The Immortals of Shambala

A fantasy novel based on the mythology of Vajrayana Buddhism holds promise.

Published: April 26, 2014 4:55:51 am

Book: Path of the Swan: The Maitreya Chronicles Part 1
Author: Charu Singh
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 445 pages

Price: Rs 499

Swati Chopra

What the Harry Potter books did for fantasy fiction internationally, the phenomenal success of Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy achieved in India. It opened up readership and publishing avenues for narratives that mine Indian mythology for characters, concepts and stories. Charu Singh’s trilogy, The Maitreya Chronicles, is the latest entrant in this genre, and seeks inspiration from the mythology of Vajrayana Buddhism. Path of the Swan is the first book of the trilogy.

Vajrayana, the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism practised across the Himalayas, including Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, has a unique cosmology replete with creation myths, fearsome and powerful deities, hair-raising prophecies and secret rituals and practices. All of which make it an ideal hunting ground for fantasy fiction. In the hands of an imaginative and skilful writer, all this material can be woven into a compelling and satisfying narrative.

Path of the Swan holds out the promise of evolving into such a narrative. Lama Ozer and his novitiate Tashi leave the monastery where they have lived all their lives to answer a call (received while the lama was in a trance) from the kingdom of Shambala. Soon, we are introduced to the world of bodhisattvas and dakinis, lamas and gompas, asuras and princes, as the story that begins with a monk’s trance progresses towards the promise of an epic event that will take place later in the trilogy. The anticipated event is the birth of a messiah, referred to as

Maitreya, which seems appropriate, as it is the name given to the ‘Buddha of the Future’ in Mahayana Buddhist texts.

That a messiah will save the world from its problems and sins is a story as old as the epics. Before Christ, there were Rama and Krishna and other valiant avatar-heroes who fulfilled the promise articulated in the Bhagavad Gita — that in times of great need, a divine incarnation will come to deliver the world from its suffering. In the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, where high lamas are often regarded as emanations of deities and bodhisattvas, the messiah myth acquires an interesting nuance.

Those who are familiar with the philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism, and hope to find it interwoven in this book, might be somewhat disappointed. The author imagines an alternative universe out of the worldview expressed in the texts and mythology of Vajrayana cultures, but this does not necessarily take into account the philosophical teachings that make up its spiritual heart. Of course, this does not diminish the merit of the book in any way, which lies in re-imagining the mythic universe  of the tradition, and perhaps even makes it more accessible to the young adult reader.

The writer is the author of  Dharamsala Diaries.

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