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Nine Lives

“Today, we live with this illusion that we know the world," says William Dalrymple. "The reality, of course, is. . .that there's huge parts of the world which we know absolutely nothing about, particularly in areas of religion and philosophy." For most of us, India is one of those places. With the third largest population in the world, and an economy that’s growing almost as fast as China’s, one can understand why old ways are being snuffed out.

But Dalyrmple sought out “places suspended between modernity and tradition” where religion is in “a state of fascinating and unpredictable flux.”

In villages or small towns, he interviewed people whose religions are expressed in what seem—to Westerners at least—rash, dangerous and peculiar ways. Here are some of the people he found:

  • In a lifelong effort to become unencumbered and reach for “liberation,” a 38-year-old Jain monk renounces nearly everything: hair, relationship attachments, meat and all but one meal a day.

  • For most of the year, Hari Das is scorned as an untouchable member of the Dalit caste, but for three months every year he dons makeup and heavy headdresses and becomes a respected Hindi theyyam dancer, who performs elaborate dances when he is possessed by the god God Vishnu. For those three months, he is worshiped by Brahmins who scorn him during the rest of the year.

  • In the northernmost tip of India, an old Tibetan tells of how he gave up his Buddhist monastic vows to fight the invading Chinese. Overwhelmed by the enemy, he fled to Dharamsala, where he took up his vows and is spending his last days anxiously repenting of his participation in war.

Dalyrmple is a keen observer, reporting on what he’s seen and heard, then adding religious context to help the reader place each person's story into the larger story of India. I was intrigued by these snapshots, even though I realized I'd had only a glimpse of this vast, complex, crowded and enigmatic country.

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Jolene said... This was a

Jolene said...

This was a very interesting read! Not only were people's stories fascinating, but it gave me a glimpse into the diversity of India.

Anonymous said... Nothing new

Anonymous said...

Nothing new about places (and people) struggling with ( or suspended in between) modernity and tradition - perhaps they are now so outrageous that we pay attention. Religion is "spiritual" and "not religious" -- do words mean anything anymore? Can a fish be fishy? No - a fish is not fishy; yes, other things might turn out to be "fish-like"; smell like fish, taste like fish, look like fish! Therefore, a fish is not fishy! It takes me back to my Logic class - thanks.

Steve Barrett said... This

Steve Barrett said...

This sounds really good. Kind of sounds like what religious experience might be anywhere. I'm in Austin, TX and the primary religion is "Spiritual but Not Religious." I guess I'm Methodist and Lutheran, but these "labels" don't mean as much as they used to. I don't expect to fit in, to fit in to the larger society, but these stories might help me identify myself, take my stand.

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