This season's books of a religious nature together form a curious assortment of guides to that eternal and boundless realm, the religious imagination. From East and West, on heaven and hell, some fit for coffee tables, others for pockets, these tomes seem intent on revealing how our next-door neighbors and enemies, our ancestors and other predecessors visualize and articulate our mutual theological fascinations.
THE LIFE OF THE BUDDHA by Patricia Herbert ( Pomegranate Art Books: $25; 96 pp. ) is reproduced from two 19th-Century Burmese parabaik , or folding books. This Teravadan, "large wheel" (as opposed to Mahayanan, "small wheel") version of Buddha's life is told in colorful panels accompanied by a workaday English translation of the Burmese text.
The book opens with description of several former lives led by the Buddha before his mother. Queen Mahamaya "having carried the future Buddha in her womb for ten months as smoothly as oil in a monk's bowl" actually gives birth to him in a grove of flowering sala trees. The story is familiar, with Burmese embellishment; the sheltered young prince Siddhattha (Burmese for Siddhartha), after his first glimpses of death and suffering, leaves his happy home, relinquishing even his horse, who dies of grief. Siddhattha attains enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and spends the rest of his days meditating, teaching and working miracles. Panels show him befriending serpents, staying dry in a deluge, turning his enemy's weapons into flowers, reigning over kneeling elephants. At 80, having ensured the continuance of the Sasana (Buddhist faith), he dies in a sala grove with the words, "Everything is change; strive on without delay." Since events are not always depicted in the \o7 parabaik\f7 in any discernible order, a helpful appendix guides the reader panel-by-panel through the visual narrative.
Editors of another lavishly illustrated life story will tell you that "The greatest life ever lived" belonged to a different itinerant sage. THE STORY OF JESUS (\o7 Reader's Digest Association: $33; 384 pp.\f7 ) breaks down the Jesus myth into various chapters and lavishly illustrates each using examples lifted from 2,000 years of Christian art. The text consists of biblical excerpts, fictionalized accounts of Jesus' life, poems and essays from a diverse group of writers including Martin Luther, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Gandhi. Ostensibly a book for believers, in which contemporary biblical scholarship is largely overlooked, "The Story of Jesus" is a fascinating testament to the way Western culture and gifted individuals have imagined the same events over the past 2,000 years.
Throughout the Middle Ages, for example, Joseph is persistently portrayed as an older gentleman--someone, presumably, who wouldn't be so invested in the paternity of his young wife's child. The image of Jesus also shifts with the time: Fra Angelico saw him as corpulent, commanding, blond; Caravaggio paints him slim, dark, young, intensely calm. Spicing the stew of well-known masterpieces are lesser known works of lively imagination: An early Egyptian Christian text illustration depicts a modest, naked Jesus being baptized among curious fish and towel-bearing angels. Judas' suicide, as shown on a 16th-Century painted stained glass panel, has a spotted devil devouring the betrayer's soul as it emerges--in the form of an infant--from the dead man's belly.
Another sumptuous coffee-table book, also from Reader's Digest, recounts not only the stories of Buddha and Jesus, but also Confucius, Lao-tse, Moses, Muhammad and myriad other spiritual giants. THE WORLD'S RELIGIONS (\o7 Reader's Digest Association: $35; 220 pp.\f7 ) is a fascinating, helpful encyclopedia of religion's global multiculturalism. Maps, good reproductions, photographs, and sidebars illustrate an even-handed, intelligent text that describes beliefs, doctrines, rituals, sacred writings and history of all the world's major religious systems. The supporting details are irresistible. Those stories about the Buddha's former lives? They're called \o7 Jataka\f7 . What did Mark Twain call the Taj Majal? (A "soaring bubble of marble.") What exactly are Scientologists, Hutterites, Swaminarayanans? Check the "Micropedia," a listing of the more significant movements, sects and philosophies to have broken off from mainstream religions.
Those who would rather take their education in world religions more piecemeal and in smaller--\o7 much\f7 smaller--doses, might enjoy the Little Wisdom Library's offerings on Eastern Wisdom which include TAO: To Know and Not Be Knowing (\o7 Chronicle Books: $9.95; 59 pp.\f7 ) and ZEN: The Reason of Unreason (\o7 Chronicle Books: $9.95; 57 pp.\f7 ) among others. These slim, beguiling, art-filled, hand-sized volumes contain just enough introductory material on each of these religions to whet the appetite: luckily, suggestions for further reading are appended.