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.

Led by Murthy’s point of view, the narrative takes six self-sufficient chapters, each set in a place significant in the life of the Buddha, and limned with extracted Buddhist Suttas, scriptural texts evolving from the Buddha’s presence at those sites. So if Sarnath, Kushinagar, Lumbini, Sravasti, Nalanda, and Bodhgaya, plot the journey along milestones in the Buddha’s life—where he first sermoned, died, was born, propagated monastic life, discoursed, and found self-awakening—the appending texts become prompts to revisit Buddhist learning. The storyboard of the first chapter exemplifies the book’s strategy of multi-sensorial immersion. Passages of hand-drawn panels depicting the journey, local colour such as cows pissing in the alleys of Varanasi, and encounters with service staff and officials intersperse sequences of the couple at archaeological sites. Peppered throughout these sections are archival photographic illustrations of the sites before restoration, retellings of events associated with discoveries of Buddhist monuments, as well as relevant textual insertions of Suttas. A running motif is an endearing Bhikku or Buddhist monk who resembles the author but acts as a sutradhar (narrator) guiding the reader through facts about the Buddha’s life.

By far, however, the most effective narrative device is the repeating motif of the aniconic Wheel of Dhamma that Murthy casts as the Buddha. This motif, which represents the Three Universal Truths taught by the Buddha, is borrowed from the art historical tradition of visual substitution that was common in early Buddhist art. Rather than figurative images of the Buddha, early Buddhist monuments feature aniconic motifs such as a wheel, a vacant throne, footprints, and the Bodhi Tree to embody the Buddha’s presence and his preachings of moderation and the Middle Way, which can be achieved only through one’s individual actions. In the book, the wheel performs the role of an active character who speaks, moves, listens, and counsels as the Buddha might have done.

A nascent reader of comics will be impressed by Murthy’s ability to ravel a narrative filled with such picaresque details. To the comic book veteran, the profusion of downright maladroit images will seem ad hoc and unfit for professional print. A lack of basic sophistication in rendering figural poses, facial expressions, spatial relationships, and scale leave page after page feeling both visually stilted and only procedurally necessary, rather than structurally integrated or graphically pleasing. These infelicities are most vivid in sections of chapters 1 and 2. Then again, it helps to know that the first 30 pages were produced on a deadline to fill a weekly supplement in the Tamil newspaper Dinamalar. These factors inconveniently combined have produced dozens of pages that would have been well worth redrawing. Why did the author choose not to? One might put it down to laziness. But bear in mind that staying true to his identity as a novice Buddhist with a lot to learn might have also meant embracing those parts of the books that look like a work in slow-going progress. Both journeys were interlinked even before the project began. Their affair is what impassions the narrative.

Then right on time, a sureness of hand and more purposeful juxtapositions creep in around Chapter 4, ‘Fruits of Action’. Graphic and verbal descriptions become more specific and immediately relevant to the episodes at hand. Momentary lapses of draughtsmanship are fewer. That these qualitative improvements coincide with the chapter’s content about the growth of monastic culture around the Buddha and greater confidence in his teachings feels almost serendipitous. Most indicative of a hard-won authorial grasp of both his own drawing skills and the Buddha story is that Murthy chose to represent this history through fictional episodes, fabular stories, and imaginative insertions such as a full page of panels showing a group of intrigued monkeys drawn to the speaking Wheel of Dhamma. It is passages such as those set in Sravasti which houses Angulimala Stupa and Anathapindika Stupa that very nearly vindicate the poverty of visual imagination marring the book’s opening sections.

Some of the strongest sections in The Vanished Path—sweeping bird’s eye views of sites; the poetic attention to a great tree; an ordinary twisting road reimagined by an angle that lends its width the swell of a river; shifts in perspectives on a single page to suggest the wavering thoughts of the narrator’s eye; the textural variety on a single panel containing architecture, animals, humans, trees, dust, and grass; the scale of a spongy mushroom relative to a bulbous shoe when seen up close and the thrill such observation inspires in the eye—owe, in some part, to Murthy’s confessed inspirations.

On the graphic front, his central models comprise the manga of three Japanese giants—Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Taniguchi Jiro, and Tezuka Osamu. Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life (2008), itself a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, charting his struggle to become an artist from 1945 to 1960, means a great deal in Murthy’s understanding of the darkness and humour that necessarily accompany his own journey as an artist. Taniguchi’s ability to make graphic details add up to an enriched whole has focused Murthy’s attempts to create more meaningful scenographies of place that will ultimately contribute to a running thread of ideas. And finally Tezuka, author of the multi-volume tome Buddha and the most mainstream of Murthy’s heroes, galvanised his attempts to find awe and wonder in simple images such as the shoulders of bare stony hills by homing in on their emotive and spectacular function. Yet the art of the travelogue, in which observations have the status of personal talismans, and where history, autobiography, and opinion are inconceivable without each other, is a persuasion Murthy developed by reading the travelogues of WG Sebald and VS Naipaul.

Aside from its vaunted influences, the virtue of The Vanished Path consists in mobilising the dregs of history, that is, archaeology and little-read texts, to tell a witty and rounded story of the Buddha’s teachings. In this, pilgrimage is not just physical travel. It’s a spiritual trope that encourages a self-sufficient connection to religion. The importance of defining faith in terms of an individually driven investigation will not be lost on anyone who fears that counterfeit politics has the power to kill the real logic behind anti-caste radical BR Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism in 1956. All this said, Murthy is not a Neo-Buddhist. He did not convert to escape from caste. Admittedly, he did not have to, though he did yearn to be part of a belief system that is inherently defiant of Hinduism’s inequities. Even so, Buddhism for him is not what a small community of genuinely committed Ambedkarites construe as a natural fit with their anti-caste agenda. A faith unto itself, whose roots and future are anchored in the sites, the Suttas, and the monastic tradition of the Sangha, is what the The Vanished Path argues Buddhism is. To be part of it you need only to engage with it. If there is a slogan in this book, it’s an enticingly simple one: find your own middle way!

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.