The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Axial Age Thought


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Most scholars believe that during the second millennium BCE, the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans migrated gradually south from the Central Asian steppes, through the lands of modern-day Afghanistan, where they encountered the remains of the older The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, and infiltrated the Indian subcontinent about 1500 BCE.

Map of South Asia

Between 1500 - 1200 BCE the Rig Veda “Knowledge in Verse” was written down in an early form of Sanskrit called Vedic. This is the most prestigious portion of the Vedic Scriptures and became the text upon which Hinduism, one of the great Axial religions, was developed. It contains over a thousand songs to gods and goddesses divided into ten books. The content of these hymns includes praises, blessings, and sacrifices. Proper pronunciation of each letter is to this day given extreme importance in Rig-Veda recitation. Every sound and letter has a deep meaning attached; hence they must be properly used. It is probable that the texts were chanted at religious ceremonies and the participants transported thereby into another state of consciousness.

These sacred texts were revealed to rishis, the seers of ancient times, and as such were absolutely authoritative and divine, having been passed down orally from generation to generation through seven priestly families.

While the Rig is the oldest of the Vedas, there are three other Vedas: the Sama Veda, or the “knowledge of chants”; the Yajur Veda or “knowledge of rites”, which serves basically as a “how to make sacrifices” book; and the Athara Veda, which represents the knowledge given by the sage Athara.

The Vedas were hymns of praise and sacrifice that gave assistance to the gods who would in return ensure cosmic regeneration. They were compiled after a period of about 500 years during which the Aryan have assimilated indigenous religious ideas as well. The Vedas helped shape Indian society, which basically consisted of Brahmin Priests, or Brahmin warriors, producers and servants. Both the Rig Veda and Vedic literature were influential in the development of the caste system.

By about 1,000 BCE the Aryans began to settle in towns, became farmers and were in contact with non-Aryan peoples. Over the next four centuries, with their numbers increasing, they began to expand into cities. Aryan traders, merchants, landlords appeared, as did money-lenders. They began trading with Arabia, the empire of the Assyrians, and later with China, the Malay Peninsula and the islands of what are now Indonesia and the Philippines. By 600 BCE numerous cities had arisen in northern India – cities with fortifications, moats and ramparts to protect them from war. In northern India along the Ganges River, sixteen different kingdoms had emerged.

Map of southeast asia

This expansion of the Indo-Aryans into the Gangetic plains brought with it changes in thinking, diversity of opinion and questioning of the status quo.
As their material success increased, people began to question its ultimate value. In addition, there was rising doubt about the value of ritual that began to be associated with resentment of the Brahmin’s monopoly of religious practice. As people became less interested in religious routine and ritual sacrifice their focus changed to questions about the self and its relationship to the universe. Vedic notions were retained but adapted, reinterpreted and expanded to include Hindu changes. Between 800 - 600 BCE religious life changed as Classical Hinduism and the advent of the Axial Age arrived in India.

Map of the Indo_Gangetic Plain
Schematic map of the Indo-Gangetic Plain

This new interest was expressed in contemplative writings called the Upanishads, a collection of as many as two hundred books written across two centuries. The Upanishads became the basis of Hinduism, serving as a summary of all of the knowledge of the Vedas as well as a commentary on them. Some contributors to the Upanishads repeated beliefs already expressed in the Vedas, such as, every living thing has a spirit, and all spirits are able to migrate in and out of things. But now the Hindus saw death as the passing of one’s own spirit into another new being, reincarnated in a continuous series of births, deaths and rebirths – called samsara, “wandering”. Where a spirit or soul went after death depended upon how well the person had behaved in a previous life. Good actions led to a soul reincarnating to a higher form of life; bad actions led to the soul entering a lower form of life.

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