Books, alas, don’t always come in the right order. Having recently reviewed Oliver Craske’s excellent biography of Ravi Shankar, I found myself wishing that I could have read Finding the Raga before undertaking that task. Amit Chaudhuri, well-known Indian novelist and essayist, is also a singer and a musician, but not just any musician. Thoroughly-versed in both Indian and Western classical music, he also has a wide experience of Western popular genres (particularly American folk music), Indian film music and the songs of Rabindranath Tagore.

Many cultures under, or in the shadow of, an empire sometimes make use of that empire’s language to express themselves. Latin was used throughout Europe, while for a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest, the dominant written language in England was French. China exerted a similar cultural pull over its neighbors: Japanese poets would write kanshi and Koreans hansi, both terms being probably derived from the word Han, referring to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China. For both, using written Chinese was to make a cultural statement, indicating that these writings were for an elite class of people. Furthermore, despite the invention of hangul, an optimized Korean script, by king Sejong in the 15th century, classical Chinese—both the language and the script—remained the preference of Korean literati for several centuries. Hangul did not in fact hit its stride until well into the 19th century; and, given their acute sense of class-consciousness, Koreans may simply have felt more comfortable reading their stories in classical Chinese. 

Despite being separated by the sea and eight centuries, both of these poets share feelings of exile and displacement and exile as they wander more or less aimlessly around their respective countries, attempting to sort themselves out through writing poetry. They also share the good fortune of having attracted excellent biographers, who let them speak freely and directly through their poetry rather than simply writing about their deeds and personalities. Readers as a result vicariously travel with the poets, feeling their experiences directly and responding to them viscerally and emotionally as well as intellectually.

Behind or beside the great male spiritual leaders are great women, so we are told, although it is usually the case that their lives and deeds are often relegated to secondary importance by androcentric religious constructs put in place by those who come afterwards. For example, Jesus has two Marys (his mother and Magdalene), Muhammed has his principal wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr, and Buddha (Siddhartha) has Mahaprajapati. There are, however, many stories written about these women, and the often sparse historical records, if they exist at all, need to be fleshed out by these accounts, many of which, however, contain a great deal of  imaginative fiction as well as kernels of truth. They form what Garling herself  terms “a crazy quilt,” that is, numerous fragments based on what Tracy Cochran calls in her foreword “threads of instinct, intuition and common sense.” In the case of Mahaprajapati, we do not have even the kind of history which may be extracted, say, from the synoptic gospels, apocryphal writings (there is a Gospel of Mary Magdalene) or the various Islamic sources depicting Aisha as a scholar, judge and even military leader. 

In his perennially wonderful (if now dated—the abridged version was issued by its author in 1922 based on the 12-volume full one) Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Sir James Frazer tells us that magic was the precursor to religion. Van Schaik uses Frazer’s analysis as an example of what has by now become the “conventional” view of the subject, although it refers largely to what Frazer called “sympathetic magic,” which van Schaik says “has dominated much of the discussion of magical practice” since the issue of The Golden Bough. It was “the first primitive stage in mankind’s attempt to understand and control the world,” as Sam van Schaik sums it up, or the belief “that things act on each other through a secret sympathy,” as Frazer himself put it.