In the Buddhist canon, there is a long-standing tradition of narrating the life of the Buddha as a reminder of the fact that Siddhartha was mortal—the idea being, if he can attain enlightenment, so can we. Such works range from ancient masterpieces like the Lalitavistara Sūtra or Asvaghosa’s Sanskrit epic poem, Budhacharita, to modern books like Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha or Arundhati Subramaniam’s The Book of Buddha. However, all expectations created by these writings are dashed by Advait Kottary’s novel, Siddhartha, a reimagining of the Buddha’s life that is merely a lot of sturm und drang. If one expects higher intentions to emerge from a reading of the Buddha’s life story, Kottary’s Siddhartha disappoints.
What self-awareness the book offers is simplistic and awkward: “The Buddha could see how strange it was for Siddhartha to go out with a bowl in his hand and ask for alms” or “it was like conversing with myself, Guruji. The conversation was endless… but, Guruji, I cannot understand where this path leads!” Kottary’s Siddhartha emerges from cluelessness and blunders into enlightenment.
The real Siddhartha was not a whimsical ascetic drawn by a destiny he did not understand, as Kottary’s novel would have us believe. He had 12 kinds of skills in archery that none of his rivals could boast of, according to Sarabhanga Jataka. Asvaghosa wrote: “He mastered in only a few days the various sciences suitable to his standing that took many years to learn.” He was proficient in meditative forms and a skilful teacher whose methodology has stood the test of time.
“Eschewing all nuances, Kottary’s Siddhartha settles for cinematic conclusions, such as his mother died because her job was done.”
In Kottary’s novel, however, Siddhartha arrives at knowledge timid, bumbling, scolded, like a child who wants to study music when his dad wants him to be an engineer; he is cast as a pacifist running away from his own life and his father’s disappointment. Yes, Suddhodhana, his father, did try to dissuade and distract him from the difficult path he had chosen. But he never lost sight of who Siddhartha was to be.
- Advait Kottary’s novel, Siddhartha, a reimagining of the Buddha’s life, is merely a lot of sturm und drang.
- Kottary’s novel fails to serve up the questions that the Buddha’s life raises.
- If you do not care overmuch for the Buddha’s teachings, and can make do with the mere plot points of his life, the novel is an easy, visual read.
Missing the point
The Buddha’s life encourages interrogation, which is also a key tenet of Buddhist philosophy. Where Kottary’s novel frustrates the most is in its failure to serve up the questions that the Buddha’s life raises. Such as why did he say, “I alone in all the world am to be honoured”? Hajime Nakamura (1912-99), a Japanese scholar of Indian philosophy who wrote the definitive biography, Gotama Buddha, says that the “I” here refers to the supremacy of human birth and self-determination.
Or, why did he abandon his wife and child? Nakamura points out that Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, also renounced the householder’s life after having a child—this was a practice of the time. Responsibilities held a mendicant back, but Siddhartha’s family was well taken care of. Renunciation was also a stand against the prevailing Brahminism. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, for example, forbids householders from wandering off. The life of the Buddha reveals deep intentionality and understanding of his social context, but it requires scholarship to comprehend this.
Eschewing all nuances, Kottary’s Siddhartha settles for cinematic conclusions, such as his mother died because her job was done. To make Siddhartha’s life about emotionality is to miss that his life’s work was to attain mastery over emotions. To make his story a tale of his attachments is to fail to see the core Buddhist teaching: that the root of all suffering is attachment. Catering to populism, Kottary fills up his novel with mundane love interests, royal intrigues, and dubious details, which serve to rob it of the depth that any telling of the Buddha’s life must have.
If you do not care overmuch for the Buddha’s teachings, and can make do with the mere plot points of his life, the novel is an easy, visual read. The conversation is bombastic; the moralising, didactic; the emotions, everywhere. The surrounding characters are self-important foils to the crown prince’s enlightenment. If you are looking for a light and breezy reimagining of his life, then here is the book for you.
Gayatri is a therapist, author, and student of the Nalanda master’s course in Buddhist philosophy.