Review: “Garland of the Buddha’s Past Lives”

Harper’s Magazine, October 2009
“Garland of the Buddha’s Past Lives” (volume one) by Arya·shura. Translated by Justin Meiland.

There is much to admire about John P. Clay, who made a fortune in international banking and then decided to plow a large part of it into one of the most exciting publishing project of recent years, the Clay Sanskrit Library. His ambition to bring the Indian classics to a wider audience is not limited to producing compact, bilingual editions of books for a presumably tiny scholarly public; he reportedly dreams of seeing the volumes for sale in airport bookstores.

Although The Epitome of Queen Lilávati might not be crowding out Danielle Steel on the shelves at O’Hare anytime soon, the series as a whole is a reminder that if the words “literary classic” – not to mention “Sanskrit literary classic” – might be a bit too redolent of the dusty worthiness of required high school reading, the appeal of these books, the reason they stuck around long enough to become classics in the first place, is often their simplicity, the apparently effortless way so many of them distill complex truths into parables that resonate for people and in places distant from the works’ authors or origins.

The series most recent undertaking, Garland of the Buddha’s Past Lives, written by Aryashura around the fourth century A.D. (NYU, two volumes, $22 each), is based on a fascinating literary innovation, the Jataka, or “birth-story.” These Buddhist Bildungsromans show the character’s development not through the experiences of his childhood and youth but through the past lives that refined his soul to the point at which he could bring full Enlightenment into the world, and his adventures in these previous incarnations are physically and morally fraught: he must, for instance, test the principle of non-attachment by plucking out his own eyes, feeding himself to a tigress, and giving his wife and children into slavery.

If the theological concepts can be complicated, the language and the stories that illustrate them are simple and direct, full of dramatic incident and studded with metaphors that make the world of old India as palpable and romantic as the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights: “So the petitioners approached the king with joyful faces, like forest elephants approaching a large lake.”