Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Great Transformation

The Great Transformation: the Beginning of our Religious Traditions
© 2006 Karen Armstrong
469 pages

I looked forward to reading this book, and my expectations were met. Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation is a historical narrative detailing the creation of four of the most influential religious and philosophical traditions to date -- Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, transcendental monotheism in Israel, and rationalism in Greece. She begins by examining the state of the "axial peoples" who lived in a time of transition -- when cities were becoming civilizations, and the thoughts of a few becoming the codified belief-systems of a few. The book is both a history book in its own right and one on the formation of these religious and philosophical traditions.

She begins where civilization began -- the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates -- and moves to Iran before focusing on the first axial people, the Indian "Aryans". Beginning with the chapter "Ritual", Armstrong devotes a single chapter each to a number of themes that may sum up the growing traditions -- detailing thoughts on knowledge, suffering, cosmic unity, and the like. Each of the four civilizations gets its due in every chapter, although some traditions may dominate a given theme: the teachings of Buddha, for instance, are covered in more detail than the others in "Suffering". The book ends with comments on how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each built on parts of those traditions, connecting ancient religions to more contemporary ones. (Armstrong's treatment of Israel reminded me of Isaac Asimov, and like him she makes a distinction between early Hebrew monotheism (which he called "Yahvism") and Judaism. The book's ending chapter. Also in the interests of connecting the old with the new, Armstrong summarizes her books and emphasizes the common themes that connected the axial traditions -- particularly empathy for all humans.

Armstrong writes quite well, creating a compelling narrative that seems to be quite well-informed. She keeps her various chapters and sections-within-chapters connected to one another in such a way that the reader doesn't lose focus, but instead keeps her thesis in mind. I enjoyed the book very much. I think I may obtain a personal copy sometime in the future.

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