The Great Transformation

The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

Publisher: Vintage Canada
From one of the world’s leading writers on religion and the highly acclaimed author of the bestselling A History of God, The Battle for God and The Spiral Staircase, comes a major new work: a chronicle of one of the most important intellectual revolutions in world history and its relevance to our own time.

In one astonishing, short period – the ninth century BCE – the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity into the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Historians call this the Axial Age because of its central importance to humanity’s spiritual development. Now, Karen Armstrong traces the rise and development of this
transformative moment in history, examining the brilliant contributions to these traditions made by such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Ezekiel.

Armstrong makes clear that despite some differences of emphasis, there was remarkable consensus among these religions and philosophies: each insisted on the primacy of compassion over hatred and violence. She illuminates what this “family” resemblance reveals about the religious impulse and quest of humankind. And she goes beyond spiritual archaeology, delving into the ways in which these Axial Age beliefs can present an instructive and thought-provoking challenge to the ways we think about and practice religion today.

A revelation of humankind’s early shared imperatives, yearnings and inspired solutions – as salutary as it
is fascinating.

Excerpt from The Great Transformation:

In our global world, we can no longer afford a parochial or exclusive vision. We must learn to live and behave as though people in remote parts of the globe were as important as ourselves. The sages of the Axial Age did not create their compassionate ethic in idyllic circumstances. Each tradition developed in societies like our own that were torn apart by violence and warfare as never before; indeed, the first catalyst of religious change was usually a visceral rejection of the aggression that the sages witnessed all around them. . . .

All the great traditions that were created at this time are in agreement about the supreme importance of charity and benevolence, and this tells us something important about our humanity.

From the Hardcover edition.



(c. 1600 to 900 BCE)

The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans. The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride...
Read More


1. At the very beginnings of the Axial Age, the Aryans of the steppes of southern Russia developed a concept of the divine: "Humans, deities, animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the same divine ‘spirit.’ . . . It animated, sustained, and bound them all together" [p...

Read More


“Aims to still the noise of our own troubled time…. Her conviction, passion and intelligence radiate throughout the book.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Anyone interested in religion, history, philosophy or spirituality will discover that Armstrong’s new book is impossible to set aside.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“A lucid, highly readable account of complex developments occurring over many centuries…. A splendid book.”
The New York Times

"The Great Transformation can serve the needs of new readers interested in a popular work that synthesizes scholarship. . . . [U]seful to anyone seeking an integral sense of world religions."
The Globe and Mail

Praise for Karen Armstrong:
"Karen Armstrong is a genius."
—A. N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life

"Armstrong is a lucid writer with a knack for synthesizing vast quantities of research."
The Globe and Mail

"Armstrong’s writing continues to offer a religious mirror and a cultural vision."

"Armstrong has a dazzling ability: she can take a long and complex subject and reduce it to the fundamentals, without oversimplifying."
The Sunday Times