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Buddha in a new light

The Buddha emerges a more rounded figure in this reinterpretation, says R. KRITHIKA

A Spoke In The Wheel: A Novel About The Buddha, Amita Kanekar, HarperCollins, Rs. 395.

THE traditional legend of Buddha's renunciation and search for enlightenment is, in many ways, unsatisfactory. Could one be as divorced from the reality of his/ her times as the legend implied? Also the characters seem unreal cardboard cutouts rather than real live people, who felt, loved, lived and hated — especially when compared with extant literary sources on social life of this period in Indian history.

Good use of history

Against this background, Amita Kanekar's A Spoke in the Wheel is interesting reading. Described as historical fiction, the book draws from Indian history to such good effect that one can't help wondering if things actually did happen this way. The period of the Buddha was one of great philosophical ferment. There were six main schools of thought, the Vedic ritualistic tradition was under attack and people were beginning to look at alternate schools of thought. Both politically and socially too, it was a time of changes. Republicanism had come to the fore.

The book moves at two levels. A monk, Upali, (who lives in Asoka's times) is writing the story of Buddha's life. Upali has lived through the Kalinga War and is not quite sure about the reasons for Asoka's conversion — is it a true inner change or is it politically motivated? Upali's story has raised hackles in the establishment since he avoids the traditional rendering. His Buddha is an outsider in his own society, racked by doubts and finding something lacking in the political and socio-religious structure of his times. But, initially at least, Upali has the support of the emperor.

A modern reader might find Upali's Buddha a more rounded figure than the over-protected prince of mythology. The reader is drawn to the character as his doubts and worries do have a contemporary resonance. But one can also understand the horrified reactions of the community of monks. After building up the greatness of Buddha, to have him portrayed as a naοve, self-doubting individual out of sync with the socio-political environment can be damaging.

Dismantling legends

Another interesting aspect of the book is the dismantling of each legend associated with the Buddha. Beginning with his birth right down to his renunciation, Kanekar systematically demolishes the otherworldly gloss. The touch I liked best was the handling of the charioteer Channa when he brings the news of Buddha's renunciation home. Our lovely legends are silent in this. But Kanekar has Channa thrashed and thrown in jail till it is proved that Siddhartha was alive. More like those times — and these too.

Life in the Magadhan empire is also portrayed with an eye to historical accuracy. Quotes from Asokan edicts — which we knew of as history but couldn't really relate to — now come alive with a new imagery. The schism within Buddhism — which Asoka tries to bridge with the Buddhist Council — is portrayed through the conversation of the monks. Political intrigue, a given constant in all times, reaches through insidiously into the Sangha - one of the elders is a spy for the emperor, another monk is murdered for his political affiliations.

Same old stories

The other interesting issue is the expansion of so-called "civilisation" and the effect it has on tribals and other forest-dwelling people. The young Siddhartha is troubled by the treatment and enslavement of defeated tribals. By the time of Asoka, the expansion of the Magadhan kingdom sees the forest dwellers fighting a losing battle to retain their way of life. One quote brings the reader slap up against the tribal agitations in today's world and the conflict between civilisation-development and the traditional cultures — "Everything in the forest is not the same ... . Magadh has this way of demeaning the forests - using them, plundering them, destroying them and ignoring the richness, the layers, the differences, the thousands of thousands of differences." Not much seems to have changed in the years that have passed since then.

Kanekar's language is forceful and direct. Vividly drawn word pictures bring old textbooks to life. Upali is a figure who draws and holds the reader's interest. His stubborn refusal to accept the legends as sacred, his championing of the communities, his doubts over the king's reasons for conversion and promotion of Buddhism ... This is a book that will be of interest to anyone interested in philosophy in general and Buddhism in particular.

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