The Middle Way without Middlemen: A Review of Bharath Murthy’s The Vanished Path

17 May 2015

In 2010, soon after converting to lay Buddhism, Bharath Murthy mapped a route from Sarnath and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh to Lumbini in Nepal and Bodhgaya in Bihar, sites significant to the practice. The Pune-based cartoonist and filmmaker wanted to familiarise himself with the remains of places where the Buddha had lived, taught and died. Murthy's resulting book, The Vanished Path, is a visual memoir of this pilgrimage he took with his partner, Alka. It’s a simple story of a man discovering how to be a non-sectarian Buddhist and, by extension, a better artist, by recounting a journey through a project that took him four years to complete. The conceit of travel is what distills these twin arcs in an account of coming to grips with the intimacy of personal faith.

As the two travelers negotiate their journey to the Buddhist sites, they also encounter misconceptions about their faith. In Chapter 2, Bharath and Alka eat a meal at Yama Café in Kushinagar, a town in Uttar Pradesh. Various conversations between the couple and people they meet revolve around whether or not there will be riots after the Ayodhya verdict regarding the division of land in the Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi case. They anticipated nationwide turmoil of some sort no matter what the verdict. In this chapter, the couple meet the café’s owner, Mr Roy, and his wife. As they speak, Roy’s wife suddenly claims that the caste differences between them are never a bone of contention. It must be noted that she is a high caste Nepali and Roy is a Bengali Brahmin. For his part, Roy is an admirer of the Buddha’s humanist teachings, but believes all religions are the same, and in the end asserts that there is no such thing as religion at all. Bharath and Alka are astonished by these statements, but rather than argue with Roy, they say their good nights and leave.

The next day, after sightseeing, the couple return to Yama Cafe where they meet Suresh, a Buddhist convert of Indian descent, who was visiting from Australia. Suresh credits his conversion to Buddhism to the Tamil ideologue Periyar, who in the 1930s pioneered the anti-caste Self Respect Movement. Periyar’s slogan, “Forget about God, think about man,” which Suresh attributes to the Buddha, had inspired him to convert to Buddhism. Bharath is certain that the attribution is erroneous but lets the comments slide. Buddhism may be a shapeless mess of non-specific spirituality in most people’s minds, especially to those who know it little or have sought it to escape Hinduism’s caste legacy, as Suresh claims to have done. To Bharath, it is a religion that cannot be understood without immersion in Buddhist philosophy and engaging with the monastic practices of the Sangha, or community.

Prajna Desai  is an independent scholar based in Mumbai. She writes about contemporary art and visual practice, and occasionally moonlights as a curator. Her book, The Indecisive Chicken: Stories and Recipes from Eight Dharavi Women, will be published by The Dharavi Biennale this year.