Category Archives: Auspiciousness and Inauspiciousness

Spiritual Healing Practices in Hinduism

In western culture, different forms of possession, mental illness, and spiritual disorders are often categorized as pathological and abnormal; these pathologies are usually treated with psychoanalysis, psychiatry and mass amounts of medication with less frequent attention paid to spiritual treatment. In the east, and more specifically, in the Hindu tradition, spiritual abnormalities and anomalies are oftentimes treated using various religious practices and spiritual healing techniques that date back to the time of the Vedas (Frawley 1997).

Many forms of spiritual healing exist in the Hindu tradition, from the time of the Vedas to Hinduism in its contemporary form, and this article will only scratch the surface. Historically, the Ayurveda—which is an ancient, five thousand year old Vedic system of medicine known as the “Science of Life” (Frawley 1997; Jones and Ryan 2007)—placed emphasis on the pure self (Atman) and true consciousness and its relation to the universe (Brahman). Essentially, the Ayurveda gave Hinduism a guide for medical and spiritual healing and enlightenment (Frawley 1997; Jones and Ryan 2007). Furthermore, exorcisms have always played a fundamental role in cleansing and ridding the soul of unwanted negative possession (Sax 2011; Crapanzano 1987), and gemstones, Soma, sacred ash, and healing amulets also serve a symbolic healing purpose with respect to protecting the soul from demonic and ghostly entities (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2009).

The Ayurveda is the oldest of traditional healing guides that Hinduism has to offer us. “Diet, herbs, water, minerals, and other treatments are [typically] used for cures” (Jones and Ryan 58) in this system of healing. Traditionally, yoga (which has presently become popularized in the west) was therapeutically used as a part of Ayurvedic practices to delve into the actualization of the true self (atman) and the nature of reality (Brahman). Spiritually speaking, the Ayurveda and the practice of yoga ultimately seek to liberate the soul (jiva) from the cycles of rebirth (samsara) and the tremendous constraining moral principle that is karma (Frawley 1997).

To understand spirituality and spiritual healing in Hinduism one must first understand the ultimate goal in Hindu philosophy, which is to free oneself from the cyclical nature of existence. This liberation is termed moksa—which is essentially the same ultimate goal in the practice of yoga, termed kaivalya. Techniques such as mantras and meditations used in yoga, which have been adopted from the Ayurveda, attempt to spiritually link the self and consciousness to the natural world that surrounds it (Frawley 1997). This broad look at the spiritual focus of Hindu philosophies to maintain the well being of the self is linked to the spiritual healing that accompanies anomalies in one’s spirit, such as spiritual possession.

Possession can be understood as an altered, unusual or extraordinary state of mind due to the controlling power of a spirit, god, goddess, or demon over an individual’s consciousness (Crapanzano 1987). Spirit possession can be distinguished into two broad categories: positive possession and negative possession (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2009; Sax 2011). Positive possession is when the individual is spiritually possessed by a deity, a god or a goddess (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2011). Negative possession, on the other hand, is when the individual is spiritually possessed by a devil, a demon or a ghost-like figure (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2011). When an individual’s spirit is possessed, the individual will display behaviours that are uncharacteristic of it; this is due to the fact that the body is possessed by some other entity—one that is no longer the normal self (Sax 2011). The possessed body may actually experience pain and various symptoms of disease and illness while under possession (Crapanzano 1987). In the Hindu tradition, spiritual healing (with regards to curing these aversive mental and physical symptoms) comes in many practices, objects and materials, including but not limited to: exorcisms, temples, healing amulets (tabiz), healing ash (vibhuti), gemstones, and Soma (Crapanzano 1987; Jones and Ryan 2007; Sax 2009; Sax 2011).

Healing, in the form of an exorcism, can be a one-on-one ritual (puja) between the patient and the exorcist, or it can be a pubic affair, involving the whole community (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2011). In William Sax’s chapter “A Himalayan Exorcism” in Studying Hinduism in Practice (Sax 2011) he outlines a specific instance of fieldwork in which he witnessed, and contributed to, a communal exorcism. Possession is an uncommon phenomenon in the west and in Europe, but in India, possession is a relatively frequent occurrence, and as such, exorcisms are often a site of public gathering (Sax 2011). Holistically, Sax describes his fieldwork as “psychologically demanding […] because the rituals were so exciting and dramatic: the drumming and singing, the ecstatic dancing of possessed people, the awesome appearance of fearsome deities, and the ghosts from the past, wailing and shrieking in a stuffy, crowded room” (Sax 154). In general, musical sounds, singing, and dancing are important ritual components in the process of exorcizing an unwanted spirit from a body (Crapanzano 1987). There are three important roles in the musical background of the Himalayan exorcism as studied by Sax: (1) the huraki, which is an unusual sounding drum that effectively invokes spiritual awakening; (2) the thakalyor, “who plays a metal platter with two wooden drumsticks” as a background beat (Sax 150); and (3) the bhamvar, who sings the final lines of each verse of the exorcism song—the bhamvar is known in English as “the bumblebee” (Sax 2011).

In the exorcism that Sax describes, multiple spirits uncontrollably possesses multiple people; these possessions are often observable via shrieks, screams, unconsciousness, odd bodily positioning and violence (Sax 2011).  This state of mind, this altered state of consciousness, can be best described as a trance; that is: “[t]he subject experiences a detachment from the structured frames of reference that support his usual interpretation and understanding of the world [around] him” (Crapanzano 8688). These altered states of consciousness are not only healable with drums, chants, songs and dancing, as is found in the practice of exorcism, but spirit possession can be cured via other spiritual methods as well.

Essentially, the goal of spiritual healing in Hindu philosophy seeks to protect the soul from demonic spiritual powers; the influence of this negative spiritual energy can be, and should be, warded off. Negative spiritual possession can be counteracted by the use of Soma, which is an intoxicating, mind-altering, hallucinogenic drink that is perceived as divine and therefore connects the spirit of the ingesting person to higher understanding and consciousness (Crapanzano 1987). Negative influences on the mind and spirit in general have been understood as celestially caused; the inauspiciousness that is associated with the universe at certain times is counteracted by the wearing of specific gemstones that repel negative spirits from interacting with the body (Sax 2009). Along the same lines as the wearing of gemstones, the protection from evil spirits is also sought in other objects such as sacred healing ash (vibhuti/bhasman/bhabhut), and healing amulets (tabiz). Vibhuti is ash derived from the cremation of humans or from the excretion of a sacred animal in the Hindu tradition—the cow (Sax 2009). The sacred ash is not only seen as protection from evil spirits but also as rejuvenation and revitalization of the material and spiritual aspects of one’s life (Sax 2009). Rituals that invoke the use of vibhuti essentially serve as a purification of the mind and the spirit. Tabiz, on the other hand are lockets in which sacred Vedic or other Hindu textual verses are held, they are usually made of copper, brass or iron, similar to the ta’wiz in the Islamic tradition (Sax 2009; Dwyer 2003). Interestingly, the sacred healing ash (vibhuti) to which I made reference above is oftentimes placed inside the amulet for the same spiritual protection purposes (Dwyer 2003). Most importantly, the amulets serve as a force that diverts evil, malevolent and harmful spiritual entities (Sax 2009). Tabiz and vibhuti are both ritual symbols that are commonly used in exorcisms (Sax 2009; Dwyer 2003). As we discussed earlier, exorcisms can take place privately, but they are just as likely to be performed publically—sometimes at a shrine (Crapanzano 1987).

There are many shrines in India that are dedicated solely to the curing of the spirit and the mind. A famous symbolic site that is renowned for spiritual healing in the Hindu tradition is the Balaji Mandir—this temple is located in Rajasthan, a north Indian state near the village of Mehandipur (Sax 2009). The shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Hanuman, who is a mythical destroyer of demons and Pretraj, who is the “King of Ghosts” (Sax 2009; Dwyer 2003). Demonic and ghostly possession, trances and exorcisms are all commonplace at the Balaji temple—the temple is notorious for the healing of mental illness (Sax 2009). Daily, thousands of pilgrims, devotees and spiritually suffering persons visit the shrine in the hopes of having their soul cured from any negative spiritual possession (Sax 2009).

Contemporarily, exorcisms, gemstones, intoxicating substances and yoga still play important spiritual healing roles not only in India but in the west as well. Mindfulness, spiritual awareness and yoga are implicated in contemporary western conceptions of spiritual well being (Srivastava and Barmola 2013). The present psychological healing that Hindu rituals have on positive thinking and spirituality worldwide shows that spiritual healing should not be underestimated as a powerful tool in curing mental illness (Srivastava and Barmola 2013). The most vital aspect to understanding our own consciousness is to understand how the spirit can be healed and refurbished with guidance from the spiritual healing practices of the Hindu tradition.



Crapanzano, Vincent (1987) “Spirit Possession: An Overview” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Jones, Lindsay (ed.). United States: Thomas Gale. pp. 8688-8694.

Dwyer, Graham (2003) The Divine and the Demonic: Supernatural Affliction and Its Treatment in North India. London: Routledge.

Frawley, David (1997) Ayurveda and the Mind: The Healing of Consciousness. Wisconsin: Lotus Press.

Jones, Constance A. and James D. Ryan (2007) “Ayurveda” in Encyclopedia of Hinduism. J. Gordon Melton (ed.). New York: Facts on File Publishing. pp. 58.

Sax, William (2009) “Healers” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Jacobsen, Knut, A. (ed.)  Leiden: Brill.

Sax, William (2011) “A Himalayan Exorcism” in Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary P. Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.

Srivastava, Kailash Chandra and K. C. Barmola (2013) “Rituals in Hinduism as related to spirituality.” Indian Journal of Positive Psychology 4.1:87-95.


Related Topics for Further Investigation










Pretaraj (King of Ghosts)





Mehandipur Balaji Temple




Spiritual Healing





Huraki drum



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Tanner Layton (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sacred Cow

The sacrality of the cow is an ancient, but common custom to most Hindus. The concept of zebu cattle (go) as an important part of society in India has been dated back to the times of the Harappan civilization. During post-Harappan times, the Aryans, who were pastoral cattle herders would also have known of the importance of the cow in a functioning agricultural society. This may be part of the reason why there are frequent references to cows associated with various deities in the Vedas (O’Toole 61). Despite the natural predator-prey relationship that would be expected to form between them, the Hindu people and cattle share a different type of bond. Archaeological evidence suggests that cattle, especially the bull, were elevated to a more prominent status than that of a mere food source. Through numerous representations of seals and figurines depicting domestic zebu cattle, collected over time, one can come to understand the level of significance the cow has played in the history and development of the Hindu religion.

Cow sitting amid the debris of temple flower offerings (Varanasi)

The principle of noninjury to living beings (ahisma), which began to develop near the end of the Vedic period, is heavily applied to cows and bulls in the Hindu religion. Sometimes, this attitude can be taken exceedingly seriously (Korom 188). For instance, an anti-cow-slaughter legislation has been proposed and protected by the constitution of India. The sentiment for cow protection was at a climax during the “Anti-Cow Killing” riot of 1893, where riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out over the public demonization of those who consumed beef (Yang 580). Many Hindus practice vegetarianism, which is encouraged in verses from The Laws of Manu (Buhler 100). Although consumption of beef is considered taboo in orthodox Hinduism, numerous other cow by-products are found useful in everyday life (Rodrigues 117). It is obvious that the issue of cattle treatment is very sensitive to the Hindu people, and if agitated it has the potential to become reason for violence.

Devotion to the cow is displayed in a great deal of the religious, domestic, and social customs of the Hindu people; the use of cow ghee is popular in religious and household practices and for Hindus, it is not unheard of to have a cow inside one’s house (Crooke 277). Vedic literature suggests that the economic aspects of the cow were portrayed as having vital roles in sacrifices (yajna), which were held to maintain the cosmic order (rta). Along with being victims of the sacrifice, the goods produced from cattle were used for oblation (havis) (Korom 187). Cow products, including ghee, milk, urine, and dung are commonly used in many Hindu practices and household rites (grhya). Often, a Hindu may apply a mark to their forehead (tilak) made from a mixture composed of several natural ingredients, including cow dung. Usually, this mark is indicative of sectarian affiliation, but can have different symbolisms as well (Hawley 252). It is clear that for many Hindus, cows can easily be an inherent part of everyday life.

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

Hindu scriptures have been interpreted to describe cow worship and reinforce the concept that cows are a sacred part of the Hindu tradition. Collectively, cattle are depicted more often than any other animals in Vedic literature (Korom 187). The Vedas have equated the cow with the mother of gods, Aditi, the earth (prthivi), cosmic waters, maternity, poetry, and speech (vac) (Jha 38). Vedic myths may also portray cows as the cosmic waters from which the cosmic order (rta) is established. A Rg Veda myth also equates the calf with the sun, as a pregnant cow may be responsible for such aspects of creation as water, heat, and light (Korom 190).  In the Atharva Veda X:10 the cow is praised and its body parts are depicted as giving rise to all aspects of life itself (Embree 40-41). The Rg Veda describes numerous hymns dedicated to the worship of cows, where they often appear as symbols of wealth and rivers (Srinivasan 161). Although expressive of the important role of the cow in Hindu society, Vedic literature possesses little evidence to suggest the concept of non-violence (ahisma) towards cattle was applicable at that time (Korom 187). In more recent literature, ahisma appears to have become more prominent. The term is mentioned several times in the Bhagavad Gita, and presents itself in the closely related religions of Jainism and Buddhism (Korom 188). Also, being a highly influential text, although not divinely perceived (smrti), The Laws of Manu have influenced the customs of many Hindu people by discouraging eating meat, drinking liquor, and carnal intercourse (Buhler 100). The cow has also appeared as a goddess (devi) in Hindu mythology. For example, Kamadhenu, a wish-granting bovine-goddess was believed to have emerged from the churning of the Milk Ocean (Rodrigues 308). Thought to have originated from a similar fashion as Kamadhenu, the Vedic goddess of glory, Sri, was thought to be linked with the fertility of the land and to have had an abode composed of cow dung (Rodrigues 317). The Hindu epics (itihasa), particularly the Mahabharata, and the puranas also serve to provide justification of the orthodoxy of cattle (Korom 189).

Evidently, the sacred cow practice is a vital element of Hindu culture. Since they give seemingly limitless useful products, but take nothing but grass and water, cattle as symbols of benevolence and generosity are frequently recognized and supported by many Hindu texts. The ideal of preserving life has resulted in a widely environmentally friendly approach by much of the Hindu population. The belief in reincarnation after death, and following of the Dharmic ideal has undoubtedly influenced the vegetarian diet practiced by many Hindus. Of course, not all Hindus take part in vegetarianism or cow-worship, but it is safe to assume that the higher status of the cow is accepted as a norm for much of the Hindu culture.


O’Toole, Therese (2003) Secularizing the sacred cow: the relationship between religious reform and Hindu nationalism. New Delhi : Oxford University Press

Korom, Frank J. (2000) Holy Cow! The apotheosis of Zebu, or why the cow is sacred in Hinduism. Asian Folklore Studies 59 (2): 181-203.

W. Crooke (1912) The Veneration of the Cow in India. Folklore 23 (3): 275-306.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Reading in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Rodrigues (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Yang, Anand (1980) Sacred Symbol and Sacred Space in Rural India: Community Mobilization in the “Anti-Cow Killing” Riot of 1893. Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (4): 576-596.

Hawley, John (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Srinivasan, Doris (1979) Concept of the Cow in the Rigveda. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jha, D.N. (2002) The Myth of the Holy Cow. New Dehli: CB Publishers.

Buhler, George (2008) The Laws of Manu. Charleston, South Carolina: Forgotten Books.

Related Research Topics






Laws of Manu



Rig Veda

Related Websites

Holy Cow: The Holiness of Hindu Herds (reprise)

Article written by Janine Andreas (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.