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The Wonder That Was India
by Pankaj Mishra, Picador, 422 pp., INR 275.
Various societies at different times have dazzled with their bursts of creative and intellectual energy. Historians have a penchant for dubbing them Golden Ages. Examples include the Athens of Herodotus, the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid, and the India of the Buddha. But though India has long been famous for its "ancient wisdom", the few historical sources that survive shed a woefully inadequate light on the Buddha's society. In contrast, far better portraits of classical Greece and Abbasid Baghdad are available to us.
Still, evidence at hand suggests that around 600-500 BCE, in parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain of north India, people were asking some very bold and original questions: What is the nature of thought and perception? What is the source of consciousness? Are virtue and vice absolute or mere social conventions? Old traditions were under attack, new trades and lifestyles were emerging, and urban life was in a churn, reducing the power of uptight Brahmins. Philosophical schools flourished in a lively marketplace of ideas. There were radical materialists, self-mortifying ascetics, chronic fatalists, rational skeptics, sensible pragmatists, mystical saints, and the ubiquitous miracle mongers. It was also an age of nascent democratic republics, which, like Athens later on, did not ultimately survive the march of monarchy and empire.
Who were these people? How did they live, what did they believe, what did they aspire to? Due to the paucity of archaeological evidence and non-religious textual sources, insightful narratives on ancient India must rely more on "creative scholarship". The scholar, mimicking a novelist, must imagine himself into that society and try to see it as its members perhaps saw it, and understand, to the extent possible, what it was like to live in it. An End to Suffering is Pankaj Mishra's work of "creative scholarship" for the life and times of the Buddha. In refined prose that rises to a lyrical pitch at times, it mixes memoir, history and philosophy while exploring the Buddha's relevance today.
Like Socrates and Jesus, the Buddha too seems not to have committed his ideas to writing. What we know of him was written down by his disciples in the ensuing centuries. Their intent was chiefly pedagogical, so these accounts seamlessly mix facts with all sorts of unlikely stories and miracles. The earliest such account of the Buddha's life appears in the Pali text Tipitaka. It is not clear how close it is to the life of the historical Buddha, and not many Buddhists seem interested in this question. The truth is perhaps unknowable now, so every modern account of the Buddha's life, including Mishra's, can do no more than rationalize the scriptural story. And the story, such as it is, is instructive enough.
The Buddha was born Siddharta Gotama in the royal house of Shakyas (kshatriyas, or warrior caste) in Kapilavastu. Mishra thinks he "was most likely not a prince, but a member of a republican oligarchy." Later biographies present him as a householder; they claim that his mother, Maya, died a week after his birth and he was raised by his maternal aunt, Mahaprajapati, who married his father, Suddhodhana. Living in the lap of luxury, with a palace each for winter, summer, and the monsoons, Gotama wore fine Kashi cloth and stayed indoors being entertained by female musicians. At 16, he married his cousin, Yashodhara, of the same age. Around this time, he also started becoming dreamy and detached.
Years would pass, of which little is known, before his famous and decisive encounter one day in broad daylight with the harsh truths of life—strife, pain, disease, old age, death. Gotama saw "an aged man as bent as a roof gable, decrepit, leaning on a staff, tottering as he walked, afflicted and long past his prime", "a sick man, suffering and very ill, fallen and weltering in his own excreta", and a dead man being carried out on a stretcher. It hit him hard that the same fate awaited him too. This made such an impact on him that he decided to renounce his bland estate and become a wandering ascetic in pursuit of self-knowledge, even as his first child was about to be born. He rode out of his palace one night leaving behind his family, wife, and the newborn son, Rahula ("fetter" or "bond"). He was then 29 years old.
Gotama's path to self-knowledge started out rough. Mishra relates his encounters with two gurus adept in mental exercises and how they left him yearning for more. But from them he learned and put into practice the customary techniques of the ascetics and sages—meditation, yoga, bodily austerities, even starvation—none of which seemed to lead him any closer to wisdom. He was turning into a fearful and lonely recluse, exceedingly emaciated and weak. He even fainted once and was almost taken for dead.
Mishra relates these early struggles of Gotama, who soon realized that the self-mortification practiced by ascetics cannot by itself lead to any higher awareness or insight. Nor can the meditation of the yogi bring lasting benefits without a commensurate moral development. The trick was to combine "mindfulness and self-possession" with meditation, to examine the workings of the mind as a prerequisite for understanding the nature of reality. He had to first understand the role of his subjective consciousness. He abandoned the futile penances and ate a square meal (porridge and gruel), inviting the scorn of five of his fellow ascetics who promptly left him.
Years later, aged 35, he would win his now famous enlightenment late one night under a Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in modern Bihar. Here the scriptures are unduly theatrical, turning what Mishra suggests was a long, quiet, and arduous quest for self-knowledge into a semi-divine event, with a last-minute battle between the Buddha and the demon Mara thrown in. The Buddha at last came to see that nothing in his soul, the self, or the ego—nothing within or without him—was eternal, unchanging, or absolute. He realized that the craving for permanence, blind indulgence in appetites, and clinging to a false view of reality lay at the root of all man-made suffering.
The Buddha was stoked by his deep and stunning discovery but hesitated about his next steps. A Brahmin called Sahampati then intervened and convinced him to accept his vocation as a teacher. He spent a few more weeks pondering the relative and interdependent nature of reality, and distilled his message into the Four Noble Truths: (1) life brims with disappointment and suffering; (2) suffering is a result of one's craving for pleasure, power, and continued existence; (3) in order to stop disappointment and suffering one must stop craving; and (4) the way to stop craving and thus suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path — right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration.
The Buddha then traveled to Sarnath and preached his first sermon to the same five ascetics who had spurned him, and who now became his first disciples. Mishra notes that he avoided Kashi, a bastion of Hindu orthodoxy, and found his initial following in smaller towns and cities. One of his disciples, a rich banker of Shravasti, even built a monastery at Jetavana which became the Buddha's monsoon retreat for 24 years. Curiously, the Buddha is a very handsome man in the scriptures; a respected Brahmin leader, Calki, even says, "the recluse Gotama is lovely, good to look upon, charming, possessed of the greatest beauty of complexion, of a sublime color, a perfect stature, noble of presence."
The Buddha taught that it is proper to doubt. "Do not be led by Holy Scriptures, or by mere logic or inference, or by appearances, or by the authority of religious teachers. But when you realize that something is unwholesome and bad for you, give it up. And when you realize that something is wholesome and good for you, do it." Truths are a means to crossover. Do not hold on to them from habit once you've arrived. "When you come to a river in your path, build a boat to assist you. When you're across, leave the boat behind. This is the best use for it, as it is for all truths. Be prepared to let go of even the most profound insight or the most wholesome teaching. Be a lamp to yourself. Be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourself, as to the only truth."
Mishra's narrative offers a wealth of detail about the Buddha's life and times—petty rivalries, politics, the march of empire against republics—shedding light on other lesser-known aspects of the Buddha (or shall we say Mishra's Buddha?).
[The texts] speak of a self-confidence bordering on arrogance. But then the Buddha did not seem to have ever pretended to humility. He had the brusqueness of a busy doctor. He seems to have been convinced that he not only spoke the truth but also that what he said could be objectively verified. It may be why he avoided getting into metaphysical speculation. He spoke more than once of the "jungle of opinions"; he plainly thought himself well above it.
The texts are more or less silent about the Buddha after his enlightenment and his early successes with converts. One has to infer from the stories and discourses how the Buddha passed more than forty years of his life ... A broad picture emerges from them: of the famous and charismatic figure in yellow-brown robes walking barefoot across the Indo-Gangetic plains with a small entourage of [monks] ... courted by kings and frequently approached for instruction and clarification ... requested to provide relief from famines and personal distress, and even coerced into opening an order for Buddhist nuns.
Rare for his time, the Buddha lived to be eighty. His contemporaries and close disciples died before him, writes Mishra, adding that "towards the end of his life he developed several diseases ... back pains and stomach upsets ... He felt his own decay acutely, speaking once of how the body was kept going only by being bandaged up." By then "the king of Kosala [had] massacred the Buddha's clan, the Shakyas, and razed Kapilavastu to the ground." The Buddha died in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh. Mishra infers the following about his last days:
[His] farewells have an exhausted quality; they seem to be those of an essentially solitary man who has done, said and seen enough since that night in Bodh Gaya forty-five years earlier when he sat under the pipal tree and felt himself to be possessed of a liberating insight. Yet there is something grandly unreal and moving about his slow last journey across North India.
After a stiff show of resistance that seems typical of his times, the Buddha admitted women into his order, his aunt being the very first nun. "The Buddha," writes Mishra, "was understandably anxious about admitting women into a celibate order of men. But his decision was a radical step for its time, for there was no comparable place for women in the religious and spiritual traditions" of that period. The scriptures suggest that he came to view men and women as spiritual equals. "Nevertheless," adds Mishra, "women remained subordinate to men in Buddhist monastic institutions" until the seventh century CE when some improvements were achieved.
Mishra's Buddha is pluralist and pacifist, opposed to trading in arms and favoring compassion in the policies of state. Caste and social class didn't matter to him, nor did he mention any gods, worship, prayers, or rituals. Indeed, it seems safe to infer that he was agnostic about the idea of God. Believing economic sufficiency to be a factor in moral development, he advocated improving the plight of the poor. He held as futile trying to suppress crime through punishment. His monastic sangha ("commune") was a direct democracy with a consensus driven approach. But his sangha was small and self-selecting; his principles for running it would hardly have worked for lay society. When pressed to appoint a successor, the Buddha refused, declaring that his teachings alone ought to guide the sangha.
Mishra points out that the Buddha didn't advocate the purging of all human desires, noting that some desires are key for a meaningful life. The desire for enlightenment motivated the quest of the Buddha himself; he also desired transparent policies and discipline to regulate the sangha. We discern which desires are harmful, and which not, by reflecting on our inner life and experiences. The Noble Eightfold Path is cleverly vague—right intention, right awareness, etc. are left to each individual to figure out through honest self-reflection.
Notably, the Buddha's view of reality—everything is interrelated but nothing has a stable essence, starting with our fickle consciousness—has stood firm alongside science. Mishra deftly situates the Buddha in the context of modern and ancient creeds, quoting many artists, scientists, and philosophers, including "Albert Einstein [who] called Buddhism the religion of the future since it was compatible with modern science." Twentieth century Western metaphysics too affirms the Buddhist view of reality and its concept of maya. Wittgenstein, remembering his language games, would surely have approved. So too would have Foucault.
Mishra asks: Why didn't the Buddha's rational view of reality snowball into science? He attributes this to the Buddha (and the Buddhists) having a more specific goal for understanding reality: how to adapt to it, so as to reduce human suffering. As Mishra puts it, "his aim had been clearly therapeutic". This seems plausible at first blush; a similar priority also appears in the words of the Hellenistic Greek stoic, Chrysippus: "the study of nature is to be undertaken for no other end than the discrimination of good things and bad." But if we accept that science augments self-knowledge, why did the Buddhists hold back, given that the Buddha himself so valued self-knowledge? Science can also help facilitate human adaptation to reality and reduce human suffering, as anesthesia and vaccines amply prove. Yet, even today, Buddhist monastic education excludes the study of science, which suggests obduracy more than reason. So Mishra's answer seems incomplete at best. Still, he explains reasonably well why Buddhist metaphysics, while it didn't lead to the scientific method, didn't conflict with science either.
But the Buddha's (alleged) belief that people, by understanding the true nature of reality, can put an end to suffering, attain bliss, and become compassionate, marks him an optimist and a utopian. One wonders: Did the Buddha not adequately recognize that some part of every individual cannot be spiritually cleansed in a lifetime, and that to minimize the suffering inflicted on others by unenlightened individuals requires a subtle theory of justice? Perhaps the idea of karma—administering justice beyond a lifetime—addressed this problem in his mind. But many scholars doubt whether the Buddha himself believed in an eternal soul hopping from life to life—the materialists (Carvakas) of his day didn't. Mishra doesn't raise this question, but he rightly observes that reincarnation remains the one idea in Buddhism that requires a leap of faith.
(It can be argued that the classical and modern West, by contrast, overemphasized the theory of justice at the expense of spiritual cleansing—a different utopia and leap of faith, where a rational restructuring of the external world was to guide humans to happiness and history to predictable ends.)
Buddhism in India received a major boost from its embrace by Ashoka and later kings like Kanishka and Harsha, and its popularity perhaps peaked a thousand years after the Buddha. "Buddhism was identified with commerce and manufacturing. Not only did Buddhist doctrine encourage the investment of resources which would otherwise be wasted on [ritual] sacrifices, it also denied caste taboos on food and travel which made trade so hazardous for the orthodox [Brahmins]." It was Buddhist traders who took Buddhism to Southeast Asia.
Buddhism died out in India soon after 1000 CE. By then, Hinduism had assimilated many of its features—vegetarianism, insider critiques of the caste system, ending animal sacrifices—and embraced the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. A bigger factor was the rise of Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and its great appeal to the masses. The final blow came from the top when the Muslim invader-kings of north India killed many prominent monks and ravaged monasteries in the Buddhist heartland of Magadha and Nalanda.
Gradually the Buddha's spirit of rational inquiry got relegated to the fringe. The material remains of Buddhism slowly disappeared and Indians even forgot that the Buddha was Indian, or that Buddhism had once flourished in India. Their historical stupor would lie undisturbed until the coming of the British, who too had until then thought that the Buddha was "Egyptian or Ethiopian, or perhaps was another name for the Norse god Woden." Mishra doesn't really discuss why Buddhism disappeared from India but he furnishes an absorbing narrative on the rediscovery of the Buddha's roots and the coinage of the English word "Buddhism" by British adventurers and amateur archaeologists.
The ranks of Buddhism are swelling again in India, owing to an urban-cosmopolitan elite, refugees from Tibet, and mass political conversions of Dalits (formerly, "untouchables") to escape the torments of the caste system. But the hottest new market for Buddhism today is the US, where even sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars and The Matrix employ Buddhist ideas, all while preserving their incongruous core—a surface flirtation, similar to the way upper class Indians flirt with Western modernity. Mishra does a fair job relating anecdotes from this new frontier of Buddhism.
In his early twenties, Mishra, burdened by a sense that he had wasted his university years studying literature in Delhi while his peers worked hard for "the secure and stable life of marriage, children, paid holidays and pensions", moved from Delhi to a Himalayan village near Shimla called Mashobra. It was very cold when he first arrived, the kind of cold he had longed for much of his life in the hot and dusty plains. Led by his "increasingly desperate ambition" to become a writer, he plunged into Western literature and philosophy. Until then, he had "little interest in Indian philosophy or spirituality", and was enthralled instead by the likes of Nietzsche, Hume, and Emerson. About his time in Mashobra, he writes:
... I couldn't help but feel relieved at my distance, both physical and emotional, from what seemed to go on endlessly in the heat-stunned plains—the religious riots, the massacres of low-caste Hindus, the deaths by starvation, the environmental catastrophes causes by big dam projects, the corruption scandals.
Mishra's first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, a travelogue he wrote when he was only 25, reflects this attitude. In this book, the small town India where he himself grew up seems to exist only to torment him with its open drains and ill-mannered people; there is little joy or comic relief. So it's gratifying to read Mishra's own opinion of this work a decade later, which also reveals how far he has since come:
I wrote my book over the spring and summer ... Much of my life had been sheltered, spent in reading and daydreaming ... my travels had exposed my naivety. I had seen a complex world that demanded an experienced mind to understand it. My travels had shown my notions about writing and the writer in general as a private and sterile indulgence. And so, defensively, what I wrote now had a harsh satirical edge, half showy, half truthful.
Mishra's interest in the Buddha began during his Himalayan sojourn. Here was a radical rebel from Mishra's own part of the world, who, amid the ritualized pieties of Brahminical culture, had pursued an ethical life based on reason. Although Mishra doesn't recall any specific spiritual crisis that led him to the Buddha, with an endearing honesty that pervades much of this work, he notes, "But then I didn't know myself well; the crisis may have occurred without my being aware of it. In my early twenties, I lived anxiously from one day to the next, hoping for a salvation that I could not yet define." About his early interest in the Buddha, Mishra notes:
It seems odd now: that someone like myself, who knew so little of the world, and who longed, in one secret but tumultuous corner of his heart, for love, fame, travel, adventures in far-off lands, should also have been thinking of a figure who stood in such contrast to these desires ... who taught that everything in the world was impermanent and that happiness lay in seeing that the self, from which all longings emanated, was incoherent and a source of suffering and delusion.
He sought out books on the Buddha, traveled to the places associated with him, and began thinking about writing a book on him. But soon journalistic work took him to Europe and America, reducing his worries about money, demystifying for him what had long been places in his mind, and illuminating the social context of his intellectual idols.
It is no surprise then that his growing attraction to the Buddha headed for a showdown with the ideas of Nietzsche, his hero at the time. Nietzsche vs. the Buddha is apt—besides shared views on the nature of reality, they were both cultural rebels who denied a role to god in their metaphysics. Years later, when Mishra was living in London, his "romantic image of Nietzsche began to dissolve." An End to Suffering offers a nuanced comparison of the two men, even as Mishra relates his own personal struggle with big ideas. Nietzsche, despite recognizing that there is no "stable and enduring individual identity", sought to elevate the superman's ego, while the Buddha cautioned against this. The following passage by Mishra perhaps sums up the reasons that led to Nietzsche's falling away as his hero.
Nietzsche's own solution to nihilism was the self-creating superman in a meaningless world, who not only lives in but also learns to love a world without value, direction, and purpose ... But proudly solitary himself, Nietzsche couldn't see how the superman would live in a community. If Marx overemphasized the social at the expense of the individual, Nietzsche did the opposite in proposing the superman as release from the soullessness and mediocrity of modern life ... At one level, the superman merely incarnates the sense of the self and heightened individuality ... In seeking to reach out beyond himself, he also embodies the hubris of modern man: the refusal to accept limits; the attempt to become God which a great chasm had previously divided from man.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Mishra now idolizes the Buddha. Indeed, he approaches the Buddha like a smitten scholar. We search but do not find him investigating the limits, contradictions, and drawbacks of the Buddha's path, which surely exist in all chosen paths. Even in his own day, the Buddha faced reasoned skepticism from the Carvakas. But despite this imbalance—without which perhaps he may never have written this book—the most resonant part of Mishra's work remains his intellectual approach to the Buddha. He clarifies the core ideas of Buddhist metaphysics and finds in the Buddha a powerful contemporary relevance. According to Mishra:
Organized war, greed, genocide—they were not unknown to the Buddha. They seem to have led him to his suspicion of the amoral individualism which was rapidly emerging in the India of his time, and which was reflected in the politics and the philosophical speculation of his peers. Their presence partly explains the obsessive way in which he tried to undermine the idea that there was anything like the autonomous and stable individual self.
Also engaging is Mishra's account of his own personal journey, from his callow youth in small town India to his success as a literary writer with a considered moral vision. But though his memoir spans his entire adult life, there is not even a hint of an affair of the heart. He does relate encounters with "spiritually questing" women who resemble characters in his unsatisfying first novel, The Romantics, but his anecdotes here—confined to non-physical explorations of identity and culture—are far more compelling. Stylistically (though not in caliber), his earnest-intimate prose, particularly his narrative on the rhythms of life in Mashobra, is reminiscent of Naipaul's An Enigma of Arrival. Mishra seems to admire Naipaul a good deal, he has even introduced two volumes of his writings. This book, however, makes us suspect that "how to measure up to the Buddha?" is a question that engages Mishra deeply—indicative of his significant departures too from Naipaul.
Mishra treats his genre-defying book like a commodious duffel bag, tossing in ruminations on topics as diverse as the Taliban, Khymer Rouge, Meiji Japan, Nagarjuna, Adam Smith, and Tagore. His brisk rehashing of history, frenetic analysis, and the kind of theorizing that a humbler writer might eschew suggests a case of overstuffing, but it turns out to be not too onerous. Its readability alone is a rare achievement, one with a manifest Indian sensibility. Mishra recounts how, in the BBC radio studios in London, he would participate in discussions on the state of the non-Western world with "think-tank experts, pundits, academics and journalists" and wonder:
what new meaning their ancestors had brought to the idea of being human in seeking to remould a diverse humanity in their own image. Compared to the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Indians, what kind of spiritual image of man had they evolved in the course of their recent history—the history of conquest and violence in which they saw their own greatness, and which they presented to others as a guide to happiness.
But Mishra's writing on contemporary mass culture—be it "the cruel, garish world of middle-class India", or "the complacent European faith in history, rationality and science [that] brought about a new scale of devastation", or "a world powered mostly by greed, hatred and delusion"—often feels like the idle carping of a philosophical pessimist. Mishra has noted elsewhere: "the writer figure ... the author, is a unique creation of the West ... who goes around and looks, and examines, and incorporates this very diverse experience and becomes an authority on his subject. Those claims are looking increasingly shallow and quite flawed." This is a brave admission and even this insightful book makes us wonder at times: Is Mishra relating the rarest of truths to us, or merely revealing his own psychological dispositions? What would he write of this work a decade later?
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