I was referred to the book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho by another blogger recently. Since then I have read it in about 2 days, and have referred others to it, and quoted it on a couple of occasions. It spoke to me on a deep level as a Hindu. I will try to explain how and why without spoiling anything for you if you haven’t read it.
If you have thought of reading it but are not particularly in favor of a book perpetuating Eastern themes, I would strongly urge you to give this book a read, as the book is made up of universal themes which can provide inspiration to all, which is what has made it so appealing to the public in general for over 20 years.
The overall theme of the book speaks of dharma, which Coelho refers to as “following one’s Personal Legend.” He says that there are certain omens we encounter along the way to lead us to the fulfillment of this “Personal Legend” and that “the Universe” “conspires” to help us fulfill it. Though I am not in favor of the use of the phrase “The Universe” when discussing metaphysical forces, i.e. “God”, I find it true that karma is unbiased (not benevolent or malevolent) but God gives us Grace, offers us a way off of the Wheel of Samsara, through his messengers. And I assume doing so is much more a lucid exercise when following one’s dharma.
The concept of Atman and Brahman have found their way into the book in the guise of “The Soul of the World” and “The Soul of God”. Through meditating deeply on the Soul of the World the boy was able to see that the Soul of God was the same as his own soul, and through such deep revelation he was able to do great deeds which I will not reveal here. But I will say this seems to be the same divine consciousness that Krishna speaks of in the Bhagavad-Gita. Anyone who can “penentrate to the Soul of the World” is considered a great seer in “The Alchemist.”
There are several references to karma yoga, or action. Catholics would call this penance, I suppose. The boy in the story is advised in a couple of places on the value of action. And, as a matter of fact, all of the people who he meets along the way (the king, the crystal vendor, the alchemist) appear to be different manifestations of the same truth the help remind him of his goal along the way. They are his personal gurus on one level, but more like the avatars of God who appear on earth from time to time “when dharma is at its lowest point, according to the Bhagavad-Gita. The king in “The Alchemist” even says “I am always nearby when someone wants to realize their Personal Legend.”
Maya, the delusive force that keeps an individual soul tied to the material world is one of the main explanations for “why we are here” in the Hindu worldview. Being enamored by the things “of the world.” Coelho writes “The wise men understood that the natural world is only an image, and a copy of paradise.” He soon follows this with “God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.” In this small segment, Coelho describes succinctly the function of Maya.
But sometimes following your dharma for this particular lifetime involves chasing something “of this world.” and that is the “treasure” the boy in the story sets off in search of. In the book the search for the treasure is accompanied by an allusion to the Biblical verse “wherever your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” But to me it showed that we can find our path in life by listening to our “inner voice”, the “voice of the heart” which is the Voice of God, the Nearest of the Near. The desert I believe is the quieted mind during meditation. In the book, the boy has a conversation with his heart, and the heart tells him that everyone has a “Legend” (dharma) but that the heart rarely speaks to people about it anymore because they are not listening. This, whether Coelho intended it or not, is a very good interpretation of the Kali Yuga, the stage in the world’s cycles when dharma is at its lowest.
He speaks of “the gods” not having desires because they have no “Personal Legend”. In Hindu scripture you will find anyone who has reached Mahasamadhi, or Mukti, final freedom from the body, has no karmic debts, nothing keeping him tied to the material world, and no desires connected to the ego.
And one of the most poignant truths revealed in this book is that “love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.” Many cannot understand the concept of love without attachment. If you love someone, set them free, all that. Even some younger Hindus at my temple struggle with that concept. And the boy in “The Alchemist” struggles with it as well. But Coelho expounds on the idea fluently. Detachment seems to be a theme that runs through the story as at one point a camel driver tells the boy “If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You’ll see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival…” This seems to parallel Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna about why he must fight.
Finally, Coelho seems to quote the Bhagavad-Gita directly when he writes “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it is our life or our possessions or property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”
Coelho is a devoted Catholic, though his outlook comes from a decidedly more mystical perspective than any Catholic I have ever known.