The Indian cartoonist, Bharath Murthy, converted to Buddhism in 2009 and chronicled his pilgrimage to the ancient sites of the religious founder, Siddhartha Gautama, in India in a graphic travelogue (The Vanished Path). It prompted the author of these lines to critically question his own religion.
For a long time, there was only one religion in my life: Catholic Christianity. Going to church on Sunday, being an altar boy, first communion and confirmation – all these were firmly anchored in the DNA of that little village in southern Lower Saxony where I spent my first 20 years.
Only one boy in my elementary school class did not attend Catholic religion lessons. But it wasn’t because he was Muslim, Buddhist or atheist. Karsten was Protestant – and teaching a single Protestant Christian was not worth the cost of hiring a teacher. Of course, we learned at school that there were other religions on earth. For me, though, they were stories of distant places and bizarre traditions that didn’t affect my everyday life in the village and my own faith. So why should I question what everyone there lived every day?
Yet our village Catholicism really wasn’t particularly spiritual. Yes, you went to church and memorised the Lord’s Prayer because everyone did and your parents would gently but firmly insist on it. But when the priest’s sermon got too long yet again – and it often did – whole groups of men often stood up from the pews as one, crossed the street to the village pub and knocked back a drink, which the publican had provided in wise foresight. The men returned just in time for communion, and the taste of the host mingled with that of the liquor in their mouths.
These moments come to mind as I browse through Bharath Murthy’s travelogue, when I read about the encounters of the young author and his wife Alka Singh on their pilgrimage through Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Rajgir, Kushinagar, Lumbini, Sarnath and Shravasti. Because on their journey, the two freshly baked Buddhists were quite often confronted with people who interpreted the rules of their respective religion (be it Hinduism or Buddhism) very creatively, some out of convenience and pragmatism, others simply out of ignorance.
Most memorable in this context is the 17-year-old farmer’s son Joginder, who goes to the temple and repeats the words spoken to him, but doesn’t understand what they mean – almost like before the Second Vatican Council when the Catholic Mass is still held in Latin.
It’s understandable that the pilgrim couples, uncertainty faced with such loose interpretations of religious rules, sometimes turn into a know-it-all tone. Converts, in particular, have dealt so intensely with the material that they explicitly want to 'do everything properly' and can easily be disturbed when reality turns out to be a lot more chequered than expected.
Nevertheless, these scenes weren’t always easy to take in as they held up a mirror to me personally. For the deeper my younger self had gotten involved in youth work, helping to organise services for children and youth, planning acolyte excursions and camping trips, the deeper I immersed myself in the texts of the Bible, the greater my own youthful arrogance became: Everyone dragged themselves into church on Sundays, automatically rattling out the memorised lines, yet knowing so little about the words upon which their faith was based. All that mattered were appearances! I groused for weeks if an altar boy missed his cue on the bells or swung the frankincense to stingily.
Over time, however, doubts began to chip away at my faith. Why were there only altar boys and no girls, even if they wanted to be? Why weren’t there women priests? And why did we have to kneel so submissively during the mass and stay quiet when the priest spoke – although his words sometimes crossed the line into homophobia? That didn’t sound like Christian charity.
The justifications my parents and the clergy offered for this soon no longer sounded convincing, on the contrary, they seemed like cheap excuses from people who couldn’t and wouldn’t let go of their own power. For a while, I still believed that I could change some of the errors in the system from the inside, hoping that it would just take enough perseverance, persuasion and good people in the right places until I finally lost patience with this religion, the ideals of which and practical application seemed to me now completely outdated.
At 20, I moved away from my village and have never visited a Sunday worship service since.
In "The Vanished Path," we unfortunately never find out about the doubts Bharath Murthy and Alka Singh had that would ultimately lead them to turn their backs on the religion they grew up with and turn to Buddhism. Was there a specific occasion? Or was the decision the result of a prolonged process of dissatisfaction? “I don’t like the Hindu caste system because it’s so discriminatory,” Alka tells a curious receptionist in the travelogue. Going on to explain that what she values in the Buddha’s teachings are their simplicity and scientific nature.
At the same time, a certain frustration that the two pilgrims feel on their journey when constantly confronted with the question of their caste remains obvious. Their origin, their religion of origin – they seem to be unable to escape it, no matter how hard they try.
I must confess, as much as I like the idea of this book – to offer an illustrated introduction to the teachings of Buddhism and to trace the history of its almost forgotten origins in India – I would have liked to have even deeper insights into the minds of the two protagonists. Sadly, such insights come up too short considering the concentrated wealth of facts that may well overwhelm novices and sometimes seem like blatantly excessive information. On the other hand, the choice of a manga-like drawing style based on Bharath Murthy’s socialisation in the manga scene is interesting: Buddha meets Doraemon – that’s fresh and unusual.
The largely fact-based approach, however, reveals an interesting phenomenon: Letting go of one’s own religion is not a frivolous decision that you can just take. No, you gather information first, read the scriptures, you talk to people, deliberate, ponder – and thus deal much more intensively with the teachings of the new religion than a person who is born into it would.
So of all the Buddhists, they encountered on their pilgrimage in India, Murthy and Singh were probably the ones most knowledgeable about Buddhism – at least in theory. But theory isn’t the same thing as practice, as Murthy portrays with refreshing self-irony, when someone again asks the two pilgrims their caste or mistakes them for easily duped religious tourists from abroad. And suddenly, blazing anger sweeps the desired serenity away. But precisely these moments of humanity, these outbursts of honest emotions are where I feel closer to the protagonists of the comic. To be honest, I would make a pretty poor Buddhist.
Nevertheless, after reading this book I feel an honest respect for Murthy and Singh. Despite all my doubts and the detachment that I now feel for my own religion, I still haven’t had the heart to officially resolve my ties to it – even when I swear after every new scandal that I really will leave the church.
The Vanished Path: A Graphic Travelogue Tankobon Hardcover – 10 Apr 2015. Harper Collins. 12,18 $.