India's Diverse Faiths, As Told Through 'Nine Lives' In his latest book, British journalist William Dalrymple profiles nine Indian religious devotees — from a Jain nun, to an idol carver, to a Buddhist monk. Nine Lives surveys the subcontinent's rich religious topography by focusing on individual journeys of personal faith.
NPR logo

India's Diverse Faiths, As Told Through 'Nine Lives'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
India's Diverse Faiths, As Told Through 'Nine Lives'

India's Diverse Faiths, As Told Through 'Nine Lives'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The British journalist William Dalrymple has spent decades reporting from India and he never seems to run out stories to tell.

Mr. WILLIAM DALRYMPLE (Journalist/Author, "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India"): People in America think of India as a country. In reality, it's much more a continent. It contains, like America does, every kind of climate from the high Himalayas through the deserts of Rajasthan, down to the tropical south. And within that geographical area, you have this incredible spread of different religious systems - many of which go back to the beginning of man's thought about God.

INSKEEP: Those religious systems are the focus of William Dalrymple's latest book. It's called "Nine Lives." The nine lives in question are deeply religious people in South Asia. They are Hindus, Buddhists, Sufi Muslims and more. They include monks and dancers, and a man described as a feeder of skulls.

Even in the context of India, they take their devotion to the limit and the incredible variety of belief is what drew Dalrymple to talk with them.

Mr. DALRYMPLE: People, again, talk of Hinduism as if it's a single faith. Hinduism is a vast network of different religious systems and different religious practices.

INSKEEP: Now, in one of the early profiles, you meet a woman who is a Jain nun. Who are the Jains?

Mr. DALRYMPLE: The Jains are, in a sense, the sister religion of Buddhism. A little bit older, this is the very sophisticated urban world of about 500 B.C. in the Ganges Basin. Thats a point when India was way ahead of most parts of the world, except a few cities around the Mediterranean. And this was one of the first great urban cultures of the world.

The Jains, while having the same ideas with the Buddhist about wanting to keep away from the pleasures of the flesh and withdraw from the world, and find yourself within; had a far more severe root to that. To give just two examples, Buddhist monks shave their heads. The Jains pluck out their hairs, one by one, in a ceremony that's deliberately painful.

Likewise, Buddhist monks can beg, but Jain monks have to just signal hunger by arching their right hand over their shoulder. Beyond that, they're not allowed to ask for food, and they're never allowed to touch money of any sort.

INSKEEP: You meet a Jain nun who's clad in white, and there is a quote that strikes me, because this woman recounts to you that she's supposed to renounce all worldly pleasures, all attachments to anything. But she went and - well, she had a friend. She had a companion.

Mr. DALRYMPLE: This was the one attachment that she had. And this was completely, according to the Jain faith, nuns are not - for obvious reasons of personal danger - not meant to wander around alone. But what my nun, Prasannamati Mataji, had found, was that while she'd given up all her worldly wealth, while she'd given up her family and was wandering the Earth, treading as lightly as possibly on the Earth - they sweep the ground in front of them to make sure they dont step on ants. And they won't step on puddles, in case there's some life form that they will hurt inside the puddles.

Despite all those efforts that she was making, she did have this one attachment which was her close friend, the nun who she walked with for 20 years. And when that nun got ill and found that she was dying slowly, she undertook what is, for Jains, the final stage of Jain asceticism, which - having given up all your goods and everything - you then start to give up food.

And it's a process which they do over two to three years, in a very set way that they've been doing for centuries. And of course, they die. And this say for them, they say this is not suicide. This is merely giving up one set of clothes to go on into the next life, cause like Buddhist, they believe in reincarnation.

INSKEEP: There are so many things that are striking about that life and that way of life point of view that describe. And yet, Im leading up to something that struck me even more. You speak to this woman who became attached to her companion on the roads, and of course, was deeply saddened when her companion on 20 years - and not only was she sad, she was disappointed in herself to be sad.

She shouldnt have ever been that close to anybody at all.

Mr. DALRYMPLE: Well, in both Buddhism and in Jainism, a lack of attachment also means a detachment. And to be truly detached, you can't love. You can't form close friendships with people. And she realized that she had not followed, in her view, the dictates of her faith because she loved her companion.

INSKEEP: And she says I was punished for that, I formed not just an attachment, but a strong attachment, and that left an opening for suffering. And thats the quote that struck me, because we have gone as far, I think, as you could imagine from the character in the American movie, or the American country song - who is encouraged to open themselves up and take a chance and take a risk on embracing the world.

This is someone going for the exact opposite ideal.

Mr. DALRYMPLE: This is really the point of doing this book, because today we live with this illusion that we know the world. The reality, of course, is -and this became very clear after 9/11 - that there's huge parts of the world which we know absolutely nothing about, particularly in areas of religion and philosophy. And the veneer of globalization is such a deceptive thing.

And the idea that really inspired me for this book was to - India is, you know, these days, is a fast developing place. You go to India; the economy is going to be overtaking the U.S. by 2050. There are outside where I live in Delhi, there are now, you know, the headquarters of Google Asia, back office processing units. It's developing incredibly fast there. You know, coffee places like Starbucks.

All over the world you have this veneer of globalization. And yet you've only got to rub away that surface veneer, and you find huge, vast differences still in the world. And that to me is the job of the travel writer today.

INSKEEP: I realized that you went looking among these different religions for professional reasons. You wanted to explain a subcontinent in a different way. But because you were spending time with so many people who were having such deeply intense personal experiences, I wonder if you were seeking anything yourself.

Mr. DALRYMPLE: First of all, to make it clear, this is emphatically not a book about my religious search. I've tried, as objectively as possible, really, to tell the stories of nine people and keep myself out of it. But there's no question that over the 25 years I've been in India and the regions of India, have completely altered the way I look at the world. And it's something you dont notice as it happens, because it's a slow drip process.

But I went to India as a - I'd come from almost a fundamentalist Catholic background. And I went to monastic schools, brought up by Benedictine monks. So I had a wonderful education at the school called Ampleforth. But India changes everything. And I think the great lesson of India is pluralism. That it makes it very difficult to believe in only your own faith - that the faith you happen to have been born into is the only possible way of reaching God.

The Indian idea that that there are many ways up the mountain, I think, is a very powerful one.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much.

Mr. DALRYMPLE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: William Dalrymple, author of "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.