Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
Bloomsbury, 304 pages
India's Sacred Extremes
The Times Literary Supplement, January 6, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
Dalrymple profiles nine lives:
1. Manisha Ma Bhairava worships the
Goddess and engages in Tantric ceremonies in Tarapith, in Bengal. She did
not want to sleep with her husband, and when she was forced into his bedroom
she was possessed by the Goddess and had a fit. For years she kept going
into trances. Her husband beat her. She ran away and slept in the temple.
From that day, her trances became less frequent. She left her home and her
three daughters to join the Tantrics. Her devotees filled the place in her
heart that her children had occupied.
2. Lal Peri is a devotee of the
Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalander. She was driven first out of India into East
Pakistan and then out of East Pakistan into Sindh. When her father died, she
took refuge in the shrines of Sindh and struggled to live as a Sufi in
Pakistan. Dalrymple says she "was an illiterate, simple and trusting woman,
who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere." But her Sufis ran into
Wahhabi Muslims, who blew up the shrines, silenced the music, and persecuted
3. Tashi Passang lives as a Tibetan monk in Dharamsala, in
India. He fought against the Chinese after they invaded Tibet and killed his
mother. He tries to justify his violence by evoking Buddhist scriptures: "In
certain circumstances it can be right to kill a person, if your intention is
to stop that person from committing a serious sin. You can choose to take
upon yourself the bad karma of a violent act in order to save that person
from a much worse sin." He says, "I have prayed for the souls of the men I
have killed, and asked that they have good rebirth."
4. Hari Das is
possessed nightly by a god during a cycle of theyyam ritual performances
every winter in Kerala. He is a Dalit (or Untouchable) and works as a
well-digger and as a prison warder. During the season when the god possessed
him, he says, "though we are all Dalits even the most bigoted and casteist
Namboodiri Brahmins worship us, and queue up to touch our feet." He sees the
theyyam as a weapon of resistance against an unjust social system.
5. Rani Bai is a sacred prostitute (a devadasi) in a town in northern
Karnataka. She services eight or ten customers a day. Her parents sold her
when she was six. Her daughter died of AIDS, and she herself is now
HIV-positive. Very poor, and very pious, women see the devadasi system as
"providing a way out of poverty while gaining access to the blessings of the
gods". Unlike other women, a devadasi can inherit her father's property.
6. Kanai is a blind minstrel who sings with the Bauls ("crazies"), an
antinomian sect, at Kenduli, in West Bengal. When he was six months old, he
caught smallpox and went blind. When he was ten his brother was killed in an
accident, and when he was eleven, his father died. His sister hanged
herself. The deaths drove him "mad with grief". Unable to remain in the
village, he remembered a Baul guru whom he had met and joined the Bauls.
After a song, Kanai says, "It makes us so happy that we donít remember what
7. Mataji wanders as a member of a sect of Digambara
("sky-clad" or naked) Jains at Sravanabelgola. He came from a well-to-do
Jain family and met a holy man one day: "I was very impressed ... I decided
I wanted to be like him ... I was only sad that I had already wasted so much
of my life."
8. Mohan was a low-caste singer of the epics of the
cavalier hero and deity Pabuji in Rajasthan. He died of leukaemia when no
hospital would treat him or even give him a painkiller.
Stpathy is a Brahmin idol-maker in the temple town of Swamimalai in South
India. His chief sorrow is that his son wants to become a computer engineer
instead of carrying on the family tradition.
Dalrymple leaves the
reader with an overwhelming sense of sadness. As he admits in the
introduction, he roots many of the stories "in the darker and less romantic
sides of modern Indian life". But he also says: "There is a palpable sense
of community among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics and misfits [who] are
here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom."
The National, November 26, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Christian missionaries, together with colonial scholars and administrators,
dubbed India's overlapping religious traditions "Hinduism" in the late 18th
century. The polyphonic quality of Indian religions is largely due to the
original influence of Hinduism. Hinduism has ingested and modified
innumerable folk religions since its origins in the Vedic religion of North
India's Aryan settlers.
Early in its millennia-long presence in the
Indian subcontinent, Islam lost its Arabian austerity, mingling with local
religious traditions to become something that Wahhabis would abhor. Much of
the subcontinentís composite culture has survived both the divide-and-rule
strategies of British colonialism and the rivalry between the nation-states
of India and Pakistan, which has produced three major wars since 1947.
Religious piety in India continues to grow, even as religion, along with
caste and language, has assumed an aggressive and divisive new role in mass
electoral politics. But while the politics of religion becomes more vicious,
a vast majority of the subcontinent's population quietly go on with their
personal and syncretic religious practice.
Most secular Europeans
assumed that it was only a matter of time before religion in India was
expelled from the public sphere and banished to the darker corners of
private life. They had not reckoned with the fact that religion in India was
a whole way of relating to the world and offered a set of ethical parameters
for everyday life.
William Dalrymple conceived the idea for Nine
Lives on a pilgrimage to Kedernath. The book is often very moving in its
first-person accounts of spiritually-minded people that Dalrymple meets on
his travels across the subcontinent.
Dalrymple raises some large
questions in his introduction: "What does it actually mean to be a holy man
or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of
modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past? How is each specific
religious path surviving the changes India is currently undergoing? What
changes and what remains the same? Does India still offer any sort of real
spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast
developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?"
The true vitality
and continuity of Indian religions is still to be found where most of
India's population lives. Still widely practised, folk religions and
pluralist traditions constitute the norm rather than the exception. In South
India, Dalrymple writes, "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."
The impersonal authority of science and the modern state doesn't much
impress people for whom traditional religions remain a vital source of
ethical and pluralist worldviews. Mohandas Gandhi, the most famous and
creative Hindu of the contemporary era, borrowed from Islam and Christianity
in an effort to infuse mass politics, and contemporary life in general, with
The self in Indian culture is not something
clearly defined or enclosed. The sharp disjunctions and separations that
define identities in even the most liberal and multicultural Western
nation-states rarely occur here. This idea of the self makes space for an
irrepressible spirit of accommodation and fellow-feeling. India's pluralism
would be impossible without the moral and spiritual core of traditional
AR Reading this stuff after
recently rescreening Michael Wood's BBC documentary series on India gives me a
visceral sense of the visceral stuff of India. It's a blend of fascination and
By William Dalrymple
National Interest, April 20, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
India is transforming itself at breakneck speed. According to CIA estimates,
the Indian economy is expected to overtake that of the United States by
roughly 2050. These huge earthquakes have affected the diverse religious
traditions of South Asia.
Modernization within India is destroying
the local and varied flavors of Hinduism. Taking their place is what eminent
Indian historian Romila Thapar calls "syndicated Hinduism." Hinduism has no
founder and no one founding text. Indeed, the idea that Hinduism constitutes
a single religious system dates only from the arrival of the British in
Bengal in the eighteenth century. Early colonial scholars organized the
disparate, overlapping multiplicity of non-Abrahamic religious practices,
cults, myths, festivals and rival deities that they encountered across South
Asia into a new world religion that they dubbed "Hinduism."
has slowly become systemized into a relatively centralized nationalist
ideology that now increasingly resembles the very different structures of
the Semitic religions. Thapar writes: "The model is in fact that of Islam
and Christianity." According to Thapar, this homogenizing process is now
accelerating as a new middle class has created a desire for a "uniform,
monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements."
the subcontinent, faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as
the region reinvents itself. In nineteenth-century Europe, industrialization
and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went
hand in hand with the death of God: organized religion began to decline and
the church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of
South Asia has been more or less the reverse of this.
politics are becoming ever more closely entangled. The infiltration of
religion into Indian politics is something for which the nominally secular
Congress is as much responsible as the overtly Hindu nationalist Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP). There has been a dramatic increase in state funding for
yagnas (fire sacrifices), yoga camps and temple tourism, as well as a
dramatic increase of state land allocated to temples, ashrams and training
schools for temple priests.
Hinduism is not the only religion in
South Asia suffering from standardization. In Pakistan, the cults of local
Sufi saints are losing ground to a more standardized, middle-class, and
textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the
Wahhabis, Deobandis, and Tablighis in their madrassas.
great Sufi shrines of the region find themselves in a position much like
that of the great sculptured cathedrals and saints' tombs of northern Europe
five hundred years ago. Reformers and puritans are on the rise in South
Asia, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and shrines. As in Europe,
they look to the text alone for authority, and recruit the bulk of their
supporters from the newly literate urban middle class.
conservative Hindus and Muslims both suffered the humiliation of Western
subjugation. In both faiths, reform movements reexamined and reinvented
their religions in reaction to the experience of failure and conquest. Hindu
reformers tried to modernize their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults
under the influence of Western Christianity. Islamic radicals opted to
return to what they saw as their pure Islamic roots.
From "Homage to
Adam" by Bengali poet Lalon Fakir:
If you would know Allah, go to the
Who is this you call Allah?
embodied in light,
In his embryonic avatar,
He meets his beloved.
We all know this to be the truth.
We flower from the past
become prophets of the future
It is from Adam that we all came to life
He who has self-knowledge
Is open to all religions,
Be it Hindu,
Muslim, Jewish or Christian!
Lalon, knowing this, wanders happily in
woods and forests.