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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God Pictures


The worst thing that the Western church has done is that we have turned God into a man. Ask any six-year-old to draw God, and she will emulate Michelangelo and draw an old man with a white beard. The orthodox Christians, the Jews and Muslims have taken much more notice of the second commandment: “Thou shall not make of the Lord thy God any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4).

And God said...
And God said...

We may not believe that God is literally a human being, but we picture a transcendent God in physical terms. Children may believe God is the “Friend for little children//Above the bright blue sky” in an absolute literal sense, and adults often believe transcendence describes God’s distance from the physical creation.

It’s true that the Bible often anthropomorphosises God: God walks out before the armies of Israel; God picks up and cuddles the human person, like a mother and baby (Hosea 11:3-4). In general, however, the Bible has a sophisticated notion that God is (a) holy, that is set apart from his creation, and (b) intimately involved in creation.
God is a wind (Genesis 1:3), an unseen and uncontrollable energy that stirs up of the raw materials of creation. God “sits above” the thunder and lightning (Psalm 39), more powerful than the raw energy of the storm. God stills the seas (Psalm 65:7), not with a giant hand, but with an irresistible will.

If you have chronic pain, your picture of God matters. If you think God is a sophisticated human upgrade, if you make God in the image of human beings, your God will not be strong enough to make a difference to your pain. Your picture of God will limit your ability to receive the powerful healing God wants for you.

In the last ten or so years, my picture of God has changed radically.

Sometimes this journey has been dangerous. I have wondered if I have lost my faith. The God I had believed in was not big enough, and certainly not powerful enough to positively affect my pain, and I had to let go of that picture of God.

In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film, The Lord of the rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, an underground sequence has the wizard Gandalf confronting a Balrog on a crumbling rock bridge. The hobbits run as fast as possible to get to safety. Gandalf falls with the monster to their death. Growing your faith in God is like that rush across the bridge of Khazad-dûm. When you let go of your picture of God, everything crumbles and precious ideas die.

But let me encourage you. The only way to have a picture of God adequate to your pain is to stop believing in the God you think you know. There is a well-trodden path to this believing atheism, and it is the path of mysticism.

1. Any picture of God you have is by definition too small. To continue to believe in it is to commit idolatry. You have no choice but to let go your picture of God.
2. When you let go of God in this way, you become an atheist in the sense that you have no God to hang on to. What you must then believe is that God is hanging on to you. You cannot know what manner of God this is, you need to trust only that you are being held.
“Blessed be the Lord day by day,
who bears us as his burden;
he is the God of our deliverance,” says the Psalmist (68:19)
3. As this trust develops, so you may begin to grope towards a new understanding of the God who is holding you. You may for example, begin to find new metaphors to describe God. God is energy; God is universal heartbeat, God lives as the tiniest cell in living things. These God-cells begin a process of healthy change in your body, and your pain is reduced.
4. But these are again pictures of God. The irony is that the process of letting go of your new pictures of God must continue.

In the audio for this session, I invite you to image a Spirit, a larger reality and to open yourself to encounter this Spirit. In this process, you may experience the reality of how deeply you are loved, how surely you are held, and how extraordinary is your future in this compassionate universe. This is what I call, and only for convenience’ sake, “contemplation”, the experience beyond muscle relaxation and centring.

I invite you to relax further into this journey into the Unknown God. I encourage along the only path through deeper atheism, which as it unfolds leads to a deeper experience of the power of God in healing your mind/body.

No Sex, Please: We Might be Sore


SEX AND PAIN
Definition of sexuality:
“Being so attentive to another that you tend to merge with that other.”
Those words, with capital ‘O’s, could equally be a definition of spirituality.
“Being so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.”
For some mystics, sexuality and spirituality are aspects of the same reality: the purpose of human life is to “get out of oneself” and merge with the larger Reality. Saint John of the Cross, for example, lusciously described his prayer life as sexual pursuit and mutual seduction.

The Bible regards human beings as in-breathed bodies, that is, spiritual bodies: not spirits AND bodies, nor flesh AND soul, but just one united package. In classical Christian thought, no division can be made between body, mind and spirit. To emphasise one aspect (say, the spiritual) over another aspect (say, the physical) depreciates the essential wholeness of the human person. So for Christians, having sex is never purely physical, because the human beings engaged in sex are spiritual, emotional, thinking (etc!) bodies. Having sex should be making love. If it is not, the act is expressing hate, or showing indifference. The physical act is inextricably linked to the greater human reality.

For those in pain, sex may be painful. Doctors today even recognise this. In the 20 years following my major operation, sexuality didn’t appear to exist for pain sufferers. Doctors paid attention to the effects pain and pills had on every other function of your body/mind, but avoided mentioning the major impacts pain has on your sex life.

Nowadays, there are questions on pain questionnaires which ask you to rate the obstacle your pain causes for your enjoyment of sex, but I have not yet met a doctor willing to actually discuss the questionnaire results, which in my case document the additional pain of having sex and the decrease of enjoyment of sex. A doctor prepared to discuss sex and pain with me would be a bonus.

For those in pain, it can feel as though the physical pain is taking away the emotional and spiritual joy of making love. But that is not all. Not only is the pain a turn-off, but also body image,
disappointment and lack of control contribute to a diminished sex life.
The pain itself lessens the enjoyment of sex. The person in pain then sees their body as being less than it should be, and their body image becomes yet another barrier to full enjoyment of the other.

Faulty body image means not that something is wrong with the body, but with a person’s picture of their body. A faulty body image arises in chronic pain from not looking at the whole body. A person with chronic pain who looks carefully at their body, however, will find more that is right than is wrong. Looking attentively at what is really there is not only a spiritual act, but also a healing one.

Disappointed with their body’s betrayal, they withdraw from sexual activity, fearing more disappointment. Pills, the pain and one’s partner’s reaction to the medicalising of our lives all reduce one’s sexual response. Sometimes I’m aroused, but at other times, not. This loss of control adds to the spiralling decrease in sexual interest.
It’s easy to give up, or to give in to anger and resentment. But there are genuinely positive ways of responding.

1. Talk about these things to your partner.
Researchers have noted how difficult it is for even loving couples to talk about sex. It may be that your pain and the challenges it brings is a gift to your sex life. It can oblige you how to talk together about sex. The aim is to make love. The agenda of your conversation is how do we make love given the physical and emotional obstacles pain causes?
hold-hands-cropped1
2. Fall in love all over again by realising how precious touch is; all touch, and not just sexual touch.
So hold hands. Gently brush your partner’s skin as you pass. Kiss when you wake up and kiss when you get ready for sleep. A sexual relationship is not restricted to 20 minutes in bed. Its joy is its anticipation of the constant presence of your lover.
Touch, too, is the precursor to massage. I am one of those who dislike massage. But a gentle touch relaxes my muscles and can reduce pain.
On the principle that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, share the touching and be attentive more to your partner than to your pain.

3. Keep your bedroom a bower for intimacy (and sleeping!), and stop it looking like a hospital.
Take pills off the bedside table; put medical equipment in the cupboard; take pain diaries and exercise charts down from the walls and put them out of sight, preferably out of the bedroom. Cover hospital pillows with a quilt or colourful slips.

4. Be tolerant of your mind’s nocturnal fantasies.
Sexual dreams involving others are not necessarily temptations to infidelity. They may just be your mind working out ways of maximising your physical and emotional enjoyment of life under restricted circumstances. Learn to welcome your unconscious mind’s attempts to link physical sexuality with emotional and spiritual love. Your mind knows how important it is for you to love your body and with your body.

In all things, be attentive and open to the love of the Other. As other human beings do, make love as best you can within the limitations of what you are given.

In times of temporary or ongoing celibacy with chronic pain, the two-way definition of loving the other/Other still applies: “Be so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.” In the 13th century Franciscan theologian Dun Scotus taught that every creature is a little Word of God: an instance of Incarnation. Every person or being to which one gives one’s loving and respectful attention draws us closer into union with God.

For those of us in continuing pain, this knowledge is a beacon of hope. We do have the ability to look beyond our preoccupation with ourselves and our pain, and look into the face of God. That’s sexy. That’s the ultimate in spirituality.