Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World's Religions

Course No. 6312
Professor Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D.
Rhodes College
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Course No. 6312
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Course Overview

What could the beliefs and traditions of a Zoroastrian, a person of Jewish faith, a Buddhist, a follower of Confucius, or a Christian have in common? How do religions evolve over time?

This course offers a rare opportunity to relate your own spiritual questions to a variety of ancient quests for meaning and transcendence. In Religions of the Axial Age, Professor Mark W. Muesse shows you the historical conditions in which the world religions arose, while letting you see how they answered shared metaphysical and human dilemmas. He helps you think about specific traditions while pondering the common processes of religious development.

Not content to study religion merely from books, Professor Muesse has also observed and participated in these traditions in their native contexts, especially in South Asia. Thus his approach to the study of religion is not solely academic or historical but also reflects a deep respect for religious experience as it is felt and lived.

You will explore fascinating aspects of several major world religions at the time of their birth. Although Professor Muesse emphasizes the early religious traditions of Iran, South Asia, and China, he also shows how these compare, contrast, and contribute to contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

What Is the Axial Age?

Professor Muesse offers striking insights as he draws you closer to the period between 800 to 200 B.C.E., an era with notable parallels to our own. Using a term first coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers and recently popularized by the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, Professor Muesse calls this period the Axial Age because of its pivotal nature.

Through sacred texts, modern scholarship, and thoughts arising from his own personal experiences, Professor Muesse reveals what it meant to be a conscious, morally responsible individual in the Axial Age. For example, Confucius wanted to help politicians and civil servants do a better job of governing their countries; Buddha hoped to show men and women how to break free of suffering. You'll also examine the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia (now Iran); Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian subcontinent; and Confucianism and Daoism in China.

Zoroaster, Prophet of Personal Accountability

Was the Iranian prophet Zoroaster the first to conceive of the concepts of heaven and hell? Professor Muesse explains Zoroaster's vision of a blissful afterlife for those who sided with good, but a hellish afterlife for those who chose evil. Zoroaster may not have offered the first statement of an afterlife, but he may have been the first to hinge the eternal destiny of an individual to his or her worldly behavior. Moreover, for Zoroaster, humanity—and history itself—move in a direct, linear path toward a cosmic conclusion in which good ultimately triumphs, evil is annihilated, and paradise is established on Earth.

Zoroaster, who is also known as Zarathustra, taught that humans are responsible for the moral choices they make in a world where good and evil are locked in struggle. Zoroaster's apocalyptic vision may have been coupled with a bodily resurrection of the dead, in which those who had gone to heaven return again to Earth to continue life in physical form. If this were Zoroaster's belief, he would have been among the first—if not the first—to imagine such a fate.

The Wisdom of Ancient India

We're not the first people to ask the question, Is this all life has to offer? Professor Muesse shows us the longstanding centrality of this question in his extended exploration of the major religions of ancient India—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—during their formative stages.

Our journey first takes us to the indigenous Indus Valley civilization, a culture focused on agriculture, goddess worship, and fertility, and its encounter with tribal nomads called Aryans, believed by most scholars to be from Central Asia No one is certain how this encounter took place, but the fusion of cultures and beliefs profoundly altered Indian religion and provided the basis for the Hindu family of religions.

Eventually, as urbanization increased and some orders of society became wealthier, men and women began to wonder whether life had something more to offer. They questioned the emphasis on ritual and expressed concerns about the authority of the priests. The Upanishads, composed by a counter-cultural movement of mystics and ascetics, address questions of life, death, and the meaning of both. This concern with the fundamental meaning of life marks the rise of classical Hinduism and coincides with the Axial Age's beginnings in India.

A central element in the evolution of Hinduism was the widespread acceptance of the concept of samsara, the belief that individual beings undergo a series of births, deaths, and rebirths governed by the moral principle known as karma. In fact, virtually every school of philosophy or sect of religion that arises in India's history—including Buddhism and Jainism—takes samsara as the fundamental problem of existence, and each in its own way seeks to address it. This new religious concern reflects and shapes India's entrance into the Axial period.

Next, Professor Muesse takes you to northeastern India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., when many spiritual seekers had given up the comforts of home to seek enlightenment. They lived as hermits or apprenticed themselves to spiritual guides. Meditating and practicing ascetic disciplines, they sought a deep, internal understanding of reality's ultimate nature. You'll grasp the significance of the Buddha's life and thought as it emerged during this period. The Buddha advocated a strict if moderate regimen to break those habits perpetuating the illusion of selfhood and encouraging people to deny the world's impermanence. Learn about the Buddha's eightfold path to nirvana, a path that emphasizes the importance of acting ethically, developing virtue, and restraining both body and mind through the practice of meditation.

Like the Buddha, Mahavira, a founder of Jainism, achieved a visionary enlightenment after withdrawing from the luxury and temptations of the world. While he confronted similar issues, his own teachings gave innovative interpretations to the idea of the soul and karma. Jainism emphasizes the principle of ahimsa (doing no harm) and offers special practices for attaining personal liberation.

China and the Paths of Virtue and Nature

Our next stop is China, where we learn about Confucius and the mysteries of Daoism. Professor Muesse takes us inside China's earliest (pre-Axial Age) spiritual practices to give a context for the life and thought of Confucius—as well as Laozi, who was probably a fictional character invented by the philosophers of Daoism. Muesse explains that although Daoism arose in opposition to the ideas of Confucius, both systems of thinking can simultaneously coexist in the Chinese mind along with the ancient beliefs and rituals of Chinese folk religion and the later, imported wisdom of Buddha.

Confucianism and Daoism both draw a connection between public and private (state and family) harmony and governance. Confucius and his early followers, however, saw the cultivation of virtue as a cultural, human activity emphasizing study and ritual. The early Daoists aligned the self with a larger, ultimately harmonious natural order. They advocated accepting change as inherent to the way of nature. Eventually, Confucianism and Daoism were institutionalized and the philosophies of the founders went through considerable reinterpretation.

Professor Muesse's final lecture offers reflections on a central question of the course: What does the study of the Axial Age teach us about religion as a phenomenon in our lives?

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    What Was the Axial Age?
    During the years from 800 to 200 B.C.E., unprecedented developments occurred in four centers of civilization: West Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and the northwestern Mediterranean. Individuals were faced with an array of issues stirred up by increased urbanization, political instability, and the emergence of self-consciousness. x
  • 2
    The Noble Ones
    The people in northwestern India and eastern Iran were closely related, spoke similar languages, and held common religious beliefs. This lecture explores the culture and religion of Indo-Iranians prior to their split into two separate groups. The foundational scriptures of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism give us a glimpse of the Indo-Iranians' gods, moral and social structures, cosmology, and rituals. x
  • 3
    The World of Zoroaster
    As Indo-Iranian nomads learned horsemanship, chariot warfare, and the use of bronze from the Mesopotamians, they began stealing cattle and robbing nearby settlements. Zoroaster, one of the founders of Axial religions, addressed the violence of his time by urging respect for order and teaching that humans must assume moral responsibility for their choices. x
  • 4
    Zoroaster's Legacy
    Zoroaster anticipated others by linking destiny with morality. He imagined history moving to a final conclusion in which good triumphs over evil. Those whose lives were aligned with the god of good would be rewarded with happiness; those who served the god of evil would be annihilated. His teachings live on in other religions. x
  • 5
    South Asia before the Axial Age
    From Iran, we move to South Asia and the pre-Axial culture of what came to be India. First we examine the indigenous Indus Valley culture, whose religious practices focused on goddess worship and fertility rituals, then the migration of the Indo-Aryans to the Indus Valley, bringing with them a world-view and a set of rituals based on their scriptures, the Vedas. x
  • 6
    The Start of the Indian Axial Age
    This lecture focuses on pre-Axial Vedic ceremonies and what they accomplished. The rise of the Upanishads—composed to help provide answers to emerging questions about life, death, and their significance—marks the beginning of classical Hinduism and the start of the Indian Axial Age. x
  • 7
    Death and Rebirth
    A key element in the evolution of Hinduism was the acceptance of samsara, the belief that beings endure a series of births, deaths, and rebirths. This lecture explores the development of these major concepts. x
  • 8
    The Quest for Liberation
    In the Axial Age, Indian men and women renounced the material world in search for enlightenment. This search took a variety of forms and expressions, giving rise to the religious practices often associated with Hinduism. Roots of Buddhism and Jainism can also be traced to this quest. x
  • 9
    The Vedantic Solution
    Quest for liberation focuses on knowledge of ultimate reality and the self. The Upani-shad's general viewpoint is that the soul is invisible and immortal, never created or destroyed, and separate from both body and mind. To realize the Absolute entails penetrating reality's veil and acknowledging the identity of the self and ultimate reality. x
  • 10
    The One and the Many
    Realization of the soul's identity and ultimate reality requires a deep, existential understanding acquired through practices such as meditation and asceticism. Hindus who found asceticism too austere worshiped personal deities that manifested reality in a myriad of knowable aspects. x
  • 11
    The Life of Siddhattha Gotama
    One seeker of liberation was a man named Siddhattha Gotama, who later be­comes known as the Buddha, or En­­lightened One. Discover both the histor­ical and mythic aspects of his biography, this lecture traces Gotama's life from his birth into aristocracy through his practice of asceticism and, finally, to his determination to seek liberation by the Middle Way. x
  • 12
    "I am Awake"
    After Siddhattha Gotama practiced the Middle Way and mindful meditation to become fully awake, he began teaching the Four Noble Truths, the first concerning the nature of suffering. The Buddha saw suffering as a pervasive mark of all existence, even though life mani-fests moments of pleasure and happiness. x
  • 13
    Why We Suffer
    The Buddha's First Noble Truth identifies the disease as dukkha, or suffering. This is caused by desire—the Second Noble Truth—occurring, in part, because we attribute permanence and substantiality to impermanence. Buddha viewed humans as interconnected, changeable energies, called the Five Aggregates of Being. x
  • 14
    The Noble Path
    The Third Noble Truth is that one does not have to suffer. The end of suffering is nirvana, a reality beyond ordinary experience but can be realized in life. The Fourth Noble Truth shows that to end suffering, follow the Noble Eightfold Path. x
  • 15
    From Buddha to Buddhism
    This lecture looks at the institutionalization and spread of the Buddha's teachings through Asia, and the gradual transformation of those teachings into a full-scale religious doctrine with rituals, symbols, icons, and a creed. Buddhism coexists with veneration of the gods and has weathered a number of doctrinal disputes. x
  • 16
    Jainism
    According to its adherents, Jainism is an eternal religion. Like Buddhism, it rejects the authority of the Vedas and Upanishads but accepts karma, rebirth, and reincarnation. Central to its tenets are ahimsa, not harming living beings; satya, truth-telling; and belief that the world and humans follow evolving and declining patterns. x
  • 17
    East Asia before the Axial Age
    After a glance at the mythological pre-history of China, the discussion moves to the Shang dynasty. Religious concepts include the need to maintain harmony through sacrifice and tribute to the gods; the intertwined nature of heaven and Earth; and belief in ancestors, ghosts, and divination. x
  • 18
    The World of Confucius
    During the Zhou period, political instability led to the chaotic Period of Warring States, in which minor kingdoms vied for hegemony while men of learning sought solutions to the political and moral issues. Against this backdrop, we meet Confucius, perhaps the most influential figure in Chinese history. x
  • 19
    The Foundations of Confucianism
    Confucian thought is not founded on a particular vision of the divine but, rather, on human potential. Confucius taught how to use religious rituals to address moral and political concerns. Applying the Mandate of Heaven to his own work, he connects politics with family values, and filial obligations with service to others. x
  • 20
    The Cultivation of Virtue
    Confucius believed being good was the fundamental purpose and objective of human beings and widespread cultivation of virtue was vital. He advocated moderation, self-awareness, humility, study, material detachment, and ritual dignity and reverence. x
  • 21
    Early Confucianism and the Rise of Daoism
    This lecture surveys thinkers following Confucius: Mencius, who held that human nature is fundamentally good but needs cultivation; and Xunzi, who held that amoral human nature requires moral training. Daoist philosophers saw themselves as providing an alternative to Confucianism. x
  • 22
    The Daodejing
    After the Bible, the Daodejing is the text most translated into English. This lecture explores root metaphors in this mysterious text, including water, emptiness, and the way of nature. This text uses the concept of the Dao to convey not only an ideal way or path but also the way of nature. x
  • 23
    Daoist Politics and Mysticism
    The Daodejing was most likely intended as a document offering political advice for effective governance. Widespread misery arises when governments act against the Dao of nature. Zhuangzi applied Daoist values to individual behavior. Later, Daoism developed ecclesiastical rituals and organizational structures. Daoism also blended with practices of Chinese folk religions. x
  • 24
    Reflections on the Axial Age
    The Axial Age marked when the self made its religious appearance as an important source for moral choice and also a self-centered and self-aggrandizing power. Sages of the period linked the self to concepts of ultimate reality, and religious priorities shifted from cosmic maintenance to personal transformation. The significance of these developments for human culture can hardly be overestimated. x

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Your professor

Mark W. Muesse

About Your Professor

Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D.
Rhodes College
Dr. Mark W. Muesse is W. J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies, Director of the Asian Studies Program, and Director of the Life: Then and Now Program at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He earned a B.A., summa cum laude, in English Literature from Baylor University and a Master of Theological Studies, a Master of Arts, and a Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University. Before taking his position at Rhodes,...
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Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World's Religions is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and informative lectures. Back in the day I was a religion and philosophy major, and I wanted to refresh my understanding of this marvelous Axial Age. To be honest, I was at first put off a bit by Dr. Muesse's somewhat sing-songy presentation and also by the different pronunciation of some words and phrases I was certain I already knew. About 10 minutes later I realized that Dr. Muesse had it all right and I didn't. His knowledge and understanding of the subject matter is obviously wide and deep, and his presentation of it in this series is thoughtful and organized. Perhaps what I most appreciated was the times he shared personal thoughts and experiences (perhaps in the Buddhism and Daoism lectures) that illustrated the themes he was presenting. The course exceeded my expectations. Thanks Dr. Muesse.
Date published: 2020-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Course that Can be Spoken of is not the Course Although the title of the course is “Religions of the Axial Age” Professor Muesse points out up-front that he is not covering Greece or Judea in the course. He points out that there are plenty of courses on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Judaism so there is less need for covering those topics. Even so he does bring in comparisons with Greek philosophy a couple of times. Plus (to cite only one example), I was so fascinated by his tracing of the religions of South Asia from the time of the Vedas that were mostly concerned with “right rituals” to the beginnings of religions that were concerned with questions of life, death and right behavior. Even though I was aware, I really had not thought so much about the differences of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. It would have been a nice parallel with the growth of Judaism from the Patriarchs to Judaism in the time of the Axial Age. But enough carping—otherwise this is a somewhat obscure topic, explained well and understandably. And I’d not ask for any lecture to be eliminated in order to accommodate other material, just another few lectures. Even with two lectures devoed to Zoroaster, I’d have liked more. And while Jainism is incredibly small in terms of adherents, its principles are so important, that only one lecture devoted to it seems not enough. My only real complaint is that this course should be 36 lectures long. There is much to love in this course, I thought a highlight was following Buddhism from its beginnings in South Asia to its rise (and change) in China followed by tracing the beginnings of the Axial Age in China and then six lectures on Confucius, Confucianism, Laozi (assuming he existed), the Daodejing and Daoism. And who knew that the Daodejing was written as a political text? Actually there are so many highlights in this course I hate to single one out. Dr. Muesse is not a particularly dynamic speaker, but his delivery is measured and precise. I always had the feeling that each word he used was the one that he exactly wished to use in order to convey exactly what he wanted. I took this course in audio and did not feel that I missed much by not having a video version. Highly recommend for those with an interest in religion.
Date published: 2020-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great wow that's great, it really helped me on solving some problems on the axial age!
Date published: 2020-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! I bought this two months ago and I’m real pleased with how the professor teaches and how much he knows.
Date published: 2020-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Valuable background to all religions This is very valuble education to any one who is interested in religion. It broadens one's perpective on religion and gives a greater depth and appreciation of one's own faith It is also valuable to the study of ancient history.
Date published: 2019-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superbly taught, and wonderfully illuminating This is a wonderful course that provides a cogent understanding of both the essence of the great religions that emerged from the Axial Age, including Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism and the evolution throughout this period. The lecturer, professor Mark Muesse of Rhodes College, is very fellow, and in his conversational and fact- and idea- filled manner of speaking manages to make the issues these various people were dealing with – the eternal questions revolving around who are we, why are we here, what is the nature of reality, and what happens to us after death – understandable, gripping, and familiar, thus bridging both the years and different belief systems that separate us. On several occasions he noted the rather remarkable fact that several of these innovative thinkers – such as Zoroaster and the Buddha -- arrived at their central insights at or around the age of 30, just as Jesus did. Based on his own developmental insights, Professor Muesse opined that this even today is about the time that young adults begin to seriously grapple with several crucial issues or insights, including a reexamination of their existing beliefs about reality and themselves – a process that involves jettisoning some and reforming others – and a new appreciation that they, too, are mortal and that suffering, decline and death itself will also come to them. He also points out that in several cases the Axial Age innovators, also like Jesus, “went off into the desert” or wilderness in order to reflect on and form/reform themselves and their message. What distinguished the Axial Age religions from their immediate predecessors was both an increasing awareness of “self” – with all the intrigue, doubt, and fear that this inevitably occasions us upon deep reflection – and a conviction that we bear responsibility for the conduct of our lives. Before this, religion was less personal and more formulaic. Yes, there were gods and goddesses who controlled the principle forces of the world, and sometimes they were interested in particular persons, but the emphasis was not on a me/thou relationship with the gods. Rather, it was the responsibility of the leaders and the various priesthoods to mediate between the gods and “the rest of us” through appropriate rituals and the correct recitations of prayers and invocations. Through these it was thought that the gods could be encouraged to look favorably upon the people, their crops, and their animals, forestalling pestilence, crop failures, and famines. This was also a period when people still took their primary identity from family and clan, as humans have done for most of our hundreds of millennia of existence. Individuality, per se, at least how we understand this, was foreign to them. In the Axial Age, however, surviving texts reveal how the focus began to change as people increasingly came to see themselves as having an identity separate from – or, at the least, in addition to – that derived from family and clan. As attention turned to the mystery of “I am” new questions and accompanying anxieties arose, including Who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, and what happens to me after death? The religious developments of that time are all an attempt to respond to those questions. Some featured divinities, some did not, and some – like Confucius – seemed to acknowledge the existence of divine beings but focused on our lives since “the gods” were impossible for humans to understand. But all were very concerned with how we were responsible for our own destiny. We were the cause of our own suffering, as the Buddha pointed out, since it was our thirst for things – money, power, the right spouse, position, or adulation – that inevitably brought us disappointment, either because we did not attain our desired goal or else because we did and found that we were still hungry for more. For some, including some Hindu sects and the Buddha, the answer that would bring us peace could only be found in discovering “the other” – the ultimate reality that some found beyond us and others said was also within us. While some thought that the happy answer was that we could attain “onement” with the ultimate reality, others – like Buddha – said that the answer was to just let go of attachments, freeing us from the imperfections that would otherwise doom us to repeated reincarnations. In all instances, though, there was a great emphasis on our personal responsibility for our ultimate destiny. The way or path to this goal was to avoid harming others, to become truly noble beings, to focus on others’ needs rather than our own desires. Confucius believed that persons striving to be such noble beings – a goal he pictured as becoming a “gentleman” – would affect others, even larger society, since the goodness flowing from such persons inevitably invited others to reciprocity – you have done good to or for me, I in turn must -- and wish -- to do good for you. Confucius believed that truly good and wise rulers would have a powerfully beneficial impact on and for their people merely by being such persons. He also, tellingly, believed that the opposite was true, that evil or bad rulers would bring suffering and disorder to their people. (A point that should resonate with us today as so many of the world's current "leaders" seem to be both inept and corrupt.) These great teachers all shared the conviction that persons must learn to ignore – thrust aside – the values of “this world” – that is, false human values of power, pride, and acquisition – and turn instead to what Jesus called the values of “the kingdom of God” in which “the world’s values” are turned upside down: the last will be first and the first last, the humble will overcome the proud, and the hungry will be the ones fed, etc. Buddha, too, thought it was our adherence to what “the world” viewed as important or necessary that caused us needless, self-imposed suffering. The rituals that were so important to Confucius -- if performed meaningfully and with the right attitude (mindfulness) -- serve to connect and reconnect persons to themselves, each other, and to the realm of the divine. Ignoring rituals inevitably causes one to lose such connections over time. Thus, we slip off the right path, and do harm both to ourselves and those around us. In his concluding remarks, which I found especially insightful and provocative, Dr. Muesse said that it was also important to consider what we might have lost through the changes of the Axial Age. He singled out two especially: 1. In coming to focus on the individual and his/her role in attaining knowledge, insight, even salvation – and also by foregoing the earlier rituals that connected us with the correct workings of the world – we lost the connection between ourselves and the rest of the natural world in a critical way, forgetting that we do have a relationship with nature and that how we behave with and toward the rest of creation does have consequences, something that global warming and its awesome threat to our future makes very clear. 2. Also, the earlier religions were filled with mystery: What is ultimate reality? What does happen to us after death? Ever since the Axial Age, however, religions have sought to dampen down our anxieties about these things by assuring us that they have answers, such as: There is a God to whom each of us is important and, after death, our souls will live on forever with God. Whether such an answer is “true” or not is unknowable, but it serves to reduce the ongoing mysteries for which we have no positive (or possible) answers to a simple formulaic answer, “answers,” however, which may do little to really speak to the profound awe and wonder we still occasionally experience as we go through life or ponder the star-filled sky at night. This is a wonderfully rich course given by a superb teacher! Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-10-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Reasonably good course I learned a bit, esp. with regards to Zoroaster, Jainism, and roots of religion's association with good and evil / moral responsibility, and possible afterlife, instead of just placation of gods via correct cult practice. I must say, though, after the 1st few lectures the remainder was a bit of a snoozer to listen to (audio version). I learned a bit more about Confucius.
Date published: 2019-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from From Little Ritual Cults Mighty Religions Grow Drawing on German philosopher Karl Jaspers, Professor Muesse defines the “Axial Age” (800 – 200 BC) as one in which cultures across Eurasia turned from communal magic and ritual cults meant to appease the gods or ask favors of them to religions centered on personal morality, self-improvement and life after death. Major developments, from west to east, included Greek philosophy, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Daoism. Right at the beginning Muesse excludes the Greeks and Jews as sufficiently covered by other courses; this course therefore leans very heavily toward the South Asian experience, leaving the Chinese as something of an afterthought. It is excellent anyways. Lecture 2, my favorite, deals with the Indo-Iranian cattle-herders living in what is today Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. They worshipped gods called asuras or ahuras (“lords) and lesser spirits called devas or daevas. Their most sacred rituals involved water, fire and cattle blood, and they sometimes pursued ecstatic trances by drinking soma or haoma. These Aryans (“noble ones”) served as a nursery culture for both Zoroastrianism (Lectures 3 and 4) and the South Asian religions (Lectures 5 through 17). In their southward migrations they brought with them stocks of religious poems—the Avestan of Iran and the Vedas of India. Interestingly, in India the asuras became negative spirits and the devas positive while in Iran the ahuras were the good ones, especially the universal lord Ahura Mazda, and the daevas agents of evil—hence “devil” in English. As you probably know, the Zoroastrians built their religion around a dualism of good and evil while the Indians found varying ways to end earthly suffering by escaping the cycle of rebirth—a concept that never troubled their Iranian cousins. I won’t go into the complicated details here, but I can assure you that Muesse is very thorough and clear, or at least as clear as one can be for American listeners and watchers, in explaining Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In China Confucianism and Daoism began as philosophical answers to the violent societies of the Warring States. Confucius (Kungzi) promoted benevolence, respect for tradition, education in the classics, and proper manners in both politics and personal lives. The sages of the Dao De Jing, on the other hand, urged their audiences to avoid effort and tap into an unnamable essence that runs through all things—obviously the inspiration for “the Force” of Star Wars. I have two small criticisms. Muesse did very well in supplying many readings from sacred texts, but I wished he had included slides so that we could read along. In the lectures on Hinduism, he had surprisingly little to say about the importance of caste and sub-caste (or jati) in society. On the positive side, he is clearly in his element with South Asian religions and is so enthusiastic about Buddhism that he sounds like a convert. I was amused by one anecdote he used to illustrate the kind of attachment that causes suffering; at one time he became so dependent on nasal spray to treat congestion that he couldn’t even wait until he left the drug store before tearing off the wrapping, putting the bottle up his nose and squeezing it hard. Of course, the solution to his problem was not to buy more spray, but to stop using it and end his attachment. The only depressing thing about the course has nothing to do with Muesse’s skill as lecturer. The Buddha expressly said he was no god, Confucius never claimed to be a god, and the Daoist sage Laozi probably never existed at all. Yet later generations worshipped them all as gods. Apparently, people would much rather worship their moral teachers than do the hard work of following their advice. Fortunately, Christians would never make such a mistake, right?
Date published: 2019-01-24
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