Wednesday, January 19, 2011

God and Glory - Part 3: The Post Axial Age

Post Axial Age saw the clash of civilizations as big empires and religions fought for supremacy. From internal and spiritual growth, people became more focused on worship as frequent wars bred insecurity. It was also the beginning of an era where polytheism gave way to monotheism. Worship of one god appealed to masses and made religion accessible to more human beings. Two of the most popular religion in the world, Christianity (29-32% of world population) and Islam (19-23%), began in this era. Both these religions are monotheist religions. The only old religions that are still flourishing are Hinduism (14-17%) and Buddhism (7-18%). The probable reason for them to survive is because they evolved. This post is not meant to hurt anyone's sentiments, but reveal an honest and unbiased  history of God that includes true stories of great men like Jesus and Mohammad. 

In Hinduism it was the bhakti yug or the era of worship, which focused on appeasement and adoration of deities whose grace can realize desire or change destiny. Hindus developed the philosophy of Trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. They were the three symbols or aspects (creation, sustenance and destruction) of a single, ineffable reality - the Brahmana or super-conciousness. The philosophy evolved towards a single god, and everything being part of Brahmana. Even human beings were believed to be part of the ultimate truth, and it is ignorance that creates the feeling of separation.

Buddhism also evolved, but in a different fashion. During 1st century BC, a new kind of Buddhist hero emerged in both India and China: the bodhisattva, who sacrificed himself for the sake of people. This idea of self sacrifice of a sage to clean the sins of his followers was similar to the idea later found in Christianity. However there were also few followers of Buddhism who made Buddha himself a god and started worshiping him. Thus Buddha, who taught that devotion to god was not necessary for enlightment, was himself made into a monotheist god.

The major events occurring in this era was the birth of Christianity and Islam. In 70 BC the Jews had a religious crisis as Romans captured Palestine and destroyed the second temple. In the middle of that crisis was born a charismatic faith healer. Born somewhere in Galilee in the time of the Emperor Augustus, of a humble family, was Jesus of Nazareth. We know little about the real Jesus. The first full length account of his life is mentioned in St Mark’s Gospel. It was written down in 70AD, forty years after his death. By that time facts were overlaid with myths. Jesus and his followers revolted against the Roman rule that tried to subdue the Jews. This resistance made the Romans angry, and they executed Jesus on political charges. But the disciples of Jesus Christ could not believe that their faith in him was misplaced. Rumors spread about the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was called as the son of god who died for the sins of people. Thus was born a new faith called Christianity. It appealed to the people of Rome and started spreading. Even the Roman king Constantine was converted to Christianity. As the new religion stabilized under Constantine (400th century) new problems began to creep up. Some people argued that Jesus was the son of god, and thus not god himself, while others argued that he himself was god. And thus was born the concept of Trinity according to which the Father, the Son (incarnate in Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit, were part of the same God. God was infinite and his presence was felt through the actions of Jesus Christ. However, there was a small minority of people who differed. Many Jews could not adapt to this new form of faith as it did not resemble theirs. To them Malachi (420 BC) was the last messiah and YHWH was their only god. By making Jesus the only Avatar Christians adopted an exclusive notion of religious truth. Jesus was the first and last word of god to the human race who rendered further revelations unnecessary. Consequently, like Jews, even the Christians were scandalized when a prophet arose in Arabia during seventh century who claimed to have received a direct revelation from god and to have brought a new scripture to his people.

Born in 570 in the Arabian city of Mecca, Mohammad ibn ‘Abdullāh was orphaned at an early age and brought up under the care of his uncle Abu Talib. Every year, in the month of Ramadan, he used to take his family to Mount Hira, just outside the city, to make a spiritual retreat. He was aware of a worrying malaise in Mecca. Despite recent success, these people spend a harsh nomadic lifestyle just two generations earlier. They suddenly became extremely successful in trading and became rich beyond their wildest dreams. People felt obscurely disoriented and lost. Discontented with life in Mecca, he retreated to a cave in Mount Hira for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs it was here, at age 40, in the month of Ramadan, where he received his first revelation from God. Unlike the Torah, which according to bible was revealed to Mosses in one session on Mount Sinai, Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad bit by bit, line by line, verse by verse over a period of 23 yrs. These revelations form the verses of the Qur'an, regarded by Muslims as the “Word of God” and around which the religion is based. To Mohammad al-Lah, the high god of ancient Arabian pantheon which simply meant ‘the Divine’, was identical to the god worshiped by Jews and Christians. He did not believe that he was founding a new religion, but saw himself bringing the old religion of one God, to his people. As Muhammad gained few followers early on, he was met with hostility from some Meccan tribes; he and his followers were treated harshly. To escape persecution, Muhammad sent some of his followers to Abyssinia before he and his remaining followers in Mecca migrated to Medina in the year 622. This event, the Hijra, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, which is also known as the Hijri Calendar. In Medina, Muhammad united the conflicting tribes, and after eight years of fighting with the Meccan tribes, his followers, who by then had grown to 10,000, conquered Mecca. In 632, a few months after returning to Medina from his farewell pilgrimage, Muhammad fell ill and died. By the time of his death, most person of the Arabian Peninsula were converted to Islam; and the prophet had united the tribes of Arabia into a single Muslim religious polity.

With Muhammad's death, disagreement broke out over who would succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. The disputes over religious and political leadership continued despite the rapid expansion of Muslim empire which made the Christians insecure. This lead to a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns against the Muslims, fought between 1095 and 1291 AD, known as the Crusades. The Crusades originally had the goal of recapturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule and their campaigns were launched in response to a call from the Christian Byzantine Empire for help against the expansion of the Muslim Seljuk Turks into Anatolia. But the Islam survived the crusades. They continued to flourish. The success made the Muslims convinced that they were the men of god and thus they started to destroy the old pagan faiths which thought otherwise. They went on rampage looting the people following pagan faith and breaking their idols of worship. They raided the Hindus and Buddhist living in Central Asia and India. In 1193 the Iranian Ghurid dynasty spreads to Delhi and established the second Muslim rule in India after Mahmud of Ghazni (999-1030). Turkish slave dynasty defeated the Ghurids and establishes Sultanate of Delhi. But soon these small dynasties will face the Mongol threat. 

In the Far East Mongol chieftain Genghis Khan was building a world empire, and a clash with the fast growing Islamic kingdoms was inevitable. The Mongols were much more powerful. In the beginning of 13th century the Mongols raided one great Muslim city after another. They demolished the cities and left a trail of corpses behind. Refugees fled to Syria, Egypt and India. Unlike the Arab Muslims the Mongols had no religious affinity. They used to capture and destroy cities and then once the enemy was subjugated, they had a policy of rebuilding the cities on local traditions. Hence, by the end of 13th and beginning of 14th century most Mongol empires had converted to Islam. A Mongol named Babar migrated to India and started the Moghul rule that reached its peak under Akbar (1542-1605 AD). Many other Muslim empires flourished during 14th and 15th century. One of the most successful and enduring of them was the Ottoman Empire. In 1453 under Mehmed II the Ottomans Turks defeated the Byzantine Empire.

The fall of the Byzantine Empire brought many other Greek scholars to Italy and beyond, who brought with them Greek manuscripts, and knowledge of the classical Greek literature, some of which had been lost for centuries in the West. This lead to the rediscovery of the rational civilization of the ancient time that was once lost. Historians call it the ‘Renaissance’, meaning ‘rebirth’ in French. It was going to have fateful consequences for the rest of the world and especially for god. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of legends like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The progress in the arts and humanities were mirrored by a dynamic period of change in science. Perhaps the most significant development of the era was not a specific discovery, but rather a process for discovery, the scientific method. Early and influential proponents of these ideas included Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and René Descartes. The new scientific methods led to great contributions in the fields of astronomy, physics, biology, and anatomy. This also lead to development of powerful war machines. The growth of science and technology lead to the industrialization of the West. The process of westernisation had begun, and with it the cult of secularism that claimed independence of god. 

By the beginning of 19th century, atheism was definitely on the agenda. This was the century in which Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud forged philosophies and scientific interpretations of reality which had no place for god. The impact of this change on society was enormous. The first Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, merged into the Second Industrial Revolution around 1850, when technological and economic progress gained momentum with the development of steam-powered ships, railways, and later in the 19th century with the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation. The old agrarian society was dependent on many local factors like climate, soil, crop etc. As an agrarian empire grew and reached its peak power it inevitably outran its limited resource and began to fall. The growth of industrialized west was however independent of such local conditions. Thus the potential for growth was unlimited as it gave them the opportunity to exploit and become rich at the expense of other  The rapid development of Europe led to rapid increase in population. Thus, the Europeans began to move out of Europe and spread to all parts of the world. The very nature of their achievement meant it was very difficult for the rest of the world to catch up. The British had gained controlled over India by defeating the Mongols in 1857 and were poised to colonize as much of the world as possible. The great Islamic era was over and their kingdom was taken over by the Europeans. In the beginning of 20th century the last of the Islamic Empire – the Ottoman Empire- was defeated in World War I.

The old pagan religions were tolerant of all faiths, but the new monotheist religions aren’t, and this lead to many religious wars. There had been wars between Jews, Christians and Muslims, there has also been fights between catholic and protestant Christians and between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. The faith of atheism, which grew with the westernization, was also not tolerant. The new found power of industrialization made the West feel superior and lead to exploitation the agrarian societies. The industrialized countries started to fight amongst themselves for power leading to the two world wars. It also lead to the nuclear armament of countries. But one thing that happened with industrialization was that God lost its importance. No longer was a god necessary to explain the miracles of nature, to heal wounded, to cure diseases. Science has taken his place. And thus god was slowly, but surely dying. A new, deadlier, idea took shape. In this modern world it was a much more powerful tool to unite people and thus continue the ancient motto of survival. This new idea is called 'nationalism'. Again, not unsurprisingly, it was (and still is) state sponsored. The wars between nations only helped strengthened the idea of nationalism. Unlike monothiest religions which believes that there is only one true god and that is the god that I worship, nationalism accepts that there are many nations but believes that my nation is the best. 

In the beginning of 21st century, just when people thought that god was dead, two aeroplanes crushed into the World Trade Center. God was back on the agenda. The world woke up to new threat of terrorism. This form of terrorism is not new. Whenever a religion has felt threatened it retaliated with fundamentalism. The growth of Islamic kingdoms in 11th to 13th century made the Christians insecure and lead to the crusades. Now the tables are turned. The West had established their powerful kingdom by defeating the Muslims, and it is the Muslims who are now insecure. Their great civilization has ended. This insecurity made it easier to brainwash poor, unhappy and innocent young Muslims and create a new form of fundamentalism- the Jihad. The real cause is not a religious war, but rather a dirty politics. It is not only the Muslims; there are various small groups of Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who are trying to bring back the days of God, and turning to fundamentalism in that process. The fight is on, but the glorious days of God is long gone.

Albinia Alice, 2009, Empires of the Indus – The story of a river, John Murray
Armstrong Karen, 1993, A History of God, Ballantine Books
Armstrong Karen, 2000, The Battle for God-A History of Fundamentalism, Ballantine Books
Armstrong Karen, 2006, Islam- A Short History, Phoenix Press
Pattanaik Devdutt, 2006, Myth = Mithya: A Handbook Of Hindu Mythology, Penguin India

You React:


  1. have a look at my post...
    On the concept of God…

  2. Because I could not contain my curiosity, I jumped right in from Part II. This is a good briefing of Ages.

    Science, however, may seem to have eclipsed the god(s) of religion, the fact to be reckoned with is that many scientists by and large are religious and they somehow enter their labs/hypothesis with preconceived notions/beliefs. So the so-called empiricism is to be questioned. Science, like religion, can be used for good and, in the absence of well-defined ethics, evil. The mother of all curses is atheism and those political isms/ideologies are ripe with the destructive fundamentalism that once belonged only to religion, thanks to our lust for power and politics. It's more like gods after all wanted to remain silent and out of the picture, and we are here in our modern caves externally (technologically) evolved, but internally (mentally) either devolved or plateaued.

  3. well are right...I generally prefer to seperate god/religion from
    spirituality. Spirituality, to me, is the quest to know the truth. that
    search to know the truth has evolved for over 4000yrs before the more rigid
    monotheism took over. years later, in 1700AD science developed. It is only
    300 years old and still very young. we should give it time to evolve, infact
    it is evolving from 'classical' to a 'quantum' perspective. At the end it is
    not much different from Spirituality, both are the ques to know the truth.
    Science will mature further with time. In Spiritual terms we are all part of
    the same power/nature/universe/cosmos/God...etc....

    Religion, or a god (that is separate from us, one who is the creater and
    destroyer of universe), however has more political meaning. it is generally
    associated with rules and rituals, thus creating that 'sense of separation'.
    Pure rigid atheism is also similiar to that. That 'sense of separation' is
    the root cause of all the 'evil'....


  4. I couldn't agree more with you on spirituality. With the 'sense of separation' that you mention, it's easy to see how the concept of 'otherness'  creeps into our collective psyche and poisons it.

    Also I see how science is inseparable from spirituality. At this juncture, I'm reminded of this film called Contact. Cheers!

  5. have not seen that recommend it?

  6. Yes, I highly do. For all its navel-gazing, it's a neatly crafted film, written for screen by the astronomer - Carl Sagan, also it stars Jodie Foster at one of her finest performances

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