Academic journal article World History Bulletin

Teaching the Axial Age: Through a Biographical Comic Book of Buddha's Life

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

Teaching the Axial Age: Through a Biographical Comic Book of Buddha's Life

Article excerpt


Too often in World History there is no narrative connecting the world's great religions. Often the approach presented to students is a sort of 'flavor of the month' (if it's September, it must be Taoism). This need not be so. By employing the concepts of Axial and Perennial religion, first introduced by Karl Jaspers, but recently expanded upon and updated in the scholarship of Karen Armstrong--Buddha (2001) and The Great Transformation (2007)--students will have a powerful lens at their disposal by which to view change over time in religious thought and practice.

The philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term "Axial Period" to describe the seminal era in world history (roughly 800-200 BCE) that saw the nearly simultaneous development of universal; ethical; individualistic; and largely monotheistic religions in China; the Middle East; Greece; and India. Jaspers observed that these new religions (notably Taoism; Monism; Confucianism; prophetic Judaism; Greek rationalism; Jainism; and Buddhism) were, collectively, a marked departure from "Perennial" religions that emphasized ritual, sacrifice, and collective punishment and reward.

In studying the concepts of Axial and Perennial religion, my students and I build on an earlier unit, based on Jared Diamond's powerful thesis from Guns, Germs and Steel, which argues that the special geographic features of Eurasia explain that continent's dominance in world history. Diamond's insights dovetail with Armstrong's account of the dawn of the Axial Age, and, in particular, with her insistence that the catalyst for the Axial religions was Iron Age technologies, which produced new modes of human existence, in dense, urban settings. The varied and jangling rhythms of life, which arose in these new Eurasian cities, were a stark departure from the settled, traditional existence found in agricultural villages. To those engaged in the turbulent marketplaces and urban centers of India's Gangetic plain, the caste system, sacrifices and ritual fires (all of which are manifestations of the Perennial worldview) began to lose meaning.

The point of entry to help students grasp these challenging concepts is the biography of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). Per Karen Armstrong, I treat the story of the prophecy, and the preference of Suddhodana (Siddhartha's father) that his son be a great king rather than a religious sage as an illustration of the chasm that existed between Axial and Perennial ideas. For Suddhodana, who clings to the Perennial worldview, his son's unhappiness with palace life and his decision to "go forth," thus forsaking his wife and son for a life of poverty and a quest for spiritual enlightenment, is simply inexplicable. But for Siddhartha, the luxury at the palace is a thin mask that fails to conceal the purposeless, hollow existence of those who are under the sway of Perennial religion. Ultimately, beneath the veneer of luxury, Siddhartha concludes, there is only sorrow. Determined to break the cycle of suffering, Siddhartha, like other Axial sages, teaches that sacrifice and ritual must be replaced with morality.

This lesson is designed for honors level 9th and 10th graders and could easily be adapted for World History AP.


1. Students will learn the biographical story of the Buddha (including the prophecy, the "going forth" and the attainment of enlightenment) and will learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

2. Students will be able to categorize religions as either Axial or Perennial, and will be able to explain the connection between technological/economic developments and the birth of Axial religions.

3. Students will learn to recognize and employ Buddhist artistic motifs.


Day 1: We begin by introducing the concepts of Axial and Perennial religion (which are explained concisely in the chart I have made, which can be found in Appendix A). …

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