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The Self Possessed

The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization

Frederick M. Smith
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 736
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  • Book Info
    The Self Possessed
    Book Description:

    The Self Possessed is a multifaceted, diachronic study reconsidering the very nature of religion in South Asia, the culmination of years of intensive research. Frederick M. Smith proposes that positive oracular or ecstatic possession is the most common form of spiritual expression in India, and that it has been linguistically distinguished from negative, disease-producing possession for thousands of years.

    In South Asia possession has always been broader and more diverse than in the West, where it has been almost entirely characterized as "demonic." At best, spirit possession has been regarded as a medically treatable psychological ailment and at worst, as a condition that requires exorcism or punishment. In South (and East) Asia, ecstatic or oracular possession has been widely practiced throughout history, occupying a position of respect in early and recent Hinduism and in certain forms of Buddhism.

    Smith analyzes Indic literature from all ages-the earliest Vedic texts; the Mahabharata; Buddhist, Jain, Yogic, Ayurvedic, and Tantric texts; Hindu devotional literature; Sanskrit drama and narrative literature; and more than a hundred ethnographies. He identifies several forms of possession, including festival, initiatory, oracular, and devotional, and demonstrates their multivocality within a wide range of sects and religious identities.

    Possession is common among both men and women and is practiced by members of all social and caste strata. Smith theorizes on notions of embodiment, disembodiment, selfhood, personal identity, and other key issues through the prism of possession, redefining the relationship between Sanskritic and vernacular culture and between elite and popular religion. Smith's study is also comparative, introducing considerable material from Tibet, classical China, modern America, and elsewhere.

    Brilliant and persuasive, The Self Possessed provides careful new translations of rare material and is the most comprehensive study in any language on this subject.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51065-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xxx)

    The evaluation of the evidence for deity and spirit possession in South Asia, in both classical texts and modern practice, is framed by prevailing characterizations of such gravity that only with great effort is it possible to escape from beneath their weight—and in doing so it is still impossible to escape their shadow. These characterizations are literary, marked by vocabulary, images, and themes distinguished from an array of related phenomena. They are recognized because of a rich history of scholarship on the general subject of possession. Most such studies, whether Indological or anthropological—or even brahmanical, if we consider...

  7. Part I. Orthodoxies, Madness, and Method

    • CHAPTER 1 Academic and Brahmanical Orthodoxies
      (pp. 3-30)

      Ethnographic work at the beginning of the twentieth century, which has been supplemented and revitalized during the past forty years, shows that spirit or deity possession is a widespread epstēmē—a historically situated discourse, phenomenon, and practice—in Indian thought, culture, religion, and medicine.¹ However, if our knowledge of the subject were limited to the accounts of classical Indologists and others who have privileged the “high” intellectual and religious traditions while eschewing the history of actual religious practice, we would scarcely know of the existence of this phenomenon, much less its pervasiveness. One might say that it is the “ism”...

  8. Part II. Ethnography, Modernity, and the Languages of Possession

    • CHAPTER 2 New and Inherited Paradigms: Methodologies for the Study of Possession
      (pp. 33-94)

      Although possession as a religious and sociocultural phenomenon in ancient and classical India has been understudied, in fact rarely mentioned in the secondary literature (to a great extent because it has been regarded as absent in the primary literature),¹ the opposite is the case for modern India, for which studies of possession abound. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that possession is one of the most studied topics in anthropology and is beginning to find its way into the academic study of religion.² Its attractiveness as a subject of study is often due to its exotic character (which is...

    • CHAPTER 3 Possession, Trance Channeling, and Modernity
      (pp. 95-109)

      Lest anyone idly think that possession is a phenomenon limited to antiquity and contemporary non-Western societies, and that possession studies are strictly the property of scholars, mostly anthropologists, who conduct research on exotic people in far-flung places, Michael F. Brown has written The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age, a book that addresses an increasingly well-known Western phenomenon known as trance channeling, an unambiguous, if culturally reconfigured, cognate of spirit and deity possession.¹ Like spirit possession elsewhere in the world, the primary observed characteristics of trance channeling in America are sharp changes in expressive behavior accompanied by identity...

    • CHAPTER 4 Notes on Regional Languages and Models of Possession
      (pp. 110-172)

      This chapter takes account of the tendency of Sanskritists and other scholars of Indian antiquity to disregard religious form not tied directly to texts. Similarly, it takes account of the tendency of anthropologists and other ethnographers who distrust texts and are therefore not willing to look beyond their own ethnographies for the possibility of important antecedents in classical textuality. I aim to close these gaps, at least to some degree, with respect to possession by integrating material from Sanskrit sources into a primary discussion of both the language of possession in modern India and models of possession that are intertwined...

  9. Part III. Classical Literature

    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 173-174)

      Leaving aside the technical argument that literature requires knowledge of the written word, Indian literature may be said to begin with the Vedas. Among the topics given priority in the Vedas is, by no accident, beginnings, and, as we explore below, possession was the means by which the gap between spirit and matter was, in the beginning, closed. From the earliest explorations of the nature of essence, substance, volition, movement, and their interactions, to more concretized and localized concerns that were not just contiguous and stratified but integrated and sedimented as well, the Vedas recognized the fact of linkages or...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Vedas and Upaniṣads
      (pp. 175-244)

      The vedic literature from the Ṛgveda (ṚV) to the classical Upaniṣads is the earliest source of information on possession in India. It is also among the most unambiguous. Because one of the principal arguments of this book is that there is a recognizable “tradition” of possession in India, it is necessary to say a few words about the early relationship between the folk and the classical as this bears greatly on any allegation of a tradition widely regarded as an experiential phenomenon with a popular discourse that largely bypasses ancient and classical literature. I say this in spite of all...

    • CHAPTER 6 Friendly Acquisitions, Hostile Takeovers: The Panorama of Possession in the Sanskrit Epics
      (pp. 245-283)

      The two great sanskrit epics, the mahābhārata (MBh) and the Rāmāyaṇa (Rām), contain extensive material for the study of possession. The MBh, the initial complete text of which was probably completed between the second and fourth centuries c.e.,¹ contains the bulk of this material. It may be argued that the entire plot of the epics, particularly the MBh, is advanced through curses, boons, adventitious synchronicities, and other acts of subtle intervention, as well as by extraordinary acts of various gods and surreptitious identity shifts, including some involving possession.² The material is practically endless; thus an accounting and analysis of it...

    • CHAPTER 7 Enlightenment and the Classical Culture of Possession
      (pp. 284-316)

      In this well-known passage, the early nineteenth-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel addresses the master/slave dialectic, hierarchizing and othering between selves, defined as units of self-consciousness (Selbstbewußtsein)¹ engaged in an unequal struggle. Hegel’s words are also eerily reminiscent of internal othering of the sort that might appear during possession states, at least as described in greater South Asia. The self-consciousnesses that Hegel describes are like facing mirrors: They reflect themselves but also reflect themselves reflecting themselves ad infinitum. Among them are losers and winners, manifestations and demanifestations, and in the short term the prominence of alternative selves, alternative consciousnesses. We have...

    • CHAPTER 8 Vampires, Prostitutes, and Poets: Narrativity and the Aesthetics of Possession
      (pp. 317-344)

      In the present study we examine possession as a descriptor for a kind or class of mood, as a mechanism of divine creation, as a possible consequence of the consumption of soma, as a factor in disease production, as part of the job description of the gandharva and other semidivine beings, as ordnance in the arsenal of accomplished yogins, and as a mode of devotion. What sets these portrayals apart from representations of possession in texts we examine here is that they were assumed by the authors of the various genres we have examined so far (Vedas, Purāṇas, Sanskrit epics,...

    • CHAPTER 9 Devotion as Possession
      (pp. 345-362)

      Indian devotional (bhakti) literature is one of the most prominent genres for discussion of āveśa and allied notions of divine or oracular possession. Vallabhācārya (1479–1531) provides an epitome of this in his commentary on the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa (BhP 10.27.24),¹ entitled “Subodhinī.” Vallabhācārya writes: bhagavadāveśo hi sarvajñatā bhavati (one who is in a state of divine possession becomes omniscient). Bhakti literature is also the most prominent locus for discussion of the aesthetics of possession, a topic that Vallabhācārya and his followers, as well as the Vaiṣṇava disciples of Śrī Caitanya, take up in full. The underlying bhakti context for these notions...

  10. Part IV. Worldly and Otherworldly Ruptures:: Possession as a Healing Modality

    • [IV Introduction]
      (pp. 363-366)

      In contemporary India, Tantra and Āyurveda contain notable overlaps, because most of the clients who seek out tantric ritualists do so in a search for cures for physical or mental illnesses or for familial or social distress. Although most tantrics know little formal Āyurveda, many, and in some locales most, vaidyas or āyurvedic doctors will admit tantric notions and processes into their thinking and, hence, into their practice. These notions and processes include principles of tantric physiology, including cakras, an extensive closed circuitry of nāḍis or nerve channels, and the potential development of kuṇḍalinī śakti, an upwardly moving energy in...

    • CHAPTER 10 Possession in Tantra: Constructed Bodies and Empowerment
      (pp. 367-415)

      Tantra is a category increasingly subject to debate. It is now regarded by many of the most informed scholars as a category with vague characterization and definition, an amorphous medley of practices, rites, and doctrines that became tantric by attrition; they simply do not fit elsewhere.¹ This, combined with a Western fascination for things tantric (especially a mistaken identification of Tantra with sex), enables most nonspecialists to dodge the problem of Tantra. Bearing in mind this caveat, I can now undertake to unpack a knowingly (and frustratingly) incomplete inventory of possession-related practices and phenomena in mostly South Asian tantric literature....

    • Chapter 11 Tantra and the Diaspora of Childhood Possession
      (pp. 416-470)

      Chapter 10 dealt with tantric generative processes that were formally designed and executed and that gradually evolved into possession as the reconstruction was effected and the symbolism became pervasive. This chapter addresses a different mode of tantric possession, one that, as described in the previous chapter, is “positive,” but is much more dramatic, cutting through deeper cultural and sociological layers.¹ The term we adopt for this hitherto unrecognized form of oracular possession, taken from a few Sanskrit texts discussed below, is svasthāveśa (literally “possession of one who is in a good state of [mental and physical] health).²

      Two preliminary observations...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Medicalization of Possession in Āyurveda and Tantra
      (pp. 471-578)

      The Caraka-Saṃhitā, the oldest of the major āyurvedic texts,¹ mentions three kinds of therapy (cikitsā): daivavyapāśraya (spiritual), yuktivyapāśraya (rational), and sattvāvajaya (psychological).² Regardless of readily available (and well-known) definitions of these terms in canonical āyurvedic texts, practicing physicians most often quote the following Sanskrit verse as a prelude to any discussion of the treatment of mental illness, including those diagnosed as caused or exacerbated by spirit possession:

      janmāntarakṛtam pāpaṃ vyādhirūpeṇa jāyate |

      tacchāntair aushadhain dānain japahomārcanādibhin ||

      When it takes the form of disease, a moral transgression effected in another birth may be overcome through rituals of pacification [śānta], medicines...

  11. CHAPTER 13 Conclusions: Identity Among the Possessed and the Dispossessed
    (pp. 579-606)

    Having worked our way through this whirlwind tour—this grand if sometimes bewildering tapestry of Indic literature and ethnography, emotions big and small, ritual formations, health and disease, initiatory trauma and transformation, and much more—we now offer reactions and a few conclusions. First, however, summary descriptions of various kinds of possession are in order. Possession may be destructive (Kali possessing Nala and childsnatchers invading the bodies of pregnant women), instructional (the possession by gandharvas of the daughter and wife of Patañcala Kāpya in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BĀU) in what must have been a semipublic séance, and Śaṅkara’s possession of...

    (pp. 607-664)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 665-701)