Monday, August 2, 2010

[ZESTCaste] In Search of the Sacred

By Marie Arana
Sunday, August 1, 2010


In Search of the Sacred

In Modern India

By William Dalrymple

Knopf. 276 pp. $26.95

Three years ago, Goldman Sachs predicted that India's gross national
output would quadruple in 10 years and, by 2050, overtake that of the
United States. Today, India is on the verge of besting Japan to become
the world's third-largest economic power. According to the CIA,
whether you count people or workers or billable cellphones, India is
second only to China. Which is why, despite staggering poverty -- the
average annual income is $1,040 -- its consumption of cars and crude
oil promises to soar to unimaginable magnitudes.

So much for the arithmetic.

But what is India, exactly? Who are its people? It is certainly not
the monolithic nation the British once wanted us to believe it was.
Nor is it the sea of mutually hostile Hindus and Muslims that
contemporary historians so often describe. As William Dalrymple shows
in his strikingly colorful new book, to be Indian is to inhabit a
carnival of strangely colliding worlds, a profusion of identities with
sharply defined regional variants. Nowhere is this more evident than
in the country's spiritual life.

"While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as
deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom," Dalrymple writes, "much of
India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups,
caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing
very rapidly." Bollywood may try to persuade us that the Hindu epics
are neatly homogenous -- that there is one " 'national' Ramayana myth"
-- but in reality, Indian legends are interpreted in radically
different ways depending on where you look in the country. Indeed, the
historian Romila Thapar has argued that it is precisely Bollywood's
(or colonialism's) model of "syndicated Hinduism" that threatens to
drive India's self-contained cults to extinction. As the country races
toward progress and redefinition, its small gods and goddesses stand
to be crushed by the "hyper-masculine hero deities" of the big screen.

That clash between tradition and momentum is what Dalrymple seeks to
capture on these pages. "Nine Lives" is a collection of portraits
depicting nine worshipers who practice wildly different forms of
devotion in a vortex of dizzying change. Part travelogue, part
reportage, part anthropology, the book hews to a theme that has long
fascinated Dalrymple: how cultures in peril survive. It's a subject he
knows well. A resident of India and England, he is the author of a
number of notable books on history and travel, among them: "City of
Djinns," a delightfully entertaining narrative of New Delhi; "The Last
Mughal," about the British in 19th-century South Asia; and "From the
Holy Mountain," which recounts a 6th-century trip through Byzantium.

In this book, however, Dalrymple looks at India's religions through
starkly dissimilar lives. In Hari Das, a dancer who is venerated for
his skill in impersonating Lord Vishnu, Dalrymple gives us a vivid
cameo of the caste system. For nine months of every year, this Dalit
-- or Untouchable -- is a manual laborer who digs wells and works as a
prison guard. But for three months starting in December, the man is a
living god. "We bring blessings to the village and villagers, and
exorcise evil spirits," the performer explains. "Though we are all
Dalits even the most bigoted and casteist Namboodiri Brahmins worship
us, and queue up to touch our feet." The spiritual dances he performs
are meant to impart Vishnu's wisdom and inspire the Brahmins to
discard their arrogant prejudices, but every March, when the season
draws to a close, Hari Das puts away his costume, heads back to the
jail and re-enters the rigid, oppressive hierarchy that keeps him in
biting poverty. There is little chance that his children will want to
do the same.

Often, as Dalrymple tells tales of religion, it is India's social
structure that emerges in high relief. There is Mohan Bhopa, for
instance, a bard and village shaman who, though completely illiterate,
is one of the last hereditary singers of the great ancient poem "The
Epic of Pabuji." It takes him five full dawn-to-dusk performances to
recite the entire work, and there are precious few artists in India
who can do it. As Dalrymple makes clear, it is in the hands of these
unlettered men that the future of an art form hangs: "The illiterate
have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not,"
he writes, and so, with state-mandated education and progress, the
number of singers able to master the 600-year-old work has only
diminished. Literacy, in other words, is killing India's oral

Such paradoxes abound in this book of pilgrimages.

A woman with a tendency to go into frightening trances is beaten by
her bewildered husband. She runs away to dedicate herself to the dark,
tantric goddess Tara, who drinks blood, hoards human skulls and squats
on the cremation grounds of Tarapith, one of the most sacred -- and
terrifying -- places in India.

A young Jain nun, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, sweeps the
ground before her with a peacock fan to make sure she doesn't step on
a living creature. Jainism is, we are told, more about a profound
divine absence than a presence, and so what must logically follow a
life of devotion is a ritual fast to the death, a supreme sacrifice
that -- as convoluted as this sounds -- wrests hope from the face of

A devadasi (a prostitute and devotee of the goddess Yellamma) laments
her life as a sex worker but revels in the worship of a female deity
who has come to mean more to her than her own mother. When the time
comes for her teenage daughters to be pledged in service to the
goddess, she doesn't hesitate, although her faith appears to have
brought only suffering. Before long, it brings untimely death, as each
of her daughters succumbs to AIDS.

In the end, the array of beliefs in India is so vast that Dalrymple
cannot possibly cover it all. He doesn't address Christianity, for
instance, which has 27 million adherents in India; or Sikhs, who
number 22 million. But, to his credit, he never claims that his
purpose is to be exhaustive, or even representative. His point --
which he makes elegantly by quoting many voices -- is that, as India
hurtles toward modernity, it may be losing some of its soul.

Marie Arana is a writer at large for

The Washington Post and a Kluge Distinguished Scholar at the

Library of Congress.

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