them was an affront to his holiness.

There was, however, an undercurrent of anxiety in P. The legislation surrounding leprosy, discharge, and menstruation, inspired by a fear of the body’s walls being breached, revealed the displaced community’s concern to establish clear boundaries. P’s evocation of a world in which everything had its place sprang from the trauma of dislocation. The national integrity of the exiles had been violated by a ruthless display of imperial power. The great achievement of the exilic priests and prophets had been the avoidance of a religion based on resentment and revenge, and the creation of a spirituality that affirmed the holiness of all life.

At the beginning of the sixth century, the social crisis that had disrupted many of the poleis in the Greek world finally hit Athens. The farmers in the rural areas of Attica complained of exploitation and banded together against the aristocrats. Civil war seemed inevitable. The noblemen were vulnerable: they were not united, had no army or police force at their disposal, and many of the farmers were trained hoplites, and therefore armed and dangerous. The only way out of the impasse was to find an impartial mediator who could arbitrate fairly between the contending parties. Athens chose Solon, and in 594 appointed him city magistrate, with a mandate to reform the constitution.

Solon belonged to the circle of independent intellectuals who gave advice to various poleis during crises. At first they had been consulted on purely practical matters: the economy, unemployment, or bad harvests. But increasingly, the “wise men” had started to consider more abstract, political issues. Solon had traveled widely in Greece, and in his discussions with other members of the circle had considered the besetting problems of the polis. He told Athenians that they were living in dysnomia (“disorder”) and heading for disaster. Their only hope was to create eunomia (“right order”) by returning to the norms that had originally governed Greek society. Farmers were essential to the polis, both as hoplites and as producers of wealth. By attempting to suppress them, the aristocrats had created an unhealthy imbalance in society that could only be self-destructive.

Solon was not content simply to pass a few laws. He wanted to make farmers and aristocrats alike aware of the problems of government and the principles that lay at the heart of any well-ordered society. All citizens must accept a measure of responsibility for the state of dysnomia. It was not a divine punishment but the result of human selfishness, and only a concerted political effort could restore peace and security. The gods did not intervene in human affairs and would not reveal a divine law to rectify the situation. This was an Axial breakthrough. At a stroke, Solon had secularized politics. In the holistic vision of antiquity, justice was part of a cosmic order that ruled even the gods; a bad government, which flouted these sacred principles, could disrupt the course of nature. But Solon had no time for this. Nature was governed by its own laws, which could not be affected by the actions of men and women. The Greeks were beginning to think in a new, analytic way, separating the different components of the problem, giving each its integrity, and then proceeding to find a logical solution. The circle of wise men had begun to study the process of cause and effect that would enable them to predict the outcome of a crisis. They were learning to look beyond the particular problems of a polis and find abstract general principles that could be applied universally.65

Solon’s principle of eunomia was not only decisive in Greek political thought, but would help to shape early Greek science and philosophy. It was based on the idea of balance. No one sector of society should dominate the others. The city must work in the same way as the hoplite phalanx, in which all the warriors acted in concert. The farmers must be freed of the burdens placed upon them, so that they could counter the powers of the aristocrats who oppressed them. So Solon canceled the farmers’ debts; the Popular Assembly of all the citizens, which went back to the old tribal days, must balance the aristocratic Council of Elders. He also created the Council of Four Hundred, to supervise all the official assemblies of the polis. To further dilute the power of the aristocracy, Solon defined status by wealth rather than by birth: anybody who produced over two hundred bushels of grain, wine, or oil each year was now eligible for public office. Finally, Solon reformed the judiciary, and permitted any citizen to prosecute the city magistrates.66 He had the new laws inscribed on two wooden tablets, so that any literate Athenian could consult them.

Solon probably imagined that once the imbalance in society had been rectified, the aristocrats would automatically rule more justly. But of course, they resented their loss of privilege, and when the new measures were not fully implemented, there was unrest and disappointment among the poorer classes. Many urged Solon to establish a tyranny in Athens, so that he could enforce his reforms, but he refused because tyranny was an unbalanced polity. In the short term, Solon failed: the people were not yet ready for his ideas. But the widespread interest in his reforms had put Athens, which had fallen behind the other poleis, in the vanguard of progress. By rejecting tyranny, Solon had also set a new standard of the ideal citizen, who served without hope of personal reward and did not seek to become superior to the ordinary people.67

But in 547 a tyrant did seize power in Athens. Peisistratos, from the nearby city of Brauron, whose family controlled the northern plains near Macedon, became the champion of many disaffected people in Athens. He and his sons would govern the city until 510. Generous, charming, and charismatic, Peisistratos was good for the city. He gave generous loans to the impoverished farmers, initiated important construction projects, and repaired the water-supply system and the roads around the city. Trade expanded, poets frequented his court, and the people enjoyed a spiritual renewal.

Peisistratos wanted to create a distinctive religious center in Athens. He and his sons transformed the Acropolis, making it a spectacular cult site with a stone temple and a convenient approach up the rocky hillside. Wealthy patrons commissioned statues of the gods, which stood around the sanctuary like an enchanted stone forest.68 Peisistratos also gave new life to the grand festival of Panathenaea, which celebrated the birth of the city, was held every four years, and had its own athletic games.69 It was the climax of the new year’s celebrations, and followed some dark, perplexing rites that reenacted the early history of Athens. In one of these rites, an ox was sacrificed on the Acropolis in a way that induced a profound guilt. The priest who had inflicted the fatal blow had to flee; a court was convened; and the knife, convicted of murder, was thrown into the sea. Behind the burlesque of this “ox murder” (bouphonia) lurked a horror of the violence that lay at the heart of every civic sacrifice and of civilization itself—a horror that was all too often blunted by routine—for which somebody or something would always have to pay.

The triumph of the Panathenaea dispelled the uncanny aura of these unsettling rituals.70 The centerpiece of the festival was a procession through the city, which finished on the Acropolis at the eastern end of Athena’s new temple. There the city presented the goddess with a fresh saffron robe for her cult statue, embroidered with scenes of her battle with the Cyclops, which symbolized the triumph of civilization over chaos. All citizens were represented in the procession: the young ephebes (the adolescent boys who were becoming full citizens), hoplites, girls in yellow chitons, old men, craftsmen, resident aliens, delegates from other poleis, and the sacrificial victims. Athens was on display, to itself and to the rest of the Greek world, in a dazzlingly proud assertion of identity.

But Greeks were beginning to long for a more personal religious experience. One of the new buildings constructed by Peisistratos was a cult hall at the city of Eleusis, some twenty miles west of Athens, where, it was said, the goddess Demeter had stayed while searching for Persephone. The Eleusinian mystery cult now became an integral part of the religious life of Athenians.71 It was an initiation, in which participants experienced a transformed state of mind. Because the rites were shrouded in secrecy, we have only an incomplete idea of what went on, but it seems that the initiates (mystai) followed in the footsteps of Demeter; they shared her suffering—her grief, desperation, fear, and rage—at the loss of her daughter. By participating in her pain and, finally, the joy of her reunion with Persephone, some of them found that, having looked into the heart of darkness, they did not fear death in the same way again.

Preparations began in Athens. The mystai fasted for two days; they stood in the sea and sacrificed a piglet in honor of Persephone; and then in a huge throng they set off on foot for Eleusis. By this time they were weakened by their fast and apprehensive, because they had no idea what was going to happen to them. The epoptai, who had been initiated the previous year, made the journey with them; their behavior was threatening and aggressive. The crowds called rhythmically and hypnotically upon Dionysus, god of transformation, driving themselves into a frenzy of excitement, so that when the mystai finally arrived in Eleusis, they were exhausted, frightened, and elated. By this time, the sun was setting; torches were lit, and in the unearthly, flickering light, the mystai were herded to and fro through the streets, until they lost their bearings and were thoroughly disoriented. Then they plunged into the pitch-darkness of the initiation hall. After this the picture becomes very confused. Animals were sacrificed; there was a terrifying, “unspeakable” event, which may have involved the sacrifice of a child who was reprieved only at the eleventh hour. There was a “revelation”; something was lifted out of a sacred basket. But finally the reunion of Kore and Demeter was reenacted and the mystery concluded with rhapsodic scenes and sacred tableaux that filled the initiates with joy and relief. At Eleusis, they had achieved an ekstasis, “stepping outside” their normal, workaday selves, and experienced new insight.

No secret doctrine was imparted. As Aristotle would explain later, the mystai did not go to Eleusis to learn anything, but to have an experience, which, they felt, transformed them.72 “I came out of the mystery hall,” one of the mystai recalled, “feeling a stranger to myself.”73 The Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 CE) thought that dying might be like the Eleusinian experience:

Wandering astray in the beginning, tiresome walking in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere; then, immediately before the end, all the terrible things—panic and shivering, sweat and amazement. And then some wonderful light comes to meet you, pure regions and meadows are there to greet you, with sounds and dances and solemn, sacred words and holy views.74

The final rapture, orchestrated by the intense psychodrama, gave people intimations of the beatific bliss enjoyed by the gods.

The Greeks were learning to think with logical, analytical rigor, and yet periodically they felt the need to surrender themselves to the irrational. The Athenian philosopher Proclus (c. 412–485 CE) believed that the initiation of Eleusis created a sympatheia, a profound affinity with the ritual, so that they lost themselves and became wholly absorbed in the rite “in a way that is unintelligible to us and divine.” Not all the mystai achieved this; some were simply “stricken with panic,” and remained imprisoned in their fear, but others managed to “assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become one with the gods, and experience divine possession.”75 In India, people were beginning to achieve similar bliss in the techniques of introspection. There was no such interior journey at Eleusis; this was quite different from the solitary ekstasis achieved by some of the mystics of the Axial Age. The illumination of Eleusis did not happen in a remote forest hermitage, but in the presence of thousands of people. Eleusis belonged to the old, pre-Axial world. By imitating Demeter and Persephone, reenacting their passage from death to life, the mystai left their individual selves behind and became one with their divine models.

The same was true of the mysteries of Dionysus.76 Here too the participants united themselves to a suffering god, following Dionysus’s frenzied wanderings when, driven mad by his stepmother, Hera, he had journeyed through the forests of Greece and through the eastern lands of Egypt, Syria, and Phrygia in search of healing. The mythical stories about Dionysus spoke of destructive insanity and terrifying extremity, but his city cult was orderly, though there was a carnival atmosphere, with just a hint of transgression.77 Men wore women’s clothes, like the young Dionysus while he was hiding from Hera. Everybody drank wine, and there was music and dancing. The Maenads, Dionysus’s female devotees, ran through the streets wearing crowns of ivy leaves and carrying magical willow wands. But sometimes, the whole group fell into a trance, a heightened state of consciousness, which spread from one celebrant to another. When this happened, worshipers knew that Dionysus was present among them. They called this experience of divine possession entheos: “within is a god.”

There had always been an element of the burlesque in the cult of Dionysus. In his civic processions all the inhabitants of the polis would mingle together, slaves marching side by side with aristocrats. It was the exact opposite of the Panathenaea, where every sector of the populace had a clearly defined place in the procession.78 Dionysian religion contained a hint of rebellion, which appealed to the craftsmen, artisans, and peasants from whom the tyrants drew their support, and so they often encouraged the cult of Dionysus. In 534, Peisistratos established the City Dionysia in Athens, and built a small temple to Dionysus on the southern slope of the Acropolis. Beside it was a theater, which had been cut out of the rocky hillside. On the morning of the festival, the god’s effigy was ceremonially carried into the city and placed on the stage. For the next three days, the citizens gathered in the theater to listen to the choral recitations of the ancient myths, which would slowly develop into a full-scale drama. In the dramatic rituals of the City Dionysia, the Greeks would come closest to the religious experience of the Axial Age.

A few Greeks, in two marginal movements of the sixth century, also moved toward the vision of the Axial Age emerging in other parts of the world. The first was the Orphic sect, which rejected the aggressive ethos of the polis and embraced the ideal of nonviolence.79 Orphics would not even sacrifice an animal ceremonially, adopted a strict vegetarian diet, and because the sacrifice was essential to the political life of the city, they withdrew from the mainstream. Their model was Orpheus, a mythical hero of Thrace, which was a wild, peripheral, and “uncivilized” region of Greece. A man of sorrows, Orpheus mourned the loss of his wife, Eurydice, for his entire life and died a violent, horrible death: he had so enraged the women of Thrace by refusing to marry again that they tore him to pieces with their bare hands. Yet Orpheus was a man of peace, whose inspired poetry tamed wild beasts, calmed the waves, and made men forget their quarrels.80 The second of these movements was initiated by Pythagoras, a mathematician from Samos, who migrated to Italy in 530, traveled in the east, and taught a version of the Indian doctrine of karma. We know very little about him personally, except that he established an esoteric sect whose members purified the body by abstaining from meat, refused to take part in the sacrificial rituals, and sought enlightenment through the study of science and mathematics. By concentrating on pure abstractions, Pythagoreans hoped to wean themselves away from the contaminations of the physical world and glimpse a vision of divine order.

Most Greeks, however, continued to worship the gods in the traditional, time-honored way, though in the sixth century there were stirrings of an entirely new rationalism. A few philosophers had begun to study science, not, like the Pythagoreans, as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment, but for its own sake.81 These first scientists lived in Miletus, an Ionian polis on the coast of Asia Minor, a prosperous port with extensive links to the Black Sea and the Near East. The first to gain notoriety was Thales, who became an overnight sensation by predicting a solar eclipse in 593. This had simply been a lucky guess, but his real achievement was to see the eclipse as a natural rather than a divine event. Thales was not against religion. The only sentence of his to have survived was “Everything is water and the world is full of gods.” The primal sea had long been regarded as the divine raw material of the cosmos, but Thales’ approach to this mythical intuition was strictly logical. In the fragments of his work that have been preserved in the writings of other philosophers, it appears that he argued that all other creatures had derived from the element of water, and that life was impossible without it. Because water could change its form and become ice or steam, it was capable of evolving into something different. Following the same line of thought, Anaximenos (560–496), another Milesian philosopher, believed that air was the primal stuff: air was also essential to life and could mutate—becoming wind, cloud, and water.

In the absence of empirical proof, these speculations were little more than fantasies; they were significant, however, because they showed that some Greeks were beginning to feel it necessary to follow the promptings of logos through to the bitter end, even if this overturned conventional wisdom. In attempting an analysis of the material world to discover a single, simple cause, Thales and Anaximenos were both starting to think like scientists. Anaximander (610–546), the most innovative of the three, went a step further: in order to find the primal substance, a philosopher had to go beyond what could be perceived by the senses in search of a more fundamental, intangible substance. He argued that the basic stuff of the universe was wholly “indefinite” (apeiron). Because it lay beyond our experience, it had no qualities that we could discern, yet everything had existed within it in potentia. The apeiron was divine, but went beyond the gods; it was the immeasurable and inexhaustible source of all life. By a process that Anaximander never explained, individual phenomena had “separated out” from the apeiron, and all the elements of the cosmos were now at war, constantly encroaching and preying upon one another. Time had imposed a form of eunomia on the universe, decreeing that each element was confined in its proper place, and that no one component of the universe could dominate the others. But eventually all things would be reabsorbed into the apeiron.

The apeiron had the potential to become what theologians have called a “god beyond the gods,” except that it had no relevance to the daily lives of human beings. In the past, cosmology had not attempted to describe the origins of life in a literal manner. Creation myths had been designed to reveal fundamental insights about the perplexities of life on earth. The stories of gods fighting monsters to bring order out of chaos had laid bare the fundamentally agonistic struggle at the heart of life, which always depended on the death or destruction of other beings. Stories of a primal sacrifice had shown that true creativity required that you give yourself away. In his creation account, P had insisted that everything in the world was good, at a time when the exiles could have given way to despair. But it would be impossible to use any of the Milesian cosmologies therapeutically. That was not what they were for; they had nothing to do with spiritual insight. The Milesians developed their speculations for their own sake, and the seeds of future Western rationalism had been sown. At about the same time, however, philosophers in India had developed a creation myth that moved the religious Axial Age another step forward.

A new philosophy had emerged in India that was quite different from the Upanishads and paid scant attention to the Vedic scriptures. It was called Samkhya (“discrimination”), though originally the word may simply have meant “reflection” or “discussion.” Samkhya would become extremely influential in India. Almost every single school of philosophy and spirituality would adopt at least some of its ideas—even those which disapproved of Samkhya. Yet, despite its importance, we know very little about the origins of this seminal movement. A sixth-century sage called Kapila was credited with the invention of Samkhya, but we know nothing about him, and cannot even be sure that he actually existed.

Like the Milesians, Samkhya analyzed the cosmos into separate component parts, looked back to the very beginning, and described a process of evolution that brought our world into being. But there the resemblance ended. Where the Greek philosophers were oriented to the external world, Samkhya delved within. Where the Milesians still claimed that “the world is full of gods,” Samkhya was an atheistic philosophy. There was no brahman, no apeiron, and no world soul into which everything would merge. The supreme reality of the Samkhya system was purusha (the “person” or “self”). But the purusha of Samkhya was nothing like the Purusha figure in the Rig Veda, and was quite different from the self (atman) sought by the sages of the Upanishads. Unlike any of the other twenty-four categories of the Samkhya world, the purusha was absolute and not subject to change. But purusha was not a single, unique reality. In fact, the purusha was bewilderingly multiple. Every single human being had his or her own individual and eternal purusha, which was not caught up in samsara, the ceaseless round of death and rebirth, and which existed beyond space and time. Like the atman, purusha was impossible to define because it had no qualities that we could recognize. It was the essence of the human being, but was not the “soul,” because it had nothing to do with our mental or psychological states. Purusha had no intelligence, as we know it, and no desires. It was so far from our normal experience that our ordinary waking selves were not even aware that we had an eternal purusha.

At the very beginning, purusha had somehow become entangled with prakrti, “nature.” This word is also difficult to translate. It did not simply refer to the material, visible world, because prakrti included the mind, the intellect, and the psychomental experience that unenlightened human beings regard as the most spiritual part of themselves. As long as we were confined within the realm of prakrti, we remained in ignorance of the eternal dimension of our humanity. But purusha and prakrti were not enemies. “Nature,” depicted as female, was in love with purusha. Her job was to extricate each person’s purusha from her embrace, even if this required humans to turn against what, in their ignorance, they regarded as their true selves.82 Nature yearned to liberate us, to free the purusha from the toils of illusion and suffering that characterize human life. Indeed, the whole of nature—did we but know it—existed in order to serve the eternal self (purusha) of each one of us. “From brahman down to the blade of grass, the whole of creation is for the benefit of the purusha, until supreme knowledge is attained.”83

How did purusha fall into the toils of nature? Was there some kind of original sin? Samkhya does not answer these questions. Its metaphysical scheme was not intended to offer a literal, scientific, or historical account of reality. In India, truth was measured not by its objective but by its therapeutic value. The followers of Samkhya were supposed to meditate upon this description of nature’s relationship with the purusha in order to discover what a human being had to do to find his way back to his true self. The ideas of Samkhya were almost certainly born in the circles of renouncers who were not satisfied by the spirituality of the Upanishads. Instead of losing themselves in the impersonal brahman, they wanted to retain their individuality. It was quite clear to them that life was unsatisfactory. Something had gone wrong, but it was pointless to speculate on how this unhappy state of affairs had come to pass. In their meditations they had glimpsed some kind of inner light, which indicated to them that they had another, more absolute self, if only they could separate it from the mess of illusion and desire that impeded their spiritual growth. The word samkhya may have once referred to the “dissociation” of the self from the “natural” realm of mind and matter. The renouncer had already withdrawn from society; now he had to take the next step, and find the true center of his being: the true spirit, his real self, his immortal purusha.

Samkhya attempted an analysis of reality that was simply designed to help the renouncer to achieve this liberation. In his forest retreat he could meditate upon it in order to understand the different components of his human nature. Only by becoming acquainted with the complexities of the human predicament could he hope to transcend it. Samkhya taught that nature had three different “strands” (gunas), which could be discerned in the cosmos as a whole and in each individual person.

•                  Satta, “intelligence,” which is closest to the purusha

•                  Rajas, “passion,” physical or mental energy

•                  Tamas, “inertia,” the lowest of the gunas

At the beginning of time, before individual creatures had come into existence, the three gunas coexisted harmoniously in primal matter, but the presence of purusha disturbed this equilibrium and set off a process of emanation. The first of the new categories to emerge from the original undifferentiated unity was the intellect (buddhi), known as the “Great One.” This was the highest part of our natural selves, and if we could isolate and develop it, it could bring us to the brink of enlightenment. The intellect was very close to the purusha, and could reflect the self in the same way as a mirror reflects a flower, but in the unenlightened human being it was clouded by the grosser elements of the world.

The next category to emerge was the ego principle (ahamkara). All other creatures emanated from the ahamkara: gods, humans, animals, plants, and the insensate world. The ego principle was the source of our problem, because it transmitted nature to all the different beings, with the three gunas in different proportions. Satta (intelligence) was dominant in devas and holy men; rajas characterized ordinary people, whose passionate energy was often misdirected; and the lives of animals were obscured by the mental darkness of tamas. But whatever our status, the root of our unhappiness was our sense of ego, which trapped us in a false self that had nothing to do with our eternal purusha. We experienced thoughts, feelings, and desires. We said, “I think,” “I want,” or “I fear,” imagining that “I” represented our entire being, so we expended far too much energy preserving and propping up this “I” and hoped for its eternal survival in heaven. But this was an illusion. The ego on which we lavished so much attention was ephemeral, because it was subject to time. It would become sick, weak, diminish in old age, and finally flicker out and die, only to start the whole miserable process again in another body. And in the meantime, our true self, our purusha, which was eternal, autonomous, and free, was yearning to be liberated. Nature itself was longing to achieve this. If we wanted to get beyond the pain and frustrations of our lives, we must learn to recognize that the ego was not our real self. Once we had attained this saving knowledge, in an intense act of cognition, we would achieve moksha (“liberation”).

Ignorance held us back. We were so imprisoned in the delusions of nature that we confused the purusha with our ordinary psychomental life, imagining that our thoughts, desires, and emotions were the highest and most essential part of our humanity. This meant that our lives were based on a mistake. We assumed that the self was simply an enhanced version of the ego that governed our daily existence. The renouncer had to rectify this ignorance in a course of meditation and study. The aspirant must become aware of the forms of nature and the laws that govern its evolution. He would thus acquire a knowledge that was not simply an intellectual mastery of the Samkhya system but an awakening to his true condition. In the course of his meditation, he learned to concentrate on the buddhi to the exclusion of all else in the hope of catching a glimpse of the purusha. Once he had seen the purusha reflected in his intellect, he achieved a profound realization that this was his true self. He cried, “I am recognized,”84 and immediately nature, which had been longing for this moment, withdrew, “like a dancer, who departs after satisfying the master’s desire.”85

After that moment, there was no going back. Once he had woken up to his true nature, the enlightened renouncer was no longer prey to the sufferings of life. He went on living in the natural world; he would still get sick, grow old, and die, but now that he was one with the purusha the pain could no longer touch him. Indeed, he would find himself saying, “It suffers,” rather than, “I suffer,” because sorrow had become a remote experience, distant from what he now understood to be his true identity. When he finally died, nature ceased to be active, and the purusha attained perfect freedom and could never enter another mortal, time-bound body.

In one sense, Samkhya seemed to have detached itself entirely from Vedic religion. From the Samkhyan perspective, sacrifice was useless. The gods were also imprisoned by nature, so it was pointless to ask for their help. It was also counterproductive to try, by means of ritual, to build an atman that would survive in heaven, because the ego-self had to die. Only the special knowledge that was an awakening to our truest reality could bring permanent liberation. But even though it conflicted with Vedic orthodoxy, Samkhya was really a development of the traditional, archetypal vision of the perennial philosophy. People had always yearned to lose themselves in a celestial model, but Samkhya told them that this was not an external reality but existed within. They would not find the absolute by imitating a god, but by awakening to their most authentic self. The archetype did not exist in a remote, mythical realm but was inherent in the individual. Instead of merging with an external paradigmatic figure, they must identify with the internalized purusha.

Samkhya marked a new stage in self-consciousness. People in India were becoming aware of a self that was obscured by the confusions of daily life, hidden in our bodies, fettered by our instincts, and only dimly aware of itself. The metaphysical drama of Samkhya revealed that which was specifically human yearning for liberation. People could reach beyond themselves by cultivating a greater self-awareness. But this did not mean self-indulgence, because it was the ego that held the self in thrall. The people of India were becoming aware of the grasping, selfish orientation of our mundane existence. The ego made us unable to look at anything without asking: “Do I want this?” “How can I benefit from it?” “Does this threaten me?” “Why have I not got this?” As a result, we never saw anything as it truly was because we were imprisoned in the toils of selfishness. Samkhya could envisage liberation from this clinging, frightened egotism into a state of being that, in our normal ego-obsessed existence, we could not conceive. Such a state was not divine; it was not supernatural; it was the fulfillment of our human nature, and anybody who was ready to work for this freedom could acquire it.

Samkhya made two important contributions to Indian spirituality. First was the perception that all life was dukkha, a word that is often translated as “suffering” but that has a wider meaning: “unsatisfactory, awry.” For reasons that nobody could ever know, our birth into this desacralized world was fraught and painful. Our experience was conditioned by ignorance and sorrow. Everything in the cosmos was disintegrating, mortal, and ephemeral. Even when the false “I” felt happy or satisfied, there was something amiss. If “I” achieved success, my rivals were disconsolate. Often “I” yearned for a goal or material object, only to find that it was ultimately disappointing and unsatisfactory. Moments of happiness were nearly always followed by periods of grief. Nothing lasted very long. Our chaotic inner world could shift from one state to another in a matter of seconds. Our friends died; people became ill, old, and lost their beauty and vitality. To deny this universal dukkha—as many preferred to do—was a delusion, because it was a law of life. But, Samkhya argued, this imperfect nature was also our friend, because the more “I” suffered and identified with this ephemeral world, the more “I” yearned for the absolute, unconditioned reality of purusha. Constantly, as we looked around us and into our turbulent inner selves, we found ourselves longing for something else: like the Upanishadic sages, we had to cry, Neti, neti, “Not this!” Samkhya might sound pessimistic, but it was actually optimistic and ambitious. It insisted that nature was not the final reality. People could and did experience liberation; they did find their purusha, their true self. All creatures suffered—gods, humans, animals, and insects—but only human beings were capable of moksha and liberation from pain.

But many renouncers found that in practice liberation was extremely difficult. Some people did achieve moksha by means of study and meditation, but others felt that something more was needed. Nature held human beings in such a powerful grip that tougher measures were necessary. This led some renouncers to develop the discipline that is now practiced throughout the world in meditation halls and gyms. Yoga is one of India’s greatest achievements and, in its most evolved form, almost certainly was first designed in Samkhya circles to release the purusha from the entanglement of nature. This classical yoga was very different from the version of yoga that is often taught in the West today.86 It was not an aerobic exercise, and it did not help people to relax, to suppress excessive anxiety, or feel better about their lives—quite the contrary. Yoga was a systematic assault on the ego, an exacting regimen that over a long period of time taught the aspirant to abolish his normal consciousness with its errors and delusions, and replace it with the ecstatic discovery of his purusha.

Again, we do not know the names of the renouncers who developed yoga. It was associated with Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras in the first centuries of the common era. But Patanjali did not invent these practices, which were very old indeed. Some scholars believe that a form of yoga may have been evolved by the indigenous inhabitants of India, before the arrival of the Aryan tribes. Some of the yogic techniques, particularly the breathing exercises, were mentioned in the early Upanishads and were practiced during the Vedic rituals. But however it began, yoga had become an established part of the spiritual landscape of India by the sixth century. It was practiced by Brahmins, orthodox Vedic renouncers, and the so-called heretical sects. Different groups developed different versions of yoga, but the basic disciplines, as described in the Yoga Sutras, were fundamental.

The term yoga is itself significant. It means “yoking.” It was the word once used by the Vedic Aryans to describe the tethering of the draught animals to their war chariots before a raid. Warriors were men of yoga. They were like devas, perpetually on the move and constantly engaged in militant activity, while the sluggish asuras stayed at home. By the sixth century, however, the new men of yoga were engaged in the conquest of inner space; instead of waging war, they were dedicated to nonviolence. Yoga amounted to a raid on the unconscious mind, which was the root cause of so much of our pain. Patanjali listed five vrittis (“impulses”) that held us in thrall: ignorance, our sense of ego, passion, disgust, and the lure of this transient life. These instincts surfaced one after the other, with inexhaustible and uncontrollable energy. They were basic to our humanity and, the yogins believed, were too deeply entrenched to be eliminated by the simple act of knowledge envisaged by the Samkhya teachers. We were deeply conditioned by what the yogins called vasanas, subconscious sensations that produced everything that was specific to the individual personality. They were the result of heredity and the karma of past and present lives. Long before Freud and Jung developed the modern, scientific search for the soul, the yogins of India had already begun to explore and analyze the unconscious realm with unprecedented vigor. These vrittis and vasanas had to be annihilated, “burned up.” Only then could the self detach itself from the chaos of its psychic life, throw off the toils of nature, and experience the bliss of moksha. And this herculean feat could be achieved only by sheer mental force.

First, however, the yogin had to undergo a long period of preparation. He was not allowed to perform a single yogic exercise until he had completed an extensive moral training. The aspirant began by observing the yamas (“prohibitions”). At the top of the list was ahimsa, “harmlessness.” The yogin must not kill or injure other creatures; he could not even swat a mosquito or speak unkindly to others. Second, he was forbidden to steal, which also meant that he could not grab whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it; he must simply accept the food and clothing that he was given without demur, cultivating an indifference to material possessions. Third, he must not lie, but must speak the truth at all times, not distorting it by making an incident more entertaining or more flattering to himself, for example. Finally, he must abstain from sex and from intoxicating substances, which could cloud his mind and enervate the mental and physical energies that he would need in this spiritual expedition. The preparatory program also demanded the mastery of certain bodily and psychic disciplines (niyama). The aspirant must keep himself scrupulously clean; he must study the teaching (dharma) of his guru; and he must cultivate a habitual serenity, behaving kindly and courteously to everybody, no matter how he was feeling inside.

This preparatory program showed the spiritual ambition of the yogins. They were not interested in simply having a transient, inspiring experience. Yoga was an initiation into a different way of being human, and that meant a radically moral transformation. The prohibitions and disciplines were a new, Axial Age version of the traditional imitation of the archetypal model. Yogins had to leave their unenlightened selves behind, abandon the ego principle, and behave as though the purusha had already been liberated. When people in the past had ritually imitated a god, they had experienced a “stepping out” of their normal lives and an enhancement of being. The same was true of the yama and niyama. By dint of practice, these ethical disciplines would become second nature, and when this happened, Patanjali explained, the aspirant would experience “indescribable joy.”87 As he left the “ego principle” behind, he had intimations of the final liberation.

Once his teacher was satisfied that the aspirant had mastered the yama and niyama, he was ready to learn the first properly yogic discipline: asana, “sitting.” He had to sit with crossed legs, straight back, and in a completely motionless position for hours at a time. This was uncomfortable at first, and sometimes unbearably painful. Motion is what characterizes living creatures. Everything that moves is alive. Even when we imagine that we are sitting still, we are in constant motion: we blink, scratch, shift from one buttock to another, and turn our heads in response to stimulus. Even in sleep, we toss and turn. But in asana, the yogin was learning to sever the link between his mind and his senses. He was so still that he seemed more like a statue or a plant than a human being. In the old days, the Aryans had despised the asuras, who had sat at home all day. Now the new men of yoga sat for hours in one place, without a sign of life.

Next the yogin learned to control his breathing, an even greater assault on his instinctual life. Respiration is the most fundamental and automatic of our physical functions, and is absolutely essential to life. In pranayama, however, the yogin learned to breathe more and more slowly. His aim was to pause for as long as possible between exhalation and inhalation, so that it seemed as though respiration had entirely ceased. His heart rate slowed down; he might even appear to be dead, and yet, once he had become adept at pranayama, he experienced a new kind of life. This controlled respiration, which is entirely different from the arrhythmic breathing of ordinary life, has been shown to have physical and neurological effects. It produces a sensation of calm, harmony, and equanimity, said to be comparable to the effect of music. There was a feeling of grandeur, expansiveness, and nobility—a sense of presence.

Once he had mastered these physical exercises, the trainee yogin was ready for the mental discipline of ekagrata, concentration “on one point.” Here he refused to think, learning to focus uninterruptedly on a single object or idea. It could be a flower, the tip of his nose, or one of the teachings of his guru. The important thing was to exclude rigorously any other emotion or association, and to push away each one of the distractions that inevitably rushed into his mind. There were various forms of ekagrata. The aspirant learned pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), contemplating the object with the intellect alone. In dharana (concentration), he was taught to visualize the purusha in the depths of his being, and imagine it gradually emerging like a lotus rising from a pond. Each dharana was supposed to last for twelve pranayamas, and by means of these combined physical and mental techniques, the adept yogin had sunk so deeply into his inner world and away from his ordinary, secular consciousness that he entered a state of trance.

The trainee found that he had achieved an astonishing invulnerability. As he became more expert, he found that he was no longer aware of the broiling heat of summer or the freezing cold of the winter rains. Now that he was able to control his psychic life, he had become impervious to his environment. He also found that he saw the object that he was contemplating in a new way. Because he had suppressed the flood of memories and personal associations that it evoked, he was no longer distracted by his own concerns. He did not subjectivize or privatize it; instead of viewing it through the distorting lens of his own needs and desires, he could see it as it really was. The “I” was beginning to disappear from his thinking, and as a result, even the most humdrum objects revealed wholly unexpected qualities. When the yogin meditated in this way on the ideas of his particular school, such as the Samkhya creation myth, he experienced them so vividly that a rationalistic formulation of these truths paled in comparison. His knowledge was no longer simply notional; he knew these truths directly. They had become a part of his inner world.

Yogins did not believe that they were touched by a god; there was nothing supernatural about these experiences. Samkhya, after all, was an atheistic creed and had no interest in devas. Yogins were convinced that they were simply developing the natural capacity of the human person. Anybody who trained hard enough could achieve these mental feats. They had discovered a new dimension of their humanity. This transcendence was not an encounter with an external deity “out there,” but a descent into the depths of their own being. By systematically separating himself from his normal, ego-bound existence, the yogin was attempting to isolate his real self from the toils of nature. Again, these men of the Axial Age were achieving an ecstatic “stepping out” of the norm by becoming more fully aware of their own nature.

Once he had entered the state of trance, the yogin progressed through a series of increasingly deep mental states, which bore no relation to their usual experience. There was samadhi, a state of pure consciousness, where the sense of “I” and “mine” had completely disappeared; the yogin felt wholly at one with the objects of his meditation, and was aware of nothing else. He was certainly not conscious of himself contemplating them. There were other, more extreme states that were achieved by a very few, especially talented yoga practitioners, who could describe them only paradoxically: there was a sense of absence that was also a presence; an emptiness that was plenitude; an eternal present; a life in death. Yogins called such experience “nothingness” because there were no words to describe it; they compared it to the sensation of walking into a room and finding simply emptiness, space, and freedom.

The yogins interpreted their meditative discoveries differently. Those who subscribed to the teachings of the Upanishads believed that they had finally become one with the brahman; those who followed the Samkhya philosophy claimed that they had liberated the purusha. But the basic experience remained the same. Whatever they thought they had done, the yogins had opened up new possibilities. An acute appreciation of the suffering that was endemic to the human condition had led these extraordinarily ambitious men to find a radical way out. They had evolved a spiritual technology that would free them of dukkha. Yoga was not for everybody, however. It was a full-time job that could not be combined with the demands of everyday life. But other sages would later find a way to develop a yoga that would give the laity intimations of enlightenment.

Meanwhile, China was in crisis. When Chu had defeated the armies of the league of Chinese states in 597, the region became engulfed in an entirely new kind of aggression. The gloves were off. Chu had no time for the old ritualized warfare, and the other large states also began to cast aside the constraints of tradition, determined to expand and conquer more territory, even if this meant the destruction of the enemy. Warfare became very different from the stately campaigns of the past. In 593, for example, during a lengthy siege, the people of Song were reduced to eating their own children. The old principalities faced political annihilation. They knew that they could not compete with the bigger states but were drawn into the fray against their will, as their territories became a battleground of competing armies. Qi, for example, so frequently encroached on the tiny principality of Lu that Lu was forced to appeal to Chu for aid—but all to no avail. By the end of the sixth century, Chu had been defeated and Qi had become so dominant that the duke of Lu only managed to retain a modicum of independence with the help of the western state of Qin.

The states were also weakened by internal problems. During the sixth century, Qi, Jin, and Chu were all fatally debilitated by chronic civil wars. In Lu, three competing baronial families had reduced the legitimate duke to a mere puppet. This in itself was a sign of the times. The descendant of the great duke of Zhou had been stripped of all power except his ritual duties, and was financially dependent upon the usurpers. Old political and social structures were disintegrating, and China seemed to be rushing headlong into anarchy. Yet these struggles signaled a deeper change. The noblemen who rebelled against their princes were certainly motivated by greed and ambition, but they were also trying to free themselves from the domination of the older families. The Chinese were painfully moving toward a more egalitarian polity that would undermine the hitherto unchallenged rule of the hereditary princes.88 In Cheng and Lu, there were fiscal and agricultural reforms that improved the lot of the peasants. In the second half of the sixth century, Zichan, prime minister of the principality of Cheng, inscribed and displayed the penal laws on large bronze cauldrons. There was now a definite law code, which anybody could consult to challenge arbitrary rule.

As archaeologists have discovered, there was a growing contempt for ritual observance: people were placing profane objects in the tombs of their relatives instead of the prescribed ritual vessels. The old spirit of moderation was in decline: many of the Chinese had developed a new taste for luxury, which put an unbearable strain on the economy, as demand outstripped resources. Some of the ordinary gentlemen (shi) at the bottom of the feudal hierarchy had begun to ape the lifestyle of the great families. As a result, there were now too many aristocrats, so a worrying number of the shi were fatally impoverished. There were now so many nouveaux riches that some members of the nobility could no longer own a fief, because there was not enough land to go around. Many gentlemen, including some who were close relatives of the princes, lost their lands and titles and were reduced to the rank of commoners. Some of the demoted shi were scribes, ritualists, or captains in the army, who were now forced to leave the city and take their skills into the countryside, where they lived with the common people.

This was not simply a social and political crisis. Heaven and earth were so interdependent that many people feared that the current scorn for the Way of Heaven endangered the entire cosmos. The ritualists of Lu saw the new greed, aggression, and materialism as a blasphemous assault on the sacred rites. Others were more skeptical. In 534, many of the Chinese states were devastated by a typhoon, which was followed by deadly forest fires. In Cheng, the master diviner approached Zichan, the prime minister, and asked him to offer a special sacrifice to appease Heaven. Zichan shook his head. “The Way of Heaven is far removed; it is the Way of man that is near us,” he replied. “We cannot reach the former; what means have we of knowing it?”89 Since Heaven was beyond our ken, it was better to concentrate on what lay within our grasp.

At about this time, a young man called Kong Qiu (551–479) had almost completed his studies and was about to take a minor post in the administration of Lu. His family were newcomers to the principality, since his ancestors had been members of the ducal house of Song, but like so many other aristocrats, the family was forced to emigrate. Kong Qiu was thus brought up in genteel poverty, and had to earn his living. He was drawn to the ritualists and was passionately devoted to the Zhou dynasty, especially the great duke of Zhou, who sometimes visited him in his dreams. Kong Qiu was an avid student. By the age of thirty, he had mastered his study of the li, and by the time he was forty, he says, he had become a learned man. Many of the shi who had been reduced to penury were bitter and resentful, but Kong Qiu understood the deeper meaning of the rites and was convinced that, properly interpreted, they could bring the people of China back to the Way of Heaven. Later Kong Qiu’s disciples would proudly call him Kongfuzi, “our Master Kong.” In the West, we call him Confucius. China’s Axial Age was about to begin.

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