The young nun’s tale

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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).

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