Taking Credit for Buddha’s Work

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

Having attention is the brain’s superpower, writes Amishi Jha in her book Peak Mind. Every moment, our mind is bombarded by signals from our sensory inputs. To prevent our brains from being overloaded, the brain filters out the unnecessary noise and keeps our attention on what’s important. Imagine that you are in a coffee shop. People are walking in and out, baristas are taking orders and making coffee while music is playing in the background. In the midst of this, you can focus on the conversation you are having with your friend. If not for our attention superpower, we would be paralyzed by the sheer load of information we have to process and act on.

While it’s a superpower, it’s hard to hold on to your attention. Over the past few years, I’ve squandered countless hours and a fair amount of money on productivity techniques and lifehacks to boost my attention. I have read books like Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, Focus, Atomic Habits, and the Power of Habit. I have learned techniques of using a Pomodoro Timer or using Time Blocking. I have done various productivity courses each having its own philosophy. All these techniques are really good, but they all fail for a simple reason. Attention is fragile. A notification ping on the phone and you drop everything and are scrolling infinitely.

A quick fix, you might think, is to just keep the phone in another room. That way you have outsmarted all the software engineers and psychologists who designed those addictive apps. Now try to focus on a task for 30 minutes. You will fail because your mind will start wandering. It has found an interesting thing from the past or a future activity to plan.

If you cannot hold your attention, the only thing you will achieve is to generate revenue for social media sites. At the same time, if you can better your attention span, you can achieve wonders.

Here is a recent example of someone deep in action with amazing focus.

In Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics 108-83. After the game, Cavaliers’ star Lebron James was asked about a stretch where the Celtics scored seven straight points. “What happened?” James repeated back to the reporter. He paused, and it seemed like he might dismiss the question, but then, “the first possession, we ran them down all the way to 2 [seconds] on the shot clock. [The Celtics’] Marcus Morris missed a jump shot. He followed it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson. He came off and missed it. They rebounded it. We came back on the defensive end, and we got a stop. They took it out on the sideline. Jason Tatum took it out, threw it to Marcus Smart in the short corner, he made a three. We come down, miss another shot. And then Tatum came down and went ninety-four feet, did a Eurostep and made a right-hand layup. [We called a] timeout.” 

It’s not just basketball. It works for anything you want to master. The challenge is in finding a technique that can help improve your attention span.

This is the end of the road for psychologists like Amishi Jha. They are excellent at identifying the problem, running experiments, and documenting the details. They know about various techniques used by successful people. For example, athletes use visualization as mental practice; golfers will practice swings in the mind and these mental rehearsals activate the motor cortex of the brain the way physical movement does.

Psychologists also know why many of the lifehack techniques don’t work. Imagine that you figured that time blocking is a wonderful technique. When you decide to focus for 30 mins on the presentation you are working on, your mind wanders. At this point, you have set goals, done your visualization, and are staying positive. The reason attention still wanders is that you need attention to implement any of these techniques, which is the original problem anyway.

At this point, science has given up. They can’t find a solution to increase your attention. Instead, in a sleight of hand, they offer you a solution – Meditation or Mindfulness or ancient teaching without the attachment of religion. This solution is not something found through the scientific process. It’s just an appropriation of a technique from the ancients.

This is not like when Einstein predicted that gravity can bend light and later experimentalists confirmed it. In this case, Buddha and his predecessors, the rishis of India had already proved that all of this works. These rishis subjected themselves to various techniques and came up with not just one, but many ways to maintain attention. They are the original scientists.

Now the research is simplified. Just prove that works by submitting it to folks in the army, students, firefighters, and whatnot. After running a battery of tests, they find that – hey this stuff works. Papers are produced, books are written and an expensive consulting business is started.

I just picked on Peak Mind because it was the most recent book I read on this topic. There are many others in this genre. They all follow a simple pattern of here is a problem and the answer in Buddhism, but without Buddha and karma and reincarnation. In a recent podcast, many high achievers admitted to practicing various dharmic practices.  Hence it is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness” to corporates, hospitals, and stressed out people.

Swami Vivekananda on why Hindus don’t say “My god is true and yours is not”

Swamiji starts by telling the history of the Middle East and the evolution of religion there. In the world of tribes, each tribe had its own god. If the tribes were allied with each other, they would have a common name like Baal or Moloch. When one tribe conquered another, their king would take over and claim that their god was superior as well. For the Babylonians, Baal-Merodach was superior. For Jews, Moloch-Yahveh was supreme over other Molochs. The supremacy of the gods was decided by humans through battle.

In India too, this issue was there. Here is where we differed because:

the great good fortune of this country and of the world was that there came out in the midst of the din and confusion a voice which declared एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति — “That which exists is One; sages call It by various names.” It is not that Shiva is superior to Vishnu, not that Vishnu is everything and Shiva is nothing, but it is the same one whom you call either Shiva, or Vishnu, or by a hundred other names. The names are different, but it is the same one. The whole history of India you may read in these few words. The whole history has been a repetition in massive language, with tremendous power, of that one central doctrine. It was repeated in the land till it had entered into the blood of the nation, till it began to tingle with every drop of blood that flowed in its veins, till it became one with the life, part and parcel of the material of which it was composed; and thus the land was transmuted into the most wonderful land of toleration, giving the right to welcome the various religions as well as all sects into the old mother-country.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

Due to this concept of oneness is everyone and everything, apparently contradictory ideas can live in harmony. This is the one lesson that India has to offer to the world. This is a concept that missionaries will never understand. They will never understand what Ishta is. The intolerance that they exhibit and the religious persecution around the world are because they don’t have the concept of unity in everything. Swamiji says:

If you go to other countries and ask Mohammedans or people of other religions to build a temple for you, see how they will help. They will instead try to break down your temple and you too if they can. The one great lesson, therefore, that the world wants most, that the world has yet to learn from India, is the idea not only of toleration, but of sympathy.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

We have examples of Kings building temples for Mohammedans and Christians and offering refuge to Jews and Zoroastrians. The differences in our way of worship did not matter.

It is impossible that all difference can cease; it must exist; without variation life must cease. It is this clash, the differentiation of thought that makes for light, for motion, for everything. Differentiation, infinitely contradictory, must remain, but it is not necessary that we should hate each other therefore; it is not necessary therefore that we should fight each other.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

Once Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) told Swami Vivekananda, that Christianity is the only universal religion. Swamiji considered this and responded that Vedanta and Vedanta alone can become the universal religion of man. He made the case with few arguments. One of them was as follows.

Most religions in the world in the world are tied to a founder. The theories and teaching revolve around the founder’s life. The fabric of these religions revolve around the historicity of the founder’s life. Challenge this historicity and the whole edifice crumbles. Remember the ruckus caused by Da Vinci Code which challenged the established narrative about Yeshua. Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels?

What about Hinduism then? Swamiji says (Lectures from Colombo to Almora)

There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

A religion based on the ahistoricity of it’s founders, but having every lasting (sanatana) principles has an advantage.

Therefore if any one or more of these persons in India’s religious history, any one or more of these Incarnations, and any one or more of our prophets proved not to have been historical, it does not injure our religion at all; even then it remains firm as ever, because it is based upon principles, and not upon persons.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

Then what about the faith in various gods that we have? Swamiji again uses the concept of Ishta and explains

Yet as I have said, our religion has ample scope for the authority and influence of persons. There is that most wonderful theory of Ishta which gives you the fullest and the freest choice possible among these great religious personalities. You may take up any one of the prophets or teachers as your guide and the object of your special adoration; you are even allowed to think that he whom you have chosen is the greatest of the prophets, greatest of all the Avatâras; there is no harm in that, but you must keep to a firm background of eternally true principles. The strange fact here is that the power of our Incarnations has been holding good with us only so far as they are illustrations of the principles in the Vedas.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

This is a unique feature of Hinduism and in general about Indian historiography. While comparing Indian and Western history, we find that the lack of personal details. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were. The Indian attitude always has been to preserve the principles as that guides us along the path. In that sense, it does not matter who said it or when they said it. If the principle is important, it will survive and will be passed down generations.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

Ishta – Swami Vivekananda on why Hindu sects don’t quarrel

Street Corner Missionaries

Wherever I go in the world, I see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the roadside with pamphlets in various languages. I have seen this both in United States and Europe. Every year the church sends crores of rupees to India to convert Hindus and Love Jihadis target Hindu girls. To Hindus, who are used to multiple sects living together, multiple darshanas accepted as scripture and being followers of various gurus with radically different styles, this intolerance is an alien concept. Swami Vivekananda, using the concept of Ishta, explains why various sects never quarreled in India.

In a speech given in Jaffna, following his address at the Parliament of Nations, Swamiji noted

“The Shaivite does not say that every Vaishnavite is going to be damned, nor the Vaishnavite that every Shaivite will be damned. The Shaivite says, this is my path, and you have yours; at the end we must come together. They all know that in India. This is the theory of Ishta. It has been recognised in the most ancient times that there are various forms of worshipping God. It is also recognised that different natures require different methods.”

According to Hindu tradition, based on various proportions of sattva, rajas and tamas, we all have different nature. Based on that nature, there are different method of worship and hence what works for you may not work for me. Most of us understand this innately, without understanding the yogic aspects behind this. Swamiji warns that the idea that there is only one way for everyone is “injurious, meaningless, and entirely to be avoided.”

Woe unto the world when everyone is of the same religious opinion and takes to the same path. Then all religions and all thought will be destroyed. Variety is the very soul of life. When it dies out entirely, creation will die.


Swamiji then introduces the Sanskrit word “Ishta”. He calls it my way. Now my way is good for me, but probably not for you. Similarly your way is good for you, but not for me. Missionaries hate this. For them, your way is the highway to hell and my way is the only way. Hence the Hindus have to be converted either by force, by incentives or through educational institutions. They talk of love, but the goal is the destruction of our way of live, because it is different.

You see extreme versions of this even now. A missionary was killed in Andaman on an adventure to convert the natives. They are found in crossfire in war zones. They have served as spies. They show up in hostile countries with the Bible speaking of love. Mother Theresa fooled an entire generation with her story of compassion. Swamiji counters:

Their love does not count for much. How can they preach of love who cannot bean another man to follow a different path from their own? If that is love, what is hatred? We have no quarrel with any religion in the world, whether it teaches men to worship Christ, Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other prophet. “Welcome, my brother,” the Hindu says, “I am going to help you; but you must allow me to follow my way too. That is my Ishta. Your way is very good, no doubt; but it may be dangerous for me. My own experience tells me what food is good for me, and no army of doctors can tell me that.

In India, we have the freedom to worship the formless or a thousand forms., go to temples or perform pujas, do kriya or yoga. But “the moment you quarrel, you are not going Godward, you are going backward, towards the brutes.”


Review: Uri: The Surgical Strike

One of the best scenes in the movie Uri: The Surgical Strike is at the Prime Minister’s meeting to decide how India should react following a Pakistani terrorist attack at Uri killing 19 soldiers. While everyone throws out ideas, Ajit Doval, played by Paresh Rawal, suggests surgical strikes. Then he gives a speech on how this is a new India. — an India that does not remain silent in a moment of crisis and takes the fight to the enemy. He also reminds people not to worry about what US or UN would say and cites the example of what Israel did after Munich.

At the same time, on the Pakistani side, there is no fear of retribution. One character ridicules India, saying they will ban movie actors and singers for a while. Then everything will be back to normal. During the days of the Accidental Prime Minister, the national sport was competitive dossier exchange — a dereliction of generational duty. It appeared as if we had run out of cheeks to show the enemy to hit.

The Prime Minister and Mr. Doval put an end to it. The rest of the movie is a detailed retelling of how a team of Indian army soldiers cross into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and send the Islamic terrorists to party with the 72 virgins. (Incidentally, I noticed that a line on this was present in the trailer, but was removed from the movie in a kind of Nehruvian move). The technical prowess of India is on display – on how ISRO and DRDO ably supported the soldiers. You bear witness to how people who don’t want to see India going tukde, tukde, do whatever sacrifice it takes to make this a Mission: Possible.

Surgical Strikes would have made Navjot Sidhu sad, but this is the India that we all want to see; to move away from the outlandishly cautious to a bold and courageous one; to be the nation where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; to be the nation which has the political courage to order a surgical strike.

This movie is of a new genre, – a contemporary war procedural, with a no-nonsense retelling of actual events. The director had a bold unwillingness to entertain any material unreleated to the core narrative. But it is just not a cold kill-the-enemy movie. The human grief is given equal footing and the emotional intensity is high when the young child of the murdered soldier comes to pay homage to her father and shouts that the sacrificing life is the ultimate dharma. It is hard not to be shaken by that scene and you long for justice. Now, this not the first time in our country’s history that many such children had to go through such trauma. But this is probably the first time that a political leadership had the courage to bring the culprits to justice.

The technical aspects of the movie are absolutely world class. The music and the appropriate silences, intensify the tension. The final sequence is purely edge-of-the-seat stuff that is thrilling and nailbiting. The movie would have fallen flat if not for the brilliant performance of Vicky Kaushal who is intense throughout the movie. It is also rare to see such perfection from a first time director and kudos to Aditya Dhar for making this movie. If you asked me, “How was the josh, after watching the movie?”, I would say “Very high sir!”

The only hope is that an India, stretched by such boldness, will never go back to its old dimensions.

Brahma and Indra in Japan

Indra and Brahma, 8th century Japan, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Indra and Brahma, 8th century Japan, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Buddhism reached Japan in the 5th century when the monarch of the Korean kingdom of Baekje sent a mission with gifts, image of Buddha and sacred objects. The arrival of Buddhism disrupted the existing system of kami worship and eventually prevailed. Today, there are thirteen schools of Buddhism, 80,000 temples and 150,000 monks. Indra and Brahma reached Japan with the spread of Buddhism. They are part of the Buddhist world and Buddha is often represented with Indra and Brahma flanking him. There is also another representation of Buddha descending from Indra’s heaven.

These two statues are made using hollow dry lacquer and come from the Nara period (710 – 794 CE). Brahma is wearing a Chinese style robe, while Indra wears a monk’s robe over Chinese style breastplates as the protector of Buddha.

These two statues were created for the Kofukuji Buddhist temple in Nara Japan in the 8th century. Empress Komyo sponsored the construction. A fire in 1180 CE destroyed the Golden Hall where they were placed, but these statues survived. In 1906, the temple was in dire financial situation and such treasures were sold to raise funds. Eventually, it ended up in an American museum.

European Origins of Manifest Destiny

Across The Continent, an 1868 lithograph illustrating the westward expansion of white settlers By Currier & Ives (publisher).
Across The Continent, an 1868 lithograph illustrating the westward expansion of white settlers By Currier & Ives (publisher). James Merritt Ives & Fanny Palmer (artists). – (via Wikipedia)

In the 19th century, American settlers moved West grabbing frontier lands. The term Manifest Destiny was coined, which claimed special virtues for American people. It was imperative that they fulfill this essential duty. The United States used muscle power to deprive the indigenous people of their land. Once the natives were conquered, this theory was applied to rest of the world and soon Puerto Rico, Cuba and Philippines came under American control, apparently to rescue them from Spanish tyranny. The Native Americans lost their land, traditions, and religion. They watched helplessly as a flood of settlers flocked to their land.
This asuric behavior had its origin from the crusades in the 11th century. During that time, there was a major movement of European population driven by religious fervor. They figured out how to move long distances, take control, and displace existing population. This process took a break as the continent experienced Black Death. Till the Middle Ages, Europe became an insignificant entity on the world stage with nothing of value to offer to the world. Then they embarked on a series of voyages of discovery and came upon plundering as a nation-building option.

The 20th episode of Tides of History goes into detail about this period. Much before the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, Castille, Aragon, and Portugal started expanding to other areas kickstarting the process of invasion and settlement. After Aragon conquered the Island of Majorca, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the king distributed the land among the nobles who accompanied him. Then came the settlers — Catalans, Italians, Navarrese — who took possession of the property obtained during the conquest. There was a similar movement of people all over into Hungary, Romania, Sicily, Greece.
Following the conquest of Southern Spain by Castille, the Moors slowly disappeared. They were forced or enslaved and those who stayed were converted to Christianity. They replaced rebellious leaders with leaders over whom they had control. They were familiar with the process for populating newly conquered frontier lands and enticing settlers to those new lands. This was an established process by the time Vasco da Gama set sail to India. Remember, he did not come for spices alone. He was also looking for Prester John to liberate Jerusalem.

Movie: Spotlight – Exposing child abuse in the Catholic church in Boston

“I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together”

In the wild, a predator stalks a herd, identifies the weakest animal and then preys on it. It was the same tactic that Boston Catholic priests used to prey on kids. They would identify kids whose families were in a disarray or were low income. These kids did not have anyone to look up to and religion was an important part of their lives. A priest would take advantage of this, give them them attention  and reward them with treats. This guardian angel would then abuse them, physically and spiritually. This abuse was not a secret. The parishioners knew it and so did the Cardinal. But no one spoke against it.
The movie, which is based on real life incidents, starts with the arrival of a new editor at the Boston Globe, who reignites the investigation. A team, called Spotlight, consisting of four reporters start digging through. They knew about a previous settlement, but the documents were sealed by the court. Due to this, they have to find innovative ways to get the information. They contact victims who had settled and lawyers who had tried before and get them to talk. During the process, many people caution against moving forward as it amounted to suing the church. Another reason was that 53% of the readership was Catholic. The Cardinal, who knew about all this, but quietly settled, tells the editor that a city flourishes when its institutions work together. Others ask them to look at the good work that the church is doing and ignore the few bad apples.
<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47575397>By Source, Fair use</a>
By Source, Fair use

Many abuse cases were settled previously and there were lawyers knowledgeable of these incidents. Most of the times, it was the attorney for the victim negotiating with the church lawyers. Since it was a private settlement, there were no documents in court. There was no PR damage too since the victims did not want to appear on TV; Most of them wanted an acknowledgement of the wrong that was done. The court orders of a previous settlement were sealed and the team tries their best to get hold of it. A lawyer who was involved in the previous effort tries to help by guiding them to some documents which are public, but the team finds that the documents have mysteriously disappeared. Finally, when they get it unsealed and they get to know the ugly truths behind the Catholic church.
The Catholic church which had the duty to protect the innocent children protected the priests instead. These child molesters were transferred from parish to parish. Some were sent for rehabilitation and then circulated again. As the reporters continue, they meet one of the priests who admits that he fooled around with boys, but got not pleasure out of it. At the end of their discovery, they find that around 90 priests were involved. It shows that an independent media can do, if it really wants to go after the culprits. The team wrote around 600 articles and won the Pulitzer for exposing the cover ups.
 The Spotlight team
The Spotlight team

The movie does not relies on dialogue and no theatrics, but remains riveting till the end. It is an important expose into a culture of pervasive child abuse that was intentionally hidden. The movie is revealed through the eyes of the journalists. Some of the sordid details that the victims say are absolutely painful. Those are just words that we hear, but none of us can imagine that the pain that was inflicted on those children. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
What is deeply disturbing is that this was not an isolated incident. It was systemic and the institution did nothing to prevent it. Instead they spent their energy in covering it up. At the end of the movie, they show a list of places such abuses happened, and it covers few screens. Since the reach of the church is worldwide, the abuse is globalized. Take a look at the list of abuses world wide  or look at this.  In far away Kerala, Sister Jesme has documented the abuse that adults go through. There is the Sister Abhaya murder case, which shows the “how a city flourishes when institutions work together.”

Was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?

Hinduism and Buddhism by Ananda CoomaraswamyThere is an academic notion that Buddha was not just a religious teacher, but a social critic and a revolutionary social theorist. He is also considered a social reformer who challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy. Buddha also reacted against the social structure made up of the four castes, which denied individual autonomy and human freedom.
This narrative fits well with the notion of a linear process where a new system differentiates from an existing system. It is similar to how Martin Luther reformed the ritualistic Catholicism and how Christianity came out of Judaism. But was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?
According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, it was not. In his book, Hinduism and Buddhism, he writes that the distinction can be found only by people who study Buddhism superficially. A student with deep knowledge will not. According to him, there is nothing he could find which could be called as social reform or a protest against the caste system. Instead, AKC says  Buddha can be called a reformer because he had discovered the ancient ways of the awakened. The Buddha also praised the Brahmins who remembered the old path of the contemplatives that led to Brahma.
Both the Upanishads and Buddhist doctrines were born in the forest where they continued with purity. As time passed, the Brahmins moved to the courts and got corrupted by power, grandeur, and rituals. They became Brahmins by birth as opposed to those who knew Brahma.
The intention of both sets of doctrines was to restore the truths that were known before. The problem is that people admire Buddhism for what it is not and what scholars think Buddha should have said.
At the same time, there is selective suppression of what Buddha said. In lectures by American Buddhists, there is rarely a mention of reincarnation or supernatural powers. The talks mostly revolve around contemplative practices. These techniques are popular in the Western world; in a recent podcast, may high achievers admitted to following the practice.  It is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness”. This does not mean that the Buddha did not advocate mindfulness. For him, it was not something you carried in your pocket and used occasionally. Mindfulness was part of life and he warned against doing things absent-mindedly. Buddha believed in reincarnation too. Siddhartha Gautama was seventh in a series of prophetic incarnations.
When it comes to the discussion of the Self, there is little distinction to be found between the two traditions (“for those who have attained, there is naught dearer than the self”, “the Self is the lord of the self and its goal”, says the Buddha). Both traditions are experiential and understanding the concepts logically was insufficient. The goal was to transcend the senses and experience the Self. Like in the Upanishads, the goal of an Arhat is brahma-bhutena-atmana or “with the self that is Brahma-become”. The question which leads to that answer is quite familiar: By which self (kena-atmana) does one attain the Brahma world? Take a look at the first line of Kena Upanishad and see what it says. Buddha also discovered early on that what is now known as cogito ergo sum is delusional and proposed anatmya or the non-existence of permanent ego.
The concept of Brahman is achieved by a process of elimination. No one can define what Brahman is; it is defined by saying neti neti (not this, not this). In Buddhist tradition, the physical and mental factors are analyzed, perceived and observed. Finally, the observer separates from the thoughts and feelings and says, “That is not my self”. In the Upanishad tradition, we know our senses say what the reality is. Finally, we transcend that reality and reach a state where we perceive other states of existence. The Autobiography of a Yogi and Sri M’s book details various experiences that a spiritual person passes through.
Another imagery that is common in both traditions is that of the chariot and charioteer. Through various techniques, both traditions help us understand the Self and what the Self is not. In both traditions, we are not wanderers guided by events like a ship in a storm, but beings capable of knowing the Self and experiencing it.

Briefly Noted: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, SS colonel Hans Landa or the “Jew Hunter”, reaches the home of a French dairy farmer looking for a Jewish family. The next few minutes are a typical Tarantino scene, where you know the end is not going to be good. For leaving his family alone, the farmer betrays the Jewish family hiding in his basement.
From the Dreyfus Affair (recently retold in An Officer and a Spy) to World War II and beyond,  Jews were never safe in France. Even now France is seeing a rise in antisemitism and an increase in aliyah. Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow starts with a bomb explosion in the Marais district of Paris, known for its large Jewish population. When the French find out that ISIS (“ISIS gave purpose to lost souls and promised an afterlife of eternal copulation“) is responsible for the attack, they request the help of Gabriel Allon, who is going to be Israel’s next intelligence chief. The only data point they know is that a man known as Saladin is responsible for this attack. They neither know his real name nor his nationality. To find out the real identity of Saladin, they need someone who can infiltrate ISIS.
Among all the books of Daniel Silva, this is probably the best. While rest of them are thrillers, this one grips you because of two things. One, he deals with a real problem and how the world is reacting to that. While the book was written prior to the Paris attacks, it resembles real events that happened recently.He ridicules President Obama, who called ISIS, al-Qaeda’s jayvee team and also people who call ISIS as un-Islamic.
Here is a paragraph from Greame Wood’s article in The Atlantic

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.[What ISIS Really Wants]

Second, the book does not have much sub plots and hence the main plot grips you. Silva’s book ends with an attack on the American soil by ISIS sleeper cells and that is a real fear.