Karen Armstrong must be one of the world's most popular exegetes. There are few other writers with such a healthy readership who are as comfortable in all the world religions. But her writings are never merely exegesis; they also bear the imprint of her personal spiritual and intellectual journey. Although her latest book, The Great Transformation: The World at the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah, is not particularly scholarly, and does not present itself as such, it is of a matter of some significance then where exactly that journey has taken her.1 Many of her readers with a religious sensibility will find themselves being led into unfamiliar surroundings by her latest book. She never loses her powerful desire to finish by holding on to something high and good, I should say; it is just that it may be something disappointing or unrecognizable to many ordinary people of faith.

It is only natural that, after having done the rounds of many of the world's religious thinkers, she should end up considering what underlies them all. In the first instance, this means their origins in an historical sense, that is to say the series of intellectual revolutions that broke out in several regions of Eurasia over the middle six centuries of the first millennium BC. In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers first referred to this epoch as forming the ‘Axial Age’.2 These movements were ‘axial’ because of their pivotal importance. Monotheism emerged among the Jews, the philosophical foundations of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were laid down in northern India; Confucianism and Daoism appeared in China, while the Western intellectual tradition began in Greece. That one turn on the axis was enough, it seems, and we have not shifted much since.

In the second instance, Armstrong also wants to investigate what might unify all these traditions on the most fundamental level. And this is what suggests the book represents the summation of Armstrong's personal quest. On the one hand, her own loss of faith after a spell as a nun is well known. Clearly, after studying the various world religions with such enthusiasm, she has not found it possible to return to the bosom of a single doctrine. On the other hand, something of the convent remains, a desire to be sometimes a sage herself and not just an elucidator of sages. Since 9/11 she seems to have found her calling as a reconciler of faiths, explaining to one fearful set of believers what is good and familiar about the rest. This is bolstered by a lingering dissatisfaction with secularism, which she holds accountable for the impulses that will lead us to environmental Armageddon.

What allows her to resolve these conflicting imperatives is her feeling that the world religions hit upon something profound and true in their inception – in the Axial Age – but have since ossified in unfortunate ways. That something is ethics, no less – and not much more. This, in turn, can be condensed as the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to you. She may be right to highlight how extraordinary the explicit arrival of this principle was and also to flourish its heuristic potential to contain the myriad teachings on display here: all the Axial teachers insisted that kindness should not be guided by kinship or kingship; everyone now belonged to the great tribe of the suffering. But the Golden Rule remains a defiantly un-mystical principle and suggests that it is Confucius who has left the deepest impression. (When she tries to describe the intellectual core of the Axial Age more generally her language becomes increasingly Buddhist).3

This has profound implications for her treatment of the world religions, given that most people with religious convictions today do not take direct inspiration from the first sages of the mid-first millennium BC, but from the great works of religion-building that were established upon their premises. The world religions emerge from Armstrong's account as corruptions of the Axial Age sensibility, often producing ‘exactly the kind of religiosity that the Axial reformers wanted to get rid of.’4 Most strikingly of all, she insists that her sages had ‘no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics’.5 One result is that Armstrong seems ambivalent as to whether the advent of monotheism pushed forward the Axial Age at all. Zoroastrianism, which many see as the first Axial breakthrough, Armstrong relegates as an also-ran because its vision of eternal war between good and evil is agonistic rather than empathetic. She has similar reservations about Elijah, whose vision of a god lifted above the things of this world (I Kings 19:11–13) is obviously profoundly germane, but who was ultimately in the business of forcing his vision upon others, and therefore falls short of real Axial status. When monotheism unequivocally arrives in Second Isaiah, Armstrong's main comment is to sniff at its unattractive packaging in the shape of an unreconstructed God of War.6 Christianity does not fare much better. Jesus himself is granted an authentic status as an Axial figure, because he was, we are told, uninterested in doctrine and taught a version of the Golden Rule, and Paul is also somehow presented as propounding a vision of love (being compared thus to a Mahayanic bodhisattva) rather than being much concerned with the notion of ‘belief’ (!). But there is no disguising the fact that these are tail-enders, relegated to a few pages and arising within the context of a messianic piety that ‘had no roots in the Axial Age, and took Judaism in a different post-Axial direction’.

Armstrong may be unique in presenting ethics as the fundamental feature of the Axial Age; most other scholars have located it in something called the ‘transcendentalist breakthrough’. Karl Jaspers, who took inspiration from Max and Alfred Weber, has induced a number of scholars to take his insight seriously: Eric Voegelin, for example, Benjamin Schwarz, and Robert N. Bellah (who seems to be rounding off a distinguished career by writing a book on the subject).7 There is, then, a little academic industry surrounding the concept, even if it is disproportionately small to the great riches that remain to be tapped. The most visible exponent of the concept may be the prolific Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, another popularizer.8 However, probably the most important thinker on the subject working today – only weighed down by a prose-style that seems prepared to defeat all-comers – is the Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt.9 Eisenstadt has defined the transcendentalist breakthrough as the erection of two sharply distinguished orders of reality and modes of behaviour. This is indeed a powerful way of lending coherence to the apparently disparate ancient philosophies.

Armstrong's contribution can at least be recognized as a feat of cognitive digestion: the diverse mental life of these ancient civilizations has been absorbed and then extruded out into simplifying, clarifying story-telling prose. In pursuing the story from circa 900 to 220 BC, she takes a hundred years or so at a time and shows us what was going on in India, Greece, Israel and China. Some genuine comparative frisson is generated by this method, but it does not help her much in meeting the massive academic challenge to explain why and where the Axial Age occurred. Therefore, this review shall try to draw a more analytical approach from her material; in the first part I shall reflect on some themes regarding how the Axial age came about; in the second part, I shall try to draw out a more or less implicit philosophical argument which appears to shape every page of Armstrong's book.


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What, in Armstrong's narrative, could account for this sudden blooming of compassion? Once could condense her story thus: the religious vision of the early civilizations was on the whole quite benign – before climate change, increasing competition for land and the arrival of charioteer nomads brought cataclysm. A dark age followed and the religious imagination darkened too. Warrior gods come to the fore, myths revealed the power of chaos to tear apart human society or were structured by agonistic struggle. We are now mired in the age of heroism, a term which appears as transcendentalism's shadow in Armstrong's narrative. But the heroic mode of life was unsustainable, unbearable. What could be the answer to this heightened consciousness of the suffering inherent in existence? Only by giving up this endless competitive striving and opening out to others could peace be found.

However, suffering by itself is surely nothing new. What Armstrong's account does not really convey is that for a breakthrough to occur, the traditional means of ameliorating and explaining suffering through ritual and myth must also come to seem inadequate. In all of the Axial teachings, pain appears to be equated with an anxiety about impermanence. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is ‘life is dukkha’– and dukkha elides entirely the distinction between suffering and transience. Why did change itself become charged with such negative force? Why was an image of timelessness desired so desperately? It may seem glib to simply refer to the fact that there was a lot of transience about. The usual culprits historians assemble under ‘change’– urbanization, growing trade, introduction of new metals, formation of state power etc. – were hard at work in all these regions, undermining old social roles, generating new needs. Normally, the pace of change is such that ritual can serve to puncture it with periodic stillness, collapsing the present, past and future into momentary conformity. But reality was now outstripping the old rites and old stories simply too quickly. An answer could be found in a vision of the transcendent, which floats free and serene above ‘reality’ by virtue of its ineffability. Since the sacred is no longer immanent in the world, the world can no longer be expected to proceed the way it should. One of the Upanishads has a great king drawn towards a renouncer after reflecting that empires rise and fall, the great oceans dry up, the stars are cut from their moorings, the gods tumble out of heaven and ‘In this world I am like a frog in a dry well. Holy man, you are my way, you are my way.’10

Change was not only witnessed in people's lifetimes, it was also being tracked over generations thanks to the new technologies of memorization: literacy or exacting methods of oral repetition. (Armstrong makes a sharp distinction between literate Israel and oral India, which is unwarranted given recent scholarship on how effective such oral methods can be at preserving ‘texts’). The relativizing powers of historical consciousness were unleashed. By the time of the Upanishads, the renouncers could look back through layers of teachings in the Vedas and Brahmanas, which dated back many centuries. And some of it, quite frankly, now looked like gobbledegook. If Nietzsche considered the plight of us moderns as ‘wandering encyclopaedias’, staggering under the accumulated knowledge of successive generations, all of which could resemble a junk-heap when piled on top of each other, then there were evidently a few moderns wandering around in the centuries BC.11

Thus the Axial Age: the pursuit of meaning not the practice of ritual – because just doing the rituals doesn't work any more; inwardness not exteriority – because we have mastery over our minds but little else; challenge not status quo – because the status quo is obviously deficient; ethics not law – because the law is the creature of power. These indicate a loss of faith in man's ability to better himself through mundane activity. This is also a loss of faith in politics.

The various breakthroughs seem to owe little to cross-fertilization. Instead, we are faced with spontaneous eruptions in four disconnected regions. As Karl Jaspers recognized, all occur in ‘an interregnum between two great ages of empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness’12– between the collapse of the Zhou dynasty and the unification of the warring states under the Qin in China, between Harappan civilization and the Mauryan empire in India, between Mycenae and Alexander in Greece. Empires may be hostile to transcendentalism because they beguile us with dreams of secular salvation instead; they suggest that we can mould the world to our liking through magic and science and bureaucracy. Breakthroughs have therefore tended to emerge from the ruins of dead empires – or on the margins of ones that are very much alive.

This was the predicament of the people of Israel, threatened or actually sat-upon by more powerful neighbours from the start. The sensation of arbitrariness to which the Israeli breakthrough was a response was uniquely political. It was the tyranny of Babylonian rule that finally brought their Axial Age to fruition. In the transformation of Ezekial, who was deported to Babylon in 97 after Nebuchadnezzar's subjugation of Judah and then settled in the village of Tel Aviv, Armstrong sees how physical displacement from the homeland is accompanied by a sense of metaphysical displacement from the given. He becomes apparently deranged, this trembling, restless figure haunting the public squares, railing against the empty ritualism of blood sacrifice, lying on one side for 390 days and the other side for 40, eating shit to indicate the starvation they would undergo during the siege of Jerusalem. Ezekial seems to be living out the strangeness of this new God who has divorced himself so definitively from the world.

But this Yahweh had a logic after all: he was punishing his people for their irreligion. The demand for moral self-scrutiny makes this a typically Axial Age moment. The warrior god was no longer merely fighting on behalf of his people but challenging them to fight their own evil within. He remained their champion nonetheless, and what is distinctive about the monotheistic Axial Age – all too fittingly, given current affairs – is its origins in collective rather than personal suffering, in the need to make sense of political disaster. This may help explain why of all the products of the Axial Age, the monotheists have been the most insistent on their exclusive access to the transcendent, easily the most determined to distinguish between insiders and outsiders. Armstrong would not appreciate the analogy, but Islamist extremists, who respond to the indignities of the international world order by holding to a lurid higher narrative insisting upon their ultimate victory, provide us with an image of the origins of monotheistic transcendence itself.

Elsewhere, transcendentalism is ushered in to meet logical and psychological challenges, and here the recipe seems to be political fragmentation within a broader cultural ecumene. Again, this is likely to be what is left once empire retreats. The Axial Age vision is the achievement of a new breed of peripatetic intellectual, who roamed this fragmented political landscape offering their minds for hire. Thus the renouncers of Northern India, leaving their forest-retreats to circulate the princely courts of the Ganges basin, the sophists of Greece, plying their trade in the independent city-states, the Chinese literati moving among the courts of the warring states to offer advice on how to rule over and enhance human nature. There was always another patron to which an intellectual could turn, always another ruler who spoke the same language but saw the world just a bit differently. In India and Greece there were even different types of government to appeal to, for India also had its oligarchic republics as well as kingdoms.

These were men marginal not to some overweening foreign state but to their own society. Already living outside the normal flow of life and its round of assumption and convenience, they then drew a breach across reality entire. This is least applicable to the Chinese philosophers who were more firmly oriented towards the service of government and society at large. Sure enough, theirs is the vision that prizes integration and coherence above all else and thus theirs is the least convincing Axial Age. Some have argued that the Chinese do not belong in the paradigm at all, because in their teachings the ultimate ineffable remains immanent, inseparable from the natural order, and in that sense not truly transcendental at all.13 Israel had her prophets, set apart in their own way but not quite comparable to the thinkers-for-hire in the other Axial regions, and this may be why reason played so much less of a part in the Judaic breakthrough. In the development of monotheism, one discerns a pulsation of the unfettered mind in the initial questioning of received tradition, but in general the logical approach to God is a post-hoc affair, an Ordnance Survey map of the route to the top of the mountain for the restless and pedantic when divine revelation has long since swept the prophets to its summit.

By contrast, the Greek florescence was all to do with reason and very little to do with religion. The result was that the old cults were usually bracketed off from the philosophical quest, almost in fear of what reason might do if it was let loose on them, and never actually redesigned along transcendentalist lines. (One of the few to ignore the brackets was Protagoras, best know for the dictum ‘the measure of all things is man’. It is difficult to think of a more explicit disavowal of transcendentalism than that). One senses an impatience with the Greeks in Armstrong's account. As the other regions shift through the gears towards their breakthroughs, the Greeks remain wedded to their pantheon, perversely rendering their gods more solid and quarrelsome. Armstrong suggests that the Axial Age finally arrives in their theatrical tragedies, and their consciousness of the inevitability of suffering, the exploration of interior space, their critical stance to received wisdom. But even then, the Greeks cannot seem to get beyond the First Noble Truth, determinedly staring into the abyss without straining to look up into the immensity above. The Greeks appear as the precocious child of the book: forward in terms of argument and backward in terms of wisdom, and only really making good with the achievements of Plato and Socrates.

Armstrong contrasts the reign of logos in Greece with India where ‘truth was measured not by objective but by its therapeutic value’14– but this is to underestimate the role of disciplined reason in India's Axial Age. One certainly finds a greater tolerance of the paradoxical, the allusive and the mystical in the Indian texts, but their intellectual milieu is altogether reminiscent of classical Greece. Debate having become a spectator sport and a means to celebrity, any proposition inherited or invented now became subject to scrutiny, and the chains of reason abstract, dense and open-ended. The difference is that in India this dialogic exuberance was yoked to techniques of sustained introspection and altered consciousness: meditation and yoga. These brought not only cognitive illumination but a more wholesale transformation of being, a lightening of one's mortal load. This is why India's philosophical sea-change was poured into the vessel of religion. If here too reason brushed aside traditional habits of thought, it was to clear the ground for a fully-realized and intimately-explored vision of the transcendent.


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We have seen that Armstrong identifies ethics as the solid rock of truth over which the shifting sands of religious doctrine have whipped and whirled. However, the problem is that her professional and personal need to dignify religious teachings and bring them into harmony means she cannot quite leave it at the Golden Rule. After all, this might lead to nothing more than liberal humanism – much like George Eliot's ‘doctrine of sympathy’ (another writer who lost her faith and retained a moral seriousness). Furthermore, she needs some way of binding the discovery of ethics into the core of the Axial Age vision, the transcendentalist breakthrough. This is not altogether straightforward, partly because the most analytically useful formulation of that breakthrough (as the conception of two sharply distinguished orders of reality and modes of behaviour) may not serve to define all the traditions. We have noted that this seems to be an awkward image to apply to Chinese philosophy, and some scholars of the Theravada would even object to the characterization of early Buddhism as a transcendentalist system, given its rejection of any form of absolutism.15 Moreover, the concept seems ultimately marginal to the Greek breakthrough.

Armstrong's strategy, apparently, is to smooth over these obstacles by using the language of transcendence in a looser and more everyday sense, to evoke a sensation of being lifted out of our everyday selves. We may achieve this sensation by participating in a ritual, say, or an aesthetic experience. If this allows her to embrace such phenomena as Greek tragedy in her definition of the Axial Age, it also threatens to erode the particularity of what she seeks to define: for all societies have means of enhancing consciousness or diminishing self-consciousness by ritual and aesthetic means. A similar point could be made with regard to her attempts to draw Socrates into the Axial paradigm. Here she equates an intimation of transcendence with the unsettling awareness of ignorance that must conclude any thoroughly-pursued chain of logic.

The primary function of this generous definition of transcendence is, however, to allow it to appear inseparable from an ethical sensibility.16 For Armstrong suggests that one of the most powerful ways we can be ‘emptied out’ of ourselves is by radical empathy. At times, this appears to be little more than word-play. Nevertheless, her text does disclose a more profound connection between ethics and transcendence: it arises from what happens to the self. This is most clearly seen in the Indian tradition, a great deal of the logical energy of which was directed towards trying to grapple with the nature of consciousness – this thing at once ungraspable yet unavoidably fundamental, like salt dissolved in water. What happened, of course, is that the self was redefined beyond all normal understanding, to become somehow equated with the essence of the universe, and this redefinition facilitated both a moral ideal and a soteriological potential. It was now something radically different from the everyday egotistic sense of self we all have, and yet all the more authentic. Indeed, all the Axial movements evince a sense that as soon as the self has been identified it has become something to worry about. It is as if we have found ourselves standing on the stage and glorying in the spotlight only to feel suddenly quite alone, and that somewhere out there beyond the darkness there must be a larger pool of light that will hold us all. One might say, that just as the self was discovered so too was mankind, which makes its first appearance here as an undifferentiated moral community.

Yet the defeat or transcendence of normal human emotions brings in its train a series of paradoxes and tensions that Armstrong rather ignores. In the most important and straightforward of ways, transcendentalism must be the most complete antidote to relativism and nihilism imaginable. However, there may be at least one subtle way in which those same attitudes find a route in through the back door. That is, they are now allowed to call into question whatever taken-for-granted meaningfulness may linger on in our experience of this world. If an order of meaning can only be legitimated by something beyond itself – so it may also be undermined by it. We can apprehend this by considering the most concrete image of the transcendent: the mode of being attained after spiritual exertion in this life or at its end. For all transcendentalisms have to destroy our normal understanding of life in order to imagine its continuation after death. The relationship between the ‘I’ who exists now and the ‘I’ who must exist as a static piece of love in the monotheistic heaven is stretched to vanishing point. Again, as always, the most unflinching intuition of the impossibility of continuity is Buddhist. Often misunderstood as the reincarnation of the soul, in fact the Theravada doctrine of rebirth indicates merely the transfer of desire, of a certain corruption of consciousness, from one psychosocial vehicle or personality to another – like a candle flame that is passed to another wick just before it expires.

Lastly, if her conception of transcendentalism allows her to keep the ethical sensibility fundamentally religious, it also allows her to diagnose what is wrong with the contemporary world religions. Sometimes this is another way of saying, again, that ethics have lost their proper primacy: ‘When people concentrated on defining the god they were transcending to, instead of focusing on the greed, hatred, and egotism that they were transcending from, there was a danger of stridency and aggressive chauvinism.’17 But she also makes a much stronger case to the effect that if the ultimate reality is ineffable it is illogical to insist upon particular theologies and force them onto others. A reverent silence is a more dignified option. And each one will find his own way there.

This doesn't work. Heaven, Nirvana, Brahman, Dao, may be wordless in themselves, but on how to get there most of our sages were voluble, and most held that their way was the only way. The ideologies they inaugurated were all ‘offensive’, to use Ernest Gellner's term, that is, aware of alternatives and dismissive of them.18 Moreover, when the unspeakable is lent agency and desires and plans – as in monotheism – then where He is silent, there will be those who must speak in His name. The way in which this may result in a taste for orthodoxy can be seen in the lifetime of Plato, in many ways the most authentic Greek candidate for an Axial Age sage but who ended up setting out a distressingly authoritarian vision in The Laws and The Republic. Armstrong places a radical divide between the early and the late Plato, with the latter retreating from the Axial Age as fast as the compassionate element to his thought diminishes. But the logic is clear: one asserts that divine forms do exist and can be known, that our shadowy cave can be left behind for the light of the sun, but that since these things are entirely hidden from everyday life then apprehending them is not exactly like falling off a log. That task will fall to the moral and intellectual virtuosi, who will return to the cave with a unique authority: their account of reality is unimpeachable, and their desire to re-order it in accordance with their vision the most important message in the world. It is entirely characteristic of this logic that if the beginning of the Axial Age quest lies in tragedy – in an awareness of innate suffering – then it ends, in The Republic, with the performance of tragedy being outlawed. If the transcendent is dumb, people will itch to speak for it.

I certainly do not mean to up-end her argument and suggest that authoritarianism and sectarianism are inevitable products of transcendentalism. The Indic versions have usually tended towards the tolerant and syncretic, and one also finds a patch of inclusivity here and there in the history of the more doctrinaire monotheisms – one thinks particularly of Sufism. It is just that an intimation of the transcendent may both absolutely unite us and absolutely divide us. Armstrong makes much of the comparison between the Axial Age and our own age of strife. It is as if (I am extrapolating here) we also are leaving behind an age of empire – the destruction of the twin towers signaling the end of American might; the images of secular salvation this land of plenty has been beaming to the world since the 1950s finding their defeat in Abu Ghraib. Thus Armstrong invokes 9/11 to symbolize our crisis of rampant secularism and corrupted religion, which leaves us once more in need of Axial insight. But this should prompt the acknowledgement that our terrorists draw strength from a sense that their deeds are justified by an eternal, ultimate perspective – whatever they may look like to the denizens of this feeble fleeting world below. This represents a betrayal of the spirit by which Armstrong's sages lived but not of the logic of the ineffable per se. After the Axial Age people could always be judged by their stance towards this great somersault of the imagination.

  1. 1 Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The World at the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah (London, 2006) – henceforth Transformation.

  2. 2 Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (Yale, 1953). Jaspers is clearly not the most fashionable of the early twentieth century German philosophers; moreover most assessments of Jaspers life and work rarely focus on this insight. See Suzanne Kirkbright, Karl Jaspers: A Biography (Yale, 2004), which was reviewed by Martin Jay, in London Review of Books 28, no. 11 (8 June 2006), pp. 31–2.

  3. 3 Karen Armstrong, Buddha (London, 2002).

  4. 4 Transformation, p. xii

  5. 5 Transformation, p. xiii.

  6. 6 Transformation, p. 215.

  7. 7 Eric Voegelin, Order and History (Vols. 1–5 of his Collected Works, University of Missouri Press). Benjamin. I. Schwarz ‘The Age of Transcendence’, in Daedalus, Wisdom, Revelation, and Doubt: Perspectives on the First Millennium B.C, 104 (1975), pp. 1–7; Robert N. Bellah, ‘Religious Evolution’, American Sociological Review 29 (1964), pp. 35874, and , ‘What is Axial about the Axial Age?’, European Journal of Sociology 46 (2005), pp. 6989. Among classicists, see Arnaldo Momigliano Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (Cambridge, 1990); S. C. Humphreys, ‘Transcendence and Intellectual Roles: The Ancient Greek Case,’ in Daedalus (1975, above). Among Anthropologists, see Gananath Obeyesekere, Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. And see Gore Vidal, Creation: A Novel (1982), for a novelistic exploration.

  8. 8 See, for example, Felipe Fernández-Armesto Ideas that Changed the World (London, 2004).

  9. 9 Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (ed.) The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilisations (Albany, 1986), and recently, Johann P. Arnason, S. N. Eisenstadt and Björn Wittrock (eds.), Axial Civilizations and World History (Leiden, Brill, 2005).

  10. 10 Maitrayana-Brahmaya, in F. Max Muller, tr. The Upanishads, Part II (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1884).

  11. 11 Friedrich Nietzsche ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’ in Untimely Meditations (1874).

  12. 12 Transformation, p. 367.

  13. 13 E.g., Mark Elvin ‘Was there a Transcendental Breakthrough in China?’ in Eisenstadt (ed), Axial Age, pp. 325–59.

  14. 14 Transformation, p. 191.

  15. 15 David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, A Historical Analysis (Hawaii, 1976). However, many others would disagree, as would I. See, for example, Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 28, 62, where the Buddha describes himself as ‘one who has grown up in the world but who has now gone beyond it, as a lotus grows from the water but blossoms above it unsoiled’’ where the Buddha is seen to become entirely one with his teachings, and Nirvana is an unconditioned unspeakable state.

  16. 16 Transformation, p. xiii, explicitly says her sages did not necessarily see the transcendental in supernatural terms.

  17. 17 Transformation, p. 66.

  18. 18 Ernest Gellner, Plough Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (Chicago, 1991).