The Man Behind the Image: The Buddha in books

The Buddha lived amidst turbulences, of religious fundamentalism, social intolerance, political turmoil, and of fierce commercial rivalry. He rejected the comfort of royalty and the cushion of Vedic philosophy. And after standing face to face with truth preached detachment and compassion. He is, in short, a man for our times.
Siddhartha Dey traces his own engagement with the Buddha and attempts to discover the historical Buddha, through stories, poems and books...

 

My involvement with the Buddha dates back almost to the time of my birth. I was named after him.

When you are named after a great man, everyone asking your name in your childhood adds an adjunct: “Do you know who he was?” So, it was almost an imperative for me to embark on a personal quest in search of that man; a quest that began with mugging up historical data on the Buddha, went through the fantastic world of stories and legends on him, and now has found the need to discover the flesh and blood human being. Hopefully,  in near future this quest will meet its telos by realising and inculcating the essence of the Buddha’s message.

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Sketch by the author

My childhood encounter with the Buddha didn’t begin with the Amar Chitra Katha books, the comic-book like series primarily designed for children, relating the myths and legends of India. Looking back, it is rather a surprise. My father had bought me at least a dozen titles from the series, but not the one on the Buddha. Fortuitous, may be, but effective. I didn’t therefore make the seminal mistake of imagining the Buddha as a legendary character. I was captivated by the tales from his life though, and they were everywhere: in textbooks, wall paintings inside the school building, and in TV serials (‘reality’ hadn’t yet dawned on the small screen). And those tales — that of the Buddha taming the fierce dacoit Angulimala or the raging elephant — have all the makings of enchanting myths and its no wonder that they have become so. My young mind loved myths and easily settled into the belief that the Buddha was as good as a superman.

 

Then came this poem. It was part of the Bangla textbook in eighth standard. Written by Rabindranath Tagore, it was one of the many poems by the poet which draw significantly from the life and times of the Buddha. (Tagore, it is well known, referred to the Buddha as the greatest man ever born and was strongly influenced by his messages). Titled Mulyaprapti (The Due Price), it narrates the tale of a gardener who carries a rare lotus bloom to the royal court with a mind to sell it. The king, Prasenjit, was then on his way to meet the Buddha, who was in the town. Even before the gardener gets a chance to meet the king, a passerby, who was directed towards the Buddha’s site as well, offered to buy the flower for 10 gold coins. Just as he is about to seal the deal, the king, on his way, chances upon the flower and offers twice as many. Soon the passerby (presumably a merchant) and the king are locked in a fierce auction with no one ready to back off. Both are desperate to offer it to the Buddha. The gardener, smelling a significantly higher price, decides to sell the flower directly to the man for whom these two are wrestling. He runs, eager and expectant, to the grove where the Buddha is seated, but at the very sight of the great man exuding peace, tranquility and compassion, sags down and surrenders the lotus at his feet. When the Buddha gently smiles and asks for his wants, he seeks nothing but his blessings.

Till this day I know this poem by heart and there is something in it that makes me go quiet for a while every time I recite it to myself or to someone else. The very thought of a man who could command such submission with his sheer presence is cathartic and calming. The fact that he embodied such tranquility in a time beset with great turmoil makes him all the more remarkable.

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The Buddha is history’s most imaged man | Artwork by (L to R): Katie Lyn, Arnab Bhowmik and Ushnish Bagchi

But Indian philosophical traditions and religious schools tend to present their founders as archetypes and not as tangible human beings. Add to that the layers of myths and the propensity to deify that is so common amongst the masses (even the class-topper is dismissed by the middling ranked student as a ‘genius’, and hence tough to emulate), and the Buddha has snowballed into a divine image, distant and remote. He is history’s most painted and sculpted man, but hardly anyone has any comprehensive knowledge on the man who lived and suffered like many of us.

 

Here are four books (from my last year’s reading) that have helped me in getting at least a fleeting glimpse of the Buddha. These are not recommendations. They just worked for me. How can I set about prescribing books when even the Buddha did not preach one absolute doctrine as supreme. He often customised his words and messages depending on the nature of the audience he was addressing. His method was pragmatic and more like a physician whose immediate aim was to find a means to end the sufferings of his patients. His methods, once the illness is cured, were to be abandoned, like a raft that can be done away with once the river is crossed.

So, fellow readers, find your own way.

 

Basic Teachings of the Buddha – Glenn Wallis

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Photo by author

I believe a great man’s messages often provide very important clues to his life. So, this book is a wonderful starting point. It is a scholarly work and meant to be read with diligence and attention. Yet, unlike many scholarly volumes, it is written with graceful ease. Sixteen of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings (suttas) are translated from the Pali bhasha (the language of the text) and explained in detail, along with rich and elaborate commentaries. Wallis’s translation is fresh and he remains devoted to bringing out the essence of the Buddha’s words with the attention and precision of a philologist. To place them in context, he provides detailed linguistic, philosophical and socio-historical annotations, but keeps them to a separate section, keeping the easy flow of the prose intact.

In the wonderful introduction to the book, Wallis tries to sketch the young Siddhartha and the plight that led to his insights. And in the selection and arrangement of the sixteen sutras, he keeps in mind the plight of the modern day reader, the sociological, psychological and ethical concerns that he might face. From the intricate web of interpretations and analyses of the several schools of Buddhism, each of whom claim themselves to be authentic, Wallis tries to extricate the sutras in their pristine form, so that the reader may find out their significances for himself. The chapters are arranged in form of a workbook encouraging the reader to place himself in the position of Siddhartha and to think and discover on his own, an art the Buddha relentlessly championed.
Buddha – Karen Armstrong

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Book cover from Amazon

Karen Armstrong writes an elegant prose. I had read a few of her other books on Islam, Christianity and The Bible before coming to this ‘biography’. Yet, this book is less a ‘biography’ than history. In her next published book The Great Transformation, Armstrong studies the massive social, political and economical changes that came about during the six centuries from 800 B.C.E., a time that saw the advent of great historical figures like Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha himself. Armstrong calls this phase, after Karl Jaspers, the ‘Axial age’. Her biography of the Buddha tries to locate the life and teachings of the man in context of this era of upheaval.

Alongside the historian’s interest in broad social, political and economic themes, Armstrong also possesses a novelist’s penchant for characters and their psychological states. She presents Siddhartha as a fallible man who at times had mistaken notions on the world and life in general. Alluding to some less heralded episodes of Siddhartha’s life she tries to link them up with the Buddha’s later teachings. Everyday occurrences and insights are shown as having significant impact on the mental world of the young seeker (e.g. the episode of young Gautama watching a field being plowed and thinking of the numberless lives — grass, insects and other life forms — being mowed down). These speculations cannot lay claim to historical authenticity and are at times too free-wheeling; they present, nonetheless, a very convincing and human portrait of the Buddha.
An End to Suffering – Pankaj Mishra

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Book cover from Amazon

This is one of Mishra’s early works written in a rather bland and journalistic language. The prose is not particularly delightful, nor does the book contribute much in terms of information on the Buddha’s life and times. But the book scores elsewhere. In its unique narrative structure that keeps oscillating between history and memoir, the objective past and the subjective present, it brings the author’s very personal quest for the Buddha to the fore while also providing some context to the Buddha’s own journey to self-knowledge.

The book draws some striking parallels between our times and those of the Buddha: the seething anger and discontent amongst the marginal sections, the fiery competitiveness amongst the merchants, the self-absorbed and largely inefficient rulers and the pressing need to turn the focus of religion from philosophy to ethics. Mishra relates many anecdotes from his own life and his travels to some of the places of Buddhist history, involving the struggles of real people and the problems they face everyday: poverty, caste discriminations, the monstrous pressures of a consumerist society and above all, of callous politicians.

While the parallels are not to be taken on face value without understanding the nuances between two different historical eras, they nonetheless make clear the urgency the Buddha must have felt and make us value all the more the remedies he suggested.
Maitreya Jataka – Bani Basu (translated to English as The Birth Of the Maitreya by Sipra Bhattacharya)

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Book cover from Amazon

There is a thing about novels. So much of the past, which cannot be placed in history books for the lack of unassailable evidence, finds its way into the heart of fiction. And in doing so, fiction becomes the perfect time travelling vehicle that carries you through the mazes of the past. For me, no book brought the Buddha to life as comprehensively as this scintillating historical novel, set around the time of the Buddha and featuring the Buddha as a prominent character.

The Buddha in the novel is an intelligent (at times clever) man, of great physical prowess and charisma, pragmatic and composed and yet fond of mirth and laughter at times. One who is not afraid to denounce all conventional mores, but sympathetic towards all beings. Numerous well known and oft narrated episodes from the Buddha’s life — like that of the Buddha driving the plague off Vaishali or taming the cannibal ‘chandala’ or Prasenjit having the vision of ‘Sahasrabuddha’ — are demystified and laid bare in front of the readers. The Buddha who emerges in the process is an equally convincing figure, but an essentially tragic one.

The tragedy results out of his failure to bring to fruition the principle of ‘Maitri’ in the political structure of the then India. The Buddha’s vision of a unified India that is capable of resisting foreign invasion didn’t succeed in those turbulent times that saw kingdoms and principalities constantly fighting one another. But inspite of this failure, the Buddha lived an exemplary life. A life that was detached, yet deeply engaged. A life that is worth believing in and worth emulating. And the success of this novel lies in making it appear like one.

Title photograph by the author.
Next Post: 11th May

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