A nun’s tale

By William Dalrymplewriter and historian (Adapted by the author from his book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in … Continued

By William Dalrymple
writer and historian

(Adapted by the author from his book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India“)

Two hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged Palmyra palms. It is dawn. Below lies the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola, where the crumbling walls of monasteries and temples cluster around a grid of dusty, red-earth roads. The roads converge on a great rectangular tank. The tank is dotted with the spreading leaves and still-closed buds of floating lotus flowers. Already, despite the early hour, the first pilgrims are gathering.

For more than two thousand years, this Karnatakan town has been sacred to the Jains. It was here, in the third century BC, that the first Emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, embraced the Jain religion and died through a self-imposed fast to the death, the emperor’s chosen atonement for the killings he had been responsible for in his life of conquest. Twelve hundred years later, in 981 AD, a Jain general commissioned the largest monolithic statue in India, sixty feet high, on the top of the larger of the two hills, Vindhyagiri.

This was an image of another royal Jain hero, Prince Bahubali. The prince had fought a duel with his brother for control of their father’s kingdom. But in the very hour of his victory, Bahubali realised the transience of worldly glory. He renounced his kingdom, and embraced, instead, the path of the ascetic. Retreating to the jungle, he stood in meditation for a year, so that the vines of the forest curled around his legs and tied him to the spot. In this state he conquered what he believed to be the real enemies–his ambitions, pride and desires–and so became, according to the Jains, the first human being to achieve spiritual liberation.

The sun has only just risen above the palm trees, and an early morning haze still cloaks the ground. Yet already the line of pilgrims–from a distance, tiny ant-like creatures against the dawn-glistening fused-mercury of the rockface- are climbing the long line of steps that lead up to the stone prince. For the last thousand years this statue, enclosed in its lattice of stone vines, has been the focus of pilgrimage for the Digambara, or Sky Clad Jains.

Digambara monks are probably the most severe of all India’s ascetics. They show their total renunciation of the world by travelling through it completely naked, as light as the air, as they conceive it, and as clear as the Indian sky. Sure enough, among the many ordinary lay people slowly mounting the rock-cut steps, are several completely naked men– Digambara monks on their way to do homage to Prince Bahubali. There are also a number of white-clad Digambara nuns, and it is in a temple just short of the summit that I first lay eyes on Prasannamati Mataji.

I had seen the tiny, slender, bare-foot 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 of the hill: one of the set rules of pilgrimage for a Jain ascetic.

It was only when I got to the temple which lies just below the summit, that I caught up with her–and saw that despite her bald head, Mataji was in fact 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 unexpected youth and beauty, left one wanting to know more.

Mataji was busy with her prayers when I first entered the temple. After the glimmering half-light 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 Buddha-like with shaved head and elongated earlobes, locked in the deepest meditation. Tirtankara means literally ‘Fordmaker,’ 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 they can expect no rewards for such prayers: the Fordmakers have liberated themselves from the world of men, and so are not present in the statutes, in the way that, say, Hindus believe their deities are incarnate in temple images. The pilgrim can learn from the example of the Tirthankaras, and can use them as a focus for their meditations. But as the Fordmakers are removed from the world they are unable to answer prayers. At its purest, Jainism is almost an atheistic religion, and the images of the Tirthankaras represent less a divine presence, so much as 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. Then as quickly as she had leapt up the steps, she headed down them again, peacock fan flicking and sweeping each step before her.

It was only the following day that I applied for a formal audience with Mataji at the monastery guest house; and it was only the day after that, as we continued our conversations, that I began to learn what had brought about her air of melancholy.
“We believe that all attachments bring suffering,” said Prasannamati Mataji, after we had been talking for some time. “This is why we are supposed to give them up. This was why I left my family, and why I gave away my wealth.”

We were talking in the annex of a monastery prayer hall, and Mataji was sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat: “For many years, I fasted or ate at most only once a day,” she continued. “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,” she said, “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 twenty years we were inseparable companions, sharing everything. 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 not just an attachment, but a strong attachment– and that left an opening for suffering. But I only realised this after she died.”

There was a pause, and I had to encourage Mataji to continue: “In this stage of life we need company,” she said. “You know: a companion with whom we can share ideas and feelings. After Prayogamati left her body, I felt this terrible loneliness. I feel it to this day. 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?”

“No, no: sallekhana is not suicide,” she said emphatically. “It is quite different. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. But sallekhana is as a triumph over death, an expression of hope.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “If you starve yourself to death, then surely you are committing suicide?”

“Not at all. We believe that death is not the end, and that life and death are complimentary. 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.”

“With suicide, death is full of pain and suffering. But sallekhana is a beautiful thing. You have God’s name on your lips, and if you do it slowly in the prescribed way, there is no pain.

“At all stages you are guided by an experienced guruji. Everything is planned long in advance–when, and how, you give up your food. First you fast one day a week, then you eat only on alternate days: one day you take food, the next you fast. One by one, you give up different types of foodstuffs. Finally you take only water, and then you have that only on alternate days. Eventually, when you are ready, you give up on that too. 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 like this.”

“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 of 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,” she said. “I can’t help it. We lived together for 20 years. How can I forget?”

* * * *

Jainism is one of the most ancient living religions of the world, similar to Buddhism in many respects, and emerging from the same classical Indian world of the Ganges basin in the early centuries BC–but the faith of the Jains is slightly more ancient, and much more demanding than Buddhist practice.

Buddhist ascetics shave their heads; Jains pluck their hair out by the roots. Buddhist monks beg for food; Jains have to have their food given to them without asking. All they can do is to out on gowkari–the word used to describe the grazing of a cow– and signal their hunger by curving their right arms over their shoulder. If no food comes before the onset of the night, they go to bed hungry. They are forbidden to handle money. Unlike Buddhism, the Jain religion never spread beyond India, and while once a popular and powerful faith across the subcontinent, today there are only four million Jains left.

Outside India, the religion barely exists, and in contrast to Buddhism, is almost unknown in the West.

The word Jain derives from Jina, meaning spiritual conqueror. The Jinas or Tirthankaras–Fordmakers– were a series of twenty-four human teachers who each discovered how to escape the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Through their heroic austerities they gained omniscient knowledge which revealed to them the reality of the universe, in every dimension. The most recent of those, according to the Jains, was the historical figure of Mahavira–the Great Hero–a prince of Magadha, in modern Bihar, who during the sixth century BC renounced the world at the age of thirty to become a wandering thinker and ascetic.

Mahavira elaborated to his followers a complex cosmological system that the Jains still expound 2,400 years later. Like other Indian faiths they believe in an immortal soul, and that the sum of one’s actions determines the nature of your future rebirth. However the Jains reject the Hindu idea that the world was created by omnipotent Gods, and they mock the pretensions of the Brahmin priests, who believe that ritual purity and temple sacrifices can bring salvation. As a Jain monk explains to a group of Brahmins in one of the Jain scriptures, the most important sacrifice for Jains is one’s own body: “Austerity is my sacrifical fire,” says the monk,

and my life is the place where the fire is kindled. Mental and physical effort are my ladle for the oblation, and my body is the fuel for the fire, my actions my firewood. I offer up an oblation consisting of my restraint, effort and calm.

It is a strange and in some ways very harsh religion; but that, explained Prasannamati Mataji, is exactly the point.

* * *

At ten o’clock each day, Prasannamati Mataji eats her one daily meal. On my third day in Sravanabelagola, I went to her monastery to watch what turned out to be as much a ritual as a breakfast.

Mataji, wrapped as ever in her unstitched white cotton sari, was sitting cross-legged on a low wooden stool in the middle of an empty ground floor room. In front, five Jain laywomen with small buckets of rice and dal were eagerly attending on Mataji, who they treated with extreme deference. Mataji however sat with eyes lowered, not looking at them, accepting without comment whatever she was offered. There was complete silence: no one spoke; any communication took place by hand signals.

For an hour, Mataji ate slowly, and in total silence. The woman waited for her to nod, and then with a long spoon put a tidbit of food into her cupped hands. Each morsel she then turned over carefully with the thumb of her right hand, looking for a stray hair, or winged insect, which might have fallen into the strictly vegetarian food, so rendering it impure. If she were to find any living thing, explained one of the lay women, the rules were clear: she must drop the food on the floor, reject the entire meal, and fast until 10 am the following day.

After she had finished her vegetables, one of Mataji’s attendants poured a small teaspoon full of ghee on to her rice. When a woman offered a further spoonful of dal, the slightest shake of Mataji’s head indicated that she was done. Boiled water was then poured, still warm, from a metal cup into Mataji’s hands. She drank. After that, she was finished. Mataji rose, and blessed the women with her peacock fan.

When the silent meal was finished, Mataji led me to the reception room of the monastery guest house. There she sat herself down cross-legged on a wicker mat in front of a low writing desk. At a similar desk at the far end of the room, sat a completely naked man–the maharaj of the monastery, silently absorbed in his writing. We nodded to each other, and he returned to his work. He was there to chaperone Mataji during our conversation: it would have been forbidden for her to stay alone in a room with a male who was not her guru.

When she had settled herself, Mataji began to tell me the story of how she had renounced the world.

* * *

“I was born in Raipur in 1972,” said Mataji. “In those days my name was Rekha.

“My family were wealthy merchants. My father had six brothers and we lived as a joint family, together in the same house. For three generations there had been no girls. I was the first one, and they all loved me. I was considered a pretty little girl, and had unusually fair skin and thick black hair, which I grew very long.

“I was pampered by all of them: in fact my uncles would compete to spoil me. Every desire of mine was fulfilled. Nobody ever beat or disciplined me, even in jest. In fact I do not remember even once my parents raising their voice. It was a very happy childhood.

“When I was about thirteen, I was taken to meet a monk called Dayasagar Maharaj- his name means the Lord of the Ocean of Compassion. He was a former cow herd who had taken diksha when he was only ten years old, and now had a deep knowledge of the scriptures. He had come to Raipur to do his chaturmasa–the Monsoon break when we Jains are forbidden to walk in case we accidently kill the unseen life that inhabits the puddles. So for three months, the Maharaj was in our town, and every day he used to preach for the children. He told us how to live a peaceful life and how to avoid hurting other living creatures: what we should eat, and how we should strain water to avoid drinking creatures too small to be seen. I was very impressed and started thinking.

“Within a few weeks I decided to give up eating after the hours of darkness, and also gave up eating any plant that grows beneath the earth: onions, potatoes, garlic and all root vegetables. Jain monks are forbidden these as you kill the plant when you uproot it – we are only allowed to eat plants such as rice which can survive the harvest of their grain. When I also gave up milk and jaggery–two things I loved– as a way of controlling my desires, everyone tried to dissuade me, especially my father. They thought I was too young to embark on this path, and everyone wanted me to be their little doll at home.

This was not what I wanted.

“When I was fourteen, I announced I wanted to join the Sangha–the Jain community of which my Maharaj was part. Again my family opposed me, saying I was just a young girl, and should not worry about such things. But when I insisted, they agreed to let me go for a couple of weeks in the school holidays, hoping that I would be put off by the harshness of the Sangha life. They also insisted that some of the family servants should
accompany me. But the life of the Sangha, and the teachings I heard there, were a revelation. Once I was settled in, I simply refused to come back. The servants did their best to persuade me, but I was completely adamant, and the servants had to go back on their own. There was a lot of pressure and everyone in my family was very angry. But eventually they gave in.

“When you eat a mango, you have to throw away the stone. The same is true of our life as ascetics. No matter how attached you are to your family, whatever efforts you make, ultimately you have to leave them behind. Wordly pleasures and the happiness of family life are both equally temporary. If you close the door, you cannot see; open it a little and all becomes clear. For me, the Sangha was itself like a rebirth, a second life. The gurus taught me how to live in a new way: how to sit as a Jain nun, how to stand, how to talk, how to sleep. Everything was taught anew, as if from the beginning.

“At the end of two years with the Sangha, “I finally made up my mind that I would take diksha. That November they plucked my hair for the first time: it’s the first step, a test of your commitment, because if you can’t take the pain of having your hair plucked out you are not going to be ready to take the next step. I had very beautiful long thick hair, and as I was still very young my guru-ji wanted to cut it with scissors then shave my head with a razor, so as not to inflict such pain on me. But I insisted, and said there was no going back now. I was a very obstinate girl: whatever I wanted to do, I did. So they agreed to do what I wished. I think everyone was rather amazed at my determination.

“The whole ritual took nearly four hours, and was very painful. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help crying. I didn’t tell my parents about my decision, as I knew they would try and stop me, but somehow they heard, and came rushing. By the time they arrived, the ceremony was almost over. When they saw me with a bald head, and scars and blood all over my scalp where my hair had once been, my mother screamed, and my father burst into tears. They knew then that I would never turn back from this path. After that, whenever the Sangha would arrive at a village, the Maharaj would show me off: look, he would say.

This one is so young, yet so determined: doing what even the old would hesitate to do.

“It was about this time that I met my friend, Prayogamati. One day, our Sangha happened to walk into her village, and as her father was a rich merchant, who lived in a large house, they invited us to stay with them. Prayogamati was the same age as me, fifteen, a beautiful, fragile girl, and she came down every day to our room to talk to us.

We quickly became very close, talking late into the night. She was fascinated by my life in the Sangha, and I had never met anyone who seemed to understand me the way she did, someone who shared all my beliefs and ideals. She was about to be engaged to the son of a rich diamond merchant, and the match had been arranged for her, but she was more interested in taking diksha. She also knew that her family would not allow her to do this.

“After a week, we left that village, setting off before dawn. That evening, Prayogamati borrowed some money from her mother, saying she wanted to go to a circus. Instead, she took two outfits from her room, and jumped on a bus. Late that night she found us, and asked the Maharaj to accept her. Her family realised what had happened, and begged her to return, but she refused, and our guru-ji said it was up to her to decide.

From that point we were together for twenty years. We took diksha together, and traveled together, and ate together, and spent our monsoon chaturmasa together.

Soon we became very close.

“Except for the chaurmasa, it is forbidden for us to stay long in one place, in case we become attached to it. Some nights we would stay in the house of a rich man, sometimes in a cave, sometimes the jungle. People think of our life as harsh, and of course it is.

But going into the unknown without a rupee in our pockets means that differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate all vanish, and a common humanity emerges. This wandering life, with no material possessions, unlocks our souls. There is a wonderful sense of lightness, living each day as it comes. No weight, no burden. Journey and destination became one, thought and action become one, until we are moving like a river into detachment.”

* * * *

“We lived in this manner for four years before the time came for Prayogamati and I to take diksha. The other matajis dressed up my friend and I as brides. We wore identical clothes and jewellery. We even looked alike, so often people confused us. We were taken together in a chariot around thirteen villages near our family haveli in Udaipur district. Before us went drummers and trumpeters and men clashing cymbals, and as we passed, we would throw rice and money to the crowds.

“The final day of diksha 20,000 people gathered. We rose very early and walked to the stage where the ceremony was to be held. We said prayers in praise of the Tirthankaras, and then we formally asked permission from the Maharaj to take diksha.

He gave his assent.

“Then came the time for saying farewell to our families. We both tied rakis [threads] for the last time on the wrists of our brothers, saying goodbye to them. After that our relationship of brother and sister was supposed to end– they were to be like strangers to us. Then we said goodbye our parents- we embraced, and wished each other farewell. After this, they were no longer our parents–to us they were supposed to be just like any other member of society.

“After the farewell, we were led off for the hair plucking ceremony. This time we had to do it ourselves, which was much harder. After it was finished we were given a holy bath in a shamiana tent. When we both came out, we were given robes of white cloth. Then we were led back onto the stage, and told our new names. I was no longer Rekha; for the first time in my life I was addressed as Prasanna Mataji. For the first time my friend became Prayogamati. Then we were both lectured by our guru-ji. He told us clearly what was expected of us: never again to use a vehicle, to take food only once a day, to abstain from emotion, never to hurt any living creature. He told us we must not react to attacks, must not beg, must not cry, must not complain, must not demand, must not feel superiority. And he told us all the different kinds of difficulties we should be prepared to bare: hunger, thirst, cold, heat, mosquitoes. He warned us that none of this was easy.

“Then he gave us our water pot and peacock fan, and we were led off the stage for the last time. That night, we spent on the roof of the house where we were staying. The following morning, we got up before dawn and without telling anyone, we slipped away. We looked for the signs that led towards Gujarat, and began to walk.”

* * *

“Everyone had warned us about the difficulty of this life,” continued Mataji. “But in reality, we had left everything willingly, so did not miss the world we had left behind. It is the same as when a girl gets married and she has to give up her parents home: if she does it in exchange for something she really wants, it is not a sad time. Certainly, for both Prayogamati and I it was a very happy period in our lives- perhaps the most happy. Every day we would walk, and discover somewhere new.

“Walking is very important to us Jains. The Buddha was enlightened while sitting under a tree, but our great tirtankara, Mahavira, was enlightened while walking. Living from day to day, much of what I have learnt as a Jain has come from wandering. Sometimes, even my dreams are of wandering.

“It was while walking that Prayogamati began to realise that her health was beginning to fail. It was because of her difficulty in keeping up with me that we first noticed that there was something wrong with her joints. She began to have difficulty in walking, and even more so in sitting or squatting.

“For ten years her condition got worse: by the end, it pained her to move at all. Then one afternoon she was studying in a monastery in Karnataka when she began coughing. Her cough had become worse and worse, and she had begun to make this deep retching noise. But this time when she took her hand away from her mouth she found it was covered in blood. After that, there was nothing more for a week, but then she began coughing up blood regularly. Sometimes, it was a small amount–just enough to make her mouth red–at other times she would cough up enough to fill a small teacup.

“I guessed immediately that it was TB, and I took special permission from our guru-ji to let her see a doctor. Western medicine is forbidden to us, as so much of it is made using dead animals. But given the seriousness of the situation, our guru-ji agreed to let a western doctor look at her, though he insisted that only herbal medicine could be given to her.

“Prayogamati remained very calm, and for a long time she hoped that she might still recover her health. Even when it became clear that this was something quite serious, she remained composed. It was always me that was more worried. She kept assuring me that she was feeling better and that it was nothing serious; but in reality you didn’t have to be a doctor to see that her health was rapidly deteriorating.

“Her digestive system became affected, the bloody coughing continued, and after a while, she started showing blood when she went for her ablutions too. Eventually I got permission to take her to a hospital where she had a full blood test. They diagnosed her problem as advanced TB of the digestive system. They said that her chances were not good.

“That same day that Prayogamati decided to embrace sallekhana. She said she would prefer to give up her body rather than have it taken from her. She said she wanted to die voluntarily, facing it squarely, rather than have death ambush her and take her away by force. She was determined to be the victor, not the victim. I tried to argue with her, but like me, once she took a decision it was impossible to get her to change her mind.

Despite her pain and her illness, she set out that day to walk a hundred kilometres to see our guru, who was then in Indore.

“We got there after a terrible week in which Prayogamati suffered very badly: it was winter–late December– and bitterly cold. But she refused to give up, and when she got to Indore she asked permission to begin embracing sallekhana. He asked Prayogamati if she was sure, and she said yes. When he learned that she would anyway probably not have very long to live, he gave his assent.

“Throughout 2004, Prayogamati began gradually reducing her food. One by one, she gave up all the vegetables she used to eat. She began eating nothing at all on several days of the week. For eighteen months she ate less and less. Normally sallekhana is very peaceful but for Prayogamati, because of her illness, her end was full of pain.

“My job was to feed her, and look after her, and read the prescribed texts. I was also there to talk to her and give her courage and companionship. I stayed with her 24 hours a day. Throughout she tolerated everything, and stayed completely calm–such calmness you can hardly imagine! I always learned from her, but never more than towards the end. Such a person will not be born again.

“By September 2005 she was bedridden, and I remained continually by her side until the beginning of December. By this stage she was eating only five things: pomegranate juice, milk, rice, dal and sugar. Every day she would eat a little less. She had to summon all her strength to perform the observations that have to be followed. At the end, she was running a fever of 105 degrees, and was covered in sweat. In the afternoon she would feel cold; in the evening she would burn. I asked the doctors, what is the reason for this? They did some tests and said–now she has caught malaria as well.

“The next day the fever was still there. Just after 1.30 I went to take my food, when Prayogamati cried loudly. I rushed to look after her–it was clear her condition was not good at all. There was no one around except a boy at the gate, so I sent him off for the doctor. When I came back, I held her hand and she whispered that she wanted to stop all remaining food. Her suffering was too much for her now. She said that for her death was as welcome as life, that there was a time to live and a time to die. Now, she said, the time has come for me to be liberated from this body.

“Our guru-ji gathered the community. By early afternoon all the gurus and matajis were there guiding her and sitting together around the bed. Others came to touch her feet. Everyone was there to support Prayogamati, to give her courage.

“Around 4 p.m., the doctor said he thought she was about to die, but she held on until nine pm. It was dark by then, and the lamps were all lit around the room. Her breathing had been very difficult that day, but towards the end it became easier. I held her hand, the monks chanted, and her eyes closed. For a while, even I didn’t know she had gone. She just slipped away.

“When I realised she had left, I wept bitterly. We are not supposed to do this, and our guru-ji frowned at me. But I couldn’t help myself. I had followed all the steps correctly until she passed away, but then everything I had bottled up came pouring out. Her body was still there, but she wasn’t in it. It was no longer her.

“The next day, the 15th December, she was cremated. They burned her at 4pm. All the devotees in Indore came: over two thousand people. The following morning, at dawn, I got up and headed off. There was no reason to stay.

“It was the first time as a nun that I had ever walked anywhere alone.”

* * *

The following day, I went to say goodbye to Prasannamati Mataji.

“Her time was fixed,” she said. “She passed on. She’s no longer here. All things decay and disappear in time.”

Mataji fell silent: “Now my friend has gone,” she said eventually, “it is easier for me to go too.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have seen over forty sallekhanas,” she said. “But after Prayogamati’s, I realised it was time I should set out to that end as well.”

“You mean you are thinking of following…?”

“I am on the path already,” said Mataji. “I have started cutting down the food I eat. I have given up milk or curds, salt and sugar, guava and papaya, leafy vegetables and ladies finger. Each month I give up something new. All I want to do now is to visit a few more holy places before I go. “

“But why?” I asked. “You are not ill like she was. Isn’t it a waste? You’re only 38.”

“I told you before,” she said. “Sallekhana is the aim of all Jains. It is the last renouncement. First you give up your home, then your possessions. Finally you give up your body.

“Do you think you will meet her in another life,” I said. “Is that it?”

“It is uncertain,” said Mataji. “Our scriptures are full of people who meet old friends and husbands and wives and teachers from previous lives. But no one can control these things.”

Again Mataji paused, and looked out of the window: “Though we both may have many lives ahead of us, in many worlds,” she said, “who knows whether we will meet again? And if we do meet, in our new bodies, who is to say that we will recognise each other?”
She looked at me sadly as I got up to go, and said simply: “These things are not in our hands.”

Writer and historian William Dalrymple is author of the new book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” (Alfred A. Knopf).

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