Ancient Indian Magic And Folklore An Introduction

Item Code: NAB068
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Margaret Stutley
Language: English
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 8121510058
Pages: 190 (B&W illus.: 9)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.7" x 5.7"
Weight 380 gm
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Book Description

From the Jacket: Margaret Stutley is the author, with her husband, of A Dictionary of Hinduism, an indispensable reference work based on many years of research. In the present volume she draws on her study of religious cults and folklore to provide an introduction to the ancient magic and folklore of India. But the main source is the Atharvaveda, compiled about 1400 BC and containing much earlier lore, some of it originating in Sumeria, Babylonia, Iran and ancient Egypt.

The book demonstrates that there are many parallels between Indian and European folklore, since both Europeans and the north western Indian peoples are of Caucasian origin. The wearing of lucky charms, talismans and amulets is common to both , as well as the belief in lucky and unlucky days, birds and animals, the fear of curses and of the evil eye - still common in Africa, the Mediterranean countries and the East.Another common element is the fear of demonic possession, which has increased so much in the West that in 1972 the Bishop of Exeter set up a commission to devise the ritual for the exorcizing of evil spirits from people and haunted places.

Margaret Stutley points out that magical elements exist in every religion since it is their presence that makes a system of beliefs into a religion. Thus magic and cult are essentially the same, all rites being basically magical. She also shows that in all societies different stages of belief exist side by side, and range from naïve magico-religious beliefs to the most advanced spiritual and philosophical views.

About the Author:

Margaret Stutley is a private scholar who, with her husband James, retired over twenty years ago to North Wales. A Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, she became interested in Buddhism and Hinduism in her teens and has since, with her husband, formed a library of Indological works, including most of the important works of modern scholarship upon which Ancient Indian Magic and Folklore and A Dictionary of Hinduism are based.


This brief introductory study of ancient Indian magic and folklore is based mainly on the Atharvaveda (compiled c. 1400 BC).

During man's existence he finds himself confronted by phenomena, often mysterious, which he strives to explain by classifying the relationships between living beings and the external world into two main classes - the ordinary and the mysterious or magical. A feeling of unease occurs when something fails to fit into his preconceived categories, which may account for the animosity and fear that exist between particular cultural and racial groups. Correct classification can enable man to increase his knowledge, but faulty classification, arising from his lack of knowledge of natural law, leads to strange by-ways from whence arises the belief in the power of deities, demons, angels, witches, animals and sorcerers, and in the efficacy of curses, spells and the Evil Eye. But any classification - by seeming to allay uncertainty and tension - promotes a feeling of mastery of the individual's situation. Man's greatest fear is the common unsolved problem of death, which has given rise to much speculation in the past concerning immortality, and which still continues. Magic and cult are a means of making man' s life less fear- ridden, more hopeful and secure by the expectation that in times of trouble, transcendental powers will protect him if the correct ritual, appropriate offerings, oblations, sacrifices, mantras and prayers are carried out.

Essentially magic and cult are the same, since all rites are basically magical, any difference being that of the method used to influence or propitiate the unknown powers. But these rites show the continuity and the changes in man's beliefs over the centuries, as well as linking the present with the relevant past.


The family and tribal groups of north-west India during the fourth millennium BC relied largely on magical formulas for the fulfilment of their aspirations, and hence their belief that magic was synonymous with transcendent power. These people were of diverse ethnic origin: from the black proto- Australoid indigenes to the Mediterranean migrant groups (including Dravidians), 'who came to India with a fairly high level of civilization. As contrasted with the proto- Australoid ... whose culture was mainly based on primi- tive agriculture, these Dravidian-speaking peoples in India were responsible for cities and a city culture - for a real civilization in the true sense of the word.

About 2000-1500 BC successive groups of Aryans from the Caspian area entered Iran and north-west India. Their white skins, blue eyes, fair hair, and language pattern distinguished them from the brown-complexioned Dravidians and con- trasted strongly with the dark-skinned indigenes. Their advent was of particular significance as it coincided with the transition from a relatively primitive period to what his- torians call the Vedic Age. During this period hereditary priestly (brahmanical) families established themselves as custodians of sacred lore and were thus able to introduce changes, including the formation of a corpus of sacred com- positions (samhitas), the first and most important being the Rgveda. Though it reflects the influence of ancient folk-beliefs and includes a number of magical formulas, it is the main source of information about early Indian social, political, religious and linguistic development. None the less, tradi- tional beliefs in magical formulas persisted, and spells, charms, incantations, mantras and the use of amulets con- tinued to be recognized as instrumental in securing pros- perity, good health, longevity, success in love, offspring, the defeat of enemies and the averting of calamity. Hence about 1400 BC an attempt was made to collect these formulas. This collection was ascribed to the legendary fire-priest or priest- magician Atharvan, who in later mythology was said to be the son of Brahma. From Brahma he received the brahma- vidya, the foundation of all knowledge, which was then successively passed on to Angir, Bharadvaja Satyavaha, and Angiras (Mundaka Upanisad, L.lf.). Another smaller col- lection was added shortly after and ascribed to the priest- magicians Bhrgu and Angiras.

Over the centuries attempts were made to have this combined collection of magical formulas added to the sacred corpus (that is the three Vedas - Rgveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda), but without success. Not until a number of additions, chiefly from the Rgveda, had been made was it added to the original Veda. In accordance with custom, ritual texts and other works - such as Upanisads - were added over the centuries to each of the samhitas, and to the Atharvaveda, a particular manual of ritual - the Kausika Sutra - was added. This sutra throws light on some of the obscure passages of the Atharvaveda. I t is also invaluable for the information it gives of indigenous folk-customs, beliefs and practices. The contents resemble those of the household books (Grhya sutras), and comprise various rites including those to placate Nirrti, the goddess of misfortune and bad luck in general; healing remedies; spells and imprecations; marriage rites; and expiations to avert the evil effects of bad omens and portents; the gaining of wealth, health, and the capacity to overcome rivals and enemies. The Atharvaveda- parisistas also deal with similar subjects.

The two extant recensions of the Atharvaveda are tradi- tionally associated with the Saunaka and Paippalada priestly schools, the former being used in this study. To Saunaka also is attributed the Rgvidhana (a magico-religious manual of great importance for the history of religions) which was initially 'seen' by the ancient rsis who knew the mantras for which Saunaka drew up the rites. It specifies the Rgvedic suktas (songs of praise, the so-called 'hymns') associated with various rites. The Brhaddevata, also attributed to Saunaka, names the deities connected with each of the R V. suktas and includes a number of myths and legends. It is essential to know the name of each deity addressed in the mantras, since no religious merit can be obtained solely from the performance of rites, nor would the rites be efficacious.

The Saunaka recension of the AV. comprises 730 prayers or songs of praise, charms, spells, etc. subdivided into twenty books, but parts of it are separated from each other by centuries. Chronological difficulties occur with most Indian texts and the AV. is no exception, but Winternitz considers that the atharvanic magical poetry is as old as, or 'older than, the sacrificial poetry of the Rgveda ... numerous [parts] ... date back into the same dim prehistoric times as the oldest songs of the Rgveda.

The association of fire-priests with the Vedic fire-cult is indicated by the RV. passage (X.21,5) which states that Agni, the god of fire, owed his origin to Atharvan, and in RV. (X.62,5) the Angirasas are said to have been born of Agni. The Nirukta (3,17) further connects the Angirasas with fire by stating that Angiras was born from live coals (angara). In the later Avesta the general term for priests is athravan, which formerly was thought to be derived from the Avestan term for fire 'atar', but this is now rejected on philological grounds. The fire-god Agni was the chief demon-expeller among the gods, and hence one of his epithets was Angiratama (having the luminous quality of the Angirasas). Furthermore, the mythical seer, Angirasa Brhaspati, was regarded as the priestly adviser (purohita) and magician of the gods. His name indicates that he was the master (pati) of the innermost spiritual force 'brh, brahman, which works magic through communion with the divine. He was also the 'master of witchcraft and healing, since through him the curative plants release man from pain and grief' (RV. X.97, 15-19). But the divine plants, like the powers and forces of the cosmos, remain indifferent to man's desires and needs until correctly 'stimu- lated' by established magico-religious ritual. These powers in themselves are neutral, and can be utilized for good or bad ends according to the intention of the performer of the rite, since there is no essential difference between cult and magic with which man seeks to influence the transcendental world. Thus Atharvavedaparisista, 26, describes the properties of logs used as fuel in various ceremonies and states that they may be employed for good or evil purposes. Similarly, some of the Biblical Psalms may be used for exorcism," cursing, killing enemies, or for blessings, offspring and so on.


1Medical charms7
2Charms for longevity41
3Charms relating mainly to women49
4Charms pertaining to royalty61
5Battle charms70
6Charms to protect priests and their possessions79
7Charms and imprecations against demons, sorcerers and others88
8Expiatory rites and charms104
9Charms for prosperity114
10Charms for harmony126

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