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An End to Suffering:
The Buddha in the World
Pankaj Mishra

Namit Arora
posted 8 August 2006

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 BC, 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 in writing. Early accounts of his life, written by his disciples in the ensuing centuries, seamlessly mix facts with all sorts of unlikely stories and miracles. It is not clear how close they are to the life of the historical Buddha. So every modern account of the Buddha's life, including Mishra's, can do no more than rationalize the scriptural stories.


As the story goes, the Buddha was born Siddharta Gotama in the royal house of Shakyas in Kapilavastu and was raised in luxury. After his famous and decisive encounter one day in broad daylight with the harsh truths of life - strife, pain, disease, old age, death - 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.

Mishra relates Gotama's early encounters with two gurus who taught him the customary techniques of 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. Gotama soon realised 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 to understanding the nature of reality. He abandoned the futile penances and ate a square meal.


Years later, at 35, he won his famous enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. The Buddha at last came to believe that nothing in his soul, the self, or the ego - nothing within or without him - was eternal, unchanging, or absolute. He realised that craving for permanence, blind indulgence in appetites, and clinging to a false view of reality lay at the root of all man-made suffering.

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 80. 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. The Buddha died in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.


Mishra's Buddha is pluralist and pacifist, opposed to trading in arms and favouring 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. After a stiff show of resistance that seems typical of his times, the Buddha - suggest the scriptures - came to view men and women as spiritual equals. His monastic sangha ('commune') was a direct democracy with a consensus driven approach. When pressed to appoint a successor, the Buddha refused, declaring that his teachings alone ought to guide the sangha.


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'. But the Buddha's 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 recognise 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 persuasively submits that reincarnation remains the one idea in Buddhism that requires a leap of faith. (We could argue that the classical and modern West, by contrast, overemphasised 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 intended to guide humans to happiness and history to predictable ends.)


Buddhism began waning in India after 800AD. 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. The material remains of Buddhism slowly disappeared and Indians even forgot that the Buddha was Indian, or that Buddhism had once flourished in India. Mishra doesn't really discuss why Buddhism disappeared from India, but he does furnish an absorbing narrative of the rediscovery of the Buddha's roots by British adventurers, amateur archaeologists and, not least, himself.


Gotama leaves home

The temptations of Mara

First sermon at Sarnath

The death of the Buddha


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. Led by his ‘increasingly desperate ambition’ to become a writer, he plunged into Western literature and philosophy. He then had ‘little interest in Indian philosophy or spirituality’, and was enthralled instead by the likes of Nietzsche, Hume, and Emerson. About this period, 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 caused 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 ritualised pieties of Brahminical culture, had pursued an ethical life based on reason. He sought out books on the Buddha, travelled to places associated with him, and thought 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.


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 might 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. An endearing honesty pervades much of this work. 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 calibre), his earnest-intimate prose, particularly his narrative on the rhythms of life in Mashobra, is reminiscent of Naipaul's The 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 too of his significant departures 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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