Scholars of the New Testament speculate that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the canonical Gospels to be composed, sometime between 68 and 73 CE, or thirty-five to forty years after the Crucifixion. It was followed by Luke and Matthew, and then John, which was not composed until sometime between 90 and 110 CE. Jesus himself, of course, wrote nothing, so our understanding of his teachings relies on these rather belated accounts, from which Christians have drawn thousands of portraits of Jesus, both verbal and visual, portraits that are often in direct conflict with one another: gentle rabbi, revolutionary zealot, prophet of the end time, mystic of love, harbinger of the messiah, and the messiah himself.
What, then, can be said about the alternative Jesus, depicted (as his advocates like to point out) sitting in solitary meditation beneath a tree rather than nailed to a wooden cross? The encyclopedia will give the Buddha’s dates as 563-483 BCE, but recent scholarship suggests that he may have lived as much as a century later. If something as straightforward as the years of his birth and death are subject to controversy, what can be said about his teachings? Like Jesus, he wrote nothing himself. But unlike Jesus, his teachings were written down, not thirty-five years after his death but 350, and not in the land of his life and teaching, India, but on the island of Sri Lanka. What can possibly be said with any confidence about the Buddha’s words and thoughts?
In his new book, the noted Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, apparently undeterred by the disjunctions of time and space, tells us. Mishra began work more than a decade ago on a historical novel about the Buddha while living in the quiet little town of Mashobra, near the former British hill station of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. But the project stalled:
I couldn’t have known then that it would be impossible to understand the Buddha or his teachings from books alone, and that I would have to leave Mashobra and enter the larger world, travel to places as different as America and Kashmir, England and Afghanistan, learn to see differently the western writers and intellectuals I idolized, before I could begin to understand the Buddha, his teachings, and their special relevance in these troubled, bewildering times from which his own age seemed, superficially at least, so remote.
Mishra’s hope was that writing the novel would help him fill gaps in his knowledge of his country’s past “and give me the historical sense I felt I lacked.” He seems to have abandoned the historical novel because his interest turned from the Buddha in the past to the Buddha in the present.
It was only in the spring of 2001, after returning to London from a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan to report on the Taliban, that he decided to return to the Buddha, but in a work of nonfiction rather than a novel. Mishra had visited Peshawar, once a cosmopolitan Buddhist city, where shaven-headed teachers of a sublime philosophy of mind had been replaced by bearded preachers of jihad, condemning the infidels of their imagination.