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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions [Kindle Edition]

Karen Armstrong
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $16.95
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

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 Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Armstrong, one of our most prominent religious scholars, examines how these traditions began in response to the violence of their time. Studying figures as diverse as the Buddha and Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Armstrong reveals how these still enduring philosophies can help address our contemporary problems.


From the Trade Paperback edition.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's not what one may expect from a book about the development of the world's religions: "Crouched in his mother's womb, he lay in wait for his father, armed with a sickle, and the next time Uranus penetrated Gaia, he cut off his genitals and threw them to the earth." However, the Greek myth of Cronus clearly illustrates Armstrong's main thesis, that the "simultaneous" development of the world's religions during what Karl Jung called the axial age, is a direct result of the violence and chaos, both physical and spiritual, of past civilizations. Armstrong, a former nun turned self-described "freelance monotheist," has enough background and personal investment in the material to make it come alive. Her delivery is crystal clear, informative and, though somewhat academic, easy for the layman to understand. Her voice is straightforward yet wrought with palpable concern. This reinforces the book's goals of creating a clear understanding of where religious developments have come from and explaining how today's "violence of an unprecedented scale" parallels the activities that created the "axial age" in the first place.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

If you've already written God's biography (A History of God), surely it's a cakewalk to tackle the era before His ascendancy in theological affairs. But making sense of four disparate cultures and religious traditions in the space of 400 pages proves to be a risky proposition for Armstrong. Critics agree that her central theme, "the gradual elimination of violence from religion" (New York Times), makes for compelling reading, as does her weaving together of similarities among disparate faiths. Though her analysis shines, many reviewers feel the book suffers from too broad a focus; centuries are foreshortened, and even her supporters feel her conclusion doesn't do the book justice. With classic titles like The Battle for God and Islam: A Short History in her bibliography, the "runaway nun" remains our preeminent writer on popular religion, but this tome might best be reserved for her hardcore followers.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2052 KB
  • Print Length: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 1st edition (March 28, 2006)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000GCFCGY
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #161,722 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
412 of 429 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original Religions Stress Compassion March 29, 2006
Format:Hardcover
Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a nun, has written 16 previous books about religious matters, and is a prominent commentator on religious affairs in Britain. Her views have changed considerably since her earlier days in the convent, but she maintains tremendous respect for the world's great religions. She is a self-proclaimed "monotheist," but her writings seem to merely support and encourage a spiritual approach toward life - rather than a belief in any deity..."Human beings are spiritual animals...homo sapiens is also homo religiosus."

Armstrong's topic in this book is the Axial Age - those seven centuries from 900BCE to 200BCE that were marked by violence and warfare. In four different regions of the world, four great theologies (or ideologies) arose specifically to oppose these violent trends:

China - Daoism and Confucianism

India - Hinduism and Buddhism

Palestine - Judaism, which led to Christianity and Islam

Greece - philosophical rationalism

In all four geographical regions, the initial teaching was of tolerance, love, and humane treatment of others - despite the tendency for some of these to evolve into something else. Each tradition formulated its own version of the Golden Rule because what mattered was how one acts - putting ethical behavior at the heart of the spiritual life. The original prophets never relied on dogma - their emphasis was consistently on compassion. "The consensus of these four areas is an eloquent testimony to the unanimity of the spiritual quest of the human race. The Axial peoples all found that the compassionate ethic worked."

When secondary prophets or philosophers did start to insist on obligatory doctrines, it was usually a sign that the movement was losing its momentum.
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140 of 148 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound And Moving April 23, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Great Transformation is a history of the Axial Age, the period in the approximate first millenium B.C.E. when nearly all of our present day religions and philosophies were born. The Axial Age was a time when religion and philosophy evolved from the mere worship of something out of fear it could hurt you to a true ethical, compassionate belief. Karen Armstrong is a brilliant writer and thinker, and this is her finest work.

In a series of well organized and clearly developed chapters Armstrong traces the development of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Greek philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Armstrong provides context for the developments of these thought systems by succinctly describing the troubles of the time: invasions, epidemics, and the ebb and flow of cultural diffusion and change. She then relates these problems to the developing thought systems and shows how their influence penetrated the minds of the seers, prophets, and philosophers who were at work throughout the turmoil. Most interestingly, she interconnects the ideas with each other, showing how similar circumstances and contacts created philosophies and religions which shared the same concerns and often advocated many of the same solutions.

The Great Transformation should be on the shelves of all who seek to better understand the origins of so much of our human cultural heritage.
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107 of 116 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Karen Armstrong has written many shorter books dealing with the history of specific religious traditions, and has earned wide respect for her learning and insights. In "The Great Transformation" she attempts a grand synthesis of many of these traditions.

She gives us richly detailed accounts of the flow of religious thought within four cultural geographies over a vast period of time, but centering on what is labeled the "Axial Age": from around the 10th century BCE to approximately 200 BCE. China, India, Greece, and Israel are the geographical loci of her account. She interweaves these accounts in chronological fashion, seldom drawing explicit parallels until she reaches her concluding chapter.

In her introduction however, Armstrong makes clear her intent and her thesis. She says that "we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age" and that "[t]he Axial sages have an important message for our time." A reader will naturally go forward wondering if she will succeed in convincing us of that age's cohesion and its relevance to our own.

The amount of information in this book of almost 500 pages is undeniably impressive. It is organized effectively and embeds over 25 maps and other clarifying tables. The Bibliography is excellent.

When describing one of the phases of religious thinking that rolled across the Indian subcontinent, Ms. Armstrong writes "To an outsider, this sounds frankly incredible - a series of abstract statements that are impossible to verify. ... The sages did not give us rational demonstrations of their ideas." This fairly describes most of what she presents. Although this kind of editorial comment is rare in the main text, that text makes clear that "rational demonstrations" are seldom what religious teaching is about.
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55 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Roots of Religion February 11, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an outstandingly interesting book, even if you do not agree with every one of Karen Armstrong's conclusions.

The great German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers first proposed the idea of an "Axial period" that ran from approximately 800 to 200 BCE. During this time all the fundamental creations that underlie our current civilization came into being. It was also during this time that four of the world's great religions and philosophical traditions emerged: Hinduism and Buddhism in India; Confucianism and Taoism in China; Monotheism in Israel, that eventually gave expression to Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and rationalism in Greece. Some experts - including Jaspers - included a fifth: Zoroastrianism in Persia. Most scholars now consider that Zoroastrianism emerged before the Axial period, so it is discussed in this book, but is not one of the four great strands.

Following Jaspers' lead, Karen Armstrong credits this six to seven hundred year period as the turning point in the development of human spiritual consciousness. She describes these developments as a reaction to political disintegration and religious intolerance that lead large numbers of people to turn away from their customary systems of ritual and worship, and instead to search for and to create new systems based on justice, compassion and love. This search provided the catalyst for major transformations in religious culture.

Though she is a scholar, Karen writes a clear and easily digestible account about the spiritual heart of each of these religious doctrines, and shows that they all have some things in common: primarily the need for compassion and love in overcoming violence, hatred and selfishness.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
excellent
Published 20 days ago by g
5.0 out of 5 stars True historical description
Wonderful history and true word for word. Judaism, Christianity and Islam is nothing but revival of the same religion.
Published 22 days ago by Nizam
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Transformation
What a gift to read the words of someone so thoroughly educated in the history of religions and able to tie the histories together for the lay reader. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Sheila
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Read
One of the best books I ever read. Everyone should read it. Recipe on how to live. Well written. Karen Armstrong is wonderful.
Published 3 months ago by Henry Seiler
4.0 out of 5 stars Read this book if you want to know religeous History
This book is really deep and one must take their time in reading it but they will see that there were religions long before the time of Israel and there were many gods and many... Read more
Published 3 months ago by granville russell
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting view.
She is the person I think of as the "compassion queen." Finding and describing the central tenets of the major religions with her succinct perspective that "Compassion... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Jay Levin
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent material though at times too dry and cerebral for a lay...
If it weren't for the sometimes dry, cerebral nature of the writing which can be hard to connect with, I would give this book 5 stars. While I greatly appreciate Ms. Read more
Published 8 months ago by MichaelinPV
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
This is a great book for anyone who needs or wants to know how things got started. I love reading it and it has given me a new perspective on religion.
Published 8 months ago by Think
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and Tragic
The book is a clear headed examination of the basis of organized religion. Unlike Sam Harris, who makes good points using common sense, Ms. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Robert C. Berring
5.0 out of 5 stars Top notch read - covers it all.......some institution should award...
I've purchased two copies and plan to share one. Exceptional author and so well documented Yea, yea, yea, yea, yea!
Published 11 months ago by Barbara Auten
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More About the Author

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs-including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation-and two memoirs, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She has addressed members of the U.S. Congress on three occasions; lectured to policy makers at the U.S. State Department; participated in the World Economic Forum in New York, Jordan, and Davos; addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York; is increasingly invited to speak in Muslim countries; and is now an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations. In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and is currently working with TED on a major international project to launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to be signed in the fall of 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She lives in London.

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What is the purpose?
The western mind needs to systematize religion in neat boxes and our reaction to Armstrong's failed or successful attempt is our inability to accept that religion is man's effort to conceptualize Infinite Being. If we have real experience in a religion, we know it can not be so confined. ... Read More
Feb 19, 2009 by Just me. |  See all 4 posts
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