Nine Lives | William Dalrymple

Summary of: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
By: William Dalrymple


In ‘Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India,’ William Dalrymple uses his skillful storytelling to bring us closer to understanding the complexity of religious beliefs in India. Weaving stories from different regions, and involving different belief systems like Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Dalrymple explores the interplay of faith, history, and society. In this summary, we’ll learn about the deeply ascetic practices of Jain monks, the social oppression in Kerala, the resistance of Tibetan monks against the Chinese occupation, and the esoteric creed of wandering minstrels called Bauls. The introduction sets the stage for readers to gain a deeper appreciation of India’s diverse beliefs and the people who practice them.

Jainism and Asceticism

Jainism is an ancient religion that emerged in the Ganges basin and has deep roots in asceticism.

Jainism is a religion that dates back to the third century BCE and originated in the Ganges basin, where it shares roots with Hinduism and Buddhism. Jainism considers asceticism to be a foundational commitment and a path to salvation. The rejection of worldly attachments and the practice of self-discipline are significant traditional values shared by all three religions, but Jainism stands out in its strict adherence to ascetic practices.

For instance, Jain monks pluck their hair out by the root instead of shaving their heads like Buddhist monks. Additionally, bathing with soap and water is forbidden, and instead, Jain monks may only clean themselves with a wet towel. The term “Jain” derives from the Sanskrit word “Jina,” which means “liberator” or “spiritual conqueror.” According to Jain scriptures, there have been 24 great Jinas – human teachers who achieved transcendent knowledge of the universe through self-denial.

Jainism’s asceticism is a direct response to the perceived moral failings of Hinduism, particularly the willingness of Brahmins to slaughter animals, which Jains and Buddhists criticize. They also object to the caste system’s inherent social superiority, which they reject. Jain asceticism purports that self-denial is the only path to real sacrifice and liberation.

Jains argue that purity rituals cannot result in salvation, which is only achieved through asceticism. Jain monks must beg for food by placing one arm over their shoulder, and if passers-by refuse to give them food, they must go to bed hungry. Jainism’s strong emphasis on asceticism reveals itself in even the smallest details of a Jain monk’s day-to-day life.

Jainism and Spiritual Liberation

The Jain faith and its principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, are explored through the life of a Jain nun named Prasannamati Mataji. The author introduces readers to Jainism’s origins and traditions, including the story of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s conversion and Prince Bahubali’s spiritual journey. The life and beliefs of Prasannamati Mataji are also highlighted, including her dedication to non-attachment and her companion’s decision to embrace sallekhana, a voluntary fast ending in death. The author’s observations on the pilgrimage to the holy Jain site at Shravanabelagola are woven throughout, providing a rich context for readers to understand the spiritual practices of this fascinating faith.

Oppression in Kerala

Kerala, India’s “spice garden,” has a rich history of trade and fertile land, but also a dark past and present of social oppression. The caste system in Kerala was notorious for its rigid hierarchies and violence against lower castes. Even today, Dalits face caste bigotry and discrimination from higher castes in various forms, from unequal lunch practices to taboo behaviors. In the next part, the interaction between social inequality and religion in Kerala will be explored, as we see how individuals like Hari Das navigate this oppressive system.

Theyyam Ceremonies: A Voice for the Dalits

Theyyam is a religious ceremony in Kerala that allows the Dalit community to voice their complaints against upper-caste Keralans. Unlike other religious rites, they are controlled by Dalit priests and take place in small shrines and sacred groves deep in the countryside. During the ceremony, Hindu gods incarnate themselves in the bodies of dancers, usually from the lower castes, to enact justice that was missing in the laborer’s own life. These ceremonies give the Dalit communities a sense of solidarity and self-confidence while creating their own canon of heroes and set of rituals.

The Life of a Tibetan Hermit

Tashi Pasang’s journey from a potential yak herder to a Buddhist hermit is a story of spiritual transformation and the pursuit of true happiness.

Tashi Pasang was born in 1936 to a family of Tibetan yak herders. Despite his family tradition, Pasang’s great uncle saw his potential as a monastery student and convinced him to become a Buddhist monk. Pasang learned the importance of avoiding desire, greed, pride, and attachment – the illusions that bring only strife and misery. Techniques such as meditation, memorizing holy scripture, and isolation helped him overcome his worldly desires.

After three years of instruction, Pasang spent four months in a cave in the mountains to learn the value of solitude. His days were filled with 4,000 prostrations and prayer until hunger and fatigue overwhelmed him. But after two weeks in the cave, he experienced a shift in consciousness. He finally grasped the vanity of pleasures and ambitions, and his mind became clear as he felt his sins being washed away. The hermit’s life had purified him.

Pasang realized that this was true happiness, and he decided to devote himself to a life of quiet devotion. Even so, history had other plans for him.

Pasang’s journey from a potential yak farmer to a Buddhist hermit is a story of spiritual transformation and the pursuit of true happiness. Through his experiences, we learn the value of solitude and the importance of letting go of worldly desires.

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