Great TeachersMost of the major religions of the world were essentially started by reformers. They didn't set out to completely change the philosophy of the people of the nation they were born in; they wanted to emphasize points that would help people become more conscientious and follow rules of good behavior toward one another. They especially seemed to be directing their efforts toward getting the people who were in charge (princes, kings, and warlords) to become more concerned with how they should treat the general populace and what rules of ethics should control their actions toward the people. These reformers came up with rules that made such good sense that their followers kept spreading the information to more and more people until finally there were hundreds of millions of adherents to these great religions.
There's a common thread that runs through each of these reformers' teachings. The similarity has given a lot of scholars the thought that maybe there was a common background or source from which they all drew, or perhaps they were learning from one another since they all lived pretty much in the same period of time. These teachers changed the way of thinking in most all of Asia and the Near East. Was that by design, or did it just happen, or did they hear of one another's teachings and just repeat them because they sounded novel and sensible to them? There's no way of knowing, at least so far as the historians are concerned.
Reformers Who Gave Rise to Great Religions
There is a worldwide Brotherhood of scientist-philosophers. Its members started out as students of life striving to learn the facts of existence and working towards possessing the truth by which to make sane decisions. The Brotherhood is made up of human beings who can be considered saints-men and women who have advanced themselves intellectually, morally and with certain extrasensory perceptions by which they have long been able to communicate with one another without the use of our modern telephony and radio. From ancient times they knew who one another were, and they were able to communicate with one another, and some of them were willing to take on the job of changing vast portions of the world's thinking, which was a thankless task.
I'll be discussing six such men who were of this Brotherhood. But literally there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of members of the Brotherhood who each tried their best to change their people's thinking to something which was more sensible. And most of the concerns that these reformers had was getting people away from idolatry and encouraging a more moral stance towards one another. Not just the leaders, although the leaders were the ones that the reformers had to convince first, but everyone. This was something that was going to have to go down through every level of society. One of the problems that primitive man had was that he didn't have accurate answers as to why things would happen. Without knowledge of true cause and effect relationships, superstition was the primary way of dealing with what they found in their environment. The world was pretty scary and everybody felt that they had to propitiate various spirits, little gods, and big gods in order to make their lives as safe and as predictable as possible.
It didn't take long before people decided that you could pray to an idol to get protection or things they desired. You could even carry around a small image of an idol in order to have personal protection, because you can't know what other people might be praying to their idols for, maybe asking to do harm to you. Everyone was afraid of sorcery and afraid of spirits and demons of all sorts. Living in such anxiety and fear made life an emotional mess. But it went on that way, literally, for thousands and thousands of years. People naturally sought the assistance of gods who were specialist experts, and this led to concepts that were pantheistic. The Hindus, for instance, literally have more than 10,000 gods (not that everybody prayed to all of them). There were major gods that Hindus recognized, Brahm and Shiva being the principal aspects of creation and destruction of their universe. But these thousands of gods each had some special concern with a particular locality, with a certain kind of crop, a certain kind of protection, and one had to know who all of these gods were and their supposed jurisdiction. Sometimes people got confused. Eventually, they established experts who became priests, and the priests began to develop power over the individuals because, after all, they had direct access to the god and were intercessors for a price. It became an intolerable situation, but literally went on that way for thousands of years.
The great reformers decided that things had to be changed, and they had a plan. Most people in the world at that time were unaware that these reformers knew one another. They were born within 77 years of each other, except Isaiah and they had instructions from the Brotherhoods about what they were to change and how to go about it. They knewof course, that there was great value to be gained by what they would be promoting in the world.
Isaiah Set the Stage
Isaiah set the stage for a whole new way for the Israelites to look at themselves. And he was the major prophet of the Jewish religion. He not only predicted things that were going to happen within his lifetime, but also long-term events and about what the Messiah was going to do and what was going to happen to Him. Jews began to become conscious of some major changes that were going to come in the life of their nation. They didn't know when these were going to happen, but the people began to change their thinking. Isaiah's announcement of the coming of the Messiah set the stage for the other five reformers--Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Mahavira Jaina, and Confucius--each to prepare their peoples for the information which Christ was later to bring to all corners of the world. The reformers managed to accomplish their goals. Not that everybody became Christians, for Christianity is a sect of Judaism, but the teachings of Christ influenced many other teachers after Him in all these other countries. It wasn't necessary that they become Christians in name, but rather follow the precepts that Christ had to offer.
By plan, Isaiah was the first one to announce the reformation to the world, and it came off as he predicted. All through the trade routes of the East, the other five reformers began to spread their ideas of how the world should become better, and the ferment that was brought about by all of these thoughts definitely improved the world. The main goal was to get away from the idea of a multiplicity of gods which had to he appeased all the time, and to get people out of the superstitious mode and into a better idea of what reality is.
Zoroaster was the next of these teachers. He was closely allied to what later evolved as the Essenes in Palestine. The Essenes really had their origin in Egypt at a town near present-day Alexandria, called Tanis, but that was before Alexandria existed. Isaiah had stayed there for a number of years to learn the things that the Essenes had to teach. We call the Egyptian Essenes by their Latinized name, the Therapeutae. These saints were interested in many forms of healing and were excellent physicians. Tanis (called Zoan in the Bible) was the Egyptian center of the Brotherhood. After Isaiah learned what they had to teach, he brought the knowledge back to Palestine. There he established two communities, one in Qumran and another in Engedi, and they were Essene centers for many years. Engedi developed into a place for Palestinian Essenes to receive their schooling and to go for higher teachings rather than having to travel to Egypt. Qumran later evolved into a communal sect that almost worshipped Isaiah, and they believed that the deity who was going to be the Messiah was already with them daily in the spirit. They spoke to Him as an invisible presence, and they had a place for Him at their table. He was a reality to them, and yet they knew that He was yet to come in the flesh as many Jews still believe today. Modern Jews have a place for Elijah at the table when they have the Seder at the Passover, so it's the same kind of idea. However, Engedi was the place that really was the proper center for the Essenes in these ancient times.
Zoroaster, being also connected with the Essenes, taught many of the same concepts, but he broached the idea that there was a god of evil as well as a god of good. His main object in doing that was to establish that there was a balance in the universe, but although this seemed reasonable to his followers and in line with their observed experiences in life, the idea of a god of evil was outside the Essene teachings. Nevertheless, the idea apparently allowed him to be heard better by the Persian people because they were so superstitious about all the things that could go wrong. Ahura Mazda was the name given by Zoroaster to the Being of light and goodness, and he claimed that Ahura Mazda had more power than the god of evil. That same idea was reflected in Buddha's inspiration when he was sitting under the bodhi tree. The concept that came to him and started him off while in his search for the truth was that good comes from good, and evil comes from evil. That was the main theme of his teachings, and then he came up with guidelines on what constituted goodness and what constituted things that were not good, which the people and the rulers should avoid.
Where Did They Go?
Zoroaster, incidentally, was the only one of these reformers that we know how he died. We don't know what actually happened to the other of these five. Zoroaster was murdered by a soldier that invaded the city he was in, and he was stabbed in the back while in a temple. There's a burial place for Zoroaster. But Lao Tzu left China when he felt that the rulers were so corrupt that he just couldn't stand to be there any longer. Before he could cross the border to leave the country, the border guard appealed to him, saying. "You never have written down your philosophy. You've been guiding the rulers of China for many decades, and if you leave the country and never come back, how are the people to know what your great words of wisdom were?" So he consented to write the Tao Te Ching. It's a group of poems more than anything else, and he sat down and wrote them down right on the spot within a few hours and then left. It's a very small book, but the Taoists have been following it and trying to interpret it ever since. I say "trying to interpret" because while some of the things he wrote are so clear there is no question about what he meant as to how people should govern themselves, there are yet other things he wrote that are so obscure and mystical that a whole body of interpretations arose, and then interpreters of the interpreters grew over the generations. Finally, Taoism has become almost a belief in magic and things of that sort. But that was the Chinese primarily reverting to their superstitious ways after having for a century or so really grasped some of the best ideas that Taoism has to offer. Lao Tzu just wandered away. Buddha announced that he was dying and essentially disappeared. Mahavira the Jaina did the same thing. As a matter of fact, there was so much similarity between the lives of Mahavira Jaina and Buddha that for a long time Western scholars thought they were the same person with two different names. They lived at virtually the same time and acted in the court of the same king and taught many of the same concepts. They both were actual princes; in other words, their parents were kings and queens. As documents turned up to the awareness of Westerners, it became evident that it really was two different people.
The fate of Confucius is also unknown to history. He just wandered off somewhere. There's no known burial places for these great reformers. If people did know where they were buried, those would certainly be revered places. They disappeared as far as their followers were concerned, and no one knew what happened to them. The last year that they were seen is usually considered the dates of their death, because there is no record of what happened to them afterwards. Actually, they each moved off to a Brotherhood headquarters in their respective areas, where they lived out the balance of their lives. All of them were very elderly by the time they left their followers. The one who died youngest was Zoroaster, and he was in his 70's. The rest of them were in their 80's and 90's when they left. Apparently, they didn't want to stick around until they were 120 and older.
One of the principal things that Buddha spoke against was the caste system. That was pretty gutsy at that particular time, because it was so ingrained in everybody's thinking that there were basically different levels of human evolution represented as the castes, and Indian people just didn't move from one caste to another; they stayed within their caste, and that was it. People who tried to marry outside of their caste were put out of their families and rejected by the community. They became untouchable. They didn't belong to any caste after that; so there was very strong social pressure to keep people within their castes. Even today, the caste system still exists within people's thinking. There's over 10,000 distinct castes within the four major divisions of the castes in India, which shows how difficult it is to get rid of ideas once they've been ingrained in the general populace.
If you were not born into Hinduism, you could not become a Hindu even if you believed all the things the Hindus taught and wanted to worship their gods. Only Indians who were born into Hindu families could become Hindus. Buddha said that anybody could become a Buddhist. Any race, any nation, all were welcome, and that is the first really universal religion that we know of It probably still is the most universal. Any Christian can be accepted into the Buddhist ranks.
In China, people who are Buddhists probably also are Confucists. The moral precepts that were established by Confucius are not considered religious so much as a moral and ethical code that almost all Chinese follow. One of the things that guaranteed that Confucius' teachings were going to be accepted over and above other philosophers who came before and after him was that he said that the respect of people for their parents and their ancestors was the proper way of doing things. Since China was already a nation of ancestor worshippers, this fit in very nicely; whereas other teachers tried to eliminate ancestor worship. Confucius managed to get all his important points accepted by being willing to make the concession to ancestor worship. Confucius, like the other reformers, sought to show how you should live in order to make your life better and more honest and to pursue goodness.
Lao Tzu was a very strong influence among the rulers of China. They at least listened to him. He was quite a bit older than Confucius. And the two did meet once. They had a conference that lasted most of an afternoon. Confucius was so impressed by Lao Tzu that he said that he was the man who everybody should respect, and that, of course, built up Lao Tzu's prestige even greater. But Lao Tzu said that you basically can't change people. He taught that if a citizen is a good citizen, he will always do good things. If a man is a bad man, you can expect him to do bad things. And his idea was, it's up to government to select good men rather than try to take bad men and make them good men or allow bad men to get into governing in some way. He seems a little cynical in some ways, but he had tremendous observations of what humans were like and what nature was like. Lao Tzu said it's not up to a government to insist that somebody behave in a certain way. Confucius added to that when he was asked how one should reward a good man. Should you reward a man who does evil things to you with goodness? Should you turn the other cheek (using the Christian theme)? Confucius said no, you return goodness to a good man and you dispense justice to a bad man. And that appealed to the common sense of the Chinese people.
Many people in the Far East are both Buddhists and Confucists. Buddhism for the religion and Confucianism for social ethics. The people see them both as being very important. It's very hard to take a census to find out how many people in China are Confucists and how many are Buddhists. In most cases they overlap. There are still large numbers of Taoists in China. But again, they too, are usually Confucists as well.
Mahavira Jaina started some interesting thoughts. He said that you should be very harmless towards everything. After he left his followers, they began to look at everything as being alive. They were concerned about eating certain kinds of food because there might be tiny creatures living on them that might be killed if you boiled them; so the Jains were afraid to do that. And, like many Hindus, Jains were afraid to kill mosquitoes that might be biting them in order to be totally harmless. Jains became afraid that if they plowed the land, they would be cutting worms and killing grubs and such. It became part of their religion that they couldn't be farmers. Since they lived in an essentially agricultural part of the world, how would they survive? Well, they became lenders of money, and merchants. Jains believe one would suffer retribution for killing any kind of creature; so they're a very pacifist people, probably a great deal more than Mahavira Jaina ever intended. But again, what you introduce to a people and what they do with it over the centuries may be two different things. Even Christianity has drifted from the original intention, and the Crusades certainly went against Christ's idea of being harmless towards other people and not being warlike.
Abolish Superstition and Corruption
The six reformers made a planned assault on corruption and superstition and idolatry throughout all the East and Far East. One of the things that Isaiah had to do was turn Jews away from the idolatrous ways that kept cropping up continually among the Israelites. He even declared that going to diviners and astrologers should be punished by death, but that didn't change things much. Zoroastrianism deteriorated over the centuries into being strongly astrological. Zarathustra was his real name, and that's what he was called in his day. But as time went by, somehow he acquired the name Zoroaster. That may be because many Zoroastrian priests--the magi--who continued his philosophy, turned to astrology to a great extent. Since Babylonia was very strong on astrology many centuries earlier, the Persians tended to continue these ideas, and many became normalized into Zoroastrianism.
These six reformers' ideas followed along the principal east-west trade route that went all the way into China from Jerusalem. At a later time, the Greeks did the favor of consolidating a lot of disparate language groups amongst many of these various countries and gave a sort of lingua franca to the peoples of that part of the world. Later, the Romans build on that, and they extended their roads for good transportation and established good laws. They gave the whole known world a consistent economic system and allowed the spread of knowledge. In the time of Christ, the Romans were the number one admirers of Greek culture and the things that Greece produced.
These great reformers found ways of convincing people that their relationship one to another is best served by following certain higher precepts, and that's what all of these men did. Maybe people don't live up to their ideals in nations where their followings are greatest, but they're still written down and are there for any student. It's been preserved, whether or not the culture at large lives up to it, just as Christ's teachings have been preserved. But that doesn't necessarily mean that every churchgoer lives up to all the moral principles of the church they go to.
They Were Courageous
I certainly recommend that you read the English translations of some of the works that these reformers put forth way hack in those ancient days--and we're talking some 2,500 years ago. They still make good sense. But that doesn't mean because you understand Buddhism that you should become a Buddhist or because you understand Confucianism that you become a Confucist. These wise men, whose teachings were so perceptive and valuable to the people who heard them, still can speak to us today, and should. They had the courage to go forth against great opposition--and all of them had a lot of opposition. At various times they had to flee for their lives because they threatened established priesthoods. And sometimes people didn't like being told that what they had believed in for many years wasn't right. All reformers face the same problem. But it took a lot of grit to keep on doing what they were doing until they gained many followers. Buddha taught for fifteen years before he finally found five people who would follow him. Mahavira the Jain went around from one place to another, and people just laughed at him or threw stones at him. And as we know, most Jews never accepted what Christ had to teach, and certainly the rulers and the priests wouldn't have anything to do with Him. It's tough trying to change a whole society. I imagine they did a lot of standing on street corners preaching their believed for a long time. Even Isaiah wasn't much believed in his lifetime. It's just that his prophecies kept coming to pass over and over again. After he was dead, people began to pay a great deal of attention to him. Then they started analyzing everything he had to say. Fortunately, he put it down on paper.
I think the world is a better place because of each of these gentlemen. They eventually improved the overall way of life for everyone wherever they went, and we would otherwise be in pretty sad shape without them.