As a child growing up in the ‘80’s India, I had the privilege to visit the fair ground and make loud demands for small earthen figurines. These were miniscule statues of great people, all dead, and therefore deemed fit to be gods as well as toys. They included Ramakrishna and his wife Ma Sarada, Netaji Subhas Chandra, Mahatma Gandhi, Radha-Krishna, Charlie Chaplin and Buddha.
I knew who Buddhadev was. He was made of plastic, a delicate blue in color and entirely hollow. I stored coins in him by removing the white cap just below the lotus on which he sat. When I shook him, the coins would jingle pleasantly. I don’t remember who gifted him to me.
Periodically, I bought illustrated books with the coins. In time, it included ‘Buddha’, ‘Angulimala’, and ‘Jataka Tales’ from the Amar Chitra Katha series. Angulimala, the outcast who killed people and wore a necklace of their chopped fingers, who turned Buddhist, and got stoned to death when he came back to town to beg for alms as a monk – was my hero.
On May 25, I started looking for the Buddha in the morning news. But he wasn’t there. Murders, rape, IPL, scandal, scams, heatwave deaths, desperate celebrities and a moon-faced Aishwarya cradling the Bachhan babe. To make matters worse, it was a Saturday, so a lot of offices were closed anyway. Very few noticed the red lettering on the calendar that marks a national holiday.
Buddha Poornima came and went away. There wasn’t much noise about the Nepali prince who was born on a full moon night around 563 BC. Oh well, even that may be a compromised statement now. A Kshatriya of the Shakya clan was born in the garden of Lumbini. There were only kingdoms then, not countries. His mom was on her way home from her husband’s palace, meaning to give birth there. But he was in a hurry, he had places to go. So he emerged, tiny and powerful, in the moonlit garden.
King Shuddhodhana was suitably overjoyed with the handsome heir and there was a great deal of rejoicing. He got the child’s future predicted, and it seemed the child would either be a great king or a great ascetic. Kings don’t stop at second opinions, so the Shakya chieftain got some eight Brahmins to read the stars. Apparently, all of them gave the same two-ended answer, except one, who suggested the child would get to achieve a very high level of spiritual awakening. As one of the most helpless fathers of history, the king named him ‘Siddhartha’, i.e. one who fulfills his aim (whatever it may be).
'Prince Siddhartha Leaves Home' by Abanindranath Tagore
The rest is history, myth, philosophy, religion and politics. You can Google him. You can read the good old Amar Chitra Katha.
What a disappointing contrast is the silence today compared to Diwali, Navratri/Durga Puja, Eid, Muharrum, Christmas, Easter, or even the many New Years we get to celebrate in this subcontinent.
The Buddha, ‘Light of Asia’, has come to mean so many things to us, from Indo-Chinese border wars to Thai foot massage. His path, admittedly a very complicated one, has been abbreviated, simplified and distributed in neat packages by politicians and religious leaders. The simple way of life suggested by him has been reduced to an easy formula that mostly does not lead to nirvana.
The political leaders did not fail protocol. Our Prime Minister sent out a greeting to the nation. He said Buddha inspires us to “follow the path of universal brotherhood, compassion and service for the underprivileged and disadvantaged people.” The President was more voluble. He talked of the ‘teachings of non violence, love and compassion’ that are of ‘eternal significance’. The idea was to practice nobility by inculcating these values into everyday life. The Buddha had ‘taught us the path of Right Action’ so we can overcome suffering. The Vice President echoed him, asking the nation to move towards ‘building a peaceful, compassionate and harmonious society’.
Apart from the Press Information Bureau’s portal, I found these messages faithfully reported in another, more popular website. The piece was surrounded by ads inviting arranged marriage classifieds, discount offers on printing business cards, and some attractive pop-ups of online cricket games. I tried playing one. It was, indeed, remarkably non violent.
The Entertainment section of a popular daily reported that the first shot of a mythological tele-series ‘Buddha’ was taken at the Mumbai Film City on the auspicious occasion of Buddha Poornima. This scoop was surrounded by ads on literacy campaign, calls to donate to the elderly, and linked out to a travel story to see the Big Buddha statue at Hong Kong.
Around this time, an average reader gets the idea what Buddhism is all about. It’s got something to do with doling out tax free alms to underprivileged kids and feeling horribly good about the superiority of the gesture. Or may be a trip to South East Asia, where pretty Buddhist girls in pagoda-shaped spas rub herbal oil down your back.
The other pieces on Buddha Poornima (and there were only a few more of them), were embellished with holiday deals, tips on a flatter tummy achieved through yoga, cooking low calory food, and ads of herbal tea.
Buddha, in his great innocence, did not know that ‘lifestyle’ would come to mean discounts, package deals, tourism, food and ads of fast moving consumer goods (soap, shampoo, lotions, oil). The web edition of an English daily actually enlisted plausible methods of celebrating Buddha Poornima in a ‘big city’. You need to eat simple, oil-free home-made veggie food, talk politely with everyone, including folks whom you don’t like, do a bit of yoga, and take it easy for a day. The Buddha wouldn’t want you to shout at the watchman or make rude faces at your boss’s back.
Prince Siddhartha, far as the records show, was not vegetarian. He didn’t want animals killed meaninglessly. For that matter, he didn’t want humans killed meaninglessly either. And to make it all worse, he left it to each person to find their own way to Nirvana. You might practice Buddhism actively and spend a whole lifetime in a monastery without every ‘getting it’. You may wear white cotton clothes, donate regularly, follow Ramdev’s morning yoga programmes, and still not get it. Sitting under the Bodhi tree, meditating as ‘correctly’ as possible or entirely smoked out on marijuana … Nothing might open the heavens for a glimpse of the spirit that rolls through the universe, tying man to amoeba in one thread. Then again, you might scale the greatest heights in one moment of epiphany while driving a truck, bathing, or even at the moment of death.
As they say in the movie ‘Forrest Gump’, “shit happens”. Nirvana happened to Buddha. He prescribed ways of distancing oneself from earthly ties, ways to cut out of the mesh of desire-lust-greed-fear-anger. But thereafter, each to his own. That last stretch to true wisdom is to be done alone.
Herman Hesse’s slim but profound book ‘Siddhartha’ (written in 1922) went on to become a rage when published in the US in 1951. Right through the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, poets, lyricists, businessmen and philosophers declared its impact through movies, music and ganja-fueled quests for some sort of truth. Osamu Tezuka’s manga series ‘Buddha’ (created between 1972 to 1983) continues to be a best-seller. Though engrossing and knowledgeable, Tezuka had some severe failings as well. For example, he seemed unable to accept that a physically strong man might also have terrible spiritual cravings. So his characters often become single-color props. Canadian poet and singer Leonard Cohen is a Buddhist, and so is Mr. Bond, Richard Gere. In 1993, Bernardo Bertolucci directed the much-acclaimed movie ‘Little Buddha’, where Keanu Reeves was given a chance to redeem his many action films by appearing as the Enlightened One. Shekhar Kapur is currently working on another ‘Buddha’, planned on a lavish scale, like his two ‘Elizabeth’s.
Rabindranath Tagore created the dance-drama ‘Chandalika’, influenced heavily by South East Asian dance traditions. The detailed instructions left for future producers include a mix of South Asian Ramayana-style forms, Kathakali, Kuchipuri and some folk forms of Bengal. The story revolved around an untouchable girl (a Chandal), her sexual awakening and through her desire for a Buddhist monk, the social and spiritual awakening she experiences. School students often perform a watered-down version of it. Usually, their understanding of the context is as clear as my identification of the Buddha as a blue plastic piggy bank.
Meanwhile, Nirvana keeps happening. Sometimes, on a level that can shake one to the core of one’s being with blinding revelations. And sometimes while sipping coconut water on a cruiser docked in the shade of a tropical resort.