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Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World's Religions

Discover the striking similarities and notable differences in religions founded during the Axial Age—a period between 800 and 200 BCE. that saw the development of several influential religious cultures.

Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World's Religions is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 97.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Microcosm of Comparative Religion The study of “the axial age,” i.e., the years 800-200 BCE, notes that there were fundamental developments in religions from China to Greece including Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Greek philosophy. This course examines these developments in spiritual thought during this relatively limited era of time although he refers the student to other offerings by The Great Courses (TGC) for Greek philosophy and Judaism. Dr. Muesse organizes the course by religion (most of which are actually cultural philosophies that may not address any deity): Zoroastrianism in Mesopotamia (2 lectures), Hinduism (5 lectures), Buddhism (5 lectures), Jainism (1 lecture), Confucianism (3 lectures), Daoism (3 lectures). He considers each of these religions more or less in isolation and then draws out commonalities in the concluding lecture. I was disappointed that Dr. Muesse was satisfied with showing commonalities without delving into the *source* of those commonalities. For example, if two religions believe in an afterlife, is that a manifestation of some principle that transcends these religions or is it just a coincidence? For another example, Dr. Muesse stresses that religions throughout the axial age marked the beginning of the concept of self. Is that a manifestation of some development of social evolution or is it just a coincidence? I am also disappointed that his lectures were limited to these geographic areas and did not extend to Africa, the Americas, or western Europe. For example, Egypt was an advanced civilization with a deep and extensive spiritual legacy; why was Egypt excluded? Dr. Muesse’s speaking style is more of a performance than a dialogue. He seems more concerned with transmitting his information than interacting with his listeners. The course guide is average by The Great Courses (TGC) standards. The course guide is written in outline format as opposed to paragraph or bullet format. This breaks up the narrative. The course guide averages about 5 pages per lecture, which seems to be well below TGC standards. There are no graphics in any chapter. However, there is a timeline, an extensive glossary, extensive biographical notes, and a bibliography that describes the value that each reference offers. I used the audio version. It was perfectly adequate. I doubt that video graphics would have added significant information. The course was published in 2007.
Date published: 2023-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Take this class before any Eastern Religion class This course does not need any more 5-star reviews. Those 5-star reviews and the course description make clear how good this course is. Those reviews also tell you in detail what is actually contained in this course. I bought this course in 2007 when it was first published. I am now reviewing all my TGC on religion, and notes from the classes on Eastern Religions I took in they 2000's at LMU Los Angeles. YOU NEED TO TAKE THIS COURSE BEFORE YOU TAKE ANY OTHER CLASS ON EASTERN RELIGIONS. This course explains the how, why, and cultural conditions that resulted in the great sages of eastern religions. When I first took this course I took copious notes. Reviewing it now I realize the importance of just about every sentence from the professor.
Date published: 2021-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well presented course with an excellent lecturer The topic is very interesting to me so I'm definitely engaged from that standpoint. The material is organized in a very good way for presentation. The lecturer is very good. He speaks clearly and with animation -- top notch. He also takes time to introduce what will be coming in the next lecture. Well done!
Date published: 2020-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I find it quite engaging. I have only listened to the first three lectures, but if the remaining are as good as the first three, I will be keeping this series to view over again from time to time. I sometimes do that with really good programs.
Date published: 2020-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and informative lectures. Back in the day I was a religion and philosophy major, and I wanted to refresh my understanding of this marvelous Axial Age. To be honest, I was at first put off a bit by Dr. Muesse's somewhat sing-songy presentation and also by the different pronunciation of some words and phrases I was certain I already knew. About 10 minutes later I realized that Dr. Muesse had it all right and I didn't. His knowledge and understanding of the subject matter is obviously wide and deep, and his presentation of it in this series is thoughtful and organized. Perhaps what I most appreciated was the times he shared personal thoughts and experiences (perhaps in the Buddhism and Daoism lectures) that illustrated the themes he was presenting. The course exceeded my expectations. Thanks Dr. Muesse.
Date published: 2020-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Course that Can be Spoken of is not the Course Although the title of the course is “Religions of the Axial Age” Professor Muesse points out up-front that he is not covering Greece or Judea in the course. He points out that there are plenty of courses on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Judaism so there is less need for covering those topics. Even so he does bring in comparisons with Greek philosophy a couple of times. Plus (to cite only one example), I was so fascinated by his tracing of the religions of South Asia from the time of the Vedas that were mostly concerned with “right rituals” to the beginnings of religions that were concerned with questions of life, death and right behavior. Even though I was aware, I really had not thought so much about the differences of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. It would have been a nice parallel with the growth of Judaism from the Patriarchs to Judaism in the time of the Axial Age. But enough carping—otherwise this is a somewhat obscure topic, explained well and understandably. And I’d not ask for any lecture to be eliminated in order to accommodate other material, just another few lectures. Even with two lectures devoed to Zoroaster, I’d have liked more. And while Jainism is incredibly small in terms of adherents, its principles are so important, that only one lecture devoted to it seems not enough. My only real complaint is that this course should be 36 lectures long. There is much to love in this course, I thought a highlight was following Buddhism from its beginnings in South Asia to its rise (and change) in China followed by tracing the beginnings of the Axial Age in China and then six lectures on Confucius, Confucianism, Laozi (assuming he existed), the Daodejing and Daoism. And who knew that the Daodejing was written as a political text? Actually there are so many highlights in this course I hate to single one out. Dr. Muesse is not a particularly dynamic speaker, but his delivery is measured and precise. I always had the feeling that each word he used was the one that he exactly wished to use in order to convey exactly what he wanted. I took this course in audio and did not feel that I missed much by not having a video version. Highly recommend for those with an interest in religion.
Date published: 2020-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great wow that's great, it really helped me on solving some problems on the axial age!
Date published: 2020-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! I bought this two months ago and I’m real pleased with how the professor teaches and how much he knows.
Date published: 2020-02-16
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What could the beliefs and traditions of a Zoroastrian, a person of Jewish faith, a Buddhist, a follower of Confucius, and a Christian have in common? How do religions evolve over time? Religions of the Axial Age offers a rare opportunity to relate your own spiritual questions to a variety of ancient quests for meaning and transcendence. 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.


Mark W. Muesse

Mindfulness allows us to become keen observers of ourselves and gradually transform the way our minds operate.


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, Professor Muesse held positions at Harvard College, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Southern Maine, where he served as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a recipient of the 2008 Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching, Rhodes College's highest faculty honor. Known for his experiential teaching style, Professor Muesse was honored for his effective use of imaginative and creative pedagogy as well as his ability to motivate his students toward lifelong study. Professor Muesse has written many articles, papers, and reviews in world religions, spirituality, theology, and gender studies and has coedited a collection of essays titled Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. He is currently compiling an anthology of prayers from around the world. Professor Muesse is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Indian Philosophy and Religion and has been Visiting Professor at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, India. He has traveled extensively throughout Asia and has studied at Wat Mahadhatu, Bangkok, Thailand; the Himalayan Yogic Institute, Kathmandu, Nepal; the Subodhi Institute of Integral Education, Sri Lanka; and Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.

By This Professor

Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
Great World Religions: Hinduism
Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad
What Was the Axial Age?

01: 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.

31 min
The Noble Ones

02: 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.

29 min
The World of Zoroaster

03: 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.

31 min
Zoroaster's Legacy

04: 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.

31 min
South Asia before the Axial Age

05: 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.

31 min
The Start of the Indian Axial Age

06: 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.

31 min
Death and Rebirth

07: 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.

30 min
The Quest for Liberation

08: 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.

31 min
The Vedantic Solution

09: 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.

32 min
The One and the Many

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.

33 min
The Life of Siddhattha Gotama

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.

30 min

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.

32 min
Why We Suffer

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.

32 min
The Noble Path

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.

33 min
From Buddha to Buddhism

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.

31 min

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.

32 min
East Asia before the Axial Age

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.

30 min
The World of Confucius

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.

30 min
The Foundations of Confucianism

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.

30 min
The Cultivation of Virtue

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.

31 min
Early Confucianism and the Rise of Daoism

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.

31 min
The Daodejing

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.

32 min
Daoist Politics and Mysticism

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.

32 min
Reflections on the Axial Age

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.

31 min