(This article was first published by the Red Elephant Foundation’s Ahimsa Project.)
The Buddha and The Terrorist, written by Satish Kumar, is a book that will stay with you long after you finish reading. It narrates the incredible tale of a man called Angulimala who wears a necklace of human fingers taken from the bodies of people he has killed. The mention of his name strikes terror in the minds of people who have heard of his cruelty. They hate him for the destruction he has brought to their land. One man sets out to meet him, disregarding the advice given to him. This is Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, who believes that the power of love and compassion can persuade even the most hardened of hearts to renounce violence, take responsibility for his actions, and lead a life devoted to the well-being of others.
The author has retold and reinterpreted an old, much loved story, to make it relevant for contemporary readers faced with challenges that seem so overwhelming that there are doomsday predictions a little too often, and human beings live in crushing fear of each other. In his prologue to the book, titled ‘Talking to Terrorists’, he writes, “The current political leaders usually say that they won’t talk to men of violence; that talking to terrorists only encourages them…The real challenge is to talk to those who are violent, those who disagree, those who oppose and who intend to harm. External violence is only a symptom, a manifestation of some deeper cause. Only in dialogue can the perpetrators of violence and the victims of violence discover its root cause, and find ways to heal the discord.”
I will not describe here the encounter between Angulimala and the Buddha. It is for you to read, experience and assess on your own. The author has a tremendous gift with words, so a summary of the central moment in this story would be a disservice to his work. After you have read it, write down the feelings and questions that come to your mind. Whether you treat this story as myth, legend, history, parable or none of these is up to you. The story is powerful regardless of the genre you classify it into. I found it deeply inspiring because it reaffirmed my belief that every human being has the capacity to transform. It is not for us to write people off, or cancel them, just because we think they are beyond repair or redemption.
When the Buddha tells King Pasenadi that Angulimala has given up the path of violence, the king is unable to believe his ears. He is convinced that Angulimala is so wicked and monstrous that he can never change, and the most appropriate way of dealing with him is to capture and execute him. He feels beholden to his duty of upholding the rule of law, ensuring that justice is served, and that the guilty is punished for his crimes. The Buddha tells him, “Your majesty, violence breeds violence. Revenge and justice are not the same. Someone, somewhere, needs to take courage to break the cycle of violence. Forgiveness is superior to justice…If Angulimala is capable of renouncing violence, then tell me, your Majesty: is your civilized society also capable of being truly civilized and renouncing violence?”
The Buddha and The Terrorist features a wider cast of characters. Introducing each one of them, analysing their motivations and their contributions to the plot, is outside the scope of this article. It is worth noting that the entire book is a meditation on non-violence as a principled choice, and a way of life. You do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate its wisdom. All you need is a willingness to let yourself be challenged. This book will compel you to deconstruct how you define good and evil. You might end up with some answers, or a lot of questions, or both.
In the prologue, Kumar writes, “When oppressed people challenge the established order and agitate against it, the ruling elite labels them evil, attempts to suppress the rebellion and to ignore their cause, even if they use non-violent methods such as civil disobedience.” This made me think of resistance movements in Tibet, Kashmir, Balochistan, Hong Kong, Nagaland, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Palestine, and various other parts of the world. “From a Buddhist perspective, all organized violence is ‘wrong’, whether it is called armed struggle, people’s revolution, terrorism, national defence, holy war, crusade or jihad. Violence is violence, whatever the guise or the rationalization,” he says.
This is a point worth pondering over when you have some quiet time because social media leaves hardly any room for nuanced deliberation. People are so closely identified with their ideology, and so convinced about who is right and who is wrong, that they cannot step aside from their dogma to understand the misgivings of people who make choices that seem unpalatable or even immoral. These choices need not be endorsed but there is some merit in making an effort to understand what is going on. In the absence of that, we lose our capacity for empathy and for rational discourse, and get ready to battle with friends and relatives using information supplied through WhatsApp groups.
King Pasenadi has the courage and foresight to change his stance. When the citizens demand capital punishment for Angulimala, he says, “Citizens, we cannot bring your beloved ones back to life by killing Angulimala. Isn’t it better to encourage all evildoers to surrender themselves and renounce their evil deeds?” They are not prepared for this, so the king finds himself at the receiving end of a sharp backlash. They indicate a loss of confidence in his abilities, and his masculinity is challenged through a veiled allusion to his softness. “We have never heard such weak words from your Majesty before. We have never seen your Majesty being so soft. Our nation should never be a sanctuary for criminals.”
Fortunately, the king is not an insecure man. He does not get agitated, and is able to follow through with the insights he has gained from the conversation with the Buddha. Angulimala is brought to court so that the citizens who have been harmed by his actions have an opportunity to speak of their hurt, loss and suffering. The king recognizes their need for healing. I do not want to provide any spoilers here so that you can discover how the court proceedings unfold, and what judgement is pronounced at the end. The success of this book lies in its unflinching advocacy for non-violence. It is certainly worth reading.