From the Jacket
This book, winner of Choice outstanding Academic Title Award 2007, 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 utmost 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 through out 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 literatures; 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.
Frederick M. Smith studied Sanskrit for more than a decade in Pune, Madras, and elsewhere in India and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is known for his work on Vedic ritual and the early sixteenth century philosopher Vallabhacarya whose work he has been translating. With his work on deity and spirit possession his interest in Indian religious and spiritual experience has assumed a unique form. He teaches at the University of Lowa.
The writing of this volume took me by surprise. I never envisaged it as part of my "research program" until it began to form a life of its own. Eventually, it grew from childhood to adolescence and, typical of adolescence, began to exact unreasonable demands on my resources, including time, place, and modes of thought. Having now achieved maturity, it demands to be set free. On the whole, I would have preferred to be in India translating Sanskrit and examining manuscripts, rather than working on a project like this that imposed on me a new and very different set of intellectual, psychic, and even physical demands. As it turned out, I was forced to examine worlds of thought and theory that I had always suspected lay in wait, less quietly than I appreciated, to ensnare me, while the project unceasingly transgressed boundaries I kept setting on it. Its conception and infancy—•I thoughtlessly intended to abandon it in child-hood~—took the form of papers delivered at annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in I992, the American Oriental Society in I993, and the Indic Seminar at Columbia University in 1994. My intention in these papers was to examine a few of the semantic issues surrounding some of the key terms for possession that I saw repeated in Sanskrit texts of many different periods and genres. I foolishly believed that I could accomplish this in - ten, twenty, or thirty pages. Soon enough, however, I discovered the vast ethnographic literature of possession in India and became almost hopelessly entangled—and gridlocked—in the theoretical issues surrounding it. This is discussed in due course, but I must confess here that my reading of possession in modernity had a much greater impact on my reading of possession in antiquity than I had expected or desired. Instead of a paper on possession in antiquity—the initial scope of the project—this has become a work more generally on possession in South Asian culture over a long span of time.
After several years, at first intermittently, of data gathering and absorbing stories of possession, then reading and reflecting on theories of possession, and finally engaging it actively, I have arrived, with this book, at a meditation, a perilously intimate one, on personhood, which is sometimes, though not always, contiguous with selfhood. As the title of the book suggests, I find myself attempting to reconcile in this project the self, possessed, with a presentable veneer of self possession. In this way, the final product has also become a meditation on embodiment and incarnation, gain and loss, trans-formation and transition, and tradition and imagination, which, my friend Robert Beer reminds me “must become the same thing" (1988:9). How-ever it began—and the raison d’étre of scholarship is often contested, per-haps especially within the mind and body of the scholar him or herself—it was, upon reflection, inspired by the constant, elusive, and very personal conundrum of embodiment, by a sense of the irreducible strangeness of life, by the shock of an eternally mutating present and presence when we seek only past and future permanence, which is to say by the trauma and bewilderment of continuity when we seek resolution and termination. This was aided by a vision of the simultaneity of multiple selves clamoring for dominance, propriety, order, and voice as they succumb to the inexorable force of entropy, by dreams pushed aside incomplete and irretrievable by the disappointment of awakening, and by awakening to (and within) the disappointed ness of dream. In short, the process of creating this book has been a long and complicated exorcism.
If my selection of material appears planned but extravagant, the reason is that the planning came to life as a learning process, like perfecting a raga: I found a few unique scales and constantly improvised on them. Thus, the extravagance could never be exhaustive. The material turned out to be much more extensive than I initially expected. In many key places, in dealing with the Mahabharata, Tantra, and bhakti texts, for example, I was forced to be illustrative and selective. As a friend, a veteran of many books, told me (para- phrasing W. H. Auden, as I recall) when I was about three-quarters done, this is the kind of book that cannot be completed but, instead, should be abandoned. The lesson for me was that both data and knowledge can be infinite, especially as they are swept up in an ever-expanding vision with ever-increasing dimensions and vocalities. The evidence of the multidimensionality and multivocality of possession that I have brought to bear on the topic1s more than I had ever hoped to find or thought was even possible. Many readers will still say that I left out this or that, especially from ethnographies or modern autobiographies, or could have interpreted something differently, that I should have attended more to feminist perspectives or psychoanalytic theory. I must also mention that our knowledge of Tantra from the mid-first millennium through the first few centuries of the second millennium C.E. is rapidly expanding, in great measure because of the efforts of Alexis Sander-son and his students at Oxford University. Doubtless, there will soon be much more to say about possession in tantric literature that will add considerably to what I have written in Chapter Io, and may force new paradigms an the notion of possession itself as it was configured historically in India. Nevertheless, for me, this exercise—whatever I have adduced on the topic-has turned religion, particularly as observed in South Asia, on its head, as the material ultimately argues against much of what is stated in standard text-books. If even a tiny amount of that is transmitted to the reader, this project will have been worth the effort.
I should say a few words here about the study of possession. In India and elsewhere, the field has been dominated by compartmentalized ethno graphics and, less often, by histories of possession in specific lineages or local culture. No syncretic history or synoptic account of possession in India has been attempted. While my intention here is to locate and capture such a history, I have tried to keep in mind the problems associated with “master narratives” and endeavored to avoid them. Even if I were dedicated to a single theoretical model (and it will soon become obvious that I am not), two things would still parry any attempt to create such a master narrative the sheer variety of the textual and ethnographic source material, and the delicacy with which the layers of their connections must be handled. I have been constantly aware of the pitfalls of both subjectivity and objectification that confront both scholars and participants who think about and live with Possession. This inspires in me a certain trepidation, because it sharpens rather than occludes the necessity to define and delimit, to construct and deconstruct, to know when to intervene and when to leave alone, to know how strongly to invoke situated histories to know when to allow tradition and imagination to merge and to feel comfortable it all my data and conclusions are not scrubbed clean of contradiction. Nevertheless I take full responsibility for lapses in clarity errors in judgement and oversights in the use of material.
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 cat 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 the long history of Sanskritic and other indigenous Indic scholarship have commenced with the necessary chore of phenomenological categorizing and entertaining a potpourri of theoretical approaches. Just as brahmanical and Indological scholarship have set certain limits and challenges on the subject, thereby creating orthodoxies, so have the shifting grounds of an thropological studies, thereby creating mini—orthodoxies of their own. All though the word "orthodoxy" may sound harsh and unjust to some, scattered in this study is an accounting of methodological approaches to and models of possession employed by Indic authors and scholars through out me millennia, by anthropologists and other ethnographers, as well as psychologists, in the latter cases reflecting Western academic deployment and establishing for them new dimensions. The approaches, addressed in Chapter 2, range from outright condemnation (by apologists for religious orthodoxies) to sophisticated psychoanalytic interpretations, socio political views, notions of possession as a facet of shamanism, and last (and probably least) an increased acceptance, with certain qualifications, by ethnographers, of emic viewpoints regarding the existential reality of spirit and deity possession.
Both separable and inseparable from these approaches are other general issues, including those of gender and illness. Why, in popular culture, are women subject to possession more regularly than men? Do we find the same gender configuration in possession described in Indic literature? To what extent or under what circumstances does possession signal disease, particularly mental illness? These questions are addressed in due course, and answers to them must consider the purport and environment of the Sanskrit texts as well as their contents. In order to more clearly envision the Sanskritic and classical contexts, it will also be necessary to view the subject from the top down, that is, to discuss the vocabulary and linguistic characterizations of possession in postclassical and modern South Asia. To this end, I explore the semantics of possession and their significations in several South Asian languages (Chapter 4). This discussion begs a consideration of the relationship between "folk possession" and "classical possession," a topic that is frequently revisited in this study.
After explorations of the ethnography and linguistics of possession in (mostly) postclassical South Asia, we turn to the Sanskrit texts. First, we consider the extensive evidence for possession and models of thought base don possession in the Vedic literature (Chapter 5). References to possession begin in the Rgveda itself, where we first encounter the word avesa (and other forms derived from the root avvis) in the ninth mandala, the book that includes most of the soma hymns. It is significant that avesa is the most commonly attested word for "possession” in the Rgved through Classical Sanskrit and Middle-Indic languages down to modern times, where it has found its way into most Modern Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages. I argue that the Vedic soma drinkers experienced (at least in part) a type of divine possession. The word drain occurs in nearly all Vedic texts, with preponderance in texts of the early and middle Vedic periods. By the late Vedic period, derivatives from another Sanskrit verbal root, varh (to seize), especially the substantive grahana, begin to appear, indicating a rather less divine form of possession. In attempting to address the vedic evidence, I highlight four features in particular: first, the production of soma and the sages’ experience of its consumption; second, avesa as a paradigm for cosmic creation and personal and divine incarnation; third, a phenomenon called "transfer of essence" (medians), found in many vedic texts beginning with the Brahmanas ;and, fourth, the relationship between women (mostly) and gandharvas, celestial musicians with a predilection for possession. It is this latter notion that has perhaps the greatest impact on later classical literature and "folk possession." In fact, it is in the Vedic texts that the Indian notion of the “self" is first expressed as permeable and multivalent. Some readers may find this notion overly complex because it runs counter to the received Vedantic idea of the self as an autonomous atman identified with a universal brahman. How-ever, the evidence here demonstrates that the Vedantic notion of the self is primarily a normative, albeit a popular and attractive, idea that, because of the force and elegance of much of the Sanskrit philosophical literature, has overshadowed more complex and, I believe, more fundamental notions of self and personhood in classical India.
Possession comes into its own as a literary motif with accompanying procedural specificity in the Mahabharata , a subject addressed in Chapter 6.Among the possession stories in this great epic are the well—known tale of Nala’s possession by Kali; another. in which Vipula Bhargava protected Ruci, the wife of his guru, Devasarman, against the sexual advances of the notorious womanizer Indra by entering (anupravisya) the body of Ruci through his yoga—power; the account in the Sauptikaparvan of Asvatthaman’s destructive possession by Rudra/Siva; and the account near the end of the epic in which Vidura, an incarnation of Dharma, employs his yogic abilities to leave his own body, permanently, and enter that of Yudhisthira. Although the Mahabharata contains many stories in which possession is central, the other Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, frequently refers to possession as a dimension of intense emotion but has few stories in which it is central. Thus the nexus of possession and emotion appears fully developed in the epics, a feature that characterizes Indic possession from that point on. Countless narrative passages in the epics and later literature describe extreme anger, Love, anxiety, concern, or faith in terms of possession. Taking rhetorical leads nom the epics, many of the Puranas frame possession in the same way; indeed, possession in the same key appears in the Puranas with remarkable regularity. It is no exaggeration to say that the Mahabharata is the most influential text in Indian history, and the tone and timbre of possession, in both its positive and negative manifestations is established in the Sanskrit epics. Because of certain important conceptual links between the epics and the Puranas specifically the way devotion frames possession it is essential to have a brief look at possession in the Puranas as well.
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