Eastern philosophy popularizer and mind-body pioneer Chopra has done novels before, and critics have not found fiction his long suit. That should change with this tale of how the Indian prince Siddhartha came to be the enlightened one, the Buddha. The subject is tailor-made for Chopra. He can draw on what he's familiar with: the ancient Indian culture that shaped the historic personage of the Buddha, and the powers of mind that meditation harnesses. Although the novel begins a little slowly with exposition and character introduction, once the character of the Buddha is old enough to occupy center stage, Chopra simply portrays the natural internal conflict experienced by any human seeking spiritual wisdom and transformation. Centered on a single character, the narrative moves forward simply and inexorably. Especially imaginative and intriguing is the low-key nature of the Buddha's enlightenment experience. In case Chopra's fans want something more direct, an epilogue and concluding "practical guide" offer nonfiction commentary and teaching on core Buddhist principles. Chopra thanks a film director friend for sparking the project, and the novel has clear cinematic potential. This fast and easy-to-read book teaches without being didactic. Chopra scores a fiction winner.
Books on Buddhism may overflow the shelves, but the life story of the Buddha himself has remained obscure despite over 2,500 years of influence on millions of people around the world. In an attempt to rectify this, and to make the Buddha and Buddhism accessible to Westerners, the beloved scholar and author of such sweeping religious studies as A History of God has written a readable, sophisticated, and somewhat unconventional biography of one of the most influential people of all time. Buddha himself fought against the cult of personality, and the Buddhist scriptures were faithful, giving few details of his life and personality. Karen Armstrong mines these early scriptures, as well as later biographies, then fleshes the story out with an explanation of the cultural landscape of the 6th century B.C., creating a deft blend of biography, history, philosophy, and mythology.
At the age of 29, Siddhartha Gautama walked away from the insulated pleasure palace that had been his home and joined a growing force of wandering monks searching for spiritual enlightenment during an age of upheaval. Armstrong traces Gautama's journey through yoga and asceticism and grounds it in the varied religious teachings of the time. In many parts of the world during this so-called axial age, new religions were developing as a response to growing urbanization and market forces. Yet each shared a common impulse-they placed faith increasingly on the individual who was to seek inner depth rather than magical control. Taoism and Confucianism, Hinduism, monotheism in the Middle East and Iran, and Greek rationalism were all emerging as Gautama made his determined way towards enlightenment under the boddhi tree and during the next 45 years that he spent teaching along the banks of the Ganges. Armstrong, in her intelligent and clarifying style, is quick to point out the Buddha's relevance to our own time of transition, struggle, and spiritual void in both his approach-which was based on skepticism and empiricism-and his teachings.
Despite the lack of typical historical documentation, Armstrong has written a rich and revealing description of both a unique time in history and an unusual man. Buddha is a terrific primer for those interested in the origins and fundamentals of Buddhism.