Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

The Sixth-Century Revolt

  1. Atheism
  2. Buddhism
  3. Ethicism
  4. Monism

IN THE SIXTH CENTURY BC there was a tidal wave of revolt against the priestcraft of the ancient world. This wave shattered the power of the old religions, though their cults continued to exist as backwaters for centuries. Seven world religions appeared within fifty years of each other and all continue to this day.[1]

The wave seems to have had its origin in Persia. Zoroaster's actual teaching is still obscure. Scholars are still discussing whether he was a Dualist or a Monotheist. Some have given him a very early date, but the most likely seems to be some time in the first half of the sixth century. He must certainly have influenced Cyrus, who overthrew the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, and sent the first group of Jews back to Palestine to rebuild their temple. By the time the temple was completed in 516 BC four religious giants in India and China[2] had dared to question the authority of the Brahmin and Chinese priests. Socrates (470-399 BC) came at least a hundred years after Zoroaster, but he was preceded by the Sophists, who probably indicate the first arrival of the tidal wave of religious revolt in Greece.

The first causes of this great movement are probably as complex as the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe 2,000 years later. One obvious possible source is the preaching of Isaiah (c. 740 BC onwards) and the other eighth-century prophets of Israel, with the refrain from Jeremiah and Ezekiel a century or so later. Certainly we can find most of the ethical emphases of Zoroaster, Buddha (c. 563-483 BC), Mahavir (599-527 BC) and Confucius (551-479 BC) in the great prophets.

It is hard to believe that the prophets were heard by no-one else but Israel and Judah. Isaiah's language was intelligible without translation in cities all over the Fertile Crescent. The transmission of religious ideas, especially when they were so revolutionary, would be exceedingly rapid. By the time it takes us to write and publish a book, the ancient world would have gossiped the ideas far more extensively. The number of major cities from Athens to China were comparatively few, and all were cosmopolitan with several languages spoken by the various national groups who lived there. Religious teachers and their disciples travelled constantly and, most important of all, people had the time and interest to listen to them.

Whatever the cause of the tidal wave, the actual force of its impact can be seen most clearly in India. The sequence of the Vedas, and Brahmanas, the Upanishads, and the writings of the early Buddhists and Jains give us a picture of what happened with a clarity which is unequalled except in the Bible. From a study of the sixth-century revolt in India we can postulate with some degree of certainty what must have happened in other parts of the ancient world.

As we saw in the previous chapter, Indian life was dominated by the Brahmin priests. From the primitive simplicity of animal sacrifice a thousand years before, they had developed an elaborate system of ritual. Specialization into various schools with their own literature, the leisure to study, and access to weighty books, all enabled them to increase their hold on the common people. They, and they only, could offer sacrifice, and their sacrifices and magical prayers were so powerful that men and even gods had to submit to them. Economically their rapacious demands had become intolerable. For every occasion of birth, puberty, marriage, war, death, or transgression of the ritual laws, the Brahmins demanded dakshina (money gifts). All these might have been tolerated, but when they insisted on interfering in politics the pressure of discontent among the second caste of warriors, nobles and kings increased till a revolt was inevitable. The actual spark may or may not have come from Israel via Persia, but it is significant that the revolt was simultaneous in both India and China. It took several different forms.

I. Atheism

Some of the warrior caste became Atheists (Charvakas). They said that since God did not exist the whole system of priests, sacrifices and the mumbo-jumbo Vedic prayers was all nonsense. The first recorded example of true Atheism is in Jerusalem, 'The fool says in his heart, "There is no God" ' (Psalm 14:1). It is interesting that the second should be a vigorous group of Atheists in India five centuries before Christ. Of course in the ancient world it was impossible just to declare Atheism. The Atheist had to state his way to salvation. Since there is no God, what must man do? The answer that the Charvakas gave was that the only good that man knows is happiness, so the highest good was to do what made one truly happy. In this modern opinion they preceded the Epicureans of Greece by two centuries and our Atheists by twenty-four. We shall study their philosophy with other kinds of religious Atheism in the second part of this book.

II. Buddhism

Buddha, who lived c. 563-483 BC, was a prince of this second or warrior caste. The first written accounts of his life are at least two hundred years after his death, and scholars agree that the two main forms of Buddhism existing today have moved far from their founder's teachings. Certain facts, however, do seem established. The tradition is that he was shocked into seeking the meaning of life by the sight of a leper, an old man and a corpse. He practised austerities for many years till he attained the illumination he was seeking. He certainly knew about the religion offered by the Brahmin priests, and rejected this decisively. He seems to have been an Atheist, or at least to have abandoned the usual worship of the gods. He had no time for animal sacrifice, Brahmin priests, or even the caste system.

Buddha's doctrine was simple and down to earth. The cause of all unhappiness is desire. The lust for power, success, money, sex, comfort and other bodily pleasures causes all the ills of life. Salvation (Nirvana) is therefore the losing of all desire. It is not necessary to become a hermit or stop doing the necessities of life, but it is essential to have no passion in doing them. The practising Buddhist tends as a result to develop a quiet, serene type of personality, but the desire for the good of others and the passion for social justice is eradicated along with the desires for self. Jesus expected us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Buddha denied love for self so that practical love for others was also lost. The main sects of Buddhism vary enormously in their basic practices and philosophy, so they will be looked at under their own religious species. Here we have only noted that Buddha fits exactly into his time and the movement of revolt against priestcraft that swept the ancient world.

III. Ethicism

A contemporary of Buddha, also a prince of the warrior caste, was Vardhamana Mahavir (599-527 BC). His reaction against the amorality of priestcraft was to stress the need for good deeds. Priests and sacrifices and even God were unnecessary, since this world had an inbuilt, ruthless moral order which automatically rewarded goodness and punished evil. Salvation was therefore attained by destroying the evil of one's heart through doing good. The details of his philosophical system, called Jainism, need not concern us since they were recorded nearly a thousand years later, and in any case are held by only a small fraction of the people of India. An interesting fact is that Mahavir's ethical system for the first time required vegetarianism to the extent that no animal life was to be harmed. Jainism gave to India the word Ahimsa (no-harming), which was taken up and used with a very different meaning by Gandhi. Originally it was connected with the sacredness of all animal and insect life, which is very hard to practise in the modern world, though it was professed by the late Albert Schweitzer in Africa.

If we omit the inclusion of respect for animal life as part of his system of ethics, it is obvious that Mahavir's `way' was similar to that of his predecessor Zoroaster in Persia, and his contemporary Confucius (551-479 BC) in China. All three of them were first and foremost preachers of ethics. The desire to do what is right and good, quite apart from any doctrines about God, is a recurring theme in the history of philosophy. Aristotle (384-322 BC) and the Stoics of Greece, the high-principled Chinese, Roman, and English 'gentleman', the modern Humanist, and many Liberal Jews, adhere to this religious genus. I have called Ethicism a type of religion because it has a 'way' enforced by a real conscience, and an experience of feeling right or righteous. Whether or not God exists, the devotee has an assurance that all is and will be well. There are many examples of this kind of thinking in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Modernism in the West.

In this introduction to religions I am embarrassed to dismiss Chinese Confucianism with so few words in this section on Ethicism. Since millions in China and elsewhere have been influenced by his teaching, Confucius deserves more extensive treatment. My purpose is, however, to indicate the origin of Ethicism as one of the reactions against priestcraft, and to show that this type of religious life has been common in many well-ordered civilizations. More information about Confucius and the other ethical teachers is readily available in any encyclopedia. Having recognized the genus, there is no point in labouring the details.

We have looked briefly at three types of revolt against an intolerable priestcraft. They all agreed in their rejection of animal sacrifice, the priests who controlled it and even the God to whom the sacrifices were directed. Because of this direct attack on Brahminism and the caste system, the three forms of revolt were excommunicated from Hinduism for over 2,000 years. Now that the Brahmins have found other ways of establishing their position through education and the key positions in India, Buddhism, Jainism and even Atheism have been readmitted as accepted paths within Hinduism. Protestantism has also come perilously close to including Ethicism and even Atheism as acceptable 'ways' within the Christian fold.

IV. Monism

We must now look at a fourth kind of revolt, which is philosophically far more important, and may in this century become the main threat to Christian Theism. Monism is a type of thinking which first appeared in the Hindu Upanishads[3] (teachings for a disciple). Over 200 of these writings exist. The main group belongs to our period in the sixth century BC, although some are much later additions. The writers of the Upanishads did not seek to banish the gods and priests and sacrifices, but offered a parallel and deeper way of union with the Absolute. The sacrifices are spiritualized, and God is given a new meaning. He is no longer a Theistic Creator, but the Absolute, the Deepest Self, Ultimate Reality, or what modern writers call 'the ground of all being'. Priests and sacrifices were suitable for the uninitiated, but the true Monist had a direct access to the Absolute which bypassed the need for ritual. The discipline developed to attain this union with the absolute was called Yoga. It is still widely practised in India, and is now being vigorously propagated in the West.

The extensive literature of Hinduism describes the various types of Monism in the greatest detail, and we must devote a whole chapter[4] to contrasting its philosophy at every point with Christian Theism. Our task here is to note that this type of religion has appeared again and again in the history of the world. The Chinese teacher Lao-Tse (born c. 550 or 600 BC) was a contemporary of Confucius, and obviously belongs to the same wave of revolt against priestcraft. He insisted on freedom from elaborate ritual and regulations. He rejected the man-made restraints typical of Ethicism, so that Confucius found him incomprehensible. Positively he recommended conformity to the Way (Tao) of the Universe. As we shall see in chapter 9, there are four kinds of Monism. Of these Taoism would appear to have been closer to Pantheism or Modified Pantheism than to the typical Vedanta type of Hindu Monism. Instead of a stress on meditation, it was more a seeking to be natural, or at one with the course of nature. But in any case Taoism was certainly monistic as opposed to the ancient Theism and Polytheism of China.

Monism has since had a long history, not least in Christianity. After the powerful attack from the direction of Gnosticism in the second century, the Christian church had to face a monistic counter-attack from the Neo-Platonists in the third century. Plotinus (c. 205-270) made a journey to the East and returned with an arsenal of monistic ideas against the rapidly growing Christian church in the Roman Empire. To claim the Greek philosophical heritage he included some ideas from Plato, but his system of contemplation was identical with the Yoga of Hindu Monism.

Plotinus failed to rally the Roman Empire against Jesus Christ, but he was rediscovered and introduced through the back door many centuries later. An Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), represented the first Western monistic reaction to medieval priestcraft, and his Pantheism influenced the Jew Spinoza (1632-77). Meanwhile many of the mystics had been influenced by Neo-Platonism through a forgery attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. Most of the readers of Pseudo-Dionysius thought that they were still Christians, but their piety had become strangely Hindu, and one of them, Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327), was nearly condemned for heresy.

Philosophical Monism entered the German church through Johann Fichte (1762-1814), who is described as an ethical Monist. He was dismissed from the University of Jena for Atheism in 1799, but was later appointed to the University of Berlin. Through G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) one wing of the Idealists became the true materialists like Feuerbach (1804-72) and Karl Marx. Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) led a group who had a less materialistic view of reality which was closer to the Hindu Vedanta type of Monism.[5] Another wing was championed by the mighty Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who tried to show that true Christianity is in fact a kind of Monism. The newest exposition of this view is Bishop Robinson's Honest to God, which claims to be Christian but follows exactly the philosophical position called Modified Monism, which has been known in India since the Upanishads.[6]

We can now conclude this chapter with a chart showing the main religious systems preached in the sixth century BC and the later developments classified under them. Priestcraft was a degeneration from the original religion of man. Atheism, Buddhism, Ethicism and Monism are the four possible reactions of a thinking man against it, and all are at least twenty-five centuries old.

This chart could be developed under each category from standard works such as: M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Frederick Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, and many modern treatments such as Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture.

Salvation by right ritualSalvation by what makes you happySalvation by losing all desireSalvation by right conductSalvation by union with the Absolute
Priests of Greece, Brahmins of India, MagiCharvakas of India, Epicureans of Greece, modern atheistsEarly Buddhism and Christian asceticsZoroaster, Jainism, Confucius, Stoics, modern HumanismVedanta, Neo-Platonism, Sufis of Islam, modern meditation cults

It is striking that the typical forms of revolt against priestcraft and polytheism appear suddenly in Greece at the same time as they erupted in India. Whether the relationship is one of borrowing, or merely due to similar minds facing similar problems, is an interesting question, but it does not affect the thesis that the sixth-century revolt against ritualism did sweep across the known world from the Middle East to China and to Greece.

A similar study could be made of our situation in the twentieth century. What is striking is that vast numbers of both intelligent and unintelligent people still fit into the five religious categories. We shall be looking at the sixth basically Christian alternative later. In any case the renewed interest in eastern religions, and the exploring of monistic experiences through drugs and meditation, indicate that monism as well as atheism and ethicism are still very much with us as living religions.

Chapter 4...


1. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Vedanta Monism, Taoism.

2. Buddha, Mahavir (founder of Jainism), Confucius and Lao-Tse.

3. S. Prabhavananda and F. Manchester (translators), The Upanishads (Mentor Books, 1957).

4. See chapter 9.

5. British exponents of this view were T. H. Green (1836-82) and Francis Bradley (1846-1924).

6. See also the section in chapter 9 on Absolute Monism.

Chapter 4...