More than any other religion Buddhism has the capacity to capture the imagination of many people born to other faiths. Its intellectual clarity, its appeal to reason and foresight has appealed to those not born into the tradition.
Being an outsider allows you to forsake the ritual and customs that parochialise all religions.
The intellectual tradition of Buddhism is hard to resist and many the world over are drawn to its teachings. Shyam Selvadurai is one such person. He came to appreciate Buddhism after he was, ironically, traumatised by “security personnel” belonging to a state that is ostensibly dedicated to the practice of Buddhism. Western approaches failed him in dealing with this trauma and other aspects of his existence. It was Buddhism with its emphasis on “impermanence” and “dukka” that finally broke through his wall of suffering. Mansions of the Moon is this tale told through a novel of epic proportions.
The novel begins slowly as Shyam lays the philosophical bases for his novel. It soon turns into a page turner, a novel in the grand tradition. The first thing to remember is that this is a work of fiction. It is the work of the imagination.
Those of us brought up on the tales of Buddhism as told by orthodox religion and mythology may at first be wide eyed at the tale he weaves. Although the broad outlines remain the same, the story he tells is full of the cares, passions and responsibilities of individuals of this historic period as imagined by one of Sri Lanka’s greatest novelists.
The beautiful language makes the tale irresistible and the Buddhism that emerges fully recognises human failing and aspiration. His description of his characters, their inner and outer worlds, makes them vivid and alive. The visceral experience of the novel through evocative language is its strength. No matter how great the plot, it is the language that finally embeds you in the book.
In the book, Shyam introduces us into the world of 500 BCE, perhaps the greatest epoch of world history. In India, he brings to life the intellectual turmoil and debate that would define the world for centuries to come. An atmosphere of cerebral quest in a world of courtesans, wealthy merchants and rule by empire permeates the novel.
What interests Shyam most are the philosophies of individual redemption that were the centre of controversy of that era. The rising merchant class, straining away from orthodox Brahminical power, sponsor and give space for alternative theories of life and living. Ananda, his disciple as mythicized by Shyam, epitomises this.
Born into the royal clan, he makes his life as a merchant, the rising class of the era and becomes the friend and protector of Siddhartha’s wife Yasodhara. Siddhartha himself is sponsored by many of these new thinking wielders of power who give him space and land to continue his meditation and teaching.
In the first part of the book Shyam has Siddhartha experimenting and seeking out these schools of thought only to transcend them eventually. Shyam introduces us to Jain thinkers who refuse to harm a living soul and who seek emancipation through sacrifice and self-mortification.
Siddhartha is drawn to their discipline of mind but wary of their extreme mortification of the flesh. Shyam also introduces us to the ideas of Vedantic Hinduism that believe in an inner soul called “Atman” that constantly seeks unification with Brahman the universal spirit. Siddhartha is unconvinced of this inner soul.
Like contemporary post-modern thinkers he sees the self as always changing, rebuilding and reconstituting itself. Siddhartha seeks out all these thinkers against the wishes of his family.
The reclusive life is not befitting of his Kshatriya caste and his family is deeply averse to these experiments with the self. But Shyam makes all these forbidden reclusive thinkers come alive with graphic and imaginative descriptions of every kind of sage.
He describes their physicality, and he makes the nuances of their philosophy accessible to the lay reader. In the end, Siddhartha mulls over all these ideas searching for inner peace only to transcend them and create his own philosophy of the Middle Way.
The themes of Buddhism that Shyam highlights in the novel are the two pillars of impermanence and “dukka”- the latter being a complex term signifying a broad spectrum of emotions including great suffering. The strivings implicated by these thoughts drive the characters and the plot forward.
Siddhartha in this novel is not just a wanderer, a thinker and a philosopher. In the early stages he is a successful statesman, administrator and negotiator. He gains the respect of the community for his public service until he decides to take up robes.
This Siddhartha is not just an innocent child who upon seeing suffering decides to give up the world and become a recluse. Here, in Shyam’s imagination, Siddhartha is a seasoned statesman, who understands the terrible consequences of wielding power and the negotiations needed to keep the peace.
For a large part of the novel, he is a governor of a remote province making a success of daily administrative decision making and responding to the needs of the people.
It is this experience, especially the decisions he has to make such as executing criminals that result in him being dissatisfied with the trappings of power. This mature Siddhartha will have resonance with everyday individuals who not only hate the injustice in the world but who have had to make real decisions affecting real lives.
Despite the novel’s immersion into the life of the Buddha, the real hero of the novel is his wife, Yasodhara. Although women had a lower status in 500 BCE, it was a different society to the one that would have widows enflamed and very young children being married off at a very early age. Women were unequal but they were not accursed.
Within Buddhism, the Therigatha or the Song of the Sisters ensured that women had some kind of a voice. Buddhist nuns and Dasa Sil Matas were acknowledgments of a woman’s role.
Scholars such as Nirmala Salgado have pointed to the presence of agency for women within Buddhism and for lay people. Mansions of the Moon is in many ways about the yearnings and the imagined agency of Yasodhara, the wife of the Buddha.
Agency is also displayed by the courtesans who fill the pages of the book. Some are mere victims of sexual slavery and there are many such survivors in this book. Others, with powerful patrons, become power wielders and influencers who can change the destiny of kingdoms and empires.
The Great Courtesan of Vesali, who intervenes to help Yasodhara, is one such woman. Courtesans were an important part of life in the ancient kingdoms, especially in Asia. Their lives have often been researched by scholars to understand the alternative dynamics of women, agency and power in the non-western world.
As we are introduced to Yasodhara she is a spirited young princess, a bright spark in her father’s court. When Siddhartha comes for her, she is overjoyed but his moments of detachment unnerve her. Still, she remains full of spirit and at times takes the initiative in their courtship. From the beginning she is not subservient or subordinate but her partner’s equal though the outer trappings of the society create a different hierarchy.
When Siddhartha in this imagined reality is made the Governor of a distant province by a father who disapproves of his unmanly ways, Yasodhara rises to the challenge. She gets involved in agriculture, in keeping a home without help and networking with the women in the villages.
Yet, with each page Siddhartha becomes more distant and remote. His inclinations become clearer and his every experimentation with reclusive philosophy begins to exasperate Yasodhara. She challenges and confronts him and even withdraws love from him. She expresses her unhappiness to family and to her friend Ananda. Her pain and fear of abandonment resonate through every page of the book.
Ranjini Obeyesekere’s translation of Yasodharavatta, the lament of Yasodhara when her husband leaves her is very present in the novel. The “lament” as an artform is an important part of South Asian poetry and theatre. Though it is usually associated with widows, the heartbroken desperation is a common trope.
Shyam nuances and complicates Yasodhara’s lament, reflecting on life, philosophy and motherhood. It is a modern lament, the lament of a very self-aware woman.
After Siddhartha leaves to become a recluse, Yasodhara obsessively focuses attention on her son. When the son also joins the father, Yasodhara, as imagined by Shyam, is determined to become part of the monastic order.
She leads a group of women on a tortuous journey, both mental and physical, to where the Buddha is preaching. The journey transforms her. It is so full of suffering that she discovers the truth about impermanence and “dukka”. She has a great deal of time to reflect on Siddhartha’s words and they bring her strength and wisdom throughout the journey.
When they reach their destination and offer themselves, the Buddha is sceptical. It is only after a lot of persuasion from Ananda that he agrees to include women inside the fold. He and the other monks are willing only if the women remain apart from the monks and submit to the monastic hierarchy.
Yasodhara finally accepts a separate and independent Bhikkhuni order and concedes with the other women that it must always be subordinate to the male Sangha. At the end of the book, her journey over, her passion exhausted, she emotionally lets her son go. He is her only attachment to the material world.
There are many side stories to this beautiful book that makes it an even more pleasurable read. As a cautionary word it must be said that most of it is fiction. The Buddha’s disciples Ananda and Aniruddha are given colourful lives before they convert and Devadatta, the troublesome figure in Buddhist mythology is also given a unique and rambunctious fictional presence.
In the book, Siddhartha has an openly troubled relationship with his father and the males in his family and his stepmother is described as both depressed and cold. Having recently watched an Indian tele series on the life of the Buddha where everyone loves each other and everyone associated with the Buddha is perfect, this appears more earthy and real.
A great deal of research has gone into this book – the historical time, the politics of the kingdoms, the opulence of the courts, the nature of trade and commerce, the widespread poverty and the permanence of class and caste. The beauty of Nepal also fills the pages as we trek to all parts with Siddhartha and his family.
Mansions of the Moon is a modern book about ancient times. The philosophies and the struggle for ideas still remain ever present and so relevant. It only shows us that though life may be impermanent and filled with suffering, a person’s quest for knowledge and insight never changes.