Haha, oh wow, reading the story of a dude who’s so self-involved that he takes off on his unsuspecting wife and kid without any warning is so not what I need right now.
And that’s a shame because the story of Siddhartha — the prince who would become Gautama Buddha — is certainly fascinating, and the basic messages of Buddhism ones that should be more widely read. Author and artist Sachi Ediriweera is a Sri Lankan Buddhist who’s taken on the daunting task of putting together a young-reader-friendly graphic novel depicting the early life of Buddha, tho with admittedly plenty of poetic license. In his telling, the young prince is held a virtual hostage in his father’s string of palaces because of King Suddhodana’s grief over the death of Siddhartha’s mother, Queen Maya. Despite the occasional intervention of both Siddhartha’s aunt Pajapati and the king’s chief advisor Channa, Suddhodana is adamant that Siddhartha know nothing about the outside world and, thus, nothing of suffering.
But Siddhartha isn’t an idiot. Quick-witted and athletic, he’s also a kid with high amounts of observational skills and empathy, even if he rarely has reason to flex that last emotional muscle. Soon enough, he meets Yashodara, a neighboring princess brought to the palace. The two fall in love and marry, then have a child they name Rahula. Suddhodana, who still hasn’t allowed his son and family any freedom, throws a grand gala to celebrate the birth. Siddhartha falls asleep during the celebrations and wakes up in the aftermath, seeing for the first time what hungover people sleeping off a party look like. Realizing how little he knows and how quickly his father hides any imperfections from him, he decides to just leave now while he has the chance. Channa drives him out to the city gates and gives him some food and extra clothes to take with him, as he walks forward into destiny.
Siddhartha’s life for the next few years will change the course of human history, as he learns and meditates on suffering and desire. Once he achieves enlightenment, he begins to teach others his path. His followers begin to organize themselves into orders of monks, as he travels from town to town speaking on what he’s learned. Eventually, his journey brings him back to Kapilavastu, where his father, wife and son are still waiting for him to come home.
This story is beautifully depicted in clean lines and gorgeous touches of blue and copper. Even as a maximalist myself, I love that the Buddha in this book preaches a middle path that rebukes both asceticism as well as consumption for its own sake. The breakdown of the four noble truths and eight-fold path is meaningful — as a committed Muslim I might not agree with everything in the philosophy, but I can certainly appreciate the lessons on behaving justly and mindfully. It’s just hard for me in my present frame of mind to be anything but mad at and sad about a dude who so cruelly abandoned the people he claimed to love. I comfort myself with the knowledge that this is, as it says on the cover, A Fictionalized Tale, and that Siddhartha’s true story is likely lost to us through the mists of time, with only his valuable lessons on Being A Good Person left behind.
Enlightened by Sachi Ediriweera was published September 26 2023 by Atheneum Books For Young Readers and is available from all good booksellers, including