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 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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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 4.8 out of 5 by 81.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great intro to the Axial Age and the Ancient East I appreciate the humility of the prof in setting forth facts and speculations, naming each and not overstating things. I think I know which topics to delve into more deeply. Thanks!
Date published: 2018-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course - great insights As indicated by the course title, the course purports to focus on understanding the historical period between 800-200 BCE, a time when many fundamental changes unfolded in the evolution of human culture / religious thought. While this is ostensibly the case, viewing the course primarily from this perspective conceals its real value. Prof Muesse focuses on the significant transformations around concepts of the self, the function of religion, and our perception of reality that occurred during this Age. He does a good job of exploring the historical settings and factors that gave rise to these transformations, and to their evolutionary development, but his primary focus is on the transformations themselves. From my perspective, the greatest value of this course is found in the comparisons Prof Muesse shares, highlighting similarities and differences between the different religious (and philosophical) schools of thought and providing detailed examples of each. These comparisons offer a valuable perspective, providing insights into the role of various historic factors in thought, and highlighting fundamental assumptions and possible motivations. These insights have applicability beyond the three key transformations identified by Prof Muesse. It may also be worth noting that Prof Muesse does a commendable job with his attempts to explain notions of reality (e.g., for Buddhism or Daoism) which fundamentally defy explanation in words, acknowledging the challenge of communicating that which in principle cannot be communicated. He also highlights various areas where historical details are scarcely available, and shares his theories of interpretation based on whatever information is known. I found value in this course and would recommend to anyone wishing to better understand philosophy and religion as part of the human experience.
Date published: 2018-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course! I rank this course right along with the one by the late Prof. Solomon, "No Excuses, Existentialism and the Meaning of Life" as among the most valuable life long teachings offered by The Great Courses Company. Each in its own way provides the student with tools to grapple with life thru the perspectives of the greatest philosophers and religious leaders of all time. Their wisdom is invaluable, and Prof Muesse does a magnificent job in conveying the ideas underlying this particular course. PLUS, he is an engaging and charming man.I love his style - and his sense of humor. I only wish that I were as articulate as he.
Date published: 2018-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good lectures! This is a clear and thorough explanation of an amazing period of human existence.
Date published: 2018-03-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent background before going in depth The instructor gives an excellent historical background leading up to the Axial Age. I have not finished the series at this point, but have been impressed by how clearly he presents the material and gives context. I had heard and read some about the Axial Age, but did not have a grasp of how the activities during these centuries were influenced by the prior times and how they dramatically affected later religions, even those of today. The presenter is easy to understand and does not bury the listener in jargon. This is a good course.
Date published: 2017-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sympathy for the Devil; and old reasons to be nice I consider this offering to be a hidden didactic gem, by a presenter in his prime. The last lecture is a summary of the ideas of selfhood transformation, the explainations of the "ultimate reality", and the problems of religion; it alone is worth the cost of the course many times over. The presentation is sympathetic to the roots and ideas of various religions. It does present some of the harsh causes of some religious notions, and especially the personal but also the communal, changes due to new mindsets. There is a constant comparison process of world religions and leaders. Although there is no specific Judeo, Christian, or Greek coverage, comparative examples abound. For example, I never took Plato's Phaedo conversation about reincarnation seriously, but the comparison (by Muesse) to the Hindu is stunning. Muesse says he asks students what understanding was gained. For me, a main component is that the beginnings of all religions have some form of the "golden rule", ten commandments, and the beatitudes as lynchpins of virtuous moral selfhood (had to do some web work to verify this). The ultimate reality of "why" to be virtuous varies dramatically; and this is a great course to understand various first proposals. Also, I have a Christian (Methodist) upbringing, and missing was the discussion about change, growth, and "mystery" that many eastern religions extensively embrace. My own taste is to Paul Tillich (former chair at Harvard Divinity), and the text "The Courage To Be", as the best modern day example of religious philosophy, in a progression from what Muesse discusses. To Tillich, true nirvana is moral participation in the process of ever changing progress and growth. Tillich's morality of "courage and participation" is to never stop trying to progress, even in the face of harsh temporary setbacks. Muesse (also Harvard Divinity) mentions Tillich, but does not reference him in the Bibliography; post- axial, I guess. One question I have is the correspondence to physical training, and STEM (Scientific, Tech, Engineering, Math), that the axial age enabled. The Greek contribution (Olympics, Pythagorean music and math) and the Vedic/ Jain/ Buddhist (yoga, Tai Chi, martial arts, eventually our Western numerals and arithmetic). The interconnection of religious practice to technology and personal regimen is intriguing, and although Muesse mentions these as outcomes of organized religions, he does not dwell. The companion reader is very good, the bibliography and readings point to Amazon obtainable editions, and the internet resources have free material on all the axial religions, even Zoroastrian. Also, great free reading sources for the major religious works are specified under internet resources. A minor complaint is that there are no CC, closed captions, as there are on other offerings. One is expected to buy the $15 course transcript? Oh my! Sympathy for the devil, indeed...
Date published: 2017-09-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! As always, Mark Muesse gives an outstanding presentation. His explanations are clear and thorough, including historical information, and interesting details. The obvious passion for his subject matter, along with his rich speaking voice provide an engaging experience.
Date published: 2017-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from good title This was a very good intro to religions we often ignore.
Date published: 2017-05-17
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