Lent status: Available
This course offers a rare opportunity to relate your own spiritual questions to a variety of ancient quests for meaning and transcendence. In Religions of the Axial Age, Professor Mark W. Muesse shows you the historical conditions in which the world religions arose, while letting you see how they answered shared metaphysical and human dilemmas. He helps you think about specific traditions while pondering the common processes of religious development.
Not content to study religion merely from books, Professor Muesse has also observed and participated in these traditions in their native contexts, especially in South Asia. Thus his approach to the study of religion is not solely academic or historical but also reflects a deep respect for religious experience as it is felt and lived.
You will explore fascinating aspects of several major world religions at the time of their birth. Although Professor Muesse emphasizes the early religious traditions of Iran, South Asia, and China, he also shows how these compare, contrast, and contribute to contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
What Is the Axial Age?
Professor Muesse offers striking insights as he draws you closer to the period between 800 to 200 B.C.E., an era with notable parallels to our own. Using a term first coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers and recently popularized by the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, Professor Muesse calls this period the Axial Age because of its pivotal nature.
Through sacred texts, modern scholarship, and thoughts arising from his own personal experiences, Professor Muesse reveals what it meant to be a conscious, morally responsible individual in the Axial Age. For example, Confucius wanted to help politicians and civil servants do a better job of governing their countries; Buddha hoped to show men and women how to break free of suffering. You'll also examine the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia (now Iran); Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian subcontinent; and Confucianism and Daoism in China.
Zoroaster, Prophet of Personal Accountability
Was the Iranian prophet Zoroaster the first to conceive of the concepts of heaven and hell? Professor Muesse explains Zoroaster's vision of a blissful afterlife for those who sided with good, but a hellish afterlife for those who chose evil. Zoroaster may not have offered the first statement of an afterlife, but he may have been the first to hinge the eternal destiny of an individual to his or her worldly behavior. Moreover, for Zoroaster, humanity—and history itself—move in a direct, linear path toward a cosmic conclusion in which good ultimately triumphs, evil is annihilated, and paradise is established on Earth.
Zoroaster, who is also known as Zarathustra, taught that humans are responsible for the moral choices they make in a world where good and evil are locked in struggle. Zoroaster's apocalyptic vision may have been coupled with a bodily resurrection of the dead, in which those who had gone to heaven return again to Earth to continue life in physical form. If this were Zoroaster's belief, he would have been among the first—if not the first—to imagine such a fate.
The Wisdom of Ancient India
We're not the first people to ask the question, Is this all life has to offer? Professor Muesse shows us the longstanding centrality of this question in his extended exploration of the major religions of ancient India—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—during their formative stages.
Our journey first takes us to the indigenous Indus Valley civilization, a culture focused on agriculture, goddess worship, and fertility, and its encounter with tribal nomads called Aryans, believed by most scholars to be from Central Asia No one is certain how this encounter took place, but the fusion of cultures and beliefs profoundly altered Indian religion and provided the basis for the Hindu family of religions.
Eventually, as urbanization increased and some orders of society became wealthier, men and women began to wonder whether life had something more to offer. They questioned the emphasis on ritual and expressed concerns about the authority of the priests. The Upanishads, composed by a counter-cultural movement of mystics and ascetics, address questions of life, death, and the meaning of both. This concern with the fundamental meaning of life marks the rise of classical Hinduism and coincides with the Axial Age's beginnings in India.
A central element in the evolution of Hinduism was the widespread acceptance of the concept of samsara, the belief that individual beings undergo a series of births, deaths, and rebirths governed by the moral principle known as karma. In fact, virtually every school of philosophy or sect of religion that arises in India's history—including Buddhism and Jainism—takes samsara as the fundamental problem of existence, and each in its own way seeks to address it. This new religious concern reflects and shapes India's entrance into the Axial period.
Next, Professor Muesse takes you to northeastern India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., when many spiritual seekers had given up the comforts of home to seek enlightenment. They lived as hermits or apprenticed themselves to spiritual guides. Meditating and practicing ascetic disciplines, they sought a deep, internal understanding of reality's ultimate nature. You'll grasp the significance of the Buddha's life and thought as it emerged during this period. The Buddha advocated a strict if moderate regimen to break those habits perpetuating the illusion of selfhood and encouraging people to deny the world's impermanence. Learn about the Buddha's eightfold path to nirvana, a path that emphasizes the importance of acting ethically, developing virtue, and restraining both body and mind through the practice of meditation.
Like the Buddha, Mahavira, a founder of Jainism, achieved a visionary enlightenment after withdrawing from the luxury and temptations of the world. While he confronted similar issues, his own teachings gave innovative interpretations to the idea of the soul and karma. Jainism emphasizes the principle of ahimsa (doing no harm) and offers special practices for attaining personal liberation.
China and the Paths of Virtue and Nature
Our next stop is China, where we learn about Confucius and the mysteries of Daoism. Professor Muesse takes us inside China's earliest (pre-Axial Age) spiritual practices to give a context for the life and thought of Confucius—as well as Laozi, who was probably a fictional character invented by the philosophers of Daoism. Muesse explains that although Daoism arose in opposition to the ideas of Confucius, both systems of thinking can simultaneously coexist in the Chinese mind along with the ancient beliefs and rituals of Chinese folk religion and the later, imported wisdom of Buddha.
Confucianism and Daoism both draw a connection between public and private (state and family) harmony and governance. Confucius and his early followers, however, saw the cultivation of virtue as a cultural, human activity emphasizing study and ritual. The early Daoists aligned the self with a larger, ultimately harmonious natural order. They advocated accepting change as inherent to the way of nature. Eventually, Confucianism and Daoism were institutionalized and the philosophies of the founders went through considerable reinterpretation.
Professor Muesse's final lecture offers reflections on a central question of the course: What does the study of the Axial Age teach us about religion as a phenomenon in our lives?