Last week I devoured this book about spirituality in modern India. It was amazing, eye-opening and beautiful. I highly recommend it as a way to get at least a small glimpse into the complex world that is India, and to get a taste for some very different ways of looking at religion, god, and the meaning of life.
The book is in the form of nine short autobiographies, where essentially the writer lets the people tell their own stories, while occasionally asking questions or adding his own bits of background or experience to illuminate parts of the stories. Most of the chapters feature individuals on the fringes of Indian religious culture, either because they are part of non-Hindu religions, i.e. Jainism, Sufi Islam, or Buddhism, or because they participate in practices that challenge or defy the mainstream Hindu culture and live outside of the caste divides or Brahmin interpretation of religion.
The thing I love most about this book is its humanity. These personal stories are so real and touching and full of life. I think the author certainly makes an effort to show the ordinariness of these human experiences, which I imagine is a challenge when showing worldviews, practices and beliefs that can be so wildly different from the beliefs and worldviews of most westerners. The first story in the book, about a Jain nun dealing with the death of her best friend, literally brought tears to my eyes, it was so moving and beautiful; uplifting and tragic. And I loved, loved, LOVED the final chapter of the book and the way the whole reading experience was brought to a close, with the life affirming story of a blind minstrel, expressing his love of god through song and fellowship with his fellow minstrels, and singing that the only path to divinity is found within the human heart. After reading that final chapter I felt so happy to be alive!
I always find it uplifting, challenging, and inspiring to consider the way other people think and believe. I am ceaselessly amazed by the great diversity of human experience and culture. It is wonderful, awe-inspiring, strange and exciting to be a part of the human race in all its variety.