Creation: A Novel by Gore Vidal , Doubleday, 592 pages
Sometime in the 5th century BCE, the Persian Emperor Darius summons Cyrus Spitama, a friend of his son Xerxes, and grandson of Zoroaster and commands him to be his envoy to India. At that time Persia was the superpower in the world and Darius had an empire extending from Turkey in the West to Bactria in the East.
The Greek Wars were going on and the Persian Emperor needed money to pay for the work he was doing in Persepolis and for the defense of the northern frontier. Darius wanted Cyrus to make trade alliances, analyze the nature of Indian states and make plans to add all of India to the Persian empire. He had heard that India had lot of iron and wanted to control the mines to make his fortune. He also had got a message from King Bimbisara of Magadha for a trade alliance.
Thus Cyrus starts his journey on a ship from the delta of Tigris and Euphrates to the port of Patalene (somewhere in present day Sindh). Cyrus was a good choice as the ambassador for he knew Mathematics and had the ability to learn new languages. He was a seven year old child in Bactria with Zoroaster when Turanians murdered the founder of Zoroastrianism. Since Darius was a follower of Zoroastrianism, Cyrus was treated with respect in his palace.
Besides having an interest in traveling, Cyrus was also concerned about the moment of creation. According to Zoroaster, the Wise Lord created an evil twin Ahriman. Once people are dead, the soul would cross the bridge of the redeemer and those who have followed Truth would go to the house of good mind and happiness and those who followed Ahriman would go to the house of Lie and suffer torment. The question then was why did the Wise Lord create evil? Why didn’t he create a blissful world full of just happiness? Cyrus meets some very interesting personalities of the Axial age like, Buddha, Mahavira, Gosala, and Confucius to debate these issues.
Cyrus passes through Mathura where he meets Gosala, a leader of a group of Ajivikas. Gosala tells him that living a virtuous life does not speed up freedom from rebirths and one has to live the cycle of life from beginning to end. Cyrus moves to Varanasi where he meets Mahavira (a short thick man with a high compelling voice). According to him the cycles of creation ends and begins again and since this goes on without any ending, it has no beginning as well. Mahavira and Gosala had been like brothers and later they parted ways.
Passing through the kingdom of Koshala which was under King Pasenadi, Cyrus reaches Magadha and meets King Bimbisara in the capital city of Rajagriha. After forging a trade alliance he goes to Shravasthi, the capital of Koshala and meets Pasenadi, who had turned Buddhist and is often seen in the company of Sariputta, one of Buddha’s disciples. In Sravasthi, Cyrus meets the seventy two year old Buddha who tells him that no one can know for sure if his view of creation is right or wrong. The Buddha also explains through parables that the specifics of creation are immaterial and the ultimate human task is to dematerialize itself.
At Sravasthi, Cyrus also meets Fan Ch’ih, a man from Cathay (as China was known) who had come to learn from Buddha. Together they go back to Persia, where he tries to interest the emperor in going East. But due to the influence of the traitors from Athens, Darius was always focused on attacking Greece. Cyrus gets another assignment, to find a trade route to Cathay. There he ends up as the slave of a duke and after lot of adventures, ends up with Confucius.
The book starts with an old and blind Cyrus Spitama narrating all these wonderful tales of his life to one of his relatives (after dismissing Herodotus as self-styled historian who did not know what he was talking about). The canvas of this novel is quite large. Gore Vidal not only goes in depth with minute details of dresses, food, city layouts and personal behavior, but also introduces us to various schools of thought in the East through discussions with some great people of the Axial age.
One of the developments of the Axial age was the Upanishads and Gore Vidal does not mention any Hindu philosophy in this novel. Even though Cyrus meets all these leaders of thought, the discussions with them are short and highly philosophical. Nowhere do we see him trying to learn spiritual techniques or going deep into practice. The India of Gore Vidal is one of Aryans and Dravidians and he does not give a politically correct picture of the land as well. He witnesses the Rajasuya of Bimbisara and the act of the queen having sex with the horse at the end. There are images of people eating fried lizards in the market and old princes fondling young girls.
The novel drags for a while in between, especially on his trip back to Persia from India and during his stay in Cathay as Vidal spends lot of time in setting the atmosphere and explaining the land and their customs. You get so immersed in that era and get to know the people well that when time comes to say good bye to them, you feel a certain sadness. After escaping from Cathay, saying bye to Confucius, Cyrus reaches Magadha as a middle aged man. He meets his wife Ambalika who tells him that she wishes to marry someone else and stay in Magadha. The Buddha had died a few years ago, so had Mahavira. His father-in-law, the son of Bimbisara, Ajathashatru was on a mission to conquer Avanti and the Licchavi republics.
Finally Cyrus gets back to Persia during the eighth year of the reign of Xerxes where he lives till his end (Once he appoints an ugly looking mason named Socrates to fix his wall). When he began his travels as a good Zoroastrian, he thought he had all the answers of creation. His travels in the East exposes him to various schools of thought. Pondering over them in his final days Cyrus concludes that they were all wrong. He believes that everything starts somewhere and ends somewhere. According to the Eastern philosophy, life is not a line, but a circle. If you ask who drew the circle, they don’t know and they don’t care.
If you wanted to be transported to the time of Buddha, Mahavira and Confucius and have interest in ancient history with a bit of spirituality, this is the perfect book for you.