The Nine Lives of India’s Religions


William Dalrymple, Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India, Knopf 2010.
Hardcover 304 pages. Approx. $27 posted from online stores.
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Published in REJA, the journal of the Australian Association for Religious Education, Volume 21, No. 2, 2010

I took my first tentative steps in teaching Indian religion 30 years ago. I still remember my confusion: I learned lists of Four Noble Truths and Eight Right Pathways; I rehearsed the story of Gautama’s enlightenment to tell in class; I read about Shiva and Ganesh. But I couldn’t sort out why some Buddhists are effectively atheists, while others worship the Buddha as a god. I didn’t understand how Hindus appeared to worship hundreds of gods while the text books said there was one, or perhaps three, gods in Hinduism.

No doubt I passed on my confusion to my students. I could have done with Dalrymple’s engaging book then.

Only many years later I learned that “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” were effectively the creation of 19th Century English and German scholars, who had only recently classified Islam and Judaism as “religions”. These scholars cast their eyes across the practices of the teeming shrines of South Asia looking for religious systems. Not surprisingly, they saw what they were looking for and used the suffix “-ism” to describe them.

As Dalrymple knows, the reality is much more complex, and much more interesting, than can be contained in the religion scholars’ enthusiasm for classification. William Dalrymple is a travel writer living in India. He has a particular interest in religious practice. These are the Nine Lives of nine exceptional holy women and men up and down the country.

This approach achieves three things: first, it personalises what might otherwise be abstract notions of religion. We meet articulate people who know what they believe. With his travel writer’s eye for detail, Dalrymple sets these extraordinary sages in their setting, and allows them to tell their stories. All have found that it has cost dearly to pursue the holy.

Second, it allows Dalrymple the opportunity to describe faith-worlds of the “lay” folk who still flock to the shrines and their holy people. The 2,500 year old practices of India are not dead. Who knows how many of their proverbial “nine lives” they have had?

Third, it helps the Western reader build a picture of the lived reality of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It shines a light on the difference between a Tamil Buddhist in India’s south and a Tibetan monk in Dharamsala. It lets us see practitioners in many shrines as they intertwine Islamic and Hindu practices and ideas. It describes particularly Indian Sufis, and it shows the pressure the Saudis are placing on them to conform to the austere Wahabbi interpretation of the Qur’an.

Teachers of religion will find this book to be a treasure. Some may use the nine sections of the book to structure a term’s work and allow students to experience the same discovery as the reader. Year 12 and university students could read each chapter in preparation for a class discussion. To use the book in this way for younger students would require more structuring.

Others will be enriched by the contemporary update of their understanding of Indian religions. Others, like me, will recognise how India is not a confusion of spiritualities, but a vibrant, and fascinating, profusion of faith and ritual.

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Ted Witham is the Immediate Past President of AARE. He taught religion in Anglican schools and at Murdoch University. Now retired, he lives in the south-west of Western Australia, where there appears to be minimal religious diversity.

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