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Ascetics, or sadhus, at Varanasi Ghat, India, 2001; photographs by Raghu Rai

The most voluble person I ever met was a somewhat chubby, middle-aged Indian ascetic, or sadhu, who had taken a strict vow of silence. I found him—well, to be honest, he was the one who adopted me—in the famous pilgrimage site of Dwaraka, on the northwest coast of India. When he discovered, by asking me through an intricate and lengthy process of gestures, rather like a game of charades, that I spoke his language, Telugu, there was truly no limit to his joy. He sat me down on the beach outside the temple and for many hours kept up his part of the conversation by tracing letters with a stick in the sand. At the time I met him, he had been “silent” for some fifteen years; no syllable had exited his throat, not even a hum or a moan. But his yearning to communicate was intense. I asked him why he had taken his vow, and he wrote in Telugu on the sand: “To free myself from the bonds of this world.”

So does this nameless, chatty figure qualify for the title of “holy man,” the standard tag for the hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of peripatetic, sun-baked, often sickly figures whom one sees, in their faded ochre robes, all over the subcontinent, in railway stations, at tea stalls, or winding their way barefoot over village paths? Indian sadhus are even said to have their own labor union, which fights to improve their often rather negative image among ordinary householders. Are any of them “holy” in any definable way? But what do we mean by the term? The very concept of holiness belongs to the Mediterranean religions and may not be well suited to Hindu forms of religious experience; indeed, until very recently, no Indian language had a term for what we call “religion,” which is not a distinct, autonomous domain within the culture as a whole.

Mediterranean holiness depends upon separation (the root meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh, “holy,” is “separate”) and an implicit opposition to other, profane spheres. But in India, it is hard to think of anything that is devoid of a potential godliness. As Basavanna, an iconoclastic poet from twelfth-century South India, complained in one of his vacana verses:

The pot is a god. The winnowing
fan is a god. The stone in the
street is a god. The comb is a
god. The bowstring is also a
god. The bushel is a god and the
spouted cup is a god.

Gods, gods, there are so many
there’s no place left
for a foot.1

We could rephrase Basavanna’s insight in a somewhat more abstract manner. It is possible to infuse any object whatever with living divinity (the Sanskrit name for this ritual process is prana-pratistha, “breathing in life”); moreover, divinity itself, like anything alive, axiomatically lacks even, stable textures and therefore normally presents itself to us in different intensities and a shifting range of modes and forms. Moreover, we ourselves have a part to play in the way such manifestations come about and are perceived.

Still, William Dalrymple has asked a good question in his Nine Lives. In an India that is undergoing very rapid globalizing and modernizing processes, what, if any, cultural possibilities are left for that particular intensification of feeling and knowing, and possibly even for certain characteristic forms of wisdom, that we could call “sacred,” for short? At various points in his book, in which we hear the voices of nine people devoted to their gods or God or gurus, Dalrymple tells us (sometimes citing an Indian informant) that modern social forces are washing away the old ways:

While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

Thus cable TV and DVDs may be having a “standardizing effect” on Hindu mythology, with the result that local versions of the classical stories as well as entire cults of village or regional deities are in danger of being eroded or even erased.2 Some great texts, such as the once hugely popular “Story of Amir Hamza,” from North India, are apparently no longer current in live performance. A master craftsman of bronze images for use in Tamil temples tells Dalrymple that his son wants to become a computer engineer rather than take up the family’s traditional vocation; this father will not attempt to force his son to cast bronzes, but he prays each day to the goddess Kamakshi to change the boy’s mind.


There are also other kinds of threats, such as that of puritanical Wahhabi Islam, which targets Sufi shrines such as the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, “the Red Royal Falcon,” in Sehwan in the Sindh region of Pakistan, with its tradition of ecstatic dhammal dancing. On the other hand, a highly trained dancer in what is perhaps the most visually dramatic of all South Asian modes of performance, that of the Hindu Teyyam tradition in Kerala in the southwest of the subcontinent, spoke persuasively to Dalrymple of expanding audiences and new forms of patronage, some of them linked to feuding political parties that adopt rival Teyyam deities as part of the struggle.

I think, in general, that there is something rather facile about the standard opposition, almost a cliché in the secondary literature on contemporary India, between the “traditional” and the “modern,” with the latter supposedly canceling out the former in a continuously accelerating process. This antithesis is utterly foreign to my experience. We are in need of some basic distinctions. It’s quite true that in many parts of the subcontinent the unbroken classical and medieval traditions of erudition are hanging by a thread, as Sheldon Pollock has stated in an important essay.3 If you want to read a classical text in Tamil or Malayalam with a scholar trained in the rigorous methods of the premodern system of higher education, you may have trouble finding such a teacher—though, with persistence, you would eventually succeed.

The number of fully proficient scholars of Sanskrit, the language of the ancient texts and of the major schools of traditional learning, is clearly shrinking (but thousands do still exist). Perhaps even more serious is the slow disappearance of what we might call the original protocols of reading and their replacement by a rather impoverished, often apologetic and defensive way of interpreting the great literary works of the past. In the manifold domains of the word—poetry, exegesis, philosophy, logic, science, history—an entire sensibility, refined over centuries to a subtlety and delicacy perhaps unparalleled in the history of civilization, has been severely, even savagely, corroded, first by colonial interventions, then by waves of imported ideologies—Romantic, nationalist, Marxist, communalist, postmodern, and so on.

Interestingly, these processes have not, on the whole, damaged the world of classical Indian music, whether in the northern Hindustani stream or in the Carnatic tradition of the far south. But even more striking, in my view, is the resilience of rituals, on the level of the family, the neighborhood, the village, or the region. Ritual practice was never static and is not so today; there are continuous changes, some of them charted by sensitive anthropologists and historians of religion.4 But anyone who knows India well, including the rapidly expanding world of the middle classes, knows that ritual, still remarkably continuous in its active modes with premodern systems of belief, occupies the very core of most families’ daily life.

To take a random example: every year in October, if you go to the city of Vizianagaram in northern Andhra Pradesh, you can see the priest of the Golden Goddess, Paidi Talli, mount a forty-foot-long pole called the Sirimanu, which rides through the streets with the priest dangling between heaven and earth while some half a million people throw bananas at him—or, to be precise, at her, since he embodies this goddess for the duration of the ride. (Why bananas? If you ask the pilgrims in the streets, they will say, “Would you prefer that we throw coconuts?”) There is no sign whatsoever that this lively local cult is becoming attenuated; the number of worshipers grows from year to year; Paidi Talli is alive. The same could be said for most of the village deities who occupy the feelings and thoughts of people throughout India. I see no signs of standardization or homogenization of the myths and rituals or of diminishing devotion.

All the stories that Dalrymple offers us in his often moving book sustain this sense of a still productive, inventive religious world. 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. Dalrymple lets these people speak for themselves; only rarely does he allow himself to describe his own thoughts and feelings, for example when he interviews, with obvious repugnance, the Wahhabi fundamentalist who is all too eager to blow up all surviving Sufi shrines in Pakistan (or anywhere else). This authorial reticence provides a contrast with Dalrymple’s superb earlier account of his pilgrimage through Christian communities in the Levant, From the Holy Mountain. I have to say I sometimes missed hearing the voice I found so engaging in the latter work.


Nine Lives does, however, call up strong resonances with the Canterbury Tales (explicitly mentioned on the first page of the book); the story told by his first protagonist, a Jain ascetic, is titled “The Nun’s Tale,” and examples of erotic mysticism, including Tantric sexual rites, appear quite regularly, sometimes accompanied by invidious comparisons to the inhibitions and alleged priggishness of the “Judaeo-Christian religious tradition,” which thus may, after all, leave Chaucer languishing beyond the pale.

“The Nun’s Tale” is, I think, my favorite of the nine lives because of the extraordinary clarity and depth of the nun’s self-perception. Born of a Rajasthani family settled in Chhattisgarh, in central India, “Mataji” chose the Jain path of total renunciation already as a girl of thirteen. It is not easy for us even to imagine what this choice entails, and not only because of the physical privation that is part of it from the beginning: a diet (for the day’s single meal) devoid of anything that grows beneath the earth (root vegetables, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic), also of milk, salt, and sweets and, it goes without saying, of any form of meat or fish; the plucking out of one’s hair by the roots; chastity, of course; a life of wandering barefoot from place to place, begging for sustenance, watching every step you take so as not to injure any living creature; long hours of meditation beginning at 3AM each morning; giving up any and all possessions; the cultivation of emotional detachment from all human ties.

The Jains are the supreme examples of the principle of ahimsa, made famous in the West by Mahatma Gandhi—the absolute refusal to cause pain or harm to another (while, for the Jains, accepting pain oneself). At the end of a life guided by such severely ascetic principles, the Jain monk or nun may choose death by starvation, sallekhana, the final act of renunciation, as indeed Mataji says she has at the age of thirty-eight. “But why?” asks Dalrymple, speaking, I suppose, for all of us; “Isn’t it an absurd waste of a life?” For that matter, why would anyone adopt this strict path as a way of life? And is it really possible to steel oneself so completely against human feeling—against love? As it happens, this particular heroine was not quite able to do so; she, too, knew the grief of intimate loss. (I don’t want to spoil the story for you; read the chapter.) But she is still capable of offering a surprising answer to our rather constricted, perhaps myopic question, and I believe her when she says:

People think of our life as harsh, and of course in many ways it is. But 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…. 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. Journey and destination became one….

There are many haunting moments in these reports. Take the case of the Tibetan monk who abandoned his vows and took up arms against the Chinese invaders, whom he came to hate—among other things, they tortured his mother to death. Hatred is one of the worst sins in the Buddhist cosmos, a guarantee that one will be reborn to great suffering. To overcome it, after serving for years in the Indian army, after fighting and killing in East Bengal in the 1971 war, this monk forces himself to eat a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Bodhgaya. The restaurant belongs to an elderly Chinese woman who tells him her story; her father was tortured and killed by soldiers during the Cultural Revolution. “We both burst into tears and hugged each other. Since then I have been free from my hatred of all things and people Chinese.”


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Near the temple of Kali, with a statue of the Bengali folk heroine Behula at front left, Calcutta, 2000

Sometimes Dalrymple seems to read the speakers’ stories through a distorting lens (in fairness, his informants themselves occasionally offer explanations that reduce the complexity of their own traditions to stark and manageable proportions). The Teyyam dancer, mentioned above, is possessed by local deities who often began life as low-caste, even Dalit or Untouchable heroes; in many cases these figures were propelled into divinity by a violent and unfair death, recounted at length in their epic stories and songs in Malayalam, the language of Kerala.

Early premodern Kerala, as Dalrymple points out, was known for the severity of its caste laws and for the scrupulous preservation of Brahmin privilege (although most Kerala Brahmins were quite poor). At least one major Teyyam narrative, that of Pottan, “the Idiot,”5 retold by Dalrymple, is structured around low-caste protest against high-caste purity rules. But there is nothing very unusual about this—Indian literature, from the time of the Upanishads on, is filled with iconoclastic and universalistic attacks on rules of social hierarchy—and there is no reason to believe that Teyyam “has always been a conscious and ritualized inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life,” or that “the entire system [of Teyyam] is free from Brahmin control,” or that this ritual of dance and possession is a weapon “to help the lower castes fight back.”

For that matter, the idea that Teyyam rituals are “a rare survival of some pre-Aryan, non-Brahminical Dravidian religious system” is best set aside; there is no such thing as a “Dravidian,” that is, a supposedly pure, primordial, South Indian religious system. I don’t know which modern myth is more misleading—the political one that subsumes the complex semantics of a ritual complex like Teyyam within the struggle for a more just society, or the scholarly one that has been corrupted by the fierce fantasies of Dravidian nationalism.

The chapter on the sculptor of bronze images—one of the most beautifully written and intellectually powerful in this volume—is somewhat marred by the constant use of the old missionary term “idols,” utterly inappropriate for any South Asian context. (Incidentally, the craftsman is a sthapati, not the unpronounceable Stpathy, as the title appears throughout.) There is nothing idolatrous about the use of such images, as the eloquent sthapati makes exquisitely clear when he describes to Dalrymple his professional ethos: “Even the wax models we create have a little of God’s jivan [life] in them, so we give even that reverence, and as we work we think only of God, saying the appropriate mantras as we carve and model.” I think Dalrymple also gets sidetracked here into an unnecessary defense of the sensual beauty of the great Chola-period bronzes, something natural, evident, and intelligible to anyone who has ever seen one. One more pedantic complaint: throughout the book dates have a way of wobbling unsteadily over the centuries, and are often wrong.

But these are minor quibbles. It is to Dalrymple’s great credit that he has shown us something we should never take for granted—the fact that, whatever else one may find in the infinite variations of South Asian religious practice, including its tendencies to kitsch, specious apologetics, a sometimes shallow pseudospiritualism, and horrific modern forms of communal fanaticism, one can still find there, indeed relatively easily and in plenty, individuals who embody in their lives the finest, most demanding, most unsettling parts of the ancient traditions. I am reminded of a conference of veteran Yogis I once attended in Hyderabad. These were men—long-haired, presumably celibate, draped in ochre, their ample bodies still supple after a lifetime of daily exercises—who had spent many years in meditation on the world within.

I foolishly expected that they might have something interesting to say. Mostly they seemed concerned, in fact obsessed, with questions of pride and ego-driven honor—who got which rich garland when, and from whose hands. They also had an irritating tendency to chatter on at great length, repeating platitudes that sounded lifeless even in Telugu (it is not easy to sound lifeless in Telugu). But there was one very old Yogi who spoke with great modesty and simplicity, with long silences between sentences as if, after all these years, he was still searching intensely for an elusive but utterly important truth, which he may have glimpsed once or twice. There is, I guess, always at least one.

This Issue

October 28, 2010