The Word: Awestruck by Nirvana

The Indian Express, Oct 31, 2004

An almost Buddhist disengagement with the world runs through Pankaj Mishra?s book on the Enlightened One, finds Sam Miller
London, UK --
Pankaj Mishra spent much of the 1990s in a damp Himalayan cottage reading and thinking about the Buddha. The result is an immensely ambitious book. Mishra interweaves his retelling of the life and legacy of the Buddha with the story of his own intellectual awakening as a writer. This is not quite the impertinence it sounds.

Mishra is not comparing himself to Buddha, but, in often minute ways, attempting to show how the teachings of the Buddha can have contemporary relevance. He portrays Buddhism not so much as a religion but rather as a philosophy, even at times as a therapy, that can bring solace, and as the title of the book proclaims, lead to the ?end of suffering?.

There is very little artifice in this book. When something trivial or humdrum happens to Mishra, he feels no need at all to exaggerate the incident in a way which might excite the interest of the reader. This is honest. It can also get a little dull. We hear how a neighbour would sometimes give him sizzling puris, how he?d occasionally get a letter from his parents, or hear some cows mooing forlornly. A bit of all this is fine, but Mishra is no Proust (whose famous madeleine passage he quotes admiringly), and the descriptive passages about his life in Mashobra are uneventful and often plodding. Running through the text is a note of subdued melancholy, an almost Buddhist disengagement with the world, which may have helped the writer get closer to his subject, but which became rather tiresome for this reader.

Mishra is far from tiresome. He is one of the most talented and incisive English-language political essayists of our day. His journalism in The New York Review of Books and elsewhere, about Kashmir, Afghanistan and Indian politics always bears rereading. The fact that Mishra is so open about his own intellectual growth makes it easy to understand what has gone wrong with this book. He refers to ?his provincial ability to be easily impressed?, to his desire to ?bathe in the aura of men whom I had revered since the time when... I had read their works?: he talks of himself as someone ?who revered the great thinkers of the Europe?. In short, he is starstruck.

Mishra is one of the most talented and incisive English-language political essayists of our day. The fact that he is so open about his own intellectual growth makes it easy to understand what has gone wrong with his book

He shows too much reverence for Plato, Heraclitus, David Hume, Nietzsche (and many more) and not enough respect for his readers. He fills many pages with clumsy summaries of the ideas of his great thinkers, stopping only occasionally to take a few schoolboy pot-shots at those (like Rousseau and Marx) he does not like. Worse still, he descends into psychobabble when discussing the Buddha?s ideas. ?Salvation?, he tells the exhausted reader on page 266 out of 404, ?is the purest kind of awareness, which consists of knowing the conditioned nature of phenomena: of knowing how past karmic activities become present predispositions and determine the quality of the current of consciousness that survives the death of the physical body.? Is this really the same writer who, in simple, clear prose, courageously and trenchantly took the Indian authorities to task over the Chitisinghpura killings; who has written so sharply on the rise of both Islamic and Hindu extremism? It is.

What is even sadder about this book is how good it could have been. In passing, he touches on several themes that deserve serious study and could have made this a very important book. Why, for instance, did Buddhism all but disappear in the land of its birth? Why did it thrive in so many other Asian countries? Why did so many 19th-century philosophers and writers find the Buddha such an attractive figure? Just how Buddhist are the neo-Buddhist followers of Dr Ambedkar? Why, most recently, does Buddhism appeal to such a broad cross-section of international celebrities (from Tina Turner to Roberto Baggio)? Mishra does not, in the course of book, seem to feel it necessary to talk to any Buddhists (except an American Buddhist nun who he also deliberately avoids). And why does he not visit any Buddhist countries?

Instead he sits in Mashobra, London and San Francisco, contemplating a world that he sees as full of violence and confusion. He has a minor epiphany on 9/11 and no longer sees the Buddha as a half-mythical figure from antiquity, but as a ?true contemporary? capable of bringing wisdom and redemption. If he is right, then it is my loss, the reader?s loss, that Mishra is unable to provide a clear exposition of that wisdom.