The young nun’s tale
is in a temple j ust short of the summit that I first lay eyes on Prasannamati Mataji.
I had seen the tiny, slender, barefoot figure of the nun in her white sari bounding up the steps above me as I began my ascent. She climbed quickly, with a pot of water in one hand and a peacock fan in the other. As she went, she gently wiped each step with the fan in order to make sure she didn’t hurt a single living creature on her ascent: one of the set rules of pilgrimage for a Jain ascetic.
It was only when I got to the temple, just below the summit, that I caught up with her — and saw that Mataji was a surprisingly young and striking woman. She had large, wide-apart eyes, olive skin, and an air of self-contained confidence that expressed itself in an ease with the way she held her body. But there was also something sad and wistful about her expression as she went about her devotions; and this, combined with her youth and beauty, left one wanting to know more.
Mataji was busy with her prayers when I first entered the temple. After the glimmering halflight outside, the interior was almost completely black. Within, at first almost invisible, were three smooth black marble images of the Jain tirthankaras, or liberators. Each was sculpted sitting Buddhalike with shaved head and elongated earlobes, locked in the deepest meditation. Tirthankara literally means ford-maker, and the Jains believe these figures have shown the way to nirvana, making a ford through the rivers of suffering and across the wild oceans of existence and rebirth, so as to create a crossing place between the illusory physical world and final liberation.
To each of these figures in turn, Mataji bowed. According to Jain belief, pilgrims may express their devotion to the tirthankaras, but can expect no rewards for such prayers: the ford-makers have liberated themselves from the world of men and so are not present in the statues in the way that, say, Hindus believe their deities are incarnate in temple images. The pilgrim can simply learn from their example and use them as a focus for meditation.
At its purest, Jainism is almost an atheistic religion, and the images of the tirthankaras represent less a divine presence than a profound divine absence.
From the temple, Mataji headed up the hill to wash the feet of Bahubali. There she silently mouthed her morning prayers at the feet of the statue, her rosary circling in her hand.
The following day I applied for a formal audience with Mataji at the monastery guesthouse; and the day after that I began to learn what had brought about her air of melancholy.
‘ ‘ We believe that all attachments bring suffering,’’ she explained. ‘‘This is why we are supposed to give them up. This was why I left my family, and why I gave away my wealth. For many years, I fasted or ate only once a day and, like other nuns, I often experienced hunger and thirst. I wandered the roads of India barefoot. Every day I suffered the pain of thorns and blisters. All this was part of my effort to shed my last attachments. But I still had one attachment, though of course I didn’t think of it in that way.’’ ‘‘What was that?’’ ‘‘My friend Prayogamati,’’ she replied. ‘ ‘ For 20 years we were inseparable companions. For our safety, we Jain nuns are meant to travel together. It never occurred to me that I was breaking any of our rules. But because of my friendship with her, I formed a strong attachment, and that left an opening for suffering. But I only realised this after she died.’’
I had to encourage Mataji to continue: ‘‘In this stage of life we need company,’’ she said. ‘‘After Prayogamati left her body, I felt this terrible loneliness. But her time was fixed. When she fell ill with TB, her pain was so great she decided to take sallekhana, even though she was only 36.’’ ‘‘ Sallekhana?’’ ‘‘It’s the ritual fast to the death. We Jains regard it as the culimination of our life as ascetics. It is what we all aim for, and work towards, as the best route to nirvana.’’
‘‘You are saying she committed suicide?’’
‘‘It is quite different. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. But sallekhana is a triumph over death, an expression of hope.’’
‘‘If you starve yourself to death, then surely you are committing suicide?’’
‘‘We believe that death is not the end, and that life and death are complementary. So when you embrace sallekhana you are embracing a whole new life — it’s no more than going through from one room to another. But you are still choosing to end your life. Really — it can be so beautiful: the ultimate rejection of all desires, the sacrificing of everything.’’
She smiled. ‘‘You have to understand: we feel excited at a new life, full of possibilities.’’
‘‘But you could hardly have felt excited when your friend left you?’’
‘‘No,’’ she said, her face falling. ‘‘It is hard for those who are left.’’ She stopped.
‘ ‘ After Prayogamati died, I could not bear it. I wept, even though we are not supposed to. Any sort of emotion is a hindrance to the attainment of enlightenment. We are meant to cultivate indifference — but still I remember her.’’ Her voice faltered: ‘ ‘ The attachment is there even now. We lived together for 20 years. How can I forget?’’ This is an edited extract from Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple, excerpted from Ox Travels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers (Profile, $24.99).