The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong
A look at the traditions emerging in India and China and considering these against the traditions of the Greeks and the Hebrews that ultimately developed into Natural Law. My purpose is not to demonstrate the superiority of any one vs. the other; more so, to consider these as foundations for a culture conducive to liberty as we have come to understand this concept in the West.
There is value in this, I believe, on many levels: is liberty – as westerners consider the term – universal? Is it possible to build liberty – as westerners understand the term – on other cultural foundations? These are worth considering, if for no other reason than to develop an appreciation for the value of culture and tradition – a specific culture and tradition – in developing and sustaining liberty.
Note: I do not say that those who do not come from a Christian tradition cannot or will not find or value liberty as Westerners understand the term. But if we believe at all that the foundation matters to the long-term health of a structure, well…then the foundation matters.
You are free to believe that the foundation of a structure is irrelevant to the long-term health of that structure. But, then, you won’t be free for long – and I strongly prefer that you don’t take the rest of us down with you. That others from outside of this foundation also value the structure is a different issue entirely.
On to Armstrong: in the sixth century BC, a new philosophy was emerging in India: Samkhya – meaning discrimination, reflection, or discussion. This philosophy would become extremely influential in India – almost every other school would adopt some of its ideas. While a sixth-century sage, Kapila, would be credited with its invention, it is not even certain that such a person existed.
While the Greeks were oriented to the external world, Samkhya looked within:
The supreme reality of the Samkhya system was purusha (the “person” or “self”). …Every single human being had his or her own individual and eternal purusha…. purusha was impossible to define because it had no qualities that we could recognize.
It was the essence of human beings, but it was not a soul; it had nothing to do with our mental or physical states; it had no intelligence and no desires; our ordinary waking selves were oblivious to its existence.
The root of our unhappiness was our sense of ego, trapping us in a false sense that had nothing to do with our eternal purusha. When we say “I,” we think we are representing our entire being, but this being was subject to time – not eternal; it yearned for liberation. It was ignorance of this eternal purusha that held us back.
…sacrifice was useless. The gods were also imprisoned by nature, so it was pointless to ask for their help.
Two important contributions to Indian spirituality were offered: first, all life was suffering (unsatisfactory, awry). People died, became ill, lost their beauty and vitality. The second contribution was yoga – offered as one of India’s greatest achievements. Designed to release the purusha from the entanglement of nature, it was a systematic assault on the ego.
To show one’s spiritual ambition, one first had to move through a long preparation. Yogic exercise was not permitted until an extensive moral training was mastered: harmlessness to all of creation; stealing and lying were forbidden as were sex and intoxicating substances.
From here, one would master the ability to sit: straight-backed, legs crossed, completely motionless for hours at a time. Breathing must be controlled – pausing as long as possible, such that one appeared to stop breathing altogether. Once the physical was conquered, the mental came next: the concentration on one point, until the “I” slowly disappeared from his thinking.
Yogins did not believe that they were touched by a god; there was nothing supernatural about these experiences. …these men of the Axial Age were achieving an ecstatic “stepping out” of the norm by becoming more fully aware of their own nature.
Their nature was fully realized when the “I” and the “mine” completely disappeared. Yet, a spiritual vacuum would open up. Karma would depress society: one felt doomed to one transient life after another – with this eternal purusha moving from being to being upon the death of its host. Even good karma couldn’t save them – as all around they saw only pain and suffering.
Further, yoga was not available to all – demanding hours of effort every day, and this after the countless hours necessary to achieve mastery. Householders need not apply – there was no time.
Meanwhile, in the mid-sixth century BC in China, Kong Qiu came on the scene, better known to us as Confucius. China’s Axial Age was about to begin.
Confucius was incensed at the illicit performance of royal rites:
“The Way makes no progress,” he lamented. …As a commoner, he could not establish the dao; only a king could do that. But he could educate a band of holy informed men who would instruct the rulers of China in the Way and recall them to their duty.
No solitary ascetic, Confucius was a wandering scholar who enjoyed fine wine and a good dinner. He did not develop his thoughts through introspection, but through conversation with others. He is described as both kind and brilliant.
After marveling at the somewhat daunting attainments of the yogins, it is a relief to turn to Confucius, whose Way, properly understood, was accessible to anybody.
For Confucius, everyone had the potential to become a fully developed human being – this can be seen as the proper end or purpose for humans in the Aristotelian sense. A proper study of the Way could lead anyone to become a gentleman – a mature or profound person. This was no longer limited to the princes or nobility.
Confucius felt that the Way was once perfectly practiced, but no longer. Most princes never gave the dao a second thought – instead chasing after luxury and pursuing their selfish ambitions.
But Confucius did not concern himself with a chase of heaven, instead seeing the Way in terms of action in this world. Metaphysics and theological chatter were not for him. “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?”
Like the Indian sages, Confucius saw the ego as the source of human pettiness and cruelty. Unlike the Indian sages, Confucius saw that the way to overcome this was via practice – actual practice of proper behavior toward others, and not by sitting still in one position for hours at a time. Confucius was looking at man’s actions toward his fellow man.
Treat others with absolute sacred respect. Start with close family, then friends, then grow the circle and grow more circles. He was the first, perhaps, to articulate something approaching the Golden Rule: “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” More like the Silver Rule, but still a foundational moral precept.
From this limited introduction, it seems clear that the work of these Indian sages offers an example of an inward focus – the end result might be a peaceful community if enough people choose this life, but the entire focus was internal: man was the means through which he would achieve his own perfection. Yet if man is the standard or measuring stick, he has already influenced the answer merely by being in the game.
In answer to the Indian sages, Christianity offers Jesus Christ as the measuring stick – the standard at which we are to aim – the Form of the Good made manifest. Man as the standard leaves room for manipulation and control.
Confucius, on the other hand, offered the Way – something similar to what we know as Natural Law, committed to other-considering behavior. C. S. Lewis makes this point clearly. Yet Confucius was missing something: an answer to the question “Why? On whose authority?”
In answer to Confucius, Christianity offers two concepts: man is made in God’s image; this answers the why. Jesus came as the Form of the Good made manifest; this answers on whose authority. This combination of concepts are found in no other tradition or religion. Without these as unquestioned foundations, any concept of liberty as a westerner might understand it is built on sand.