Category Archives: Purity and Pollution

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.


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Pretaraj (King of Ghosts)





Mehandipur Balaji Temple




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Huraki drum



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

Vegetarianism in Hinduism

A commonly recognized trait of the Hindu tradition is the notion of religious vegetarianism.  A major reason that the study of Hindu vegetarianism is of particular interest is that the practice emerged some time prior to the Common Era (Bryant 194).  The practice of vegetarianism is not universal among Hindus and the instance of practice varies amongst the various classes and the region of the country the sects originated.  The exact percentage of vegetarians among Hindus could not be found but it should be noted that based on the 2004 census about a quarter of India’s population are vegetarians placing them as the minority.  Early Hinduism was heavily involved in animal sacrifice, which still is common among some sects.  In order to get a full understanding for the practice of vegetarianism, many aspects of the religion must be looked into. These include prescriptions in the religious texts such as the Vedas and the epics, as well as religious aspects such as Dharma and reincarnation, and religious guides such as the Laws of Manu.

The reason to discuss the ritual of animal sacrifice in an article about vegetarianism is because it is important to see where the practice came from and how it came to be.  Animal sacrifice has long been a ritual carried out in the Hindu tradition.  The Vedas contain material specific to sacrifice, much of which are hymns used in the sacrificial ritual (Bryant 195).  One of the most notable sacrifices is the as vamedha or the horse sacrifice.  This ritual was undertaken by kings who wished to have a son.  This is considered one of the most powerful sacrifices and required many animals to perish in the ritual’s enactment.  This is considered a very powerful ritual and is also very expensive, but was done according to Vedic specifications to appease the gods in order to get what the king needed.  The animals used in the sacrifice first had to be ritually slaughtered for use in that sacrifice and the meat was later consumed by those in the Brahmin class (Bryant 195).  This is a stark contrast to the Brahmins of modern vegetarian sects, who are commonly the individuals who abstain from eating meat.  This is not to say that the symbolism of sacrifice is not still important to Hindus.  Offering the gods sacrifices to ensure that they are pleased by humans is still a big part of the religion.  However according to the Laws of Manu that a sacrifice composed of butter and flour is sufficient to please the gods (Bryant 198).

There are many aspects of the Hindu tradition that would lead to a vegetarian lifestyle.  In the Hindu tradition every being on the earth, including animals and insects, contain an atman and also has the ability to be reborn in the next life as one of any number of entities (Bryant 194).  If humans lead a life full of bad karma and an absence of dharma then they could be reborn into a lower class, e.g. as a sudra, or possibly even an animal.  With the idea of an atman also came the notion of ahimsa which translates roughly as non-violence.  Ahimsa in the Hindu tradition is extended to all beings with atman which is every animal.  Since it is believed that all beings have an atman then killing and eating any of these beings would not be dharmic.  The killing of animals for the purpose of a humans own enjoyment or for a human’s subsistence is believed to bring bad karma. For instance, scripture has stated that slaying a beast outside of the ritual context of a sacrifice to a god will cause the slayer to dwell in hell for as many days as there were hairs on the beast’s body (Bryant 197).  It is also stated that those who avoid meat altogether obtain all their desires and fruits equivalent to those obtained with the as vamedha, they can even become a sage even in the stage of householder (Bryant 197). So, for an individual that lives the vegetarian life style, it is much easier and cheaper to obtain all the advantages of a high profile sacrifice (Bryant 197).

In the Hindu tradition there is not a single god that is in the highest position, it depends on the worshipers and the god.  The notion of vegetarianism thus extends even to the gods. Those only engaging in vegetarianism maintain a form of purity higher than those that are offered animal sacrifices.  Those gods that are strictly vegetarian are considered superior “sanskritic” deities and are held above the meat eating deities. The sanskritic deities are also held to be of a purer nature and are more difficult to defile, and if they do become defiled they become pure more easily.  For instance in one temple located in the south of India there are two gods worshipped, Aiyanar and Karuppan.  Aiyanar is a vegetarian god and Karuppan is a meat eating god.  This is an interesting case study because these two gods are housed in the same temple.  When an animal sacrifice is made to Karuppan, a cloth is draped over Aiyanar so that he cannot see the slaughter (Fuller 90).  “These two deities exemplify the two fundamental categories of deities, pure vegetarian versus impure meat-eater, as well as the relationship between them is homologous with that between high-ranking vegetarian castes and low ranking non-vegetarian castes”(Fuller 90).  All deities are the objects of puja at which vegetarian offerings are made, but Karuppan is additionally offered animal sacrifice. In addition, no deities are ever offered only animal sacrifice because that would make them not a deity at all but a demonic spirit craving blood alone (Fuller 90).

The epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ancient Sanskrit tales that depict ideal actions in different situations such as the actions of an ideal king.  These epics also have lessons on killing animals and defiling deities.  In the Ramayana there is a saying “whatever food a man eats the same is the food to be offered to his deity” (Fuller 103).  This means that those worshipping a vegetarian god should be vegetarians in order to maintain that god’s purity.  The Mahabharata contains some of the strongest statements against the harming or animals and the consumption of their flesh (Bryant 198).  The Mahabharata in fact has three entire chapters dedicated to the evils of eating meat.  In one story a sage was impaled on a pike by some thieves. When he asked the god Dharma why this had happened he was told that he had once pricked an insect with a blade of grass and he was now feeling the karmic consequences (Bryant 198).  Several other stories found in the text depict great spiritual sages either being punished for harming animals or even causing themselves harm in order to save animals.  Some of the most powerful words against the eating of flesh come from Bhisma, when he is talking to Yudhisthira, who in the epic is an extremely dharmic character.  Bhisma tells him that humans who indulge in a diet of meat are of the vilest of human beings.  He also tells him that the righteous in previous ages had gained entry into heaven by sacrificing their lives to protect the lives of other creatures (Bryant 198).  The goal in Hinduism is to become liberated and to move beyond the cycle of reincarnation. Because of this it is easy to see why Hindus take on the practice of vegetarianism in order to avoid harming other creatures.  These epics are deeply influential in the Hindu tradition and beings such as Bhisma and Yudhisthira are models to be followed examples.

The Laws of Manu is a text that is influential for prescribing laws of action in the Hindu tradition.  It is classified as a smirti (remembered texts), so it is not revealed by the gods.  It does not state that animal sacrifice is wrong in fact he states that he subscribes to the customs of the Vedic forefathers.  He also states that one who desires to increase his own flesh by the flesh of an animal is the greatest of sinners and that those who harm animals in order to please himself will never find happiness (Bryant 197).  This goes back to the notion that all living beings are regarded as having an atman and to extinguish this for your own pleasure is unforgivable.  “It is in Manu that we find the popular etymology of the term for meat: mam sah “me, he” (i.e., the animal whose flesh I eat in this life will devour me in the next world” (Bryant 197).  Even though it is acceptable to eat the meat of a sacrifice, vegetarian Hindus avoid the meat altogether in order to ensure that no harm is ever caused to animals by them.  The consequences of slaughtering an animal has implications on anyone who is involved in any step of the processing; this includes the butcher, the transporter, the merchant and finally the person consuming the meat.

Whether a Hindu is a vegetarian or not, usually has to do with the caste that they belong to and where they are located.  An example of this is in southern India where Brahmin culture tends to be strictly vegetarian.  The practice is sometimes shared by high ranking non-Brahmin castes and these individuals tend to claim a higher status because they are following the Brahmin’s superior dietary code (Fuller 93).  The Brahmins of the north are also usually vegetarians and it is held in high regard.  Fish and meat are more widely eaten in the northern region and individual Brahmins tend to have more “lapses” in their strict vegetarian diets; so vegetarianism is less of an index to Brahminhood then it is in the south (Fuller 93).  The warrior caste or Ksatriyas were traditionally a meat eating class.  This is so because as the warriors and defenders of the other castes they needed to eat meat in order to increase their material strength.  In fact meat eating by this class is held higher then vegetarianism even though it holds less prestige.  The merchant class or Vaisyas follow in the footsteps of the Brahmins and are usually vegetarians, sometime even more strictly then the Brahmin caste.

Bibliography & Related Readings

Bryant, Edwin (2006) Strategies of Vedic Subversion The Emergence of Vegetarianism in Post-Vedic India. Chichester, New York: Columbia University Press.

Fuller, C.J. (1992) The Camphor Flame Popular Hinduism and Society in India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Article written by: Mike Stevenson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.