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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Reviews

Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World's Religions is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 88.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Meaningful and Renewing I have taken three courses by this intelligent, insightful, honest, and compassionate human being. I can not recommend him highly enough. He brings enlightened perspective, and balance to those of us who become disillusioned and disoriented. Human bias, dogma, ego - often unintentional - attach themselves to spiritual thoughts and practices over centuries. His review of the ideas and practice of sages, themselves, in their own times, clarifies, refreshes, and renews. It reawakens one to the meaning and opportunities life offers. As these sages elucidate, an honorable life has innate and joyful meaning and purpose. Dr. Muesse presents us with clearly and wonderfully articulated gifts!
Date published: 2013-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening Course The purpose of listening to the course for me was two fold 1. Gain an excellent overview of the axial age impact on world religions a) I have a deep love of history, intellectual history and spiritual issues. I knew of the axial age but had never devoted any time to specifically study it b) the course is wonderful and covers-subject to the qualification below- the profound impact the sages and figures between 800-200BCE have had on humanity through the way their views shaped the development of all major workd religions 2. The second purpose of the course was to augment my spiritual knowledge and experience of the divine a) listening to the wonderful insights of Confucius, the Buddha, Zoroaster etc served to re-emphasise the importance of living a virtous life through the development of character and seeking wisdom b) these reminders of how great sages lived lives striving to reach deep understandings of human nature and ultimate reality boosted my soul within and inspired me to learn more about their works This was the third course I have taken with professor Muesse (Hinduism and Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus and the Buddha are the others)and he is simply first rate. His voice commands respect and also in its own way conveys a depth of spirituality that i find deeply engaging. I particularly enjoyed the final lectur when the Professor shared some of the ways the study of this subject has deepened his understanding of wisdom and the mystery of the universe. QUALIFICATION: I have given only 4 stars for content as i think the course should have been 36 lectures to allow coverage of the other areas where the axial age's contribution to religion/philosophy was also profound. This includes the impact on Judaism-including the exilic period/Babylonian captivity as well as Greece and the rise of philosophy from the pre-socratics, pythagorus and of course Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. The Professor opens the course by referring to the fact that these two areas clearly had hugely important developments occur during the Axial Age and refers to other TTC courses where one can leanr more about them. That is fine but I submit, particularly given how brilliant Professor Muesse is, that 12 additional lectures to cover these two areas would have made this just about the perfect 10 out of 10 course. Nevertheless highly recommended!
Date published: 2012-11-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So many virtues.... This course absolutely deserves the accolades it has garnered. The other reviewers touched on many of the virtues of this course. (*Do* read those other reviews, because there is so much to praise about this course! ) But here's one the others haven't dwelt on: Know Thyself: By way of covering the cherished "virtues" held by each of the religions, it made me look at my own ethics, to see how my character would fare in any of those wisdom traditions. It threw into relief some things that I'd to work on. There is a lot of overlap of teachings among those traditions (such as the value of humility) with many areas of divergence (values of asceticism & societal hierarchy). Without any value judgment, the professor covers the way in which their values were beneficial to their societies. A couple of cautions: *Not for everyone: You want to be ready for this course and interested in Eastern Traditions. It was "The Wisdom of History" by Dr. Fears that made me ready for it. (Note: Professor Fears passed away in mid-October; may he rest knowing he taught many of us TGC customers well.) *The beginning: it was a tad slow. You could probably skip right into the treatment of the religions themselves. In Summary: *If you're ready for this course, it's ready for you. Get it.
Date published: 2012-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting topic, well presented Another five-star vote for this course. The material was relevant for those interested in Asian philosophy or religion and was suitable for any level, including a beginner. IMHO the topic was excellent, the presentation was reasonably informative and stimulating, and Prof Muesse nicely summarized large quantities of information. I took the course to help understand how this slender period of time helped produce so many original and influential spiritual and philosophical insights and felt the course succeeded nicely, and even though most of the course nicely summarized the original features of the axial religions, the first two lessons gave some useful insights into how they may have arisen. Prof Muesse wisely leaves out Judaism and Greek philosophy from this well-packed course because they are covered in other classes. I even learned something about Buddhism, which I am familiar with, and I thought his translation of the difficult word "dukkha" as "disappointment" was quite descriptive. If there are any "caution lights" for future listeners, I did think he was occasionally a bit too definitive in his conclusions (for example, he inferred the Buddha taught a doctrine of "no-self," when this is actually more nuanced and controversial). In summary, I was happy to have taken this course and have started listening to it again.
Date published: 2012-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent view of Religion This course gave an objective overview of various world religions, the environments that formed them - and their 'evolution' with time. Given the global age in which we live today this information helps us see the nature of religions and ourselves more clearly.
Date published: 2012-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Professor and Content Religions of the Axial Age turned out to be even better than we expected when we ordered it. Mark Muesse presented an astounding amount of information, including many details about the religions covered of which I was unaware. A truly great course presented by a professor who obviously loves his subject. It should be viewed by anyone with a serious interest in the history of religions.
Date published: 2012-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought-provoking course At this point, I have purchased over 75 Teaching Company courses. This course is near the top. I have enjoyed several of Dr. Muesse's courses. In addition, to his dry sense of humor, I enjoy his insights into Eastern and Near-Eastern religions. Also, he provides an excellent bibliography for further reading. The only short-coming I found in this course is that I wish Dr. Muesse had had time to cover the religions in greater detail -- perhaps, he can do some additional courses for the Teaching Company. Thank you for this "Great Course."
Date published: 2012-04-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Insightful material, flawed delivery This is the second course by Prof. Muesse I've listened to, and I've enjoyed both. He brings an artful combination of personal experience, cultural references, and scholarly analysis to his courses. This one in particular is fascinating because of his ability to synthesize the approaches of these superficially diverse sages. Having listened to other courses on comparative religions, I'm also struck by how well he distills each of their philosophies down to the essence. My only complaint is that he seems to be reading from a text or teleprompter and that his delivery comes across as stilted. If you can stand that -- and it's not a huge obstacle to listening -- it's a great course and well worth buying.
Date published: 2012-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots Of Religion Covered In A Short Time. Lots of religious stuff here. But i think one of the main points of the course is to show that there existed some type of difference between pre axial people and axial people. Sort a before and after thing with various religions surveyed so as to back up this claim of a difference between the people of the 2 ages. The claims would be something like people came to have a greater sense of themselves as individuals, they used religion for different purposes, they came to have a different and wider world view, they wanted to know where they fit in this new world view, etc. I'm not so sure any of that type of stuff is shown. At least nothing that was said here would do that. Yet , i did go through this course 3 times. It just struck me as an interesting kind of topic. What is nice is that you are not done with the lecture when the lecturer is finished. There is always something to kick around in your mind afterwards.
Date published: 2012-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done and fascinating; title quite misleading In "The Origin and Goal of History," German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term "Axial Age" for the period 800 - 200 B.C.E. The term was meant to evoke an image of a near-world-wide revolution (around an "axis") in religious thinking. According to Jaspers, "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today." Further, "What is new about this age, in all...[affected] areas of the world, is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations." And "Measured against the lucid humanity of the Axial Period, a strange veil seems to lie over the most ancient cultures preceding it, as though man had not yet really come to himself." While these last two statements seem to me to reflect the height of scholarly presumption, given how little we know about the spirituality of those who lived three millenia and more ago, the essential idea has apparently informed religious scholarship ever since, and certainly constitutes the world-view of this very well done and often fascinating course. The student will gain a fine introduction to many of the revolutionary religions of this period, including Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Keep in mind, of course, that this averages about two hours per religion, so we are receiving a very surface treatment, excellent though it is. (This course would be well-paired with "Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition," another very worthwhile course, by Professor Grant Hardy.) Professor Muesse is deeply knowledgeable, well-organized, and highly articulate; his devotion and concern for his subject are always apparent, and help to draw us in. For those, like me, whose education embodied the usual Western prejudices, much of the material will be quite new and fascinating, reflecting world-views very different from those we have absorbed in our own culture. The only significant negative is that the course is quite misleadingly titled. (This seems increasingly the case with The Great Courses. I respectfully request that your marketing department refocus on providing accuracy in the course names, rather than simply going for catchy hyperbole.) Here the problem is two-fold. The course covers only some of the major "Religions of the Axial Age," leaving out completely those of Greece, Rome, and the Middle East. All of those discussed would be characterized by the Western academy as "Eastern." Further, the course has nothing to do with "an approach to the world's religions," which makes it sound like we will be given the tools to analyze any and all spiritual traditions. Instead, the course takes primarily a descriptive approach to the religions of this very limited space and time. Although Professor Muesse clearly agrees with Jaspers' theory of an axial age, this is simply stated, not argued for. I also found it somewhat off-putting that, particularly towards the end of the course, Professor Muesse's scholarly approach shaded into that of a (very articulate and interesting) preacher giving a Sunday morning sermon. This was not a major problem, however, and in fact the last lecture, in which he freely discusses his own perspectives along with an excellent summary of the course, was superb. (I would actually recommend viewing it before the course as well as at the end, allowing it to serve as a very helpful introduction to what is to come.) So - a brief but excellent introduction to a fascinating period of ancient Eastern intellectual and religious history. Highly recommended to any with an interest in this area.
Date published: 2011-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating time, fascinating course The developments of the Axial Age are fascinating. This course explores those developments, specifically the formative years of many of the major world religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, et al.). This course also does a nice job of filling in the blanks for a number of religions that otherwise get little attention in TTC courses; including, Confucianism, Daoism, Zoroastrianism, Janism. I find the professor knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his topic. His presentation style is fine. He does a good job of conveying his fascination with and excitement about the subject matter. This helps the student get excited too. The course, as noted above, provides information about many of the religions that don't get much coverage in other courses. For me, that was key. I really wanted to learn something about religions beyond Christianity and Judaism. My key course criteria are: was the course thought-provoking? This course certainly delivers that. The other criterion is: does it motivate me to study more on the subject on my own? It did.
Date published: 2011-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The old pig remains DVD review. RELIGIONS OF THE AXIAL AGE appeals to two different groups I suspect. There are those who are curious about the whole concept of AXIAL. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) invented the term to describe the period between 800 and 200 BCE during which similar thought patterns appeared in a scattered group of spectacularly influential thinkers: Zoroaster in Iran, the Vedantic thinkers and the Buddha of India, and Confucius in China, not to speak of the Old Testament prophets and Socrates. Dr Muesse’s lecture covers only the Asian facets of this trend. Before that period, ancient (mostly religious) thought could be described as COSMIC MAINTENANCE. Although the universe was governed by gods large and small, prosperity was only possible if we humans helped them through rituals and sacrifices, often performed by a priestly class. The Aztecs, for example, believed that the sun might not rise unless human sacrifices were performed. Religion had little to do with faith, morality or personal immortality. It was all about externals, secret formulas and process. The rise of cities and the invention of money created a new dynamic. Trade and war fostered new “specialists” less bound by traditional morality. Warriors, for example, both defended their groups and demanded protection money. Merchants accumulated wealth through practices that made no ethical sense to peasants. Old-style ritualism, in other words, seemed to offer no guidance before this new individualism. The axial thinkers added a new layer: PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION. The gods or “the good life” now required ethical rules less bound by time, place or hocus-pocus. The relationship with the divine was more personal and might promise a form of existence after death. Some thinkers even went way beyond the wishes of most of their contemporaries and proposed a universe where the gods were either irrelevant or bound by the same rules as man. With respect to the axial concept, Dr Muesse’s lecture is not so much the account of a transformation as it is the addition of a new layer to old-style religion. Most people still preferred to change a hypothetical god’s mood than change themselves. Indeed, dietary and clothing rules were often developed to make the old ritualism more portable. There was a shift, in other words, from cosmic maintenance to group identity maintenance. Dr Muesse does not go into this. But the initial distinction between maintenance and transformation was nevertheless very interesting. ______________ A second potential group of TTC buyers, might be less interested in the axial concept, and see this rather as an interesting introduction to a specific group of religious thinkers. At that level, Dr Muesse was outstanding, especially in his portrayal of the Buddha, and the Vedantic thinkers that preceded him. I am not a Buddhist or a follower of Eastern spiritual disciplines, but the altered translation of common Buddhist terms he proposed made them fresh and interesting. Zoroaster, Confucius and Laozi were also historically intriging, but remained bound to their time and place for me. That is a matter of taste, of course. I can’t help that. All in all, this excellent lecture series introduced new concepts in a very time-efficient fashion. Axial to me is lipstick on an old pig that revolutionized the thought of a tiny elite. In time, however, these elite expectations spread around the globe to some extent. But (again my opinion only, of course) the old pig remains. Popular religion is still 90% a question of externals, appearances and ritualized quid-pro-quo “I’ll give you this, if you give me that” deals. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2011-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredible! If you are interested in religion don't miss this course.
Date published: 2011-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Scholarly, Insightful and Absorbing I have neglected writing this review of Religions of the Axial Age for too long, largely because the existing reviews were all so glowing that I felt my added voice to the chorus was not necessary. So far this is the only course by Dr. Muesse that I have heard but I place him at the very top of the lecturers available through the Teaching Company, right alongside Prof. Daniel Robinson. This course, in which Prof. Muesse introduces the histories of important Eastern religious traditions born out of the astonishingly prolific period around 600 BCE, is rich with his enthusiasm but held firmly in focus by vivid details and scholarly discipline. I was enthralled, and came away from the course eager to pursue further study. Thank you Dr. Muesse, and thank you The Teaching Company!
Date published: 2010-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Compelling narrative covers daunting material The presentation can be droning at times, but the self-deprecating humor breaks up the monotony. The section on Buddhism alone is worth the purchase price. Taoism is also very well presented (hard to do), with an emphasis on texts other than the Tao Te Ching. The final lecture, where Prof. Muesse shares what he has learned from teaching this material for many years, is poignant. The main challenge in this course, given the volume of material available in any one of these topics, is to weave together a narrative that speaks to the issues that each of these religions attempts to resolve in its particular historical context. Prof. Muesse meets this challenge by reflecting on the humanity of the key figures in involved and how their problems are not so different from our own in our modern age. For example, the anecdote on the death of Chung Tse's wife and his reaction to it in the Taoism section left me silently sitting in my parked car.
Date published: 2010-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Job Professor Muesse does an outstanding job with this material. I found the section on Buddhism to be especially well presented, and I would welcome a full course on this subject from Muesse (although I know there are already other courses in this series on Buddhism). I will definitely be on the watch for other courses by this teacher.
Date published: 2010-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finally real information This is my second purchase and each time gets better and better. very happy with this course, I never write any reviews, I just had express my gratefulness for real information and a place where i can trust the information I am receiving. This is a great course. im
Date published: 2010-02-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I thought this was exactly what I wanted it to be...information about different religions and how some actually came in to being. I would recommend this course to anyone who wants to become acquainted with other faiths... not just modern ones.
Date published: 2010-02-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Relax, Have Some Soma Professor Muesse does an excellent job of presenting the origins of Zoroastrianism, the Indian Dharma religions, Confucianism, and Taoism. My only quarrel with this course is that it is not quite broad enough to cover all the religions of the Axial Age. I would have liked to have had lectures on Pythagoras and Deutero-Isaiah included. As these seem to be outside of Professor Muesse's area of expertise, perhaps another lecturer could have covered them.
Date published: 2010-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Profound way to bring in 2010 I just finished listening to this excellent course after beginning on New Years' Eve. I typically try to spend both New Years and New Years Eve alone in order to "get my spiritual affairs in order." I could think of no better companion than Dr. Muesse. Dr. Muesse's presentation was insightful and clear-sighted. It was not biased toward one way of thinking/seeing or another. Even though he has an expressive voice, it is also calm (my cat, who is sometimes skittish around voices other than my own, enjoyed some good snoozes in my lap while I listened to this material). The course itself was about a pivotal age in history: the birth of spiritual sensibilities as expressed by individuals. Dr. Muesse takes us through various Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but you will also learn about lesser-known and/or defunct philosophies such as Zorastrianism and Jainism. Although Dr. Muesse certainly covers the historical perspective, he does much more. He brings these philosophies "down to earth" by example, and he also uncovers the humanness in the historic figures associated with some of these philosophies (e.g. the Buddha). He keeps the listener in mind throughout, as all great storytellers do. I'll be listening to this series at least twice more. I hope you'll offer more material from this delightful and talented professor.
Date published: 2010-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Built steadily to a wonderful conclusion My first impression was that this was not going to be a great, relevant or completely interesting class and presentation (especailly coming directly after my first Teaching Co. experience, an excellent course on neurology and the individual), but after a couple of lectures when we got into the "axial-age", it dawned on me how significant and even more importantly how sympathetic and wise the teacher was about this material. The classes covered the pivotal "Axial" era - the birth of modern religious/spiritual sensibility (individual salvation vs group maintenance as the focus), as it developed from Iranian Zorastrianism (the possible root of Middle Eastern Jewish/Christian/Islamic faiths) to Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in India and simultaniously Confusianism and Taoism in China. At each stage a balance of historical development and spiritual significance was presented. As a long-practicing Buddhist I found the section on Buddhism very balanced and deep with understanding, and it really inspired me (to see the roots of the religion and the humanness of the Buddha). However what impressed me most was how the course expanded further with the coverage of (pre- Buddhist) China. It looked at the same issues (suffering, it's causes and it's resolution) from a very different perspective. I was left feeling how my personal belief is a combination of all these faiths (the mix of what I've been exposed to), and how they all continue to effect the modern world. At each stage I got the feeling that the Professor was both well educated about and genuinely interested in the material. Both in an intellectual (academic) and practical (experiential) way. This made it much more relevant for me.
Date published: 2009-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Religions of the Axial Age I am very impressed with this course. I thought the first two lectures were a bit dull, but all the lectures thereafter were absolutely brilliant! My undergraduate degree is in Comparative World Religions, (several years ago!) I'd forgotten much of what I had studied, including the philosopies inherent in each religious belief. Dr. Muesse is amazingly well organized in his presentation and easy to follow. This course would be of good interest to all students of world history, archeology, or philosophy.
Date published: 2009-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a revelation While I have studied religion for years and listened to most of The Teaching Company's religion courses, I never made the connection that so many religions 'started' about the same time. To put 6 and 6 together and come up with a baker's dozen (a little extra) buy this course and listen to it.
Date published: 2009-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation This is the first religious course, outside of Christianity, that I have purchased from the teaching company. I bought it in hopes of learning more about eastern religious fundamentals and history. The profeessor's passion, clarity and knowledge made all the lectures thoroughly enjoying. I believe I have learned a lot and I am better able to understand alternative world views from others with a dissimilar heritage. I highly recommend this course as an introduction to eastern faiths.
Date published: 2009-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Timeless Wisdom in a Deep, Rich Course Religions of the Axial Age is one of TTC's finest on religion, and assuredly ranks among the top dozen of all TTC's courses on all subjects. I bought the audio version. Professor Muesse's speaking voice is perfect -- his delivery is nearly flawless, and one's mind easily focusses on the valuable lessons of the content. One of my favorite topics was Zarathustra and the mysteries of the world's first prophet. Pulling back, ably guided by Dr. Muesse, we are able to see The Big Picture, and the critical importance of the amazing six centuries of the Axial Age. What a burst of spiritual creativity! This was the period in which humans begin to see themselves ontologically as individuals, and develop codes for 'right' behavior and moral responsibility -- this was, without exaggeration, the dawning of personal transformation. Professor Muesse also compares and contrasts the major religions, carefully showing how they borrowed ideas from each other, and how all the religions continued to change. This is a rich, deep course on timeless wisdom and history that can be listened to again and again over a lifetime. Highly recommended! One of TTC's best and most enlightening courses, and a must for the religion section of any one's personal library.
Date published: 2009-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must! For all who are interested in religion, philosophy, or the history of thought, this course is simply a must. It is nothing short of amazing how religious and philosophical thought exploded throughout the world from 800 - 200 BCE, the Axial Age. This is the subject of Professor Muesse's course. Whether in China, or India, or Greece, or Israel, certain ideas about self, personal ethics and an evolved sense of good and evil, a different and more personal view of the Divine, new ideas about an afterlife - all this and more - thought and religion were fundamentally changing, never to return to the pre- Axial way again. One must wonder how this could happen. Was there some sort of remarkable revelation across boundaries and faiths? Were these ideas spread through the known world? It's all utterly fascinating. My only "beef" with the good professor is that he made the hard decision not to cover Judaism or Greek philosophy, reasoning that there were other courses that could teach to them. He's right, of course. But it would have been instructive to learn his notions of connections between the more Western developments and the Eastern religions he discusses. Having said that, since I'm less aware of the Eastern side and much more so of the Western, the course worked fine for me. Something extraordinary happened in the world in a pretty narrow span of time. You owe it to yourself to study its manifestations!
Date published: 2009-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Critical Piece of the Puzzle-Well Done Many people don't think of their religious/philosophical worldview as being derivative. However, the concepts that came out of the Axial Age seem to have informed many of the world's great religions as well as much of contemporary thought. This is an excellent introduction to the subject. Very well done indeed.
Date published: 2009-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The origins of the world's religions This is an exemplary course on comparative religion. It manages to achieve a depth of analysis that most courses in comparative religion do not by focusing on a specific historical timeframe, the Axial Age, roughly from 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. Professor Muesse skillfully contrasts and compares the origins of the origins of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Daoism. This course allows the listener to appreciate the lineage of these religions and to grasp their common elements and distinctions alike arising from the unique social, political, and psychological changes occurring in humankind during the Axial Age. Many of the founders and proponents of these various religions lived during the remarkably intellectually and spiritually fertile period in history known as the Axial Age, and this course draws illuminating parallels between their lives. Not all topics get equal attention and more time is devoted to Hinduism and Buddhism and much less time devoted to Jainism, but I don't think this detracts from the value of this course. I often judge a teaching company course by how much it inspires me to do additional reading, and after I finished this course I immediately ordered 8 of the recommended books. The recommended reading lists are practical and focused. I learned about such things as the origin of the caste system in India and how that resulted from Hindu practices, the different interpretations from Western and Eastern perspectives of the famous Daoist story of the man who dreamed he was a butterfly, and many other historical and legendary accounts of the spiritual founders of these religions. Finally, one of the strengths of this course is the very useful last lecture which summarizes the lessons of this course by focusing on the practical value that study of these religions can hold for anyone in his or her day to day life. In this lecture Professor Muesse states that understanding at least one other religion in depth can lead to a much deeper and clearer understanding of one's own religion. Consequently, I highly recommend this course for anyone who wants an enriched understanding of these religions which might even translate into a deeper appreciation and understanding of one's own religion as well.
Date published: 2009-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Illuminating This is a surprisingly great course. I previously had no idea there was an epoch described as the Axial Age. This course shed new light on a really interesting time in history and on some rather exotic (to a Westerner) religions, and it is taught by a solid and informative lecturer. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2009-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from East from a Western view I am a Christian who finds deep connections with Jesus' core teachings in the presentations of Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. Prof. Muesse does a good job of introducing the same topics that Thich does from the perspective of a Western convert to an Eastern Religion, coming from a differnt angle that allows one to understand what karma, enlightment, mindfullness, being in the moment actually mean. After attending the course you get a deep sense of the synchronous migration of polytheism to monotheism in different Asian religions during this time period. An excellent synthesis of history and comparative theology delivered by a "mellow" instructor with well crafted, paced, and thought-out lessons.
Date published: 2009-02-08
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