William Dalrymple’s ‘Nine Lives’ and the Meaning of Devotion and Renunciation


I was given a book by William Dalrymple called ‘Nine Lives’ for Christmas. This book simply tells the story of nine different people in India. The first story tells of a Jain nun. To western eyes, the Jain religion shares much with Hinduism, with some stricter elements. The thing that stood out most for me in this young woman’s story was the idea of renunciation. To become a Jain nun involves a gradual but relentless process of ‘letting go’. First they give up the idea of eating meat, then eating three times a day, then marriage and sex, then the idea of hurting anything (they wear hardly any clothing (the men go naked) and sweep the path before them to prevent killing anything. The idea behind this process is the one that says ‘What makes us un happy is our attachment to things that are not real. Only our soul or spirit being is real, and that has a reality that transcends the body and its needs, and all other ‘this world’ concerns. So the process of living properly, is the process of gradually giving up all this. At one point, the young woman gives up her hair. This involves a painful four hour process of having it plucked out, which the young woman describes matter of fact –ly as something normal to be accepted. The logical conclusion to the process, which this young woman was now taking on, is to gradually give up human life itself.


Reading the book, I am ushered to the inside of a world which looks very strange from the outside, but which has a powerful attraction from the inside. At the beginning I found myself railing against this whole idea. I think “  If these people go on giving up the possibility of any influence, that is giving up the idea of politics, then what happens is that politics gets run by the greedy and power hungry people! Like the Archdeacon Grantly in ‘Barchester towers’ I want to say when accused by his wife of being  too concerned about money as a clergyman, ‘Well if the good people don’t have the say in where the money goes, then you only leave it to the bad people!’


Can you imagine if there was a government that came to power that banned the Jain religion. Then this young woman would be prevented from achieving enlightenment and the removal of all her bad ‘Karma’ by a political situation which was inimical to her desires. Could she then ‘give up’ the Jain idea itself as a final form of renunciation? The Jain set of ideas depends upon the fact that ‘everything in this world is illusion…except this Jain idea.’


Luther also had something to say about this. His idea described the role of the state in relation to the Church. He says ‘The truth of things is the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus. The reign of god is coming and it is first in Christ, and then in the Church that that reality is incarnated (however imperfectly) both in Eucharist and the life of the body of Christ. This is the place where the really real can be proclaimed for its own sake. But, there are evil people around who want to rob and lie and steal and prevent the love of god from being preached. Then the state comes in with various forms of compulsion. The job of the State is to clear a space where the Good News of God’s alternative reality can be announced and lived out.’ That is how we in the West look on reality. We acknowledge that much of this world is illusion, but say that the reality of the Church depends upon the power of the state to carve out a place for us. This is true too I think for India and the Jain practice. What is un acknowledged in this young woman’s story is the way that she depends upon a certain context, which enables her even to think the things she is thinking, and then which approves and allows her practices.

But none the less, this young woman’s story of renunciation had a powerful effect upon me. Reading it, I got a glimpse of just how much in the Church as a priest even, I am dominated by concerns and realities that are ‘not Christ’. Reading her story, I capture her sense of longing to be more and more in the reality of Christ in my life, and to let go of the attachments that cause the ‘shocks that the flesh is heir too. ’This is the main power of this story for me. It reminds me of how sometimes, even though we sing about God in Christ ‘for you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord’ how much our culture and my own attachment to other things makes other things ‘Lord’, and how much other things are determiners of life. I would like a bit more of this young woman’s devotion and the sense of freedom that simply separating ones self from the reality of possessions, clothing, money, food, the politics of parish life brings.


It is also true that the Christian Story is in itself different from the Hindu or Jain one in the respect that it does have a political dimension, about this world as part of its story. The vision of St. john in Revelation is not of the disappearance of the earth into heaven, but of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. The creation (matter) is not in itself evil, but is the place where god himself chooses to dwell. It is not be escaping from matter and attachment that God’s will is done, but in and through this world that the reign of God comes, and the creation is renewed to look like the ‘new heaven and the new earth.’


The other story in the book that I have read so far is the one about a dancer who for three months of the year dances the stories of the gods, and is, each night, possessed by the god who comes into him. Normally this person is a labourer digging wells. He says ‘As a labourer you sweat blood inside the well shaft. But in the theyyam (dance) you have to invest your body, heart mind and soul If you do not feel for the story your eyes will be soulless and without expression. The blood has to come from your face and heart.’


This story reminds me of doing Eucharist or other kinds of Church. I can relate to that. The dancer hopes that the god will come into him as he dances and performs the story. This is exactly too what is true for us. As we perform the story God promises to be present with and in us. Proper preparation, seriousness of intent, concentration and focus are all part of what we bring to the telling of our story. This is the’ preparing of a body’ that the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks about, so that the ‘Lo I come’ of God’s presence can become real for us. The one does not depend upon the other, God is not at our beck and call, but nevertheless, shoddy preparation for Eucharist and a lack of devotion mat hinder God’s work in us, and the communication of that presence to others who may be visiting, looking for signs of God in us.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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