This book manages to pack a lot into a small compass. It provides a biographical sketch of the Buddha, in so far as this is possible for someone who is so remote in time from us, and also summarizes his essential teaching in an insightful way. The book is addressed to readers who know next to nothing about the Buddha and are sceptical concerning his possible relevance to us today. What does the Buddha have to say to us?
Carrithers starts by reviewing the documentation that exists for the Buddha's life. He dismisses the legend that Gotama was a king's son but he thinks that his family would have considered themselves to be equal in rank to kings and probably did not recognize the ceremonial precedence of Brahmins. Next, he gives an account of the Buddha's early life and renunciation; this follows the generally accepted description but discounts the obviously legendary items in the traditional narrative. As regards the final Awakening, he thinks that this was a more gradual process than the Buddhist sources generally indicate.
He is particularly illuminating when he discusses the Buddha's rejection of the yogic Meditative Planes: the progressive stages of meditation that the yogi was supposed to pass through. Carrithers thinks that in the yogic system these were thought of as actual locations in the spiritual cosmos, and reaching them was even a sort of astral travel. The Buddha rejected the claim that achieving these states represented the goal of the spiritual life, firstly because they were temporary not permanent, and secondly because achieving them did not in itself lead to intellectual and moral development. (This is something I can confirm from my own experience.) While yogic meditation has its value, the Buddha was saying, something more is needed: a change in the quality of thought and feeling. It was in the light of this that the Buddha developed his own distinctive form of meditation, known as Insight Meditation.
The Buddha also rejected the yogic teaching about the Self. According to the Vedantic texts known as the Upanishads, the essence of illumination was to recognize that one's ordinary small self was identical with the Cosmic Self, Brahman. But the Buddha, though he recognized the pragmatic existence of a self, did not accept that there was an Eternal Self with which the small self was, or could become, united. Clinging to the idea of a Self of this kind was, he said, a source of suffering.
Carrithers concludes his book by answering the question he posed at the outset: does the Buddha speak to us today? He concludes, perhaps not surprisingly, that he does. In fact, he sees the Buddha as in many ways a remarkably modern figure. "His teaching was suited to a world of different political philosophies and different religions, but a world in which certain basic values must guide personal relations if we are to live together at all, and it is difficult to see how that mastery could be irrelevant to us." It's hard to disagree with this. This is still one of the best short introductions to Buddhism that can be found.