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First published in German in 1906, the novel appeared in English in 1912 and Thailand in the 1930s. In 1977 it was published in a joint English / Thai edition. The edition I read was published in 1985, with illustrations.
The novel is quite unusual since it is written by a yet not a single character in the novel is from Europe. It is set in India seemingly in the last century.
The novel reads like an old melodrama of short chapters, each one might even be a single scene in the publication of a magazine serial, since each one is a mini story in itself. The story is well told, funny at times, a bit childish in other places, always clearly a fantasy. However, overall it is great fun and a delightful read.
The story is a “frame” story in three parts. In the first section two pilgrims, both begging monks, meet one evening in a home where they’ve sought refuge and the older one asks of the other, how he happened to have begun his journey on the road as a wandering monk. The younger man, Kamanita, then tells his tale to the very patient monk who must have had to listened for many hours to this tale which is over 100 pages in my version!
Kamanita was the son on wealthy trader. He had been given an excellent education, was learned and talented. Finally when he is 20 his father says it’s time to earn your keep – head up this trading venture to a distant town.
Kamanita’s real adventure begins when he arrives at this far off town, Kosambi at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers. He makes his trade and could have just returned home immediately, but he meets Vasitthi and they fall madly in love. She is also desired by a very tough and mean fellow, Satagira, who becomes the bitter enemy of Kamanita.
Having pledged his eternal love to Vasitthi, he still has to go home, settle up with his father, bringing back all the traded goods, and then he plans to come back for her. However, that all goes awry when his caravan is attacked and destroyed by Angulimala’s band of dangerous roadmen and Kamanita is taken hostage.
His father ransoms him and he returns, finally, after several delays, to his beloved Vasitthi, only to find her being wed to the horrible Satagira, a man whom she utterly hates.
He says of the wedding, and head of the bandits:
“So little may we avoid our karma, which is as we know, the first of all our deeds – perhaps in this or perhaps in some former life.”
Kamanita soon becomea settled in his wealthy city of Ujjeni – famous for wealth, ease, courtesans, and the “high life.” He is a successful pleasure seeker. He’s famed. Then his family is robbed, but the low level courtesans save him. He straightens his life and begins to take business as key to everything.
He marries unwillingly and isn’t a loving husband; he works harder and travels more. He becomes very rich, builds a fabulous mansion is famed and honored. He has 2 daughters, but his dad wants him to have a son, so he arranges a 2nd marriage.
There is a hilarious wedding scene in which nearly everything goes wrong in the pursuit of actions meant to ensure the birth of a son.
Sita, his first wife, is sweet and gentle. Savitri, his second is lovable, warm and soft. Yet the two hate each other and are constantly fightinf.
However, Savitri does deliver a son.
Then it appears that Angulimala, the thief he thought was dead, comes to his home as a beggar and Kamanita hurries to give him food, but Angulimala disappears. He is certain that he will come with his gang to rob and plunder the house.
While waiting for this coming conflict he realizes the meaninglessness of his current life and he decides to give up his current life and family. He changes his life completely and become a beggar and spiritual seeking and set out on the road.
This ends his story and ends the first section of the novel. There is then a dramatic change and it turns out the master, who is the Buddha, knows all this but doesn’t reveal it. Rather he tells Kamanita:
“To be separated from what we love is suffering, to be united to what we do not love is suffering.”
Kamanita tells him that he had met one teacher who wanted him as a disciple but he remembers the wisdom of a different saying: “The Master does not crave disciples, but the disciples, the Master.” Kamanita is simply not impressed with this would be guide and he seeks “The Samana Gotama” as his master, but his companion offers to reveal the true Buddha to him and for the whole night he expounds the basic positions of Buddhism.
He spends much of the night talking with this Buddha he’d met, but Kamanita couldn’t understand his teaching. He gets dissatisfied with this Buddha and the next morning hears of another Buddha who is supposed to be very famous and he rushes off to meet him. He has no idea that the Buddha he spent the night with IS this other one he’s heard of and in his mad rush to get to the other Buddha; Kamanita himself is killed in an accident with a cow!
The second section opens in some sort of very other world, the world of the dead, which he doesn’t understand and then sees himself first in his recent life (and death) and then in older carnations as well.
He is soon shocked to meet up with his beloved Vasitthi and she begins to relate to him the story of how and why she had married Satagira in their earlier life. After believing Kamanita to be dead she finally gave into her family and Saragira and married him, but showed him no love. She had a child by him, but the child died and his ardor toward her cooled and he took a second wife.
Satagira had used Anguliamala, the dangerous bandit, to deceive Vasitthi and so the bandit offered her freedom and revenge against her husband. She decides to help the bandit and take her revenge on Satagira.
They make a plan, but before it is carried out Anguiliama has converted to the real Buddha and will kill no more.
Anguliamala has her go to hear the Buddha speak and it seems to be the same one that Kamanita heard as well. She is deeply moved.
She takes the King and her husband, Satagira to the Buddha to meet and see the new Anguiliama. Her husband then releases her and she becomes a beggar nun. Her private last visit with the Buddha is when he gives her her central sentence:
“Where there is love there is suffering.”
After being in the convent for some time she wants to know of Kamanita, but Anguiliama gives her the “old” news of his meeting with him and his rude wives, and she doesn’t want any part of that grouping. She follows the master and dies herself which is how she is able to be with Kamanita in the “other” world.
She aids him to see the Buddha whom he had met, who, of course, is the same monk that he had berated as a poor teacher. She then goes off to her new existence. He then finally understands and embraces the ultimate truth.
The story is very well told, however, if one does not already have a decent understand of Buddhist teachings (which I don’t) it is very hard to follow the theological details. Yet the story itself is gripping.
Overall I enjoyed the novel. It is both a challenge and opening to the world of Buddhism, and well written, even gripping for much of the novel.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com