When I started reading Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume manga series about the life of Buddha, I didn’t realise what a sprawling work it would turn out to be. I had only the first volume (Kapilavastu) with me at the time and it seemed a lightweight book: beautifully illustrated and plotted, no doubt, and full of interesting characters and stories, but a fast-paced comic all the same. It took barely a couple of hours to get through and wasn’t as demanding as some of the other graphic novels I’ve read. But now that I have all eight books with me (I’ve finished six of them), it’s easier to appreciate what an epic feat the Buddha series is. For one man to have drawn and written something on such a scale (the complete work is around 3,000 pages long) is notable in itself, but to have made it so rich, complex and thematically consistent is a stunning achievement. It’s easy to see why Tezuka is revered by manga and anime buffs.
He created the Buddha series in Japan in the 1970s but the English translation only came out a few years ago, and HarperCollins has brought it to India at a price (Rs 295 per book) that’s very attractive by graphic-novel standards. (You still have to pay Rs 800-900 for a volume of Gaiman’s Sandman series in some stores.)
At the heart of Tezuka’s work is the story most of us are familiar with: the birth of prince Siddhartha in the Shakya kingdom, his encounters with old age, disease and death, his decision to renounce the world, and his eventual transformation into Buddha, the Enlightened One. But woven together with this central strand are numerous other stories and characters, some entirely fictional and others that are fleshed-out versions of historical events and personalities.
In fact, Prince Siddhartha is only born very late in the first book, the bulk of which deals with the adventures of a young shudra named Chapra and an impish pariah (untouchable) child, Tatta. Both these characters contribute strongly to setting up the larger story, and Tatta in fact goes on to become one of the series’ protagonists – his path intersecting with Siddhartha/Buddha’s at many subsequent points. Other important characters include the unyielding monk Dhepa, who believes true purity can only be achieved through mortification of the flesh; the snotty-nosed Assaji, who can see into the future and counts down the days to his own violent death; a tormented shudra-born giant named Yatala; and Devadatta, whose story serves as a counterpoint to that of Siddhartha and who eventually becomes the Buddha’s nemesis.
Dealing with these many intersecting strands requires plenty of cross-cutting in the narrative, but Tezuka’s basic approach is beguilingly simple. Within the first 20 pages of book 1, using a judicious mix of words and images, he summarises the major themes that will run through the series: the evils of the class system set in place by the Aryans thousands of years ago (“the hardship they created for Indian people endures even today”) and the idea that all life, right down to the smallest, most seemingly insignificant creature, is sacred. All living beings are interdependent and part of a larger design where each creature has its function.
These are among the great lessons of the Buddha’s life and the series stays true to them all the way through. Early on, the monk Naradatta is condemned to live like a beast in the forest because he commits the sin of sacrificing the lives of a number of animals in order to save one human. Some of the most captivating passages in these books are the wordless stretches that deal with human-animal interaction or the lives of birds, beasts and insects. Like the sequence where little Siddhartha goes into a trance and experiences a bird’s existence from birth to death. Or the lovely montage in book 3 about the relentless workings of the food chain (a snake swallows leopard cubs but is itself consumed by killer ants, which in turn are swept into the river in a storm and eaten by fish, which are caught by a human, and so on). And Devadatta’s life with a wolf family, his subsequent travails and his adopting of the adage “the weak perish, the strong survive”.
A note about the writing: purists won’t be pleased with the use of modern slang, the irreverent bantering between characters and the cheeky self-referencing (which is a manga tradition anyway). There are lots of anachronisms scattered throughout the text, which can seem inappropriate if you choose not to have a sense of humour about these things. For instance, a regiment of guards, objecting to the induction of a low-caste in their ranks, grumble, “Doesn’t he know only the elite can get in? You have to be a Tokyo University graduate.” And after the giant Yatala kills seven tigers, someone remarks, “The Tigers hardly ever beat the Giants. Don’t you follow baseball?” Taken at face value, this is silly stuff, but it serves its function. The series was written largely for younger readers, many of whom wouldn’t have been able to relate to the setting and the characters. These off-the-cuff references make things more identifiable. And the anachronisms don’t affect the essence of the story or distort the setting. When a concept is simplified by the use of a baseball or a movie reference, we aren’t expected to believe that this world really has baseball and cinema in it. It’s still an ancient setting. All that’s happened is that a character has briefly stepped outside the panel, so to speak, and directly addressed the reader, providing an easy frame of reference
But the writing, though important, is secondary. The strength of these books is the black-and-white artwork, which ranges from straightforward children’s comic-book drawings to thrillingly detailed sketches (especially in the depictions of nature). At which point I must take recourse to an old disclaimer, also used in this post: it’s very difficult to do a satisfying review of a good graphic novel. One always ends up sounding too pedantic or discussing the text more than the pictures, and this can be no substitute for the actual experience. So read these books for yourself – or at least read the first two and then decide whether you want to complete the series. There’s much more to discover in them than I’ve been able to write about here. You'll thank me for not going on too long.
P.S. Many Delhi bookstores are now retailing manga titles, though there is still a conservatism about stocking works that have strong sexual content or extreme violence (there are exceptions, however – such as Crying Freeman, which I saw at Midlands recently).
Also see these links: Tezuka in English and Tezuka Osamu World.