Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 530 to 450 BCE)

Toward the end of the sixth century, Lu was on the verge of total anarchy, as the three baronial families who had usurped the power of the legitimate duke battled against one another for supremacy. This was especially distressing to the ritualists. People from all over China came to Lu to attend the ceremonial liturgy and listen to the music that dated back to the early Zhou kings. One visitor from Jin exclaimed: “The ceremony [li] of Zhou is all in all here! Only now do I understand the potency of the Duke of Zhou and why Zhou reigned.”1 But by 518, the rightful ruler of Lu, the descendant of the duke of Zhou, was so poor that he could no longer pay musicians and dancers to perform these rites in the ancestral temple. Yet that year one of the usurpers had eight teams of dancers performing the rites of the royal house—quite illegally—in his own ancestral shrine. There was creeping dismay. The li no longer curbed the greed and ostentation of the noble families, and Heaven seemed indifferent.

When Confucius heard about this illicit performance of the royal rites, he was incensed. “The Way makes no progress,” he lamented.2 If the rulers could not implement the sacred values that kept society on the right path, then he must do so himself. As a commoner, he could not establish the dao; only a king could do that. But he could educate a band of holy, informed men who would instruct the rulers of China in the Way and recall them to their duty. Confucius had hoped for a political career, but was constantly disappointed. He was too blunt and honest to succeed in politics, and never managed to achieve anything more than a menial appointment in the departments of finance and accountancy. Yet this was the best thing that could have happened. His political failure gave him time to think, and he became an inspired teacher, determined that if he could not succeed himself, he would train others for high office. Like other marginalized shi at this time, he became a wandering scholar, traveling tirelessly from one state to another with his small, faithful band of disciples, hoping that at least one of the princes would finally take him seriously.

Confucius was no solitary ascetic, but a man of the world, who enjoyed a good dinner, fine wine, a song, a joke, and stimulating conversation. He did not lock himself away in an ivory tower, did not practice introspection or meditation, but always developed his insights in conversation with other people. In the Analects, our main source, we see him constantly engaged in discussion with friends and pupils. His kindness and brilliance—an unusual combination—drew students toward him like a magnet, and he never turned anyone away. Some of his students were aristocrats, others were of humble birth. His favorite was probably the poor but mystically gifted Yan Hui, but he loved all the members of his little company: calm, strong Mingzi; energetic Zilu; and Zigong, who was always so brave and honest. When a potential student presented himself, Confucius looked for one quality above all others. “Only one who bursts with eagerness do I instruct,” he said. “Only one who bubbles with excitement do I enlighten.”3 He scolded his pupils, drove them on ruthlessly, but never bullied them. After marveling at the somewhat daunting attainments of the yogins, it is a relief to turn to Confucius, whose Way, properly understood, was accessible to anybody. Affable, calm, and friendly, Confucius never pontificated; there were no long lectures or sermons, and even if he disagreed with his students, he was usually ready to concede their point of view. Why should he not? He was no divinely inspired sage like Yao or Shun. He had no revelations or visions. His only merit was an “unwearying effort to learn and unflagging patience in teaching others.”4

The Analects were put together by his disciples long after Confucius’s death, so we cannot be sure that all the maxims attributed to him are authentic, but scholars believe that the text can be regarded as a reasonably reliable source.5 It consists of hundreds of short, unconnected remarks, with no attempt to produce a clearly defined vision. The style is suggestive in the same way as a Chinese landscape: readers are supposed to search for what is not said, to look between the lines for the full meaning, and to connect one idea with another. In fact, despite first impressions, there is coherence in the Analects. Indeed, Confucius’s vision is so densely interconnected that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle its various themes.

Like other philosophers of the Axial Age, Confucius felt profoundly alienated from his time. He was convinced that the root cause of the current disorder in China was neglect of the traditional rites that had governed the conduct of the principalities for so long. In the days of Yao and Shun and, later, under the early Zhou, he believed, the Way of Heaven had been practiced perfectly and human beings had lived together harmoniously. The li had encouraged a spirit of moderation and generosity. But these days, most princes never gave the dao a second thought. They were too busy chasing after luxury and pursuing their own selfish ambitions. The old world was crumbling, without anything of equal value emerging to take its place. In Confucius’s view, the best solution was to return to the traditions that had worked so well in the past.

Confucius was horrified by the constant warfare that threatened to obliterate the small principalities. Yet, to his dismay, they did not seem fully alert to the danger. Lu could not compete militarily with a large state like Qi, but instead of marshaling all its resources to meet this external threat, the baronial families—all motivated by greed and vainglory—were fighting a self-destructive civil war. If the “three families” had observed the li correctly, this state of affairs could never have come to pass. In the past, the rites had helped to curb the danger of violence and vendetta, and had mitigated the horror of battle. They must do so again. As a ritualist, Confucius had spent far more time on the study of ceremony and the classics than on the princely arts of archery and chariot driving.6 He now redefined the role of the junzi: the true gentleman should be a scholar, not a warrior. Instead of fighting for power, the junzi must study the rules of correct behavior, as prescribed by the traditional li of family, political, military, and social life. Confucius never claimed to be an original thinker. “I have transmitted what was taught to me without making up anything of my own,” he once said. “I have been faithful to and loved the ancients.”7 Only a sage, who had been blessed with divine insight, could break with tradition. “I am simply one who loves the past, and who is diligent in investigating it.”8 And yet, despite these disclaimers, Confucius was an innovator. He was bent on “reanimating the Old to gain knowledge of the New.”9 The world had changed, but there could be no fruitful development unless there was also a measure of continuity.

Some of the ways in which Confucius interpreted tradition were radically different in emphasis. The old religion had focused on Heaven: people had often performed the sacrifices simply to gain the favor of the gods and spirits, but Confucius concentrated on this world. Like his contemporary Zichan, prime minister of Cheng, he believed that it was better to focus on what we knew. Indeed, he preferred not to speak of Heaven at all. His pupil Zigong noted: “We are allowed to hear our Master’s views on culture and the outward insignia of goodness, but about the ways of Heaven, he will not tell us anything at all.”10 Confucius was not interested in metaphysics and discouraged theological chatter. When Zilu asked him how a junzi should minister to the gods, he replied: “Till you have learned to serve men, how can you serve spirits?” And when Zilu persisted, and asked what the life of the ancestors was actually like, Confucius replied again: “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?”11 Confucius was no skeptic. He practiced the traditional ancestral rites punctiliously, and was filled with numinous awe when he thought of Heaven. Like the Indian sages, he understood the value of silence. “I would much rather not have to talk,” he once complained. Zigong was distressed. “If our Master did not talk,” he objected, “how can we little ones teach others about him?” “Heaven does not speak,” Confucius replied, “yet the four seasons run their course by the command of Heaven, the hundred creatures, each after its own kind, are born thereby. Heaven does no speaking!”12 Heaven might not talk, but it was supremely effective. Instead of wasting time on pointless theological speculation, people should imitate the reticence of Heaven and keep a reverent silence. Then, perhaps, they too would be a potent force in the world. Confucius brought the religion of China down to earth. Instead of concerning themselves about the afterlife, people must learn to be good here below. His disciples did not study with him in order to acquire esoteric information about the gods and spirits. Their ultimate concern was not Heaven but the Way. The task of the junzi was to tread the path carefully, realizing that this in itself had absolute value. It would lead them not to a place or a person but to a condition of transcendent goodness. The rituals were the road map that would put them on course.

Everybody had the potential to become a junzi, who—for Confucius—was a fully developed human being. In the old days, only an aristocrat had been a junzi, but Confucius insisted that anybody who studied the Way enthusiastically could become a “gentleman,” a mature or profound person. Zigong once suggested that the company adopt as their motto: “Poor without cadging, rich without swagger.” “Not bad,” Confucius said. “But better still, Poor, yet delighting in the Way; rich, yet a student of ritual.” Zigong immediately capped this by quoting a verse from the Classic of Odes:

As thing cut, as thing filed,

As thing chiselled, as thing polished.13

Confucius was delighted: at last Zigong was beginning to understand the Odes! These lines perfectly described the way a junzi used the rites to burnish and refine his humanity. A junzi was not born but crafted. He had to work on himself in the same way as a sculptor shaped a rough stone and made it a thing of beauty. A true junzi was always trying to go beyond what he was and become what he was supposed to be. “How can I achieve this?” asked Yan Hui. It was simple, Confucius answered: “Curb your ego and surrender to li.14 A junzi must submit every detail of his life to the rituals of consideration and respect for others. The aim was “to look at nothing in defiance of ritual, to listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, to speak of nothing in defiance of ritual, never to stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual.” If the princes of China did this, they would save the world. “If a ruler could curb his ego and submit to li for a single day, everyone under Heaven would respond to his goodness!”15

Like the Indian sages, Confucius saw the “ego principle” as the source of human pettiness and cruelty. If people could lose their selfishness and submit to the altruistic demands of the li at every moment of their lives, they would be transformed by the beauty of holiness. They would conform to the archetypal ideal of the junzi, the superior human being. The rites lifted ordinary biological actions onto a different plane; they ensured that we did not treat other people carelessly or relate to them perfunctorily; that we were not simply driven by utility and self-interest. The rules of filial piety, for example, instructed sons to serve their parents’ food graciously, but these days many sons simply threw it on the table. “Even dogs and horses are cared for to that extent!” Confucius exclaimed in exasperation; but if the meal was eaten in an atmosphere of respect and appreciation, it became humane.16 A man of the Axial Age, Confucius wanted people to become fully conscious of what they were doing. Performance of the li was not simply a matter of going through the motions; it required psychological acuity, sensitivity, and an intelligent appraisal of each circumstance.17 “Filial piety does not consist merely in young people undertaking the hard work, when anything has to be done or serving their elders first with wine and food,” Confucius explained; “it is something much more than that.”18 What was this elusive “something”? It was the “demeanor,” Confucius decided.19 The spirit in which you performed a rite would show in every single one of your gestures and facial expressions. A rite could become an insult if it was carried out with contempt or impatience.

In the past, however, the li had often had an aggressive edge. They had been used for political advantage or simply to enhance a nobleman’s personal prestige. Confucius systematically took this egotism out of the li. His prolonged study of the rites had taught him that they made sense only if sincerely performed in a spirit of “yielding” (rang). Sons had to yield to fathers, warriors to their enemies, and kings to their retainers. The rites taught them to give up their personal preferences, dethroning themselves from the center of their world and putting another person there. In political life, the rites had made it difficult for statesmen to promote purely self-interested policies. They had taught a disciplined habit of empathy. If performed in the right spirit, therefore, the rites were a spiritual education that helped people to get beyond the limitations of egotism. A reformed ritualism, which cut out the old obsession with status and preeminence, could make the whole of China a humane place, by restoring dignity and grace to human intercourse.

Li taught people to deal with others as equals. They became partners in the same ceremony: in the liturgical ballets, a person who performed even a minor role perfectly was indispensable and contributed to the beauty of the whole. The rites made people conscious of the holiness of life and also conferred sanctity. Traditionally, the li of reverence had nourished the divine power of the prince; the li of filial piety had created the divine shen that enabled a mortal man to become an ancestor. By treating others with absolute respect, the rituals introduced the person who performed the rite and the person who received his attention to the sacred dimension of existence.

In India, the yogins had embarked on a solitary quest for the absolute. Confucius would not have understood this. In his view, you needed other people to elicit your full humanity; self-cultivation was a reciprocal process. Instead of seeing family life as an impediment to enlightenment, like the renouncers of India, Confucius saw it as the theater of the religious quest, because it taught every family member to live for others.20 This altruism was essential to the self-cultivation of a junzi: “In order to establish oneself, one should try to establish others,” Confucius explained. “In order to enlarge oneself, one should try to enlarge others.”21 Later Confucius would be criticized for concentrating too exclusively upon the family—because people should have concern for everybody—but Confucius saw each person as the center of a constantly growing series of concentric circles, to which he or she must relate.22 Each of us began life in the family, so the family li began our education in self-transcendence, but it could not end there. A junzi’s horizons would gradually expand. The lessons he had learned by caring for his parents, spouse, and siblings made his heart larger, so that he felt empathy with more and more people: first with his immediate community, then with the state in which he lived, and finally with the entire world.

Confucius was one of the first people to make it crystal clear that holiness was inseparable from altruism. He used to say: “My Way has one thread that runs right through it.” There were no abstruse metaphysics or complicated liturgical speculations; everything always came back to the importance of treating other people with absolute sacred respect. “Our Master’s Way,” said one of his disciples, “is nothing but this: doing-your-best-for-others [zhong] and consideration [shu].”23 The Way was nothing but a dedicated, ceaseless effort to nourish the holiness of others, who in return would bring out the sanctity inherent in you. “Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day?” Zigong asked his master. “Perhaps the saying about consideration [shu],” said Confucius. “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”24 Shu should really be translated as “likening to oneself.” Others have called it the Golden Rule; it was the essential religious practice and was far more difficult than it appeared. Zigong once claimed that he had mastered this virtue: “What I do not want others to do to me, I have no desire to do to others,” he announced proudly. One can almost see Confucius’s wry but affectionate smile, as he shook his head. “Oh! You have not quite got to that point yet.”25

Shu required that “all day and every day” we looked into our own hearts, discovered what caused us pain, and then refrained, under all circumstances, from inflicting that distress upon other people. It demanded that people no longer put themselves into a special, separate category but constantly related their own experience to that of others. Confucius was the first to promulgate the Golden Rule. For Confucius it had transcendent value. A perfect mastery of the li helped people to acquire what he called ren. This word had originally meant “noble” or “worthy,” but by Confucius’s time, it simply meant a human being. Confucius gave the word an entirely new significance, but he refused to define it. Later some philosophers would equate ren with “benevolence,” but this was too narrow for Confucius.26 In Chinese script, ren had two components: first, a simple ideogram of a human being—the self; and second, two horizontal strokes, indicating human relations. So ren could be translated as “cohumanity”; some scholars also argue that its root meaning was “softness” or “pliability.”27 Ren was, therefore, inseparable from the “yielding” of ritual. But for Confucius, ren was inexpressible, because it could not be contained within any of the familiar categories of his time.28 Only somebody who practiced ren perfectly could understand it. Ren resembled what Socrates and Plato would call “the Good.” A person who had ren had become a perfectly mature human being, on a level with Yao, Shun, or the duke of Zhou. Ren, Confucius believed, was the “power of the Way” (daode) that had enabled the sage kings to rule without force. It should no longer be regarded as magical but as a moral efficacy that would change the world far more effectively than violence and warfare.

What is ren, asked one of Confucius’s disciples, and how could it be applied to political life? The master replied:

Behave away from home as though you were in the presence of an important guest. Deal with the common people as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is the affairs of a State you are handling or the affairs of a Family.29

If the prince behaved toward other rulers and states in this way, there could be no brutal wars. The Golden Rule would make it impossible to invade or devastate somebody else’s territory, because no prince would like this to happen to his own state. Rulers could not exploit the common people, because they would see them as copractitioners in a beautiful ceremony and, therefore, “like themselves.” Opposition and hatred would melt away. Confucius could not explain what ren was, but he could tell people how to acquire it. Shu taught you to use your own feelings as a guide to your treatment of others. It was quite simple, Confucius explained to Zigong:

As for ren, you yourself desire rank and standing; then help others to get rank and standing. You want to turn your merits to account; then help others to turn theirs to account—in fact, the ability to take one’s own feelings as a guide—that is the sort of thing that lies in the direction of ren.30

Any ruler who constantly behaved in this way, conferring benefits on the ordinary folk and seeking the good of the entire state rather than his own personal advantage, would be a sage on the same level as Yao and Shun.31

Confucius was not a timid conservative, therefore, clinging to traditional mores and preoccupied with liturgical minutiae. His vision was revolutionary. He gave a new interpretation to the customary li. They were not designed to enhance a nobleman’s prestige, but to transform him by making the practice of self-forgetfulness habitual. By taking the egotism out of the ritual, Confucius brought out its profound spiritual and moral potential. He was not encouraging servile conformity. The li demanded the imagination and intelligence to see that each circumstance was unique and must be judged independently. Confucius also introduced a new egalitarianism. Previously only the aristocracy had performed the li. Now, Confucius insisted, anybody could practice the rites, and even somebody of humble origins, such as Yan Hui, could become a junzi.

Other Chinese philosophers of the Axial Age would propose a more realistic solution to the problems of China, but they were not always as ambitious as Confucius, who aimed at more than law and order. He wanted human dignity, nobility, and holiness, and knew that this could be achieved only by a daily struggle to achieve the virtue of shu. It was an audacious plan. Confucius was asking people to trust in the power of an enhanced humanity instead of coercion. Very few people really wanted to give up their egotism. But those who did try to put Confucius’s Way into practice found that it transformed their lives. Ren was difficult because it required the eradication of vanity, resentment, and the desire to dominate others.32 And yet, paradoxically, ren was easy. “Is renindeed so far away?” Confucius asked. “If we really wanted ren, we should find that it was at our very side.”33 It came “after what is difficult is done”—after, that is, a person had mastered the education provided by the li.34 It required perseverance, rather than superhuman strength, and was, perhaps, like learning to ride a bicycle: once you had acquired the skill, it became effortless. You had to keep at it, however. Either you constantly behaved toward other people—whoever they were—as though they had the same fundamental importance as yourself, or you did not. But if you did so, you achieved a moral power that was almost tangible.

The pursuit of ren was a lifelong struggle; it would end only at death.35 Confucius did not encourage his students to speculate about what lay at the end of the Way. Walking along this path was itself a transcendent and dynamic experience. Yan Hui, Confucius’s favorite disciple, expressed it beautifully when he said of ren, “with a deep sigh”:

The more I strain my gaze towards it the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front, but suddenly it is behind. Step by step, the Master skilfully lures one on. He has broadened me with culture, restrained me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just when I feel that I have exhausted every resource, something seems to rise up, standing over me sharp and clear. Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all.36

Ren was not something you “got” but something you gave. Ren was an exacting yet exhilarating way of life. It was itself the transcendence you sought. Living a compassionate, empathic life took you beyond yourself, and introduced you into another dimension. The constant discipline of ritual and ren gave Yan Hui momentary glimpses of a sacred reality that was both immanent and transcendent, looming up from within yet also a companionable presence, “standing over me sharp and clear.”

When Yan Hui died, in 483, Confucius wept bitterly, without his customary restraint. “Alas, Heaven has bereft me, Heaven has bereft me!”37 If any man’s death could justify such excessive grief, he said, it was Yan Hui’s. He had always said that Yan Hui was further along the Way than himself.38 Confucius’s son died that same year, and three years later, his oldest disciple, Zilu, died. Confucius was desolate. “The phoenix does not come,” he lamented, “the river gives forth no chart. It is all over with me.”39 Even his hero the duke of Zhou no longer came to him in sleep.40 In 479 he died at the age of seventy-four. In his self-effacing way, he thought that he was a failure, and yet he had made an indelible impression on Chinese spirituality. Even the Axial philosophers who vehemently rejected his teaching would find it impossible to escape his influence.

A new power had appeared in the Middle East. In 559, Cyrus succeeded to the throne of Persia, in what is now southern Iran. Ten years later, he conquered Media; in 547 he defeated Lydia and the Greek poleis on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor; and finally, in 539, he invaded Babylonia and was greeted by the conquered peoples as a liberating hero. Cyrus had become the ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen. He was probably a practicing Zoroastrian, but he did not impose his faith on his subjects. In Egypt, Cyrus was called the servant of Amun Re; in Babylon, he was the son of Marduk; and a Judean prophet called him the messiach, the “anointed king” of Yahweh.41 We do not know this prophet’s name. He was active in Babylonia during the second half of the sixth century, and because his oracles were preserved in the same scroll as those of Isaiah, he is usually called Second Isaiah. He had watched Cyrus’s progress with mounting excitement, convinced that the suffering of the exiled community was coming to an end. Yahweh had called Cyrus to be his servant, and his imperial mission would change the history of the world.42 He had promised to repatriate all deportees, so Jerusalem would be rebuilt and the land restored. There would be a new exodus: once again, Jewish exiles would journey through the wilderness to their Promised Land.


Instead of the anguished, wrenching visions of Ezekiel, Second Isaiah could see a glorious future, which he described in lyrical, psalmlike poetry. He spoke of magical events and a transformed creation. Unlike the Deuteronomists, who had scorned the old mythology, Second Isaiah relied upon a mythical tradition that had little connection with the Pentateuch. Instead of P’s orderly creation story, he revived the ancient tales of Yahweh, the divine warrior, slaying the sea dragon to bring order out of primordial chaos,43 reinstating the violence that P had so carefully excluded from his cosmology. Yahweh, he announced joyfully, was about to repeat his cosmic victory over the sea by defeating the historical enemies of Israel.

But these exuberant prophecies were punctuated by four extraordinary poems about a man of sorrows, who called himself Yahweh’s servant.44 We have no idea who the servant was. Was he, perhaps, the exiled king of Judah? Or did he symbolize the whole community of deportees? Many scholars believe that these poems were not the work of Second Isaiah, and some have even suggested that the servant was the prophet himself, whose inflammatory oracles may have offended the Babylonian authorities. Others regard the servant as the archetypal exilic hero, who expressed a religious ideal that was deeply in tune with the ethos of the Axial Age. For some of the exiles, the suffering servant was their model—not the divine warrior.

In the first poem, the servant announced that he had been chosen by Yahweh for a special mission. Filled with God’s own spirit, he was entrusted with the gigantic task of establishing justice throughout the world. But he would not achieve this by force of arms. There would be no battles and no aggressive self-assertion. The servant would conduct a nonviolent, compassionate campaign:

He does not cry out or shout aloud

or make his voice heard in the streets.

He does not break the crushed reed,

nor quench the wavering flame.45

The servant had sometimes felt hopeless, but Lord Yahweh always came to his aid, so he could stand firm, set his face like flint, and remain untouched by insult and humiliation. He had never retaliated violently, but resolutely turned the other cheek.

For my part I made no resistance, neither did I turn away.

I offered my back to those who struck me,

my cheeks to those who tore at my beard;

I did not cover my face

against insult and spittle.46

God would judge and punish the servant’s enemies, who would simply melt away, disintegrating like a moth-ridden garment.

The fourth song looked ahead to this final triumph. At present, the servant inspired only revulsion; he was “despised and rejected by men,” so disfigured that he seemed scarcely human. People turned their faces away in horror and disgust. But, Yahweh promised, he would eventually be “lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.” The people who had watched his degradation would be speechless with astonishment, but they would eventually realize that he had suffered for them: “Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried. . . . He was punished for our faults, crushed for our sins.” By his courageous, serene acceptance of pain, he had brought them peace and healing.47 It was a remarkable vision of suffering. In their hour of triumph, the servant reminded Israel that pain was an ever-present reality, but his kenosis led to exaltation and ekstasis. His benevolence was universal, reaching out from his immediate circle to include the entire world—to the distant islands and the remotest peoples. It was not enough “to restore the tribes of Jacob,” Yahweh told him; he was to be “the light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”48

By contrast, the oracles of Second Isaiah had a harsh message for the nations who opposed Israel in any way. They would be “destroyed and brought to nothing,” scattered like chaff on the wind. Even those foreign rulers who helped Israel would have to fall prostrate on the ground before the Israelites, licking the dust at their feet.49 In these passages, Israel’s role was not to be a humble servant of humanity, but to demonstrate the mighty power of Yahweh, the warrior god. There seem to be two contending visions in this text, and perhaps there were two schools of thought in the exiled community at this point. The servant triumphed by nonviolence and self-effacement; he saw the sufferings of Israel as redemptive. But other exiles anticipated a new order based on the subjection of others. One ethos was profoundly in tune with the Axial Age; the other straining to break free from it. This tension would continue within Israel.

Second Isaiah believed that the historic reversals of his time would enable both Israel and the foreign nations “to know that I am Yahweh.”50 These words recur again and again. This new exercise of divine power would show everybody who Yahweh was and what he could do. Motivated entirely by the desire to help his people, he had inspired the career of Cyrus, caused an international, worldwide political revolution, and cast down the mighty empire of Babylon. When Israel returned home, Yahweh would transform the wilderness into a lake, and plant cedars, acacias, myrtles, and olives to delight his people on their homeward journey. Could any other deity match this? No, Yahweh declared scornfully to the gods of the goyim, “you are nothing, and your works are nothingness.” Nobody in their right mind would worship them.51 Yahweh had annihilated the other deities and become in effect the only God, his vitality in sharp contrast with the lifeless, inanimate effigies of the Babylonian deities.52 “I am Yahweh, unrivalled,” he announced proudly. “There is no other god besides me.”53

This is the first unequivocal biblical assertion of monotheism, the belief that only one God exists. The doctrine is often seen as the great triumph of the Jewish Axial Age, but in the way that it is phrased, it seems to retreat from some fundamental Axial principles. Instead of looking forward to a period of universal peace and compassion, Second Isaiah’s aggressive deity looks back to the pre-Axial divine warrior:

Yahweh advances like a hero,

His fury is stirred like a warrior’s.

He gives the war shout, raises hue and cry,

Marches valiantly against his foes.54

Unlike the self-emptying servant, this God cannot stop asserting himself: “I, I am Yahweh!” Where the servant refused to “break the crushed reed,”55 this aggressive deity could not wait to see the goyim marching behind the Israelites in chains. Instead of recoiling from the violence, like so many of the other Axial sages, Second Isaiah gave it sacred endorsement.

The prophet’s focus on the earthly city of Jerusalem also seemed to turn the clock back to an older, less developed theological vision. In India and China, the cult was being steadily internalized, and in Israel too Ezekiel’s mandala of a holy city had represented an interior, spiritual ascent to the divine. But the pivot of Second Isaiah’s hopes was the earthly Zion. Yahweh would work a miracle there, transforming its desolate ruins into an earthly paradise. The “glory” of Yahweh, which Ezekiel had seen leaving the city, would return to Mount Zion, and—most important—“all mankind shall see it.”56 Second Isaiah was expecting something dramatic. Before the exile, the “glory” had been evoked and reenacted in the temple rituals, but in the restored Jerusalem (whose walls and battlements would be studded with precious jewels), the divine presence would be more tangible. The returned exiles would experience the glory directly, and because Yahweh would be with his people in such a public, incontrovertible way, they would be safe forever. No nation would dare to attack them again:

Remote from oppression, you will have nothing to fear;

Remote from terror, it will not approach you. . . .

Not a weapon forged against you will succeed.57

Second Isaiah’s promises were disconcertingly close to those of the “false prophets” who had predicted that Jerusalem could never fall to the Babylonians. What would happen if these very precise prophecies were not fulfilled?

At first everything went wondrously according to plan. Shortly after Cyrus conquered Babylon, in the autumn of 539, he issued an edict ordering that the gods of the subject peoples, whose effigies Nebuchadnezzar had carried off to Babylonia, should be returned to their own lands, that their temples should be rebuilt, and their cultic furniture and utensils restored. Because gods needed worshipers, the deportees could also return home. Cyrus’s policy was tolerant but also pragmatic. It was cheaper and more efficient than the massive resettlement programs that had characterized Assyrian and Babylonian imperialism. Cyrus would not only earn the gratitude of his subjects, but would also win the favor of their gods.

A few months after Cyrus’s coronation, a party of Jewish exiles set out for Jerusalem, with the gold and silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had confiscated from the temple. The Bible tells us that 42,360 Judeans made the journey home, together with their servants and two hundred temple singers,58 but in fact the first batch of returnees was probably quite small, since most of the exiles chose to stay in Babylon.59 The leader of the returning party was Sheshbazzar, the nasi (“vassal king”) of Judah. We know nothing about him. He may have been a member of the Davidic royal house, and if so, he would have kissed Cyrus’s hands as a sign of fealty and was the official representative of the Persian government. Judah had become part of the fifth province (satrapy) of the Persian empire, which comprised all territories west of the Euphrates.

We know almost nothing about these early years in Judah, since the biblical account is confused and incomplete. Sheshbazzar disappeared from the record, and we have no idea what happened to him. We hear nothing more about the Golah, the community of returned exiles, until 520, the second year of the reign of Darius (521–486), the third Persian emperor. The leader of the Judean community in Jerusalem was now Zerubbabel, the grandson of King Jehoiachin, who shared power with Joshua, the high priest. He too disappeared mysteriously after his term of office, and for fifty years we have no information about events in Judah.

If the Golah had arrived in Judah with the prophecies of Second Isaiah ringing in their ears, they must have come down to earth very quickly when they saw their new home. Most of them had been born in exile, and Judah would have seemed bleak, alien, and desolate after the sophistication of Babylonia. Used to the Babylonian way of life, they must have felt like foreigners in their own land. The country was full of strangers, who, like themselves, had lost their national status after the Babylonian wars, and while they had been away, Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Arabs, and Phoenicians had settled in the coastal plain, the Jezreel Valley, and the highlands. The returnees called them all the am ha-aretz, “the people of the land.” The new arrivals were also reunited with their fellow Israelites after an absence of seventy years. Judah was administered from Samerina, as the capital of the old northern kingdom was now known, and the returning exiles had to present their letters to the Israelite governors there when they arrived.60 In exile, the deportees had changed their religion quite radically. How would they relate to the Yahwists who had never left Judah, who worshiped other gods beside Yahweh, and adhered to practices that now seemed barbaric and alien?

The building project stalled, and twenty years after the return of the Golah, Yahweh still had no temple. The restoration was not proving to be as easy as Second Isaiah had predicted. The former exiles had no building experience, and had nowhere to live, so most of them agreed that the temple would have to wait until they had new homes. But in 520, a few months after the arrival of Zerubbabel, Haggai, a new prophet, told the returnees that their priorities were wrong. The reason that the harvests were so bad and the economy in recession was that they had built houses for themselves and left Yahweh’s dwelling place in ruins.61 Duly chastened, the Golah went back to work.

The foundations were completed by the autumn of 520, and on the date of the traditional autumn festival, the Golah assembled for the ceremony of rededication. Priests processed into the sacred area, singing psalms and clashing cymbals. But a few of them were old enough to remember the magnificent temple of Solomon; others probably had unrealistic expectations. When they saw the modest site of this second temple, they burst into tears.62 Haggai tried to rally their spirits. He promised the Golah that the second temple would be greater than the first. Soon Yahweh would rule the whole world from Mount Zion. Haggai’s colleague Zechariah agreed. He predicted that Yahweh’s “glory” would return when all his exiles returned home. Foreigners too would flock to Jerusalem. Men of every nation would “take a Jew by the sleeve and say, ‘We want to go with you, since we have learned that God is with you.’ ”63 Both Haggai and Zechariah believed that they were at a turning point of history, but they had not adopted the exclusive vision of Second Isaiah. Zechariah saw Jews leading the goyim peacefully into the temple. He wanted Jerusalem to be an open city. It must have no walls, because of the large number of men and livestock that would come to live there.64 And neither Haggai nor Zechariah showed any hostility to Samerina and the old northern kingdom.65


This inclusive spirit was also evident in the two books of Chronicles, which were probably written during the building of the second temple.66 These priestly authors revised the Deuteronomic history to meet the problems of the early restoration period. First, they stressed the centrality of the temple, regarding the house of David simply as the instrument used by God to establish the temple and its cult. Second, they insisted that the temple had always been the shrine of all the tribes of Israel, not just the Judahites. The chronicler omitted the Deuteronomist polemic against the north, and looked forward to the reestablishment of the united kingdom of David. He gave great prominence to Hezekiah’s reforms, and imagined him inviting all the tribes, from Dan to Beersheba, to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.67 There was no peroration condemning the northern kingdom after the disaster of 722, and no account of the Assyrians importing foreigners into the region. The chronicler did not want to ostracize the northern tribes or those who had not gone into exile. His aim was to unite the people of Yahweh around their sanctuary. The first version of Chronicles probably concluded with the consecration of the second temple’s foundations in 520. It was true, the chronicler admitted, that some of the old priests wept aloud, remembering the glories of the old temple. But others raised their voices in delight, “and nobody could distinguish the shouts of joy from the sound of the people’s weeping; for the people shouted so loudly that the noise could be heard far away.”68 Pain and joy were inextricably combined at this complex moment. Yes, there was sorrow for the tragedies of the past, but there was also happiness and anticipation. A new beginning had been made, and the people of Israel, reunited in Jerusalem, seemed, like the servant, to be calling out to the whole world.

Shortly after the Jews had completed their temple, Athens embarked on another important political change. The tyranny of the Peisistrids had run its usual course, and Athenians were now eager for a greater share in government. In 510, however, Sparta invaded Athens, hoping to replace the Peisistrid tyrant with a pro-Spartan puppet, but the Athenians rebelled, and with the help of Cleisthenes, son of the tyrant of Sicyon, they expelled the Spartans, abolished the tyranny, and installed Cleisthenes as city magistrate.

During his year in office (508–507), Cleisthenes introduced some startling reforms.69 He completely reorganized the ancient tribal system, in a way that weakened the authority of the aristocratic leaders. He also redesigned and enlarged Solon’s Council of Four Hundred: it now had five hundred members, who were chosen from each of the new tribes. Members were elected annually from the middle classes, and could hold office only twice in their lifetime, which meant that most farmers, artisans, and merchants would serve on the council at some point, and thus became citizens in an entirely new and meaningful way. Athens was still ruled by nine magistrates, elected from the upper classes, who were responsible for the festivals, the army, and the administration of justice; they were answerable to the aristocratic Council of Elders, which met on the rocky hillock of the Areopagus, near the agora. Even though the nobility still governed the city, the Council of Five Hundred and the People’s Assembly could challenge any abuse of power.

This was the most egalitarian polity yet devised, and it had an electrifying effect on the Greek world. Other poleis tried similar experiments, and there was a surge of fresh energy in the region. Cleisthenes was asking a great deal of his citizens. Since the Council of Five Hundred met three times a month, ordinary farmers and merchants were expected to dedicate about a tenth of their time to politics during their year in office. They did not lose their enthusiasm, however, and they learned a great deal from the experience. By the fifth century, the middle classes were able to participate in council debates and follow the thinking of the most intelligent people in Athens. The experiment showed that if citizens were properly educated and motivated, a government did not have to rely on brute force, and that it was possible to reform ancient institutions in a rational manner. The Athenians called their new system isonomia (“equal order”).70 The polis was now more evenly balanced, with farmers and traders on a more equal footing with the aristocrats.

Truth was no longer a secret, esoteric revelation for a select few. It was now en mesoi (“in the center”) of the political domain,71 but the Greeks still regarded their political life as sacred and the polis as the extension of divinity into human affairs. Athens remained a devoutly religious city, even though it was increasingly a city of logos. As more people participated in government, they began to apply the debating skills they had acquired on the council floor to other spheres of knowledge. Political speeches and laws were now subjected to stringent criticism, and logos, the speech of the hoplites, continued to be aggressive. Debate was characterized by conflict, antithesis, and the desire to exclude an opposing point of view.

The philosophy of the period reflected the agonistic quality of political life, as well as the Greek yearning for poise and harmony. This was especially evident in the work of Heraclitus (540–480), a member of the royal family of Ephesus, who was known as the “riddler” because he presented his ideas in lapidary, baffling maxims. “Nature,” he once said, “loves to hide”; things were the opposite of what they seemed.72 The first relativist, Heraclitus argued that everything depended upon context: seawater was good for fish, but potentially fatal for men; a blow was salutary if delivered as a punishment, but evil if inflicted by a murderer.73 A restless, unsettling man, Heraclitus believed that even though the cosmos seemed stable, it was in fact in constant flux and a battlefield of warring elements. “Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens.”74 He was especially fascinated by fire: a flame was never still; fire transformed wood into ash, and water into steam. Fire was also a divine force that preserved order by preventing any one of the competing elements from dominating the rest—in rather the same way as the clash of opinions in the council maintained the equilibrium of the polis. Yet beneath this cosmic turbulence, there was unity. Flux and stability, which seemed antithetical, were one and the same; night and day were two sides of a single coin; the way up was also the way down, and an exit could serve as an entrance.75 You could not rely on the evidence of your senses, but must look deeper to find the logos, the ruling principle of nature. And that also applied to human beings. Heraclitus had discovered introspection, a new activity for the Greeks. “I went in search of myself,” he said.76 You could learn a little about human nature by studying dreams, emotions, and people’s individual qualities, but it would always remain an enigma: “You will not find out the limits of the soul by travelling, even if you travel over every pole.”77

In their political reform, the Greeks had found that it was possible to jettison traditional institutions without calling down the wrath of the gods, and some began to question other time-honored assumptions. Xenophanes (560–480), another philosopher from the Ionian coast, rejected the Olympian gods as hopelessly anthropomorphic. People thought that gods “are born, and have clothes and speech and shape like our own.” They were guilty of theft, adultery, and deception. It was clear that people had simply projected their own human form onto the divine. Horses and cows would probably do the same.78 But, he believed, there was only “one god, greatest among gods and men,” who transcended all human qualities.79 Beyond time and change, he governed everything with his mind (nous); no sooner did he think of something than it was done.80

Xenophanes emigrated from Asia Minor to Elea in southern Italy, which now became an important center for the new philosophy. Parmenides, a native of Elea, who was slightly younger than Heraclitus, experienced his bleak philosophy as a divine revelation. He had traveled to heaven in a fiery chariot, he said, far beyond the Milky Way, where he met a goddess who took him by the hand and gave him this reassurance: “No ill fate has sent you to travel this road—far indeed does it lie from the steps of men—but right and justice. It is proper that you should learn all things.”81Parmenides believed that by freeing humanity from delusion, he was performing a valuable spiritual service. Because nothing was as it appeared, human reason must rise above common sense, prejudice, and unverified opinion; only then could it grasp true reality.82 But many of his contemporaries felt that he made it impossible to think constructively about anything at all.83

Parmenides argued that the world could not have developed in the way the Milesians had described, because all change was an illusion. Reality consisted of one, simple, complete, and eternal Being. He insisted that we could say nothing sensible about phenomena that did not exist. Thus, because Being was eternal and not subject to alteration, there was no such thing as change. We could, therefore, never say that something was born, because that implied that previously it had not existed, nor, for the same reason, could we say that it died or ceased to be. It appeared that creatures came into being and passed away, but this was an illusion, because reality was beyond time and change. Again, nothing could “move,” in the sense that at a given moment an object shifted from one place to another. We could never say that something had “developed,” that it had been one way once but become something different. So the universe was not in flux, as Heraclitus claimed; nor did it evolve, as the Milesians had argued. The universe was the same at all times and in all places. It was unchanging, uncreated, and immortal.

The Milesians had based their philosophy on their observation of such phenomena as water and air. But Parmenides did not trust the evidence of the senses, and relied, with remarkable, ruthless consistency, on a purely reasoned argument. He cultivated the habit of “second-order thinking,” reflection upon the thought processes themselves. Like many of the Axial sages, he had arrived at a new, critical awareness of the limitations of human knowledge. Parmenides had also embarked on the philosophical quest for pure existence. Instead of contemplating individual creatures, he was trying to put his finger on quintessential being. But in the process, he created a world in which it was impossible to live. Why would anybody undertake any course of action, if change and movement were illusory? His disciple Melissus was a naval commander: How was he supposed to guide his moving ship? How should we evaluate the physical changes that we note within ourselves? Were human beings really phantoms? By divesting the cosmos of qualities, Parmenides had also deprived it of heart. Human beings do not respond to the world with logos alone; we are also emotional creatures, with a complex subconscious life. By ignoring this and cultivating his rational powers exclusively, Parmenides had discovered a void: there was nothing to think about. Increasingly, as philosophers of the Axial Age practiced sustained logical reflection, the world became unfamiliar and human beings appeared strange to themselves.

Yet pure, unflinching logos could work brilliantly in the world of affairs. At the beginning of the fifth century it inspired a naval victory that epitomized the new Greek spirit. In 499 Athens and Eritrea had unwisely sent help to Miletus, which had rebelled against Persian rule. Darius quashed the rebellion, sacked Miletus, and then turned his attention to its allies on the mainland. The Athenians had little conception of the power of the Persian empire, and probably did not realize what they had taken on. But they had no option now but to prepare for war. In 493, Themistocles, a general from one of the less prominent Athenian families, was elected magistrate, and persuaded the Areopagus Council to build a fleet.

This was a surprising decision. Athenians had no expertise in naval warfare; their strength lay in the hoplite army that was their pride and joy. They had no experience of shipbuilding. But the council agreed, navigational experts were brought in, and the Athenians began to build two hundred triremes and train a navy of forty thousand men.84 This involved a radical break with tradition. Previously only men who could afford to equip themselves had been allowed to join the hoplite army, but now all Athenian males, including noncitizens, were drafted into the fleet. Aristocrats, farmers, and thetes, men of the lower classes, sat on the same rowing bench and had to pull together. In the hoplite phalanx, Athenians fought face-to-face; they found it dishonorable to sit in the trireme with their backs to the enemy. Many must have resented Themistocles’ plan, especially when their first great triumph against the Persian army was on land. In 490, the Persian fleet sailed across the Aegean, conquered Naxos, sacked Eritrea, and landed on the plain of Marathon, some twenty-five miles north of Athens. Under the leadership of Militiades, the hoplite army of Athens set out to meet them, and against all the odds, inflicted a stunning defeat upon Persia.85 Marathon became the new Troy; its hoplites were revered as a modern race of heroes. Why depart from tradition, when the old ways had been so spectacularly successful?

In 480, Xerxes, the new Persian king, sailed toward Athens with twelve hundred triremes and about one hundred thousand men.86 Even with the help of Sparta and the other Peloponnesian cities, the Athenian navy was greatly outnumbered. Some of the magistrates wanted to jettison the fleet, but Cimon, the son of Militiades, the hero of Marathon, ceremonially left his riding tackle on the Acropolis and set out for the port of Piraeus: Marathon was in the past. Before the Persians’ arrival, Themistocles evacuated the entire population of Athens, including women, children, and slaves, and sent them to the island of Salamis, across the Saronic Gulf.87 When the Persians arrived, they found an eerily empty city; they rushed through the streets, looting and pillaging, and burned the magnificent new temples on the Acropolis, while the Athenians sat miserably on Salamis, scarcely able to bear this humiliation. But Themistocles had set a deadly trap. After they had finished their rampage, the Persian navy sailed over to Salamis but could not fit all their ships into the narrow gulf. The triremes became gridlocked, jammed hopelessly together, and were unable to move. The Athenians could pick them off one by one. By evening the surviving Persian ships had fled, and Xerxes left Attica to put down an uprising at home.

Salamis changed the course of Greek history and marked the birth of something fundamentally new. The Greeks had overcome a massive empire by the disciplined exercise of reason. Themistocles could never have persuaded the citizens to adopt his plan had they not learned over the years to think logically, abstracting their emotions from their rational powers. His strategy displayed many of the values of the Axial Age. The Greeks had to turn their backs on the past, and embark on an experimental course. The plan demanded self-sacrifice. The hoplite phalanx was crucial to the Greeks’ identity, but at Salamis they had to leave this “self” behind and—in defiance of their heroic tradition—allow the Persians to destroy their city and its holy places. Salamis was an Axial moment, and yet, as so often in Greece, it was a martial triumph and led to more warfare.

In 478, over a hundred poleis formed a military confederation under the leadership of Athens. Its objective was to counter a future Persian invasion, to liberate the Ionian cities from Persian rule, and to promote friendship among the Greeks. Members pledged ships and equipment, and agreed to meet every year on the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo, patron of the league. In 477, Athens went on the offensive, conquering the city of Eion, the most important Persian stronghold on the northern coast of the Aegean. But despite this triumph, there was buried fear and anxiety. At the Great Dionysia in 476, the playwright Phrynichus presented a trilogy about the Persian wars. The Fall of Miletus has not survived, but the historian Herodotus (485–425) remembered the effect it had on the audience. “The whole theater broke into weeping and they fined Phryni-chus a thousand drachmas for bringing national calamities to mind that touched them so nearly and forbade forever the acting of that play.”88 The tragedies performed at the Great Dionysia did not usually depict current affairs. Phrynichus had not achieved the detachment necessary for the katharsis, or “cleansing,” that Athenians expected from tragedy.

Tragic drama was now a treasured institution in Athens. Every year at the City Dionysia, the polis put itself on stage. The playwrights often chose subjects that reflected recent events, but usually presented them in a mythical setting that distanced them from the contemporary scene and enabled the audience to analyze and reflect upon the issues. The festival was a communal meditation, during which the audience worked through their problems and predicament. All male citizens were obliged to attend; even prisoners were released for the duration of the festival. As in the Panathenaea, Athens was on show; the City Dionysia was a mighty demonstration of civic pride. Member cities of the league sent delegates and tribute; garlands were presented to outstanding citizens; children of soldiers who had died in the service of Athens marched in procession, armed for war.89

But there was no facile chauvinism. The citizens assembled in the theater to weep. When the Greeks dramatized the myths that had always helped them to define their distinctive identity, they interrogated the certainties of the past and subjected traditional absolutes to stringent criticism. The tragedies also marked the internalization and deepening of ritual that characterized the spirituality of the Axial Age. The new genre may have originated in the secret mystery rites of Dionysus, when a chorus had recited the story of Dionysus’s sufferings in formal poetic language, while the leader stepped forward to explain its esoteric meaning, in a more colloquial style, to newcomers who had not yet been initiated.90 But in the City Dionysia, the once-private rites were performed in public; they had been democratized, placed en mesoi.

Over the years, new characters were introduced, who conversed with the leader of the chorus, giving a more dramatic immediacy to the proceedings. By the fifth century, the plays performed during the City Dionysia reflected the introspection of the Axial Age. They showed the well-known characters of myth—Agamemnon, Oedipus, Ajax, or Heracles—making an interior journey, struggling with complex choices, and facing up to the consequences. They displayed the new self-consciousness of the Axial Age, as the audience watched the mind of the protagonist turning in upon itself, meditating upon alternatives, and coming, tortuously, to a conclusion. And like the philosophers, the tragedians questioned everything: the nature of the gods, the value of Greek civilization, and the meaning of life. In the old days, nobody had subjected these stories to such radical scrutiny. Now the playwrights added to the original tales, embellished and changed them in order to explore the unprecedented perplexities that were emerging in the Hellenic world.

In tragedy there was neither a simple answer nor a single viewpoint.91 The main protagonists were the mythical heroes of the past, while the chorus usually represented marginal people: women, old men, and foreigners, who often looked aghast at the principal characters, finding their world alien, incomprehensible, and dangerous. The chorus did not speak for the polis. Even though they were peripheral and often ill-educated people, they spoke in a stylized, lyrical Attic dialect, while the aristocratic protagonists used the colloquial idiom of the polis. There was thus a marked clash of perspectives, and neither the hero nor the chorus expressed the “correct” view. The audience had to weigh one insight against another, just as they did in the council. They could only make sense of the play by analyzing the arguments of the chorus—people who usually had no voice in the polis—or heroes of the mythical past, who lived in a far-off time and in distant places. Tragedy taught the Athenians to project themselves toward the “other,” and to include within their sympathies those whose assumptions differed markedly from their own.

Above all, tragedy put suffering on stage. It did not allow the audience to forget that life was dukkha, painful, unsatisfactory, and awry. By placing a tortured individual in front of the polis, analyzing that person’s pain, and helping the audience to empathize with him or her, the fifth-century tragedians—Aeschylus (c. 525–456), Sophocles (c. 496–405), and Euripides (c. 484–406)—had arrived at the heart of Axial Age spirituality. The Greeks firmly believed that the sharing of grief and tears created a valuable bond between people.92 Enemies discovered their common humanity thus, as Achilles and Priam had done at the end of the Iliad: their tears had been a katharsis that cleansed their grief of poisonous hatred. At the City Dionysia, Athenians wept loudly and unashamedly. This not only strengthened the bond of citizenship, but reminded individuals that they were not alone in their more personal sorrows. They realized in an entirely new way that all mortal beings suffered. Catharsis was achieved by the experience of sympathy and compassion, because the ability to feel with the other was crucial to the tragic experience. This was especially clear in Aeschylus’s The Persians, which was presented at the City Dionysia in 472.

By choosing a contemporary subject, just four years after the debacle of Phrynichus’s The Fall of Miletus, Aeschylus was taking a risk. But his play achieved the necessary distance by making the Athenians see the battle of Salamis from the Persians’ point of view. The fact that there was no riot this time was a tribute not only to Aeschylus but to the Athenian audience. Only a few years earlier, the Persians had smashed their city to pieces and desecrated their holy places, yet now they were able to weep for the Persian dead. Xerxes, his wife Atossa, and the ghost of Darius all spoke movingly of the piercing grief of bereavement that ripped away the veneer of security and revealed the terror of life. There was no triumphant righteousness; no gloating. Aeschylus did not depict the Persians as enemies, but as a people in mourning. There was praise for Persian courage; Greece and Persia were described as “sisters of one race . . . flawless in beauty and grace.”93 The play ended with a ritual lament as the defeated Xerxes was led, gently and respectfully, into his palace. The Persians was an outstanding example of a sympathy that reached out to the erstwhile enemy at a time when memories of desperate conflict were still raw.

The play reflected on the lessons of the war. Xerxes had been guilty of hubris; he had overstepped the mark and refused to accept the divinely appointed boundaries of his empire. The ghost of Darius issued a solemn warning:

. . . Let no man,

Scorning the fortune that he has, in greed for more

Pour out his wealth in utter waste. Zeus throned on high

Sternly chastises arrogant, boastful men.94

But the Persians were not the only people guilty of this overweening pride. At this time, some Athenians were beginning to worry about their own hubris in invading other poleis, and using the spoils of war to fund their expensive building projects. Xerxes’ warning probably struck home.95

In 470, when the wealthy island of Naxos tried to secede from the Delian League, Athens promptly attacked the city, razed its walls, and forced it back into line. The league had been designed to encourage friendship among the poleis, but it was becoming clear that its real purpose was to serve Athenian interests. The following year, the cities of the league defeated the Persian fleet at Pamphylia, in a battle that marked the end of the Persian wars. Many must have wondered whether the league served any further purpose, now that the Persian threat had been contained. There was also tension at home. Since Salamis, the thetes, the lower classes that formed the backbone of the navy, had become more prominent in the city. They were not so constrained by traditional ideas, and were likely to support any radical policy that gave them a higher profile in the assembly. There was new friction between the classes, and Athens was becoming a divided city.

All these anxieties surfaced in Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, which was presented in 467 and told the story of the apparently futile war between Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles. This grim story of fraternal rivalry may have recalled the recent tragedy of Naxos, when Greek had attacked Greek. Polynices, who had invaded his native polis, was guilty of hubris, while Eteocles seemed to embody the restraint and self-control that should characterize a true citizen: he loathes the ancient, irrational religion of the chorus of frightened women, who rush periodically onto the stage in ones and twos, asking disconnected questions and uttering witless and incomprehensible ritual cries. Yet Eteocles himself, the man of logos, falls prey to the pollution that his father, Oedipus, had unleashed, and that had contaminated the whole family.96 At the end of the play, this miasma finally drove the two brothers to kill each other outside the walls of Thebes.

Aeschylus had depicted a torn society, painfully caught between two irreconcilable worlds. Like Eteocles and the philosophers, some citizens looked down on the old religion, but could not entirely shake it off. It still held sway in the deeper, less rational regions of their minds. At the end of the play, the Erinyes, the ancient chthonian Furies, triumphed over the modern forces of logos. Athenians might regard themselves as rational men of the polis, in charge of their own destiny, but they still felt that they could be overtaken by a divinely inspired pollution that had a life of its own. Would Athenian hubris in Naxos produce fresh miasma and bring their city to ruin? The Greek mind was straining in two directions, and Aeschylus did not propose an easy solution. In their final lament, the chorus was split, half siding with Polynices, the others attending the funeral of Eteocles.

In 461 a group of young Athenians led by Ephialtes and his friend Pericles mounted a concerted attack on the elders in the Assembly, which then deprived the Areopagus Council of all its powers. Their slogan was demokratia (“government by the people”). The coup completely overturned the political order. The Areopagus was replaced by the Council of Five Hundred and decisions were henceforth made by all citizens in the Popular Assembly. But the new democracy was not entirely benign. Debates were often rude and aggressive. The courts were made up of citizens, who were both judge and jury. There was no rule of law, and a trial was essentially a battle between the accused and his accusers.

The Oresteia, a trilogy written by Aeschylus shortly afterward, shows how deeply Athens had been shaken by this revolution. Again, Aeschylus depicted a clash between old and new—between the Erinyes and the more modern, “political” gods of Olympus. The trilogy traced the emergence of the polis from tribal chaos and vendetta to the relative order of Athens, where citizens could take control of their lives; it marked the painful passage from an ethos of blind force to nonviolent debate. Yet Aeschylus made it clear that the ideal differed from the reality, that there were no easy answers, and that the final vision of law and order could only be an aspiration rather than an achieved fact.

The Oresteia confronted the problem of violence, a central preoccupation of the Axial Age. It told the story of the house of Atreus, a family contaminated by unnatural murder and caught up in an unstoppable cycle of revenge killing. It began with the slaying of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra; continued with her murder by her son, Orestes, who was avenging the death of his father; and it ended with Orestes’ headlong flight from the Erinyes, whose terrifying appearance onstage caused some women in the audience to miscarry. The protagonists could not stop the violence because each killing unleashed a fresh miasma, and the Olympians, who, as patrons of the poleis, were supposed to be on the side of law and order, seemed to take perverse delight in giving mortals impossible commands that involved them in no-win situations. Human life was, therefore, full of inescapable grief. “He who acts must suffer,” observed the chorus; “that is the law.”97 But in his “Prayer to Zeus,” Aeschylus offered a frail thread of hope. As long as Zeus—“whoever Zeus may be”—presided over heaven and earth, suffering would remain part of the human condition, and yet Zeus had “taught man to think,” and set humanity on the path to wisdom:

He issued the law: Learn through suffering.

Sorrow enters even sleep, dripping into the heart,

Sorrow which cannot forget suffering.

And even those who are unwilling learn to be wise.

All life was indeed dukkha, but pain educated human beings, so that they learned to transcend their apparently hopeless plight.

In Eumenides, the last play of the trilogy, Orestes, still pursued by the Erinyes, arrived in Athens, and flung himself at the feet of Athena, who convened the Areopagus Council to judge his case. The brutal justice of the vendetta must yield to the peaceful process of law. The Erinyes argued that by slaying his mother Orestes had violated the sacred law of blood and must suffer the correct punishment. The jury was split, but Athena, who had the casting vote, acquitted Orestes, placating the Erinyes by offering them a shrine on the Acropolis. Henceforth they would be called the Eumenides, “the well-disposed ones.” The virtues of the polis—moderation and the balance of opposing forces—had prevailed, but the dark deeds of the past were still alive. Men and women, gods and Furies must learn from suffering, assimilating and absorbing the memory of the dark deeds of the past. At the very end of the play, the Eumenides were escorted in solemn procession to their new shrine.98 This ritual pompe symbolized the inclusion of tragedy within the polis. The bloodshed, hatred, and polluting nightmare of violence—symbolized by the Erinyes—could not be denied. The city must incorporate this weight of sorrow, take it into itself, accept it, honor it in the sacred heart of the polis, and make it a force for good.

But Athens was not learning the lessons of history. For all its fine talk of freedom, the city was resented throughout the Greek world as an oppressive power. The Delian League of free city-states had become in fact the Athenian empire; any polis that tried to break away was brutally subjugated and forced to pay tribute. In 438, the Parthenon, the magnificent temple of Athena on the Acropolis, had been completed, but it had been built by humiliating and exploiting fellow Greeks. The new shrine, which dominated the city landscape, was an assertion of communal pride and supremacy, yet Pericles warned the citizens that they had embarked on a dangerous course. It would be impossible for Athens to quash a widespread revolt. Its empire had become a trap. It had probably been wrong to establish it, but it would be dangerous to let it go, because Athens was now hated by the people whose lives it controlled.

Athens was beginning to realize that it had limits. Sophocles’ Antigone, presented in the mid-440s, depicted an irreconcilable clash between family loyalty and the law of the polis, which neither of the chief protagonists—Creon, king of Thebes, and Antigone, daughter of Oedipus—was able to resolve. In fact, no resolution was possible. The play showed that firm beliefs and clear principles would not infallibly lead to a good outcome. All the characters had good intentions, none of them wanted the tragedy to occur, but despite their sincere and best efforts, the result was catastrophic and devastating loss.99 Despite its proud claim to honor freedom and independence, the polis could not accommodate an Antigone, who disobeyed its laws for the most pious of motives, stood up for her convictions, and was able to argue for them with passionate, convincing logos. In their hymn to progress, the chorus of old men claimed that there was nothing beyond man’s power. He had created the technology to overcome every obstacle, and had developed his reasoning powers to establish a stable society. He was lord of all he surveyed and seemed wholly invincible—except for the grim fact of death, which brought home his real helplessness. If he forgot this, he would fall prey to hubris, and walk “in solitary pride to his life’s end.”100

The Axial peoples were all becoming acutely aware of the limitations of the human condition, but in other parts of the world, this did not stop them from reaching for the highest goals or developing a spiritual technology that would enable them to transcend the suffering of life. Indeed, it was the agonizing experience of their inherent vulnerability that impelled many of them to find the absolute within their own fragile selves. But the Greeks, it seemed, could see only the abyss. Once Antigone realized that there was nothing more she could do, she accepted her destiny as the daughter of Oedipus, acknowledging that she too was helpless before the miasma that had infected the entire family. Instead of wavering, like her sister Ismene, Antigone proudly took possession of her suffering and—literally—“walked in solitary pride” into her tomb.

The dream of enlightenment, Sophocles seemed to be telling his polis, was an illusion. Despite their extraordinary cultural and intellectual achievements, human beings still faced overwhelming pain. Their skills, their principles, their piety, and their reasoning powers could not save them from dukkha, which they experienced not as the result of their own karma, but from a divine source outside themselves. Mortal men and women were not in charge of their destiny. They must do everything in their power to avoid tragedy—as Antigone did. But when they had come to the end of endeavor, they could only accept their fate unflinchingly and with courage. This, Sophocles suggested, was what constituted human greatness. But in India, the dream of enlightenment was not dead. Indeed, it was becoming a tangible reality to more people than ever before.

A spiritual vacuum had also opened up in India, and new sages worked energetically, even desperately, to find a fresh solution. By the late fifth century, the doctrine of karma, which had been controversial at the time of Yajnavalkya, was now universally accepted.101 Men and women believed that they were all caught up in the endless cycle of death and rebirth; their desires impelled them to act, and the quality of their actions would determine their state in the next life. Bad karma would mean that they could be reborn as slaves, animals, or plants. Good karma would ensure their rebirth as kings or gods. But this was not a happy ending: even gods would exhaust this beneficial karma, would die and be reborn in a less exalted state on earth. As this new concept took hold, the mood of India changed and many became depressed. They felt doomed to one transient life after another. Not even good karma could save them. When they looked around their community, they could see only pain and suffering. Even wealth and material pleasure was overshadowed by the grim reality of impending old age and mortality. In fact, they believed, worldly goods “sap . . . the energy of all the senses,” and hastened their decline.102 As this gloom intensified, people struggled to find a way out.

More and more people became disenchanted with the old Vedic rituals, which could not provide a solution to this problem. The best they could offer was rebirth in the world of the gods, but in the light of the new philosophy, this could only be a temporary release from the relentless recurrence of suffering and death. Further, people were beginning to notice that the rites did not even produce the material benefits they promised. Some rejected the ritual science of the Brahmanas. The Upanishads promised final liberation, but this spirituality was not for everybody. It was based on a close familiarity with the minutiae of Vedic thought that most people simply did not have, and many were doubtful about the identity of the brahman and atman, on which the whole system depended. Yoga offered moksha, but how did the yogin interpret the tranced states that he experienced? Could they be reconciled with Vedic orthodoxy? The Upanishads that were composed at about this time asserted that they could. The Katha Upanishad claimed that the atman (the true self) controlled the body in the same way as a rider managed his chariot. The yogin learned to keep his mind and senses under control like the good horses of a chariot driver. In this way, a person who “has understanding is mindful and always pure,” and would achieve release from the endless cycle of rebirth.103 But others were convinced that yoga was not enough. Something more was needed.

Yoga was a full-time job. It demanded hours of effort each day, and was clearly incompatible with the duties of a householder. By the sixth century, most people thought that the householder had no chance of achieving moksha, because he was a slave to karma, compelled by the duties of his class to perform one action after another, each fueled by the desire that was the root of the problem. A householder could not beget children without desire. He could not wage war, grow his crops, or engage in business without wanting to succeed. Each action led to a new round of duties that bound him to the inexorable cycle of samsara. The only way to find release was to “go forth” into the forest and become a hermit or a mendicant, who had none of these tasks. People in India did not regard the renouncers as feeble dropouts, but revered them as intrepid pioneers, who, at considerable cost to themselves, were trying to find a spiritual solution for humanity. Because of the prevailing despair in the region, many were longing for a Jina, a spiritual conqueror, or a Buddha, an Enlightened One, who had “woken up” to a different dimension of existence.

The spiritual malaise was exacerbated by a social crisis. Like the Greeks, the peoples of north India were undergoing major political and economic change. The Vedic system had been the spirituality of a highly mobile society, engaged in constant migration. But by the sixth and fifth centuries, people were settling down in ever larger permanent communities and were seriously engaged in agriculture. The introduction of iron technology, including the heavy plow, made it possible to reclaim more fields, to irrigate them, and to clear the dense forests. The villages were now surrounded by carefully supervised plots of land with a network of ditches. New crops were produced: fruit, rice, cereal, sesame, millet, wheat, grains, and barley. Farmers were becoming richer.104 There was also political development. By the end of the sixth century, the small chiefdoms had been absorbed into larger units. The largest of these new kingdoms were Magadha in the southeast and Kosala in the southwest. They were ruled by kings who had, very gradually, imposed their rule by force and had slowly changed the old patterns of allegiance from clan loyalty to an incipient patriotism that focused on territory rather than kinship. As a result, the kshatriya warrior class, which was responsible for defense and administration, had become even more prominent. The new kings were no longer as deferential to the Brahmins as their forebears had been, though they might still pay lip service to the older ideals.

Monarchy was not the only form of government. To the east of the new kingdoms, a number of differently run states had also emerged, ruled by an assembly (sangha) of the elders of the old clans (ganas). This government by discussion had an obvious resemblance to the Greek polis, though in truth we know little about these Indian sanghas. It was not clear how many people were admitted to the tribal assembly, which classes were involved, or whether council members were elected. There were probably as many systems as there were states, but however they were organized, these “republics”—Malla, Koliya, Videha, Naya, Vajji, Shakya, Kalama, and Licchavi—were becoming more powerful, even though they felt threatened by the kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha, which wanted to expand their territory. The possibility of confrontation loomed, and people were aware that wars between these larger states would be far more destructive than the old raids, especially since weaponry had become more deadly since the manufacture of iron.

The new states stimulated trade in the Ganges basin. They built roads and secured trade routes. Coins replaced cattle as the symbol of wealth, and a merchant class developed, which traded in metals, textiles, salt, horses, and pottery throughout the region. Some enterprising people began to build mercantile empires. We read of a potter who owned five hundred workshops and a fleet of boats that carried his ceramics all over the Ganges Valley.105 Trade generated more wealth, which the kings and the sangha-ganas could spend on luxury goods, on their armies, and on the new cities that were becoming centers of trade and industry.


The Vedic texts had boasted of great cities, such as Hastinapura, but in reality these were little more than villages. Archaeology shows that urbanization got under way only in the sixth century, and that the new towns—Varanasi, Rajagriha, Shravasti, Kaushambi, and Kapilavastu—developed in the eastern end of the Ganges Valley. The old Vedic heartlands to the west remained predominantly rural. Power was shifting to the east, which the Brahmins had always seen as marginal and impure. This development was another blow for Vedic orthodoxy, which was not so well suited to an urban environment and had never put down strong roots in the eastern territories. If the kings were beginning to shrug off the control of the priests, the republics tended to ignore the Brahmins altogether, and skimped on the traditional sacrifices. Instead of holding a potlatch to burn off their surplus, they preferred to channel it into the administration, or use it to fund urban construction, trade, and industry. A primitive capitalism had developed, which had quite different priorities. The lavish sacrifices had been designed to impress the gods and to enhance the patron’s prestige. By the fifth century, these eastern peoples had realized that their improved trade and agriculture brought them far more wealth and status than the Vedic rites.

Instead of conforming to tradition, the new cities encouraged personal initiative and innovation. Individuals—successful shopkeepers, enterprising manufacturers, and canny financiers—were becoming prominent, and these people no longer fit easily into the old class system. Individualism was beginning to replace tribal, communal identity. Further, the people who were becoming so successful usually came from the lower classes of the Vedic system. Merchants, farmers, and bankers were usually vaishyas, who had generally been of less distinguished lineage. Now some vaishyas were accumulating land, and taking a lead in the agricultural revolution; others were going in for trade and industry, and becoming richer than the kshatriyas. Artisans usually came from the indigenous shudra class, who were not allowed to take part in the Vedic rituals and did not belong to the Aryan community. In the old days, their function had been to provide labor. But in the new towns, some shudras, such as the potter with the huge ceramic empire, were acquiring wealth and status that would once have been inconceivable.

These developments were positive but also unsettling. Urbanization involved massive social change that left many people feeling obscurely disoriented and lost. Some families had become rich and powerful, others had started to decline. Towns and trade encouraged greater personal mobility, and while it was stimulating to make new contacts with people in other regions, this also undermined the smaller, more parochial communities. There were new class divisions. Brahmins and kshatriyas tended to band together against vaishyas and shudras. The old rural elites felt alienated from the emerging urban classes, which had strong vaishya and shudra elements. The rich vaishyas, who had become merchants and bankers, were increasingly estranged from the agricultural vaishyas in the countryside. The rules that had governed relations between the four classes now seemed incongruous, and people had to learn fresh ways of living together. The loss of tribal identity left some feeling bereft and cast into a void.

These social tensions were particularly acute in the east, where urbanization was more advanced, and it was in this region that the next phase of the Indian Axial Age began. Here the Aryan settlers were in a minority, and indigenous traditions were still very much alive. People felt free to explore novel solutions. The rapid material developments in the towns made city dwellers more conscious of the pace of change than in the countryside, where people did the same thing at the same time, year after year. Life probably seemed even more ephemeral and transient, and this confirmed the now-ingrained belief that life was dukkha, as did the prevalence of disease and anomie in the crowded, disturbing cities. Traditional values had crumbled, and the new ways seemed frightening and alien. The cities were exciting; their streets were crowded with brilliantly painted carriages; huge elephants carried merchandise to and from distant lands; and merchants from all parts of India mingled in the marketplace. The urban class was powerful, thrusting, and ambitious. But the gambling, theater, dancing, prostitution, and rowdy tavern life of the towns seemed shocking to people who leaned toward the older values.

Life was becoming even more aggressive than before. In the republics, there was infighting and civil strife. The monarchies were efficient and centralized only because they could coerce their subjects. Armies professed allegiance to the king alone, instead of to the tribe as a whole, so he could impose order with his personal fighting machine, and use it to conquer neighboring territory. This new royal power gave greater stability to the region, but many were disturbed that the kings could force their will upon the people in this way. The economy was fueled by greed, and bankers and merchants, locked in ceaseless competition, preyed on one another. How did this ruthless society measure up to the ideal of ahimsa, which had become so crucial in north India? Life seemed even more violent and terrifying than when cattle rustling had been the backbone of the economy. Vedic religion appeared increasingly out of touch with contemporary reality. Merchants were constantly on the road, and could not keep the sacred fires burning or observe the traditional household rites. Animal sacrifice may have made sense when stock breeding had been the main occupation, but now that agriculture and trade had taken its place, cattle were becoming scarce and sacrifice seemed wasteful and cruel—too reminiscent of the violence of public life. People needed a different religious solution.

Naturally they looked to the renouncers, who, like the merchants, were the men of the hour. They too had stepped outside the confines of the Vedic system and struck out on their own. These days the renouncers were everywhere. Some communities of hermits remained in the forests, observing Vedic rituals, but others were very much in evidence in eastern society. By the sixth century, countless schools had sprung up. Groups of disciples clustered around a teacher who had advocated a special way of life, promising that his dharma (“teaching”) would lead to liberation from death and rebirth. His pupils probably called him the Buddha or the Jina, because they believed that he had discovered the secret of enlightenment. We know very little about these schools. India was still an oral society and most of these gurus left no written scriptures; often we rely on the polemic of their rivals, who probably distorted their teaching. These teachers had imbibed the competitive spirit of the age and vied fiercely with one another for disciples, taking to the roads to preach their dharma. Crowds of renouncers in their yellow robes marched along the trade routes beside the merchants’ caravans, and their arrival was anticipated as eagerly as the traders’ wares. When a new teacher came to town, people turned up en masse to listen to him. There were passionate discussions involving all classes of society in the marketplace, the city hall, and the luxuriant tropical parks in the suburbs. Householders, who had no intention of leaving home but felt in need of new spiritual answers, often attached themselves to a school as lay supporters. The renouncers, the “silent sages,” walked quietly through the towns, begging for their food by holding out their bowls, and householders and their wives were happy to fill them with leftovers. This was a good deed, and might ensure that in their next life they too could become monks, with a chance of achieving moksha.

The latest teachings had a number of common elements: life was dukkha; to become free, you must rid yourself of the desire that led to activity, by means of asceticism and meditation. There were no elaborate texts and commentaries. These dharmas were strictly practical. The guru taught a method that was accessible to anybody who wanted to learn it; you did not have to be a scholar or a ritual expert. The program was usually based on a teacher’s own experience. If it worked and brought his disciple intimations of liberation and enlightenment, the dharma was valid. If it did nothing for him, he felt no compunction about abandoning his teacher to find another one. In fact it was customary for monks to hail each other on the road: “Who is your teacher? And what dharma are you following these days?”

Some of these schools taught extreme methods, which revealed the growing desperation.106 The Hansas were entirely homeless, could stay only one night in a village, and lived on cow dung. The Adumbaras lived on fruit, wild plants, and roots. The Paramahansas slept under trees, in graveyards, and in deserted houses. Some followed the teachings of Samkhya and practiced yoga, intent on acquiring liberating knowledge. Others were more skeptical. A teacher called Sanjaya rejected the possibility of any final answer. All one could do was cultivate friendship and peace of mind; because truth was relative, discussion inevitably led to acrimony and should be avoided. Ajita, another teacher, was a materialist, who denied the doctrine of rebirth: since all humans were wholly physical creatures, they would simply return to the elements after their death. The way you behaved was therefore of no importance, because everybody had the same fate, but it was probably better to foster goodwill and happiness by doing as you pleased and performing only karma that fostered these ends.107

These teachings all showed a determination to find a way out of the samsaric impasse of rebirth and redeath: some believed that they could achieve this by performing formidable austerities, others by avoiding hostility and unpleasantness. The goal was not to find a metaphysical truth but to obtain peace of mind. Unlike Sophocles, these sages did not think that they had to accept their pain with dignity. They were convinced that it was possible to find a way out. One of the most important of these teachers was Makkhali Gosala (d. c. 385). A taciturn man and a severe ascetic, he preached religious fatalism: “Human effort is ineffective.” People were not responsible for their behavior. “All animals, creatures, beings and souls lack power and energy. They are bent this way and that by fate, by the necessary condition of their class, and by their individual nature.”108 He founded a school called Ajivaka (“Way of Life”). Gosala believed that all human beings without exception were destined to live through a fixed number of lives before they attained moksha, so their actions could not affect their fate one way or the other. And yet, paradoxically, the Ajivakas adopted a harsh regime. They wore no clothes, begged for their food, and observed such strict dietary rules that some of them starved to death. They also inflicted intense pain on their bodies. When he was initiated into the sect, for example, the new member was buried up to his neck and had his hairs pulled out one by one. They did not perform these penances because they believed that they would help them, but simply because they had reached that stage in their personal cycle when it was their lot to practice austerity.

It is a sign of the intense anxiety of this period that this bleak dharma was very popular. Gosala’s rivals attacked him more vehemently than any other guru, because they feared his success. Inscriptions show that kings sent him gifts and donated property to Ajivaka ascetics, and the sect survived in India until the tenth century CE. We may not have the full picture. Gosala probably taught an especially effective form of meditation that was kept secret from outsiders. The extremity of his tapas may have been designed to shock initiates into a state beyond pain or pleasure, and his determinism could simply have been a method of achieving serenity and calm: if everything was predestined, there was no point in worrying about the future.

Gosala was said to have been a disciple of Vardhamana Jnatrputra (c. 497–425), who became one of the most important teachers of this period. His disciples called him Mahavira, “Great Hero.” The second son of a kshatriya chieftain of Magadha, he had a spectacular physique, strength, and beauty but decided, at the age of thirty, to abandon the world and become a renouncer. He was determined to achieve enlightenment by himself, without the help of a guru, so he refused to join one of the established schools. We are told that the gods performed his rite of initiation into homelessness, and for twelve and a half years he lived as a mendicant, roaming through the Ganges Valley, practicing the usual austerities: he wore no clothes, exposing his body to the torrid heat of summer and the cold of winter; he fasted, and deprived himself of sleep and shelter. It was during this initial period that he accepted Gosala as a disciple, and traveled with him for six years until Gosala announced that he had achieved moksha and could call himself a Jina, a spiritual conqueror. This account, however, is a later interpolation into an older text.109 It is hostile to Gosala, suggesting that he was merely jealous of Mahavira’s spiritual superiority and broke away prematurely. Eventually the two men were reconciled: Gosala died acknowledging that Mahavira was a true teacher, and Mahavira predicted that one day Gosala would achieve enlightenment. It is likely that there was some historical connection between the two schools, and that Mahavira was influenced by the Ajivakas at an early stage, but went on to develop an independent teaching.

Mahavira’s harsh lifestyle had a special purpose. Like all ascetics, he wanted to release his true self from the constraints of the body, and thus achieve inner control and peace of mind. But he did not achieve moksha until he had developed an entirely new way of looking at the world that was informed through and through by ahimsa: “harmlessness.”110 Each human being had a soul (jiva), a living entity within, which was luminous, blissful, and intelligent. But animals, plants, water, fire, air, and even rocks and stones each had jivas too; they had been brought to their present existence by the karma of their former lives. All beings shared the same nature, therefore, and must be treated with the same courtesy and respect that we would wish to receive ourselves.111 Even plants had some form of awareness; in future lives, they could become sacred trees, and then progress to human form and finally achieve enlightenment. If they gave up all violence, animals could be reborn in heaven. The same rule applied to human beings, who could achieve moksha only if they did not harm their fellow creatures. Until an ascetic had acquired this empathic view of the world, he could not attain moksha.

For Mahavira, liberation was nonviolence. When he achieved this insight at the age of forty-two, he immediately experienced enlightenment. At that time, according to the earliest texts, he was living in a field beside a river.112 He had fasted for two and a half days, drunk no water, exposed himself to the full glare of the sun, and achieved kevala, a unique knowledge that gave him an entirely different perspective. He could now perceive all levels of reality simultaneously, in every dimension of time and space, as though he were a god. Indeed, for Mahavira, a deva was simply a creature who had attained kevala by perceiving and respecting the divine soul that existed in every single creature.

Naturally this state of mind could not be described, because it entirely transcended ordinary consciousness. It was a state of absolute friendliness with all beings, however lowly. In this enlightened state of being, “words return in vain, no statements of mundane logic can be made, and the mind cannot fathom it.” You could speak of it only by saying, “Neti . . . neti” (“Not this . . . not this”). When an enlightened person had attained this perspective, he or she would find that there was “nothing with which it can be compared. Its being is without form. . . . It is not sound, nor form, nor soul, nor heaven, nor touch or anything like that.”113 But, Mahavira was convinced, anybody who followed his regimen would automatically attain this ineffable state, and become a Jina. Hence his followers were known as the Jains, and his dharma was “the Way of the Conquerors.”

Mahavira was a kshatriya. He believed that he was simply the latest in a long line of Jinas who had crossed the river of dukkha to gain liberation. After his death, the Jains would develop an elaborate prehistory, claiming that, in previous eras, there had been twenty-four of these “ford-makers,” who had discovered the bridge to moksha. Each one had been a kshatriya, had been physically strong and beautiful, and as brave as a lion. Mahavira, the “Great Hero,” was thus offering an alternative ethos to the warrior class; the new heroism utterly rejected fighting, but required courage of its own. Later the Jain order would be sponsored by kings and warriors who were not able to abandon their military duties, but who hoped to do so in a future life. Despite its dedication to nonviolence, the dharma frequently used martial imagery. The Jain ascetic was a warrior who was battling his own belligerent instincts and warding off the bad effects of the aggression that characterized all unenlightened people. The ascetic would win as much glory for himself, his family, and his order by his life of ahimsa as a soldier on the battlefield. The Jain community was called a gana: “a troop.” To become a Jina required the valor, determination, and ruthlessness toward oneself that was the mark of a true hero.

Few people ever pursued the ideal of ahimsa with such relentless consistency as Mahavira. Later Jains would develop an elaborate eschatology and cosmology; they would evolve a metaphysics that saw karma as a form of fine matter, like dust, produced by the different qualities of various actions, which settled on the soul, weighing it down and preventing it from soaring to the top of the universe. As far as we can tell, Mahavira and his early followers were not concerned with these matters. Nonviolence was their only religious duty. All other ethical practice was useless without ahimsa, and this could not be achieved until the Jain had acquired an empathy with every single creature: “All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law, which the enlightened ones who know have proclaimed.”114

This understanding was not, of course, a notional assent. The Jains had to become aware at a profound level that even apparently inert entities, such as stones, had a jiva and were capable of pain, and that no living creature wished to suffer—any more than they themselves did.

Jains achieved this insight by a program of asceticism that made them conscious of this extraordinary truth. By learning to behave differently, they found that their outlook changed, and they began to see the world anew. They had to move with consummate caution lest they inadvertently squash an insect or trample on a blade of grass. They were required to lay down objects with care, and were forbidden to move around in the darkness, when it would be easy to damage another precious creature. They could not even pluck fruit from a tree, but had to wait until it had fallen to the ground of its own accord. Jains needed to eat, of course, and in the early days they were allowed to accept meat in their begging bowls, provided that they had not had the animals killed themselves. The ideal, however, was to abstain from any activity at all, because the tiniest movement or physical impulse was likely to cause injury.

But the ahimsa of the Jains was not entirely negative, preoccupied with not doing harm. Jains had to cultivate an attitude of positive benevolence toward all beings. All living creatures should help one another. They must approach every single human being, animal, plant, insect, or pebble with friendship, goodwill, patience, and gentleness. Like the yogins, Jains followed five “prohibitions” (yama) and vowed to forgo violence, lying, sex, stealing, and the ownership of property, but Mahavira’s interpretation of these yama was informed by his vision of the life force in all things. Naturally the early Jains concentrated on the first vow, of ahimsa (“harmlessness”), which they practiced in the smallest details of their lives, but the other vows were also informed by the spirit of nonviolence. Not only must Jains refrain from lying, but their speech must be deliberate and controlled, in order to eliminate any hint of unkindness or impatience. Words could lead to blows, so they should talk as little as possible. It was even better not to speak the truth if it would hurt another creature. The Jain vows were designed to create an attitude of watchfulness and care. It was not enough for Jains to forgo stealing; they could not possess anything at all, because each being had its own sacred jiva, which was sovereign and free.115

At all times, Jains must make themselves aware of the life force in everything around them. If people did not see this, they could not relate properly to their fellow creatures, but this involved Jains in a truly heroic restraint that seemed to curtail their lives at every turn. They could not light fires, dig, or plow. They could drink only filtered water, must inspect their surroundings every time they took a single step, and avoid any thoughtless movement. If the vows were lived in this way, the Jains would find that they had achieved an extraordinary self-control and a compassion that would bring them to enlightenment. Empathy was crucial. First, Mahavira taught, the Jain must acquire “knowledge of the world,” so that he understood that everything had a sacred life force. Once he had acquired this knowledge of the world, he must then cultivate “compassion for it.”116

Mahavira had arrived at his own version of the Golden Rule. Jains had to treat all others as they would wish to be treated themselves. The dukkha that pervaded the entire world was caused by the actions of ignorant people, who did not realize what they were doing when they injured others. To deny the jiva of your fellow creatures was tantamount to denying your own inner self.117 Jains wanted friendship with all things and all people—with no exceptions whatsoever. Once they had achieved this attitude, they would immediately attain enlightenment. Moksha was not a reward bestowed on the deserving by an overseeing god. Jains were not interested in this kind of theology. But they found that this practice, rigorously followed, brought them transcendent peace.

After his enlightenment, Mahavira preached his first sermon at the shrine of a tree spirit on the outskirts of the city of Champa.118 The first detailed account of this event is found in a relatively late text, of the first century, but it became central to the Jain tradition. The king and queen of Champa attended, together with a huge crowd of gods, ascetics, lay folk, and animals, who all listened intently to Mahavira’s gospel of nonviolence. It was a symbolic moment. In Vedic sacrifice, the gods had gathered to watch human beings slaughtering animals, but at Champa, gods, humans, and beasts assembled to listen to the preaching of ahimsa and formed a single, loving community. This vision of unity and universal empathy was supposed to inform every action of life.

Jains were not interested in yoga but practiced their own type of meditation. Standing motionless, their arms hanging by their sides but not touching the body, monks rigorously suppressed every hostile thought or impulse, while, at the same time, they made a conscious effort to fill their minds with love and kindness toward all creatures.119 An experienced Jain would achieve a quasi-meditative state called samayika (“equanimity”), in which he knew, in every fiber of his person, that all creatures on the face of the earth were equal; at this time he felt exactly the same goodwill to all things, had no favorites, no pet hates, and did not distinguish a single being, however lowly, unpleasant, or insignificant, from himself. Twice a day, Jains stood before their guru and repented of any distress that they might inadvertently have inflicted “by treading on seeds, green plants, dew, beetles, mold, moist earth, and on cobwebs.” They concluded with these words: “I ask pardon from all living creatures. May all creatures pardon me. May I have friendship for all creatures and enmity toward none.”120 The new ideal was no longer merely to refrain from violence, but to cultivate a tenderness and sympathy that had no bounds.

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