Siddhartha's story
Aradhika Sharma

Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment
by Deepak Chopra. Harper Collins. Pages 278. Rs 395.

Buddha: A Story of EnlightenmentA fictionalised account of the life of a great saint from the pen of one of the New-Age gurus — an exciting proposition. Why fiction? Because Deepak Chopra believes: "Fiction is a much better way for telling the truth than fact`85. We know the historical story, so I wanted to look at what Buddha was struggling with inside, his inner demons, his own shadows. In a sense this is everyone’s struggle. In order to find your own awakening you have to confront your dark side."

Well, when the person who has popularised eastern philosophy in the world, and has written novels before (The Return of Merlin: A Novel and The Daughters of Joy: An Adventure of the Heart), the expectations are high, even though these books have not really made the mark with critics. One, however, wishes that this state would change with the fictionalised account of the journey of the Gautam Buddha. Unfortunately, there are several places where one is slightly disappointed.

It’s an interesting tale, with an easy flow, but apart from the central figure of Siddhartha, the other characters are not really paid much attention to. They flit and disappear.

Perhaps Chopra wants to convey that they were only a miniscule part of the Buddha’s journey and so only that much importance needs be given to them, yet for the reader, there is a sense of unfinished business. When a work of fiction is presented, the reader wants to get to know the saints and the sinners that the protagonist comes across. Herein, the reader may be disappointed.

The book is too simplistic, as opposed to simple, which is the essence of Buddha’s philosophy. It is neither totally philosophical, nor does it adequately justify its characters, as any good novel should.

The plot is a ready-made one; indeed, it is tailor-made for Chopra, with his knowledge of the body-mind meditative experiences, which he also regularly expounds on. So, not too much work was needed on the plot anyway, except to take it forward, which Chopra has admittedly done skilfully. However, if we look at the narrative as being centred only on a single character, and his inward journey, then our vision may change and our sense of disappointment may be mitigated for there is a sense of a soul inexorably moving towards it’s Nirvana. This is where Chopra scores.

The Buddha’s enlightenment experience is specially imaginative and treated very gently. The message of the author is "Buddha was as mortal as you and I, yet he attained enlightenment and was raised to the rank of an immortal. The miracle is that he got there following a heart as human as yours and mine, and just as vulnerable." Thereby the author says that following the righteous path is an aspiration that is achievable by all.

The book is divided into three sections, dealing with the different phases of the journey of the prince Siddhartha to becoming the enlightened one. The first phase is Siddhartha the Prince, where Chopra tells of his princely birth and the machinations of power and wealth around the prince leading up to when he breaks free to become Gautam the monk, which constitutes the second phase of the book. Here he undergoes extreme suffering, almost to death and varied spiritual experiences that finally lead him to becoming The Buddha the Compassionate one. The story comes to a full circle when the Buddha returns to Kapilvastu to make it a kingdom of peace.

In the epilogue Chopra gives a brief overview of the teachings of the Buddha. He also explains that the middle way, which gained its name because it was neither too harsh nor too easy, proved to be very appealing and gained popularity. However, the journey to Nirvana is a solitary one and it takes a Buddha to complete it.

The last chapter of the book, The Art of Non-Doing, is a short, practical guide to Buddhism and is definitely a value-addition. The volume thus becomes a handbook for people who want an overview of the fascinating life and journey of Gautam Buddha and the tenets of Buddhism.