deepakBuddha: A Story of Enlightenment
Deepak Chopra
HarperSanFrancisco, May 2007
288 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

Putting words in the Buddha’s mouth is risky business. I know; I’ve done it. Unless you’re faithful to the Pali canon—and maybe a Sanskrit text or two—let’s face it, you’re writing fiction. That brings us to the latest retelling of the life of the Buddha: Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment by Deepak Chopra.

Deepak, as his millions of fans call him, is an unlikely chronicler of the Buddha. In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Deepak is the wildly popular physician-turned-New-Age-guru and author of such bestsellers as Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, How to Know God, and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. He first came on the scene in the 1980s as a proponent of mind-body medicine, introducing mainstream America to Ayurveda, India’s traditional healing system, through books like Quantum Healing and Perfect Health. Since then, he’s added books focusing on spirituality to the mix. It’s dubious whether Deepak is “the preeminent voice of Eastern philosophy in the West,” as his publicity materials claim, but he’s certainly one of the most prolific. In all, his forty-plus books have sold more than twenty million copies worldwide, invariably striking a collective nerve with topics ranging from love, family, prosperity, and consciousness to yoga, world peace, aging, and life after death. And now the Buddha.

Buddha biographies are nothing new, of course. The urge to set down the Buddha’s life and legend dates back several millennia to the Pali and Sanskrit canons, continuing through the centuries with various commentaries and histories, up to florid Victorian works like Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem, The Light of Asia.A rash of retellings in modern dress have attempted the more problematic task of filling in the gaps. That’s where Chopra’s Buddha comes in.

Deepak calls his book a “re-imagining” of the Buddha’s life—”fictional but psychologically true.” He based it not on any of the traditional sources but on tales he “heard over and over” as a child growing up in India. Rather than cracking the books to refresh his memory, Deepak “looked up everything on Google first,” then toured key places in the Buddha’s life, such as Bodh Gaya, where Siddhartha was enlightened. “That was more useful to me than reading,” he says.

Buddha treats the Awakened One’s life in three phases, with the first half of the book covering Siddhartha the prince, secluded in the palace, and the second half, Gautama the forest monk, then the enlightened Buddha. The narrative ends abruptly with the Buddha’s first sermon; the remaining forty-five years of teaching are dismissed in a single sentence. The teachings themselves are summed up in a six-page epilogue and a Q&A with the author. “I didn’t feel it was my place to spread Buddhism,” Deepak explains. “That’s best left to the wandering missionaries who are committed Buddhists.”

Clearly, Buddha-dharma is not the point here. Deepak is, first, a storyteller. (He’s already published several novels, including a retelling of the Merlin legend.) The “facts” of the Buddha’s life—the generally accepted major milestones—are strung along the narrative thread, leaving plenty of space for dramatic license. Though Deepak’s goal in writing Buddha, he says, was “to spark the yearning we all have at some point that there’s more to life than everyday pleasure,” he admits that he wanted above all to tell a good tale. To that end, he has reshuffled history and legend, adding characters and scenes and shifting the emphasis. “For a storyteller, it would be ideal if Buddha’s life came to a spectacular end,” he writes in the epilogue, but “to satisfy our dramatic longings we have to turn to the incidental characters in the tale.” The result of his tinkering is fast-paced and cinematic—which can be explained by the genesis of the book.

Several years ago, Deepak was asked by the filmmaker Shekhar Kapur to collaborate on a screenplay about the Buddha. Subsequently the Indian billionaire financing the film decided to change the focus and hired Hollywood veteran David S. Ward (The Sting, Sleepless in Seattle) to write a script based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddha biography, Old Path White Clouds. The backer, Deepak says, “wanted a religious screenplay. I didn’t want to go in that direction. It wouldn’t have made interesting viewing.”

Deepak’s screenwriting efforts didn’t go to waste. He wasn’t kidding, he said, when he told an interviewer that the film script contained a lot of “sex and violence,” and palace life as portrayed in the book is anything but tranquil. The Gautama family belonged to the kshatriya, or warrior caste, and Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, was a warlord with a large city-state, Kapilavastu, under his command. But while traditional texts suggest that the Buddha’s birth ushered in an era of peace in the kingdom, Deepak calls that view unrealistic. Northern India twenty-five hundred years ago “was ruled by feudal lords constantly pillaging and ravaging,” he says. Here, Suddhodana’s court is a place of scheming rivals, mock battles, and hotheads itching for a fight. Much of the “psychological truth” Deepak was after centers on the father-son conflict sparked by Suddhodana’s efforts to mold Siddhartha in his own image and make sure he becomes a world sovereign and not a Buddha, as predicted.

Another archetypal theme is the mano a mano struggle between Siddhartha and Mara. In Deepak’s reading, Mara is not so much an evil demon as the Buddha’s shadow—the inner demons he wrestled with up to his awakening and beyond. The outer reflection of the conflict is Siddhartha’s relationship with his cousin Devadatta. Devadatta is brought to the palace in part to toughen up the prince. Their rivalry provides much of the drama in the book, although Devadatta’s villainy is a mite overdrawn. He would still be a foil for the preternaturally kind and sensitive Siddhartha even if he weren’t so cartoonishly sinister. Still, the author’s point is taken: Devadatta’s later attempts on the Buddha’s life didn’t spring out of nowhere but had firm roots in youthful jealousy.

If you already know something of the Buddha’s story, you may recognize in the more brotherly rivalry between Siddhartha and Channa—the lower-caste stable boy who becomes Siddhartha’s charioteer and accompanies him the night he goes forth to become a monk—the seeds of Channa’s conflicted relationship with the Buddha later on, and possibly the origins of the Buddha’s disregard of the rigid caste divisions that prevailed in his time.

Deepak’s other ingredient for a commercial hit—sex—hasn’t translated to the page. There are no bodice-ripping sex scenes between Siddhartha and his harem. Rape is left to Devadatta, with the chaste Siddhartha later attempting to save the girl’s honor. The victim, Sujata, was invented by Deepak as a symbol of Siddhartha’s desire: he’s reminded of his lingering love for her on the eve of his enlightenment, when another young woman named Sujata serves him rice-milk.

Is Buddha, on balance, as “psychologically true” as the author intended? How can we really know? In inventing dialogue and assigning thoughts and motivations to their characters, most historical novelists have something to go on—diaries, letters, public documents, eyewitness accounts. The Buddha’s youth, on the other hand, remains forever obscured. Deepak’s Siddhartha has more early exposure to meditation, aging, and death than the Siddhartha of traditional accounts, which makes his discontent with palace life and decision to become a monk more plausible from a human standpoint. But did Siddhartha really suffer a Hamlet-like identity crisis, as he does here? Was he plagued by guilt over his mother’s untimely death after his birth, thinking he was responsible? And what about that internal voice that keeps whispering in Siddhartha’s ear, “Look closer”? Believable—or over the top?

In the end, all that psychologizing is harmless enough, if a little silly in spots. Deepak isn’t rewriting history here—just tweaking the legend to make an entertaining story. Serious students of Buddhism will no doubt dismiss Buddha as “Buddha lite.” It’s clearly aimed at a mainstream audience and contains no dharma to speak of. But the Buddha’s life has resonance, quite apart from the specifics. His struggle, at least in his younger years, is not unlike our own. For readers who don’t know much about Buddhism or the Buddha,Buddha could be a beginning.

“That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air,” the essayist Vivian Gornick has written. Isn’t it possible that the impulse to read such a tale—and find ourselves in it—is just as strong?