[2012-08-11] “Buddha”

Buddha” is an eight-volume manga created by Osamu Tezuka, perhaps more famous as the creator of Astro Boy. This magnum opus is a fictional account of the life of Gautama Buddha and has more than 3,000 pages that took over ten years to create. Despite its length and the time it took to create it, the volumes read as a coherent whole, with the stories of several characters interleaving with that of Buddha. It is a joy to read this set of books and one cannot help but marvel at the amount of love, effort and discipline that must have gone into creating something like this.

When you line up the volumes of the English edition of this book as available in India, the spines combine to show snapshots of Buddha from three different stages of his life. This little touch is what attracted me to the book the first time I spotted it in a bookshop, though the combined price of the volumes (each priced at INR 350) put me off buying them right away. Now that I am a member of a library, I can finally read these books without worrying about their price.

The book is easy to read and the frames are drawn in the characteristic style of manga; every now and then however, a frame depicting a landscape or a forest would dazzle you with its shear beauty and the amount of detail shown by the artist. The language has quite a bit of modern slang and conscious self-references to the artist and the art-form. There are quite a few anachronistic elements (like a watch or a radio or references to modern baseball teams), but somehow it just ends up being fun instead of being irritating. The topless depiction of almost every female might be somewhat shocking if you are prudish.

There are quite a few characters who keep appearing at different points in the story and the author has tried to show what drives them into doing what they do. Some of it might appear a little distracting and a little puzzling. For example, in the very first volume we read about the adventures of Tatta, a pariah boy with the ability to possess animals - it is not very clear in this volume what he has to do with the story of Buddha, who is born only towards the end of the volume. Of course, his effect on the life of Buddha is revealed over the course of the rest of the book as the story unravels.

A few of these characters (e.g. King Bimbisara, Devadatta, Angulimala, etc.) would be familiar to those who have heard the story of Buddha, but not in the way they are depicted here. A few of the other characters (e.g. Tatta the pariah, Naradatta the monk who is condemned to live the life of a beast, etc.) would most likely be completely unfamiliar. In other words, this book is a very different telling of the story of Buddha from what you get to hear in this part of the world.

While the story might be different here, the messages are still the same: the essential similarity and connection between all creatures, the rejection of violence, the rejection of the abhorrent caste-system in Hinduism, the conquering of all desires in order to achieve true happiness, etc. The book therefore is a great introduction to the basic tenets of Buddhism told in a very light manner, likely to appeal to the young folks.

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