Saturday, September 02, 2006

** Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

The first section of this book was very enlightening on the prehistory of the Indo-Europeans and the Chinese, and their cultural/religious development from the bronze age forward. I have to admit that I couldn’t finish the book. After the ancient historical period discussions, it delves into theological minutiae from my standpoint. I would highly recommend the first 100 pages.

We’re all one big happy – Caucasian – family.
The Aryans were originally pastoralists from the steppes of southern Russia. They had lived on these Caucasian steppes since about 4500. They were a loose knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. They spoke a language that would form the basis of several European and Asiatic tongues; they are also called the Indo-Europeans or Caucasians. By the 3rd millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. Those Aryans who stayed behind on the steppes drifted apart from the western cousins. The Western branch spoke an Avestan dialect, and the Eastern branch spoke an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 they continued to live peacefully. P3

The Aryans could not travel far because the horse had not yet been domesticated. They farmed their land, herded their sheep, goats, pigs, and valued stability and continuity. They were not a warlike people, they had no enemies and no ambition to conquer new territory. Their religion was simple and peaceful… They called their gods Devas (the shining ones) and Amesha (the immortals). P4

The Aryans felt very close to their cattle. It was sinful to eat the flesh of a beast that had not been consecrated, because profane slaughter destroyed its spirit forever, and thus violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin. P5

There goes the neighborhood.
This slow uneventful life came to an end when the Aryans discovered modern technology. In about 1500, they had begun to trade with the more advanced societies of Mesopotamia and Armenia. They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and about the carts pulled by oxen, and war chariots. Once they learned how to tame wild horses, and harness them to the chariot, they experienced the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops… These new class of fighters killed, plundered, and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans. Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. P7

The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in chariot upon the clouds. P7

The mark of Zoro
To the Aryans, events on earth always represented cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype. The cattle rustlers who fought under Indra’s banner, must be his earthly counterparts. But who were the devas attacking in heaven? The most important gods – such as Varuna, Mazda and Mithra, the guardians of order – perhaps were under attack by Indra. This was the visionary view of a priest who claimed that Mazda himself had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes. His name was Zoroaster. P8

Zoroaster’s vision convinced him that Mazda was not simply one of the great gods, but that he was the Supreme god [precursor of monotheism?]. This was not quite monotheism. Zoroaster had probably reached this position by meditating on the creation story which claimed that in the beginning there had been 1 plant, 1 animal, and 1 human being. It was only logical to assume that originally there had been 1 god. P8

The world seemed polarized because Indra and the cattle rustlers had nothing in common with Lord Mazda, they must have given their allegiance to a different set of gods… The unprecedented violence in the steppes had caused Zoroaster to divide the ancient Aryan pantheon into warring groups. Good men and women must no longer offer sacrifice to Indra. Instead they must commit themselves entirely to Lord Mazda… The whole of life had now become a battlefield in which everyone had a role. Even women and servants could make a valuable contribution. P9-10

Apocalypse Then and Now
No battle could last forever… The world was rushing toward a cataclysm. He and his followers were living in a ‘bounded time’ of cosmic conflict, and soon they would witness the final triumph of good and the annihilation of the forces of darkness… There would be a great judgment. The wicked would be wiped off the face the earth, and a blazing river would flow into hell and incinerate the Hostile Spirit… We are now familiar with this kind of apocalyptic vision, but before Zoroaster there had been nothing like it in the ancient world. P10

Where have all of the Zorastrians gone?
By the end of the 2nd millennium the Avestan Aryans had settled in Eastern Iran, where Zoroastrianism became the national faith. It has remained a predominantly Iranian religion ever since, and still has followers to this day. P12

Welcome to India!
Some Sanskrit speaking Aryans migrated south, through Afghanistan and settling finally in the fertile lands of the Punjab. The called their new home the Land of the 7 Rivers (referring to the tributaries of the Indus and Ganges)… Our only sources of information on this period are the ritual texts composed in Sanskrit, known collectively as the ‘Vedas’ (knowledge)… The Aryan migration into the Punjab was neither a mass movement nor a military invasion. There is no evidence of fighting, resistance, or widespread destruction. When they arrived, they would have seen the remains of a previous civilization – the Harrapans. At the height of its power in 2300-2000BC, this ancient Indian empire had been larger than either Egypt or Mesopotamia at the same time. P13

By the time they established themselves in the Punjab, the cult of Indra was becoming the Supreme God… This was an age scarcity; the only way that the Aryans could establish themselves in the Indus Valley was by stealing the cattle of the indigenous settled communities. P15

Think you had it tough in school? When these guys were kids, there were no books or paper, and they had to first memorize their entire book before they could then memorize their book report – which was, of course, delivered orally.
Some stories of the Rig Veda (Knowledge in Verse) could be very old indeed, because by the time the Aryans arrived in India, its language was already archaic. The poems were transmitted orally for generations, and was not committed to writing until the 2nd millennium. We find it hard to believe that people were able to learn such lengthy texts, but the Vedic scriptures were transmitted with impeccable accuracy, even after the archaic Sanskrit had become almost incomprehensible. Even today, the exact tonal accents and inflections of the original , long lost language have been preserved [so we think], together with the ritually prescribed gestures of the arms and fingers. P16

The lives of the warriors and raiders alternated between village and forest/jungle. During the monsoon rains, they lived in the villages. But during the winter solstice they yoked their horses and oxen and set off into the wilderness on a new cycle of raids. The opposition of village and forest became a social paradigm in India. The inhabitants settled the land providing the crops and cattle that the warriors needed; yet they constantly feared attack from other cattle rustlers. The forest was where the warrior proved his valor and explored the unknown. Later hermits would retire to the forest to pioneer spiritual valor and to explore the metaphysical unknown. P17

Let’s party like it’s 1999 – BC that is.
If a community accumulated more animals and crops than it needed, this surplus had to be ‘burned up’. It was impossible for a nomadic group that was perpetually on the move to store these goods, and the potlatch [similar to the native Americans] was a rough and ready way of redistributing the wealth of society. The ritual also showed how successful the chief had been and enhanced his prestige. P18 The blowout parties after a round of financing are the modern day equivalent of the potlatch, and these companies ‘burned up’ investor cash in flagrant displays of wealth. Nothing really changes when it comes to human nature.

Umm, what’s for dinner?
Sacrifice increased the violence that was already endemic in the region. After it was over, the patron had no cattle left and would have to inaugurate a new series of raids to replenish his wealth. P19

A warriors entire life was a deadly, dangerous contest for food and wealth. Ever since the Aryans lived on the steppes, they believed that the best and wealthiest among them would join the gods in heaven. Now they were convinced that a warrior to died nobly in battle went immediately to the world of the gods. P19

Where did the caste system originate?
In the 10th century BC, the old egalitarian tribal structure [among the Aryan races living in Indo-European regions around present day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, north India] began to crumble, and an aristocracy of warrior families, known as the Kshatriyas (the empowered ones) became dominant. Those of less noble lineage, the Vaishyas (the clansmen), started to give up raiding and became farmers. When the Kshatriyas yoked their horses to their chariots at the beginning of the new raiding season, the vaishya stayed behind in the village. Like the Shudras, non-Aryan population, they now resembled the ‘asuras’, who stayed at home, and were fair game for plunder. P19

What were some of the first inklings of Indian religious thought?
During the late Vedic period (10th century BC), the Aryans developed the idea of Brahman, the supreme reality. Brahman was not a Deva (god), but a power that was higher, deeper, and more basic than the gods. Brahman was the fundamental principle that enabled all things to become strong and to expand. It was life itself. P24

Yin Yang thing
In China, circa 1500 BC, the men moved out of the village and took up permanent residence in huts in the fields; during the work season, they had no contact with their wives and daughters except when the women brought their meals. After the harvest, the land was laid to rest and the men moved back home… This was the sabbatical period for men, but the women who had less to do during the summer, now began their season of labor: weaving, spinning, and making wine. This alteration may have contributed to the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yin was the female aspect of reality. Its season was winter; its activity was interior and conducted in dark, closed off places. Yang, the male aspect, was active in summer and in daylight; it was an external, outgoing power, and its output was abundant. P29-30

Got ‘Mandate from Heaven’?
The mandate from Heaven would become an important ideal during Chinese history. If a ruler was selfish, cruel, and oppressive, Heaven would not support him, and he would fall. A state might appear to be weak and insignificant, but if its ruler was wise, humane, and truly concerned for the welfare of his subjects, people would flock to him from all over the world, and Heaven would raise him to the highest position. P35

Exodus or hocus pocus?
Excavations by Israeli archaeologists since 1967 however, don’t confirm the story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt, parting and crossing the Red Sea, wandering for 40 years, etc. They have found no trace of the mass destruction described in the book of Joshua, no signs of foreign invasion, no Egyptian artifacts, and no indication of a change in population… The general scholarly consensus is that the story of the exodus from Egypt is not historical. The biblical narrative reflects the conditions of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when most of these texts were written, rather than the 13th century… Many of the first Israelites were probably not foreigners but [indigenous] Canaanites… Israelites who lived under Egyptian rule in the coastal city states may have felt that they had indeed been liberated from Egypt – but in their own land. The biblical writers were not attempting to write a scientifically accurate account that would satisfy a modern historian. They were searching for the meaning of the existence. These [the biblical texts] were epic stories, national sagas that helped the people to create distinct identity. P39-40

Israelites worshippers celebrated ritualized sex in order to activate the sacred energy of the soil and bring a good harvest. We know that, to the disgust of their prophets, the Israelites took part in these sacred orgies well into the 8th century BC and beyond. P42-3

Some scholars believe that the book Joshua [actually] contains a record of the ancient spring festival at Gilgal, which celebrated the Israelites victorious crossing of the Jordan river. During the springtime, the ancient Jordan overflows the whole length of its banks. It appears that the water was specially dammed up for the festival, which commemorates a miracle. When Joshua had led the people to the brink of floodwater, he told them to stand still and watch what happened. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched the waters, they parted miracously, and the whole people crossed over safely, dry shod, and entered the promised land at Gilgal. P44 Does any of this sound just a tad similar to the exodus story? Nah, coincidence I’m sure. Give me a break.

How the Greeks got to know to the natives of Arizona’s capital.
One of the first trading partners for the ancient Greeks were the Canaanites from the northern coastal states, whom the Greeks called Phoenicians because they had a monopoly on the only colorfast purple (phoinix in Greek) dye in antiquity. At first the Greeks resented the Phoenicians, whose culture was far more sophisticated than their own. But by the 9th century, they had begun to work creatively together. The Phoenicians established a base in Cyprus, and their craftsmen came to work in Athens, Rhodes and Crete. Phoenician colonists began to open up the western Mediterranean and in 814 they established Carthage. They showed the Greeks the mercantile potential of the sea, and the Greeks began to make new foreign contacts in Syria. P52

Killing, pillaging, plundering takes a toll on your customer base, and generally makes for bad business. Especially for repeat customers!
By the 9th century, Aryan life was becoming more settled. The economy was beginning to depend more upon agriculture than raiding, and [we speculate] that that there was a growing consensus that the destructive cycle of raid and counter-raid had to stop. The traditional rites not only legitimized this pattern but gave it sacred significance. These rituals themselves often degenerated into real fighting, and one aggressive act led inexorably to another.

In the 10th century, the Brahmanas (scriptures) were making a courageous attempt to find a new source of meaning and value in a changing world [moving toward agriculture and away from raiding]. The priestly experts decided to make a systematic appraisal of the sacrificial liturgy, taking out any practice that was likely to lead to violence. Not only were they able to persuade the Kshatriyas to accept these expurgated rites, but their reform led to a spiritual awakening. P78

Finally, some of the later Indian/Vedic religious texts made a revolutionary suggestion. A person who was expert in the ritual lore need not take part in the external liturgy at all. Solitary meditation could be just as efficacious as the external rites. P84

Freedom is having your slave do everything for you.
Most Greek citizens owned land, and it was considered degrading to work for others or to earn a salary. Greek peasants, however, refused to give up their traditional freedoms, and the aristocrats created autonomous city states rather than large kingdoms that require local rulers to submit to an overlord. This ideal of independence was not a Greek invention. The Greeks probably preserved the old tribal assemblies and councils that other peoples abandoned when they developed larger states and empires. P103

As soon as he was married, a household was allowed to have a sacred fire in his own home and he could perform the daily rites that were a scaled down version of the reformed public liturgy… But some men took the extraordinary step of leaving their families, turning their back on society, and retiring to the forest… These renouncers put themselves beyond pale, but they became central to India’s spiritual quest. Henceforth, the renouncer, not the householder would become the agent of religious change. It was he, not the Brahmin priest, who shaped the next stage of Indian religious development. P120

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