That the ‘spiritual guru’ Deepak Chopra has chosen to call his retelling of the life of Buddha a “novel” rather than a biography, is not merely for reasons of artistic licence. A biography of a man so remote in time and so mysterious in self would, in fact, require a considerable amount of speculation on the part of even a scholar of the period. This, after all, was a man who, as Karen Armstrong writes in her excellent book on the Buddha, was attempting nothing less than “to find a new way of being human”.
Certainly Chopra’s narrative communicates the psychological and spiritual arc of the Buddha’s journey quite persuasively. His Siddhartha is a young prince who, it is prophesied, will one day rule the four corners of the world (of course, as with the prophesies of the witches in Macbeth, the catch is in the word “rule”), and whose father trains him to be a fearsome warrior.
Chopra (above) talks about the psychological aspects of Buddha’s life; in the book, the prophet is akin to a Hindu god
But Siddhartha cannot give himself over to ruthlessness and violence: He has “a feeling nature”, sensitive to the troubles of others and seeking harmony rather than conflict. Finally, Siddhartha leaves his family behind and sets out on his own in the quest for enlightenment. At first, he follows the path of other ascetics—studying the Vedas, spending long hours in meditation, denying his body comforts, believing that the material world is an illusion, trying to reach God.
But no teacher, he finds, can fully satisfy him: He knows that he is still trapped within the prison of his own self and its desires. The root of all existence, he sees, is suffering, and he cannot work out a way of transcending this suffering. Finally, reflecting upon his experiences in solitude, he realizes that he has committed several mistakes. Asceticism has made him commit the folly of turning “his body and mind into an enemy”. The quest for a supernatural power, too, is fruitless: “We can end suffering, but not by speaking of God”.
He goes forth into the world to deliver his radical message about how to achieve genuine self-rule; his every word and action is—to use a phrase from Herman Hesse’s great novel Siddhartha—“scented with Truth”. Chopra’s language, in contrast to the empty aridities of writers such as Paulo Coelho, is vivid, and his understanding of the Buddha’s thought stands up to intellectual scrutiny, which is not something that can be said of the work of most self-help gurus.
Yet, sceptical readers will note something slightly flashy in Chopra’s story that does not quite cohere with the Buddha’s message. The Buddha, and Buddhism after him, rejected all talk of the supernatural as a means of understanding human problems. This is what has always made the Buddha so accessible: Unlike the other great religious prophets, his wisdom is a revelation granted not by God, but by his own lonely and difficult quest for an understanding shorn of all illusion.
Yet Chopra’s narration, with its prophecies of a man who will conquer the world, glimpses of the world of the devas, Shiva and Krishna, and battles with a demon who tries to throw Siddhartha off his path, is cast like a heroic tale from Hindu mythology. It suggests that the Buddha was not so much a man who found a new path as one who was ordained to find one, and there is a world of difference between the two.
The Buddha made something extraordinary out of his ordinary humanity: He was not a chosen one, as perhaps Jesus or Muhammad were, but one who chose a new way. Chopra’s “novel”, although engaging, perhaps undermines the very achievement it has set out to illuminate.
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