BOOK REVIEW / A land without answers: 'OM: An Indian Pilgrimage' - Geoffrey Moorhouse: Hodder, 16.99

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IN BRINDAVAN, near Bangalore in southern India, Geoffrey Moorhouse witnessed a miracle. Sathya Sai Baba, 'a coffee-coloured and pudgy elf with an engaging smile', declared himself, at the tender age of 13, to be the avatar of the Hindu god, Vishnu. At his ashram, the guru singled Moorhouse out from the crowd and, from an apparently empty hand, poured a small quantity of vibhuti, or sacred ash, into his outstretched palm. The miraculous power of a reincarnated god? Or a cheap conjuring trick? We will never know. On reflection, Moorhouse is suprised to find how little it really matters. His book is full of such unanswered brushes with truth.

The OM of the book's title is a Sanskrit word from one of Hinduism's most holy texts, the Mandukya Upanishad: 'OM, this eternal word is all; what was, what is and what shall be, and what is beyond eternity. All is OM.' In search of the eternal, Moorhouse travels to India's southern states, 'never less than subtly different' from the north that he knows so well. Less affected than the north by the zeal for Islam, it is here - in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh - that Hinduism finds its centre of gravity. Here, also, Moorhouse finds travellers like himself, who are not merely sampling an alien culture, but looking for spiritual nourishment, too.

For all its differences, the south is immediately recognisable as India, a land of things 'bewitching and disgusting and terrifying and disarming, often in quick succession'. In Cochin he meets Mr Anthony (which visitor to India has not met him?) anxiously looking for a Foreign Friend to parade before his family and neighbours. Moorhouse is particularly good on the cultural subtleties which can so suddenly, and inexplicably, widen into unbridgable chasms of mutual incomprehension. Nowhere are the Cartesian certainties of the West, and India's sublime refusal to conform to them, so apparent as in the ashrams and holy places which Moorhouse visits. Some of these cults are wise, some sinister, others just plain barmy, such as the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry, where devotees confidently await the evolution of a new race of Supermen. Very few of them could be called simple places.

Although this book professes to be a personal pilgrimage, it is not until over halfway through that we begin to learn something of the complexities of Moorhouse's own spiritual dilemma. In a conversation with the remarkable Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk and Swami, we learn of his grief at the death of his daughter 10 years previously; and of his difficulty in reconciling this with his own miraculous escape from death only four years later. 'Are you any nearer to understanding the great mysteries of life and death?' he asks. But yet again his questions are left unanswered.

It is not until he visits the shrine of San Thome - Doubting Thomas - in Madras, that Moorhouse finds his own patron saint: 'for India was, above anywhere else, the land where every distinction of faith, every equivocation, every contradiction, every doubt, every reticence was commonplace . . . accepted as if any variant at all was the natural condition of man.'

This is a wise book, written by a wise man. A less wise man, and one without the benefit of more than 25 years' wrestling with the paradoxes of the great subcontinent, would not have known that in travelling it is not always answers that bring us closest to the truth but finding the right questions to ask in the first place.