Beginning in 653 BCE, the Assyrian Empire to the east conquered part of the region, the Median Empire was overrun by Scythians, and a new Persian ruler took advantage of the mayhem to seize control. Further victories and defeats, maneuverings, and strategic alliances fed the growth of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. It was a dangerous and unsettling time to live in Iran. Into this maelstrom was born Zarathustra, more commonly known as Zoroaster. A religious leader, Zarathustra preached that God had a single aspect, called Ahura Mazda. Monotheism was a radical shift from the native polytheistic religion of Iran, and many found it profoundly reassuring. Zarathustra taught that Ahura Mazda was in constant relationship with human beings and sought expression through the physical world (water, for example, was a specific expression of God), so in Zoroastrianism, God is physically present in everything a person sees, breathes, eats, or touches. Thus was born Zoroastrianism. The Three Wise Ones of the East who traveled to Bethlehem bringing gifts to the baby Jesus might have been Zoroastrians.
The ancient tribal structure of society was disintegrating, forming instead into regional kingdoms. Change in age-old social structure was profoundly unsettling, and made more difficult by the maneuverings for power and land among the new leaders, always dangerous to ordinary civilians. Into this atmosphere were born Vardhamana and Siddhartha Gautama, both of whom would later be known by different names: Mahavira and the Buddha. In the Hindu tradition, a teacher is often honored with a different name upon reaching a high level of spiritual attainment, and both the names Mahavira and Buddha are honorifics, "Mahavira" (muh-hah-VEER-uh) meaning "Great Hero" and "Buddha" meaning "awakened one" or "enlightened one." Both the Buddha and Mahavira were born into the ruling warrior caste in India. Both as young adults left their privileged lives to follow a spiritual path. Both sought for years, attained enlightenment, and devoted the rest of their lives to teaching what they had learned. Buddha taught the Middle Way: strong self discipline, yet with neither self-indulgence nor self-denial. Mahavira was 24th in a line of tirthankara ("pathmakers" or great teachers); however, he is credited with founding Jainism since he distilled the teachings of many centuries. Mahavira's central teaching, the most fundamental principle of Jainism, was ahimsa, "nonviolence"—do no harm to any living thing, and do as much good as possible. While the Buddha also taught ahimsa, the lengths the Jains went to not cause harm was extreme by comparison. The teachings of both Mahavira and the Buddha were for women as well as men, for people of all castes or classes, and provided clear guidelines for living a good life and making spiritual progress. This accessibility and clarity were profoundly reassuring for a populace whose social fabric was unraveling.
The sixth century BCE was the end of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. After more than 100 years of invasions, strategic alliances, and broken treaties, warlords were consolidating kingdoms and wiping out smaller adversaries. Creativity is a frequent outlet for human anxiety, and in China, as in India and Iran, this was a time of surpassingly beautiful art and scientific innovation. The blisteringly fast rate of cultural change, political upheaval, and everyday danger in China created an atmosphere where people were ready for the calming, interconnecting philosophies of Taoism as taught by Lao Tzu, and the down-to-earth practicality of the teachings of K'ung-fu-tzu, known by Westerners as Confucius. Taoism and Confucianism provided ballast and meaning in a physical world that was anything but predictable. Many Chinese today still practice both Taoism and Confucianism. The strict, ethical guidelines of how to be in humane relationship with other people of Confucianism is seen to balance the less structured and less directional Taoism.
There is one particular belief on which all five faiths agree: ahimsa, the doctrine of nonviolence.
Four out of the five religions are noteworthy for the concept of gender equality. Looked at through a social justice lens, we see these two doctrines are related. Treating people unequally does harm, so a full and logical application of ahimsa would require gender equality. By "gender equality" we mean that these religions did not give one set of instructions to males and one to females. It does not imply that societies founded on these religions did not or do not exhibit proscribed gender roles, such as which gender is presumed to take care of the home and children and which gender is given preferential treatment in education. It is not unusual to find a culture among religious societies that does not reflect all aspects of a religion's doctrine. This can be seen by the fact that Confucianism, based strongly on cultural practices of its founding time, reflects many patriarchal attitudes, such as how wives should be obedient, while also emphasizing the value of both men and women.
Other parallels among these faiths:
- All are creedal. They teach specific ideas, as enduring truth.
- All are prophetic faiths, created from the teachings of inspired human beings.
- All but Zoroastrianism are nontheistic. Of the five founders, only Zarathustra taught the existence of a literal God. The existence or nonexistence of God is immaterial to Jainism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
- All are nonjudgmental. None of these five preached theirs as the only way to enlightenment or salvation. Zoroastrianism, while it teaches that the good will go to heaven and the bad to hell, does not require that people be Zoroastrian to be considered good. Further, hell is a temporary place: Zoroastrians, like our Universalist forebears, believe in universal salvation.
- All except Zoroastrianism are sometimes called philosophies since they do not require belief in a literal God. Usually, however, Buddhism and Jainism are considered religions, Taoism less so. Confucianism is most commonly considered, "a philosophy with a religious function," and is sometimes called a Chinese example of humanism. However, as we saw when discussing Hinduism, the distinction between a religion and a philosophy is not terribly significant to Eastern thought. Many Easterners would answer the religion versus philosophy question by saying their faith is both/and: both a religion and a philosophy.