Nov 7, 2009

The Jain nun’s tale | Book Review

By Pradeep Sebastian
Dalrymple’s austere and exciting book on nine astonishing religious lives opens with a moving story that should kindle interest in Jainism.

It is the first mainstream account of contemporary Jainism to emerge from a widely read and admired literary journalist such as the author of The Last Mughal.

“No, no: sallekhana is not suicide,” says the young Jain nun emphatically to William Dalrymple, referring to the ritual fast to the death. “But you are still choosing to end your life,” the writer argues. A little later, she responds with a smile, saying: “You have to understand that for us death is full of excitement.”
Dalrymple first spots Prasannamati Mataji bounding past the other pilgrims on the steps of the Vindhyagiri hill in Sravanabelagola, and is struck that such a slender, beautiful woman was a Digambara mataji, the severest of all ascetics in India.

“As she climbed,” he writes, “she gently wiped each step with the fan in order to make sure she didn’t stand on, hurt or kill a single living creature on her ascent of the hill.” More than intrigued, he seeks an audience with her, and asks to tell her story.
Even to remark that her life and example is moving, radiant, awe-inspiring and holy is not to say enough about Prasannamati, her incomparable courage and compassion reflecting those of her Jain brother and sisters. Dalrymple himself is humbled, and records her story without artifice. What struck me about this first tale in Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is that it is the first mainstream account of contemporary Jainism to emerge from a widely read and admired literary journalist such as the author of The Last Mughal. And this means this is the first glimpse many readers across several countries and cultures will have of this little written and talked about faith.

There’s so much on Buddhism, practically nothing on Jainism. In bookstores, if you’re lucky you’ll come across a couple of basic books on Jainism published by a Jain foundation, but nothing like the range of books and writers on Buddhism. (Innumerable biographies of the Buddha, none of Mahavira; so much is made of Emperor Ashoka’s change of heart, little of Emperor Chandragupata Maurya embracing Jainism and his atonement of a self-imposed fast to the death). For more rigorous and deep accounts of Jainism you’ll have to look to academic writing; of which there is also very little.

Which is why the “Nun’s Tale” in Nine Lives is important: it could inspire other literary journalists to explore Jainism, startle young people to examine the faith, provoke discussion among the book’s readers on its uncompromising vision of non-violence to all beings, and kindle new interest in Jainism among seekers. But most of all, I’m hoping that through Prasannamati’s life, Jainism’s ancient and deeply held dharma of not harming a single creature, great or small, will shame and move us into renouncing any kind of harm or violence to animals; especially the slaughter of animals for food, sport and fashion.

Born into wealth, she met a Jain monk at 13 and joined the sangha a year later. Her parents were shocked and thought the fervour would wear off, but realised she was serious when, at the time of beginning diksha, she sat still as her beautiful long hair was plucked one by one, until she was bald. The ritual took fours hours and was very painful, and she could not help crying. Later, as an adult monk having completed diksha, the ritual was repeated, but as required, she had to pluck each hair herself. Jain nuns travel with a companion, and she had made a dear friend in Prayogamati.

For 20 years they walked the path of the Tirthankaras. “Walking is very important to us Jains,” she observes, “The Buddha was enlightened while sitting under a tree, but our great Tirthankara, Mahavira, was enlightened while walking. We believe that walking is an important part of our tapasya.” And then, quite, suddenly, her friend becomes very ill. It was then that Prayogamti expressed her desire to embrace sallekhana, fasting till death. For the first year of the fast, in 2004, she gradually reduced her food. After a year of this, it was only a little juice and some mung dal and, every day, she ate a little less.
Usually, points out Prasannamati, sallekhana is peaceful but because of her friend’s illness it had become painful. In her last days, she completely stopped eating. “It was very peaceful at the end,” says Prasannamati. And then there came upon her a deep sadness and loneliness: for the first time in twenty years she was without a friend and companion. She wept bitterly, her guruji frowned but she could not stop herself. The day after her friend was cremated, she took off: “It was the first time as a nun I had ever walked anywhere alone.”

Sympathetic but clear ear
The reader and the author are startled when she discloses that now she too is on the path of sallekhana. Dalrymple tells her story with a sympathetic but clear ear: you sense his admiration for the nun, even as he writes that Jainism is a strange, austere and harsh religion.

The accounts of the sacred that I am always drawn most to are those by literary journalists curious about the transcendent: Peter Matthiessen and his Zen journals, Rudy Wurlitzer’s travelogue of sacred places, Winifred Gallagher’s lives of 10 spiritual geniuses, Pico Iyer’s personal history of the Dalai Lama, and Pankaj Mishra’s literary biography of the Buddha. And now Dalrymple’s austere, piercing, and exciting book on nine astonishing religious lives.

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