New Axial Age groups and their wisdom discourses
It can convincingly be argued based on close reading of the texts that various forms of meditation like upasana, dhyana and element meditation could have evolved out of Brahmin institutions. These new techniques seem to have in common that in one way or another they all generate some form of ASC. It is not quite clear exactly what exact kind of trance-like mind states were generated, but many of them seem different and new compared to the older experiences generated by tapas rituals and austerities. We can also observe how the written Brahmin discourse ascribes use- and symbolic value to these trance experiences or ASC. Basically the use-value seems to be about getting closer to brahman ‘.
Brahman – a new religio-philosophical notion evolving slowly – was a principle simultaneously inherent in (immanent) and beyond (transcendent) reality. Getting closer’ seems to mean experiencing and understanding this abstract principle in new direct ways. This was the purpose (or use-value), that the Brahmins associated with the ASC generated by their new meditative techniques. The symbolic significance was that this meditative closeness’ placed the Brahmin – who often monopolised the right to conduct many types of rituals – in the high status situation of being the only one capable of knowing the underlying reality. This act of giving such significance to the power of thinking and abstract knowledge signifies the surfacing of wisdom discourses.
In the two other Axial Age civilisations of Greece and China similar ontological (Wikipedia link) reflections about the fundamentals of reality occurred among intellectuals. Greek abstract nature philosophy had already been under way since the six century BC promoted by philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaximander and Anaximenes (Seaford 2004, Bellah 2011). In China similar abstract nature philosophy was beginning to emerge among itinerant intellectuals who would later become the Taoists. The newly emergent upper classes of Greece and China speculated whether there were some common principles behind the multitude of reality and gods. It seemed to them that behind or beyond the observable world we experience (the immanent world) there seemed to be a transcendent and not observable world. They began to reflect on the nature and significance of this transcendent world (Dalfert 2012). Slowly the Axial Age intellectuals reduced the number of basic elements and number of gods. Elements like fire, earth, water and air often ended up being reduced to a single one – the One (McEvilley 2002, Seaford 2004). Gods – previously very similar to superhumans – were replaced by abstract principles like yin and yang. What seemed specific to the Indian Brahmin speculations was the notion of getting closer’ to the One. This Indian discourse on the One was not about rational explanations and investigations – like some of the Greeks140 – but took a new direction by connecting the One with new meditative techniques, which the Brahmins framed as an extension of their existing rituals.141
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