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Nine Lives

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

By William Dalrymple
15-minute read
Audio available
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives (2009) is a study of spirituality and religion in contemporary India. Drawing on William Dalrymple’s in-depth interviews with religious practitioners, these blinks will whisk us from Tibet to Karnataka to Kerala and West Bengal as we explore four remarkable – and remarkably pious – lives. Along the way, we’ll unpack the social and historical context in which these believers’ faiths emerged and continue to be practiced.

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William Dalrymple is a critically acclaimed author best known for his work on Indian history and religion. His previous books include City of Djinns and White Mughals, which received the Wolfson – Britain’s most prestigious history prize. Dalrymple is a regular contributor to the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. He is based in New Delhi and London.

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Nine Lives

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

By William Dalrymple
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
Synopsis

Nine Lives (2009) is a study of spirituality and religion in contemporary India. Drawing on William Dalrymple’s in-depth interviews with religious practitioners, these blinks will whisk us from Tibet to Karnataka to Kerala and West Bengal as we explore four remarkable – and remarkably pious – lives. Along the way, we’ll unpack the social and historical context in which these believers’ faiths emerged and continue to be practiced.

Key idea 1 of 9

Jainism is a deeply ascetic creed.

Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions. Dating back to the third century BCE, it emerged in the Ganges basin – a vast valley connecting the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. This basin isn’t just the heartland of Jainism, though. It’s also the cradle of Hinduism and Buddhism. 

These three creeds have an entangled history. In fact, Buddhism and Jainism were partly reactions against Hinduism. Both Jains and Buddhists criticized the willingness of Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste, to slaughter animals for temple sacrifices. They also disliked this caste’s sense of social superiority. 

All three religions have significant traditions of asceticism, the rejection of worldly attachments and the practice of self-discipline. For Jains, though, asceticism isn’t just one part of their faith – it’s a foundational commitment. 

The key message in this blink is: Jainism is a deeply ascetic creed.

In ancient India, Jain monks were famous for their refusal to wash. An early description of a Jain monk depicts him as being so dirty he looked as if he were wearing a “closely fitting suit of black armor.” Jain monks in contemporary India are allowed to wipe themselves with a wet towel, but bathing in running water and the use of soap are forbidden. 

Jains are equally strict when it comes to other ascetic practices. While Buddhist monks shave their heads, Jain monks pluck their hair out by the root. Similarly, while the former may ask strangers for food, a Jain monk must place his right arm over his shoulder. If passersby ignore this signal, he must go to bed hungry. 

The term “Jain” itself comes from Jina, a Sanskrit word meaning “liberator” or “spiritual conqueror.” According to the faith’s scripture, there have been 24 great Jinas – human teachers whose self-denial allowed them to achieve transcendent knowledge of the universe. 

As Jains see it, asceticism is the only path to salvation. This is why they scoff at Brahmins’ belief that purity rituals can suffice. In an ancient text, a Jain monk who is talking to a group of sceptical Brahmins argues that the only real sacrifice is the sacrifice of one’s own body. “Austerity,” the monk states, is a “sacrificial fire,” and his own life “is the place where the fire is kindled.” 

As we’ll see in the next blink, modern Jains continue to live by this ancient monk’s words. 

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