Short Book Review: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu

SBR: The Birth of the Maitreya is the English translation of a book by Bani Basu which is considered a modern Bengali classic. But I didn’t really like the book. I went through it because I want to learn more about the different period of India history, and I like historical fiction as a vehicle. Set in the time of Buddha and tracing the politics and intrigues of the different Indian kingdoms of the time, especially Bimbisara’s Magadha and Prasenjit’s Kosala with a dash of Takshashila and Avanti, the book’s canvas and the complexities it attempts of tackle are admirable. But the characters are confused mix of traits, motivations, and stages of mental development; and the descriptions of the courts, bazaars, people’s wealth and social settings appear to be an appeal to our fantasies more than an attempt to recreate realistic history. Modern concerns of nationalism, feminism, tribal issues, science have been unabashedly spouted by characters situated in a very different era. Discussion of timeless or contemporary issues through historical fiction is an admirable goal, but its execution is not easy and the attempt doesn’t succeed in the book.

To read or not to read: No. Unless, like me, you are also on a mission to read everything related to Indian history or historical fiction.

Short Book Review: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola RahulaSBRWhat the Buddha Taught is a book usually found at the top of the recommendation lists if you are interested in Buddhism. Perhaps with good reason. The book is supposed to focus on the basic and essential teachings of Buddha. It was, however, an unsatisfactory experience for me. Because it still can’t avoid the temptation of jumbled up explanation of things, which sound profound, but really don’t make sense when you come to think of it. What particularly piqued me was this insistence on there being no “self” (“no thinker beyond thought” and all that), but no attempt to address the issue that if there is no “self” in us, who is being preached to. Who is supposed to do all the nice things Buddha thinks we should be doing? The book isn’t converting me to Buddhism yet, although if I have to make a list of books on Buddhism, it will continue to feature in it, perhaps even at the top. Because it’s not like I have found anything else satisfactory yet.
To read or not to read: Read if you are interested in Buddhism, either because of faith or because of intellectual curiosity. I will not necessarily recommend it to an unsuspecting reader without a specific interest in Buddhism.

Short Book Review: Old Paths White Clouds by Nhất Hạnh Thích

Old Path White CloudsSBR: The book Old Paths White Clouds is a confusing experience. With a subtitle like Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, you would think it is some kind of travelogue through Buddhist landmarks, but it is not so. It is categorized on the cover as a Biography. What I found it really to be was a work of historical fiction based on the life of Buddha. But unlike regular historical fiction, it makes no attempts at making the story relatable and interesting. It consists of one sermon after the other, punctuated by some miracles and is full of unbelievably devout people. It is supposed to be read as the biography of Buddha by those who already believe in the current Buddhist lore or have a predisposition towards it. Not surprisingly the book bored me to the hilt. But I read it through the end because I was trying to learn more about Buddha at that point of time and it is a good collection of stories that Buddhist tradition believes about him.
To read or not to read: If you have religious or Buddhist inclinations, go ahead. If you have academic interest in Buddhism, it is a good resource. Otherwise spare yourself.