Fresh Light on the Buddha By Mahesh Paudyal Mahesh Paudyal

Kavitam Shrestha’s Light of the Himalayas, the English translation of his ambitious work Mahabhiniskramanka Ashwikrit Paila, an account of Buddha’s life from birth to enlightenment has been recently launched by Xlibris for international readership.

The book has many stunning and deconstructive entries. Though it’s a linear tale chronologically, it lays bare certain spectacular realities which force the readers to seriously revise their former understanding of the Buddha’s life and evolution. The book seriously delves into philosophical debates prevalent during Buddha’s age, and makes a comparative study of their most important assumptions, unveiling their loopholes which at the end propelled Buddha to move towards newer pursuits and discoveries. The book scrutinizes the fallacy of grounds on which many philosophical schools of ancient Himvatkhanda and Aryavarta—regions north and south of the Himalayas respectively—and depicts the rise of Buddhism as a scientific and pragmatic replacement of such occult, idealistic and heavily prejudiced philosophies.

The book opens with the life of the Shakyas years before the birth of Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha. It throws light on the practice of republican government among the Shakyas and some other neighbouring principalities, the celebration of merit—especially strength and courage—as the fundamental criterion for ascending to the acme of leadership, their reservations with yagyas, especially those rituals that involve animal sacrifice, and their high regard for collective decision and democratic practices to run the republic. The book then moves on to chronicle the meeting of Suddodhana and Maya Devi, and their marriage, leading to the delayed birth of Siddhartha in the middle of the forest of Lumbini, on the bank of a broom called Pushkarini.

This birth of Siddhartha, as revealed by Kavitaram, appears in a completely different tone than what is usually understood about Siddhartha’s birth. His account claims, Siddhartha was born weeks after the due date, and his birth was an abnormal one. After a prolonged labour, Maya Devi is sent to her parents’ home in Devdaha hoping to find better and skilled midwives there. However, in the mid-forest in Lumbini, where the caravan rests for a while, a terrible earthquake shakes the world, forcing Maya Devi to take help of the branch of at tree to save herself from falling down a cliff. In the meantime, this awkward positioning of her body exerts a different pressure upon her belly, leading to the rupture of her anal and vaginal ducts, and delivery of Siddhartha, legs first. The new-born baby rolls down the cliff, falls on a grassy spot on the bank of Pushkarini, and yet survives. The child is rescued and taken back to the palace with much hue and cry, while Maya Devi dies a few days later, following excessive bleeding and rupture of the ducts. Birth of Siddhartha from the rear invites several speculations, and as claimed by astrologers, he grows to be a child of extraordinary talent and prophetic qualities.

Siddhartha’s philosophical evolution is not accidental or dramatic as many accounts make us think. His inquisitive nature, tendency of questioning every blind belief and unquestioned adherence to rituals is exhibited right from his childhood. He has incessant question to ask to everyone, and most often, he is pushed to silence with the ready-made answer “I don’t know.” Only one person in his vicinity is objective and honest in answering his questions, and that is none but Amitodana, his youngest uncle. Amitodana has a rational mind, and is averse to any belief and ritual that is not grounded on empirical evidences and rational grounds. We can see Amitodana’s influence to the foremost one in driving Siddhartha towards renunciation.20187600_10159040160275182_821994979_n

Initially, through Amitodana, Siddhartha develops an aversion for blind, sacrificial rituals and heavily prejudiced scriptures like the Vedas and their branches.  He is, from the very beginning, opposed to any sort of violence, and any scripture that promotes violence of all sorts, including animal sacrifice and caste discrimination, is unacceptable to Siddhartha. Through Amitodana, he also acquires primary knowledge about various schools of philosophies popular during his days, only to conclude that they have no answer to the existence of sorrow in the world, and propose no permanent solution to it. So, Siddhartha is finally provoked to move out of home to find answers to this universal question. The story, thereafter, is the story of Siddhartha’s rigorous penance under many gurus—Bharadwaja, Alar Kalama and Ramputta—and his own, innovative and voluntary practices in the forest of Gaya, until he becomes the Buddha, the enlightened one, on a full-moon day.

This book tackles the question of orthodox Brahmanism more frankly than any other account about ancient oriental religions. It shows a tussle between the conservative and the progressive Brahmans, whose major point of contention is whether sacrificial rituals and casteism are valid. Shrestha depicts the Shakya confederacy as a site of progressive Brahmanism that is gradually moving towards reformation within the conservative set-up of ancient social permutations. By making Kapilvastu as seat of progressive Brahmans and anti-ritualistic innovations, Shrestha has suggested the rationality and objectivity of the grounds that actually prepared the Buddha. Viewed this way, the Buddha is not an accidental evolution; he is an outcome of multiple factors, majority of which were comments of the groundlessness of earlier thoughts and practices. The Upanishads that came as an answer to Brahmanical texts like the Vedas from the hands of progressive Brahman sages gave impetus to Siddhartha’s gradual antipathy towards the conservative philosophical tradition. The pragmatic philosophy of Sankhya,  developed and championed by Kapil Muni, became the most important school of thought that helped Siddhartha climb the ladder of objective inquiry and end up in Enlightenment, giving rise of Buddhism, one of the most popular religions of our times.

This book, therefore, de-centres the magic and supernaturalism associated with the Buddha’s life, and explains everything as an outcome of philosophical interaction, scientific inquiry and rational debate among different schools of through that attempted to explain the world and yet left the question unanswered. The fundamental premise of their engagement is the same: why there is sorrow in the world and how that ends. Buddha’s claim that sorrows are tagged to desires, and annihilation of desires—that he calls maaras—could relieve one from the abyss of sorrow in the world. This claim requires a constant engagement and dealing with the everyday reality of life, instead of escaping from it and hoping for magical or fantastic safe-landing. No! This is what makes Buddhism a practical and pragmatic religion.

To those who associated Siddhartha’s enlightenment with ‘magical’ happenings, this book is an answer. It traces the gradual development of Siddhartha from an inquisitive child to a serious explorer—albeit on trajectory of science and objectivity—until his discovery of the elixir of life, the eight-fold path and the four golden rules. The book, therefore, is expected to de-centre many myths and misconceptions about the life of the Buddha, and invites readers to engage in a scientific discourse about the religions. This book is perhaps the first attempt in Buddha discourse to look at most of the things from an objective lens. Shrestha deserves congratulations for this novel initiative.