07th June 2021

Book in Focus

The World of the Axial Sages

The Age of Awakening

By John C. Stephens

It would be easy for anyone to become overwhelmed when confronted with the vast panorama of religious ideologies dotting the cultural landscape in today’s world. In writing The World of the Axial Sages: The Age of Awakening, I wanted to bring some order to the chaos by focusing upon “the Axial Age”, that seminal time period between the sixth and third centuries BCE when several of the great religious traditions of the world were born. Studying the religions of the Axial period involves making comparisons between various religious phenomena occurring in different historical time periods and geographic locations. I believe that comparative research of this kind is valuable because it identifies some of the universal aspects of religious phenomena.

A good deal of scholarship has already been done on the Axial Age. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers stands out as one of the leading scholars in this area of research. He is responsible for coining the term “Axial Age”, which he discusses in his book entitled The Origin and Goal of History.[1] Some of the connotations associated with this term are problematic because they emphasize the collective, institutional and sociological changes occurring during this historical period to the detriment of individual psychological factors. The importance of individual religious experience for understanding the so-called “Axial Age” should not be overlooked. Although some of these dynamic forms of spirituality were foreshadowed in earlier times, they came to fruition in the Axial Age.

The Axial Age was a time of discovery on both a personal and collective scale. In archaic times, many mythological narratives, such as those appearing in the Vedas and Homeric Epics, portray the gods as anthropomorphic beings existing in a numinous realm far beyond the reaches of the profane world. With the arrival of the Axial Age, there were many, including the priests of the temple and officials of the state, who refused to give up their customary religious beliefs and age-old practices. However, a growing body of sages, philosophers and prophets were moving away from conventional ideas about the divine, and were reaching out in different directions for something new. These individuals no longer thought of the divine as a person with human-like features that had to be appeased with sacrificial offerings. Instead, the divine was understood to be an immutable force or energy. Many of these sages emphasized the need to align one’s thoughts and deeds to this spiritual force. Therefore, a better label for referencing the historical time period when these innovative spiritual developments originated is the “Age of Awakening”, as opposed to the “Axial Age”. Although historical labels tend to over-generalize, they also have certain advantages for analysis. The label, the “Age of Awakening”, places greater emphasis upon the internal, subjective nature of religious experience as opposed to more objectified conceptions of the divine.

Much information about the personal lives and experiences of the sages of the Age of Awakening can be found in various hagiographical and biographical narratives written many years after these sages had passed away. Although these literary resources pose serious challenges in terms of their historical reliability, the idealized images of the sages that are portrayed in these texts are useful for grasping the essential nature of Axial spirituality. Not only was the Age of Awakening a time of spiritual awakening, but it was also a time of intellectual criticism that produced shockwaves and reverberations around the ancient world. Many of the static religious traditions of the archaic past were either rejected in their entirety or underwent a process of radical re-interpretation. In India, a series of Vedic texts called the Upanishads introduced a new spiritual way of understanding the Brahmanical system of ritual sacrifice. World-renouncing movements such as Buddhism and Jainism went even further by emphasizing the value of asceticism and completely rejecting the traditional system of sacrificial rituals. In the West, many classical Greek philosophers and sophists objected to the ridiculous nature of the old mythological stories told about the Olympian gods. Some Greek thinkers considered the Olympians to be merely an invention of the state used as a means to scare the people into blind obedience. Other Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Pythagoras, took the additional step of using philosophic inquiry as a tool for developing innovative perspectives on the nature of the divine.

Situated at the very foundation of the Age of Awakening was humanity’s collective search for meaning as it played out in the lives of religiously sensitive individuals. In particular, this existential search for meaning is embodied in a select group of visionaries and sages such as Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Mahavira, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu and the Hebrew prophets. Each of these sages contributed something unique and valuable to humanity’s spiritual growth. For example, in China, there were the esoteric teachings of Confucius and Lao-Tzu. Confucius spoke about the universal ethical principle, which he referred to as the “Mandate of Heaven”, whereas Lao-Tzu preached about the inner spiritual force called the Dao. In India, the focus was upon withdrawal from the world and freeing oneself from the cycle of birth and death. In classical Greece, philosophy was born. In Persia, Zoroaster expounded about the epic cosmological struggle between the Truth and the Lie. As God’s mouthpiece, the Hebrew prophets urged the people of Israel to obey God’s moral edicts.

Upon reviewing the lives of the Axial sages, one theme consistently re-appears over and over again: finding the Ultimate is not an easy task. There are many troubles to be dealt with along the way. One common problem shared by many of the Axial sages was that they suffered a good deal of ridicule and persecution. The choice to live in accordance with higher moral and spiritual principles is not without its difficulties and the lives of the Axial sages clearly demonstrate this. This issue and several others are explored in The World of the Axial Sages: The Age of Awakening.

[1] Jaspers, Karl, The Origin and Goal of History, trans., M. Bullock, Routledge and Paul, London, 1949.

John C. Stephens is an Adjunct Professor of Religion at San Joaquin Delta Community College, USA, and received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a specialist in the history of religions, and his work focuses on the ancient religious traditions and the study of religious experience. His previous books include The Dreams and Visions of Aelius Aristides: A Case-Study in the History of Religions, Ancient Mediterranean Religions: Myth, Ritual and Religious Experience, and Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature.

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