Around 500 B.C.E., there was an emergence of cultural traditions that have shaped the world ever since. The Chinese and Greek were concerned with affairs of this world and credited human rationality with the power to understand reality. Indian, Persian and Jewish cultures were more religious and explored the realm of the divine and its relationship to human life. These new cultural traditions sought to define a single source of order and its meaning in the universe in a moral or religious realm. The concept of compassion and aligning oneself with a higher order flourished.
Some historians credit major social changes for the emergence and spread of these traditions all at the same time; the iron-age technology led to higher productivity and deadlier wars, growing cities increased commerce, the emergence of new states and empires, and new contacts between civilizations.
500 B.C.E was a period of chaos, violence and disharmony. It was the "age of warring states". Chinese thinkers began to consider how order might be restored to the tranquility of earlier times. From this, the foundations of classical traditions of Chinese civilizations evolved.
The Legalist Answer:
The principle for the legalist answer was to use rules or laws that were strictly enforced through a system of rewards and punishments. Mankind was viewed as stupid and shortsighted. Only farmers and soldiers were promoted, others were considered useless. This concept lasted from 221-206 BCE during the Qin Dynasty and was never put into play after.
The Confucian Answer:
Confucius was an educated aristocrat who sought a political position to put his ideas into action, but was never given a position. Confucius believed the moral example of superiors is the answer to disorder. His principle was worldly and practical, concerned with human relationships, effective government and social harmony. He believed that the human society consisted of unequal relationships and if the superior party acts with sincerity and genuine concern for others, the inferior party will respond with obedience. He believed humans have the capacity for improvement and that education was key. He was an advocate of broad liberal arts education, the application of liberal arts education to government problems and the need for rituals and ceremonies that allowed for personal reflection and willingness to strive to perfection. He emphasized the importance of family life and believed family was central and should be a model for political life. He created expectations for government encouraging emperors to keep taxes low, provide for the needs of the people, and give justice. After Legalism was discredited, Confucianism became the ideology of the Chinese state.
The Daoist Answer:
Daoism was opposite of Confucianism. Daoism though Confucianism was useless and made things worse. This principle thought education and striving for improvement was artificial and useless. Daoism urged withdrawal into the world of nature and encouraged behavior that was spontaneous, individualistic and natural. Daoism urged withdrawal into the world of nature and disengage from the public life. The central concept is dao: the way of nature, the underlying principle that governs all natural phenomena. Daoism encouraged small, self-sufficient communities that live a simple life.
Unlike Chinese culture, India embraced the divine and spiritual.
Hinduism has no historical founder. It was never a single tradition. It was a term derived from others, an association with a particular people and territory, much like Judaism. Hinduism spread into Southeast Asia, but remained associated with India and the Indians. Widely recognized sacred texts, the Vedas, provided some common ground within the diversity of Indian culture and religion. The Vedas were poems, hymns, prayers and rituals compiled by Brahmin priests. Brahmin priests gained power and wealth from their elaborate ritual sacrifices. Initially the Vedas were transmitted orally until around 600 BCE when they were written down in Sanskrit. The Vedas give a good depiction of Indian early civilization of chief competing kingdoms, sacred sounds and fires, gods, sacrifices and rituals.
Upanishads were mystical and philosophical works developed in response to dissatisfaction with Brahmins. They were composed by anonymous introspective thinkers who probed into the inner meaning of sacrifice described in the Vedas.
The central idea is that the individual human soul (atman) is part of Brahman (the World Soul). Brahman is the ultimate reality, the primal unitary energy and divine reality infusing all things. The final goal of humans is the union with Brahman (moksha or "liberation"). Achieving moksha takes many lifetimes. Moksha is liberation from a separate existence. This is the end of the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation known as samsara. Reincarnation depends on one's actions, the law of karma. Human souls migrate from one body to another; the caste system is a register of spiritual progress until moksha is obtained. Beyond the quest for pleasure, wealth, power, and social position which were all considered normal, was moksha.
Buddhism was founded by Sidharta Gautama, a prince that left luxury to find insight into suffering and the end to suffering. His spiritual journey led to "enlightenment" at the age of 35. His followers saw him as Buddha, the Enlightened One. Buddha believed suffering and sorrow was a result of ego and attachment to self. The "cure" is to live a modest and moral life and through meditation. The goal is to achieve enlightenment or nirvana in which the individual identity would be extinguished along with greed, hatred, delusion, pain and suffering. One would have serenity, even in the midst of difficulty, and compassion for all beings.
Buddhism came from Hindu traditions; the belief that life is an illusion, the idea of karma and rebirth, overcoming the demands of the ego, the practice of meditation and the hope for release from the cycle of rebirth. Although there are many similarities to Hinduism, Buddhism challenged Hinduism. Buddhism is a more simplified and more accessible version of Hinduism. The teachings are more accessible and written in the local language of Pali versus the ancient writing of Sanskrit. It challenged the Hindu caste system and believed individuals had to take responsibility for their own spiritual development. Buddhism supported the monastery and life of meditation. The egalitarian message appealed to the lower-caste and especially Indian women. Initially it was hard for women to join, but eventually a separate order of nuns was formed. It was very liberating for women to find some freedom. They were still considered inferior but were offered more independence than did Hindus.
Buddhism ultimately died out in India as the monasteries were getting wealthy. Economic interests separated those in the monastery from ordinary people. After 1000 CE, competition from Islam and a new popular Hinduism was more accessible which reincorporated into Buddhism and Hinduism. It began in South India and moved northward. There was an emphasis in bhakti (worship) and adoration and identification with a particular deity through song, prayer, and rituals. There was a proliferation of gods and goddesses, primarily Vishnu and Shiva. The new Hinduism assimilated instead of exclude. Although Buddhism disappeared in India, it became the first great universal religion of world history.
The search for God and move toward monotheism was the basis for religious tradition in the Middle East. The radical notion of a single supreme Deity developed in Zoroastrianism and Judaism and became the basis for both Christianity and Islam.
Zoroastrianism was founded by the Persian prophet Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism challenged polytheism of earlier times. It is said that in response to the violence of the cattle raids, Zarathustra recast polytheism to a single god. Ahura Mazda, a single god, is the source of truth, light and goodness. He would restore the world to its earlier purity and peace. It was the freewill of humankind and a necessity for each individual to choose between good and evil. The followers of Ahura Mazda will have eternal life in Paradise. This principle greatly influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Zoroastrianism never became an active missionary religion. It never spread past Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Alexander the Great's invasion destroyed Zoroastrianism initially and even more so with the arrival of Islam and Arabian empires. The believers of Zoroastrianism fled to India and the people became known as Persians. It never spread past Persia. Like Buddhism, Zoroastrian faith vanished from its place of origin.
Judaism was developed amount the Hebrews as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. There was a migration from Mesopotamia to Palestine under the leadership of Abraham. A portion of these people fled to Egypt, were enslaved and then escaped to a region of their kinfolk in Palestine. There they established small states which eventually split into two parts, the northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern states were known as Judah. They were considered a displaced people.
Judaism has a distinct conception of God, referred to as Yahweh. He is a powerful and jealous deity who demanded exclusive loyalty which for some, was a difficult requirement. Some Jews turned from pastoral life to agriculture and were continually attracted by fertility gods. The relationship with Yahweh is a contract or covenant. Obey Him and He will protect. Unlike impersonal conceptions of the ultimate reality found in Daoism and Hinduism, Yahweh is a divine person with whom people could actively communicate with. There is a distinctive conception of the divine-singular, transcendent, personal, separate from nature, engaged in history, demanding social justice and moral righteousness above sacrifices and rituals. God provided the foundation on which both Christianity and Islam were built.
Classical Greece did not create and enduring religions tradition. Greek thinkers of the classical era generated no lasting religious tradition of world historical importance. The mythological framework was abandoned and in its place developed a form of thinking that bore similarities to secularism of Confucian thought in China. It is uncertain why Greek thought went in that direction, perhaps it is due to the diversity and incoherence of mythology , the intellectual stimulation of great civilizations and the possible influence of the growing role of law in Athenian political life.
Greeks seldom agreed with one another. There was an emphasis on argument, logic and relentless questioning. The best example was Socrates of Athens. He engaged others in conversations of the good life. He challenged conventional ideas about the importance of wealth and power in living and instead urged the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. He was critical of Athenian democracy and often had positive things to say about Sparta. Socrates died at the hand of an Athenian jury who felt philosophy was a threat as well as an engaging past time.
Greek rationalism, art, literature and theater persisted long after the glory days of Athens. The Roman Empire facilitated the spread of Greek culture. Christian theology was expressed in terms of Greek philosophical concepts. Greek texts were preserved in Byzantium. Direct access to Greek texts was more difficult in the West but was then rediscovered in the 12th century. Greek legacy has been viewed as the central element of emerging "Western" civilization. It has played a role in formulating updated Christian theology and Europe's scientific revolution. It also entered Islamic culture and its rediscovery in the West was largely in part through Arabic translations.
Comparing Jesus and the Buddha:
from the province of Judea in the Roman Empire
was a rural, small-town worker from a lower-class family
had intense devotion to a single, personal deity
had relationship with God
teachings had sharper social and political edge than Buddha
spoke clearly and on behalf of the lower class and those not accepted in society
had only 3 years of public life
teachings antagonized Jewish and Roman authorities
was crucified as a common criminal
born to royalty and luxury
ignored the supernatural
involved no miracles
taught path of intense self-effort, ethical living and mindfulness as a means of ending suffering
had 40 years of public life
his teachings and message was less threatening to those in political power
he died a natural death at the age of 80
Both Jesus and the Buddha called for personal transformation of their followers through letting go of things that cause suffering. Neither had any intention of founding a new religion. Both sought to reform traditions from which they had come.
Both Jesus and the Buddha became spiritual leaders who claimed to have personally experienced another level of reality. These "wisdom teachers" challenged conventional values of their time and urged renunciation of wealth and emphasized the importance of love and compassion. Although neither claimed divine status, both were transformed by their followers into gods. Their teachings spread widely beyond their places of origin.
Christianity and Buddhism: New Religions
Christianity became a world religion from St. Paul. Christianity spread gradually with the Roman Empire after Jesus' death. Reports of Jesus' miracles and healings attracted converts by the way members cared for one another. Constantine's conversion gave strong state support. Roman rulers sought to use popular Christianity as the glue to hold together the diverse population in a weakening state.
Christianity was a hierarchical organization. It excluded women in leadership and priestly roles. The bishop of Rome emerged as the dominant leader, the pope. There was a concern for unity in matters of doctrine and practice which contributed to the split between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. There was and continues to be a controversy about the nature of Jesus, his relationship to God, and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Buddhism was supported by Ashoko. Buddhism never promoted exclusion of other faiths. It sought religious tolerance rather than uniformity. It died out in India as it was absorbed into reviving Hinduism.
There was a clash over various interpretations of Buddhas teachings, prompting two schools of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahaya. The division was not as violent as Christendom. And unlike Christendom, there is no hierarchy in Buddhism.
Religion is a sensitive subject for historians. For believers, religion goes beyond earthly evidence. Religions present themselves as timeless, but historians see the development over time as a human phenomenon. There is a constant debate on which tradition represents the "real" version of faith.
1. How does the Daoist outlook differ from that of Confucianism?
2. In what ways does Buddhism reflect Hindu traditions and in what ways does it challenge them?
3. In what ways are Jesus and the Buddha similar and in what ways are they different?