Ancient India


It is impossible to give an account of the content of an informative book of 676 pages; one can only touch upon some memorable details. What can be said with certainty, though, about this great historical account is that the author’s love, admiration, and tenderness toward his subject shine through every page. A.L. Basham’s tome, The Wonder That Was India. A survey of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims (Picador, 3rd edition, 1967, first published in 1954), is to be savoured slowly. It is an interesting companion to Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering (also reviewed here).

The volume’s Foreword is penned by Thomas Trautman, and the book itself is divided into ten chapters and ends with 10 appendices, a Bibliography and References, as well as with an Index and Glossary. It contains a chronology of pre-Muslim India, and  89 plates (illustrations, photos in black and white and in color) as well as line drawings. The historical account touches ancient India from the prehistoric period (3000 BC Baluchistan, and 2500-1550 Harappa Culture) through to the 16th century (Northern and Peninsular medieval dynasties). The author tackles this vast subject geographically (North to South and West to East) according to where chronological developments in culture, economy, social and religious contacts lead. The amount of information receives a logical treatment, so reading flows very easily. No historical outline, however, is complete without touching upon the present. And Basham’s Chapter X, Epilogue: The Heritage of India contains not only those elements which the world received from India, but also an optimistic view of the future: “…the whole face of India is altering, but the cultural tradition continues, and it will never be lost”. (p. 496) This statement, seen from a distance of more than 60 years, and from cynicism due to all postmodernist thought, brings heartfelt positive feeling, only to be undone by recent cultural clashes (in Sri Lanka) and by the rapid leveling of all cultures in the world into one technological maelstrom.

What follows are outlines of each chapter.

From the Introduction (Chapter I), we learn that the name India comes from the name of one of the two most important rivers, Sindhu (Indus), which the Persians pronounced as Hindu. It is noteworthy that, according to the author, the effects of the northern mountains (Himalayas) on the social, economic, and cultural development of India has been overrated, but of course their importance as sources of the two most important rivers (the Indus and Ganga) is paramount. The history of India is unique (similar to that of China) in that some of the most ancient traditions have been preserved until the present day – a situation which is not mirrored in Egypt or Greece. The continuous traditions came to be studied, from the European perspective, in the 18th century: among the first scholars who delved deeply into India’s history were Jesuit fathers who mastered Sanskrit (for ex., Father Hanxleden who worked in Kerala from 1699 to 1722), but the pre-eminence of research falls into the English hands starting with Sir William Jones (who came to Calcutta as a judge of the supreme court, 1746-94), a linguistic genius, to whom we owe a scientific proof of the idea that Persian and European languages originate from a common ancestor which is not Hebrew (as had been believed). Under the English administration, India’s ancient literature was translated, and the Asiatic Society of Bengal was established (1784), existing to this day. Archaeology received a boost, too, but most excavations on a large scale began only in the 20th century. Native scholars did and continue to do work as Sanskritists, epigraphists, archaeologists. Basham’s perspective and admiration is clear from this excerpt:

At most periods of her history India, though a cultural unit, has been torn by internecine war. In statecraft her rulers were cunning and unscrupulous. Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number, and in no other ancient lawbook are their rights so well protected as in the Arthaśāstra. No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu. … To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.... India was a cheerful land whose people, each finding a niche in a complex and slowly evolving system, reached a higher level of kindliness and gentleness in their mutual relationships than any other nation in antiquity. For this, as well as for her great achievements in religion, literature, art and mathematics, one European student at least would record his admiration of India’s ancient culture.  (pp. 8-9)

This paragraph not only clearly states Basham’s esteem, but also touches upon a number of strands that fill the loom of Indian history, but whose interpretation by no means receives a universal acceptance. These are as follows: India was a cultural unit in antiquity; social relations were humane; laws protected the humble classes.

Chapter II deals with Prehistory: The Harappa culture and The Aryans. Stone tools (hand axes, arrowheads, etc.) were found both in northern and southern India and could be dated to about 100 000 years ago.* Agricultural settlements were excavated in Baluchistan and lower Sind, dating from the end of the 4th millennium, when the climate was very different. Various cultures thrived, separated by the manner in which they produced pottery (in the North red, in the South buff), but they were united in worshiping a Mother Goddess, of whom small statuettes were found. The civilization of the Indus, now called the Harappa culture (2500-1550 BC), known from excavation in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and other cities, was apparently based on oligarchic commercial republic system, since no remains could be identified as places of worship nor weapons were found there. Harappa had a thriving agricultural economy and exported produce and cotton, metal and semi-precious stones which found their way to Mesopotamia; numerous family seals with emblems and inscriptions were found. Waves of invaders destroyed the existing villages and replaced the existing culture. These invaders were probably Vedic Aryans, and called themselves Aryas (anglicized into Aryans; the form survives as Iran, cognate with Eire).  These migrated from the North-West; the invasions to India covered centuries and various tribes. One tribe, the Bharatas, included priests who perfected advanced poetic technique, and the hymns were passed down by word of mouth only through careful memorization. This great collection of hymns is the Rg Veda, still the most sacred text of the Hindus, and it, as well as the Brahmanas, and Upanisads, form the basis of our knowledge about the ancient Aryans. It is probable that the hymns of the Rg Veda were composed between1500 and 1000 BC.  The Aryans were organized in tribes led by chiefs (raja) and they were fighting not only the natives (Dāsa) but also among themselves. Apparently, the retroflex consonants existing in Sanskrit and other modern vernaculars are due to the influence of  the natives’ languages while learning Sanskrit. Aryans seem to have had class divisions in place: ksatra (the nobility), vis’ (ordinary people), brāhmana (priest), sudra (serf); these divisions deepened as the Aryans laid great stress on purity of blood, so children born of  intermarriage with natives and non-assimilated natives were considered low class. The Sanskrit word used for these divisions is varna (color), and not caste, term which is generally accepted today. The Aryans engaged in a mixed pastoral and agricultural economy, the horse and the cow were utilized greatly; inebriating drinks (sama and sura)  were very popular – used in sacrifices and during festivities. They were warlike and kept pressing on to the eastern parts, setting up kingdoms in Kosala and Kasi and later Videha. Consolidated kingdoms of the later ages were still ruled by kings, but their power was much limited by the power of the Brahmans and that of the public opinion. “Political divisions based on kingship were giving place to those based on geography, and in many parts of India the tribes were rapidly breaking up. This, and the strong feeling of insecurity which it caused, may have been an important factor in the growth of asceticism and of a pessimistic outlook on the world, which is evident throughout this period.” (pp. 42-43).

Chapter III focuses on History: Ancient and Medieval Empires.  From the 6th century BC on, the historian can rely on more numerous written sources: this time brought great ferment not only in the spiritual domain (ascetics, mystics, the Buddha, etc.), but also advancement in commerce and politics. The old order of brahmanic culture slowly disappeared and new kingdoms arose in the east: Magadha, Vatsa and Avanti. The policy of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru (both kings of Magadha) seemed to aim at the control of as much of the course of the Ganga as possible – conceivably the idea of a far-flung Indian empire in the making. The Greeks’ permanence in India was short – about 80 years. Alexander crossed the Indus in 326; Megasthenes, as ambassador (305 BC), traveled and saw the Mauryan court and greatly admired its emperor Candragupta, a precursor of Asoka, the greatest and noblest ruler India has known. Then come various invasions from Central Asia as well as Iran.  In the 4th century of our era, Candra Gupta rose to power, ruling over Northern India, and his imperial advancements were continued by other rulers establishing the Gupta empire. Further raids occurred between the 7th and the 10th century (invaders from Central Asia, and the Huna, Arabs, Turks). All the while dynastic wars continued.

Chapter IV discusses The State: Political Life and Thought. The main sources of information are textbooks on statecraft, the administration of force, the conduct of kings.  Kautiliya Arthasastra gives detailed instructions on control of the state, organization of the national economy, and conduct of war. The great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana also contain sections which provide information on statecraft as it existed in the early centuries of our era. Kingship, royal function, oligarchies and republics, councillors and officials, local administration are described in this chapter. Legal literature, elucidating the obscure sacrificial instructions of the Brahmanas, was written in the form of brief aphorisms (sutras) and they were later versified. These Smrti (remembered) writings are distinct from the earlier Vedic literature Sruti (heard). The king’s duty was to uphold the Dharma (“the divinely ordained norm of good conduct, varying according to class and caste, “the Sacred Law”, p. 114) by means of Danda (coercion/punishment/justice). Militarism was one constant aspect of any kingdom, but “The intense militarism of ancient India did not lead to the building of a permanent empire over the whole sub-continent.  … numerous factors prevented the unification of the recognized cultural unit… the size of the land … the martial tradition itself.” (p. 124) In India, “Hinduism, which had no all-embracing super-national organization, rather encouraged inter-state anarchy by incorporating many martial traditions into the Sacred Law.” (p. 129)

Chapter V describes Society: Class, Family and Individual. In social conduct, there is a common Dharma, i.e. rules of conduct, but there exist also Dharma rules which are intended for different distintions by class, age, gender, etc. The biggest distinction was between the twice-born and those who could not be initiated into the Aryan status.

The Brahman was thought of as a divinity in human form, and he was accorded precedence, honor and worship. He was responsible for carrying out the sacrifices to ensure prosperity, and some were great teachers of the Vedas. There were various classes and types of professional priests; but all were feared and maintained by the king and the population at large. The ksatriya (ruling class) was responsible for protection, i.e. fighting in war and governing in peace. The vaisya (mercantile class) was made of farmers, keepers of cattle and petty merchants; although they were a distant third group, – they could be oppressed at will by the upper two classes – ,  some achieved great wealth. The sudras were not twice-born, and these were of two kinds: “pure” or “not-excluded” and “excluded”.  Their duty was to wait on the other three classes; they had few rights; and were not allowed to hear or repeat the Vedas. Below the sudras there are the untouchables, outcastes, depressed classes (the candala group).  Slavery is also discussed. The four stages of life, which together with the idea of class are the bulwarks of Hindu society, are described in detail:   after receiving the sacred thread (i.e. the second birth), youth were to lead an austere life as students at the home of their teachers; having mastered the Vedas, they returned home to marry and become householders; once they have seen their children and grandchildren, they left their homes and lived in the forest as hermits. Clearly, these rules pertain to boys. Women were always minors at law. They could hold specified amounts of property, could become nuns but not officiate. But the role of women was to marry and take care of their menfolk and children. The wife’s fidelity was sacrosanct.

Chapter VI focuses on Everyday Life: The daily round in city and village – among the most important sources for the life of a well-to-do young Indian is the Kamasutra. Dice, chess, boxing and other games are described.

Chapter VII takes on Religion: cults, doctrines and metaphysics, describing the religion of the Vedas (the main gods are compared to the Greek divinities), following the ascetics, analyzing the rise of ascetic and mystical doctrines out of some opposition to brahmanic pretensions and deep feeling of uncertainty during momentous societal transformations. Topics treated in detail are Ethics of the Upanisads, Buddhism, the Lesser and the Great Vehicle, Jainism and other unorthodox sects, Hinduism, all illustrated with significant excerpts from the sacred writings. Christians, Jews, and Muslims were not antagonized: “This capacity of toleration contributed to the characteristic resiliency of Hinduism, and helped to assure its survival” (347).

Chapter VIII concentrates on The Arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music and the dance. Stupas (burial mounds) underwent transformations and became centres of religious life. Temples are described in detail, as well as sculpture , engraving, terracotta products and paintings receive meticulous treatment. The Indian musical scale is illustrated.

Chapter IX deals with Language and Literature. The role of Sanskrit, the language of the sacred books,  for historical linguistics is recognized; Indian grammarians and some of their ideas are described. Prakrits, the language of everyday speech is also preserved in Asoka’s edicts, for example, or in the speech of women characters in Indian drama. It is simpler than Sanskrit both in sound and in grammar. One early dialect of Prakrit was  Pali, still the language of Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma and South-East Asia.. Dravidian languages (Tamil, Canarese, Telegu and Malayālam) also enjoyed literary uses. The earliest important written documents are Asokan inscriptions, written in a well-developed script, pointing to a long previous development. Between the 6th century BC and 5th century of our era scripts underwent modifications: the Devanagari script is used to write Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi and Marathi, but there are local variations, for ex., in the Panjab, Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and elsewhere. Parts of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanisads receive high praise for their literary merit. The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,  being martial epics interpolated with passages on theology, moral and statecraft, are also prime sources for our knowledge of early Indian civilizations. European aesthetic standards do not appreciate the ornate Sanskrit poetry and its rigid canons of literary convention appreciative of verbal ingenuity. Plays are also described (for ex., “The Little Clay Cart”), as well as Sanskrit prose.

The Appendices deal with Cosmology and Geography, Astronomy, The Calendar, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Logic and Epistemology, Weights and Measures, Coinage, The Alphabet and Its Pronunciation, Prosody, The Gypsies.


* This dating has now been corrected to much earlier: see Michael Greshko, “These Tools Upend Our View of Stone-Age Humans in Asia”,


An end to suffering


Travel, philosophy, literature, personal growth, history, the Buddha and his teachings all intertwine in this fascinating journey of an author who attempts to come to terms with his Indian background and his yearning for something which would present to him an acceptable picture of the world and alleviate his feeling of his own shortcomings. Pankaj Mishra (An End To Suffering. The Buddha in the World, Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) presents a balanced view of what the Buddha means in the world: this is not an earnest attempt at proselytizing, nor a high-brow disapproval. Looking at Buddha  “in the world” may seem a most ambitious undertaking, but Mishra is able to lead the reader, in 15 chapters, through the maze of Buddhisms, among a plethora of authors who both knew Buddha’s ideas and admired them, as well as those who were familiar with these ideas and were critical of them. Granted, he is more concerned with the United States (perhaps because it  represents the idea of ‘the West’ more than any other country), but he also includes Russian, French, British, Indian  literary figures and philosophers who may have been attuned to Buddhist ideas.  Furthermore, his account of the Buddha’s life and accomplishments is accompanied by his own growth as an author and by his awareness of his place in the world.

This is a book rich in historical detail, full of parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and the musings by poets (for ex., Hesiod, Jack Kerouac, Osip Mandelstam) and novelists (Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, etc.)  as well as philosophical ideas (Epicurus, Socrates, Descartes, esp. Nietzsche, Tagore, and others). These comparisons are by no means based only on the actual familiarity of the authors with Buddhism. The comparisons are also made on the similarity of concepts between Buddhism and the intellectuals’ ideas, so they reflect the wide-ranging possibilities of connections that the Buddha’s teachings have in the intellectual realm, even if the individual is not familiar with Buddhism. One of the great merits of this book is a most clear presentation of the Buddha’s life and his teachings. The other value of the book is the non-centre view of modernity: the description of India’s problems stemming from its post-colonial but wannabe ‘Western’, i.e. modern state is devastatingly honest. The sadness felt by the author of so much human pain inflicted on humanity by radicalization and fanaticism for any  movement exudes from each chapter. But the most essential value of the book stems from the author’s questioning his self-worth and his life’s value. Although one has the impression that Buddhism does not provide the antidote to the author’s questioning of his self-worth, and it does not impart value to his life, it does provide some explanations to why human behaviour is as it is.

In conclusion, this is a book to be cherished and read many times. The wealth of ideas and concepts provided will surely keep the mind working for a long time, and the humanity and humility of the author will definitely be a constant reminder of intellectual honesty.

What follows is a general outline of each chapter.

In the chapter “The invention of ‘Buddhism’ ” Mishra makes it clear that

the Buddha (“the enlightened one”) was not God, or His emissary on earth, but the individual who had managed to liberate himself from ordinary human suffering, and then, out of compassion, had shared his insights with others. He had placed no value on prayer or belief in a deity; he had not spoken of creation, original sin or the last judgement. (p. 28)

Thus, the Buddha was “more of a trenchant thinker and psychologist rather than a religious figure” (29); therefore, this thinking,  focused as it was on strengthening (by meditation and other ascetic practices) one’s own will to curb craving and suffering, did not involve the need for a large scale restructuring of state and society, most unlike the thinking of the intellectual fathers of the modern world  (Rousseau, Hobbes, and Marx) (29). Rejecting the religious orthodoxy and abstract speculation of the Brahmin philosophers he shifted his interest to ordinary human experience to  underline the fact that neither the individual self nor the world is stable, and that our desire for things “innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into perpetual discontentment” (p. 43). So for the Buddha, the release from suffering was the only worthwhile spiritual aim.

This chapter deals with the history behind the inspiration that Buddha provided for many intellectuals in Europe and America in the nineteenth- and early twentieth century. The sources of this inspiration were gathered in writings of dilettanti in the 17- and 18 hundreds – British invaders (officers, explorers, surveyors, such as Francis Buchanan, manuscript collectors, for ex., Houghton Hodgson,  etc.),  French tourists (for ex., the naturalist Victor Jacquemont and others before him), accounts often clouded by superiority complexes and lack of material remains.

“The World of the Buddha” depicts the ancient Indian history, the Aryan invasion of the Indo-Gangetic plain where other civilizations had thrived, the sacred religious knowledge (Vedas) these invaders elaborated into rituals the correct formulas of which were possessed by the Brahmins and live on even today.  It is assumed that the caste system originated around the 8th century BCE when there were four social groups: kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), brahmins (priests, thinkers, law-givers) vaishyas (landowners, merchants, money lenders) and shudras (darker-skinned aborigines or mixed breed without membership rights to the other groups). From nomadism and tribal bands, this culture evolved into stable agricultural society and towns, threatening the Brahmin-imposed social hierarchy as the merchant class enjoyed unprecedented economic power. But this order was shifting from independent republics towards more centralized monarchies when Buddha came of age. He was born as Gautama Siddhartha (“he who fulfills his purpose”) to a kshatriya clan, the Shakyas, who controlled what are now the borderlands of India and Nepal (the location of the  region’s capital city, Kapilavistu, is still disputed). His father Suddhodhana kept him protected but expected from him a future of tending the family’s farm, and possible chieftainship. Apparently, as a child, the Buddha was very fragile and delicate. He never knew his birth mother, Maya, who passed away while he was only seven days old. Her sister, Mahaprajapati, looked after him from then on. The Buddha was raised in  knowledge of the sacred Vedas, in the belief of ultimate reality (brahman), of the existence of the soul (atman) which is subject to reincarnation and therefore in the final analysis the brahman is identical to the atman. This union was knowable through a rigorous self-discipline (yoga)  and through meditation which controlled emotions and passions. The theory of rebirth went through various elaborations, and was based on human actions (karma) in all human endeavours, and Mishra offers this concrete example:

Sanskrit poetics assume that the individual reading and responding sensitively to a poem brings into play the experiences of his past lives, and that an unresponsive reading on his part can be put down to insufficiently refined previous experience. (p. 105)

The never-ending cycle of action and consequences, taught by the Brahmins, found also detractors: men who rejected the idea of karma and the Brahmin-defined social order. These homeless wanderers and spiritual seekers (sramanas) of which the Buddha was the greatest, unleashed a revolution of ideas in North India. They stressed the renunciation of the active life: this renunciation was the best way to avoid karma and endless life of suffering. They also challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy by establishing sects, prescribing their own mental and spiritual exercises, and stressed that each individual has to realize the truth personally, through long practice of asceticism or meditation. Those who left their home and family became wandering sadhus (mendicants) indifferent to weather, dirt, pain. The general population fed and sheltered them, admiring their dedication and renunciation. These homeless philosophers occasionally met each other, debated in a relaxed and democratic way publicly – among the audience there was also the young Siddhartha.

“The Death of God” focuses first on the philosophical, social, and political underpinnings of the revolution of ideas which the Buddha brought to the ethical level. General unhappiness, dismantling of the old social order, loneliness, widespread social insecurity, all conspired to bolster the momentous tendency of the sramanas to do away with the old teachings of the Brahmins. Clearly, Nietzsche took up the question that sramanas, too, were grappling with and each answered in their own way:

When, finally, all the observances and customs upon which the power of the gods and of the priests and redeemers depends will have been abolished, when, that is to say, morality, in the old sense will have died, then there will come – well, what will come then?              (quoted from Nietzsche, Daybreak; p. 113)

The European answer stays solidly on the foundations of science, but this answer led to the use of knowledge for one’s advantage rather than to the quest for the meaning of the world.

Mishra spends some pages on his reminiscences of his university life in Allahabad, of visits to his friend Vinod’s home town, observing the injustices, seemingly endless,  perpetrated in India not only by the British but also by the Indians. Some people blame Gautama Buddha and Gandhi for the passivity and resignation of the Indian character, and for poverty and weakness. The massive changes that occurred in India (and elsewhere), from petroleum lamps to electricity, from life regulated by the sun to life regulated by the clock, from quiet of the countryside to the roar of the locomotives, were too rapid. How was India to react to this change, which, according to Mishra, was not random, since there seemed to have been a will and a purpose behind it? (p. 136) What was this modern world? How did one get into it? What were its benefits? (p. 138) In Europe, independent nations, based on “relatively homogeneous groups, seemed to reconstitute disparate human beings into citizens of a productive and efficient society” (139). Mishra brings in thinkers such as Marx, Hobbes, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, and other intellectuals to underline that there existed also the recalcitrant posture of non-Western societies to “catch up with the West” (140).  The West became a success story and Asia and Africa must emulate it.  But paradoxically, the West was also a hot-bed of conflicts and ruthless exploiters of their colonies. The Hindu philosopher Vivekananda’s experiences with the West as well as those of the Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala became sources of attitudes for young Indians to debate.

In “The Long Way to the Middle Way” the narration returns to the Buddha’s youth, his questioning of the existence of old age, suffering, death. Later, he married and had a son, still living in luxury. But he was not happy; he was lonely and had self-doubts. Probably with the support of a sramana, he left his family, his palaces, and his life of wealth and began his new life with short hair, no beard,  new yellow robes, an alms-bowl, and freedom. The Buddha meets various sramanas, meets with princes (especially important is his meeting with Bimbisara, king of Magadha), visits gurus (Alara Kalama, Udraka Ramaputra). Once he had learnt whatever there was to learn, he moved on, elaborating on the techniques and ideas he picked up from others. The Buddha reached stages of meditation beyond the first, that of detachment from his surroundings and preoccupations, feeling free of desires or other strong emotions and in which the meditator feels a high degree of comfort. “In the next two stages he stops thinking altogether and also transcends his feeling of comfort before reaching the fourth stage when he is aware only of the object of concentration and indeed has become one with that object.” (167) However, according to the Buddha,”concentration and endurance were important means, but without a corresponding moral and intellectual development, they by themselves did not end suffering.” (168) Having undergone severe ascetic practices, starvation, and withdrawal from society, he  “did not attain the special and wonderful knowledge and insight transcending the affairs of human beings”, and he still wondered if there could be another way to attain enlightenment. He pondered the possibility that seeking too hard was prohibiting him from achieving his purpose.

The chapter entitled  “The Science of the Mind” considers the Buddha’s enlightenment, which according to tradition happened under a pipal tree, one April or May during the full moon. The enlightenment consisted of having learnt “the four noble truths of human experience: suffering, its cause, the possibility of curing it, and its remedy. Knowing this, he felt liberated from ordinary human condition.” (p. 174) It also meant that he would not be born into another existence. His enlightenment was not the result of divine intervention but of nine hours of meditation (so the legend goes) and more probably was due to his six-year long experience as meditator, ascetic and thinker. Later Buddhist philosophers refined and elaborated his enlightenment experiences. Today, psychiatrists and psychologists use mindful meditation in their practices, and neuroscientific research supports some of the Buddha’s observations. Buddhist philosophical contemplations did not elaborate and follow the path of scientific observations and explanations.

This was because Buddhist philosophers had different, more pragmatic, goals. They aimed not so much to transform the external world through science and politics, or to build nuclear bombs, as to help human beings understand the nature of mind and rid themselves of the negative emotions – anger, hatred, malice, jealousy – caused by their attachment to such solid-seeming entities as self and world. (p. 186)

The chapter entitled “Turning the Wheel”, analyzes the consequences of the Buddha’s  enlightenment both for him and for his followers and detractors. He tries to share his insight with others, gurus, ascetics, and sramanas. Most were unreceptive. His first sermon (Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma) illustrates his understanding of the Middle Way, i.e. one ought to follow neither the extreme of giving oneself up to indulgence in sensual pleasures nor the extreme of giving oneself up to self-torment since both are unprofitable. These are his four noble truths (189-190):

  1. Dukha, i.e., “suffering”
  2. Samudaya, i.e., suffering caused by craving (trishna)
  3. Nirodha, i.e., the cessation/cure of suffering
  4. Marga, i.e.the way leading to the cessation of suffering, consisting of an eight-fold path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

According to the Buddha, suffering was universal, felt by almost everyone alive, and he assumed that it was individual misperception or ignorance of the true nature of the self which caused this suffering (190). Suffering is not only old age, sickness, death, mental anguish, physical pain, but also the impermanent and uncontrollable imperfect nature of the phenomenal world. Schopenhauer, Hume, Montaigne, Flaubert, Proust also dwelt on the impermanence of worldly things and of the individual self.

As a grand principle purporting to explain all of human life, trishna doesn’t seem much unlike Hegel’s Spirit of History, Schopenhauer’s Will, or Nietzsche’s Will to Power: something we can’t actually observe or verify, something vaguely metaphysical. The closest western parallel to trishna is Schopenhauer’s will to live, the blind force that lies behind life on earth...(196)

The Buddha traced suffering to actual human experiences of which the mind is a receptacle: experiences of impulses that underpin any individual action (changing posture, daydreaming, taking a break). These impulses are endlessly changing, and are not the result of an active decision by the individual, which is why the individual can’t be the cause of his own suffering. These impulses are the result of a human tendency of “clinging” (upadana), which “flourishes because of man’s profound ignorance (avidya) of the nature of the self and things as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, essence-less. Clinging produces our typical and renewable desire for status, power, wealth and sexual love. But, as the Buddha never tired of repeating, to desire complete and secure happiness with an elusive self and in an impermanent world is to court frustration and discontentment.” (196) He also redefined karma as “choice or intention” to act since a man acts by body, speech and mind. According to Mishra, the Buddha resembles the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics who claimed that philosophy must expel the suffering of the soul.

After completing his first sermon, the Buddha won his first disciples who became ordained monks – probably the first such monastic sect in the world; soon, other bhikshus joined in the sangha, including women.  The appearance, routine, and rules of the bhikshus changed little over centuries, and their duties to offer themselves to society as a model of virtuous behaviour and self-awareness continue to this day.

The next chapter traces the author’s travels through rural India, stopping at towns reeking of moral and physical squalor. He misses his accommodations in Mashobra, where he spent his time reading and studying,  and his landlord, Mr Sharma.  He notes the unimaginable fall of Bihar from the summit of intellectual and spiritual achievement to utter dereliction. He describes his meeting with Helen, an American student who many years later becomes a Buddhist monk and who he thinks has a greater awareness of the world than him: he saw her political stance and efforts in Nicaragua and Haiti “as another instance of the diverse advantages she enjoyed as an American – the same advantages that now permitted her to make herself into a Buddhist nun.” (258) And he avoids meeting her once he sees her back in India. His stay in London jars his emotions as he sees the city that he knew from literature and pictures come alive. He travels to France and then to America. He visits particular places because he wants to be where Proust had set his characters’ longing for fame, or where Emerson had preached self-reliance, or where Thoreau had translated Buddhist texts. (250) But he realizes his love of western writers and philosophers had been a form of idolatry, and that he has to see them as individuals shaped by circumstances. His observations of the mechanization of modern life, built around the gratification of individual needs, leads to no clarifications but only to more platitudes.

The chapter “Looking for the Self” returns to the life of the Buddha, his sermons, and above all his doctrine of “dependent origination”, which the author did not, at first, understand. According to his own admission, perhaps his understanding was limited by his perception of the Buddha as a thinker like Descartes, Kant, or Hegel – but the Enlightened one was not interested in dismantling or building a philosophical system (as they did), but his aim was therapeutic. The self was for him a process, rather than a substance, a becoming rather than a being. Consciousness, too, was primarily a reaction to stimuli: a visual consciousness, an auditory consciousness, etc. , stimuli which arise and fall constantly. The author claims that David Hume had a view of the self close to that of the Buddha. “The idea of reality as a process, first proposed by Heraclitus, entered the mainstream of western philosophy only with Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, William James and the discoveries of modern physics.” (259) And yet, everything is connected and in a state of change, nor random and chaotic but by a stable process of causation.  The Buddhists offer a twelve-point chain of “dependent origination”:                                Through ignorance,  volitional actions are conditioned;                                                    through volitional actions, consciousness is conditioned;                                                       through consciousness, mental and physical phenomena are conditioned;                  through mental and physical phenomena, the five senses and the mind are conditioned; through the six faculties, mental and sensory contact is conditioned;                           through sensory or mental contact, sensation is conditioned;                                        through sensation, desire is conditioned;                                                                           through desire, clinging is conditioned;                                                                               through clinging, the process of becoming is conditioned;                                                 through the process of becoming, birth is conditioned;                                                   through birth, decay, death, pain, etc.  are conditioned.

In other words, the Buddha posited a world which with its diversity, its structures and capacities had come into being as the result of prior actions of living beings motivated by greed, arrogance, passion and envy – by what he called klesha, afflictions, and their latent counterparts: ignorance, desire for sensual pleasure, thirst for existence, grasping onto identity, etc. Death does not end the causal connectedness: this made rebirth somewhat plausible, and it remains the one part of his teachings that requires a leap into faith. Other Buddhist thinkers elaborated on the notion of dependent origination, such as Nagarjuna, for whom each entity is empty of essence and nothing can be known except in terms of something else.

“The Fire Sermon” documents the slow but steady increase of the Buddha’s followers beginning with  those from the commercial class, i.e., people who were not a part of the Aryan caste system, lived in urban areas, and were open to new ideas. The increase of followers meant that women were asking to be a part of a Buddhist sangha (sect).  The Buddha’s stance was clear: the conditions for women were more severe than for men, and his thought was that he had expected his teachings to last a thousand years, but now that women were accepted, they would last only five hundred years.  This chapter also discusses the radically different view the Buddha held regarding fire – an element so crucial to the Brahmins’ religious worldview. Some enemies of the Buddha’s teachings did not stop at debating: there were attempts at this life and at taking over his sangha.

Although Buddhism is not concerned with political phenomena, as the chapter on “A Spiritual Politics” shows,  the teachings, to reach a wider audience, needed a convert in the king class. The conversion of Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, “appears a crucial event in the history of Buddhism” (p. 280). A further political move brought the Buddha to become a friend and advisor of Prasenajit, the king of Kosala. Furthermore, there was need to set some rules of the sangha, and it was to be structured as a small republic, which required a full assembly for reaching important decisions. If dissension among the sanghas appeared, the dissenters were to remove themselves and form a new group: clearly not a sentiment which puts the majority decision on a pedestal. But this attitude also saved Buddhism from sectarian wars, since its offshoots appeared early (Mahayana and Theravada, for example). But the monks’ duties included responsibilities towards the society that fed them and sheltered them: they were to enter the life of the society and direct everyone to honorable ends. In Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, the monks exercised a lot of influence, even if sporadically. In Tibet, a monastic order ruled the country from the seventeenth century. The Buddha, being opposed to any kind of aggression, warned specifically against arms trade.

After the Buddha’s death, “Empires and Nations” “were coming into fashion” (p. 293), and this chapter deals with Buddhism in these new political circumstances. From the invasion of Alexander the Great (not a great influence on the Indian culture and vice-versa, Greek art laid the grounds for a Buddhist art known as Gandhara), to Ashoka’s first large-scale attempt to apply Buddhist ideas to ruling a state, to the central and south Indian kingdoms  of the Satavahana kings (Nagarjuna’s benefactors, it seems), to the Gupta dynasty (supporting Buddhist philosophers such as Asanga and Vasubhandhu and Dignaga).  After the seventh century there seems to be a decline of Buddhism as a guiding principle for statesmen. Although many rulers embraced the ideas of non-violence, plurality of human beliefs, importance of dialogue, it was impossible to keep within the teachings. More recent examples show Buddhist monks supporting the Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka (1980s violent civil war with Tamil Hindu separatists), Buddhists in Japan supporting militarist and imperialist campaigns in Asia (early twentieth century).  In the West, nationalism comes under severe scrutiny, but imperialist and military interventions become more and more violent. For many reasons, India had a rough time after becoming independent from the British, likely because the system of administration was foreign, and  the centralized state “set itself up as a supreme arbiter in the lives of its citizens”: dissent was dealt with ruthlessly, Kashmir became a hotbed of violence. Indians of all persuasions allowed themselves to use any means in order to prop meaningless abstractions like “national integrity” (p. 318). Can the Buddha enlighten the economic and political preoccupations of the modern world?

The Buddha seems far away from the world-historical events that preoccupied men like Rousseau, smith, Marx and Valéry: the rise of individual in a market society; the scramble for profits by the new individuals created by the break-up of old moralities; the creation of centralized states; the conquest and organized exploitation of peoples and their resources around the world; the violent revolutions based on the seizure of state power and private property.  (329)

Old age, disease, death, desiring and clinging – the most natural processes individuals know – proved to him the fact of suffering. To what extreme diagnoses and prescriptions would he have been provoked had he witnessed the twentieth century, the high intensities of suffering human beings inflicted and continue to inflict on other human beings, the wars, the massacres, the famines, the Holocaust, the Gulag? It was easy to imagine the Buddha from a simpler time who stressed the need for loving-kindness, and who could only be utterly bewildered in a historically more complex age by the enormous ordeals of human beings. But there was plenty of suffering during the Buddha’s time too – and people had fewer distractions with which to dull the pain. … Organized greed, war, genocide – they were not unknown to the Buddha. (330)

But the preoccupation with mental awareness and the acceptance of the fact that everything is connected in the world may lead to nihilism or may become the target of degraded forms of Marxism (Tibet, Vietnam). Some parallels are drawn between the Buddha and Gandhi (who was not a Buddhist), especially the latter’s methods of satyagraha (non-violent persuasion).

“Western Dharmas” is a chapter focusing on the author’s stays in London (as an author, journalist, commentator on international events). History was his guide to London, and he concludes that “the past that was still alive for me was unrecognizable for most English people my age.” (351) In San Francisco he met Helen again, who as a Buddhist nun was involved with a hospice for AIDS patients and worked with homeless people. It reminded him about his early experiences with Buddhist thought through brochures and publications that spanned Buddhism,  Psychoanalysis and Ecology. He was discovering many facts about Buddhism, such as it was the oldest to come about, but latest to become a world religion. He took part in a Zen meditation retreat (“it seemed to be a peculiarly western way of dividing time – like the idea of confirming leisure to weekends.” p. 358), where he wondered about the ethnically-diverse participants’ need to look for alternatives to their ancestral religions. The different types of Buddhism he encountered in America were due to the fact that Buddhism had to”adjust itself to a set of cultural assumptions fundamentally inimical to it” (362), but Buddha himself “was inclined to modulate his teachings for the sake of his audience” (364). Mishra outlines the various ways different types of Buddhism (Zen especially) entered the United States: individual intellectuals, authors (such as Jack Kerouac), as well as middle-class people and workers in the corporate world. Meditation became the central practice, not only because it was emphasized by the Buddha but also because it was a release from the every-day irritating, nervous,  stressful consciousness and it permitted the meditators to engage in their other activities.

The chapter on “Overcoming Nihilism” is focused on Buddhism in ‘America’, its almost mainstream appearance. While meditation was practiced, “Few people explored its metaphysics and epistemology, partly because the key Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation were fraught subjects for people brought up that all human beings are born, or at least should be considered, equal in all respects” (372), Buddhism had to come up against  other deeply intellectualized political ideologies, and psychological and emotional habits. The anecdote about the Dalai Lama is instructive: he heard some students at Harvard confess that they suffered from “self-hatred”. The Dalai Lama, who “was brought up in a tradition much less keen on individualism”, did not know what the expression meant. Mishra explores Nietzsche’s idea of the end of religion as the “most terrible news” because the consequence could be the possibility that other beliefs would lead people to reach a “private reconciliation with the general malaise”. No rapprochement is possible between the nihilistic attitude of Nietzsche and Buddha’s self-overcoming.

“The Last Journey” returns to the Buddha’s last days: he lived to be about eighty,  he had spent the monsoon months at a monastery near Shravasti, had journeyed and preached across North India. He ate a  meal in Pava after which he suffered from bloody dysentery which exhausted him: he knew he was dying. Even in his last moments, the Buddha repeated that “all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other….whatever is born … is subject to decay” (386).

“Committed to Becoming”, the last and the most gloomy chapter, recounts the original idea for this book to trace the teachings and evolution of Buddhism. The author was traveling to Afghanistan after the Taliban defaced the statues of the Buddha and mosque preachers railed against various infidels, with the consequence that there was no memory of Asanga and Vasubhandu, the fourth-century Buddhist philosophers who had  lived in the area; the whole cosmopolitan life of Buddhism vanished from even its greatest centre in the Indian subcontinent (390). He attended an international conference of radical Islamists and he  realized the awful consequences for the radicalized youth who were uprooted from their native villages, whose ancestors created one of the greatest civilizations, but “who had now little to look forward to, except possibly the short career of a suicide bomber. The other kind of future once laid out for them failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, exercise birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes.”(392) The march to modernity became harder and more frustrating. Those who were attempting a change “knew that there remained no unknown lands and peoples for them to conquer, control and exploit. They could only cut down their own forests, pollute their own rivers and lakes, and seek to control and thereby oppress their own people, their women and minorities.” (p. 393) These uprooted individuals dreamed a western dream of revolution, but this only underlined the fact that their rage went against imagined entities such as ‘America’ or the ‘West’, which the grand majority of them did not really know. Interestingly, the author muses on his own situation – by then, he is in his thirties, he had traveled, and had  written books and articles: a kind of achievement given his modest beginnings.

For much of my life, I had been oppressed by the shame of being poor and ignorant and belonging to backward-looking community, of not truly possessing a language, and of not having any clearly defined gift or talentI had in time overcome these fears, partly by learning the ways of the modern world, picking up its primary language, English, and educating myself through the immense literature available in it. I had become  one of the privileged few who had overcome their disadvantages and found a provisional home in the West. In time, all that had initially struck me in England as inscrutable  …  had lost its power to alienate. Yet, this strange journey had also made a strange man of me. When I looked back, I saw many different selves…(395)

He still doubted that his intellectual and spiritual vagrancy was all he had to look forward to, and he could not suppress the  “quiet panic” knowing this.  He came back to Mashobra where many changes had occurred. He realized that his quest for understanding the Buddha had given him some sense of the effort needed to control one’s greed, hatred and delusion. But

I was still uncertain where the Buddha’s teachings stood in relation to the unmanageably large political and economic conflicts that increasingly decided the fates of most human beings. … I couldn’t see how they could be applied to the conduct of modern nations and empires, the clash of ideologies that had shaped much  of the contemporary world, and the globalization that reflected an actual state of economic and political interdependence. What did the Buddha, who had lived in a simpler time, have to offer people fighting political oppression, social and economic injustice, and environmental destruction? It was easier to see what he hadn’t promised. (398-399)

No large-scale social engineering advocated by all creeds, philosophies, religions, and -isms could entertain Buddhism. Mishra learned of the 9/11 attacks in Mashobra and a terrible image arose in his mind: that of the many uprisings in India, murders, suicide attacks on individuals and institutions – these “obscured the fact that the brutality of the world had come to America.” (400) The Buddha’s answer here would seem to be that the mind is the only place where human beings – however helpless – can have full control over their lives: what seems like necessity weakens in the mind’s self-knowledge, since concepts are revealed as fragile and arbitrary constructions, and real freedom becomes tangible. Mishra ends with his vision of the Buddha in this world, now, “amid its great violence and confusion, holding out the possibility of knowledge as well as redemption”. (404)