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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  3,414 ratings  ·  256 reviews
From Karen Armstrong, the bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase, comes this extraordinary investigation of a critical moment in the evolution of religious thought.In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and ...more
Kindle Edition, 592 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2006)
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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 ...more
Jan 25, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
P.J. Wetzel
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
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 17, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition

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
Megan Kiekel
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 havent had enough brain cells to absorb this much information until now. This was the textbook from one of his religion classes in undergrad (hes a genius grad school engineer now), and he passed it on to me because he knew Id love it. I have to give
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
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
Feb 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Charles Matthews
Dec 07, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Much as Id like to just leave my review to one word, fascinating, I dont 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, which
May 24, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit dry but very well researched.
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jill Hudson
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  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Feb 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
AC Fick
Jul 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Mary Ellen
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 09, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
May 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
JJ Lehmann
Oct 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: in-collection
Although I'm not quite convinced on the concept of an Axial age, it is quite fascinating that so many giants of the religion world arose around the same time. In my opinion, it seems that because of the violence and desperation of the time or perhaps both made the populace open to, and the ground fertile for, the rise of spiritually intelligent people to combat this dukkha. It just seems to easy to connect them all.
That said, every academic field of study needs a person that can popularize its
Erin Britton
May 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In 'The Great Transformation', Karen Armstrong tackles a far greater range of religious philosophies than she has done in previous books. This time, Armstrong considers the numerous ideologies than came into existence during the turbulent five centuries (800 BC to 300 BC) known as the Axial Age. It was during this period that many of the main religious theories - Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Philosophical Rationalism - were developed and Armstrong considers each of these ...more
Jun 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Originally I tried to read this one as an old fashioned book. However, I found it difficult to find the time to dedicate to it. While it is a very interesting read, it was a slow read for me. I needed time to let the concepts and the history sit in my mind.

Then I decided to get the audiobook version of it. (Thank you!) Driving back and forth to work turned out to be a great time to absorb this tome.

It ties in directly to Armstrong's 'Charter for Compassion'. Listening to it felt
Oct 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Karen Armstrong proposes that the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major religious traditions, is to act compassionately and to honor the stranger. She suggests that when looking at the worlds major religious traditions one may discover the spiritual kernel behind all of them when one avoids jettisoning the doctrines within them. She gives a wide and broad view of the axial age within each faith tradition and helps one see the commonality behind this striving for compassion. I ...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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