What can happen when this yearning for a better life remains unsatisfied is vividly illustrated in Bihar—the region where 2,500 years ago the Buddha attained enlightenment. Today, Bihar is India's poorest state and can't provide the work its people need. The result is a Darwinian scramble for employment: a few lucky ones get the jobs; others migrate; and on the fringes, some of the disgruntled join the gangsters, extortionists and Marxist guerrillas that have made Bihar one of India's most lawless places. Buddhism died out long ago here, and shows little sign of taking hold again. Indeed, the idea that a religion associated with passivity and otherworldly mysticism might offer a solution to their problems would seem hopelessly quaint to many people in Bihar and other troubled parts of the Buddha's homeland. As a friend once told the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the Buddha was one of those "luxuries India could not afford." Mishra, however, has decided that the opposite is true: that the Buddha still matters to the India of interminable job lines and violent crime. That's the message of his latest book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.
Step One of Mishra's effort to rehabilitate the Buddha for his homeland is to rediscover Prince Siddhartha—the man who became the most famous Indian of all time while meditating under a fig tree in Bihar. Going back to the earliest Buddhist documents, Mishra recreates the scene in eastern India in the 6th century B.C., when a young aristocrat who has abandoned his wife and fortune, stumbles through Bihar searching for a way to end misery in the world. Restless, curious, lonely and sometimes arrogant, Mishra's Buddha is an ordinary man confronting problems that face ordinary men. And there were plenty of problems in the Buddha's India, where urbanization and prosperity had weakened old social bonds and awakened new desires for wealth and political power—much like in India today. The Buddha was in the thick of the social upheavals of his day: he preached against India's caste system and allowed (after some hesitation) women to become Buddhist monks. It was in the crucible of the real world that the Buddha was formed, Mishra argues, which is why he speaks to those who are in the crucible now.
What would the Buddha say to an unemployed young man in Bihar today? Almost nothing about God, heaven or the afterlife. As Mishra points out, the Buddha "either ignored or denied just about every piety—God, soul, eternity—that was current in his time and was to form the basis of many subsequent religions." His promise to his followers was not salvation in heaven but an end to suffering on earth, if they reined in their desires. At the heart of the Buddha's message is the idea that humans do not possess a steady, unchanging self; instead, we are just empty vessels through which experiences pass. You are not the person who began reading this page. You will not be the person who flips to the next one. Mishra argues that the Buddha used this radical new conception of selfhood as an antidote to social turmoil. You should not be obsessed with satisfying your desires, the Buddha suggested, because the person enjoying this satisfaction will not be you. Once individuals control their desires, social tensions abate; violence decreases.
It is a tribute to Mishra's ability to link India's past to its present that he has turned a book on the Buddha into a social commentary of immense urgency about contemporary India—especially the parts of the country, like Bihar, which are far removed from the glamorous boomtowns like Bangalore. Ironically, it is not the solution Mishra offers (Buddhism) but the problem he identifies—the restlessness in India's heartland—that really lingers in the reader's mind. Mishra may well be right—Buddhism, with its emphasis on curbing desire, might be an answer to India's problems—but nothing in his book offers much hope that the religion will make a large-scale comeback in its native land. What Mishra does point out with great clarity is the colossal new challenge that faces the Indian state—the hunger for a better life now unleashed among millions of Indians, who will never again be satisfied with the way things used to be.