Professor of Anthropology, University of Würzburg (Germany)
LEARNING POSSESSION: NARRATIVE OF PERCEPTION AND EMBODIMENT OF DEITIES IN SOUTH INDIA
Prof. Elisabeth Schömbucher studies the meaning of possession not only as a culturally determined phenomenon with bodily and psychological implications, but also as a complex process implying learning strategies and techniques related to specific contexts. The first part of the essay was published in a collective volume in German; the second part was written for FIND’s Forum 2018 “Altered States of Consciousness and their Relationship with Religious Experience”.
Medium of the goddess Kotta Rajulu, listening to the divine words
spoken through her and recorded by the author.
Missionaries, Indologists and anthropologists have all tried to understand the different forms of possession and the role played by the possessed person while in a state of trance. Possession is a very complex process, and different aspects have been emphasized at different times. An overview of the literature on the topic shows that the possessed person, often a woman, is the paradigmatic ‘exotic other’ and is usually at the focus of investigation. Another feature of possession treated with considerable attention is the state of trance. As an ‘altered state of consciousness’, trance has been interpreted in many different ways. This paper will start with an overview of the different forms of possession in India and the various interpretive approaches. How has possession in India been interpreted in the course of time? It is argued that the religious paradigm of the early descriptions by European Christian missionaries has been replaced by a medical paradigm, which also has its roots in European discourse. Recently, two developments have further influenced the interpretation of possession, the socalled linguistic or performative turn in anthropology and a different understanding of trance states in esoteric and spiritual movements. We could say that the interpretation of trance has moved from a “state of dissociation” to a “culturally induced experience”1.
Forms of possession
In speaking of possession in South Asia, two forms are usually distinguished: first, unwanted and uncontrolled possession by harmful spirits (spirit possession) and, second, ritually induced and controlled states of possession by deities and the deified dead (spirit medium-ship). Two more forms should be added to this classical distinction: possession by a deity as the result of bhakti (during fire walking ceremonies or during annual village festivals) and possession of impersonators during ritual performances.
In the case of spirit possession, a person, very often a young woman, suddenly gets possessed by a harmful spirit or demon. The person loses control over her behaviour, she is no longer in a normal state of consciousness; she acts violently and has to be protected from harming herself. Verbal utterances in this state can be obscene and vulgar; very often their meaning is hard to understand. Spirit attacks may also be enacted, as can be observed in various shrines.
Spirit possession may be accompanied by somatic symptoms such as insomnia, nausea, and headache. As a consequence, the person has to be ‘healed’; the spirit has to be exorcised or put under control in some way or other. Rituals of exorcism can be performed at special shrines which are known as powerful healing centres or by individual exorcists consulted by the victim and her family. 2
The term ‘spirit mediumship’ denotes a kind of oracular or divinatory possession. The possessing entities may be divine beings or the deified dead. They are invoked into the body of a medium and speak through her or his body. People consult mediums to ask a deity for advice in the case of ill health, family problems or any other crisis. The invocation of the deity has to be performed by a ritual specialist and may be invoked by the words of the priest (dāsuḍu), accompanied by music or drums. The entrance of the possessing entity into the body of the medium is marked by the medium’s entering into a state of trance.3 In contrast to spirit possession, mediums do not lose control while in trance. Not only is their behaviour highly controlled, but they also have to act and speak in a highly ritualized manner. Although mediums suffer from amnesia after the possession séance is over, they are well aware of the audience and their specific problems while in a state of trance. Another form of controlled state of possession is the possession of impersonators by their deities during ritual dramas.
What missionaries have described in terms of devilworship, superstition, paganism, and sometimes fraud, is interpreted by early anthropologists in terms of psychic problems, stress, mental disease and indigenous healing rituals.
A well-known example is Teyyāṭṭam (‘dancing the gods’) in Kerala. In this ritual performance the Teyyam dancer (‘god-dancer’) becomes possessed by looking into a mirror. At this moment, when the impersonator has put on make-up and the costume, the deity enters his body. In the nightlong ritual performance that follows, divine myths are recited and complex rituals are performed. From an indigenous per-spective, it is not the impersonator who symbolically acts as the deity, but the deity who acts through the impersonator.
Bhulekamma, medium of the goddess Nukalamma, in her house shrine, just after the possession.
The last form of possession that I wish to mention here is possession by a deity during annual festivals. The deity (often a village goddess) is ‘present’ or ‘in an aroused state’ during the festival. Several devotees are filled with (or seized by) the presence of the deity. They are considered to be vessels of the deity, and by the grace of the deity, they experience the divine presence in their body (bhāva). Basically, any devotee can experience the divine presence characterized by the devotee’s entering into a state of trance. The devotee’s receptiveness to the divine presence depends on individual conditions and the necessary preparations, such as extreme devotion and fasting prior to the annual festival. This kind of regular controlled possession in a ritual setting also avoids uncontrolled and unwanted possession by spirits.4
Early descriptions by missionaries
The first rather detailed descriptions of states of possession are provided by Christian missionaries. Early descriptions by missionaries do not clearly differentiate between different forms of possession. In their world view, only possession by demons or devils is possible. In 1711, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary in southern India, mentioned possession by ‘devils’ in his Malabarisches Heidenthum.5 He and other missionaries still imagined that personified evil powers, such as devils and demons, could enter into human beings, as proven by many examples during their times. Although missionaries were thus familiar with the experience of possession, they couldn’t acknowledge possession by deities because they could not acknowledge Hindu deities as gods. Village goddesses were called ‘queens over the devils’ at best. Therefore, they called the ‘god-dances’ (cāmiyāṭi) observed in Tamil Nadu ‘devildances’ 6.
Young women are especially likely to become possessed by evil spirits because they are oppressed in a dominant male society.
Later, in the 19th century, missionary descriptions of possession were not only misinterpretations but became increasingly derogatory. Abbé Dubois describes possession by the village deity Tipamma during the annual festival as a “disgusting spectacle” in which the imper-sonator of the possessing goddess speaks with “all the obscene and filthy expressions to be found in the Hindu language”.7 Caldwell de-scribes a performance of spirit mediumship as an “orgy” in which the performer wears “partycolored dress and grotesque ornaments”. He calls the musical instruments “instruments of noise.” From such a perspective, ritual preparations, ritual speech, and altered state of con-sciousness could not be taken seriously by the missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries.
What missionaries described in terms of devil-worship, superstition, paganism, and sometimes fraud, is interpreted by early anthropologists in terms of psychic problems, stress, mental disease and indigenous healing rituals. Many early anthropological studies can be subsumed under the heading “rationalistic reduction”, in the sense that they are reducing a phenomenon to a single aspect8. Starting from a rational world view with the premise that nobody can ‘really’ be possessed by spiritual entities, since spiritual entities do not ‘really’ exist, possession is interpreted in medical terms, as a psychic problem in the case of spirit possession and as a healing ritual in the case of possession mediumship. Often-quoted publications on spirit possession by Ruth and Stanley Freed, Sudhir Kakar, and I.M. Lewis9 argue that young women are especially likely to become possessed by evil spirits because they are oppressed in a dominant male society. In situations of stress, such as marrying into a new family or the breakup of a marriage, women take refuge to possession. This is seen as an ‘oblique strategy of attack’ to fight against oppression10 – or as the manifestation of mental disturbances due to severe stress.11 These early examples display anthropology’s scepticism about indigenous explanations. The scepticism of the anthropological approach is influenced by the medical classification of possession as psychic disorder. ‘Trance and Possession Disorder’ is included in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.12 In this worldwide medical classification system ‘trance and possession disorders’ is cited under the general rubric of ‘Mental and behavioural disorders’ (F00 – F99), block F40-48 ‘Dissociative disorders’, subsection F44.3 ‘Trance and Possession Disorders’:
“Possession trance is characterized by a transient alteration in identity whereby one’s normal identity is temporarily replaced (possessed) by a spirit, ghost, deity, or other person. The experience of being “possessed” by another entity, such as a person, god, demon, animal, or inanimate object, holds different meanings in different cultures and therefore the diagnosis for this disorder may be culturally bound. While possession is a common experience in many cultures, in Western industrialized cultures, such experiences are not the norm.” 13
In the ICD-10 (10th Revision, Version for 2010) the following is added to the diagnosis ‘Trance and possession disorders’:
“Disorders in which there is a temporary loss of the sense of personal identity and full awareness of the surroundings. Include here only trance states that are involuntary or unwanted, occur-ring outside religious or culturally accepted situations.” 14
In Western medicine, possession trance is classified as a mental or behavioural disorder. It is acknowledged that, whereas it is not the norm in Western industrialized cultures, it may have various meanings in other cultures. Without being clearly mentioned, this distinction obviously refers to unwanted spirit possession and controlled possession in ritual contexts. The rather vague differentiation means that trance or any other form of ecstatic behaviour has been interpreted as a deviant state of consciousness, as exceptional, or as out of the norm. Two developments have changed the interpretative approaches to possession and trance states. One is the performative turn in anthropology; the other is a new access to the phenomenon of trance in esoteric and spiritual movements. In esoteric and spiritual circles it is understood that trance is a globally available technique and fairly easy to learn. The first to demonstrate this was the anthropologist Felic-itas Goodman. By comparing trance postures and invocatory rhythms across different cultures, she developed techniques through which anybody can easily enter into a state of trance. Such techniques, which she taught in courses around the world, are applied for individual trance journeys in spiritual movements.15 Furthermore, in the last few years, trance healing has increasingly been advertised as one of the several alternative healing systems. One example is Guru Kedar Baral, originally a traditional Nepali shaman (jhāñkri), who founded a healing centre in Kathmandu called Ashram Nepal and treated his urban patients for imbalances and problems that could not be solved by doctors.116
Priest (dasudu), invoking the deity into the body of the medium.
He is not only a healer who treats patients with the help of spirits who enter his body, but a few years ago he began teaching others to reach a state of trance and “to be possessed by spirits so that they may heal the sick.”17
By ‘reinventing’ or ‘rediscovering’ trance states, the esoteric movement has shown that such states are not confined to non-Western and non-industrialized societies. Although rightly observed by the ICD-10 that they are ‘not the norm’ in Western societies, they are now being introduced as desired and controlled trance states in culturally accepted situations. Parallel to the increase of spiritualism and consequent reinterpretation of possession trance, the performative turn in anthropology has provided a new methodological approach to the study of possession rituals. According to this approach, each performance is a highly structured event in which time and space are specified, the sequence of events is fixed and performers and audience exercise specific roles. With its agentcentered view on performances this approach emphasizes the role of the creative potentiality of both actors and audience18. As early as 1984, the American anthropologist Peter Claus, who carried out research on possession in south India, insisted on applying the explorative method of anthropology and looking at the phenomenon of possession from an indigenous perspective instead of using a more problem-oriented method.19 The studies that followed recognized different cultural concepts of personhood. In India, possessed persons usually are not perceived to behave ‘as if’ they were possessed. A different concept of person provides a different experience of the world. Deities and demons are not perceived as “disembodied symbols” but are considered to be “divine persons”.20 Accordingly, essential aspects or elements of human and divine persons “can disaggregate, transmute and relocate back and forth among various kinds of animate and inanimate embodiments”.21 The interconnectedness of divine and human spheres is an important precondition for the manifestation of gods and spirits in human persons. Without this concept the various forms of possession and manifestations of the divine or demonic that we find in South Asia would not be possible.22 Another aspect of the explorative eth
nographies is a different attitude towards the state of trance. As with the esoteric movement, anthropologists could show that trance states need not be pathological and do not necessarily come over a person all of a sudden and uncontrolled. Neurophysiological changes inducing trance states can be evoked with certain stimuli, such as music, rhythm, drums, or verbal invocations. In many non-Western societies, so called ‘normal’ people easily enter trance states. Numerous examples of spontaneous trance states during rituals or religious processions show that this is not exceptional behaviour.23 In his comprehensive study The Self Possessed, Frederick M. Smith shows that all forms of possession have a long tradition in India.
Divine or demonic presence is created verbally, based on the assumption that gods or demons exist as persons (not merely as symbols). Words spoken in a performance are not only referential but also construct meaning.
Descriptions are found already in Vedic texts. With his diachronic study of possession, Smith shows that positive, controlled possession is the most common form of spiritual expression in India. It exists side by side with negative, diseaseproducing possession. For Smith, possession, in the widest sense, is a “state of mind characterized by intensity, emotional excitement, and desire”.24
Existing approaches in possession studies have recently been broadened by focusing on the process of “learning possession”.25 Halloy and Naumescu suggest that if we perceive learning possession as a social process it will shed light on “the ways in which people acquire religious concepts, values, emotions, skills and practices in specific socio-cultural contexts.”26 Learning possession encompasses various levels:
1. Trance: The specific experience of religious trance has to be mastered. The medium-to-be has to develop skills of entering into a state of trance and develop control over emotions during an altered state of consciousness. It is a precarious and dangerous phase in his/her life. Its success is not guaranteed but depends on the support of the medium’s family and the audience. Without their support, mediumship would not be possible.
2.Embodiment: This means coping with the sensation of divine presence in the body. Cop-ing with fasting, exhaustion, heaviness of head. Learning how to transmit divine words to an audience. If we consider altered states of consciousness as a general psychological ability cultivated in specific religious traditions, the concept of person is an important presupposition. In South Asian culture, the human body is considered permeable to divine and demonic entities, resulting in a temporary modification of personality.
3. Religious concepts: The medium has to learn shared religious concepts and beliefs, such as the pantheon of all related deities; the power of deities, their features, such as physical characteristics, divine personality traits; whether they are benevolent or demanding, and of what kind are their demands: worship, pilgrimage, animal sacrifice? How would they explain personal misfortune, illness, sorrow, bad luck? How does ‘one’s deity’ speak? How does the deity react, make demands, suggest solutions?
Possession as verbal event
Apart from the fact that trance is a very important precondition, possession is also a performative event in which divine or demonic presence is created verbally. As a speech event, it has to be seen as a cultural practice in which contexts of human lives are constructed and performed with linguistic means. According to speech act theory, language not only represents or refers to reality; it also creates it.27 Divine or demonic presence is created verbally, based on the assumption that gods or demons exist as persons (not merely as symbols). Words spoken in a performance are not only referential but also construct meaning. According to Foley, the power of words is derived from the performance as an enabling event and a certain tradition as an enabling referent.28 Foley has created the term “performance arena” as “the locus where an event or performance takes place, where words are invested with their special power”.29 Words spoken by a possessed person do not convey meaning on their own. One important factor in the performance arena is the audience, which gives words their illocutionary power. What is spoken during states of possession trance is interpreted through listening. Besides speaking, listening also has to be considered as a cultural practice influenced by cultural concepts.30 What do listeners hear when demons or deities speak through a possessed person? In the case of demonic or spirit possession, verbal utterances are hard to understand. To an outsider, they seem meaningless, out of control and even vulgar or obscene. To indigenous listeners like family members and exorcists, the words of spirits and demons are part of a whole set of behavioural and specific circumstances allowing listeners to understand their meaning. In the case of spirit mediumship, the meaning of verbal utterances is also hard to grasp. It can only be understood with the aid of listeners who have a certain expertise in the interpretation of divine words. It is usually understood that the deity enters the human body with the onset of trance. However, a closer look at the divine words shows that the divine presence does not happen all of a sudden but has to be created verbally.
Rajamma (left), a ‘professional listener’, who is able to explain and interpret the divine words to the audience, with Nukamma, medium of the goddess Kotta Rajulu (right), and Nukamma’s daughter (centre) who is learning “informally” while helping with the preparations and observing the performances of her mother. However, it depends on the goddess whether she will ‘select’ her as her medium. Rajamma and Nukamma are both listening to the divine words which had just been spoken by the goddess.
Can the words spoken by the medium/goddess be true? Can they be effective? Again, the divine words are not true or effective by themselves, but only through the listeners. Possession requires expertise not only on the side of the possessed person but also from the audience. On the basis of the words spoken by the medium, the audience decides whether the performance is really a divine performance. The performative approach to possession rituals with its focus on the words spoken in trance allows us to look at possession not as an event in which the possessed person acts ‘as if’ possessed, but as a performance in which a certain reality is created by the performer as well as the audience. William Sax and Aditya Malik have added still another dimension to performativity.31 According to their observations of possession cults in the Himalayas, it is not only the words or the songs that cause possession. Both Sax and Malik perceive the appearance of the god as a matter of embodiment rather than of language: The god dances (nācnā) or is made to dance (nacānā) by the exorcist in the body of the oracle. Therefore, Sax concludes, an interpretation of possession would need a hermeneutics of the body rather than a hermeneutics of the text.32
Trance and possession in South Asia are no longer considered to be states of dissociation. Every human being has the potential to enter altered states of consciousness. As a result, abilities such as spiritual healing, channeling, mediumship, and contact with supernatural powers are basically possible for every person and can be developed in spiritual training as long as a person is sensitized accordingly. With Foley’s concept of ‘performance arena’ in mind, we can answer that, from the point of view of indigenous agents, possession is really possible, because it is created by the performers and their audience in a specific context and at a specific time. As long as all preconditions are fulfilled, divine presence can be created and divine words are invested with power. Embodiment of deities and transmitting divine words can be learned. However, the psychological capacity to enter a state of trance has to be matched with shared cultural and religious values. The possessed medium has to develop his/her expertise to transmit cultural values adequately.
- Halloy and Naumescu 2012: 164. (Halloy, Arnaud & Vlad Naumescu. 2012. Learning Spirit Possession: An Introduction. Ethnos. Journal of Anthropology. 77 (2): 155-176).
- cf. Kapferer 1991 (Kapferer, Bruce. 1991 . A Celebration of Demons. Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press) Cf. Basu 2009. (Basu, Helene. 2009. Drugs and Prayers. Indian Psychiatry in the Realm of Saints. A film production of the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster).
- cf. Schömbucher 2006. (Schömbucher, Elisabeth. 2006. Wo Götter durch Menschen sprechen. Besessenheit in Indien. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.)
- cf. Sontheimer 1976 (Sontheimer, Günther Dietz. 1976. Biroba, Mhaskoba und Khandoba. Ursprung, Geschichte und Umwelt von pastoralen
Gottheiten in Maharashtra. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Ziegenbalg, Bartholomaeus. 1926 ); cf. Harman 2011 (Harman, William. 2011. Possession as protection and affliction: the goddess Mariyamman’s fierce grace. In Fabrizio M. Ferrari, ed., Health and Religious Rituals in South Asia. Disease, possession and healing. London and New York: Routledge).
- Ziegenbalg 1926 (Ziegenbalg’s Malabarisches Heidentum. Edited and published by W. Caland. Amsterdam: Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam).
- Germann 1869:162-163 (Germann, W., Hg. 1869. Genealogy of the South-Indian Gods. A Manual of the Mythology and Religion of the People of Southern India. By Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg. First Protestant Missionary in India. Madras: Higginbotham and Co.).
- Dubois 1985: 595 (Dubois, Abbé. 1985 . Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services).
- Oesterreich 1921: 296 (Oesterreich, Traugott Konstantin. 1921. Die Besessenheit. Langensalza: Wendt und Klauwell.
- Freed and Freed 1964 (Freed, S.A. and R.S. Freed. 1964. Spirit Possession as Illness in a North Indian Village. Ethnology 3: 152-171); cf, Freed 1990 (Freed. 1990. Ghost illness in a North Indian village. Social Science and Medicine 30(5): 617-623); cf. Kakar 1983 (Kakar, Sudhir. 1983. Shamans, Mystics and Healers. A psychological enquiry into India and its healing traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press); cf. Lewis 1989 (Lewis, I. M. 1989. Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. 2. Aufl. New York and London: Routledge).
- Lewis 1989:105.
- Kakar 1983.
- ICD 10; WHO version 2013.
- http://www.psychnet-uk.com/x_new_site/ DSM_IV/trance_possession_disorder.html http:// www.icd10data.com/ICD10CM/Codes/F01-F99/ F40-F48/F44-/F44.89
- http://apps.who.int/classifications/icd10/ browse/2010/en#/F44.3 Italics: E.S.
- cf. Goodman 1990 (Goodman, Felicitas. 1990. Where the Spirits ride the Wind. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press.). Cf.
Goodman 1988. (Goodman, Felicitas. 1988. How about demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press.).
- Shimkhada and Pave 2011: 109 (Shimkhada, Deepak and Adam D. Pave. 2011. Shamanic healing: a jhankri in the city. In Fabrizio M. Ferrari, ed., Health and Religious Rituals in South Asia. Disease, possession and healing. London and New York: Routledge).
- Ibid.: 110.
- cf. Brückner and Schömbucher 2003 (Brückner, Heidrun and Elisabeth Schömbucher. 2003. Performances. In Veena Das, ed., The Oxford India Companion to Sociology and Social Anthropology. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. S. 598-624); cf. Brückner, Schömbucher and Zarrilli 2007 (Brückner, Heidrun, Elisabeth Schömbucher and Phillip B. Zarrilli, eds., 2007. The Power of Performance. Actors, Audiences and Observers of Cultural Performances in India. Delhi: Manohar).
- Claus 1984 (Claus, Peter J. 1984. Medical Anthropology and the Ethnography of Spirit Possession. Contributions to Asian Studies 18:
- Moreno 1985: 119 (Moreno, Manuel.1985. God’s Forceful Call: Possession as a Divine Strategy. In Joanna P. Waghorne and Norman Cutler, eds., Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone. The Embodiment of Divinity in India. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima Publications).
- Freeman 1999: 151 (Freeman, Richard. 1999. Dynamics of the Person in the Worship and Sorcery of Malabar. In J. Assayag and G. Tarabout, eds., Possession in South Asia. Speech, Body, Territory. Purusartha, 21: 149-182).
- For more details cf. Schömbucher 2006: 45-52; Schömbucher 2016 (Schömbucher, Elisabeth. 2016. Possession. In Geoffrey Oddie, Greg Bailey, Aditya Malik, Will Sweetman, eds., Handbook of Hinduism in Asia. New Delhi and London: Sage Publications).
- cf. Harman 2011.
- Smith 2006: 590 (Smith, Frederick M. 2006. The Self Possessed. Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press).
- Halloy and Naumescu 2012.
- Halloy and Naumescu 2012:156.
- Austin 1962 (Austin, John L. 1962. How to do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- Foley 1995: 208 (Foley, John Miles. 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Freed, R.S. and S.A.).
- Ibid.: 209.
- Burghart 1996 (Burghart, Richard. 1996. The Conditions of Listening. Essays on Religion, History and Politics in South Asia. ed. by C.J. Fuller and J. Spencer. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press).
- Sax 2009 (Sax, William S. 2009. God of Justice. Ritual Healing and Social Justice in the Central Himalayas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 18); cf. Malik 2009 (Malik, Aditya. 2009. Dancing the Body of God: Rituals of Embodiment from the Central Himalayas. Sites: New Series 6 (1): 80-96).
- Sax 2009: 47.