The Axial Age in India

The Axial Age largely encompasses greater individuality and autonomy in religion and philosophy. The religion and philosophy of India emphasizes annihilation of the individual. These contrary forces produced a wealth of new ideas and practices among the Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists of India.

Already Vedic Indian religion took a contrary path from much of the world. In western philosophy, thinkers choose among three options: either the material world is real and mind and spirit are imaginary, or mind and spirit are real and the material world is imaginary, or the material and mental/spiritual worlds coexist in a creative tension—a concept sometimes described as “the ghost in the machine.” But in India, both the material world and the mental-spiritual world are perceived as “maya,” or illusion. All that we perceive in ourselves and around ourselves is maya. Atman, or the sense of an individual being, is simply brahman in that place. Brahman is not a personal god or spirit; brahman is simply the principle or reality of the universe, the one existence that is not illusion or imagination.

The ideas of karma and reincarnation relate to maya and brahman. Atman returns over a series of lifetimes, governed by the principle of karma. Karma is not a god; no one prays to karma or builds temples to karma. Yet even the gods are subject to karma. Westerners tend to view karma and its place in reincarnation as a moral force: do good things, and you will be reborn in a better life; do bad things, and you will be reborn in a worse life. For Hindus, karma is less moral and more about the path to enlightenment, the acceptance that all else is maya and only brahman exists. Samsara, or the continual rebirth and return, is like going to school, taking the same class over and over until you finally learn your lesson, and then taking another class repeatedly. The goal is not to advance to better classes, but to graduate, to achieve moksha, to stop returning in the cycle of samsara but instead to become one with all things in brahman. Moksha is not heaven or Paradise; moksha is release from the burdens of rebirth and the illusion of individuality.

The Axial Age saw the development of yoga among Hindus in India. Westerners think of yoga as a set of exercises involving mind and body and spirit—various postures and breathing exercises used to develop peace of mind and self-improvement. Called Hatha Yoga, this form of yoga is found in India, but its purpose is contrary to the western approach. Control of the body and mind and spirit are seen as avenues to annihilation of the self, realization that the self is part of the illusion; self-improvement is the farthest position possible from the purpose of genuinely Hindu yoga. Other forms of yoga include Karma Yoga (seeking to do good things in the world), Jnana Yoga (studying to understand the world), and Bhakti Yoga (devotion to one of the many Hindu gods). Bhakti Yoga is perhaps the most significant development of the Axial Age in Hindu beliefs and practices.

Hindus believe in many gods, though none of them are all-powerful or all-knowing. Bhakti Yoga invites a Hindu to be devoted to one god, to worship and honor that god, and to find help from that god in achieving enlightenment and escape from samsara. Siva or Shiva is one popular god—the god of death, Siva or Shiva can also be seen as a god who clears away the old to make room for the new—a god of recycling. Vishnu is also popular. Vishnu is said to have visited people of this world in various avatars, or human appearances. The most recent and famous avatar of Vishnu is Krishna. Krishna should not be mistaken for Christ. He was not truly human, nor did he suffer to redeem believers. He was merely a teacher of divine origin. In the famous poem the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to a warrior king why the king must face his brother in a massive battle in which many soldiers will die. Though the war and suffering seem meaningless, they are part of karma. The brothers were born to lead their armies in this war, the soldiers were born to fight and to die, and resisting karma will only create further problems.

During the Axial Age, a teacher named Mahavira explored an ascetic religion called Jainism. (Jains say that Mahavira was the last of a line of twenty-four teachers with the same lessons.) Jains are dedicated to causing no harm to any living beings. Not only are the vegetarians, but they do not farm, because farming involves suffering and death for some creatures. Jains sweep the path in front of them when they walk to avoid stepping on insects; they wear veils to avoid inhaling tiny creatures in the air—not for their own health, but to prevent the suffering of those tiny creatures. They work to eliminate all connections to the world around them, seeing even positive karma as a barnacle-like growth that can prevent enlightenment. Some Jains wear a single white robe and are called “White-clad Jains.” Others wear nothing and are called “Sky-clad Jains.”

Also during the Axial Age, a man named Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened and was recognized as the Buddha. He was born to a wealthy family that tried to shelter him from pain and suffering, but he still witnessed sickness and death in the world. He first tried extreme ascetic practices to escape the world’s problems, but those practices brought him no enlightenment. He then choose the Middle Path—no extremes of wealth or poverty—and one day he discovered the Four Noble Truths. First, suffering exists. Suffering happens in this world, and one must accept its reality. Second, suffering is caused by desire, or craving. When we want things, we set ourselves up for disappointment. It does not matter whether we want good things or bad things, material things or spiritual things: every form of wanting leads to suffering. Third, it is possible to live without desire or craving. Fourth, that possibility is enhanced by an eight-fold path that involves right thought, right behavior, right vocation, right meditation, and the like. He spent the rest of his life teaching these Four Noble Truths to others, founding the religion of Buddhism in India.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are amazingly diverse. Although Buddhism began in India, it is more common in other Asian countries. It takes many forms, often including the worship of many gods. Sometimes the Buddha is worshiped as a god, although other Buddhists say he is merely a man who became enlightened, as all of us can become enlightened. For some Buddhists, he is the first and only man to achieve enlightenment; for others, many have found what he found. In some versions of Buddhism, enlightenment can happen suddenly in this lifetime through mediation and through resistance to logic and reason. (Chan, or Zen, Buddhism stresses sudden enlightenment.) Other forms of Buddhism stress that this world has too many distractions for anyone to reach full enlightenment, but proper preparation in this life leads to rebirth in a purer land where enlightenment is attainable (hence the name Pure Land Buddhism).

Christian understandings of sin and redemption are foreign to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. They do not believe that an Almighty God created a good world or that he offers eternal life in a world without suffering and sorrow. Being polytheists, they are sometimes willing to add a place for Jesus in the community of the gods, but they are puzzled by his insistence that he is the only God. Nor is it clear how his suffering on the cross can rescue anyone else from suffering and death. Finally, teachings about nonattachment are contrary to the commands of God to love him above all else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christ’s teachings about denying ourselves for his sake seem on the surface to resemble Hindu and Buddhist teachings about self-denial, but the point for Christians is entirely different than that for Hindus and Buddhists. A great gulf of understanding and of conflicting definitions of terms must be bridged for communication to happen between Christians and followers of these Asian religions. J.