In a period of one hundred and twenty years there was a burst of philosophical and existential wisdom that profoundly affected humanity’s soul.
Across the entire Asian continent during the sixth and fifth centuries BC there was the birth of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Prophets foretold the futures of the world’s greatest empires, and the path to total enlightenment had been discovered.
As the lives of six prophets, sages, and a savior were shaped by their independent cultures, their philosophies influenced the development of all humanity long after their era.
Although there may be debate as to the historical validity of some figures, the line between myth and fact is beyond blurred. Yet the astonishing coalescence of such diverse and profound wisdom undoubtedly occurred between 593 BC and 483 BC, and it changed the course of civilization and altered the human view of its own soul.
The Hebrew Prophet Daniel
The Hebrew prophet Daniel (605 – 530 BC) is unlike the other major prophets of the Old Testament in that he was not originally recognized as an official prophet, and he was not a peripatetic heretic. The Book of Daniel is the Old Testament’s version of The Revelation of St. John. Daniel received a number of disturbing visions that prognosticated the destruction of some of history’s greatest empires, like Rome.
Exiled to Babylon in childhood, Daniel was recognized by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, for his cunning intellect and talent in reading thoughts and interpreting dreams. He eventually would rule over one third of the Persian Empire, and serve many kings and emperors. Daniel is famous for his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s “Colossus Dream” and surviving his sentence in “the lion’s den.”
The Book of Daniel also includes a series of disturbing and detailed apocalyptic visions that rival the images of the Book of Revelations. Chapter eleven of the Book of Daniel is the longest and most detailed prophecy in the entire Bible. His visions of the future were more detailed than any prophecies that came before his lifetime.
The Prophet Zoroaster
The traditional Persian myth of Zoroaster places his lifetime in the mid-sixth century BC, in the ancient northern Afghan province of Balkh. The Zoroastrian religion was born from his teachings and visions, and was instated as the official religion of the great Persian Empire for centuries.
The heart of Zoroastrianism is the duality of Truth (arta) and Lies (druj); manifested in the beneficent god Ahura Mazda, and the evil god Angra Mainyu. Zoroaster’s theology brought an end to the ancient practice of polytheism throughout the Persian Empire.
The most extraordinary figure of this epoch is arguably the historical Buddha (563 – 483 BC). His legend is known universally and Buddhism thrives globally today. The Buddha culled a myriad of ascetic practices and thought, only to discover every technique ended up in the same place—back to suffering. He had attained total enlightenment under the bodhi tree under intense meditation and discovered the solution to end the plight of suffering for all—The Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha did no less than pave a path for all living beings to find their way to Nirvana by attaining enlightenment. He is considered by Buddhists to be a world savior, who discovered the method to end the cycle of suffering known as samsara. The foundation of his philosophy is selfless compassion.
The Chinese Sages
Born out of ancient Chinese legend are three of the six profound figures.
Lao Tzu is more myth than historical figure, but he is attributed as the author of the cornerstone of Taoist thought, the Tao Te Ching, and is regarded as the founder of Taoism. There is no archeological evidence to support his existence, but mythology places his lifetime somewhere between the sixth and the fourth centuries BC. His teachings evolved into the only indigenous Chinese spiritual philosophy. Taoism evolved into being the religion of China for more than a millennia.
Confucius (551 – 479 BC) was a contemporary and an adversary of Lao Tzu. The schools of Taoist and Confucius thought were at odds with one another throughout China’s history. Confucius established the fabric of social order for Chinese culture for more than two millennia. His philosophies and teachings rose out of one of China’s bloodiest and most chaotic periods. Confucianism provides a pattern for people to conduct themselves in harmonious accord with others; determining the proper conduct for rulers to rule; and establishes a tradition of rituals that guide and instruct the people on how to serve their society with respect and intelligence.
Sun Tzu (544 – 496 BC) served under King Helü of Wu during the same tumultuous period as Confucius. His extensive experience in combat and genius for military affairs shaped what became the foundation of military thought throughout history. Nearly every great modern military leader, conqueror, and hero has studied the lessons and aphorisms Sun Tzu explicitly outlines in the Art of War. Ironically, the heavily Taoist influenced philosophy of war, stresses techniques on avoiding loss of life, obviating costly and needless attacks, and castigates aggressive, malevolent generals.
- Klaus Kock, The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods, Fortress Press, 1982
- Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, Penguin Books, 1962