AT £17.99 YOU get three books here for the price of one. The first is a concise history of the Buddha, of the various schools of Buddhism, and of Western and Indian commentators on the faith. The second outlines the author’s disappointment with the world he lives in and with almost all the authors he once admired (most of them Western), who cannot guide the world out of its agony and cruelty. And the third tells us something of a lonely, alienated young Indian, never at ease in his own country, except for-a few years spent in a remote mountain village. Disillusioned with the West he once admired, he seems to have arrived at some kind of understanding, and perhaps peace, by realising that the Buddha held out ‘the possibility of knowledge as well as redemption – the awareness, suddenly liberating, with which I finally began to write about the Buddha’.
Pankaj Mishra – who has travelled widely in India and written a book about its smaller towns (Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India) and also a novel, The Romantics – has an unusual ability to get people to say things that they might ordinarily keep to themselves. An otherwise civilised Indian officer (himself a Muslim) insists that to preserve ‘national integrity’ it was necessary to kill scores of Muslims who would not accept Indian authority in Kashmir and elsewhere. The brother of the man who assassinated Gandhi because he. the killer. believed non-violence was leading India to ruin told Mishra that India had turned its back on Gandhi ‘and had come close to embracing his brother’s vision’.
Mishra observes and listens closely. The most shocking sight he records is a stupendous gathering of 200,000 men from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. There, ‘speaker after speaker recounted along history of humiliation and atrocity, the Crusades, Granada, Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, and urged Muslims to join the worldwide jihad against the United States and its allies’. The audience. Mishra writes. believed they were ‘the reserve army if the Taliban, ready to martyr ;hemselves9. In a pungent sentence – he is very good at this – he sums up the tragedy of this crowd: they ‘lived in dysfunctional societies, under governments beholden to, or in fear of, America, and . . . had little to look forward to, except possibly the short career of a suicide bomber’.
Mishra sees this dilemma whole, however, and although George Bush won’t, the President could learn from another of Mishra’s lapidary sentences: the fanatics at the 200,000-strong congress (I recall no newspaper account of this ominous gathering) represented ‘hundreds of millions of stupefied and powerless individuals, lured by the promise of equality and justice into a world which they had no means of understanding, whose already overstrained and partially available resources they were expected to exploit in order to hoist themselves to the level of affluence enjoyed by a small minority of middle class people around the world’.
Much of Mishra’s book is a familiar history of Buddha and Buddhism: I don’t mean to diminish his skilful summary, but that is what it is. There are, as he says several times, mountains of books on this subject, most of the best the work of the Western explorers and scholars who not so long ago rescued the history and basic texts of Buddhism from the ignorance in which they had languished for centuries. If you know nothing about Buddhism, Mishra describes its basic tenets clearly – they sound simple or even simple-minded, but aren’t.
Then there is Mishra’s own life. He is a pretty shy and unsure man, as he admits, and I can’t say that he makes a clear impression. The son of an impoverished Brahmin father, he attended a well-known university crammed with lazy students and unenthusiastic staff. He then reads a lot of Western literature (through which he imagines the West as alluring and successful), dreams of becoming a writer, holes up in a mountain village to put pen to paper and think, becomes a moderately successful author, travels around India, Britain and the US, becomes better acquainted with India, seems not to have any romances, and slowly comes to realise that neither Western writers nor the West itself can satisfy his hopes and longing. ‘It took me time to realise that my love of western writers and philosophers had been a form of idolatry’, he writes. He came to believe that the world of Rosseau, Adam Smith, Emerson, Marx and Tolstoy, a world of ‘overly rational thinking’, had produced ‘mass murder, forced labour and migrations, all deemed necessary by a bureaucratised state for the cause of a better future’ leading to organised greed, war and genocide. Some might say that this is a heavy burden to load on the authors Mishra used to admire.
So Mishra concludes that his travels, both geographical and of the mind, had ‘made a strange man of me. When I looked back, I saw many different selves . . . Far from being unique or individual, as I had once imagined, my desires contained nothing of any vital importance or consequence.’ He is not the first or last person to feel this way; we all strive to find shafts of light in the dark night of the soul. For Mishra, the way out is the Buddha’s: ‘He offered a moral and spiritual regimen that led to nothing less than a whole new way of looking at and experiencing the world.’ In the end, however, everything disappoints him – India, England, America, authors, his friends, even the mountain village where, in 1992, ‘I could believe that a new life was beginning for me, in which I too would have a claim on the world’s ample store of happiness’. When he returned to that once perfect place, however, ‘Real-estate speculators with alleged Middle East connections had built condominiums, offered them at very high prices, and sold them to suspiciously rich army officers’. I hope Buddhism, too, doesn’t let him down.