- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; First United States Edition edition (June 15, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307272826
- ISBN-13: 978-0307272829
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #527,215 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 15, 2010
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Historian-travel writer Dalrymple (The Last Mughal) knows his Asian subcontinent, having moved to New Delhi in 1989. The engine of Indian economic development is bringing rapid change, and Dalrymple spotlights changes and constancies brought about in IndiaÖs dizzyingly diverse religious practices. The titular nine lives are those of a variety of religious adherents: a Jain nun, a sacred dancer, a Sufi mystic, a Tantric practitioner, among others. His subjects, for the most part, do their own show-and-tell in explaining their religious paths, which differ but share the passionate devotion (bhakti) that characterizes popular religion in India. Dalrymple has a good eye, a better ear, and the humility to get out of the way of his subjects. It helps to know a bit about the subject coming in, as it saves endless flipping to a very helpful appended glossary. The author also notes in his introduction he has made a special effort to avoid exoticizing £mystic India,¥ yet he has picked some extremes to exemplify different kinds of religious beliefs and practices. Still, those are minor quibbles about this ambitious and affectionate book that respects popular religion.
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Dalrymple, author of prizewinning works of far-roaming inquiry, including The Last Mughal (2007), knows when to let others speak. Which is what he does with great finesse in this evocative set of portraits of nine spiritual seekers living across India. Nine lives that open doors onto nine of India's many arduous paths to the divine and reveal striking, nearly surreal juxtapositions between the old and the new. There's the haunting tale of a Jain nun who as a girl renounced her life of privilege and the wrenching story of Rani Bai, a devadasi, or servant of the goddess Yellamma, who was forced into prostitution as a girl. Hari Das describes what it feels like “to be taken over by a god” when he performs theyyam, the sacred possession dance of Kerala, only to return to his dangerous work as a prison guard. Dalrymple sets each vivid profile within an intricately drawn history of the ancient and now-endangered tradition each devotee is dedicated to preserving in the escalating battle between holiness and hustle that is transforming India. --Donna Seaman
Top Customer Reviews
A main question seems to be whether often-isolated, syncretistic, devotional religious practices will continue in the face of India's burgeoning economy and, presumably, growing secularism and consumerism, on the one hand, and the exclusionary fanaticism of a militant segment of Hindus and Muslims, on the other. While much will be gained by greater educational opportunity and a higher/healthier standard of living for the rural and urban poor and powerless, rich, curious, sometimes bizarre religious practices in the name of the gods will probably fade away.
This book is not about mainstream religious practices or faiths of the great religions --- or even of "smaller traditions" that have gained acceptance, if not understanding, because of their great age. The `Sacred" referred to in the title are approaches to gods/God that are, for all the integrity of those interviewed who practice them, mightily strange.
The book certainly shows that devout, faithful approaches to belief are common to all levels of people and a belief in a "greater power" is sustaining in the most difficult of situations. The book is a wondrous "read" about good people whom most of us will never otherwise hear.
The nine seekers cover a broad swath of belief systems in India, though sidestep orthodox Muslim and Christians. In fact, they are mostly unorthodox, outside of the mainstream of belief. They need to be, in a sense: if they weren't, their devotion would be halfhearted, not defining. The first chapter, "The Nun's Tale," is powerful and disturbing. The young nun in question is a Jain, a member of the sect that began around 600 BC and which is most notable for its belief in absolute non-harming of other beings. Jains gently sweep the paths they take, to avoid stepping on insects, and will wear masks to protect any flying creatures or even microbes from being breathed in.
Prasannamati Mataji comes from a well-to-do family, but at an early age is drawn to the acetic life of the Jain nuns. Following tradition, she ceremonially plucks all her own hair out as a sign of her devotion to the way, and wanders with her fellow Jains, no possessions but her bowl, her whisk, and her robes.Read more ›
Presenting itself as nine "non-fiction short stories", 9 Lives portrays expressions of faith that are often romanticized or sensationalized, such as that of a tantric priestess, or ritual prostitute, or Tibetan soldier monk. As an obsessive reader of books about India, I can assure you that much of what is found here cannot be found anywhere else -- the alternatives are often sensationalist nonsense, or else dry as dust.
For example, the first chapter, about a Jain nun: I dare you to find elsewhere a readable brief narrative of Jainism that explains the basic beliefs and shows how they can continue to compel those that believe.
I've spent time in three of the places Dalrymple explores here -- Sravanabelagola, Dharamsala and Tarapith -- and still I learned so much about each.
(I admit I have an awful fear that the chapter about Tarapith -- the very most beautiful in the book -- will provoke a tourist boom in dusty Tarapith. In which case, let me warn you, the road is one of the most treacherous in India. Potential devotees are strongly advised to take the train.)
Dalrymple writes in spirited opposition to the forces that threaten to homogenize spirituality in India. Almost all of what he profiles here is in danger of being blotted out.
Particularly praise-worthy is Dalrymple's ability to get entirely out of the way of his subject. We learn nothing whatsoever about Dalrymple's personal spiritual journey -- and I mean that as very high praise.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Great book from the eyes of a stranger. Loved all the stories.Published 1 month ago by R. Venugopal
great book! very excited to have my undergrads read it in my Modern Hinduism course. It is a series of vignettes that explore various facets of modern Hindu praxis.Published 3 months ago by dheepa sundaram
I first lucked into reading William Dalrymple almost ten years ago when I came across a copy of his The Age of Kali. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Jennifer Grey
Book is a let down, Dalrymple focused on some very eccentric people in India and wrote a book about them. The book does not bring out any ideas of merit or depth.Published 5 months ago by Satya J. Palit
To any Indian philosophy there is just one goal - to attain the eternal bliss. For some it is the soul that brings it for some it is the body that is the tool. Read morePublished 10 months ago by Mahadevan Subramanian
Fascinating--an unimaginable insight into a number of the more obscure religious traditions in India....which left me wanting more....more experiences... Read morePublished 11 months ago by Sea Bird
A beautiful testament of those who may soon be lost, or, if the author is right, will continue to live on in the sidelines of India.Published 11 months ago by A.H.
Great snapshot into some of the lives of those in the religious fringe in IndiaPublished 13 months ago by Scarlett Pacheco