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Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

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Overview

From the author of The Last Mughal, an enlightening book that explores with remarkable compassion and expansive insight nine varieties of religious devotion in India today.

In portraits of people we might otherwise never know William Dalrymple distills his twenty-five years of travel in India to explore the challenges faced by practitioners of traditional forms of faith in contemporary India. For two months a year, a man in Kerala divides his time between jobs as a prison warden and a well-builder and his calling as an incarnate deity. A temple prostitute watches her two daughters die from AIDS after entering a trade she regards as a sacred calling. A Jain nun recalls the pain of watching her closest friend ritually starve herself to death.

Together, these tales reveal the resilience of individuals in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernity, the enduring legacy of tradition, and the hope and honor that can be found even in the most unlikely places.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
For the last 20 years, Scotsman Dalrymple (The Last Mughals) has made the Indian subcontinent his bailiwick. In his introduction here, he describes Nine Lives as "a collection of non-fiction short stories," and he does portray the "pluralist religious and philosophic folk traditions" found in India in a way that is compelling and accessible to all readers. His subjects here are all people living on the margins: we meet a wandering Jain nun, a Tantric housewife whose abode is the cremation ground, a Sufi holy woman, a refugee from two countries, a blind Baul minstrel, and a Rajasthani bard who can recite from memory an epic of 626 pages, to name only a few. Dalrymple shows us the "lived experience" of the practitioners of these different religious paths and how their worlds have been impacted in a rapidly changing India. VERDICT More accessible but less scholarly than Wendy Doniger's The Hindus, Dalrymple's book is highly recommended for all collections. Readers will sense the power of faith underlying the divergent religious paths, with stories that are enthralling and will keep them up late reading.—Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
Illuminating biographies of Indians who retain ancient devotional traditions despite rapid economic change. In a conscious reversal of the first-person method he employed in his book on Middle Eastern monks, From the Holy Mountain (1998), British journalist Dalrymple (The Last Mughal, 2006, etc.) allows these selected voices to speak for themselves-a tricky task, he writes, since the "interviews for this book took place in eight different languages." His subjects hail from diverse backgrounds. A Jainist nun lives an ascetic life in the southern pilgrimage site of Stravanabelagola. She left her family, gave away her possessions, walks everywhere so that she won't harm a living creature and now looks forward to the ultimate path toward Nirvana in sallekhana, or starving herself to death. "There is no distress or cruelty," she says calmly. "As nuns our lives are peaceful, and giving up the body should also be peaceful." A Tibetan Buddhist monk who lived through the persecution of the monasteries by the Chinese in the 1950s recounts his newfound attempt to achieve atonement for the violence he committed then in the name of preserving his faith. A prostitute in Saundatti, one of the legions of women consecrated in their youth by impoverished families to the service of the goddess Yellamma, describes her ghastly lot of entrenched illiteracy and almost-certain contraction of AIDS. An aged singer of 600-year-old epics performs his craft in Pabusar over five nights of dusk-to-dawn performances that function both as entertainment and devotional rite. A famous Sufi fakir at the Sehwan shrine in southern Pakistan dances a perilous line between Islam and Hinduism. Throughout the book, Dalrymple showcases his knowledge of the breadth of India and his fearless willingness to penetrate its sometimes unsavory nooks and crannies, rendering this a truly heartfelt work for readers craving a deeper connection to India and its rich spiritual heritage. A remarkable feat of journalism. Author tour to Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.
Colin Thubron
In his introduction, Dalrymple says he yearns for his narratives to be free of authorial interference. But of course that can't be. He not only creates their framework but inevitably, if unobtrusively, steers his interviews to the areas of his own interest. Yet these will be the areas of most readers' interest too. The narratives Dalrymple unearths are fascinating and sometimes painfully moving, and he surrounds them with generous knowledge. This is the India we seldom see, populated by obscure people whose lives are made vivid by their eloquent troubles and reckless piety.
—The New York Times
Marie Arana
As William Dalrymple shows in his strikingly colorful new book, to be Indian is to inhabit a carnival of strangely colliding worlds, a profusion of identities with sharply defined regional variants. Nowhere is this more evident than in the country's spiritual life…Nine Lives is a collection of portraits depicting nine worshipers who practice wildly different forms of devotion in a vortex of dizzying change. Part travelogue, part reportage, part anthropology, the book hews to a theme that has long fascinated Dalrymple: how cultures in peril survive.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"A singular achievement. . . . A deeply respectful and sympathetic portrait of those modest souls seldom mentioned in the headlines." —Pico Iyer, Time

"Not only a masterful text, but also an extaordinarily important work." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Fascinating and sometimes painfully moving. . . . This is the India we seldom see, peopled by obscure people whose lives are made vivid by their eloquent troubles and reckless piety." —The New York Times Book Review

"[This is] the age for writers like Mr. Dalrymple, who fall in with the rhythms and languages of foreign lands. Nine Lives shows us lives hidden almost entirely from Western readers. . . opening up the world in a compelling way." —Wall Street Journal

“Informed, compassionate, and careful to place the emphasis where it belongs: on the extraordinary people whose stories [Dalrymple] conveys.” —Harper’s
 
“Strikingly colorful. . . . [Dalrymple’s] point—which he makes elegantly by quoting many voices—is that, as India hurtles toward modernity, it may be losing some of its soul.” —The Washington Post
 
“Luminous. . . . Consists of nine riveting and thickly reported tales of individual devotion, which together summon up a whole world and sometimes end with devastating twists. . . . Nine Lives will only enhance [Dalrymple’s] reputation.” –The New Republic
 
“Fulfills the premise that a master artist can make something very difficult look easy. . . . You don’t have to know a thing about India to enjoy this book, but when you’re done you will know and appreciate much more about its people and their various lives—of the body, of the spirit and of the heart.” —The Seattle Times
 
“Fascinating. . . . These might seem like exotic characters, but Dalrymple allows them to tell their own stories, and they emerge as deeply sympathetic and human.” —Newsday
 
“Triumphant. . . . Not only illuminates India’s relationship with religion but casts the genre itself in a new light. . . . A wise and rewarding book fizzing with Dalrymple’s signature erudition and lightness of touch. . . . The travel book of the year.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“An absolutely beautiful book, clean and honest and edifying and moving. . . . It’s a delight.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
 
“A wonderful pageant of believers whose stories are as much about spirituality as about society.”—Christian Science Monitor
 
“Moving. . . His nine articulate individuals are from highly distinctive and unusual milieus, and they embody the tensions and ideals of the great Indian systems of belief in personal, often painful ways. Taken together, they easily subvert conventional notions about Indian religiosity and provide an excellent antidote to much of what one reads in English about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.” —New York Review of Books
 
“Not since Kipling has anyone evoked village India so movingly. . . . The book gives an answer to Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and those who would condemn all religions for the sake of the fanatical fringe.” —Wendy Doniger, Times Literary Supplement
 
“Straightforward reporting, clear writing and empathetic listening.” —The Plain Dealer
 
“An absorbing book. . . . Dalrymple is a lively, knowledgeable and sympathetic guide to this world of faith.” —The Daily Telegraph
 
“Exquisite. . . . William Dalrymple dazzles us with stories of how a deeper reality strokes the fire of life in the recesses of our souls. . . . By peering into the secret passages of their psyches, we learn more about our own self, our fantasies, our shadows, our longings, our hidden potential.” —Deepak Chopra

The Barnes & Noble Review

From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review


The brilliant William Dalrymple, now in his mid-forties, has changed and developed considerably during the two decades since his appearance on the literary scene. Then, he was a breezy, jovial travel writer in the great tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Eric Newby, and his first book, In Xanadu (1989) -- the account of a journey in the footsteps of Marco Polo -- has survived as a classic of that genre. But with the years Dalrymple has become more serious and scholarly, and more of a historian than a travel writer. From the Holy Mountain (1997), describing the remaining Christian communities of the Middle East, was so engrossing it inspired me to visit the region myself. City of Djinns (1994) and The Last Mughal (2006) dealt with the convoluted history of Delhi and the Mughal Empire. Now, with Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, he has broadened his scope to include India's entire religious landscape.

The centrality of religious life struck Dalrymple immediately upon his arrival in the subcontinent in the early 1990s. On a trek to the Himalayan temple of Kedamath, he was stunned to see that "every social class from every corner of the country was there. There were groups of farmers, illiterate labourers and urban sophisticates from north and south all rubbing shoulders like something out of a modern Indian Canterbury Tales." Ash-smeared, naked sadhus (itinerant holy men) were everywhere. Striking up a conversation with one of these fellows, Dalrymple learned that his new acquaintance had, not too many years before, served as sales manager for a Bombay consumer electrical company.

"The sort of world where a committed, naked naga sadhu could also be an MBA was something I was to become used to," writes Dalrymple. He was to spend much of the next twenty years in the subcontinent, acquiring a prodigious knowledge of Indian religion and culture and a fascination with the way weird regional variants and local cults persisted in the face of rapid modernization and religious homogenization. What has kept so many local traditions alive and vital? How is it possible that a "fabulously and unrepentantly pagan ceremony" like the theyyam rituals of Kannur, in which different deities annually "possess" the bodies of certain spiritually gifted Untouchables, can still flourish in the twenty-first century? How has Southern India managed to retain a sacred topography in which "every village is believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods, who are said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life"?

Nine Lives is the book that grew from Dalrymple's fascination with these problems, and if what I have just written makes it sound like the usual multi-culti celebration of "diversity," that is very far from being the case. The author has chosen nine individuals whose lives are shaped by one or another of India's many religious traditions and allowed them to tell their own stories through him; some of these stories are very dark, so that the reader can't help wondering whether the religious practices in question serve merely as balm for these broken lives, or whether they might be entwined in the very roots of dislocation and tragedy.

Take the first story, for instance, that of a Jain nun named Prasannamati Mataji. There is undoubtedly something beautiful in the selfless asceticism of her creed, and she defends it eloquently: "going into the unknown world and confronting it without a single rupee in our pockets," she tells Dalrymple, "means that differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, all vanish, and a common humanity emerges." But what are we to make of sallekhana, the ritual fast to the death -- a form of suicide? Mataji's fellow-nun and dearest friend, Prayogamati, performed this act when her sufferings from untreated tuberculosis became too painful. (Jains are not allowed to use Western medicines because they are tested on animals.) Now Mataji, though still in her thirties, has embarked on her own ritual starvation. She claims the act is beautiful, the ultimate rejection of all desires. A psychiatrist might venture to diagnose her as deeply depressed after the preventable loss of her beloved companion. Is there an answer? Dalrymple doesn't go there.

"I have made a conscious effort to try to avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters," he writes, "and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about 'Mystic India' that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion." Dalrymple has succeeded in escaping the clichés -- his writing, as always, is fresh and clear-headed -- but he has not been able to avoid imposing himself on these stories, and perhaps such a thing is not ever possible. The author, after all, edits: he chooses what and whom to include, which segments of their conversation to transcribe and which to omit, and he shapes rambling conversations into tight, literary constructions with a pointed narrative arc. He makes no overt judgments; but nothing is to stop the reader from doing so.

How do we handle, for instance, the heartbreaking tale of Rani Bai, a devadasi who was dedicated by her parents to the goddess Yellamma at the age of six? The devadasis have a venerable history and at least in theory a wide variety of religious functions, but in recent years their work has come to be exclusively centered on the sex trade. They have a slightly higher status than ordinary prostitutes -- for lip service is still paid to Yellamma -- but their lives are just as hard, just as painful. "For the very poor, and the very pious, the devadasi system is still seen as providing a way out of poverty while gaining access to the blessings of the gods, the two things the poor most desperately crave." The devadasis support their extended families and then, when struck down by AIDS, they are cast out by these same families and left to die in extreme penury. Rani Bai has lost both her teenage daughters to AIDS. Now she herself, still only thirty-eight, is infected with the virus. "We have a lot of misery to bear," she says. "But that is our tradition. That is our karma."

Some of the tales told here can be joyful. There are Moha Bhopa and his wife Batasi, for instance, hereditary singers of a medieval Rajasthan epic that is 4000 lines long and takes five eight-hour sessions to recite. It is remarkable, and thrilling, that such things still go on more than three thousand years after the time of Homer. And there is Hari Das the theyyam dancer, a Dalit (Untouchable) who works for nine months out of the year as a lowly well-digger and prison guard and then, during the theyyam season, becomes an incarnate god, worshipped and propitiated by the Brahman bigshots who in normal times will not even let him take a drink from the wells he digs for them lest he pollute their homes. And then there is Srikanda Stpathy, the sculptor of bronze idols, whose family has been in the business for all of a thousand years. "The gods created man," he tells Dalrymple, "but here we are so blessed that we -- simple men as we are -- help to create the gods."

Clearly Dalrymple's choices of subjects highlight both the destructive and creative aspects of religious zeal, but it is perhaps the consolatory aspect of religion that is here the most striking, its ability to impose apparent purpose and meaning on even the most pitiable lives. This is what Dalrymple found on his visit to the cremation ground at Tarapith in Bengal, where Tantric acolytes of the goddess Tara perform animal sacrifices, grub among skulls and human remains, and perform "ritualized sex, sometimes with menstruating women -- for Tara's devotees believe that the goddess transmutes all that is forbidden and taboo, and turns these banned acts and forbidden objects into pathways of power." Everything in my secular Protestant soul revolted against the images conjured up here. And yet, looking at the scene through the eyes of Dalrymple's guide, Manisha Ma, I saw something else: "a palpable sense of community among the vulnerable outcastes, lunatics and misfits who have come to live there…. It is a place where even the most damaged and marginal can find intimacy and community, and establish their own center of gravity." The provision of such comfort is why the human religious impulse can never be suppressed, in spite of all the outraged rationalists and their polemics.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307272829
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/15/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 429,424
  • Product dimensions: 9.56 (w) x 6.76 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

William Dalrymple is the author of six previous acclaimed works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.

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Read an Excerpt

1

The Nun’s Tale

Two hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged palmyra palms. It is dawn. Below lies the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola, where the crumbling walls of monasteries, temples and dharamsalas cluster around a grid of dusty, red earth roads. The roads converge on a great rectangular tank. The tank is dotted with the spreading leaves and still-closed buds of floating lotus flowers. Already, despite the early hour, the first pilgrims are gathering.

For more than 2,000 years, this Karnatakan town has been sacred to the Jains. It was here, in the third century bc, that the first Emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, embraced the Jain religion and died through a self-imposed fast to the death, the emperor’s chosen atonement for the killings for which he had been responsible in his life of conquest. Twelve hundred years later, in ad 981, a Jain general commissioned the largest monolithic statue in India, sixty feet high, on the top of the larger of the two hills, Vindhyagiri.

This was an image of another royal Jain hero, Prince Bahubali. The prince had fought a duel with his brother Bharata for control of his father’s kingdom. But in the very hour of his victory, Bahubali realised the folly of greed and the transience of worldly glory. He renounced his kingdom and embraced instead the path of the ascetic. Retreating to the jungle, he stood in meditation for a year, so that the vines of the forest curled around his legs and tied him to the spot. In this state he conquered what he believed to be the real enemies—his passions, ambitions, pride and desires—and so became, according to the Jains, the first human being to achieve moksha, or spiritual liberation.

The sun has only just risen above the palm trees, and an early morning haze still cloaks the ground. Yet already the line of pilgrims—from a distance, tiny ant-like creatures against the dawn-glistening fused-mercury of the rock face—are climbing the steps that lead up to the monumental hilltop figure of the stone prince. For the past thousand years this massive broad-shouldered statue, enclosed in its lattice of stone vines, has been the focus of pilgrimage in this Vatican of the Digambara, or Sky Clad Jains.

Digambara monks are probably the most severe of all India’s ascetics. They show their total renunciation of the world by travelling through it completely naked, as light as the air, as they conceive it, and as clear as the Indian sky. Sure enough, among the many ordinary lay people in lungis and saris slowly mounting the rock-cut steps are several completely naked men—Digambara monks on their way to do homage to Bahubali. There are also a number of white-clad Digambara nuns, or matajis, and it was in a temple just short of the summit that I first laid eyes on Prasannamati Mataji.

I had seen the tiny, slender, barefoot figure of the nun in her white sari bounding up the steps above me as I began my ascent. She climbed quickly, with a pot of water made from a coconut shell in one hand, and a peacock fan in the other. As she climbed, she gently wiped each step with the fan in order to make sure she didn’t stand on, hurt or kill a single living creature on her ascent of the hill: one of the set rules of pilgrimage for a Jain muni, or ascetic.

It was only when I got to the Vadegall Basadi, the temple which lies just below the summit, that I caught up with her—and saw that despite her bald head Mataji was in fact a surprisingly young and striking woman. She had large, wide-apart eyes, olive skin and an air of self-contained confidence that expressed itself in a vigour and ease in the way she held her body. But there was also something sad and wistful about her expression as she went about her devotions; and this, combined with her unexpected youth and beauty, left one wanting to know more.

Mataji was busy with her prayers when I first entered the temple. After the glimmering half-light outside, the interior was almost completely black, and it took several minutes for my eyes fully to adjust to the gloom. At the cardinal points within the temple, at first almost invisible, were three smooth, black marble images of the Jain Tirthankaras, or Liberators. Each was sculpted sitting Buddha-like in the virasana samadhi, with shaved head and elongated earlobes. The hands of each Tirthankara was cupped, and they sat cross-legged in a lotus position, impassive and focused inwards, locked in the deepest introspection and meditation. Tirthankara means literally “ford-maker,” and the Jains believe these heroic ascetic figures have shown the way to Nirvana, making a spiritual ford through the rivers of suffering, and across the wild oceans of existence and rebirth, so as to create a crossing place between samsara and liberation.

To each of these figures in turn, Mataji bowed. She then took some water from the attendant priest and poured it over the hands of the statues. This water she collected in a pot, and then used it to anoint the top of her own head. According to Jain belief, it is good and meritorious for pilgrims to express their devotion to the Tirthankaras, but they can expect no earthly rewards for such prayers: as perfected beings, the ford-makers have liberated themselves from the world of men, and so are not present in the statues in the way that, say, Hindus believe their deities are incarnate in temple images. The pilgrim can venerate, praise, adore and learn from the example of the Tirthankaras, and they can use them as a focus for their meditations. But as the ford-makers are removed from the world they are unable to answer prayers; the relationship between the devotee and the object of his devotion is entirely one way. At its purest, Jainism is almost an atheistic religion, and the much venerated images of the Tirthankaras in temples represent not so much a divine presence as a profound divine absence.

I was intrigued by Mataji’s intense dedication to the images, but as she was deep in her prayers, it was clear that now was not the moment to interrupt her, still less to try to talk to her. From the temple, she headed up the hill to wash the feet of Bahubali. There she silently mouthed her morning prayers at the feet of the statue, her rosary circling in her hand. Then she made five rounds of the parikrama pilgrim circuit around the sanctuary, and as quickly as she had leapt up the steps, she headed down them again, peacock fan flicking and sweeping each step before her.

It was only the following day that I applied for, and was given, a formal audience—or as the monks called it, darshan—with Mataji at the monastery guest house; and it was only the day after that, as we continued our conversations, that I began to learn what had brought about her air of unmistakable melancholy.

“We believe that all attachments bring suffering,” said Prasannamati Mataji, after we had been talking for some time. “This is why we are supposed to give them up. It is one of the main principles of Jainism—we call it aparigraha. This was why I left my family, and why I gave away my wealth.”

We were talking in the annex of a monastery prayer hall, and Mataji was sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat, raised slightly above me on a low dais. The top of her white sari was now modestly covering her plucked head. “For many years, I fasted, or ate at most only once a day,” she continued. “Like other nuns, I often experienced hunger and thirst. I tried to show compassion to all living creatures, and to avoid all forms of violence, passion or delusion. I wandered the roads of India barefoot.” As she said this, the nun ran a hand up the hard and callused sole of her unshod foot. “Every day I suffered the pain of thorns and blisters. All this was part of my effort to shed my last attachments in this illusory world.

“But,” she said, “I still had one attachment—though of course I didn’t think of it in that way.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“My friend Prayogamati,” she replied. “For twenty years we were inseparable companions, sharing everything. For our safety, we Jain nuns are meant to travel together, in groups or in pairs. It never occurred to me that I was breaking any of our rules. But because of my close friendship with her, I formed not just an attachment, but a strong attachment—and that left an opening for suffering. But I only realised this after she died.”

There was a pause, and I had to encourage Mataji to continue. “In this stage of life we need company,” she said. “You know, a companion with whom we can share ideas and feelings. After Prayogamati left her body, I felt this terrible loneliness. In truth, I feel it to this day. But her time was fixed. When she fell ill—first with TB and then malaria—her pain was so great she decided to take sallekhana, even though she was aged only thirty-six.”

“Sallekhana?

“It’s the ritual fast to the death. We Jains regard it as the culmination of our life as ascetics. It is what we all aim for, and work towards as the best route to Nirvana. Not just nuns—even my grandmother, a lay person, took sallekhana.

“You are saying she committed suicide?”

“No, no: sallekhana is not suicide,” she said emphatically. “It is quite different. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. But sallekhana is as a triumph over death, an expression of hope.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “If you starve yourself to death, then surely you are committing suicide?”

“Not at all. We believe that death is not the end, and that life and death are complementary. So when you embrace sallekhana you are embracing a whole new life—it’s no more than going through from one room to another.”

“But you are still choosing to end your life.”

“With suicide, death is full of pain and suffering. But sallekhana is a beautiful thing. There is no distress or cruelty. As nuns our lives are peaceful, and giving up the body should also be peaceful. You have the Tirthankaras’ names on your lips, and if you do it slowly and gradually, in the prescribed way, there is no pain; instead there is a gentle purity in all the privations.

“At all stages you are guided by an experienced mataji or guru. Everything is planned long in advance—when, and how, you give up your food. Someone is appointed to sit with you and look after you at all times, and a message is sent out to all members of the community that you have decided to take this path. First you fast one day a week, then you eat only on alternate days: one day you take food, the next you fast. One by one, you give up different types of food. You give up rice, then fruits, then vegetables, then juice, then buttermilk. Finally you take only water, and then you have that only on alternate days. Eventually, when you are ready, you give up that too. If you do it very gradually, there is no suffering at all. The body is cooled down, so that you can concentrate inside on the soul, and on erasing all your bad karma.

“At every stage you are asked: are you prepared to go on, are you sure you are ready for this, are you sure you don’t want to turn back? It is very difficult to describe, but really it can be so beautiful: the ultimate rejection of all desires, the sacrificing of everything. You are surrounded, cradled, by your fellow monks. Your mind is fixed on the example of the Jinas.

She smiled. “You have to understand that for us death is full of excitement. You embrace sallekhana not out of despair with your old life, but to gain and attain something new. It’s just as exciting as visiting a new landscape or a new country: we feel excited at a new life, full of possibilities.”

I must have looked surprised, or unconvinced, because she stopped and explained what she meant using the simplest images. “When your clothes get old and torn,” she said, “you get new ones. So it is with the body. After the age of thirty, every year it becomes weaker. When the body withers completely, the soul will take a new one, like a hermit crab finding a new shell. For the soul will not wither, and in rebirth you simply exchange your torn and damaged old clothes for a smart new suit.”

“But you could hardly have felt excited when your friend left you like this.”

“No,” she said, her face falling. “It is hard for those who are left.”

She stopped. For a moment Mataji lost her composure; but she checked herself.

“After Prayogamati died, I could not bear it. I wept, even though we are not supposed to. Any sort of emotion is considered a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment. We are meant to cultivate indifference—but still I remember her.”

Again her voice faltered. She slowly shook her head. “The attachment is there even now,” she said. “I can’t help it. We lived together for twenty years. How can I forget?”

Jainism is one of the most ancient religions of the world, similar to Buddhism in many respects, and emerging from the same heterodox classical Indian world of the Ganges basin in the early centuries bc. Like Buddhism, it was a partly a reaction to Brahminical caste consciousness and the readiness of the Brahmins to slaughter huge quantities of animals for temple sacrifices—but the faith of the Jains is slightly more ancient, and much more demanding than Buddhist practice. Buddhist ascetics shave their heads; Jains pluck their hair out by the roots. Buddhist monks beg for food; Jains have to have their food given to them without asking. All they can do is to go out on gowkari—the word used to describe the grazing of a cow—and signal their hunger by curving their right arm over their shoulder. If no food comes before the onset of the night, they go to bed hungry. They are forbidden to accept or in any way handle money.

In ancient India, the Jain monks were also celebrated for their refusal to wash, and like the Coptic monks of Egypt, equated a lack of concern for outward appearance with inner purity. One early inscription at Sravanabelagola admiringly refers to a monk so begrimed with filth that “he looked as if he wore a closely fitting suit of black armour.” Today the monks are allowed to wipe themselves with a wet towel and to wash their robes every few weeks; but bathing in ponds or running water or the sea is still strictly forbidden, as is the use of soap.

Unlike Buddhism, the Jain religion never spread beyond India, and while it was once a popular and powerful faith across the subcontinent, patronised by the princes of a succession of Deccani dynasties, today there are only four million Jains left, and these are largely limited to the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Outside India, the religion barely exists, and in contrast to Buddhism, is almost unknown in the West.

The word Jain derives from Jina, meaning liberator or spiritual conqueror. The Jinas or Tirthankaras—ford-makers—were a series of twenty-four human teachers who each discovered how to escape the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Through their heroic tapasya—bodily austerities—they gained omniscient and transcendent knowledge which revealed to them the nature of the reality of the great theatre of the universe, in every dimension. The most recent of those, according to the Jains, was the historical figure of Mahavira (599–529 bc)—the Great Hero—a prince of Magadha, in modern Bihar, who renounced the world at the age of thirty to become a wandering thinker and ascetic.

Mahavira elaborated to his followers a complex cosmological system that the Jains still expound 2,600 years later. Like follower’s of other Indian faiths they believe in an immortal and indestructible soul, or jivan, and that the sum of one’s actions determines the nature of one’s future rebirth. However, the Jains diverge from Hindus and Buddhists in many ways. They reject the Hindu idea that the world was created or destroyed by omnipotent gods, and they mock the pretensions of the Brahmins, who believe that ritual purity and temple sacrifices can bring salvation. As a Jain monk explains to a group of hostile Brahmins in one of the most ancient Jain scriptures, the most important sacrifice for Jains is not some puja, or ritual, but the sacrifice of one’s own body: “Austerity is my sacrifical fire,” says the monk, “and my life is the place where the fire is kindled. Mental and physical effort are my ladle for the oblation, and my body is the dung fuel for the fire, my actions my firewood. I offer up an oblation praised by the wise seers consisting of my restraint, effort and calm.”

Crucially, the Jains differ from both Hindus and Buddhists in their understanding of karma, which for other faiths means simply the fruit of your actions. Jains, however, conceive of karma as a fine material substance that physically attaches itself to the soul, polluting and obscuring its potential for bliss by weighing it down with pride, anger, delusion and greed, and so preventing it from reaching its ultimate destination at the summit of the universe. To gain final liberation, you must live life in a way that stops you accumulating more karma, while wiping clean the karma you have accumulated in previous lives. The only way to do this is to embrace an ascetic life and to follow the path of meditation and rigorous self-denial taught by the Tirthankaras. You must embrace a life of world renunciation, non-attachment and an extreme form of non-violence.

The soul’s journey takes place in a universe conceived in a way that is different from that of any other faith. For Jains, the universe is shaped like a gigantic cosmic human body. Above the body is a canopy containing the liberated and perfected souls—siddhas—who, like the Tirthankaras, have escaped the cycle of rebirths. At the top of the body, level with the chest, is the celestial upper world, the blissful home of the gods.

At waist level is the middle world, where human beings live in a series of concentric rings of land and ocean. The central landmass of this world—the continent of the Rose Apple Tree—is bounded by the mighty Himalayas, and set within ramparts of diamonds. At its very centre, the axis mundi, lies the divine sanctuary of the Jinas, Mount Meru, with its two suns and two moons, its parks and woods and its groves of wish-granting trees. Adjacent to this, but slightly to the south, lies the continent of Bharata or India. Here can be found the great princely capitals, surrounded by ornamental lakes blooming with lotus flowers.

Below this disc lies the hell world of the Jains. Here souls who have committed great sins live as hell beings in a state of terrible heat, unquenchable thirst and endless pain, under the watch of a group of malignant and semi-divine jailers, the asuras, who are strongly opposed to the dharma of the Tirthankaras.

In this world, there are no creator gods: depending on its actions and karma, a soul can be reincarnated as a god, but eventually, when its store of merit is used up, the god must undergo the agonies of death and fall from heaven, to be reborn as a mortal in the middle world. The same is true of hell beings. Once they have paid through suffering for their bad actions, they can rise to be reborn in the middle world and again begin the cycle of death and rebirth—depending on their karma, as human beings, animals, plants or tiny unseen creatures of the air. Like the fallen gods, former hell beings can also aspire to achieving moksha, the final liberation of the soul from earthly existence and suffering. Even the Tirthankara Mahavira, the Great Hero himself, spent time as a hell being, and then as a lion, before rising to be a human and so finding the path to Enlightenment. It is only human beings—not the hedonistic gods—who can gain liberation, and the way to do this is completely to renounce the world and its passions, its desires and attachments, and to become a Jain ascetic. As such, the monk or nun must embrace the Three Jewels, namely right knowledge, right faith and right conduct, and to take five vows: no violence, no untruth, no stealing, no sex, no attachments. They wander the roads of India, avoiding any acts of violence, however small, and meditating on the great questions, thinking about the order and purpose of the universe, and attempting to ford the crossing places that lead through suffering to salvation. For the Jains, then, to be an ascetic is a higher calling than to be a god.

It is a strange, austere and in some ways very harsh religion; but that, explained Prasannamati Mataji, is exactly the point.

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 25, 2010

    Nine lives In search of the sacred in modern India By William Dalrymple A short book-review By Shai Gelber

    Synopsis


    This book, much like the title suggests, tells the separate stories of nine different religious individuals in modern India. Unlike other travel books, the author emphasizes the life story and experiences of those he encounters and much less speaks of his own expeditions. The many diverse and unique religions practices in India allow for ample curiosity, especially to western readers who are less familiar with them. The author, after introducing a special religious devotee, retells their story from their perspective in a riveting manner. The reader is swept into this new and fascinating world of devotion and worship. Often shocking and astonishing, the stories are also very moving and heartbreaking.


    Opinion

    The book contains many difficult terms to comprehend and many hard words to pronounce. This fact may obstruct the natural reading flow one is used to. However, if you are able to overlook these difficulties, the book is enchanting. The anthropological and religious mixtures give an added flavor and texture.
    The fact that many people are now extremely interested in modern India could add to the book's commercial success. The book itself is well written and the characters in it are likable and relatable. The religious aspect is also intriguing and may shed light on less familiar religions and beliefs thus hopefully invoking compassion and understanding towards others, and most importantly eradicating bigotry, prejudice and hatred.

    Grade: 9/10

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2013

    Stories as rich and colorful as India itself. Dalrymple is one o

    Stories as rich and colorful as India itself. Dalrymple is one of the best non-fiction writers I've ever read. If you're interested in Eastern religion, you're sure to love this book.

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  • Posted July 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Nine Lives- Nine Hundred Loves

    I have lived in India. I inhaled the air at higher altitudes in the Himalayas, and wondered if oxygen deprivation causes this deeper awareness and spirituality. But then everything is heavily laden with spirituality up there, every rock, every tree, every drop of water is pregnant with a rich history. I have watched the sadhus walk by on pilgrimages of one sort or another. After a brief glimpse of curiosity at each other, we moved on to our appointed destinies, each regarding the other as irrelevent in the greater scheme of the Universe. But not so for Mr. Dalrymple. He delved deeper. He noted their humbleness as having just as legitimate place as yours or mine in the Universe, and he did it with a wonderful writing style. He flooded me with memories of all the things I missed that he captured so well on the journey. And if you haven't made such journies, you will feel enriched for reading this book and taking the journey through this very competant author's pages.It's almost like being there. Well done, William Dalrymple. You are a truly gifted author.

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    Posted February 14, 2011

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    Posted May 5, 2011

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    Posted September 3, 2010

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