All-American Siddhartha: Whitewashing Buddha’s Childhood
In this post, Andrew Hauner explores the intersection of masculine interiority and whitewashing in the representation of Buddha in Western popular imagination, approaching the theme from an auto-ethnographic perspective.
I still remember the cover of Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha, an American illustrated children’s book about how the prince of “a small kingdom in the north of India” becomes Buddha—despite never receiving from my mother the companion coloring book, which perhaps would have bolstered my visual long-term memory even more. (Landaw: 7) There was something entirely other about a rainbow-haloed boy genuflecting in the middle of vivid and lush nature so as to gently aid a bloodily arrowed swan (fig. 1); Siddhartha’s peacefulness and nonviolence clashed with the representations of boyhood which I knew as a boy in the USA in the 1990s and which at best channeled the composed introspection needed to manage one’s anger back into the violence of martial arts (like in the movie The Karate Kid [fig. 2]). But what also had to have made a lasting impression on me was how Siddhartha’s otherness was offset by his light-colored skin; in the book like so many others he is more or less white. Whatever it was exactly that affected me, the impact the image and the story had me on me as a nine-year-old White boy in America only became something I could re-access and scrutinize in terms of masculine socialization(s) once I’d begun working with children. My exploring especially American intended-for-children depictions of Siddhartha as a quiet child at the intersection of childhood, masculinity and race/ethnicity should be contextualized by my process of identifying and unpacking my own personal, cultural and racial/ethnic assumptions and biases whilst working in early childhood classrooms with students with South Asian backgrounds.
Fig. 1: The covers of Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha from 1996 and 2011 respectively (notice the subtraction of the gore). As a boy I had the 1996 edition (on the left).
Fig. 2: The “karate kid” Daniel LaRusso played by Ralph Macchio in the American blockbuster The Karate Kid (1984).
Reinterpreting my childhood experiences with Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha (1996) as well as the American-European film Little Buddha (1993) led me to South Asian intended-for-children portrayals of Siddhartha’s childhood like the Indian animated movie The Legend of Buddha (2004). My working question, then, is, why is it apparently important to whitewash literary and cinematic depictions of a boy whose quietness is equated not at all with social ineptness, submissiveness or even emasculation but rather with (semi-)divine power, nonconformity and altruism?
If we accept the idea that “we know little or nothing about the childhood and early youth of any of the great founders of the world religions,” as Irving M. Zeitlin notes in his sociological treatment of the foundation of Islam The Historical Muhammad, the Siddhartha–Buddha narrative interface stands out. (Zeitlin: iii) What we know about Siddhartha’s childhood “is not much, but certainly more than we know, for example, about the early years of Jesus Christ,” adds Alexander von Gontard in his book Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality: The Buddha’s Children. (von Gontard: 23) Perhaps the interest in Buddha’s childhood on the part of men is fueled by the fact that Siddhartha’s story features radical dislocation from not only patrilineage but what might be patrilineage in its purest form: royal patrilineage. Depending on which retelling we look at, we might even go as far as saying that Siddhartha does not buy into patriarchy at large—at least not wholesale.
Fig. 3: One of the posters for the Indo-American film Siddhartha from 1972. Due to actress Simi Garewal’s nudity in her role as Kamala in a sex scene with Shashi Kapoor (Siddhartha), Siddhartha “tested the patience of the film censor board in India,” writes the actor, writer and producer Aseem Chhabra, since “[n]o Bollywood stars of the time had posed nude or kissed on screen.” (Chhabra)
When, for example, in the Indian animated children’s film The Legend of Buddha Siddhartha’s father is told by the astrologer that his “son is going to be a great leader of a different kind,” the “Maharaja” is bewildered (fig. 4). The King unequivocally rejects a notion as outlandish as “saving the world from suffering” and, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek scene, instead tells his wife how he will eventually “give him [Siddhartha] an unconquered general and … a beautiful young wife,” pausing to flirtatiously play into Queen Maya’s corroborating expectation of such an obvious, inherited outcome. Later on in his early life, though again it depends on the version, Siddhartha’s behavior itself points in this direction of divergence from how boys will be boys (and girls will be girls). In regard to his potentially gender nonconforming behavior, precisely his quietness is thrown into relief in Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha in a chapter entitled “The Kind Prince”:
“The rest of his [Siddhartha’s] young playmates enjoyed the rough and tumble games of small children, or pretended they were soldiers and fought with one another. But Prince Siddhartha quietly spent most of his time alone.” (Landaw: 18)
Fig. 4: Baby Prince Siddhartha, Queen Maya, King Suddhodana and the Astrologer in the above-cited scene in the Indian animated film The Legend of Buddha (2004).
Boys’ play-based explorations of the “warrior discourse,” as Ellen Jordan terms it in her paper “Fighting Boys and Fantasy Play: The construction of masculinity in the early years of school,” is not inherently problematic. Problems arise when this “one avenue of gender identity … — war, weapon and superhero play” is blocked off to boys, hypothesizes Penny Holland in her book We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years, and when resultantly boys might be “forced to adopt the fall-back position” of “masculinity being defined as ‘not feminine’” and superior. (Holland: 20, 19) War play is not something Siddhartha does not partake in for external reasons against his own will or desire; he himself chooses not to explore war play in his “search to make sense of … [his] gender identity.” (Holland: 19) So even though he does not outrightly default to subordinating femininity, it is difficult to say how Siddhartha’s way of identifying as a boy or young man informed his early views of girls and women. In his penultimate appearance as a boy in Landaw’s Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha, that is, during the pre-marriage process of giving presents to a series of potential wives, the Prince only pays any real attention to the one woman who, “[u]nlike the others” (i.e., stereotypically timid women), “approached the Prince without any shyness.” (Landaw: 29) She is also, of course, “very beautiful.” (Landaw: 29) Interestingly, it is in the ways Siddhartha wins the otherwise objectifying “contest with the other suitors” to get “Princess Yashodhara” that we encounter a perfect balance between “great skill and strength” and “gentleness and kindness.” (Landaw: 36) Yet Siddhartha’s disavowal of sheltered sensual palace life ultimately means ghosting his wife Yashodhara, the only ambiguity he feels being one towards leaving his son: “‘I would like to hold my son in my arms before I depart’,” he says. (Landaw: 73) The spiritual path presents itself as a way to remain within patriarchy as well as not be controlled by certain aspects of it, and so it is whitewashed.
Siddhartha’s quietness—how he expresses an antithesis to one of the most stereotypical boyhood expressions of so-called male aggression: war play—is furthermore correlated here with aloneness, which we ought to explore as a place of access to interiority for both the protagonist and the reader. When I originally read the passage quoted above as a nine-year-old, were my friends playing war without me? And if my own refusal of that and movement instead inward manifested in the form of reading a book to myself, what is the singular formulation of Siddhartha’s alternatively masculine quiet alone time, if not book-worminess? This scene in “The Kind Prince” chapter is preceded by an explanation of how boy Siddhartha has learned all there is to learn within an exceptionally short period of time. Over the course of Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha (as well as other versions, for that matter), we never encounter Siddhartha studying anything written. Moreover, he will realize that what he is seeking to learn cannot be learned from others, whether directly or indirectly. In fact, Siddhartha in most versions of the legend is born not that quiet at all insofar that speaking is one of the very first things he does; already as a newborn he is orally proficient enough to pronounce—on his own, without the help of others, especially adults—his supremely special place in the world and in history. Siddhartha’s linguistic individuation is not predicated on a language intersubjectively shared with his mother or mother-figure(s), let alone his father. Though his interiority does end up inextricably linked with the interiority of others, it is a priori extrasymbolic and therefore worlds away from the reader’s interiority facilitated by literary or cinematic communication.
This diametrical difference in accessing interiority becomes problematic once we are supposed to accept and believe that part of the fiction, part of the art is patriarchy-reinforcing whitewashing. In the film Little Buddha Siddhartha’s skin color is not whitened; the film is an instance of whitewashing insofar as the historical-legendary life of Siddhartha is made to parallel the fictional life of a White boy in America—nine-year-old Jesse Conrad, who Tibetan monks believe to be “the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama,” as Janet Maslin put it in her 1994 review “All-American Boy Who May Be a Buddha.” (Maslin) The fabrication of parallel and correspondence gets set into motion after Jesse begins reading—not alone, but rather out loud in his mother’s presence—the book the monks have given to him as a gift: Little Buddha: The Story of Prince Siddhartha. Jesse can easily be read as believed to be the reincarnation of Buddha himself (fig. 5).
Fig. 5: The all-American boy Jesse and universal Siddhartha (played by Keanu Reeves) beneath the Bodhi tree in the film Little Buddha (1993).
Although the movie pushes geographic and national boundaries, it is simply a given that the intercultural reincarnation candidate is a boy, not a girl. The movie, written by two White male screenwriters, was rated by the American Motion Picture Association as PG (parental guidance) perhaps due to the marked showing of baby Siddhartha’s penis and testicles at his birth. The fruit of Queen Maya’s immaculate conception is a boy, not a girl. But in this realm of endless fictional possibility, the question, why isn’t the White candidate a girl?, becomes all the more valid and pressing, especially since one of the two non-foreigner candidates is a girl.
The possibility of an alternative masculine socialization that generates interiority is predicated on whitewashing because it must tap into something deeply superficial and yet privileged that Michael Kimmel observes and is often quoted in his book Manhood in America: A Cultural History: “American manhood became less and less about an inner sense of self, and more and more about a possession that needed to be acquired.” (Kimmel: ix) This trend toward void-filling appropriations of identity predates the era of mass media, in which it finds its niche. The White American boys like me, who saw this movie in the 1990s, probably grew up with cable television and dialup internet, the optimal middle-class tools for creating positive feedback loops of stereotyped models of gender and race. If as a boy I learned something different about masculine interiority from Little Buddha’s multiply whitewashed version of Siddhartha’s story, it was hallow interiority, concealable emptiness, vanity needful of a lying mirror.
From an American perspective, the whitewashing—whether representational (whitening Siddhartha’s presumed skin color) or fictional (having a lama reincarnate in the USA)—appears to be motivated by a need to acquire, however transactionally or, better yet, epistemically violently (to employ a term of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s), that which is otherwise locally lacking. Though I certainly cannot speak for the perspective from the other side, the logic behind whitening the skin of the characters of the story of Siddhartha seems to be that of reinforcing the value of the alternative Siddhartha presents to stereotypical masculine socialization by viewing it as a way to navigate white-supremacist ideologies. The non-violence of Siddhartha, as well as of Jesse, runs contrary to the typical and all-too-expected ways White boys are depicted in American children’s movies; even inherently peaceful White boy protagonists engage in at least one adventurous and honorable yet violent and gory fight (like Macaulay Culkin as Richard Tyler, a timid 10-year-old boy who gets interested in books, of all things, in The Pagemaster ). But if White American boys supposedly need the model of quiet and peaceful Siddhartha that much, as it seems they always have according to the history of its whitewashing, can their re-adaptation of this interiority serve a purpose beyond itself?
 My mother’s own interest in Buddhism made the story all the more important to me.  There seems to exist no review of Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha by Jonathan Landaw, first published in 1984, from the perspective of children’s literature. The widely available book was, however, praised by the magazine “Tricycle: The Buddhist Review” in the following way: “The early life of the Indian prince is presented with enough simplicity that a young reader has no trouble identifying with a child who lived long ago and far away.” (Stewart) Similarly keen on the universality of the book’s portrayal of Siddhartha, the annotated bibliography The Indian Subcontinent in Literature for Children and Young Adults (from 1991) states the “story indicates that the myth can be repeated by anyone who wants to attain peace and understanding.” (Khorana: 317)  Little Buddha, a 1993 co-production between Italy, France and the United Kingdom, was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and features Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger and Ying Ruocheng. The Legend of Buddha, a 2004 Indian animated film, was directed by Shamboo Falke and stars the voices of Dwayne Tan and Bridgit Mendler; it exists in both English and Hindi versions.  Navigating this ambiguity characterizes Hermann Hesse’s Western-canonical Siddhartha featuring Siddhartha’s materialistic-sensual experiences with the courtesan Kamala. The book forms the basis of the 1972 Indo-American film Siddhartha, which, like the 1925 Indian silent re-adaptation of Sir Edwin Arnold’s book The Light of Asia entitled Prem Sanyas, features Indian actors performing what was originally a Western adaptation (fig. 3).  In the film Little Buddha Siddhartha is played by a non-Indian actor, the American actor Keanu Reeves, who modulates his voice to have an accent and whose skin seems to have been darkened for the role.
Chhabra, Aseem. “Siddhartha, a lost tale.” rediff movies, 21 Sep. 2002,
Holland, Penny. We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years. Open University Press, 2003.
Jordan, Ellen. “Fighting boys and fantasy play: the construction of masculinity in the early years of school.” Gender and Education 7.1 (1995): 69-86.
Khorana, Meena. The Indian Subcontinent in Literature for Children and Young Adults: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Books. Greenwood Press, 1991.
Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. Free, 1996.
Landaw, Jonathan. Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha. Illustrated by Janet Brooke, Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Little Buddha. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, performances by Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger, and Ying Ruocheng, Recorded Picture Company & Ciby 2000, 1993.
Maslin, Janet. “All-American Boy Who May Be a Buddha.” The New York Times, 25 May. 1994, nytimes.com/1994/05/25/movies/all-american-boy-who-may-be-a-buddha.html.
Siddhartha. Directed by Conrad Books, performances by Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal, and Romesh Sharma, Columbia Pictures, 1972.
Stewart, Whitney. “Books for Children.” Tricycle, 30 Dec. 2015, tricycle.org/magazine/books-children.
The Legend of Buddha. Directed by Shamboo Falke, performances by Dwayne Tan and Bridgit Mendler, Pentamedia Graphics, 2004.
The Pagemaster. Directed by Joe Johnston & Maurice Hunt, performances by Macaulay Culkin,
Christopher Lloyd, Whoopi Goldberg, and Patrick Stewart, Turner Pictures & Hanna-Barbera, 1994.
Zeitlin, Irving M. The Historical Muhammad. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Andrew Hauner is an early childhood educator and arts-based researcher in New York City interested in creativity as a social and educational justice issue. Website: https://andrewhauner.com