Before Awakening as Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama was a Misfit Seeker (Shramana, Śramaṇa), one of many in a massive countercultural spiritual revolution that gave birth to religions such as Buddhism and Jainism and transformed Hinduism. During this period, what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers aptly dubbed the Axial Age, there was a cosmopolitan trend towards new ways of thinking across the Persian, Indic, Sino, and Greco-Roman religious worlds. According to Jaspers, an Axial Age is a liminal period in which old certainties lose validity and new ones have yet to fully manifest. The religious historian Karen Armstrong argues that the western Enlightenment marks a “Second Axial Age”, that includes thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. By my lights, the period that most resembles the Axial Age in Ancient India are those seminal decades following the first atomic explosion and the creation of LSD in 1945. In both cases we see a postwar baby boom generation questioning old dogmas and seeking out new answers to the perennial problem of the human condition.
In this Olio, we’ll look at parallels between two counterculture revolutions from two different, but qualitatively similar, Axial Ages—namely, the Shramana movement in Ancient India and the American countercultural revolution. We will examine common socio-economic conditions that may have led to the genesis of similar psychologies, philosophies, and spiritual ideas. And though both countercultures are themselves very diverse–comprised of a wide variety of worldviews–both reject dogma and celebrate cognitive liberty. Is heterodoxy a necessary part of religion? Can it be a spiritual path in and of itself?
Christopher “Doc” Kelley is a founder and co-faciltator at Psychedelic Sangha. He also teaches undergraduate classes at The New School and Princeton University. And he received a doctorate in Religion from Columbia University where he studied Indo-Tibetan Buddhism with Robert Thurman.
Join Doc Kelley in an underground speakeasy to muse on the ways Buddha inspired a spiritual revolution of ‘misfit seekers’ which carried over to the West and is still living today.