Magicians and Sorcerers in Hinduism

Magicians and sorcerers have a long history in Hinduism. The ancient Atharva Veda’s most salient teaching is sorcery (Bloomfield xxix). This Veda contains mainly mantras used in witchcraft or sorcery, in the curing of diseases, for destruction of enemies, etc. (Whitney vi). Many scholars have categorized the hymns of the Atharva Veda in different classes, as the hymns are meant to: secure long life, get good wishes of the deities, ward off misfortune, pardon the misdeeds, obtain the kingship, as well as others (Whitney ix). Other examples of these hymns include: charms to cure diseases and heal wounds; imprecations against demons, sorcerers, and enemies; charms to obtain a husband, wife, or son; and charms to obtain prosperity in house, field, cattle, business, gambling, and kindred matters (Bloomfield vii-xiii).

Many of the modern performances of Indian magic are simply tricks. Perhaps the best known of all the feats performed by Indian conjurers is the mango-tree trick (Carrington 5). A seed is placed in some earth and a mango-tree miraculously grows in mere moments (Carrington 6-8). The secret of this trick is the pliability of the tree; the leaf and twigs of the mango-tree are exceedingly tough, and can be folded into a very small space without breaking (Carrington 9). Thus they will resume their former expanded condition very rapidly, without any traces of the folding process (Carrington 9). Perhaps another of the best known tricks is the dry-sands trick (Carrington 26). A handful of sand is placed into a bucket of water, yet when removed it is completely dry (Carrington 26). This trick relies on the preparation of the sand; the sand must be cooked with a small amount of lard which covers the grains of sand with a slight coating of grease, rendering it impervious to water (Carrington 26-27).

The folk understandings of tribal magic among the Oraons of West Bengal and the Chotanagpur area is quite different from modern street magic-tricks. Kali Mai has traditionally been the major goddess of the village black magician (McDaniel 231). When Kali Mai’s power is sought, he erects a mud altar for her and sacrifices a red chicken and a black goat, thereby granting the magician what he wishes (McDaniel 231). Among the Savara people, a tribal group known for their skill at snake charming, Chandi may be evoked for both love magic and exorcism (McDaniel 38). A man who desires a woman collects the dust from her footsteps and brings it to the shaman (ojha) who chants an incantation three times; afterwards he sprinkles the dust upon the woman and she finds herself attracted to him (McDaniel 38).

A good example of folk tantra is a small handbook called the Dakini Tantra (McDaniel 78). It is written in Bengali, though it contains many Sanskrit mantras and is used by local tantric healers (McDaniel 78). It contains various instructions on how to enchant people, cure various bites, how to deal with ghosts and witches, as well as practices to gain vak siddhi, so that whatever a practitioner says comes true (McDaniel 79). The krisna satkarma or black magic rituals, traditionally teach the tantrika how to control both the physical world and other people (McDaniel 80). This includes varieties of hypnosis, creation of paralysis, bringing disease or madness, and other rituals to gain supernatural powers (McDaniel 80).

Faith healing has long been practiced in India. The Atharva Veda refers to amulet use on many occasions; an amulet is a sacred thing charged with the strength of a spirit (Niyogi 26). Amulets could not only heal, but also protect the wearer from any evil consequences (Niyogi 26). The materials used to construct such amulets were of the utmost importance, along with certain preparations and certain observances of ritual formalities (Niyogi 26). Amulets made of rice could grant the wearer long life and to protect against demon possession splinters from ten holy trees were to be worn (Niyogi 26-27). Spirit possession also has a very crucial role to play in the area of faith healing (Niyogi 91). Most spirit possession occurs on Tuesdays and Saturdays, though in some villages such phenomena occur on Fridays or Mondays (Niyogi 91). Bhar Haoya is a type of possession trance, typically a passive experience in which the medium opens his/her body so that the expected spirit being may enter into it and express himself or herself through it, usually by using the medium’s vocal organs (Niyogi 92). The mediums emphasize that “nothing will be effective without faith, nor even the best doctors; but with sufficient faith one can be cured with plain water” (Niyogi 94). Other mediums do not need to enter into a possession trance, as they can heal the discomforts with the aid of healing spirits (Niyogi 111). It appears that these spiritual healers can identify the sickness of a patient just by having a look at him or her. However, it is difficult to confirm if these healers can actually heal the patients (Niyogi 111).

A Sanskrit fragment in a collection of Balinese hymns and fragments called the Mahamaya describes the supranormal effects of meditation upon Visnu’s maya, here to be understood as that god’s ability to change his appearance at will (Goudriaan ix). Maya is an important element in Indian religious history, essentially meaning ‘magic’ (Goudriaan 1). Very often in the Vedas the word maya stands for the creation of a real, material form, be it human or non-human, by means of which the creator of that form shows his incomprehensible power (Goudriaan 2). Maya is a neutral force; when used by the gods it is a force for good though in the human environment maya is liable to degenerate into deceit or illusions (Goudriaan 2). Maya can be used by sorcerers to present themselves in the guise of wild animals, as when the demon Marica confronts Rama and his companions in the form of a gazelle in the Ramayana (Goudriaan 4). The Jatakas describe Brahmins who act as sorcerers; they can create a rain of precious stones, they know the languages of animals, they understand the science of conjuring demons and spirits and they ward off diseases and snakebites (Goudriaan 230).

Some modern accounts of sorcery have received media attention in recent years. A tantrik in a Bankura village confessed to beheading a newborn and licking the blood dripping from its severed head; he performed this act in public and police had to rescue him from being lynched by the locals (“The Times of India” 2012 February 3). Such events are not uncommon in rural India, nearly 2,100 people accused of witchcraft have been killed between 2000-2012 (“The Washington Post” 2014 July 21).

Not all accounts of modern sorcery are malevolent. In November 1993, a small group of Swedish tourists was taken to the Bank of the Ganges to watch an exorcism (Glucklich 141). A young woman, who had previously had a miscarriage, feared that her neighbour had thrown a curse on her to abort yet another child (Glucklich 141). The exorcist, Ram Prasad, laid out a wreath of marigold flowers in a circle and took three clay pots to the river (Glucklich 141). One of the pots was filled with water, the second with water and wine, and the third with only wine (Glucklich 141). He then lit three lumps of camphor inside the circle of flowers and proceeded on to the clove ritual, which was the main part of the exorcism (Glucklich 141). He touched her head with the clove and said, “You are the Goddess of Religion (Dharma), I will not stay here, I will not stay here, I will completely not stay here,” (Glucklich 142). He then touched the clove to her stomach and added, “I will tell you again, Mother of Religion, if she has any problem in her stomach or a headache or anything else, it will go out” (Glucklich 142). He then changed his voice to that of the goddess and said, “I am finishing everything, it is completely clear (as milk of milk and water of water), you will be clear and pure like milk” (Glucklich 142). He then made a guttural grunt as he pulled the clove away from the girl’s stomach and said, “This sickness will be gone, look I am taking out the witchcraft” (Glucklich 142). He then placed the clove into the mouth of a live fish and released it into the river while repeating, “I will never come (again), I will never come” (Glucklich 142). He ended the ritual after the fish was gone and then told the girl to touch the water where the puja had taken place (Glucklich 142). Later that night, at his house, Ram Prasad performed another puja and chanted, “It has gone completely,” seven times, offered wine to Ma Sakti and a necklace of flowers (Glucklich 142). He put a divination rod on the floor and lit seven pieces of camphor on it (Glucklich 142). Later he asked it if the illness was completely out of the girl, and it indicated that it was (Glucklich 142).

Magicians and sorcerers have long had a place in India, and they shall continue to for the foreseeable future as they are so ingrained in the fabric of Indian traditions, beliefs, and society.



Banerjee, Falguni (2012, February 3) “Tantrik confesses to child sacrifice in Bankura.” The Times of India. Retrieved from

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Brunton, Paul (1934) A Search in Secret India. London: Rider & Co.

Carrington, Hereward (1913) Hindu Magic: An Expose of the Tricks of the Yogis and Fakirs of India. Kansas City: The Sphinx Publishing Co.

Frost, Thomas (1876) The Lives of the Conjurers. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Glucklich, Ariel (1997) The End of Magic. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goudriaan, Teun (1978) Maya Divine and Human. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kapferer, Bruce (1997) The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keshavan, M. S.; H. S. Naravanan; B. N. Gangadhar (1989) “‘Bhanamati’ Sorcery and Psychopathology in South India A Clinical Study.” British Journal of Psychiatry; Vol. 154: p.218.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCoy, Terrence (2014, July 21) “Thousands of women, accused of sorcery, tortured and executed in Indian witch hunts.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Niyogi, Tushar K. (2006) Faith Healing: Studies in Myths and Rituals in Medicine and Therapy. Kolkata: R. N. Bhattacharya.

Shah, Tahir (2011) Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey into the World of India’s Godmen. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Sorcar, P. C. (1950) Hindu Magic. Calcutta: S. Gupta.

Unknown (2014, July 11) “3 arrested for murder of suspected sorcer.” The Hindu. Retrieved from

Whitney, William Dwight (2000) Atharva-Veda-Samhita. Delhi: Parimal Publications.

Yelle, Robert A. (2003) Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural Language in Hindu Tantra. New York: Routledge.

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Article written by: Jesse Elliott (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.