Reading about India – Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

I’ll get right to it: this is a beautiful book. I really enjoyed it, and will be buying a copy to add to my bookshelves…

As the title suggests, this is a collection of 9 stories about different religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan and Bangladesh are in the mix a little bit).

The author, William Dalrymple, is sometimes categorized as a travel writer but I don’t really see this book that way. He doesn’t treat his subjects as exotic objects of fascination, or that he is distant or different then they are; he introduces them then gets out of the way. They get to tell their own truths.

In a world where the most militant voices are often the loudest, it’s a real pleasure to read about people who take a more personal, spiritual approach to their faith. Despite the differences in religious expression in each of the chapters, the common threads of tradition, community, yearning for the truth, and love flow throughout the book.

In particular, the chapter on Sufi practitioners in Pakistan should be required reading for those who think only negative things about Islam. The tolerance, compassion, and deep faith expressed on those pages moved me to tears. The world can seem like a hard, cruel place at times but there is great beauty out there, and it’s a blessing and a pleasure to get to meet the people who are contributing to the good.

The Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar
The Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar
(image by Iamsaa via Wikimedia Commons)

Reading about India: The Ramayana

Epic. Archetypal. One of the most influential works of literature in the world.
All of those things apply to The Ramayana – and yet I just got around to reading it. The American educational system needs to try a little harder…and obviously, so do I.

There are innumerable versions of this story, in many different languages and forms; I chose an English-language, modern prose version by Ramesh Menon.

I’m of two very strong minds about The Ramayana.

On one hand, I was thrilled and mesmerized by it. The universe created in the story is beautiful, the battles are fantastical and breathtaking, and some of the characters are timeless. I came out of it wanting to know Hanuman – every time he made an appearance, the book felt almost alive to me.

Hanuman Mistakes the Sun for a friut
Hanuman Mistakes the Sun for a fruit
(Image by Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, it was impossible to overlook the bad treatment of women, and the rationalization of the caste system. Taken on his own, Rama was sometimes difficult for me to like – he was made much better by his supporting cast, and by his very intriguing enemies. (Kind of holds true for all of us, huh?)

Lakshamana fights Indrajit
Lakshamana fights Indrajit
(image via Wikipedia)

Overall, I found the experience exhilarating; it’s been hard for me to get immersed in another book since. I think my journey with The Ramayana has just begun. I’m now primed to read as many versions, from as many perspectives, as I can. I also will be reading The┬áMahabharata, ASAP!