India, like China, is a country so big, and so enmeshed in rapid change, that it is hard to understand or assess for those of us far from it. That change, when it is addressed at all in our media, tends to be expressed in terms of huge statistics – millions of people, billions of dollars, and so on. But we just don’t often get the chance to understand this change on the individual human scale. Religion, which in India has been incredibly diverse for thousands of years, has its own complex role to play. But that role too is evolving.
William Dalrymple has written extensively about India in books like The Last Mughal (2006) and City of Djinns (1994). Nine Lives, his most recent book, is not a detailed analysis of the current state of Indian politics or economics, or even the role of religion in those spheres. Rather, it is a series of human snapshots of the collision between traditional, sometimes ancient religious ways and India’s rampant growth, modernization, and secularization.
The book opens with the story of Prasannamati Mataji, a middle class woman who embraced the life of a muni, or Jain ascetic, as a young teen. As she describes it, “This wandering life, with no material possessions, unlocks our souls. There is a wonderful sense of lightness, living each day as it comes, with no sense of ownership, no weight, no burden.” Personal religious practice in India can take a multitude of forms, some of them surprising. “’Before you drink from a skull,’ said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, ‘you must first find the right corpse.’” So begins Chapter 8’s portrait of Manisha, who lives in a cremation ground and practices Tantra, collecting skulls, worshiping them and evoking their power. Tantra, associated with yoga, magic, shamanism, and sexual rituals, is out of favor with the modernizing Indian government, partly due to some of its extreme practices.
Religion can also serve to exalt, to bring hope to people. In Chapter 2 Dalrymple speaks to Hari Das, one of a group of theyyam dancers, costumed and dancing frenetically in the hopes of briefly incarnating a god. These Dalit, or Untouchables, spend three months of the year as gods, and the rest of the time as jail wardens, construction workers, and waiters. For them, theyyam serves as “a tool and a weapon to resist and fight back against an unjust social system as much as a religious revelation.” This is perhaps the only context in which Dalits can assert some kind of superiority over the Brahmins in that very caste-conscious part of southwestern India.
Other religious roles have become distinctly devalued, such as the devadasi. An ancient institution – perhaps depicted in a Mohenjo-Daro bronze as early as 2500 BCE, repeatedly memorialized in temple sculptures and poetry over the centuries – devadasi were originally “temple women” married to a god or goddess, serving a king or prince or brahmin. Now they are mostly prostitutes, although they still regard their vocation as a sacred one. Rani Bai was sold into the sex trade by her parents. Both her daughters did the same out of financial necessity; both died of AIDS as teens.
The interplay of religion and artistic creation has long been a major facet of Indian devotion. The book’s concluding chapter takes place at a West Bengal festival around the time of winter solstice, when thousands of Bauls, or wandering minstrels – including a blind singer named Kanai, the center of the chapter – gather to sing and dance. “The Bauls … seek to channel the mysteries of sexuality and the sexual urge – the most powerful emotional force in the human body – as a way of reaching and revealing the divinity of the inner self.” Chapter 7 tells of Srikanda Stpathy, the latest in a long family line, stretching over 700 years, of stpathy or idol makers. Even today he uses the ancient lost-wax method for casting bronze statues of a complex host of gods. If properly prepared, such idols are thought to contain some of the jivan, the life, of the god depicted. Chapter 4’s Mohan Bhopa and wife Batasi are two of the last singers of the Rajasthani medieval poem The Epic of Pabuji. Six hundred years old, this 4,000 line poem, “the epic story of a semi-divine warrior and incarnate god, Pabu, who died protecting a goddess’s magnificent herds against demonic rustlers,” takes five nights or more to recite in full, the telling still considered a divine ritual. The caste of wandering bhopas of which Mohan and Batasi are a part preserves these stories, traveling from community to community to recite them for audiences while also serving as shaman, healer, and exorcist, a mediator between people and gods.
In Chapter 5 Dalrymple visits the Sindh in northwestern India, near the Pakistan border and the Indus River, and a home to all sorts of Hindu-Muslim syncretism. Sufis are still common there, mystics who believe in personal experience of the divine. Lal Peri, the subject of the chapter, is a fiftyish woman from Bihar in eastern India, who made her way west and became a devotee of the patron saint of the shrine at Sehwan Sharif. As Dalrymple points out, not unlike the great cathedrals of northern Europe during the Reformation, shrines like Sehwan Sharif are now endangered by the rise of reformers and fundamentalists. Reacting to the colonialism of the British and Soviets, Hindus looked to the West, but Muslims rejected the West, leading to the Taliban, the rise of madrasas (according to a study there are now 27 times more madrasas in Pakistan than there were in 1947, from 245 to more than 8,000), and the fight for a return to the purity of the Quran and the rejection of idols and spirit worship. Tensions at Sehwan Sharif, unsurprisingly, run high.
Indian politics is a consistent subtext of Dalrymple’s book. But it also occasionally rises to the foreground. Chapter 6 features the story of Passang, a Tibetan monk who twice made the choice to take up arms and fight: against the Chinese when they invaded Tibet in 1950, and later in the Indian army against Pakistan in the war that ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh. In between and afterward, he renewed his monastic vows, and tried to repent and build merit by making prayer flags and engaging in other good works (he was one of the monks who protected the Dalai Lama when he left Tibet for Dharamsala in 1959).
Dalrymple’s beautifully written, even poetic, book assembles through its nine subjects a portrait of India’s rich spiritual heritage, as well as aspects of that spirituality that are under threat from modernization and globalization. The nine people embody, as he phrases it, “the quest for material success and comfort against the claims of the life of the spirit; the call of the life of action against the life of contemplation; the way of stability against the lure of the open road; personal devotion against conventional or public religion; textual orthodoxy against the emotional appeal of mysticism; the age-old war of duty and desire.”