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New Book Explores Pluralism in India

June 26, 2010

From National Public Radio 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. Click here to read the entire book review, as well as an excerpt from the book.