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.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
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
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Tanner Layton (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.