The word “magisterial” in publishers’ blurbs usually means little more than “too long,” and indeed Religion in Human Evolution is very long, but it is also magisterial in many of the ways that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests: “Of, relating to, designating, or befitting a master, teacher, or other person qualified to speak with authority; masterly, authoritative, commanding.” It is certainly all of those, a book full of the wisdom and erudition that comes only when someone quite brilliant has thought about a big subject for many years. But the OED goes on to sound a more cautionary note in its definition: “Also (occas.) of a person: pedantic, arrogant, or dictatorial.” Professor Bellah’s book, for all of its grand scope, is never any of these; never arrogant, always quite humble and appreciative in its drawing upon the work of other scholars, never pedantic or dictatorial, but full of rather endearing self-doubts. And I think he was right to have some of those doubts. It may seem churlish to ask a man who has written 746 pages to say any more, but there are several points which made me say, “Yes, but . . .” Here I’ll address primarily the chapters on the so-called axial age, and within those chapters, will focus on India, which is what I know most about.
Let me begin with the historical relationship between the several civilizations of “the axial age,” Karl Jasper’s term for a period (sometime between 600 and 400 BCE) when similar important ideas—literacy, rationality, criticism—appeared in Israel, Greece, China, India, and Iran (though Professor Bellah does not say much about Iran). It is a time of breakthroughs, or breakdowns, in all of them. But the problem with the idea of a breakthrough is that evolution goes too slowly to be pinpointed in a single age—that change is gradual. In the case of India, for instance, Professor Bellah rightly notes that there were continuities with older inquiries, that there was, already in the Rig Veda, in c. 1500 BCE, the questioning, the uncertainty that we find in the Upanishadic debates of around the 6th century BCE. The axial spirit of inquiry, of challenge, is therefore not a breakthrough in the Upanishads or Buddhism.
But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that in each of these ancient cultures (India, Greece, China, Israel) there was, simultaneously, a breakthrough, then we must ask, where did these changes come from? What was the historical relationship between these cultures? Did the axial idea grow up in one, to be transmitted to the others? Did it arise in all of them at the same time because of some shared social or economic development? Was there a sudden simultaneous appearance in all of them of some vibrating pillar like the one in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001, A Space Odyssey”? The tension between independent origin, borrowing, or diffusion from a common source is an age-old question in the discipline of comparative religions, and Professor Bellah wisely does not attempt to resolve it.
But the apparent conflict between these explanations might be resolved by a modified version of the argument that Claude Lévi-Strauss made (in “Split Representation in the Art of Asia and America”) about cross-cultural parallels:
The simplest hypothesis is that of historical contact or independent development from a common civilization. But even if this hypothesis is refuted by facts, or if, as seems more likely, it should lack adequate evidence, attempts at interpretation are not necessarily doomed to failure. [...] Even if the most ambitious reconstructions of the diffusionist school were to be confirmed, we should still be faced with an essential problem which has nothing to do with history. Why should a cultural trait that has been borrowed or diffused through a long historical period remain intact?
Lévi-Strauss further argues (in The Story of Lynx) that borrowing is never haphazard, that what is borrowed is not just fitted into a preexisting structure: the borrowing takes place because of the similarity in structure between concepts in the culture that “lends” them and concepts in the culture that “borrows” them. In the case of the axial age, Professor Bellah suggests a similarity not in mental structures but in social and economic events. But then, what explains the confluence of such events in several cultures at once?
There is no clear, single reason why, for instance, ideas of reincarnation and renunciation arose in India in both Hinduism and Buddhism at this time (let alone in Greece, as well). Professor Bellah, true to his discipline, notes the general changes in the economic and social background, but these changes also took place, sooner or later, in many other parts of the world, often in places where no such ideas arose. To explain the Indian instance, at least, we might use a modified version of the intriguing hypothesis that Walter A. Fairservis laid out in his book, The Roots of Ancient India. Fairservis suggests that the theory of reincarnation may reflect an anxiety of overcrowding, the claustrophobia of a culture fenced in, a kind of urban Angst (a word ultimately derived from what the Rig Veda calls amhas, the terror of being confined in a small space).
The terror of overcrowding was also a precipitating factor in the ancient Babylonian epic, the Enuma Elish. Actual overcrowding, as Professor Bellah notes, in a most moving passage near the end of the book, precipitated several crises in the history of the planet earth, including the one that seems to be beginning now. The terror of overcrowding, however, arose not when the earth as a whole was crowded, which could not have been a problem in the ancient world, but when there were clusters of overcrowding in certain places: the first cities.
The Upanishadic discussion of the doctrine of transmigration begins when a teacher asks his pupil, “Do you know why the world beyond is not filled up, even when more and more people continuously go there?” and it ends with the statement, “As a result, that world up there is not filled up.” (Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.8; Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.1.1 and 6.2.2). The idea of an overcrowded earth is a part of the Hindu myth of the declining Four Ages (people live too long in the first Age and become too numerous) and recurs in the Mahabharata as a justification for the genocidal war (when the overburdened earth begins to sink beneath the cosmic waters). Is this fear of crowds related to the shock of the new experience of city life in the Ganges Valley? Were there already slums in ancient Kashi/Varanasi (as there may already have been in Harappa , in the Indus Valley Civilization, before 2000 BCE? )? Did a fear of this sort inspire the theory of reincarnation, a recycling not of tin cans but of souls?
The spread of paddy rice cultivation into the Ganges valley, producing a surplus that could support cities, created an unprecedented proximity of people. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BCE, said that the Indians were the most populous nation on earth (History, 5.3). Population densities had significantly increased as a result of a combination of the incorporation of indigenous peoples, a soaring birthrate, and the creation of agricultural surpluses. This led to a burgeoning of all the things that people who (like the ancient Vedic Indians) like to sleep on their saddlebags at night don’t like about sleeping indoors, things that are for them a cultural nightmare. The movements to renounce the fleshpots of the Ganges Valley may have been inspired in part by a longing to return to the good old days preserved (or imagined) in the Vedic texts, when life was both simpler and freer. Such a longing is reflected in the village settings of so much of the Upanishads, and in the forest imagery that abounds in the writings of the early sects, both inside and outside of Hinduism. Within the cities, the Buddha sat in an isolated spot under a tree to obtain enlightenment, and he first preached in a deer park. The Upanishads seem to have been composed by people who left the settled towns for rustic settings where master and student could sit under some tree somewhere, the ancient Indian equivalent of the bucolic liberal arts college; the renunciants are said to live in the wilderness, in contrast with the conventional Vedic sacrificers who live in villages.
Perhaps in reaction to this fear of the crowd, the whole Indian tradition at this time was becoming not just renunciant but individualistic; we begin to see a transition from group to individual, a perceived need for personal rituals of transformation, forming a certain sort of person, not just a member of the tribe.
As Professor Bellah rightly notes, it seldom if ever occurred to anyone in India, then or at any time before the 19th century, to attempt to change the world; but many people made judgments against the world, particularly the social hierarchy of their world, and opted out, or tried to solve the problem of suffering within the individual. The new religious movements of the axial age located the problem of the human condition, of human suffering, within the individual heart and mind (where Freud, too, located it), rather than in a hierarchical society (where Marx located it). In this way, at least, these movements were individualistic—“Look to your own house” (or, in the Buddha’s metaphor, “Get out of your burning house”)—rather than socially oriented, as non-renunciant Hinduism was—“Your identity is meaningful only as one member of a diverse social body—that is, the hierarchy of caste.” This in itself was a tremendous innovation.
I don’t think that these ideas can be explained in terms of social factors alone. Someone, someone, thought of the particular Hindu variant of the idea of reincarnation that became the theory of karma. And someone else thought of the Buddhist variant. Of course, these individuals did not produce their ideas in a vacuum, and Professor Bellah gives full credit, throughout his book, to the impact of great individuals such as Plato and the Buddha. The idea of karma, first laid out in detail in one of the earliest Upanishads (the Brhadaranyaka), was foreshadowed in many ways in early Vedic texts and perhaps developed among kings rather than priests (a possibility that Professor Bellah discusses well). There may well have also been contributions from the great Indian catch-all of “local beliefs and customs,” village Hinduism, or from that ever-ready source of the unknown, the Adivasis or aboriginals. And there is also always the possibility of an infusion of ideas from the descendents of the Indus Valley Culture, an unknowable pool of what might be radically different ideas. All great ideas are in a sense created by committees, like Hollywood film scripts and camels (in the old joke).
But rather than postulating, for the source of these ideas about individual salvation, an axial pool whose existence can’t be proved, it might be simpler to admit that some individual, some brilliant, original theologian whose name is lost to us, composed some of the Upanishads. We can line up the usual suspects: a natural development from Vedic ideas (no genius required); some brilliant person in the Vedic camp (genius required); kings rather than priests; the IVC and its descendents; Adivasis; etc. But this lineup is often nothing more than a confession: “I can’t find it in the Veda.” And perhaps something roughly like this is what happened in axial Greece, and China, and Israel—that is to say, to use Monty Python’s phrase, something entirely different. Our failure to identify the individuals in many of these essential cases, to name a Plato or a Buddha, should not, however, drive us back upon the unfalsifiable hypothesis of an axial Zeitgeist.
Among the several factors that Professor Bellah regards as characteristic of the axial age is the dawn of a universal ethics; in India, he sees this as happening particularly in Buddhism. I would argue that various forms of, and alternatives to, universal ethics, existed before the axial age in India.
The first problem with using universal ethics as a defining breakthrough is the assumption that this particular brand of ethics is all that defines religion, and therefore that when ethics improve, religion evolves. But many other aspects of religion also underwent dramatic evolution during this period—mysticism, theology, the use of narrative in argument, changes in ritual, the beginnings of sectarian worship, and so much more. Moreover, although certain forms of ethics did in fact evolve at this time, other ethics were already there long before. Generosity in particular was basic not only to the ethics of Vedic religion but to the broader Indo-European world that preceded the Vedas.
My colleague Jim Gustafson, in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, working from assumptions he derived from Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, made a useful distinction between, on the one hand, an ethics of obligation, a universal, Kantian agenda of following the rules, doing your duty to society; and, on the other hand, an ethics of appreciation, generosity, and art. An ethics of obligation may well have thrived or even developed in the axial age; but an ethics of appreciation was in place before it, and continued to thrive after it. Moreover, even if we grant that the ethics of obligation evolved or improved at this time, we must also grant that other aspects of social ethics got worse: women, for instance, had enjoyed many privileges, and a degree of freedom, in the pre-axial Vedic age that they lost in subsequent eras of Hinduism. (And in Buddhism, though many women thrived in Buddhism in ways that were not yet available to them in Hinduism.) I don’t want to veer into promiscuous relativism here, nor to rank the different sorts of ethics, but merely to point out that something that I would call ethics was already in place throughout the Indo-European world long before the axial age.
And this takes me to my final point: Rationality is one of the defining breakthroughs of the axial age; scholars tend to turn Indian enlightenment (spiritual awakening) into European Enlightenment (an 18th century philosophical development), mistaking the Buddha for Voltaire. But near the very end of the book, Professor Bellah begins to talk about the importance of play, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and all that, which seems to me to be part of the irrational or non-rational aspect of religion, and a very important one. The ethics of obligation is generally not playful—too much is at stake, the great challenge of human suffering. But there’s a lot of playfulness in the Upanishads and in early Buddhism. Play, the love of nature and generosity are intrinsic to the ethics of appreciation, which is also an ethics of aesthetics. Overemphasizing the ethics of obligation short-changes other religious changes and concerns that evolved at this time in the ethics of appreciation, changes in narrative, in art, in the performance of religion, the singing of religion. These seem to me to cry out to be given more prominence in any broad survey of the history of religion, especially in one so deeply humane and compassionate as Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution.
This essay is a slightly revised version of remarks delivered last month in San Francisco, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.—ed.