Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The End of Suffering — Buddha in the World — Pankaj Mishra — A view

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 11, 2008

I have been curious about and attracted to Buddhism as a religion for some time now. In that long gone phase when I indulged in desultory reading, I had read two books related  to Buddhism or more appropriately put, books that had thoughts involving Buddhism viz. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and The Buddhist Way by Christian Humphreys……. Both have vaguely reinforced my respect and interest in this religion. I think some of the important aspects of Buddhism that make it worthy of being a great religion, as I understand, are:

  1. It starts with an axiom that life is difficult: A practical and elegant way to bring in an upfront acceptance to many things that trouble us
  2. It places the responsibility for alleviation of suffering squarely in the hands of an individual who is trying to get his salvation and points an almost (?) rational way to do that
  3. It drives away the need for God, Fate (?) and the attendant concepts 

I have read different views on Buddhism in different sources e.g. a marxist interpretation being that it is a reaction to the brahminical excesses around asceticism and hence the emphasis on middle path or that it is a religion that is based on a deep understanding of human psychology and in that sense a far more people-centric religion than any other etc etc. Whatever be the views, I have a belief that as a body of thought Buddhism offers something that is inherently of value to us and provides a way of making sense of things. Therefore, once in while I dip into any material that deals with Buddhism. In the recent past I was reading an article by Ramachandra Guha where he heaped high praise for Pankaj Mishra’s  — “ The End of Suffering — Buddha in the world“. That kind of led me to this wonderfully lucid book. That a person can write such a charming book at the age of 36 or thereabouts is a definite sign of being gifted and at no stage of reading this book does Mishra allow this perception to waver or dip. A serene rush of prose with an ability to string things in a fascinating way is all there to be absorbed and enjoyed.

‘The end of suffering — Buddha in the world’ is at the same time a travel book, an introduction to Buddhist thought and a historical commentary on the rise, spread,forgetting and the subsequent renewal of Buddhism including the role of west in re-igniting the interest. While Jorges Luis Borges, Schopenheur, Neitzsche are the famous names that have been associated with the renewal of interest in Buddhism, there have been a large number of unsung Europeans including officials from Britain who have contributed significantly in reducing the historical amnesia that this religion has descended into. Mishra does a brilliant job in tracing this renewal. What I found quite interesting was that a religion which had a strong and defining impact on the Indian philosophical thinking, art and architecture and seen some of the greatest state sponsorship lose its base in India and emigrated to other parts of Asia to find a soil to flourish in. The civilizational impulses within India to give birth to but neglect what has been given birth to remain a paradox to me. Mishra attributes a fair share of credit to west for rediscovering Buddhism.

For anyone interested in Buddhism and want to get a nice view of the core thoughts there in, this is an appropriate book

If one were to ask me to divide all that I have read so far in my life into 2 equal halves then Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha occupies one half and the rest the other. I could not fathom why Mishra refers to this great book as a “cult book” –  a connotation that carries a pejorative tinge with it. I read this book in what I think was a temporarily troubled state of mind and naturally allowed for an enhanced appeal. Notwithstanding that I think it is a wonderful book worth reading many times over.

A word of caution: There are many passages in the book which ought to be read a little slowly and are not easy to grasp as compared to normal fiction

Frontline magazine is publishing a 25 part series on the art history of India and there are any number of pictorial references to the art and arhitecture emerging out of the influence of Buddhism

On a tangential note, I some times despair the way history has been taught to us at schools. A tasteless memorising of facts was all that I could remember. I am increasingly coming to realise that History of “anything” (handled well) can be made into a fascinating subject that can be enjoyed.

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One Response to “The End of Suffering — Buddha in the World — Pankaj Mishra — A view”

  1. Rishi said

    Siddartha to me can be categorized under two heads – 1) One of the best expositions of Eastern philosophy, especially Advaita ; 2) A book that covers the efforts of a seeker (with a happy ending). In that sense it sits in the same category with “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. To me it definitely is not a book on Buddhism since the Buddha and his teachings are an element that impel Siddartha to continue his seeking. What is reality (or the ultimate truth) is the question that Siddartha pursues and he ends up with an understanding that is very different from what he learns from the Buddha and his teachings. Incidentally the question “What is reality?” may be dismissed as irrelevant, but this quote from Bertrand Russell should reinforce its meaningfulness –
    “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself”.

    The act of Siddartha distancing himself from the Buddha and trying to go on his own search gets endorsed very well in the book “If you meet the Buddha on the road, Kill him”, by Sheldon Kopp who affirms that in the journey of mental growth, the seeker can be helped not by any one, but only by himself. Our quest for wisdom has to be a personal one only, because while we can learn a lot from others transforming that to wisdom can happen only within us and by us. The Buddha also advises Siddartha “Be on your guard against words”.

    Pankaj Mishra referred to it as cult book, probably because in the 60s (?) it inspired youth all over the world to go in search of themselves.

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