The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Axial Age Thought


Pages 12

Painting represening Adi Sankara
Adi Sankara – The great Advaita philosopher
and commentator on the Upanishads

The concept of reincarnation is also found among some Native Americans, the Trobriand Islanders, and in West Africa. The idea was also attributed to Pythagoras, Socrates and other Axial-age philosophers of ancient Greece – descendants of the

The idea of Karma contributed to the ethicizing of rebirth. Karma was like a physical law, and even the gods were subjected to it. It meant that every individual inexorably gets what he or she deserves. Moral deeds determine one’s status at reincarnation. The Upanishads teach that what a man turns out to be depends on how he acts and conducts himself. What happens to one is a consequence of one’s own choice and behavior and one’s present condition reflects previous acts in previous reincarnations. To be reborn as a God or a Brahmin is rare and requires a great deal of Karmic merit. Human birth is precious because as humans we have the unique opportunity to affect our existence through conscious choice.

The power of sacred ritual action (Brahmin) as a way to be in touch with the sacred worlds no longer sufficed. Now sages wanted to know the true nature of Brahman, the deep reality that was the basis of religious practice and the very foundation of life.

The Axial sages thought this knowledge would confer liberation. In the Upanishads they sought the nature of ultimate reality and questioned the true nature of the self. They were seeking something immortal, redefining the pre-Axial term for breath “Atman” to mean something equivalent to “soul” that does not die when the body dies, but has always existed. They claimed that confusing the distinction between the lower senses of body and mind etc. and Atman, the higher self, brings anguish and suffering to the human being.

By the mid-Axial age Atman and Brahman had converged and the sages concluded that the soul is identical with ultimate reality itself. Maya, the veil over reality that deceives us into thinking and acting in self-centered ways, separates us from Brahman and Atman and traps us in samsara.

The main problem of the Hindu Axial Age was how to attain Moksha – the complete release from the clutches of continuous birth and death, the end of reincarnation. In search of this men and women of all castes were moved en masse to give up everything – renunciation was seen as the only hope for a life of freedom and fulfillment. Known as Samanas, there were so many of them that they were regarded as a fifth caste. These ascetics and sages lived alone in caves or forests, or with their families in communities supported by those who felt unable to search for Moksha in this way.

Photo of a statue of Shiva
A statue of Shiva in yogic meditation.

As the Hindu religion evolved through the Axial period an understanding grew that people are at different stages of their spiritual journey and that the practices of one person might not be appropriate for another. So the worship of deities continued alongside the search for Brahman. Hindu gods with multiple arms or heads, some blue or elephant-like are simultaneously human and not human. Their function is to remind Hindus that Brahman transcends the human capacity of thought and experience, and to point beyond the human-made image towards ultimate reality.
These deities are manifestations of Brahman and conduits to Brahman.

There are 330 Hindu Gods, and a Hindu can pick his or her Ista-Devata – personal deity of choice. These images, to this day, help devotees by allowing them to feel close to divine reality and to feel that it is concerned about them. During festivals, such as Darsan, images of deities are fed, dressed and honored, and finally at the end of the festival, destroyed, in recognition of the fact that Reality is beyond the image. The images are mere metaphors created by humans to help them on their journey towards Brahman, the one true Reality.