The Buddha in the World
Pankaj Mishra is an Indian journalist and author of several books, including An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, how the social thought of the Buddha might speak to modern crises of economy war and politics. My guest, Pankaj Mishra, pursued the history and the meaning of the Buddha across the globe and emerged with the startling critique of our world and our time.
MR. PANKAJ MISHRA: ‘How should I live?’ You know, it sounds sort of bewilderingly large, but that is the question that almost all of us are faced with every day. And one of the things that, for me, distinguished the Buddha from a whole lot of very important Western thinkers, he’s not saying that you have to sort of reform a whole society in order to achieve happiness. He’s sort of posing a kind of challenge to individuals: How can you arrive at contentment or happiness, and also, thereby, create conditions for happiness of other people around you?
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Do desiring and acquiring make us happy? Does large-scale political change really address human suffering? My guest this hour, Journalist Pankaj Mishra, pursued the answers to these questions in travels across India and Europe, Afghanistan and America as he followed the social relevance of the Buddhist thought. Through that journey, Pankaj Mishra developed a startling critique of modern political economy. We’ll explore that this hour along with some kindred cautionary words on capitalist progress from thinkers like Oscar Wilde, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Adam Smith.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Buddha in the World.”
It is said that in the sixth century B.C.E., the young Siddhartha Gautama grew up a sheltered prince surrounded by every luxury. Then one day, he ventured outside his palace and encountered extreme human poverty and misery. This shook him to the core and renounced his life of privilege. He left his noble heritage, his wife, and young baby behind. And after years as a seeker, a wandering ascetic, and teacher, he experienced enlightenment.
The Buddha saw suffering as the central fact of human existence. He located the source of suffering and its cure within each individual life and mind. We cannot control the world around us, he taught. We can only control our experience of the world, our perceptions and conclusions in the present, and the way we choose to live. Practices such as meditation are spiritual technologies towards this discipline of present awareness and mindful action.
My guest, Pankaj Mishra, with whom I spoke in 2005, is an author and journalist, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and the British newspaper The Guardian. Pankaj Mishra was raised in India, the country of the Buddha’s birth, but he grew up with little interest in spiritual ideas. Then as a young adult, he began to read great 19th- and 20th-century Western intellectuals, and he was stunned to find that they wrote of the Buddha as a kindred thinker. Schopenhauer, Rilke, and Einstein admired the Buddha. Thoreau translated him into English. The skeptics’ skeptic, Friedrich Nietzsche, referred to the Buddha often as he analyzed his own world of breathtaking change, of revolutions and secularization, of wars and the break-up of established societies. And as Pankaj Mishra began to follow the upheavals of our time, as a journalist, he found himself back in his native India, probing the Buddha’s origins and legacy with a new curiosity.
MR. MISHRA: Buddhism, as a living tradition, had died out in India many centuries.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: And it had become, I mean, Buddha had become a Hindu god, at least, he was considered as such. Even today, I think, if you were to ask Hindus in India, most people in India would say that the Buddha was a Hindu god, was an incarnation of Vishnu. So I, for a very long time, believed this. And I was, you know, of course, surprised to know that, actually, the Buddha may have been a historical figure. And that there was, you know, quite a lot of evidence to indicate that he was one. And furthermore, he was very different from various other gods in the Hindu tradition in the sense that he never claimed to be God himself and certainly claimed no divine attributes or didn’t offer a theology and so on.
MS. TIPPETT: And the legend that we know of the Buddha, I think, if people know anything of the story of the Buddha, it is — has almost this kind of fairy-tale quality. He was a prince and had everything, ventured out and saw that there was suffering in the world, and renounced every — the life that he had led, the life of privilege. Although, really, he was part of a kind of clan, as you say, structures, social structures that in his lifetime were disintegrating. I mean, how would you tell the story of the Buddha’s renunciation, that beginning? Would you tell it differently than what you hear passed down in sort of popular culture?
MR. MISHRA: Like all sorts of myths, you know, this myth also expresses larger truth. And, of course, it, I mean, it’s, superficially, it seems very kind of simple. You know, the man goes out on a chariot and sees all these different sights. And he sort of suddenly arrives at a realization that, you know, the world is full of suffering
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. MISHRA: But, I think, you know, nobody just goes out there and sees this stuff and, you know, suddenly starts thinking about it. Obviously, there had been other events. He certainly seems to have led a fairly sheltered life, you know, which sort of gives him this peculiar advantage. Because, you know, what he was actually looking at were pretty obvious sights, but he could see something new in them.
MS. TIPPETT: Because he wasn’t inured to them. He wasn’t used to them. Mm-hmm.
MR. MISHRA: Exactly. And, you know, just remain obsessed with his insight into suffering and, you know, really work upon, you know, the implications of what he discovered.
MS. TIPPETT: I was a little bit surprised in your account — and this makes perfect sense, but, again, it’s not part of the image we have of the Buddha — that, I mean, he spent years as an ascetic and traveling and learning until he found his way to that moment of enlightenment or that period of enlightenment. But, in some ways, he was something of an evangelical figure. I mean that word is so loaded in our culture. But, you know, he did then declare himself to be the enlightened one, and that he was an enlightened sage. And he went out to make converts, to find people to follow, not really follow him, but follow what he’d learned.
MR. MISHRA: I think he was, you know, working in a highly competitive arena, in the sense that there were so many people out there preaching all kind of stuff. A lot of extremely nihilistic thinkers, too, I mean, people who said there’s absolutely no point in anything at all. And you could just go around killing thousands and thousands of people, and you would not have to deal with any consequences at all. So there was a lot of this kind of dangerous stuff around, too. And I think he probably was dismayed by this stuff that was being said by various people. And, as I said, I mean, it was such a time of chaos that people could say just about anything and be believed, because, you know, ordinary people were so bewildered. They were so confused, they were ready to believe — it’s a bit like now. They were just ready to believe anything they were told.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. MISHRA: And I think he felt it was important to offer something. And maybe it was important also to be a bit aggressive or showbizzy in offering this stuff or to be claiming that, you know, what he was saying was indeed wisdom. And, of course, looking back at him, it does seem that he was a bit, he may have been a bit brusque or he may have tried to convert people. But not, you know, converting in sort of, in the sense we are familiar with in sort of the monotheistic religions. Conversion in Buddhism really means nothing at all because, you know, you have to do the hard work within yourself.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: And …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not really joining something. It’s …
MR. MISHRA: Exactly. I mean, what are you joining? There is nothing to join. There’s a lot of hard work to do.
MS. TIPPETT: What surprised you as you started to look at this person, this character, in his time, originally?
MR. MISHRA: What really surprised me, because, I mean, like a lot of people, and, of course, in the way of the Buddha is represented now, it’s very easy to detach him from his real historical context.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: And I think the Buddha, in what he was saying and what he was thinking about, was very much responding to what was happening around him in the kind of tumultuous changes that were very unique, you know, in India at that particular moment. There were these sort of larger estates coming into being. You know, people became more ambitious. There suddenly were new kinds of rulers emerging who wanted large estates, who wanted empires. You know, the first empires in Indian history emerged around that time. People breaking out of their older worlds and human beings discovering their sense of power, feeling new desires within themselves. And the Buddha observed all this and observed the great enormous violence that had been caused by this, by, you know, people sort of feeling their desires and wishing to fulfill them, and not being connected to other people in really fundamental ways. All of that he wanted to undermine.
MS. TIPPETT: You go through all the many existing texts and stories about the Buddha, and about his sermons and his talks, but as I read your book, it felt, and this is what you’re saying you discovered, it felt so present. I mean, the idea of suffering as “all-pervasive and everyday — part of a world of change and decay” rings so true in the 21st century. And it even is in sync with what we know from science, right? And from cutting-edge psychology. And that really is the basic insight of the Buddha, right?
MR. MISHRA: Absolutely. I mean, I think the business of ‘How should I live?’ You know, it sounds sort of bewilderingly large, but that is the question that almost all of us are faced with every day. And one of the things that quickly, for me, distinguished the Buddha from a whole lot of very important Western thinkers and, in particular, Marx, and I’m thinking also, Adam Smith. I mean, in many ways, their ideas have kind of shaped the modern world.
I think the Buddha differs so radically from both of them in proposing an idea of change that has nothing at all to do with large-scale restructuring of a political system or an economic system. He’s not saying — he’s never said that, that you have to sort of reform a whole society in order to achieve happiness. He’s sort of posing a kind of challenge to individuals. He says, what can you do about it yourself in your own life? And how can you arrive at contentment or happiness, and also, thereby, create conditions for happiness of other people around you?
Author Pankaj Mishra. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Buddha in the World.” In light of the Buddha legacy, Pankaj Mishra has developed a provocative take on modern political economy. He compares the ideals of consumerism to other utopian visions of the past two centuries.MR. MISHRA: The pursuit of these utopias in the last sort of 200, 300 years, and they’ve been pursued most, I think, fanatically in the last 200 years than at any other time, whether, you know, it’s the sort of Nazi utopia, the Thousand-Year Reich, which was the most sort of disreputable of them all, but also the communist utopia. And now, of course, you see the pursuit of another kind of utopia, the idea of individual happiness through consumption, through desire, and a kind of individual desire, which, in the end, really does not respect any limits. It can go to any lengths to fulfill itself. So it is actually, in the end, a recipe for war and violence, because you are going to need …
MS. TIPPETT: And even just plain, old unhappiness.
MR. MISHRA: Plain, old unhappiness, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: Because, you know, once again, the whole idea of the person who’s desiring something yesterday is not the same person today. And when he gets the thing he desires, he’ll have already moved on, so he’ll be unhappy again.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You throw in this quote from Oscar Wilde, which is so wonderfully resonant with the Buddha as you juxtapose them. Oscar Wilde, who said, “In this world, there are only two tragedies: One of not getting what one wants, and the other of getting it.”
MR. MISHRA: Isn’t it wonderful?
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. And so here are some lines from your book in terms of, again, what the Buddha said that was different. That he was analyzing how we experience reality rather than describing what reality is, in saying that “to control the mind was to change radically one’s relation with the world.” That you could create a whole mental climate through awareness. And that that is the only way, and in fact, human beings can have, in a sense, some kind of sovereignty.
MR. MISHRA: I want to give you an example. I mean, this may seem very far away. But because things like torture and unhappiness of that kind has been so close to our minds, I’ve been thinking a great deal about these Tibetan victims of torture in the last 30, 35 years, and there have been remarkable studies done of these victims and how they manage to survive that experience, which is the most extreme instance, of course, of great pain being inflicted upon actual human flesh — and people somehow training their minds to experience it in a certain way so that they come out of it without the kind of deep psychological disorders that a lot of people who have experienced torture have suffered, who come out of it, feeling compassion for the people who tortured them so mercilessly, feeling no sort of hatred, no remorse. And that, to me, I mean, some people might say, ‘Well, they should really be angry out there, and anger would lead them to create a political action.’ But I think there is something remarkable about how these people have managed to survive this, and yet, still be opposed to violence and injustice, and yet, be ally to a political cause. And that is an illustration to me, a very vivid one, of how, you know, you can train your mind to experience things in a certain way, and you don’t actually have to surrender to these emotions of anger and hatred and malice and vindictiveness.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is such a counterintuitive image that I think it’s almost hard for a Western mind to even make sense of, or know what to do with.
MR. MISHRA: It is. And I think, you know, the — once again, there are, you know, very important cultural differences here in a sense of Western sense of the ego, the Western sense of individuality so much highly evolved. People whose identities are more fluid, which are not so fixed, I think, perhaps, those people are better able to deal with these experiences.
MS. TIPPETT: And do you feel that that’s also a difference between, I don’t know, what we may call a Western and an Eastern mindset? I mean, as someone who grew up in India, do you feel that you did inherit a more fluid sense of identity in your culture?
MR. MISHRA: I think I did. I mean, to grow up in a place like India, it was really to actually grow up with a whole set of overlapping identities. I mean, there’s no one identity that you have. You know, you’re a son, and you’re a brother, and you’re a student, and you are, you know, Hindu at home, and you go to a Christian school, so you’re something else out there. At home, you see your parents practicing these very ancient rituals and performing these very, very old rites, and you are, at the same time, working on computers.
MS. TIPPETT: Reading Nietzsche.
MR. MISHRA: So you live in all these many, many different worlds.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: And, you know, there’s no way you can actually have a solid, stable identity. I mean, I think it’s futile to even attempt to have one. And, in a way, you kind of naturally acquire these, or live with these, you know, different worlds and with these different identities.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Pankaj Mishra. As he uncovered the Buddha’s philosophical and political relevance, Pankaj Mishra moved between his native India and Europe and the United States. Within himself, he struggled with his own sense of ego and ambition, qualities rejected by the Buddha, but engrained in Western education and culture. Then he was surprised to find echoes of the Buddhist perspective in thinkers of the Enlightenment, even David Hume and Adam Smith. Smith’s 1776 treatise, The Wealth of Nations, launched the doctrine of capitalist political economy and free enterprise. But Pankaj Mishra discovered that just a few years before, Smith himself spelled out the human cost of capitalist progress. Here’s a passage from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759.
READER: The poor man’s son, whom heaven, in its anger, has visited with ambition, admires the condition of the rich. Through the whole of his life, he pursues the idea of a certain, artificial and elegant repose, which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age, he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment, which he had abandoned for it.
Power and riches appear then to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that you were somewhat stunned and, in a sense, felt that you had been deceived growing up in a culture which was given this Western way of acquisition and industry as the measure of success to which your country was also supposed to aspire. And then, you found that even some of the great icons of the Western way of being in the world, like Adam Smith, had real doubts and even expressed reservations about the shadow side of Western culture and Western progress, in some ways, the same kind of analysis of the human condition that the Buddha made.
MR. MISHRA: That’s very true.
MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, but settling with a deception.
MR. MISHRA: Well, I think it’s sort of odd. I mean, I’ve begun to think of both India, and this may sound very odd, but also America as living, at least in the last century, in a particular state of historical innocence in that this whole European experience of the 19th century of, you know, of unlimited progress, unlimited expansion, great economic dynamism, which is really the model that a magazine like, say, The Economist, promotes when it talks about what the IMF or the World Bank should be doing in the Third World and what India should be doing or what China should be doing. And this is how, you know, we create happiness and how we create sort of wonderfully productive societies with very high GDP and so on. But these are ideas that we are now living with. But what happened in Europe in the early 20th century is kind of an experience whose lessons people in India did not learn, and I think, in a strange way, even America was denied the lessons of that experience, because America, at that time, experiences extraordinary growth in the early 20th century.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, describe what you’re saying, what we didn’t learn.
MR. MISHRA: Well, the First World War, which now seems to sort of — this extraordinary moment in European history when suddenly, you know, you have this endless slaughter in over four years.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: And there’s a whole generation that’s wiped out. And all the leading thinkers and writers and artists of Europe sort of now start thinking, ‘Why did this happen? Where did all this belief and progress and technology and science take us?’ And, you know, arriving at a very skeptical notion of these utopias, the idea of progress, the idea of history being this great narrative of progress.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: And somehow, all of this was completely lost on writers or intellectuals or thinkers in India, who were still working with 19th-century notions of progress, who were thinking, ‘Well, if only we can duplicate what Europe did for itself in the 19th century, we’ll be on our way.’
MS. TIPPETT: But one of the things that you do in your book is you look at history, again, in the largest possible sense. And this seems to be a story that repeats itself in different ways. I mean, you compare, for example, Alexander, whose legacy was really one of conquest and violence in the third century B.C.E., and then you compare him to the Indian ruler Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism and had a very different kind of legacy. And yet his has been obscured by history and Alexander is someone who’s gotten a new blockbuster Hollywood movie done about him in the year 2005. Right?
MR. MISHRA: Absolutely. I think, I mean, the sort of whole admiration for powerful people, this has really become a very dominant theme in this culture in the last sort of, you know, 150, 200 years. And, of course, we have to remember that history, as a discipline, history as sort of well-formed with its own boundaries, with its own sort of laws, is also a very recent development really, you know, emerges is the last 200 years, where previously people thought of history as a mere record of, you know, events that are worth remembering or commemorating. But now, history becomes this sort of arena of human action where you can actually change history, where you can actually make history. And so people looking back at Alexander — I mean, the whole cult of Alexander really survived over the centuries, but it receives its apotheosis in the late 18th, 19th century with Napoleon, who loved Alexander, and wanted to, of course, imitate him. And Hitler loved Alexander and wanted to do what Alexander had done. So with the sort of arrival of modernity and the arrival of this notion of man making history, you start loving all these mass murderers in the past.
MS. TIPPETT: And resurrecting selectively.
MR. MISHRA: Yeah, selectively.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: And of course, someone like Ashoka becomes utterly irrelevant.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell the story of Ashoka briefly.
MR. MISHRA: He was an Indian emperor. He held down this great empire, which came into being shortly after the Buddha’s death. And like, you know, people before him, he was a very brutal man. He was a great believer in conquest and expansion. And he conquered this Eastern Indian state of Kalinga. And after this conquest, which was very extremely successful, but also very, very violent, he saw the enormous damage he had caused and the deaths of thousands and thousands of people, and he was suddenly struck by this great remorse and, you know, what he had done. And from that point, he kind of gave up violent conquest and violent wars, and came sort of gradually to introduce Buddhist ideas into statecraft. I mean, he didn’t — I don’t think he actually embraced Buddhism or became a Buddhist. Once again, you know, the idea of converting to Buddhism is a bit odd. What he did was he made nonviolence a kind of state policy whenever it was possible, whenever it was viable. Of course, he still had punishments for criminals, and he still had an army. But he tried, as much as possible, to combine Buddhist ideas of social welfare, compassion, and to be, you know, as a ruler, the model of righteousness. I mean, the whole Buddhist emphasis, so far as Buddhism engages with politics, it’s very keen on this idea that the ruler should be absolutely above board and should embody an ideal of righteousness. And Ashoka tried to do that by making himself accessible, by making himself and his ideas and the working of his thoughts, you know, completely transparent. For instance, in the inscriptions that he had inscribed on stone and iron pillars and erected all across India, he’d say things like it’s very difficult to do good, because, you know, good and evil are unmixed things, and you have to worry about the consequences of doing good — all of these very complex ideas that he’s thinking, which he shared with his subjects. Of course, now he would be accused of flip-flopping, not having clear ideas or having a decisive personality. But the very fact that he could see how the world was such a complex place and there wasn’t such a clear-cut good and evil out there, that’s, I find, something quite admirable about him.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. So, I think the problem is that an American, a modern American, might look at this history you tell, and might still compare someone like Alexander and Ashoka, or 21st-century America and India, and say it’s clear which version of reality, which ethos is on the winning side. Right?
MR. MISHRA: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: They would say, simply, this ethos of acquisition and building and progress and power is what, in fact, works in this world we inhabit. Now, how would you respond to that?
MR. MISHRA: Well, I would very quickly challenge the notion that it works. Where is the evidence that it works? I mean, the 21st century has not started off very well. What I do see is a whole lot of confusion, a whole lot of bewilderment, a whole lot of hatred, a whole lot of violence out there. And, you know, even people, even societies that are supposedly doing extremely well, such as China or India …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: … when you actually start thinking about 20, even 20, 30 years in the future, you wonder about their big populations, you wonder about their great needs. What will these societies need once they come into their own as middle-class consumers of the kind people in America are? The amount of oil they would need, amount of energy resources they will have to find to sustain their populations at the standard of living they will have arrived at, at that point, if they do arrive at that standard of living. And where is that oil going to come from? You know, I think it’s unsustainable. And that’s why we are heading towards and we already have, we already live in such a sort of violent times. So I’m completely unpersuaded by the notion that the systems we have are working. The fact of power obscures the failures, but the fact that you have to use violence all the time, you know, really points to the failure of these systems in many ways.
MS. TIPPETT: In my complete unedited interview with Pankaj Mishra, he shares more of what he learned about the historical Buddha as a man of his own time of crisis. Download an MP3 of that unedited conversation as well as this produced program for free through our podcast, e-mail newsletter, and Web site. And read more about the history of Adam Smith and Ashoka and how the Buddhist thought echoes in our time. Look for links to all this and more on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, more of Pankaj Mishra’s observations about the relevance of Buddhist thought from war-torn Kashmir to the 21st-century United States. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we’re talking with Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra. Through his understanding of the Buddha’s legacy, Pankaj Mishra developed a startling and resonant critique of globalized economies and the individual’s place in the modern world. Here’s a passage from Pankaj Mishra’s 2004 book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.
READER: The mind is where the frenzy of history arises, the confusion of concepts and of actions with unpredictable consequences. What seems like necessity weakens in the mind’s self-knowledge, and real freedom becomes tangible. This freedom lies nowhere other than in the present moment — the concrete present, the here and now, that the Buddha had affirmed over the claims of an abstract past and an illusory future.
To live in the present with a high degree of self-awareness and compassion, manifested in even the smallest acts and thoughts — this sounds like a private remedy for private distress. But the deepening and ethicizing of everyday life was part of the Buddha’s bold and original response to the intellectual and spiritual crisis of his time.
MS. TIPPETT: In modern Afghanistan, Pankaj Mishra stood where the Taliban had demolished ancient statues of the Buddha. In the eastern Indian region of Behar, he the chronicled gruesome, religiously motivated, caste-based violence. Pankaj Mishra had known such violence to a lesser degree in his own youth and college years. In his book, he also describes his first trip as a teenager to the lushly beautiful and serene valley of Kashmir. Then in the year 2000, he returned as a journalist to report on the Pakistan-supported anti-India insurgency there. More recently, in The New York Times, he has drawn links between Kashmir and the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. When Pankaj Mishra was there in 2000, formerly serene Kashmir had already been dubbed one of the most dangerous places in the world.
MR. MISHRA: I hope I made clear in the book how what may seem like completely unrelated journeys — like going to Kashmir to find out about the political situation there, to find out about human rights violations there, to find out why 50,000 people have died in the last 10 years there — can be, in any way, related to a book about the Buddha or an exploration of the Buddha’s teachings. But the fact that it’s these journeys, really, which made me think again about what the Buddha has to tell us today and also made me think, maybe, in more sort of analytical ways, about these assumptions that I, myself, as a journalist had, going into these places. Like when you go into a place like Kashmir, you go into a place like Afghanistan, what you are really assuming is that what this place needs is a bit of democracy, a bit of, you know, nation-building of the kind we’ve already accomplished back in the West or in a place like India and everything will be fine. But what we don’t really understand is how these societies have lived, not just survived, but lived, even flourished, for centuries and centuries, and how they have arrived at their own particular forms of wisdom, their own particular forms of being together with many, many ethnic components. In the case of Kashmir, several religions coming together, several religions living together for …
MS. TIPPETT: And you described the first time you went there, that it was this incredibly peaceful place, also.
MR. MISHRA: It was, and it has been, I mean, remarkably peaceful for many centuries.
MS. TIPPETT: Tranquil
MR. MISHRA: I mean, the Islam that came to Kashmir was a sort of Sufi-inflected Islam. It was never a fundamentalist Islam. And of course, fundamentalist Islam is also a very, very modern phenomenon, so Kashmir wouldn’t have experienced that anyway.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: But they have this extremely tolerant variety of Islam there, which coexisted with the pre-existing Hindu and Buddhist traditions there for many centuries. And once again, you have to ask yourself the question — and, I mean, it’s raising these questions, which is important — why is it that Kashmir has become such a violent place in the last 50, 60 years? Why has this tradition, which is known for its great poetry and the beauty of its songs, the beauty of its architecture, why has it produced this horrible violence in the last 50 years? And only then, if you would frame the question correctly, would you be able to see how this whole idea that we are going to modernize Kashmir, we are going to make Kashmir part of this new democratic nation-state of India. And, of course, they had a functioning economy. They had a functioning society, and suddenly, it’s broken into by these foreign elements. And what do the Kashmiris do after several years? They take up arms. And they are, of course, supported by these radical Islamists in Pakistan and in Afghanistan who are also, in a way, suffering from the sort of same phenomena.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, again, to circle back, I mean, how has your exploration of the Buddha and his life and teachings, how does that speak to you, to those questions that you’ve just posed?
MR. MISHRA: Well, I think it’s sort of offered me a new way of looking at, you know, what human beings are here to do and the other ways in which human beings have formed and can form a society or live together, that societies or states do not have to be built upon these particular notions, or do not have to conform to these particular models that we’ve had in the last 200, 250 years, that there can be other ways of being. I’m not saying that these sort of models of society are in any way imminent or any way we can realize that. But I think what’s important now, because for a lot of people, and it’s been particularly true of myself, it’s very easy to, you know, just settle into despair, because the world we’ve created for ourselves just seems like such a prison. There seems no way out, and it seems like this is the only way. Let’s just keep pushing it forward as much as we can go and see what happens and maybe it will all work out, maybe it will all be fine in the end. But I think a whole lot of new thinking is needed. I mean, this is why people like Reinhold Niebuhr, so many of these thinkers are still so important that they — people who sort of, you know, come out of this experience of Europe in the 20th century, who have meditated on that experience, really knew that this was a serious crisis, that this was not going to be dealt with by invoking democracy every two seconds or by just saying, you know, free enterprise is going to solve all the problems, or free trade is the answer or globalization is the answer, that, you know, this avoiding the problem, it’s really looking at new ways in which human beings can sort of relate to each other.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Pankaj Mishra. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, exploring Pankaj Mishra’s critique of Western political economy through the social philosophy of the Buddha. He laid this out in his 2004 book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.
The irony is that if you start invoking the Buddha at these particular problems — we’re talking now on kind of a macro scale — but the Buddha would point back to, not individualism, but to the individual person’s ability to control his or her experience of the world.
MR. MISHRA: It’s, it would be interesting to speculate how he would, say, respond to …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MISHRA: … contemporary America where he would see a whole lot of centralized state power, although big government, everyone is sort of suspicious of, and certainly the conservatives are suspicious of. But the fact that big government exists and is growing bigger all the time in terms of the control it has and the helplessness individuals feel about not having control over their political destinies. And what he would argue for is sort of devolving power down so that people can create effective, functioning democracies within their little communities, the places where they actually live …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: … rather than looking up to these remote, sort of, congressmen, to these remote senators, and these bills that nobody even reads being passed in D.C. and in all this endless debate and, which no one has a time to follow. I mean, the world, these democracies have become so complex, the decision-making has become so obscured that nobody really knows what’s going on. So, I mean, I think we have to rethink these notions that we’ve sort of assumed.
MS. TIPPETT: And then, you know, you describe — you were in India when 9/11 happened, and you described watching that and saying to yourself, having this moment of realization that “the brutality of the world I had grown up in had now come to America.” You make this really interesting observation, I think, which is really an observation about globalization — which, in some ways, 9/11 brought home to Americans — that there seemed to be no refuge now from a history that was now truly universal. It’s a very big thought about the time in which we live. I mean, you, you talked earlier about how the Buddha grew up in this moment of the end of things and the beginning of something new, and that’s certainly one way of talking about how the world we’re living in is new.
MR. MISHRA: Well, I was thinking, I mean, because so much of what has happened in the last 200 years really begins in Europe and begins in the West — and I think of America as a sort of very much part of the West — and then it has radiated out of Europe, in terms of people going out and conquering and, you know, acquiring these new lands and these new territories all across the world, in Asia and Africa, breaking into these very, very old societies and reshaping them, refashioning them. The very fact that I sit here speaking in English, which is not my first language, I’m sitting here, you know, wearing Western clothes, an Indian born in India, and you know have grown up with these sort of diverse traditions, both Indian and Western, just goes on to show how globalization is a much, much older event. And it has gone well in certain cases, and it’s not gone so well in many other cases.
And what we’re seeing is a kind of response to this on the part of people who feel left out, who feel frustrated, who feel politically impotent, not able to control their destinies, utterly bewildered people, utterly confused people, resorting to violence, resorting to ideological violence of the kind we saw on 9/11. And I think these dispositions to ideological violence are kind of shared across the world. I mean they’re not particular to al-Qaeda or to the BJP or the Hindu nationalists in India. I mean, anyone is now capable of them, because this is now the world that we live in. It has been created by this sort of, you know, spread of ideas and technologies, and when these ideas spread or when they are imposed upon these societies, they become ideologies. And, you know, people then come up with counter-ideology. And this is what we are seeing in the case of radical Islam.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and author Pankaj Mishra. Here’s a passage from his book An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, recounting how his reflection on the Buddha coincided with travels to Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan.
READER: It took me some time to sort out my own responses to all this. I knew about the corruptions of jihad; of the leaders grown fat on generous donations from foreign and local patrons, sending young men to poorly paid martyrdoms in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But I hadn’t expected to be moved by the casual sight in one madrasa of six young men sleeping on tattered sheets on the floor. I hadn’t thought I would be saddened to think of the human waste they represented — the young men whose ancestors had once built one of the greatest civilizations of the world, and who now lived in dysfunctional societies, beholden to, or in fear of, America.
The other kind of future once laid out for them had failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, practice birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car, and pay taxes. There were not nearly enough secular schools to educate these young men in the ways of the modern world — and few jobs awaited those who had been educated.
But the fantasy of modernity, held up by their state and supported by the international political and economic system, had been powerful enough to expel and uproot them from their native villages. Having lost the protection of their old moral order, their particular bonds and forms of authority, they hoped to stave off chaos and degeneration by joining such authoritarian movements as Hindu nationalism and radical Islam, by surrendering their dreams to demagogues like Bin Laden.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s very simple, but you make it very clear in the book that, really, the Buddha is set over against the left or the right. It’s a different idea of approaching the problems. It is, as you say, offering a cure for human suffering that does not involve large-scale restructuring of state and society, that doesn’t look at social change in the same way.
MR. MISHRA: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you move through the world, read differently, ponder these kinds of questions you’ve raised with me differently, because of this book you’ve written about the Buddha in the world?
MR. MISHRA: Well, it’s certainly, I think, changed my way of looking at a lot of things, you know, quite radically, I think, in that I’ve perhaps just sort of become more skeptical of a lot of the assumptions I previously worked with when reporting on, you know, say, Kashmir or Afghanistan or Pakistan, or just reporting on events in India, or you know, writing fiction and so on. It sort of made me, I suppose, more suspicious of abstractions, and abstractions which kind of, you know, hold out some kind of contentment or bliss or happiness in some, you know, unknown, unknowable future, and saying, well, you have to sacrifice your present for the sake of that. And in the end, it will work out even if the means we are using are not so great, but the ends would be fine. And I think it’s made me more suspicious of ideas like these and made me more committed to living in the present and using ethically sound means in the present, being ethically responsible to the people around one right now. Not in the future, but right now. And the future will then take care of itself, if you’re honest and if you’re, you know, clear in your, in your sort of moral thinking at this moment. And to not let these abstract institutions carry the burden of the pain of people living now, but not say that four years down the line, we might have democracy and it’ll all be wonderful. No, I think that it’ll be too late. Four years, even four days will be too late. I think we need to attend to what we have in front of us. And I think that’s really has been, I think, personally for me, the most sort of important change in my perception of, you know, the world I live in and move through.
MS. TIPPETT: If this kind of Buddhist view of being in the world and understanding history should be embraced, you know, would industry stop? Would progress, as we know it, stop, even in ways that you might define that as good?
MR. MISHRA: Well, I think embracing these ideas would involve such a radical re-examination of a whole lot of stuff we do unconsciously almost everyday, that, I mean, I think it will be a good thing in that, what we think of now as progress were to stop — some of it, at least.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: And, I think if you were to re-examine these sort of very basic ideas of what are we here to do, and how does one find peace, how does one find inner happiness, and what does happiness consist of. I mean, these sound like very simple questions, but I think they really, in the way the Buddhists pose them, they are very, very complex and they’re sort of the implications that just extend into every realm of, of human action. Of course, it’s ludicrous to imagine a world where people just sort of give up their day jobs and retreat into some kind of Buddhist utopia and so on. But I think what is happening here in America, and I find the Buddhist movement here very interesting for that reason, is that people have their day jobs and people are working in, you know, they have their professional careers and so on. At the same time, they’re bringing Buddhist insights, Buddhist ideas more and more in harmony with what they do, in the kind of jobs they do, in the kind of careers they have. And I think this is one in a way of proceeding, one modest way of starting. And it’s not to be mocked, it’s not to be ridiculed just, because there are very obvious contradictions in all these when people, you know, look at Bollywood film stars and think, you know, they can’t obviously be Buddhists. It’s all a big show.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MISHRA: I think that’s a very unrewarding way to look at this phenomena, because, you know, these people who have known really very little, very few other choices — when you grow up in, in a culture, which exalts success, which exalts ambition, and then you arrive at these places where everyone else wants to be and then you realize that actually there is a lot of discontentment and unhappiness that you still feel and then you’re drawn to these, you know, Eastern traditions and philosophy. I find myself quite sympathetic to that particular plight and particular situation. And I find it’s in very small significant ways, this is the kind of Buddhism that will take hold here and will always be, I think, a small-scale phenomenon, but it will attract, I think, the brightest, the most interesting members of the elite here in America. And that is the way I see it making its way into the modern world. It’s not engaging with questions of God or if you want to believe in God, well, that’s your business. You can believe in God, but the question of suffering still remains. So you have to deal with that.
MS. TIPPETT: Pankaj Mishra is the author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and, most recently, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. He’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the British newspaper The Guardian.
On our staff blog, SOF Observed, we’ve highlighted some of Pankaj Mishra’s current thoughts from recent weeks, including his analysis of the causes of the Mumbai terror attacks. We also sought out Pankaj Mishra’s current take on the global economic crisis as part of our ongoing series Repossessing Virtue. We’re posing questions to past guests about the moral and spiritual impact of economic crisis. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzburg also offers an intriguing take there, on how Western attitudes toward suffering can deepen the personal damage of economic uncertainty. Listen to those interviews and others and add your insights by commenting on our blog, SOF observed. Look for all these links on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, and with help from Amara Hark-Webber and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.