You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Faith Continent

It is terribly clichéd to marvel at India’s spiritual superabundance, but that is because few travelers to the subcontinent can help doing so. It is not only the millions of gods that amaze, or the profusion of temples, festivals, idols, and holy men. India’s uncanny sensation of sanctity also comes from the way time seems all tangled up, so that religious practices from across the millennia coexist in the same period.

Western religion once had all manner of holy fools, wandering mystics, and self-torturing ascetics, but they mostly belonged to a different era than our own, with its high-tech mega-churches, sectarian electoral politics, and gauzy self-help movements. In India, by contrast, religious history looks less linear. Ecstatic antinomian sects, sober social-justice reformists, staid middle-class traditionalism, and militant fundamentalism all thrive at once. India has digital pujas, allowing diaspora Hindus to make virtual offerings, as well as TV swamis and politico-religious demagogues who rail against Bollywood. It has a rich, living tradition of coolly philosophical deism. And it has countless world-renouncing hermits, as well as surviving vestiges of blood sacrifice and ritual sex magic.  

No single volume could do justice to India’s lush religious diversity, but I have never read one that encompasses more of it, or that penetrates deeper, than William Dalrymple’s luminous new book. It consists of nine riveting and thickly reported tales of individual devotion, which together summon up a whole world and sometimes end with devastating twists. Dalrymple was already known as one of the finest non-Indian writers about India, and Nine Lives will only enhance that reputation.

The book is not, mercifully, a survey, and there are huge areas of Indian religion that Dalrymple leaves out. He does not deal here with the major ashrams or the sprawling organizations of so-called godmen, self-deified gurus with huge followings such as the scandal-plagued Sai Baba. He doesn’t get into the modern political Hindu chauvinism of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its adjuncts—in fact, he mostly avoids politics and institutions altogether. Instead he is largely concerned with what Williams James called “personal religion,” which consists of “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.”

Personal religious experience is a notoriously hard thing to write about. Reading about other people’s spiritual raptures is usually as dull as reading about their dreams. But Dalrymple manages to make his subjects’ spiritual adventures fascinating, turning them into intricately wrought narratives that illuminate areas of Indian life that are usually impenetrable to outsiders. His book delves into the world of an idol maker in Tamil Nadu, a wandering bard in Rajasthan, a guilt-ridden Tibetan monk in Dharamsala and, in the one chapter that leaves India’s borders, a female Sufi mystic in Pakistan. With empathy and an admirable lack of sensationalism, Dalrymple introduces readers to temple prostitutes and even to a group of tantrics who dwell in a cremation ground and drink from the cured skulls of suicides and virgins. Their lives may sound lurid, but Dalrymple renders them as a touching community of outcasts.  

Like all religious systems, those in India are responsible for many cruelties and injustices. But they also have brilliant ways of making room for people who have no place at all in other societies. Were they born in the United States, some of Dalrymple’s tantric sadhus would probably be homeless; but in Bengal, they have a feared but recognized niche, “living in a mystical anarchy in a great open-air lunatic asylum for the divinely mad.” (Of course, they cannot hide completely from the modern world’s demands. One of the skull-feeders Dalrymple meets refuses to be interviewed for fear of embarrassing his ophthamologist sons in New Jersey). 

Nine Lives begins with “The Nun’s Tale,” the story of a thirty-eight-year-old Jain nun named Prasannamati Mataji. Jain monks and nuns live lives of extreme austerity: as Dalrymple writes, “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.” Their commitment to nonviolence is nearly absolute: Jain ascetics cannot stand on the grass or travel in vehicles, either of which could kill tiny creatures. They refuse root vegetables, which cannot be harvested without killing the entire plant, and reject modern medicine because its creation involves the torture or death of animals.  

It is a severe life, but by allowing Mataji’s story to unfold in her own words Dalrymple conveys some of its beauty. “Going into the unknown world and confronting it without a single rupee in our pockets means that differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, all vanish, and a common humanity emerges,” she tells him. “As wanderers, we monks and nuns are free of shadows from the past…There is a wonderful sense of lightness, living each day as it comes, with no sense of ownership, no weight, no burden.” And yet human attachment sneaks up on Mataji. Jain nuns wander in pairs so as to avoid attack, and for twenty years Mataji was inseparable from another nun, Prayogamati. Then Prayogamati became horribly ill, and, to end her suffering she undertook sallekhana, the process of ritually starving oneself to death, a sanctified end that Jains consider very different than suicide. The story concludes with a bit of a shock. I will not give it away, except to say that it raises profound questions about the tensions between love and non-attachment—tensions that animate the entire book. Mataji makes a great sacrifice, which may be interpreted either as a sign of her ultimate renunciation or as a final failure to transcend passion and despair.  

Since most of Dalrymple’s subjects are earnest, eccentric seekers, his kaleidoscopic book downplays the conservative and restrictive elements of India’s religions, particularly regarding sex and gender. Occasionally, his terrifically appealing affection for India’s spiritual landscape creeps close to romanticism. “Sexuality in India has always been regarded as the subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry,” he writes in a passage about erotic Hindu sculpture. That is true to a degree, but it’s also true that many Indians interpret their religions to sanction hideous sexual repression. Honor killings, for example, remain a scourge in the country’s north.

Where fundamentalism appears in Nine Lives, it serves as a foil, a foreign threat to the earthy and humane indigenous spirituality that Dalrymple celebrates. The book’s most charming character is Lal Peri Mastani, or “the Ecstatic Red Fairy,” a fat, club-wielding “lady fakir” who lives in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan’s Sindh province, and is a sworn enemy of Deobandi and Wahhabi mullahs. “They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet,” she says. “Mullahs and Azazeel [Satan] are the same thing.” She is a living rebuke to the claims that Islam is necessarily a brutal and belligerent creed, but it is impossible to share her confidence that her joyful, merciful brand of faith will ultimately triumph in Sindh or anywhere else in Pakistan.  

Fundamentalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon–like atheism, it treats conflicts between religious literalism and science, logic and history as fatal to belief. In the worlds Dalrymple evokes though, secular reason and religious insight exist on separate planes. They are not expected to conform to each other. There are not even neat divisions between devotion and skepticism. In a fascinating chapter about the Bauls, wandering minstrels whose mystical humanist philosophy sometimes comes close to atheism, he cites this wonderful passage from the Rig Veda: ”Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? Perhaps it formed itself, perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it from the highest heaven, only he knows–or perhaps he does not know.” Dalrymple presents a spiritual panoply so capacious that it even makes room for non-believers.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. She is working on a book about the actress, adventuress and pioneering yoga exponent Indra Devi, to be published by Knopf in 2012.