The Story of the Indian Bardo behind George Saunders’ Booker Winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

Saunders' experimental novel winning the prize opens up many new possibilities. Now, Indian Anglophone authors might finally think of adapting concepts from the vast philosophical traditions of the East.

An ethnic Tibetan woman walks behind prayer wheels at the Larung Wuming Buddhist Institute. Credit: Reuters

An ethnic Tibetan woman walks behind prayer wheels at the Larung Wuming Buddhist Institute. Credit: Reuters

‘Buddhist-inspired ghost story set during the American Civil War’. This is how Anthony Cummins described George Saunders’ Man Booker Prize Winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo – ‘the hotly anticipated and then rapturously received first novel from an American heavyweight who made his name over two decades with his comic, dystopian short stories.’

Saunders – who said the novel had been in his heart for 20 years and that he had previously tried writing it ‘a couple of times and it didn’t work’ – was the bookies favourite. The judges praised the ‘utterly original’ work and said it was ‘deeply moving’.

BBC’s arts correspondent Rebecca Jones commented:

‘This is initially a rather off-putting book – it’s got a rather strange title and when you read the first few pages, you don’t really know what’s going on.’

The ‘strange title’ is because of the word ‘bardo’. What is bardo, where did it come from and how did it enter our consciousness?

The Bardo Thodol

The Bardo Thodol is a classic work of Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet it is known as ‘The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between’. The ‘in the between’, the intermediate state – after what we commonly understand as ‘death’ – is called the bardo.

In Sanskrit bardo is antarabhava – transitional state, in-between state and luminal state of the consciousness of the karmic souls after leaving a human body and before taking another form or getting liberated.

The Bardo Thodol is from a larger corpus of teachings which fall under Nyingma literature – the Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones – revealed by Karma Lingpa. I say revealed, because the Tibetans believe that the text was originally composed by Padma Sambhava and was revealed by Karma Lingpa (1326 –1386).

Padma Sambhava – whose status in Tibetan Buddhism is only next to Sakyamuni Buddha – is known to have left many ‘hidden treasures’/wisdom texts which are meant to be discovered and revealed by chosen people – the ‘tertons’ – when the time is right. The ‘hidden-treasures’ tradition is known as ‘Terma’ – a key concept in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism.  There is a corpus of Tibetan texts which come under Terma teachings and they have been translated in multiple languages.

Going by the Tibetan tradition, one has to credit Padma Sambhava (‘Lotus-Born’) – also known as Guru Rinpoche – for introducing the word bardo into the vocabulary of humanity via Karma Lingpa.

Bardo Thodol

Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Credit: Google ebook

Padma Sambhava – the founder of Vajrayana: an enigmatic school of the esoteric Tantric Buddhism – was the 8th century saint who came to be venerated as the ‘second Buddha’ – especially across Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and the Himalayan states of India.

So, bardo is a word coined by a Buddhist, that has entered the world via Tibet.

There are two kinds of history – real history and mythological history. The combination of both have led the scholars to locate the birth place of Padma Sambhava – the kingdom of Oddiyana – to swat valley (now in Pakistan) or the present Indian state of Odisha.

It is more probable that Padma Sambhava came from Eastern India, because Vajrayana Buddhism grew in Vanga – present day Bengal. The famous Buddhist masters Asita Dipankara, Tilopa and Naropa – associated with Nalanda University – came from Vanga: the ancient name of Bengal.

For over 700 years, till the early 20th century, the Bardo Thodol remained in Tibet.

Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) was an American anthropologist and writer who pioneered the study of Tibetan Buddhism.

Evans-Wentz accidentally encountered Bardo Thodol in Tibet and was the first person to translate the text into English. He published the translation in 1927 – Bardo Thodol came to be known as The Tibetan Book of The Dead.

The cult status of The Tibetan Book of The Dead grew in the 1960s when Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert co-authored a book called The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of The Dead.

The Tibetan Book of The Dead has never been out of print ever since.

Now in 2017, the Man Booker Prize to Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo has brought the word bardo into greater focus.

I am yet to read Saunders’ novel that adapts the bardo to form his historical narrative based upon an intimate issue: the death of Abraham Lincoln’s child.

The prize to an experimental novel that taps into a ‘foreign’ cultural idea – of the bardo – opens up many new possibilities. Indian Anglophone authors might finally think of adapting ideas and concepts from the vast philosophical and spiritual traditions of the East, to frame their works in the future, and won’t wait for the Western Anglophone authors to show the way.

Till now, the overwhelming majority of the Anglophone Indian literary authors have avoided taking inspiration from the corpus of philosophical and spiritual literature of India. Primarily, the focus has been in the socio-political sphere, memoirs, immigration and history.

George Saunders, author of 'Lincoln in the Bardo', poses for photographers after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 in London, Britain, October 17, 2017. Credit: Reuters

George Saunders, author of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, poses for photographers after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 in London, Britain, October 17, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Jorge Luis Borges delved into Indian philosophical texts – especially Buddhism – and wove various ideas into his works. Carlos Fuentes based his magnum opus Terra Nostra on reincarnation. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha told the story of the spiritual journey of a person during the time of Sakyamuni Buddha. Franz Kafka was influenced by Eastern spirituality – especially Taoism. T.S. Eliot employed allusions from Buddhism and Upanishads in The Wasteland. There are many such examples from Henry David Thoreau to W.H. Auden. But I cannot name a single well known Indian Anglophone author who has adapted ideas and concepts from Indian philosophy.

To paraphrase Amartya Sen, who once said that the tendency of the Anglophone Indians to ignore the philosophical works of India, is a ‘mistake’.

There is a political dimension to this as well. In the general absence of the liberal and the progressive intellectuals and authors delving into our tradition – in religion, science, philosophy and mysticism – the right wing is trying to fill the vacuum and making a hash of it.

To give an example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark about Ganesha and plastic surgery is well known. I don’t know of anyone from the liberal and progressive circles who hasn’t made jokes out of that remark. But there was no one to point out that Sushruta Samhita is an ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery that is a pioneering work of human civilisation. It includes chapters describing surgical training, instruments and procedures.

Sushruta is already acknowledged as the ‘father of plastic surgery’ and the contribution of India to that field can be rightfully highlighted.

Ideally, ignorance – stemming from fantastical exaggeration and also neglect – needs to be avoided.

We also cannot allow the right wing – that portrays itself as the defender of all things Hindu/Indian – to muddle truths with exaggerations, falsities and distortions to serve their political agenda.

There is an urgent need for the liberal and the progressives of the Indian Anglosphere to engage with our ‘knowledge heritage’ in the time of right wing theocratic nationalism.

I have two copies of the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead – the one translated by Evans-Wentz and a latter translation by Robert Thurman, that includes a foreword by Dalai Lama.

For those who are intrigued and interested, I can recommend the two translations, for a deeper understanding of the bardo.

Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of Anatomy of Life. He is one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine. He lives in Kolkata.