Nine Lives Book Summary - Nine Lives Book explained in key points
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Nine Lives summary

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

4.1 (88 ratings)
24 mins

Brief summary

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple is a collection of nine biographical stories of individuals from different backgrounds in India. The book explores their unique lives and spiritual journeys, offering a glimpse into the diverse religious landscape of the country.

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    Nine Lives
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    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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    What is Nine Lives about?

    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.

    Nine Lives Review

    Nine Lives (2009) by William Dalrymple offers a captivating exploration of spirituality in modern India through the stories of nine individuals. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of everyday people who have dedicated themselves to their faith, offering a unique perspective on Indian spirituality.
    • Dalrymple's immersive storytelling brings each character to life, allowing readers to connect on a personal level and gain a deeper understanding of their journeys.
    • Through these stories, the book explores the complex interplay between religion and modernity, making it a thought-provoking and enlightening read.

    Best quote from Nine Lives

    War is far worse than you ever imagine it to be. It is the last thing a Buddhist should be involved in.

    —William Dalrymple
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    Who should read Nine Lives?

    • Globetrotters fascinated by the world’s diversity 
    • Atheists interested in what motivates the faithful
    • History buffs

    About the Author

    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 FAQs 

    What is the main message of Nine Lives?

    Nine Lives explores the spiritual journeys of individuals in modern-day India.

    How long does it take to read Nine Lives?

    The reading time for Nine Lives varies, but the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Nine Lives a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Nine Lives is worth reading as it offers a fascinating insight into the diverse spiritual practices in India.

    Who is the author of Nine Lives?

    William Dalrymple is the author of Nine Lives.

    What to read after Nine Lives?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Nine Lives, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
    • The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber
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