Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is a highly readable, engaging, even enchanting, examination of religion in the Indian subcontinent through his encounters with nine different participants in religious traditions, encounters in which they tell him their life story.

So we have The Nun’s Tale, the story of a Jain nun; The Dancer of Kanmur, a prison warder and labourer who spends two months of the year as a neyyam, being worshipped as a dancing incarnation of a god; The Daughters of Yellamma, a woman who is a member of the repressed and increasingly marginalised but persistent tradition of the sacred prostitute; The Singer of Epics, one of the two remaining hereditary singers of the Epic of Pabuji, the full performance of which takes five, eight-hour, dusk to dawn, nights; The Red Fairy, a much-admired woman who is a devotee of a Sufi saint at his tomb in Sindh; The Monk’s Tale, a Tibetan monk who atones for his life of violence in the Tibetan resistance by making prayer flags; The Maker of Idols about a scion of a 700-year old family tradition of idol making whose son apparently wants a career in computing; Lady Twilight, a Tantric skull-drinking sorceress who lives in a burial ground; and The Song of the Blind Ministrel, a Baul or traveling mystic minstrel who has been blind since childhood.

What comes across very strongly is how much India is a preserver of sacred traditions and religious patterns that have largely died out (due to the impact of monotheism) in Western and Islamic civilisations. The notion that Hinduism is what the Vedic religion became in response to the challenge of Buddhism becomes very plausible. (The rough analogy would be if Neoplatonism had rescued classical paganism from the threat of Christianity.)
On the way, we also get some highly revealing vignettes into contemporary India. Hari Das, the gaoler who is a part-time god, for example, explains how politically-based criminal gangs (either far right—the RSS—or far left—the CPM) control the prisons—even the prison officials are beholden to them: mobile phones making it easier for those in gaol to control life outside it (Pp32-3). Of the religious tradition he embodies, Dalrymple writes:
The word theyyam derives from daivam, the Sanskrit word for ‘god’. Some scholars maintain that they theyyams of northern Malabar are a rare survival of some pre-Aryan, non-Brahminical Dravidian religious tradition that was later absorbed into Hinduism’s capacious embrace. Others argue that the theyyams were tolerated as an acceptable safety valve to allow complaints against the misdeeds of the upper castes to be expressed in ritualised and non-violent manner. Either way, there is no doubt that today they are a stage on which the social norms of everyday life are inverted, and where for a short period of the year, position and power are almost miraculously transferred to the insignificant and powerless (p.36).
Gaoler to god in the course of each year is certainly quite an inversion.

Some of the theyyam parables are charming. Lord Shiva, manifesting with his wife and child as a landless Dalit family and teaching a Brahmin—close to enlightenment but blinded by his caste-pride—a lesson in shared humanity (Pp39ff). Or the guru giving two disciples a rupee each and asking them to use it to fill a room. One buys a huge pile of garbage, the only thing cheap enough to fill a room completely. The other meditated in his room, then bought a match-box, an incense stick and oil lamp and filled the room with light and a beautiful fragrance (p.48).

Hari Das the theyyam detects a religious revival going on, with rising interest in theyyam performances, but is worried that increasing education will give his children more opportunities which may preclude—since they will not be able to take the time off each year—following the tradition of being a part-time god (Pp49-50).

The histories of the traditions Dalrymple explores in Nine Lives show the effect of social and religious changes. The devadasis (sacred prostitutes) used to come from the grandest families and hold honoured positions in the temple hierarchies; now they come low-caste families and are generally simply sex-workers. The response of Hindu reformers to the taunts of Victorian-era Christian missionaries—a response continued in government policy which attempts to discourage sacred prostitution—has had much to do with the loss of status (Pp70-1). Monotheism’s issues with sex and gender are, alas, contagious since they became associated with “modernity” and “being civilised” (and, often, male power). The practice of dedicating girls to the Goddess continues, however, because poor families still see it as a path out of poverty and a way to get the Goddess’s blessings (p.72).

Dalrymple interweaves the efforts of scholars nicely into his narrative—at the end of the book is an extensive glossary as well as a bibliography for each chapter. So the efforts of Milman Parry (apparently “the Darwin of oral literature”) to demonstrate the oral origins of Homer via study of existing Balkan traditions of oral poetry revolutionising study of the Greek classics is a nice segue in the story of the narrator of epics (Pp89ff). The Mahabharata is fifteen times as long as the Bible—an epic singer explains that he remembers by imagining each stanza as written on a different pebble—and it remains part of the reference of a society whose level of cultural erudition exceeds that of more literate, but movie-obsessed, societies (Pp90-1). Parry’s studies found that a bard learning to read was the death-knell to the oral tradition: that the illiterate were capable of feats of memory that literacy destroyed (p.95).

Part of the continuing power of the epics is that their religious references, the religious life they invoke, still has power for the listeners: indeed, the minor local deities have more resonance than the great Gods of Hinduism. Though, even so, a singer of the epics notes that it is many years since he heard the hooves of the hero of whom he sings circling a village at night (Pp108ff): shades of the “retreat of the oracles” of late Antiquity.

Sufi syncretism
Due to its geography of narrow fertile strips, rocky hills and deserts, Sindh is a province that is hard to rule. It is still a place of landlord control—to the extent of private (“feudal”) armies, landlord prisons and bonded-labour—and dacoit highwaymen. (Bonded labour being both a way of extracting a surplus and paying for protective services.) It is also a place of religious syncretism, where heterodox religious notions take refuge from more orthodox religious hinterlands. (This despite being the first part of the Indian sub-continent conquered by Islam: Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad has some appalling descriptions of the brutality and violence of the Muslim conquest—but Hindus and Buddhists counted as pagans rather than “people of the book” so, until more lenient interpretations gained some acceptance, confronted the choice of convert or die; hence Muslim incursions and conquests in India tended to be particularly savage.)

Of this religious syncretism, Dalrymple writes that Sindh’s own geography and:
its geographical position as the bridge between Hindu India and the Islamic Middle East, has always made Sindh a centre of Hindu-Muslim syncretism, with every kind of strange cult, part-Hindu, part-Muslim, flourishing in its arid wastes.
Much of this intermixing took place in the Sufi shrines that are still the main focus of devotion in almost village here. For Sufism, with its holy saints and visions, healings and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual’s search for direct knowledge of the divine, has always borne remarkable similarities to certain currents in Hindu mysticism.
All religions were one, maintained the Sufi saints, merely different manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque or temple, but to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart – that we all have Paradise within us, if we know where to look (p.113).
Sufism is a very mixed religious phenomenon. Possibly because of influence of British rule in India, Western concepts of Sufism tend to be very much of the sort of Sufism that Dalrymple presents here. Other strains of Sufism (particularly in North Africa) have been avidly jihadist. Sufism has long been the way Islam has presented itself to tribal and local peoples: it is currently losing out to the book-based salafi surge that propagates more easily in an age of mass literacy, global migration and the confronting cultural medley of the “global village”.

The Sufism Dalrymple is describing is one deeply influence by the interaction with Hinduism (and, though not mentioned, Buddhism):
The Sufis believed that this search for God within and the quest for fana – the total immersion in the absolute – liberated the seeker from the restrictions of narrow orthodoxy, allowing the devotee to look beyond the letter of the law to its mystical essence. This allowed the Sufis for the first time to bring together Hindu and Muslim in an accessible and popular movement which spanned the apparently unbridgeable gulf separating the two religions. The teachings of Sufi poetry and song also provided a link between the devotions of the villagers and the high philosophical subtleties of the mystics (p.113).
For the Sufis wrote in the local languages and used metaphors and images familiar to everyday rural lives.

Influences went in both directions:
If the Sufi brought many Hindus into the Islamic fold, then they also succeeded in bringing an awareness of Hinduism to India’s Muslims. Many Sufis regarded the Hindu scriptures as divinely inspired, and took on the yogic practices of the Hindu sadhus: sitting meditating before a blazing fire in the heat of summer or hanging themselves by the feet to recite prayers – a practice that is still performer by South Asia Sufis, who sometimes use the hat racks or luggage rails of trains from which to hang (p.114),
Dalrymple then gives us a brief biography of C18th Sufi master Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit Shah, including an English translation of a poem by the Sufi master praising the wandering sadhus of Hinduism (Pp114ff). The Sufi saint continues to inspire devotion. A few years previously, Dalrymple had observed:
The wild and ecstatic night-long celebrations marking the anniversary of the saint’s death were almost a compendium of everything of which Islamic puritans most disapprove: loud Sufi music and love poetry was being sung in each courtyard, men were dancing with women, hashish was being smoked, huge numbers were venerating the tomb of a dead man and all were routing their petitions through the saint, rather than directly to God in the mosque (p.115).
“Corpse-worship” is what the salafis would call it.

And the contempt is returned:
But for the Sindhis attending the ’Urs [annual festival of commenoration], it was not they who were the heretics, so much as the stern Wahhabi mullahs who criticised the popular Islam of the Sufi as shirk, or heresy: ‘These mullahs are just hypocrites,’ said one old fakir I talked to in the shrine. ‘Without love, they distort the true meaning of the teaching of the Prophet. They are just interested in themselves. They should all be jailed for life.’ (p.116)
The old fakir urges Dalrymple not to miss meeting a famous lady fakir, Lal Peri Mastani, or the Ecstatic Red Fairy—described as being known by everyone, regarded as the most passionate of the saints devotees and as dressed in bright red, very fat and carrying a club (Pp116-7).

When he meets Lal Peri, he finds she has the same views on the mullahs as the old fakir:
‘Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis and Tablighis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is shirk. Those hypocrites! 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. Mullahs and Azazeel [Satan] are the same thing.’ (p.132).
(Which is, of course, not very far from Christ’s criticism of priestly and letter-of-the-law Judaism in the Gospels.)

Lal Peri quotes some couplets from Shah Abdul Latif:
Why call yourself a scholar, o mullah?
You are lost in words.

You keep on speaking nonsense,
They you worship yourself.

Despite seeing God with your own eyes,
You dive into the dirt.

We Sufis have taken the flesh from the holy Quran,
While you dogs are fighting with each other.

Always tearing each other apart,
For the privilege of gnawing at the bones. (Pp132-3)
Shah Abdul Latif was a contemporary of the founder of Wahhabism, but preached a very different Islam.

Dalrymple sees the parallels between contemporary Pakistan and C16th Reformation Europe, with text-based reformers and puritans attacking popular devotions to saints and shrines (p.133). People who say Islam “needs a Reformation” understand neither Islam nor the Reformation. What Islam missed out was the Aristotelian renaissance of the C12th and C13th (which it did not miss out on so much as deliberately rejected), the classicist Renaissance that never ended (due to the invention and spread of printing) and, above all, the Enlightenment response to the bitter religious strife of the Reformation.

Saudi money pouring into the madrassas is recruiting young devotees to an text-based puritanism, leading to demonstrations and destruction of shrines (as the Wahhabis did to the tombs of Muhammad’s Companions in Mecca). As Taliban control spreads, shrines are blown up or closed down: a common excuse being the shrines opening their doors to women for prayers and healing (Pp134-5).

As Dalrymple notes, this three-cornered contest of Hinduism, Sufi Islam and Islamic orthodoxy has a very long history (Pp135-6). Dalrymple’s interview with the head of a new madrassa which has opened up near the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif contains themes which are familiar to anyone aware of Reformation history. The madrassa head’s railing against “tomb worship”, “grave worship”, against the use of music, critiquing heretical departure from scripture could be that of any C16th or C17th Calvinist or Lutheran denouncing paganism-contaminated Catholicism (Pp137ff).

If one believes that one has texts which come directly from God—and that those are the only true guides to His absolutely trumping wishes—then anything which engages mere humans, and is not text-God-directed, is a diversion from God and thus sin and error. Given mainstream Islam’s adoption of occasionalism, contemplation of the created world as also being God’s work provides no counterbalance to this narrow textualism. But, even in Catholicism and Orthodoxy—where scripture is only indirect work of God while the created world is His direct work, so music and beauty can be utilised—priestly authority works to reproduce many of the patterns of the exclusory rigidity that monotheism is so prone to.

Insisting on the primacy of God’s compassion and love leads to a rather different perspective than does text-driven puritanism. For it is the authoritativeness of the text that is crucial: the content will remain open to interpretation; hence the real authority sits with the interpreters of the text. Thus Quakers are notoriously small ‘c’ Christian: they have no priests, so no religious intermediaries intent on using God to strip people of moral protections, as weapons for their own authority as “gatekeepers of righteousness”.

Lal Peri takes Dalrymple to meet her own teacher or pir Sain Fakir, a man in his eighties living at a small shrine. Sain Fakir tells Dalrymple:
‘The mullahs distort the Prophet’s message for their own purposes,’ said Sain Fakir. ‘Men are so blind as them cannot even see the shining sun. Their creed is extremely hard. It doesn’t understand human weakness.’
‘It excludes everyone,’ says Lal Peri, ‘Even other mullahs, at times.’
Sain Fakir shrugged his shoulders. ‘In this world, everyone commits sin. The Sufis always understood this. They understand human weakness. They offer forgiveness, and people will always love those who forgive.’ (p.143)
He is confident that the self-destructive nature of the Wahhabi teachings—as manifested in their internecine violence—and the enduring values of the Sindhis will block the spread of such teachings. The Red Fairy is brutal about the text-based puritans:
‘The Wahhabis are traders who sell their faith for profit,’ said Lal Peri angrily. ‘They are not true Muslims – just fuel for the fires of hell’
Her teacher responds:
‘A lot of it is about power … The Sufis are a threat to the mullahs because we command the loyalty and faith of the ordinary people. No one is excluded. You can be an outcaste, a fallen woman, and you can come and pray at the shrine and the Sufi will forgive you, and embrace you.’
‘You don’t even have to be a Muslim and you will be welcomed,’ said Lal Peri (p.144).
Dalrymple’s tale of the Red Fairy ends with a charming tale of a Sufi saint who decides to collect some of the fires of hell to warm himself and a friend, but returns empty-handed reporting that:
There is no fire in hell … Everyone who goes there brings their own fire, and their own pain, from this world (p.145).
I am reminded of a charming Vietnamese folk tale about the difference between Heaven and Hell. In Hell, people have all the rice they want but can only pick it up with 6-foot chopsticks, so everyone is starving, as they cannot bring the rice to their mouths. Heaven is exactly the same, except everyone is happy and well-fed, because they feed each other.

Divine eroticism
In telling the story of the maker of idols, Dalrymple explores the eroticism that pervades Hinduism’s polytheistic conception of the divine, contrasting it with the Judaeo-Christian tradition:
The Judaeo-Christian tradition, which tends to emphasise the sinfulness of the flesh, the dangers of sexuality and the idealisation of sexual renunciation and virginity, begins its myth of origin with the creation of light. In contrast, the oldest scripture of the Hindu tradition, the Rig Veda, begins its myth with the creation of kama – sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the Hindu scheme of things, kama remains one of the fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma, duty or religion and artha, the creation of wealth.
… the same erotic concerns found in the secular poetry of classical India are equally evident in the devotional and religious poetry of the period: Kalidasa’s poem The Birth of Kumara, for example, has an entire canto of ninety-one verses entitled ‘The Description of Uma’s Pleasure’ which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of Lord Shiva and his divine consort. The poetry of the Tamil saints, who walked from temple to temple converting the local Jains and Buddhists, likewise dwell on the sensuous beauty of the deities they adore (p.187).
Such saints were perfectly happy to dwell on the erotic beauty of both Gods and Goddesses: Dalrymple quotes a poem of one such saint imagining himself as a dancing girl wanting to press her body against that of Shiva (Pp188-9).

This exploration of the eroticism within Hindu tradition continues in Dalrymple’s tale of the Tantric sorceress Manisha Ma. Tantra is a tradition that reaches into Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and aspects of Sufi Islam and connects back to some very ancient traditions such as shamanism. It overturns convention, seeking ecstatic direct connection with the divine, existing in both high philosophical and more oral and spontaneous popular forms, including aspirations to magical powers. Its rituals have often involved use of bodily fluids, notably blood and semen (Pp213ff).

Tantra has been in long decline:
These original esoteric medieval Tantric traditions nearly died out in India, sinking from view around the thirteenth century AD, probably partly as a result of the disruption that followed in the wake of the violence of the Islamic invasions, which broke many of the lines of guru-disciple relationships through which Tantric secrets were passed. Tantrics later became a particular target of European missionaries who made ‘the obscene ceremonies of the Hindoos’ central to their polemics. The nineteenth-century rise of the Hindu reform movements, many of which emanated from Bengal in reaction to British missionaries, nearly finished this process. For the reform movements championed what some scholars have called the ‘Rama-fiction’ of Hindu worship in the Ganges plains: the rise of the Vaishnavite bhakti cults of Lord Krishna and especially Lord Rama, to the extent that they eclipsed many other more traditional and popular forms of local devotion involving DeviLINk cults and blood sacrifices, which were judged primitive, superstitious and anti-modern by the urban and often Western-educated reformers (p.215).
The process Dalrymple describes parallels the way the original Vedic religion was renovated into Hinduism in response to the Buddhist challenge.

Tantra is generally a marginal phenomenon:
everywhere except in certain areas of Bengal, Kerala and Assam, as well as in Nepal and Bhutan, where Tantra still flourishes as a mainstream form of religion, in the latter case within a Buddhist rather than a Hindu context (p.215).
Tantrics seek to reach the divine by opposing conventions and breaking taboos. One can clearly see the animistic roots of much Tantrism, as well as the notion of sex as a path to divine that recurs in both animism and polytheism.

The Bauls of Bengal are saffron-clad wandering minstrels who date back at least 500 years. They seek the Enlightenment in the moment, refusing to follow the conventions of caste-conscious Bengali society:
Subversive and seductive, wild and abandoned, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings on breathing techniques, sex, asceticism, philosophy and musical devotion. They have also amassed a treasury of beautifully melancholic and often enigmatic teaching songs which help map out their path to inner vision (p.235).
Shrines, temples, mosques are only signposts on a road to Enlightenment, never ends in themselves.

They come out of longstanding traditions in Indian society:
The near-atheism and humanism of these singing philosophers is not in any sense a new departure in Indian thought, and dates back at least to the sceptical and materialistic Charvaka school of the sixth century BC, which rejected the idea of God and professed that no living creature was immortal. Ancient India in fact has a larger atheistic and agnostic literature than any other classical civilisation. (Pp235-6).
An ambiguity in the face of the divine which can be traced back at least as far as the Rig-Veda (p.236).

All the nine lives that Dalrymple uses to explore the different religious traditions of the Indian sub-continent are appealing in themselves, and part of the joy of the book. But the final story, that of the blind minstrel, is in fact two stories. Because Kanai the blind minstrel—the son of day labourers, he was blinded by smallpox at an early age—has a great friend and travelling companion Debdas, a Brahmin brutally rejected (indeed beaten bloody) by his father (and older brother) for seeking to become a Baul. They talk to Dalrymple of their connection, during which Debdas says:
At times, I am Kanai’s guru ... and at time, Kanai is my guru. He reminds me even of my own songs (p.248).
Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is perceptive and engaging travel writing: humane, informed, deeply observant. It is an excellent way to connect to other religious traditions outside the confines of monotheism and so enabling us to see those confines more clearly.


  1. I read a lot of this stuff as background for my novel, hence Saleh and Saleh's mother Daria. And yes, the Christians hated Cybele (as Macmullen brings out very well).