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Observations placeholder




Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

SPIRIT POSSESSION IN RAJASTHAN - Jeffrey G. Snodgrass [Professor, Department of Anthropology. Colorado State University]

SPIRIT POSSESSION IN RAJASTHAN (INDIA) In Rajasthan, shamanism and spiritual possession are tightly intertwined. Shamans are most typically those who have been healed from experiences with possession. Based on these experiences and now controlling and accessing the power and knowledge of the pestering spirit that once afflicted them or the divinity that formerly overwhelmed their human capabilities, shamans find themselves able to heal others. Spiritual possession, then, begins as an affliction but can be transformed into a gift that plays an important role in a shaman’s healing repertoire.

This entry deals with the nature of sprit possession, which can be accessed by a shaman, healer, or anybody who has such ability for trance. In Rajasthan, men and women serve as shamans. Still, men often monopolize these roles as many consider it shameful for women to publicly experience the ecstatic states associated with spiritual possession that so often accompany shamanism. Shamans provide a wide range of services for their clients, from predicting the future, to healing, to petitioning for spiritual aid in matters of love and money. In all these contexts, shamans serve as intermediaries between humankind and supernatural entities and energies, communicating with and often channeling gods and spirits both malign and benevolent for the benefit of humanity.

Shamanism is generally associated with village Rajasthan as well as with “folk” or “popular” Hinduism, thus distinguishing shamans from Brahmin priests and India’s classical textual traditions. But, as we shall see below, the lines between shamanism and priesthood are blurred, as they are throughout India. Working as a healer can bring honour and status to individuals, and indeed can signal gratitude to the spirit or deity that allowed one to survive a difficult affliction. Serving as a shaman can also bring in new income, though most shamans retain their former employment.

Rajasthanis speak of spiritual possessions as bhav a gaya, literally meaning “a feeling has come.” This phrase suggests that one feels an extraordinary emotion in one’s body, but more specifically can imply, depending on the case and context, that one is simply overcome with emotion, that one is so overwhelmed by emotions as to seem crazy, that a person is pretending to be a particular spirit or god, that one evokes in an audience a supernatural being’s feeling (bhav) or flavor (rasa), much as would a temple painting or a sacred song, that an individual emotionally identifies with a particular spiritual being and indeed thinks she is that being even though she is not, or, finally, that a person’s demeanor and emotional state are so reminiscent of a particular spirit or divinity that she is probably being controlled by that entity.

 In “true” possessions, the entities can be good and beneficial, as is usually the case with Hindu gods (devis and devatas), only a few of which in fact alight (utarna) on human mounts (ghoralas, related to the Hindi term for horse).

Bhairuji, a lusty bachelor god of the Underworld, is said to grab human beings more than any other Rajasthani divinity (this god is a local equivalent of the pan-Indian Bhairava, “the Destroyer,” also referred to as Bhutesvara, “Lord of Ghosts,” both “fierce” or “terrible” forms of S ´iva spoken of in ancient Sanskrit scriptures) (Gold 1988a, 1988b; Harlan 1992. 66; Kothari 1982; Snodgrass 2002a, 39–42; Unnithan-Kumar 1997).

Hanuman the monkey god, a popular Hindu deity referred to as Balaji in Rajasthan, is also said to take over human bodies (Dwyer 1998, 1999; Seeberg 1995), as do various incarnations of the Mother Goddess collectively referred to as Mataji (Kothari 1982; Snodgrass 2002b; Unnithan-Kumar 1997), and other divinities such as Gailaji, a local god of madness (Gold 1988a, 177), Tejaji, a healing deity of snake bites (Gold 1988b), and Bhakar, a “tribal” god of the mountain (Unnithan-Kumar 1997, 217).

Sagasji Baojis, the deceased spirits of murdered kings, also seize human beings (Snodgrass 2002a, 35–39), as do Muslim saints referred to as pir babas (Snodgrass 2002a, 42–45). Kuldevis (lineage goddesses), however, do not possess humans, instead communicating through visions and dreams (Harlan 1992, 66–68; for an exception see Snodgrass 2002b), nor do satis (women who immolate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres) (Harlan 1992) or various “big” Sanskritic gods such as Brahma who, the author was told, possess such power (shakti) as to risk exploding earthly bodies.

The source of the experience

Shaman unspecified

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps