e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “Hinduism”

A day of silence and its poetry

The last day of March was Nyepi Day for the Balinese. This means a day of silence – traffic stops, people stay at home and contemplate, all is quiet. I wish we had such a day here.

I couldn’t find poems about Nyepi, not in English anyway, but the website Bali for the World has what seems to be a translation of one, as well as a good write up of the deeper meanings of the day.

With flowers make yadnya,
Melasti with going to the beach.

It is the sort of ceremony that ought to have a rich literature. Perhaps some of my readers know of it, if so I’d be grateful if you could let me know.


Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

nine lives coverIndia has numerous paths to spiritual goals, and in this book the author encounters nine of them. He is known as a travel writer so anyone seeking a deep analysis of the history and theology of these paths will be somewhat disappointed. But only somewhat: Mr Dalrymple’s research has been considerable and he fills in the history and theology where relevant.

The travel part of the book is taken care of by the variety of settings and the vivid descriptions the author provides. It’s easy to understand why so many of his previous books have won prizes.

He keeps himself and his opinions in the background and lets the people he interviews speak in their own words (in translation actually as they spoke eight different languages). So what we get is partly nine autobiographies, which are not only about religion but also give an insight into the society of modern India.

Most of the speakers are from rural areas and several of them are from lower castes or are marginalised for other reasons. Their religious lives give them position and respect that might be denied to them otherwise. As the Singer of Epics said:

We Nayaks are from a very low caste … . Still to this day we cannot eat or drink in the house of many of the people in this village. But when we recite or perform as bhopas, this brings us respect.

The Dancer of Kannur saw his chosen path as a means of social change:

… The brighter of the theyyam artists have used theyyam to inspire confidence in the rest of our community. Our people see the upper castes and the Nambooderis bowing down to the deities that have entered us. That self confidence has encouraged the next generation …

The women not only find respect but also protection and emotional fulfilment. The tantric practitioner, The Lady Twilight, put it clearly:

… The greatest pleasure we have is here, with her [Ma Tara]. It is here in this place of death, amid the skulls and bones and funeral pyres, that we have found love.

The other women too, the Jain nun, the temple prostitute and the Sufi mystic, all speak of love in many forms, but mainly for and from the divinities they worship.

There is also a good deal of sadness; some have lost their families, as one of the Baul singers had, and others their homeland, like the refugee monk whose life left him with no peace of mind. Even one of the most successful, the Maker of Idols, looks like being the last of a 700 year family tradition – his only son wants to be a computer engineer.

Apart from the occasional mention of computers, CDs, and various vehicles, there isn’t much of urban, big business India in this book. It lurks in the background, sometimes eating into a tradition or a belief, but on the whole these people seem to keep their sacred traditions and ideologies alive and very active.

Cover from Wikipedia.

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