Since at least the 1960s—when millions of college students carried a copy of Hermann Hesse’s classic tale of Buddhist spirituality, Siddhartha, in their back pockets—Western society has often turned to the East in search of ancient wisdom associated with Indian religious traditions and religious practices as diverse as yoga, tantric sex and meditation. Although attention to these Indian religions suddenly flourished, very few of their admirers thought of them as dynamic, evolving spiritual traditions, capable of adapting to the changing needs of a rapidly developing society.

Now, in Nine Lives—a kind of follow-up to his stunning From the Holy Mountain—William Dalrymple brilliantly narrates the lives of nine people, from a prison warden to a Jain nun to a prostitute, to offer us a portrait of the ways in which India’s religious identity—far from being a deep well of unchanging wisdom—is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at lightning speed.

In Kannur, for example, Dalrymple meets Hari Das, a prison warden and well-digger. For nine months of the year, Das—whose job places him among the dalits, or “untouchables”—polices inmates; but for three months, between December and March, during the theyyam dancing season, the caste system is turned upside down as an untouchable turns into a Brahmin, or priest. Das transforms into the god Vishnu (the role he plays in these annual religious rituals), and everything in his life changes as he brings blessings to the villagers and exorcises evil spirits.

In a number of other compelling stories, Dalrymple’s first-rate book pulls back the curtain on modern Indian society and reveals how deeply the spiritual is etched in people’s lives and the creative ways in which these people are adapting their religious practices to momentous and rapid social changes.

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