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The 'Axial Age' (800 to 200 B.C.E.

): Pivotal to Humanity
Rise of Buddha, the enlightened One
The period was late sixth century B.C.E and the Gangetic region was in
ferment. The people felt imprisoned eternally in their present painful
mode of existence, with the doctrine of reincarnation and Karma and
endless cycles of Samsara propelling people from one life to another.
Apparently, during those days in the ancient era, this was felt to be
inherently more satisfying than attributing human fate to the frequent
erratic decisions of a personalised deity. The law of Karma was
impersonal, though. But to someone like Siddhartha Gautama, who much
later became the enlightened One, the Buddha, the prospect of living one
life after another filled, much like other people in North India, with horror
and revulsion. There was disillusionment and anomie that Gautama and
others experienced.
Karen Armstrong in her admirably comprehensive study of Buddha in a
slim volume of 170 odd pages presents an authoritative introduction to
one of the worlds most influential spiritual figures. She writes that what
preoccupied Gautama and his contemporaries was not much the
possibility of rebirth as the horrors of rebirth. It was bad enough to have to
go through the endless rebirth cycle of undergoing the process of
becoming senile or chronically and incurably sick and undergo a
frightening and dreadfully painful death once, but to go through it all over
again and again, repeatedly in an perpetual cycle, till one was freed from
it, seemed intolerable and immensely painful and horror stricken. When he
set out of his fathers house, forsaking all riches and luxuries, in the yellow
robes of a mendicant monk, Gautama believed that he would go on to
explore the realms of the spirit to bring help and solace to suffering men
and women. We will come to Gautamas journey towards enlightenment a
little later. The author asks as to why the people of India felt the disease
with life distasteful, with this endless and apparently never ending births
and deaths. This kind of predicament was not just confined to the
subcontinent, but the sufferings were there too in several other regions of
the world.
A large number of people felt that the spiritual practices of their ancestors
no longer worked for them. And there arose some of the prophetic and
philosophical geniuses who made great efforts to find a way out.
Armstrong describes this age as the Axial Age (which extended from 800
to 200 B.C.E.), which she describes to be pivotal to humanity. The ethos
forged during this period continues to nourish and nurture men and
women to the present day, she feels. In her view, Gautama would become
one of the most important luminaries of the Axial Age, alongside the great
Hebrew prophets of the eight, seventh and sixth centuries; Confucius and

Lao Tzu, who reformed the religious traditions of China in the sixth and
fifth centuries; the sixth-century Persian sage and philosopher Zoroaster;
Plato and Socrates (BCE 427-327), who urged the Greeks to question even
those truths which appeared to be self-evident.
I digress and quote Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher and the
author of Thus Spake Zarathustra, here to underline how the
Zoroastrians of Iran saw life as a cosmic battle between Good and Evil:
Zarathustra was the first to consider the fight of good and evil the very
wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the
metaphysical realm, as a force, cause, and end in itself, is his work.
Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently, he
must also be the first to recognize it. His doctrine, and his alone, posits
truthfulness as the highest virtue; this means the opposite of the
cowardice of the "idealist who flees from reality. The self-overcoming of
morality, out of truthfulness; the self-overcoming of the moralist, into his
oppositeinto methat is what the name of Zarathustra means in my
mouth.
Coming back to Karen Armstrong, lets see how the author felt about some
of these sages and people with philosophical bent of mind about the moral
crisis in the world. Finding themselves helpless and morally vacuous, they
expressed themselves in different ways. She writes and I quote, The
Greeks saw life as a tragic epic, a drama in which they strove for catharsis
and release. Plato spoke of mans separation from the divine, and yearned
to cast off the impurity of our present state and achieve unity with God.
The Hebrew prophets of the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries felt a
similar alienation from God, and saw their political exile as a symbolic of
their spiritual condition. The Zoroastrians of Iran saw life as a cosmos
battle between Good and Evil, while in China, Confucius lamented the
darkness of his age. Armstrong continues, in India, Gautama and the
forest monks were convinced that life was dukkha (can we call it pain?):
it was fundamentally awry, filled with pain, grief and sorrow. The Pali texts
describe that, Gautama did not leave home to commune happily with
nature in the woods, but experienced a continuous fear and horror. If a
deer approached or if a wind rustled in the leaves, his hair stood on end.
She writes that the Axial Age marked an epoch that still resonates with
todays reality. The great sages of the time taught human beings how to
cope with the misery of life, transcend their weakness, and live in peace in
the midst of this flawed world. Taoism and Confucianism in China,
Buddhism in the subcontinent, Zoroastrianism in Iran, which was
monotheistic and Greek rationalism, all were different, but had
fundamental similarities that brought massive transformation in the lives
of their people who were able to join in the forward march of history.
These thoughts revolutionised the religious ideas of the time to advocate
a new way of living.

She asks, nobody has fully explained the sorrow that brought the Axial
Age spirituality. Why did the suffering reach such a crescendo that
prompted such soul searching? As we have seen, Gautama felt that his life
had become meaningless. His journey towards becoming the Buddha is
well known. There were several crucial moments in Gautamas life: his
birth, his renunciation of normal domestic life (his father was one of the
leading men of Kapilavasthu in the foothills of the Himalayas and had
provided his son with every possible luxury available), his enlightenment,
his adherence to Dhamma, his teachings to his disciples of ways to seek
enlightenment and how his life and teachings were inextricably combined.
The Buddha was inspirational. His advice to his disciples as an inspiration
to other Buddhists, as he said: "He who sees me, sees the dhamma (the
teachings), he who sees dhamma, sees me." Incidentally, in Pali form, it is
dhamma, kamma and nibbana, for example, instead of karma, dharma
and nirvana.
The Buddha said if there was birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow and
corruption in our lives these suffering must have a positive counterpart, It
has to be found - we have to look for the unborn, the unaging, unailing,
deathless, sorrowless, incorrupt and supreme freedom from this bondage.
He called this satisfactory state Nirbhana or Nirvana. It is like what the
Buddha said "cooling we experience after we recover from fever.
The author asks herself and to all of us: What are the qualities that we
think of Buddha? and answers them as: gentleness, fairness, impartiality,
equanimity, serenity, peace, tranquility. Anyone who came in contact with
him became drawn to him as it touched a chord and resonated with their
own deepest yearnings
The social transformations that were under way when Gautama left his
home in Kapilavasthu were important in the sense that they provided a
backdrop to Gautamas transformation as the Buddha. The merchants
were becoming a very important part of power structure. The market
economy and the economic transformation that the Gangetic belt was
undergoing were to act as an impetus for the spiritual revolution that
followed. The Gangetic plain became the centre of Indic civilisation and
the great cities like Sravasthi, Saketa, Kosambi, Varanashi, Rajgir were to
become important centres of trade and industry during Gautamas time.
At the end of his life's long journey, as the Buddha lay dying, ill and
exhausted, his disciples overcome with grief, he advised Ananda, his chief
disciple, who wept bitterly, dont be sorrowful, dont grieve; for years, you
have waited on me with constant love and kindness; you have taken care
of my physical needs, and have supported me in all your words and
thoughts. As the bhikkshus were still inconsolable, the Buddha gave his
final sermon: "nothing is permanent and separation is the law of life." His
last words contained the eternal kernel of life and and he counselled his
followers not to grieve, knowing the ultimate truth of death, saying,

"whoever is born, has to die (in Bengali, it would read.ja janmay, tai
khoy)."