SPIRIT POSSESSION IN RAJASTHAN - Jeffrey G. Snodgrass 05
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
SPIRIT POSSESSION IN RAJASTHAN - Jeffrey G. Snodgrass [Professor, Department of Anthropology. Colorado State University]
Rajasthanis, spiritually tactical and medically polymorphous, practice a variety of measures to rid themselves of pestering spirits. Some try antibiotics and other allopathic remedies drawn from Western cosmopolitan biomedicine, while others turn to local systems of healing such as Ayurveda (a Hindu healing tradition described in ancient Sanskrit scriptures) or Unani prophetic medicine brought to India by Muslims, which has been described as a “combination of Greek humoral theory (four humors— blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) and animistic beliefs introduced by the Prophet Muhammad” (Freed and Freed 1990, 404)).
These, in fact, represent ﬁrst choices. Nevertheless, most Rajasthanis eventually turn to shamans. Shamans, or “healed healers”—these persons were typically also once assailed by spirits—ﬁrst engage ghosts in conversation, hoping to find out who the spirit is and what it wants. Having pinpointed ghostly identities and desires (though this is difﬁcult, as ghosts are notorious liars and tricksters), shamans proffer deals to the spirits, offering gifts of sweets, coconuts, tamarind fruit, cloth, or money, thus hoping to entice or exorcise (bhut-pret utarna) spirits from the bodies of their hosts. These deals involve considerable pleading, cajoling, and complaining on the part of both healers and ghosts.
Spirits are sometimes transferred to another person or thing—even, temporarily or permanently, into the shaman’s own body. Alternately, shamans make offerings to sources of divine power, hoping that such powers will chase the spirit from their victims. Such fonts of spiritual vitality, be they gods, saints (in the Muslim tradition termed pir babas), or the shaman’s own spiritual servants, are found near impromptu shrines erected in or near sacred spots (termed sthans), temples (mandirs), mosques (masjids), or saints’ tombs (pirs).
If these steps do not work, spiritual specialists make ghosts as uncomfortable as possible, hoping to convince them to leave human hosts. Techniques include abusing and insulting ghosts, smoking spirits out with unpleasant fumes such as burning cow dung (Freed and Freed 1964, 168), beating or electrically shocking the bodies of the possessed (some locals say only villagers and saints, but not shamans, employ electrical shocks), transferring mounts and thus their ghostly parasites to holy ground, reciting sacred verses termed mantras that summon superior supernatural forces in order to discipline recalcitrant spirits (the term mantra is a condensation of mananat trananat meaning “thoughts that protect”; Seeberg 1995, 45), providing the possessed with consecrated amulets that offer protection from ghosts, and using bundles of peacock feathers or branches from the neem tree to “sweep” (jhara, jharphuk) disease-causing spirits out of the body (Lambert 1997, 259).
High-caste Rajasthanis link most forms of spiritual possession with the lower castes, the poor, “tribals,” and women, the primary exception being possession by ancestors (purvajs), a malady that commonly afﬂicts high-caste men (Harlan 1992, 66–67, n. 39; Snodgrass 2002a; for shamanism among “tribal” communities, see Unnithan-Kumar 1997, 229–234).
Similarly, Rajasthanis, and especially urban educated men, associate beliefs in spirits with village contexts as well as with illiteracy and lack of education, referring to such traditions as mere foolish “superstitions” (andvisvas) (Dwyer 1998, 10).
There has been little systematic study of the distribution of spiritual possession in Rajasthan across social caste, class, or gender, or according to whether victims dwell in rural or urban settings, making it difficult to verify locals’ claims. Graham Dwyer’s study (1998) of 734 patients with “supernatural” maladies, along with their accompanying friends and family in the Balaji temple in Mehndipur village near Jaipur City, a popular exorcism site, is an exception (on this temple, which similarly features Bhairuji and Pretraj, “Lord of Ghost Souls,” see also Kakar 1982 and Seeberg 1995).
Among Dwyer’s sample of the spiritually sick, 75 percent originated from towns and cities in northern India, 49 percent were men (though only 26 percent of men as opposed to 35 percent of women attributed their illnesses to spiritual possessions as opposed to other explanations like sorcery, demonstrating that men seem less susceptible to possession), and most were largely middle class and fairly well educated (1998, 10–12). This may reflect the fact that rural persons visit their own village shamans, not needing to venture to this popular temple on the outskirts of Rajasthan’s capital, or perhaps that this shrine is particularly attractive to high-caste afﬂuent persons. Nevertheless, these numbers do demonstrate that possession is not limited to villages and small towns, women, or low-caste uneducated persons.