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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]

Rajasthani spirit possession is associated with “folk” or “popular” Hinduism, given its link to illiteracy and oral traditions, to local incarnations of pan-Hindu deities, and to the countryside, low castes, and small dispersed shrines, and thus its opposition to “great” or “classical” Hinduism’s ancient textual traditions, Sanskritic gods, urban centers of learning, established priesthoods and dominant classes, and wealthy temples (on the distinction between Hinduism’s “great” and “little” traditions, see Marriott 1955). Moreover, the ecstatic, free  wheeling and even bawdy behavior of spirits and shamans is opposed to the emphasis placed within orthodox Brahmanical Hinduism on composure, philosophical sophistication, sexual restraint, and bodily purity.

High-caste persons may assert the religious centrality of established priesthoods and Sanskritic traditions, pushing folk beliefs in spirits to the superstitious social margins. Conversely, low-caste or rural persons might point to the way popular spirit beliefs infuse Hinduism with energy—folk traditions, then, give Hinduism its lively vitality, with priestly classes existing as mere money-hungry parasites.

 In fact, neither of these positions is exactly correct.

On the one hand, in orthodox Hinduism (Sanatan [eternal] Dharma), one finds the idea that the soul can become a ghost, usually just before passing into its next birth or merging in moksha (salvation) (or mukti [spiritual liberation]) with the Absolute; also, ancient Sanskrit texts, notably the Atharva Veda (the last of the four Vedas, the most sacred scriptures), the MahGbhGrata (one of the two great Hindu epics), and the PurGn .as (tales reframing the moral lessons of the ancient Vedas), describe ghost illness, spirit possession, and the Brahman’s power of exorcism (Freed and Freed 1990, 404); further, even Brahmans from high-caste communities, referred to as pandits, wield Sanskritic mantras to exorcise and slay spirits.

On the other hand, spirit possession’s emphasis on embodied or revealed divinity, and thus on the immediacy of godhood, parallels and intersects with orthodox Hindu beliefs such as the belief in the possibility of darsan, “divine viewing” (possession provides a living glimpse of god); the belief in avatars, or divine incarnations (Rajasthani villagers say that possessions are less potent than full-blown divine incarnations, which were more common before the current decadent Kali Age; Gold 1988b, 41); the belief in shakti, or creative energy or essence(spirits are considered one form of such energy); the belief in making p‹ja -, “sacred offerings” to divine beings (gifts to possessed mounts allow exchange with the supernatural world); the belief in karma, the force generated by one’s actions that shapes one’s next life (sinful actions are said to bind souls to earth as ghosts); and bhakti, or devotional Hinduism (spirit possession reflects the direct experience of divinity and emotional intensity common to Hindu devotional traditions; Dwyer 1999, 132, n. 7; Seeberg 1995).

Despite differences of emphasis—folk Hinduism’s emphasis on the Mother Goddess, ghosts, practical problem solving, and spirit possession, and orthodox Hinduism’s emphasis on the next life, moksha, philosophy, purity and pollution, and Brahmanical morality—the two strands of Hinduism are intimately intertwined in Rajasthan (Lambert 1997). Despite this interconnection, it would be possible to find support in Rajasthan for Ioan M. Lewis’s “deprivation hypothesis”—the idea that possession allows women and other dominated classes to express dissatisfactions, thus providing not only emotional catharsis and social support but covert channels of protest that these persons would not otherwise have (1978)—for example, in the case of a low caste Bhat woman whose possessing goddess rants at her husband’s stinginess and antisocial nature, and in the fact that Rajasthani women suffer more from affliction possessions, while men are more likely to gain control of dangerous spirits and become shamans (Snodgrass 2002b; Dwyer 1998, 12).

Still, the possessed offer statements (bayan) confessing their crimes, which seem like capitulations to dominant morals, ideologies, and hierarchies rather than contestations of them (Dwyer 1999; Seeberg 1995; Snodgrass 2002a, 2002b). Moreover, ethnographers of Rajasthan have asked whether seeming possession protests are actually experienced as such, or in fact more likely demonstrate, based on the stutters and gasps of the possessed, a failure to protest or even to speak at all (Snodgrass 2002b; see also discussion in Spirit Possession entry).

Dwyer , following Levi-Strauss (1979), saw Rajasthani possession and exorcism as therapy akin to psychoanalysis in the West, allowing ailing persons to de-identify with pathological states and negative emotions, thus reconstructing themselves in more positive images, and rediscovering what it means to give and receive emotional love and support (Dwyer 1999, 123).

Dwyer, however, was less willing to enter into an explicit Western psychological language—where possession is conceptualized as, alternately, hysteria traceable to sexual disturbances and conflicts within the family (Freed and Freed 1964; Kakar 1982), dissociative and  somatoform conversion disorders (the latter term used if biological factors are involved) linked to the inability to transition to adulthood (Freed and Freed 1990, 405), or, more specifically, as a form of dissociation termed multiple personality disorder brought about by early childhood abuse (Castillo 1994) or by unresolved Oedipal conflicts (Obeyesekere 1984)—or even to speculate on the internal psychic states of the possessed.

 Instead, in an approach termed phenomenological, Dwyer explored the local conceptions of self and emotion that ground these spiritual experiences (1998). Helen Lambert, likewise, examined how local Rajasthani ideas concerning, for example, local medical systems, the body, and auspiciousness frame perceptions of illnesses such as spirit possession (1997).

The source of the experience

Shaman unspecified

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps