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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  3,588 ratings  ·  276 reviews
In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial ...more
Paperback, 592 pages
Published April 10th 2007 by Anchor (first published March 9th 2006)
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Jul 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Karen Armstrong takes great mountains, virtual Everests, of wretched scholarly prose and turns them into something highly readable. She is a first-rate disseminator and popularizer of the history of religion. The Great Transformation reviews the history of what Karl Jaspers famously termed the "Axial Age." During this period, roughly 900-200 B.C.E., the foundations for all of our present religious traditions were laid down: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, the other monotheism ...more
P.J. Wetzel
Oct 13, 2013 rated it liked it
I came to be aware of this book through my research for my distant future fantasy/sci-fi novel series 'Eden's Womb'. I wanted to understand the origin and evolution of mankind's religious journey in order to project a plausible future. That's a tall order, of course, but for me the study was a fascinating journey. I started by reading Huston Smith's iconic 'The World's Religions' and then began to delve deeper.

Along the way I had a little epiphany: It seemed that many major faith traditions/inst
Jan 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
The Great Transformation argues that the core religious/philosophical traditions of several major civilizations -- China, India, Greece, and Israel -- emerged at about the same time, for the same reasons, and were preoccupied with the same ideas. The time is what philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the period from approximately 700-200 B.C. when these civilizations all developed philosophical or religious tenets that emphasized what we might now call inner spiritual development rather ...more
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 17, 2010 rated it did not like it

This is a rather brave attempt to wring significance out of the fact that Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates and Jeremiah all lived at about the same time, between them causing a revolution in the way in which humans relate to the universe in philosophy and religion. It did not completely work for me. I found Armstrong's account of the evolution of the Old Testament as a product of the Jews' exile in Babylon pretty compelling, and we have a couple more of h
Megan Kiekel Anderson
Jul 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This textbook covers the beginnings and transformation of the major world religions through the Axel Age, from 1600 BCE to 220 BCE, plus an epilogue that brings the history into the current time.

I borrowed this from our friend Steve last fall, and I haven’t had enough brain cells to absorb this much information until now. This was the textbook from one of his religion classes in undergrad (he’s a genius grad school engineer now), and he passed it on to me because he knew I’d love it. I have to g
Tim Pendry

The core of this book is a solid account of the 'spiritual' traditions of four great civilisations (the Hellenistic-Pagan; the Judaean; the South Asian; and the Chinese) during the thousand or so years before the end of the third century BC. As far as it goes, it is an excellent and coherent narrative.

But I have my doubts. The story sometimes seems shoe-horned not only into the contention that all four cultures saw a first axial age that defined Old World culture until a second 'axial age' in th
Feb 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Karen Armstrong looks beyond doctrine to find a common core in the religious and philosophical traditions that emerged during the years 900 to 200 BCE - an era the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. All around the world at the time, people were trying to address the question of violence and endless war.

What she found in the writings of the great thinkers and sages of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Judaism and the precursors of Christianity i
Mar 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So I bought this book about three years ago at a street festival in Michigan when I was on a big non-fiction kick. I never got past the first couple of chapters because the writing felt pretty dense and seemed to assume that I had a background knowledge of things like the Assyrian Empire and the Book of Deuteronomy. I still don't know anything about those things, but I decided to give the book another go as part of my quest to actually read all the books that are languishing on my shelves before ...more
Corina Anghel
May 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I started reading this book on Easter, because although I am not religious, I wanted to celebrate the spirituality of the Holiday. It was absolutely fascinating to read the history of the four most popular religions of the world and it was so interesting to discover that:
- the Christian God's (and Islams's Allah's) story dates long back, evolving from the story of Yahweh, a warrior god who later on "started" to also support people with their crops and "became" omniscient and omnipresent when the
Charles Matthews
Dec 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
We can be almost certain that somewhere, at this very moment, someone is committing an act of violence in the name of God. That troubling realization underlies this book, an attempt to reach back 2,500 years and more, to survey our earliest attempts to establish systems of belief that promise a release from human strife.

Karen Armstrong's "great transformation" took place in what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called "the Axial Age" – roughly seven centuries, starting around 900 B.C., in which the
Beginning with an exploration of Asian religious tradition, Karen Armstrong gradually moves to a general, and rather generic, call for religious tolerance. She focuses exclusively on the religious traditions of the Asian continent, notably Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and while she does a cracking good job of it (her explication of Buddhist belief was the clearest I've ever read), she does so to the neglect of the contributions of the West to religious thought, notably Catholicism and post-Re ...more
Much as I’d like to just leave my review to one word, fascinating, I don’t think that would be sufficient.
So, this book left me feeling just a bit uneducated as I know practically nothing about all but one of the religions discussed but I did find it curious, as obviously the author has, that all three would have such similar ideas at approximately the same time. The progression of each religion based on their geographical area and societal influences as well as their ultimate conclusions, whic
May 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
A bit dry but very well researched.
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Armstrong is quickly becoming one of my favorite religious thinkers. Here, she gives a history of the evolution of religious concepts from ancient times through the Axial Age when the ideals governing the world's societies were developed, taking us into the development of religion and philosophy in Asia, Eurasia, India, and the Middle East. I've been waiting to read a book like this practically my whole life, and while I certainly learned plenty, I now have even more questions: What about the an ...more
Feb 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
The length of this book is a monumental undertaking but I persevered! And I feel rewarded for doing so. It feels largely academic but is such an intriguing recount of religious history. Instead of expecting myself to remember every detail I decided to look for trends. What I came away with was that since the beginning of man, we have looked upward or outward for a higher being or a higher cause. We have looked for sense of belonging and purpose and meaning. It is utterly amazing that different c ...more
Jill Hudson
Jan 14, 2019 rated it liked it
I was surprised by the many gushing reviews this book has received. Yes, it is a useful survey of the emergence and development of several world religions, and a very readable introduction to their characteristics. It also makes a strong case for mutual understanding and tolerance. But for me it just doesn't do 'what it says on the tin'. It offers no real explanation of why so many similar ideas emerged in different cultures at a similar time, though on the cover it says it is going to. Why were ...more
Miroku Nemeth
Jan 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
I have mixed feelings about this book. It's a perspective on history that is interesting in many ways, but very misleading in others. The attribution of nonviolence to peoples who were violent is really quite inexplicable if it was actually a historical analysis of the theoretical "axis age" (that this is a problematic construction is actually borne out by the tortured argument structure of the book), but it is a recurrent theme she uses to support her thesis throughout the 500 and some odd page ...more
Edwin Setiadi
Apr 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion
The birth and evolution of religion

Karen Armstrong refer to it as the Axial Age. It was a period of time between 900 to 200 BC where in 4 distinct regions the great world traditions came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and mythology and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

These traditions bring us the likes of Socrates, Plato, Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah, Euprides, Mencius, and the mystics of Upanishads. Even today, in times of
Feb 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I read this book after reading Armstrong's wonderful book, "The Spiral Staircase." As a person who has never studied religious history, I lack the context for assessing Armstrong's treatment of the Axial Age during which major religions evolved versions of the Golden Rule. Her writing is very clear and easy to read, and she provides extensive documentation and explanations at the back. For me, the book was a captivating journey through a dimension of history that has fueled my curiosity. She sti ...more
AC Fick
Jul 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Armstrong is informed and informative without ever being didactic or preachy. This book, given the vast scope of its subject matter -- across time and space -- is infinitely readable, while always being detailed, specific, and accurate.

If you're intrigued by or interested in the history of the major religious and faith-based traditions in the world, this book is rewarding reading.

In fact, this ought to be required reading for all students of humanity; everyone, every last one of us, ought to rea
Jun 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I have read this two times and now am having it read to me in bed by my husband, a release for gut centered pacifists pained by all these wars.
Apr 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
It took a long time to finish this book, but it is worth the effort. In its scope and importance, it reminds me of Ideas: from Fire to Freud, another very worthwhile book. However, this one is more focused and, in some ways, more original.

Armstrong deals with what the historian Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age (that period between 900 and 200 BC) during which the major philosophical and religious traditions that exist today, began. She follows developments in this regard in 4 distinct regions an
Jul 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion, history
While it is very easy here to lose the forest for the trees, The Great Transformation is a fine popular account of comparative religion. What drives the book is the idea that there was an Axial Age that spanned several cultures which could have had little to no contact with each other, and that this age was marked by peace-seeking and empathy after millenia of tribal warfare. This is vastly oversimplying the notion first put forth by Karl Jaspers, which Armstrong uses as a frame without really a ...more
Jan 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
"The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Religious Traditions" is the sort of scholarship you can come to expect from Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar from Britain who writes extensively on religious topics. She is able to take quite complicated issues and ideas and his able to make them accessible to a wider audience. This really is the biggest job of a scholar, whether independent or attached to a university- to be able to communicate your thoughts and ideas in a coherent way. If yo ...more
Mary Ellen
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Karen Armstrong's scholarly exploration of the Axial Age was esoteric at times, and I found her discussion of Christianity to be surprisingly lacking, but ultimately I loved how she rounded it all out with a discussion of how compassion and the Golden Rule is the heart of all the world's religious traditions. Very inspiring. ...more
Dec 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing
From The Washington Post's Book World/
In 1948, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term "Axial Age" to denote an astonishing era, from roughly 900 B.C. to 200 B.C., in which the foundations of the world's great religions were laid. This was the time of Socrates, Elijah, Siddhartha, Confucius. In her magisterial new exploration of the era, Karen Armstrong argues that all Axial Age traditions emphasized justice and were committed to the practice of "disciplined sympat
Mark Gowan
Jan 09, 2010 rated it liked it
I like reading Karen Armstrong's books. This book is a travel through religious history, especially that of the Judaism and Christianity. It includes Islam, but not to the same extent. The book seems centered around the 'axial' age of religions; that is, the movements,mostly early on, that defined religious belief as a changing phenomenon motivated by individual betterment, rather than traditional acceptance of socially defined belief.

The book starts with the Aryans, around 1600 B.C.E and takes
Daniel Seifert
Armstrong, a religious historian in her own right, discusses four Axial cultures under that while they are not synchronic developments/transformations in human development, they are great Axial figures (900 BC to 200 CE) such as Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha in India, and Laozi and Confucius in China. Wile I am not a ride reader of history, I found helpful this rich background to my familiarity with Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are categorized as “latter day flowerings of the Axi ...more
May 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. I have read a lot of Karen Armstrong's work and love the way she explains religion in a scholarly and yet respectful manner for every religious tradition. However, this was my favorite by far. I got lost in her descriptions of the mindset, culture, and beliefs of the peoples of the Axial Age. It was fascinating to visit Ancient Greece, China, India, and Israel. I just couldn't get enough and would have read on another 400 pages.

Sometimes at the end of Armstrong's work she see
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
An excellent book if you're interested in religion or history, or some perspective on the confusing state of affairs in the world today. Ms. Armstrong explains in depth the changes that occurred in four main civilizations from around 1000 years before and until around 500 years into the common era. The peoples she studies are the Israelites, the Greeks, Indian and Chinese, during times of upheaval for each of them. In general she shows how for each of these groups a greater understanding of indi ...more
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Karen Armstrong, a comparative religion specialist is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and Fields of Blood, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion,

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