In earliest human communities, spanning from 50,000 years ago to the present for some communities, spiritual experiences were a group phenomenon, achieved through group chanting, dancing and reenacting mythological events.
Then as communities started to become bigger, shamans arose. Shamans were the spiritual brain of the communal body, and they channeled the energies of the world and how best to thrive as human beings.
Then with the earliest human civilizations, about 6,000 years ago, societies became vast groups of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people. It was no longer possible for all the engage in group rituals at once, or even to be guided by a single shaman in close proximity. This led to divine kings. The emperor as shaman for the whole civilization.
With the vast empire and the divine kings, there had to be a spiritual beauracracy, which led to the priestly classes. “Beauracracy” is not meant as a demeaning or triviliazing word. Rather, a shaman in a group of 150 people was at once the leader, the spiritual guru, the medicine man, the forecaster, and so on. With the rise of empires, all of these tasks couldn’t be done by one person. Most people still lived in small communities, and there had to be a link between the emperor God who ruled over 100,000 people, and the people who still lived for the most part in family or local groups. Priests were the local shamans in this vast infrastructure.
About 3,000 years ago, with the axial age, there arose spirituality without communal ritual. With vast empires including people with diverse communal ritual traditions, it was no longer possible for one physical divine king, or even one priestly institutional structure, for everyone.
In the broader historical context, what is striking about the axial age religious founders is their spiritual consciousness is not a group achievement. They are solitary figures finding divine inspiration through a psychological transformation. Through personal Divine revelation. Like with Moses and the Buddha.
Christ and Socrates are in a way the most striking here. Their ultimate spiritual revelation and achievement is depicted while they are being killed – not as in ritualistic sacrifice, but from not being understood. How far things have come from spirituality being a communal experience of ritualistic dancing of the whole group!
The axial age de-ritualizes spiritual experience. It still involves great personal effort and focus. But it is no longer one which is assumed to be shared with all or even most people around oneself. It is not completely solitary, as even the axial sages were parts of communities of similar minded people with whom they shared their spirituality. But that similar minded community is now usually just one group among others within the broader society.
The de-ritualization of spiritual experience also renders moot the sharp distinction between sacred and profane physical spaces. With communal activity no longer the primary or essential locus of spiritual activity, where one is when being spiritual no longer matters so much. What matters more is how one is no matter where one is.
One could be on the cross or in prison. Or on the battlefield against one’s own family like Arjuna. Or homeless, living in the streets, flaunting social conventions and talking down to emperors like Alexander, as with Diogenes. Or riding on a ox away from society like Lao Tzu.
Is this the end of our history? Some humans discover personal spirituality and that is the pinnacle of human life? Not quite. Life moves on, pushes on, in new ways.
The axial age sages are just a few people, with some hundreds of initial followers. The majority of the world is still wedded to ritualistic spirituality – with their awareness of the vastness of the world mediated through communal activity.
So many people, including into our present, interpret the non-ritualistic awareness of the axial sages themselves in ritualistic modes. In particular, in one or all of three modes.
First, institutions. Temples, churches and schools come to be the ritual space for spiritual awareness. People who didn’t found any institutions or write anything themselves – Buddha, Christ, Socrates – soon became the figure heads of institutions. And the institutions mark which spaces are more sacred or more enlightened than others.
Second, sacred texts. The sayings and the memories of the axial sages get transformed into written texts, which then become a locus of communal activity. And which then mark which words are more sacred or rational than others.
Third, gurus. At the heart of the ritualistic awareness is the sense that spirituality is to be found in activity directed towards something or someone outside oneself. Temples and bibles are the somethings. Gurus are the someones. They mark the sense that some people are more sacred or realized than others, and that aligning to their consciousness is the way to align one’s own consciousness to the Divine and the infinite.
To highlight institutions, texts and gurus is not to belittle them, or the people who see their own spiritual growth through them. It is only to state a fact of how the majority of the world are not like the axial sages. The majority of the world – theists and atheists alike – are more like earlier humans in seeking a communal or shared awareness of the higher ends of humanity.
Nor is it to say that the gurus are only seeking recognition and are not like Christ or the Buddha. For the gurus might be, if they are especially inspired, like Christ and the Buddha, seeking nothing other than their inner link to the Divine. And sensing this, others congregate around them. There is no point in outwardly criticizing the guru or the followers. To do that would be to focus one’s own consciousness on other people, as if one cannot align with the Divine until other people see the light. That is yet another mode of the ritualistic consciousness.
There is no one true mode of spirituality. Is the Buddha more correct than the early humans who experienced the Divine through communal ritualistic dances? Or is a current Buddhist meditating by himself more enlightened than people who seek the Divine through communal chanting at a temple?
Is someone who walks or bikes by oneself better than someone who takes the train with thousands of other people?
There is no one time we live in. Our current world includes traditions and modes of activity and ways of human consciousness from thousands of years, layered one on top of another, and also alongside one another. Like a forest with different kinds of vegetation growing wild in many layers and directions.
How one aligns to the Divine is not important, as long as one aligns to the Divine. The relevant issue isn’t: are they – others – aligned to the Divine in the right way? It is: Am I aligned to the Divine, whether through an institution or a guru or by myself?
Find your link to the Divine, and you will see the Divine in all, everywhere, in all modes of human activity. Just the way the early humans saw when they danced with the Gods, and the way Christ saw on the cross, and the way Buddha saw under the tree of Enlightenment.