India is the world's largest democracy and home to a multitude of faiths. British journalist William Dalrymple, who has lived in India on and off for the last 25 years, surveys the subcontinent's rich religious topography in his latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.
People "talk of Hinduism as if it's a single faith," Dalrymple tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. In fact, "Hinduism is a vast network of different religious systems and different religious practices."
Dalrymple profiles nine religious devotees to tell the story of India's different faiths — from a Buddhist monk, to an idol carver, to a Jain nun. "Everyone in the west knows about Buddhism," Dalrymple says. "No one knows about the Jains."
Dalrymple explains that Jainism is the older, "sister religion of Buddhism" — established by Mahavira, a sage who "came from the same world as Buddha" — the "sophisticated, urban" landscape of the Ganges basin around 500 B.C.
Both Mahavira and the Buddha founded their respective faiths in reaction to the "materialism" and "sensuality" of this early Indian city-state. Jains and Buddhists both strove to "keep away from the pleasures of the flesh and withdraw from the world," but, Dalrymple explains, Jainist asceticism was more severe; the Buddhist "middle way" was a reaction to the Jains' extreme ascetic approach.
"To give just two examples, Buddhist monks shave their heads," Dalrymple says. "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."
Jains also have such respect for life that as they walk, "they sweep the ground in front of them to make sure they don't step on ants." They will not even step in puddles, just in case "there's some life form they will hurt inside the puddles."
The Jain nun Dalrymple profiles in Nine Lives "had given up all her worldly wealth ... had given up her family, and was wandering the Earth, treading as lightly as possible." But Dalrymple found that she was tortured because she had unwittingly violated one of the rules of her faith: she had become close friends with another nun, who had walked beside her for 20 years.
"When that nun got ill and found that she was dying slowly, she undertook what is for Jains the final step of Jain asceticism," Dalrymple says — a ritual refusal of food. "It's a process which they do over two to three years, in a very set way they've been doing for centuries. And of course, they die." To a Jain, such gradual starvation is not tantamount to suicide. Like Buddhists, they believe in reincarnation, so refusing food voluntarily is like "giving up one set of clothes to go on to the next life."
The nun, devastated by her friend's death, was disappointed in herself for becoming so attached to another person. "In both Buddhism and Jainism, a lack of attachment means detachment," Dalrymple says. "And to be truly detached, you can't love. You can't form close friendships. And she realized that she had not followed ... the dictates of her faith because she loved her companion."
The nun says she was "punished" for her love: "I formed not just an attachment, but a strong attachment, and that left an opening for suffering," she says.
It's an ideal that feels very foreign in America — where the culture encourages being open, even if it makes you emotional vulnerability. Illustrating the existence of these differences is the reason Dalrymple decided to write his book. "Today, we live with this illusion that we know the world," he says. "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."
India is a particularly fascinating case because of how quickly it's growing and changing. "Outside where I live in Delhi, there are now headquarters of Google Asia, back office processing units — it's developing incredibly fast," Dalrymple says. "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."
The religious journeys Dalrymple describes in Nine Lives are incredibly personal. The book itself, though, is "emphatically not" about Dalrymple's own religious search — (he comes from a Catholic background.) Instead, he says the real lesson of both Nine Lives and India itself "is pluralism." The nation's incredible diversity "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," he says. India inspires the idea "that there are many ways up the mountain."