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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]

Noting that possession is eminently theatrical, evoking humor and even applause, ethnographers have also used this form of sacred “play” (khelna) to explore the link between art and religion, drama and ritual, aesthetic pleasure and religious commitment.

Ann Gold, for example, examined Rajasthani representations of true (saco) as opposed to false (jhutyo) possessions, the deep trancers as opposed to the clever con artists, thus exploring what might be meant by “belief” in spiritual beings, as well as the appropriateness of Western performance languages for analyzing local possessions (1988b).

Likewise, the author, in examining the way untouchable bards referred to as Bhats conceptualize possessions as performances, examined how aesthetic imitation of threatening others—suicides, stillborn infants, widows—in allowing people to imagine their way out of unsatisfying identities, leads to healing (Snodgrass 2002a).

Other students of Rajasthani religion have used beliefs in spirits to tease out underlying cultural ideas regarding exchange and the economy, noting that, for example, spirit mediums quote the coming year’s grain prices and are generally enmeshed in economic life (Gold 1988b, 40), that exchanges of money and evil spirits share an underlying logic of gifting and social relations (Seeberg 1995), that possessions, like sorcery accusations, are often tied to disputes over shared property such as land, homes, businesses, or grazing rights, bringing to the fore either intra- and interfamilial or caste tensions (Dwyer 1998; Snodgrass 2002a, 2002b), and that spirit possession provides an imaginative commentary, not at all unified and straightforward, on the modern capitalist economy (Snodgrass 2002b).

Possession, then, has been used as a mirror of Rajasthani society, as an institution in which key assumptions about the world are alternately celebrated and challenged, be these related to illness and health, self, emotion, and the body, gender dynamics within the family, social hierarchies of class and caste, local interpretations of the global economy, or other yet-to-be-explored dimensions of experience.

For Rajasthanis, spiritual possessions hardly appear startling, much less supernatural. Nevertheless, the institution brings to the surface shocking emotions and extraordinary ways of being. And it is this tension between the expected and the unexpected, the quotidian and the remarkable, that allows spirit possession to so effectively reflect Rajasthani culture, displaying taken-forgranted assumptions about the world while adding unexpected intensity and mystery to Rajasthani self-perceptions.


Jeffrey G. Snodgrass

The source of the experience

Shaman unspecified

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps




·        Dramatic Performance in Shamanism; Hinduism and Ecstatic Indian Religions; South Asian Shamanism; Spirit Possession References and further reading: Carstairs, G. Morris. 1983.

·        The Death of a Witch. London: Hutchinson and Company. Castillo, R. J. 1994.

·        “Spirit Possession in SouthAsia, Dissociation or Hysteria. 1. Theoretical Background.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 18, no. 1: 1–21. Dwyer, Graham. 1998.

·        “The Phenomenology of Supernatural Malaise: Attribution, Vulnerability, and the Patterns of Affliction at a Hindu Pilgrimage Centre in Rajasthan.” Social Analysis 42, no. 2: 3–23. ———. 1999.

·        “Healing and the Transformation of Self in Exorcism at a Hindu Shrine in Rajasthan.” Social Analysis 43, no. 2:108–137. Freed, Ruth S., and Stanley A. Freed. 1964.

·        “Spirit Possession as Illness in a North Indian Village.” Ethnology 3: 152–171. ———. 1990. “Ghost Illness of Children in North India.” Medical Anthropology 12: 401–417. Gold, Ann. 1988a.

·        Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims. Berkeley: University of California Press.  ———. 1988b.

·        “Spirit Possession Perceived and Performed in Rural Rajasthan.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 22, no. 1: 35–63. Harlan, Lindsey. 1992.

·        Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kakar, Sudhir. 1982.

·        Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors. London: Unwin. Kothari, Komal. 1982.

·        “The Shrine: An Expression of Social Needs.” Pp. 5–32 in Gods of the Byways. Edited by Julia Elliot and David Elliot. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art. Lambert, Helen. 1997.

·        “Illness, Inauspiciousness, and Modes of Healing in Rajasthan.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 31: 253–271. Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1979 [1963].

·        “The Effectiveness of Symbols.” Pp. 186–205 in Structural Anthropology. By C. Levi-Strauss, trans. C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoeph. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Lewis, Ioan M. 2003.

·        Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession.3d ed. London: Routledge. Marriott, M. 1955.

·        “Little Communities in an Indigenous Civilization.” Pp. 175–227 in Village India. Edited by M. Marriott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Obeyesekere Gannanath. 1981.

·        Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Seeberg, Jens. 1995.

·        “Spirits, Words, Goods, and Money: Substance and Exchange at the Balaji Temple.” Folk 36: 39–59. Snodgrass, Jeffrey G. 2002a.

·        “Imitation is Far More than the Sincerest of Flattery: The Mimetic Power of Spirit Possession in Rajasthan, India.” Cultural Anthropology 17, no. 1:32–64. ———. 2002b.

·        “A Tale of Goddesses, Money, and Other Terribly Wonderful Things: Spirit Possession, Commodity Fetishism, and the Narrative of Capitalism in Rajasthan, India.” American Ethnologist 29, no. 3: 602–636. Unnithan-Kumar, Maya. 1997.

·        Identity, Gender and Poverty: New Perspectives on Caste and Tribe in Rajasthan. Providence: Berghahn Books.