Before 600 B.C. and the Axial Age, religion was a true child of its time. Civilizations were busy conquering nature and neighbors. As rulers evolved administration and technology, priests committed to sanction rules and anticipate/manipulate natural forces and divine powers. People resorted to worship and prayers to change the gods’ minds.
Astrology was the most developed discipline at that time, but priests used many other methods of divination. Astrology sticks out because it has a scientific touch. Astrologers derive logical conclusions from (Astrological) premises and verify them by experiences. The Babylonians equalled gods with cosmic forces (Babylon is the birthplace of Astrology). They even assigned numbers to their gods to include them in Astrological calculations.
The Axial Age changed all that. In fact, it turned religion upside down. Siddhartha Gautama played a major role in this revolution. Unlike his religious ancestors, he didn’t bother about the world. He even ignored its Creator. He was interested in three things only:
Who am I really?
What am I doing here?
How can I end my suffering?
Siddhartha Gautama was born from a rich and influential family. He knew first hand that neither wealth, power, fame, nor entertainment can cease suffering. Wealthy people lose their loved ones, famous people get sick, powerful people die, excitement is as fleeting as a fart, and success leaves us with new wants. He raised the million-dollar question: How to be happy independent of what’s going on in the world?
Logically, he could find that answer only within. Weary from many years of scavenging the depths of his mind for his true self, he sat down under a Buddhi tree and swore not to rise before he had answered the mother of all questions. “I make it or I die under this tree!” he vowed and – luckily for him and mankind – he succeeded. He became enlightened, discovered his true self, and turned into the Buddha.
Afterwards he taught other people how to be themselves. To keep people on the path of righteousness, he prohibited old-school religion – divination, sacrifices, worship, and even prayer.
Buddha kept rules simple: meditate an cultivate spiritual manners – that’s dharma. Meditation is the key, but we can’t have our eyes closed all the time. That’s where dharma comes in. The most important dharma is non-violence. But don’t think of it as a matter of morality – morality is old-school religion, remember? Non-violence paves the way for meditation. An angry or resentful mind can’t be calm, a calm mind can’t meditate, and a mind that can’t meditate can’t discover it’s true self.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, the Babylonians dragged half of the Jewish population into slavery (597-550 BCE). Spiritually speaking, this disaster was a blessing in disguise. The Jews came in contact with Babylonian Astrology and wisdom.
That they engaged with the Babylonians is indicated by the fact that Daniel became the master Astrologer in the Babylonian court. Paul Foster Case’s little book on this subject Daniel, Master of Magicians is inspiring.
Daniel had a splendid prophet as contemporary: Ezekiel, who had two great spiritual visions, which moved the focus from God to mankind. The first was the Celestial Chariot, which illustrates human personality as it exists in the four worlds. Mind that this vision is tinged with Astrological imagery. The second was the vision of the Third Temple – that’s perfected human personality. Mind that the key to the secrets of the Temple-Not-Made-With-Hands is hidden in its proportions, meaning spiritual math is involved.
It appears that Ezekiel and Daniel took Judaic religion to a new level. It is unclear what scriptures were available before their time, most likely a loose anthology of various religious stories. They took those and compiled them into the Torah. Also, they added a few Babylonian themes, e.g. the deluge, the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Life and Knowledge. The religious aura changed too: no more sacrifices, no more divination, and images of God were prohibited. Last but not least, Judaism got a monotheistic stamp – the break with old school religion was complete.
The Torah doesn’t discourage prayers explicitly, but it stands to reason that its un-manipulable God defies devotional begging. All stories of the Torah scream one basic message: God’s will shall be done and resistance is futile. Hence, prayers are futile as well. Do you dare to attempt changing God’s mind? Be my guest!
Buddha and Ezekiel agree: instead of chewing God’s ear off, better open your mind and listen to the still voice inside your heart. Let God pull you out (Moses) from a materialistic life-style (Egypt/suffering), free your from the tyranny of your ego (the pharaoh), and liberate your from the plagues (conquer karma).
At this juncture a comparison between Judaism and Buddhism is interesting. While Buddhism took on an atheistic flair, Judaism turned into a monohumanism. In Judaism meditation and way of life (dharma) went separate ways. The first became the way of the prophets and mystics, an esoteric-oral tradition accessible to initiates only. The oral tradition at that time became known asMerkhavah, honoring Ezekiel’s vision. The way of life, on the other hand, was seized by the scribes, who later became known as the Pharisees. We will revisit this schism in a minute.
Interestingly, something similar happened in China. The two great schools of Confucius (dharma) and Lao-tze (enlightenment) emerged and went separate ways.
Meanwhile in the neighbor country Persia, a great prophet gave rise to a religious tsunami: Zoroaster, who probably lived sometime between 625 and 550 BCE. As Ezekiel and Daniel, he changed Persian religion into a monotheism and put away with sacrifices and divination. Zoroaster moved the focus from God to enlightenment as well. He even came up with a redeemer myth, that of Saoshyant that resembles Jesus Christ’s story in a few details.
On a side note: I wouldn’t be surprised if Zoroaster and Ezekiel knew each other, but I couldn’t find any indications during my research.
Similar religious reformations occurred in many other countries during the Axial Age. In the 6th Century B.C. also the founders ofJainism lived and worked, who taught, like Buddha, the principles of non-violence, karma, and samsara (escape from suffering).
Noteworthy is also the rise of humanism in Greek philosophy, which put mankind at the center of concern. Priests inscribed the dictum Know Your Self on the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Mankind, know thyself, then thou shalt know the Universe and God! – An ancient Greek saying.
And let’s not forget Pythagoras, who lived from 570 B.C. to 495 B.C. In 414 B.C. he discovered sacred geometry and the Pythagorean triangle, a glyph that sums up the spiritual evolution of human personality as expounded so exquisitely by Paul Foster Case in his book The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order (page 48).
Fast forward: around five hundred years after the Axial Age, Jesus was born. At that time the schism between prophecy and religion has widened to a severe spiritual crisis. The Pharisees were following religious rules to the latter and thus deemed themselves perfect. Logically they rejected Jesus’ redemption teaching. But meditation is the key to enlightenment, not following rules. This ethical arrogance may have been Jesus’ greatest antagonist. His irritating rings in Matthew 23.13: You damn lawmakers, academics, and better-than-thous. You lost the key to the kingdom of heaven [enlightenment] and all you are doing now is preventing people from finding it.
It is possible that Jesus was educated by the Essenes, who were one of the few remaining custodians of the oral, mystical Judaic tradition. Jesus renewed the great religious synchronicity and re-introduced a spiritual way of life. That he agrees with Buddha on the ultimate value of meditation shows this remark: The kingdom of heaven is within!
Like Buddha, Jesus advertised non-violence and passive resistance:
Love your neighbors and even enemies as yourself!
Don’t oppose evil!
Give Cesar what is Cesar’s!
Leave karma (revenge) to God!
Ironically, the Pharisees were pedantic moralists, but not peaceful. They expressed resentment towards all non-Jews. TheseSeparatists even resented non-Phariesee-Jews. And they were quick to stone people who cherished different opinions. Well, they liked to crucify prophets too.
Jesus’ new way of life inspired countless people in the Roman Empire and for a while it seemed that the West would experience a rebirth of spirituality. Unfortunately, this did not last. When the church seized Christianity, the Gnostics (those who want to know God) were persecuted, enlightenment was banned into monasteries, and rules dictated religion again. Not surprisingly, the custom of praying – the attempt to manipulate God’s mind – was restored. Even worse, the church called upon God to justify wars and the persecution of spiritually minded people.
What now – 2,500 years after the Axial Age? After 2,000 years of spiritual suppression? Is prophecy possible in modern times? Do we need another Axial Age? What to do about bad old religious ways?
Let’s ignore them. Shadows on cave walls. Societies haven’t been as liberal as this since the rise of the Roman Empire. Of course, it could be better and there is still a lot of work to do, but the way is already paved. The Light has already won.
And we have all religious and spiritual traditions at our disposal: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, paganism, Zoroastrianism – you name it. It’s ours for the taking. We just need to keep at meditation and practice peaceful manners.
Mind that the schism between religion and spirituality isn’t just a historical issue. This conflict is rooted deeply in human psychology. Everybody who witnessed God and higher states of awareness came back with the same message: “Have a chat with God on a daily basis, realize who you truly are, and promote peace.” It sounds so logical and simple, but why don’t we follow suit? Because of die-hard subconscious patterns. Customs are older than religion and derived from experience. They are responses to nature’s harsh reality. Prophecy, on the other hand, reveals inner values that contradict common sense and can’t be proven. In short: we lack faith in intangibles.
Thus, the schism between religion and customs lingers strong. The result is cynicism. What people do during and between Sunday sermons are two different affairs.
A good example for the great divide between our weak religious faith and stubborn customs are feuds that still linger strong in Islamic and Christian countries. They may even be one of the emotional roots of terrorism. Yes – why on earth are Christians still revengeful?