Empire of the Soul:
Some Journeys in India

by Paul W. Roberts,
400 pages,
ISBN: 0773727388

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The Art of Pilgrimage
by Allan Casey

NOT HALFWAY THROUGH Paul William Roberts's modestly subtitled, though enormously ambitious book, I felt I already knew what my pronouncements upon its merits were going to be. I would congratulate him on capturing the tumultuous humanity and colour of India, the crushing poverty of so many of its people, and the crushing discomfort of its public transit network. I was already willing to salute his thorough scholarship on a religious history that dwarfs that of the West, and celebrate his uncanny ability to recreate the inflection of so many of India's 800-odd languages in his dialogues. But in the end, I expected to thank him for not trying to summarize the subcontinent.

Ultimately, this endlessly absorbing book comes as close as you are likely to find to a portrait of the most kinetic "developing" nation on earth. The author might well deny he'd aimed so irreverently high, but he's hit a lofty mark indeed. Much has been written about the early postcolonial, post-Gandhi era. But it's really the current generation -the first truly independent generation -- that is the subject of Empire of the Soul.

If National Geographic set out to capture the essence of this emerging industrial power and cradle of spirituality, they'd want to interview people from the lowest of Untouchables to the most elevated of Brahmins. They'd want to impart some sense of the country's incredibly diverse geography and even more diverse assortment of religious personalities, from biggies like Mother Teresa and the Bhagwan Rajneesh to the more obscure seers, from the bottom of the holy mountain to the top. They would include princes and prostitutes, sadhus and junkies. Roberts covers all these bases and more, and not with the bloodless linearity of a Geographic survey crew, either. Roberts combines the basic humanity and penchant for dry crosscultural humour of the English travel writer Eric Newby with a journalistic thoroughness and spiritual seriousness that offers real, and often moving, glimpses into a country that is as advanced spiritually and culturally as it is backward economically.

All of which gives a somewhat misleading impression of Empire of the Soul. Despite its success as pure sociology, the book derives its thematic unity -- and we in the West do so crave unity -from the author's 20 years of spiritual soul-searching in India. Unfortunately, though more accurate, such a summary won't do much to recommend a fine book: as Roberts himself takes pains to point out, Westerners seeking enlightenment in the East are something of a cosmic joke. Elliptical and threnodic, Empire of the Soul follows the sometimes hard-to-track, interwoven footprints of a hard-nosed journalist and a soulful pilgrim. Both are Roberts, a rationalist half-ashamed at himself for choosing to be a pilgrim, half-angry that in our cultural milieu the art of pilgrimage is a lost one.

For those with ears to hear, the spiritual gifts he receives along his journey are reward enough. But even for those with no taste for miracle and mystery, Empire of the Soul easily justifies its cover price as sociology, lay theology, and travelogue. Paul Roberts's unflinchingly brave cross-examination of India's elite and the humanist rapport he establishes with the country's average citizens makes for a penetrating portrait of this often shadowy soul empire.


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