To some extent, all one needs to know about The Java Enigma is that it has been called, more than once, “Da Vinci Code”-like. This will either intrigue or repel, depending on how one feels about Dan Brown’s genre-creating blockbuster. Neither reaction would however be entirely warranted, for—while there are certainly similarities—Erni Salleh’s debut novel is quite a different animal. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter.

In his perennially wonderful (if now dated—the abridged version was issued by its author in 1922 based on the 12-volume full one) Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Sir James Frazer tells us that magic was the precursor to religion. Van Schaik uses Frazer’s analysis as an example of what has by now become the “conventional” view of the subject, although it refers largely to what Frazer called “sympathetic magic,” which van Schaik says “has dominated much of the discussion of magical practice” since the issue of The Golden Bough. It was “the first primitive stage in mankind’s attempt to understand and control the world,” as Sam van Schaik sums it up, or the belief “that things act on each other through a secret sympathy,” as Frazer himself put it.

Buddhism would undergo profound changes as it was transmitted from its origins in India east into China, in the first century CE. Terminology had to be assimilated, for one thing. And when one language is translated and assimilated into another, it is inevitable that some conceptual connections will be lost and the meaning of ideas altered. Take Zen Buddhism. In his latest book, David Hinton says that we in the West are not just once-removed from the original Zen—but twice removed. This is because the Zen we know from Japan had already lost much of the original Daoist underpinnings of  Chinese Zen—known as Chan—even before the religion traveled across the Pacific to America.

Minority communities in South Asia are fascinating examples of movement of ideas, people, and religion. After the 1947 Partition, Hindus and Sikhs migrated from the newly formed Pakistan to the world over, and especially to India. The conversations about war and peace between the two countries tend to revolve around Hindus and Muslims. The religion of Sikhism may not configure into these issues, especially for the Western readers, and yet the Radcliffe line that partitioned the subcontinent also separates two of the holiest shrines of the Sikhs.