Mystic Sects Revealed

Preserving Traditions in India

Photo by Jaideep Barodia on Unsplash

The book Nine Lives is a collection of interviews by William Dalrymple, an accomplished author of travelogues and historical nonfiction. His writing shows his love of travel and for the culture of India.

Each chapter provides insights into one person’s sacred life and the devotions that connect them to their God through ritual and prayer.

They represent examples of the mystic sects and practices that exist in India today. Living on the edge of society, these individuals preserve their traditions in the midst of a changing land.

Most of the customs are threatened in some way by a more defined Hinduism, a radicalized Islam and the modernization of society in general.

The nine stories are:

1. The Nun’s Tale

Dalrymple begins this book with an interview of a Jain nun named Prasannamati Mataji. Jainism requires adherents to carefully avoid harming any living creatures. She sweeps the ground before her as she walks and drinks only filtered water. He describes her devotion to this ascetic faith and her determination to remain free of attachments in order to attain release from this world and attain salvation. She describes sallekhana, which is a gradual ritual fast to the death that is considered by devout Jainists to be the ultimate goal of liberation. He leaves the story of Mataji as she decides to follow the path of sallekhana, while still struggling not to mourn the loss of her friend who followed a similar path.

2. The Dancer of Kannur

A traditional dancer named Hari Das becomes the personification of the God Vishnu through his dancing during the three month holy season. Although he is a member of a low caste, he is revered by higher caste Brahmins while he is in this holy state. This reversal of ranking is an interesting insight into the complexities of the caste system. Das works as a manual laborer and prison guard during the rest of the year. The oppressive constraints of the caste system are challenged by changes in societal attitudes and increases in education which bring opportunity to all. This dancer’s hereditary tradition is threatened as his children are unlikely to continue in this way of life because of these opportunities and because of the financial and societal difficulties they would face if they continued in his footsteps.

3. The Daughters of Yellamma

Rani Bai is a devadasis who is resigned to her profession while remaining devoted to Yellamma, the deity of the temple. The devadasis once danced and sang at the temple as part of worship rituals and worked and served as needed. Today most devadasis support their family by working from their homes as a prostitute. Although she isn’t happy with her life, Rani Bai follows tradition and dedicates her daughters to the temple; they subsequently die of AIDS.

4. The Singer of Epics

In a rare example of a living oral tradition, a hereditary singer of epic stories still travels and performs, although his tradition is threatened by modern recording methods. Dalrymple proposes that Mohan Bhopa’s illiteracy gives him the ability to remember these monumental epics. It is an interesting insight that literacy is destroying this art form, which breathes life into the stories as they are spoken.

5. The Red Fairy

Lal Peri is a powerful mystic that lives and dances at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan. She came from eastern India as a Muslim after her father died and conflicts between Hindus and Muslims grew. Her family fled to Pakistan where they encountered more violence and eventually her visions led her to live at the shrine. The shrine and her way of life are under threat of destruction by the conflict between Sufism and Muslims.

6. The Monks Tale

Tashi Passang is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who gave back his vows in order to fight against the Chinese when they invaded Tibet. The Buddhist tradition includes a duty to give back your vows and fight in order to protect the dharma. After years of fighting and hating the Chinese, he has found a way to release his hatred and retake his vows, but still feels that he may not be forgiven for the killing he has done. He holds hope that one day Tibet will be free and he will be able to return home.

7. The Maker of Idols

Sirikanda Stpaty is the twenty-third hereditary idol maker in his line. Stpaty believes that once a statue is complete, the deity takes on the form of the idol and it is filled with the divine. In that way, he is creating a God. He is determined not to force his son to follow in his footsteps if he does not want to. His son is interested in becoming a computer programmer.

8. The Lady Twilight

In order to attract the attention of the great Goddess Tara at Tarapith, sadhus decorate their huts with rows of human skulls from the cremation grounds that they live on. These tantric practitioners believe the path to salvation is reached by opposing convention and social mores by living on the edge of reason. They are believed to receive power from Tara and many pilgrims visit them to gain strength. Manisha Ma Bhairavi is a woman who follows this tradition and strongly believes that Tara is her mother and protector. The Tantric tradition is under threat from the ruling Communist party.

9. The Song of the Blind Minstrel

Each January, at the Baul monastery in Bengali there is a festival where philosophers gather to sing of the truth that is found within oneself. Kanai Das is a friend of the Lady Twilight so Dalrymple finds him to interview. Das is blind and was lucky to have a good singing voice so that he could make a living as a Baul, or wandering minstrel. Bauls do not follow caste distinctions or religious rituals. They give up their possessions and follow the path of love, travelling from village to village offering song and knowledge in return for their daily needs.

On the surface these stories present a wide range of seemingly unusual practices which stretch my western views, but there are several broad themes woven throughout.

In each of the lives described, the person has sacrificed something in order to follow their calling. They have relinquished sacred vows to protect their country, given up their daughters to earn money to support their family, they have surrendered their wealth or caste and in most cases, their health to devote their lives to their God.

They receive something in return for this sacrifice. Many have found a strong sense of community where they are welcomed and understood, even among outcasts living on cremation grounds. Some of them came to a temple for protection and remained because of the support they received there.

They’re able to identify with something larger than themselves and they have chosen their devotional path. There is a thread of peace and acceptance that echoes in each chapter as each person describes their devotion.

While Dalrymple doesn’t directly connect or comment on each of the stories presented here, his collection illustrates the gradual loss of diversity that is occurring in India today. Many of these practices follow a hereditary tradition and they are at risk because the next generation is unlikely to follow the same path.

An oral tradition of storytelling is being lost because of an increase in literacy, disease has impacted the devadasis tradition, ongoing political conflict over religious practices and an invasion threaten the ability of these adherents to follow their path.

The final theme is an underlying quest for liberation the cycle of death and rebirth and the need for release.

From the gradual letting go that can be found in the practice of sallekhanas, to the singer who loses himself in his song, to the dancer who is subsumed by his God while he dances, each give control to a power greater than themselves.

This vivid tapestry woven by Dalrymple is at risk of being homogenized and that is a loss to all of us.

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