Siddhartha's Saga

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Were he alive today, the Buddha would be in jail for child-support violations. Two-and-a-half millenniums of adoration and mythology have obscured the unflattering fact that the Buddha was a deadbeat dad. So a shimmering new English translation of the Buddhacarita, the 2nd century Sanskrit poem chronicling his life, reminds us that in his search for enlightenment and release from samsara — the wheel of rebirths that condemns us to endless lives and thus suffering — he cruelly abandoned his wife and young son Rahula (whose name, making a not-so-subtle point, means "fetters").

The 28 cantos of the Buddhacarita are spectacularly imagined. The theologian Ashvaghosha's ancient epic courses over 80 years, the entirety of the Buddha's journey toward nirvana and death. It fleshes out, warts and all, the more popular image of the Buddha as an eternally serene spiritual master. First, there's his auspicious birth, as Siddhartha Gautama, in the 6th century B.C. in what is now Nepal. His family is so obscenely rich ("like the Indus with the rush of waters") that they sacrifice 100,000 milk cows for the occasion. A diviner foretells Siddhartha's salvific destiny: "This sun of knowledge will blaze forth/ in this world to dispel/ the darkness of delusion."

Not that you would guess that from his dandyish youth, which is a period of panting indulgence doing whatever he pleases and to whomever. Dad Suddhodana, who would rather Siddhartha become an earthly king, manufactures this hedonism, hoping to shield his son from the world's anguish and thereby stanch any desire of Siddhartha to redeem it. A pleasure dome he decrees, turning the top floor of his palace into a lurid seraglio and confining Siddhartha there, "ensnared by women skilled in erotic arts/ who were tireless in providing sexual delights." The teenage St. Augustine would have been jealous.

But things quickly turn from Confessions to The City of God as Siddhartha, like Augustine, abandons adolescent excess (and, don't forget, his new wife and son). The fateful decision is made when his curiosity about life outside the palace walls overwhelms him and he decides to take a look for himself — only to witness firsthand the ravages of disease, old age and death. Disillusioned with "the perishable world," he suddenly renounces his princely surroundings for a life of famished mendicancy.

It's a bit like flipping from cable soft-core straight to Masterpiece Theatre. Siddhartha, "under the spell of liquor and love," is petting concubines one day; the next, disgusted with it all, he's galloping on his noble steed Kánthaka far away from his father's opulent digs ("with his yearning aroused/ for the dharma that's imperishable") and making for the woods, where he turns away from material delusions.

This business of going forth into the woods is a universal symbol of spiritual quest. Thoreau used it in his years at Walden Pond. And as translator Patrick Olivelle — who in his rendering of the Buddhacarita has stressed its exquisite literary qualities — notes, Siddhartha's departure into the forest from his father's palace is itself "modeled after that of Rama in the Ramayana, although cast within a Buddhist theological and moral background." The Buddhacarita, Olivelle argues, is both an extension of Brahmanical texts and a potent challenge to them — repudiating Vedic conservatism and its emphasis on family units.

The epic is part of the Clay Sanskrit Library, a new series that aims to do for Sanskrit literature what the Loeb Classical Library — publisher of those pocket-sized, green and red volumes found in many a university reading room — has done for Greek and Latin texts over the past century. As such, it's geared more toward lofty specialists and Indiana Joneses than curious general readers. The poem is cluttered with arcane history, dry scriptural debate and explanations of Buddhist doctrine — the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Triple Refuge — that can be meticulous to the point of opacity.

But you needn't be a scholar to enjoy this wondrous poem, which continually marvels us with its grand gestures: moments of divine intervention, political assassination plots, infernal visions and hellish battles with chimerical fiends. Recent pop culture has tackled the Buddha, from fantastic depictions (see Osamu Tezuka's eight-volume manga interpretation of his life) to the absurd (one thinks of a bronzed Keanu Reeves strutting as Siddhartha in Little Buddha). Yet you would be hard pressed to find anything that ranks close to the Buddhacarita, which still mesmerizes with its vividness and sheer audacity.