Bhava Tharanaya- Reviewed after 37 years
Posted on January 4th, 2011

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

 Bhava Tharanaya was the final novel written by Martin Wickramasinghe and published in 1975 (approximately one year before his death).   In Bhava Tharanaya, Wickramasinghe depicts the life of Prince Siddhartha predominantly from birth to the Enlightenment. Martin Wickramasinghe illustrates the young life of the Indian prince in historical, cultural and pragmatic terms.

 The literary genius Martin Wickramasinghe had a profound knowledge in Buddhist philosophy. He wrote profusely on Buddhism. His books  on Buddhism such as Budu Samaya Ha Samaja Darshanaya (Buddhism and Social Philosophy) published in 1948 , Bana atha Sahityaya (Buddhist Folk Literature) published in 1955, Bhavakarma Vikashaya (Unorthodox Interpretation of Buddhist Philosophy) 1967 , Bauddha Darshanaya Ha Margaya (Buddhist Philosophy and the Way)1968, Nivan Muhunuvara Ha Bamunu Dittiya (Face or Nirvana and Brahmin Dogma)  in 1972 Manava Vidyava Ha Bauddha Vignana Vadaya (Arthropology and Buddhist Ideology) published in 1974  testify the enormous knowledge that he possessed.  Indeed, he was a scholar who had an analytical mind. His creativity was outstanding. 

 After publishing, Bhava Tharanaya Martin Wickramasinghe had to face huge criticism. Many people condemned him stating that Bhava Tharanaya was an insult to Buddhism. The journalist and the literary critic Sisira Kumara Manikyarachi attacked Wickramasinghe with degrading words. Sisira Kumara Manikyarachi accused Wickramasinghe that he wrote Bhava Tharanaya to humiliate Buddhism and with a hidden motive to achieve the Lenin Peace Award. Manikyarachi even used a derogatory term – old  Kevattaya (a skeptical and cunning character in Jathaka Stories) to refer to Martin Wickramasinghe. Wickramasinghe had to face a public protest.  He was the  Salman Rushdie of 1975 (fortunately without a fatwa type of  death penalty he faced defamation. But it was a stressful period for Wicramasinghe and he was preparing to write another book to disprove all these accusations, but he could not finish it due to his biological death.  )

 Although Martin Wickramasinghe’s creativity was highly pronounced in his final novel Bhava Tharanaya many readers misunderstood it. Regrettably, even 36 years after the publication of this great novel still there is no constructive debate on Bhava Tharanaya.

 Bhava Tharanaya, primarily narrates the adolescent and young life of Prince Siddhartha who was born about 563 BC in India. Prince Siddhartha had extravagant comforts in his life given by his father King Suddhodana. He belonged to a warrior clan and Prince Siddhartha had training in combat. He was an excellent marksman, as well as an outstanding swordsman. He was a fully-fledged warrior like his father.  He enjoyed his lavish life in three beautiful palaces; surrounded by pretty women and musicians he had all the earthly pleasures. But he realized the emptiness associated with it.  Prince Siddhartha renounced his wealth, comforts and left his mundane life in search of spiritual truth.

 As Wickramasinghe described in the novel Prince Siddhartha wanted to explore the society. He secretly visited theaters, marketplaces, cemeteries, associating common people and exchanging ideas.  He met people from all walks of life.  He saw the disparity between the rich and poor. He saw the injustices of his own society. How people were made to suffer in the cast system. Prince Siddhartha decided to launch a social revolution by addressing the spiritual dimension.

 The novel Bhava Tharanaya shows the emotional conflict that Prince Siddhartha encountered in the verge of renunciation. He had all the luxuries without any emotional soreness. The material wealth was overflowing. He had a loving wife Princess Yasodara. However, existential emptiness affected him deeply.  By seeing a weak old man, a sick man, and then a corpse, he realized the unavoidable realities of life.  He wanted to find the answers to human suffering. Prince Siddhartha decided to leave the palace,   his wife Princess Yasodara , and the newly born son Rahula in search of universal truth.

 In Bhava Tharanaya, the character of Prince Siddhartha was depicted as a human rather than a demigod. This was something unusual compared to traditional literary work on Buddha and his life. Most of these books exaggerated the human qualities of the Lord Buddha and showed him as a person with superpowers. Wherever Buddha walked, the flowers emerged from the ground. He was always surrounded by gods and the Brahma.  But  Bhava Tharanaya  did not have these descriptions. It was based on realism. For some people it was a blasphemy and in their shortsighted view, Bhava Tharanayawas was an offensive novel. 

 The Lord Buddha mentioned that he was a human and not an omnipotent god or a savior. In spiritual terms, the Buddha was a man who had achieved a supreme position yet he was a human being.

 After attaining, the Enlightenment Buddha went to Isipathana to meet    the five hermits who helped him when he was searching for the truth. On his way, he met a loner named Upaka. Upaka did not see any extraordinary features in Buddha except his calm attitude. This shows that the Buddha was more human. Similarly, when King Pukkusathi accidentally met Buddha in a stable the king could not recognize the Buddha. He recognized Buddha after having a brainstorming philosophical discussion with him. To make realize the phenomenon of aging and impermanence, in his old age  the Buddha tells Ven Ananda that his body is now like an old cart,  that is feeble and breakable. These examples clearly show us the human part of the Buddha. He was not an extraordinary god like character that was often described in popular Buddhist literature. What Buddha always emphasized was not his physical qualities but the depth of his philosophy.

 Martin Wickramasinghe  ‘s attempt was to show the inner spiritual incongruity of a young Prince who was trapped between two goals. If he stayed, he could have been an Emperor, if he renounced the earthly pleasures he could reach his spiritual objective.   The young Prince was shifting between these two goals and his father and other relatives took maximum effort to keep him in the palace.  Prince Siddhartha realized the emptiness of the worldly pleasures and he made up his mind to renounce his wealth and glory. He left the palace and searched the spiritual truth for six years. Finally, he found the universal truth. Prince Siddhartha attained   Enlightenment.

 In Bahva Tharanaya novel, Martin Wickramasinghe wanted to show the spiritual journey of a young prince who had wisdom to see and analyze the world, its impermanence and suffering. However, Wickramasinghe  ‘s  s efforts were  lost. The novel was not given its due recognition. Even after 37 years, Bahva Tharanaya remains the least discussed novel of Martin Wickramasinghe.

One Response to “Bhava Tharanaya- Reviewed after 37 years”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Many thanks to Dr Jayatunge for laying emphasis on a very important book in Sinhala literature by the Master of Sinhala literature, Martin Wickremasinghe.
    Indeed, it seems difficult for most people to accept Prince Siddhartha & later the Buddha as a human being. When the Buddha indicated that he was a human being, he was saying that Self Realization or Realization of Truth (Nirvana, God Realization) may be possible by those Seekers who are true and sincere in their Quest, just as he did. He was also stating that, in the end after tasting the world of pleasure, that Self Realization is the ONLY Goal for human endeavor. The Noblest Goal indeed, even if it takes many lifetimes !
    We wish Bhava Tharanaya is translated into multiple languages and perhaps a film & a stage play be made of this wonderful book,

    Please also read Ven. Walpola Rahula’s book “What the Buddha Taught”. Page 37 in the hard cover copy states that the Buddha when asked ‘what is Nirvana ?’, had stated thus :

    “O bhikkus, there is the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned. Were there not the unborn, ungrown, and the unconditioned, there would be no escape for the born, grown and conditioned. Since there is the unborn, ungrown and unconditioned, so there is escape for the born, grown, and conditioned.
    Here the four elements of solidity, fluidity, heat & motion have no place; the notion of length and breadth the subtle and the gross, good and evil name and form are altogether destroyed; neither this world nor the other, nor coming, going or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense objects are to be found”.

    This to me is a scientific description of God or Truth. God/Truth appears to be an other dimensional Matrix, Omnipresent, Omniscient & Omnipotent. Therefore, It must be within each human being and everywhere else too.

    The Buddha said “Truth is within You” and Christ said “the Kingdom of Heaven is within You”. Truth & God must therefore be one and the same thing. Meditation is the Key to Truth or God Realization.
    Dhana, Seela, Bhavana is the way to go. Indeed, the Great Battle is within us all, not outside !

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