Among the prominent images in the Upanishads is that of the body as a locus for external forces. Although the early Upanishads are best known for their discussions of interior topography, they also display a sure knowledge of and deep concern for the physical body. Their knowledge of organs and other aspects of human physiology is derived largely from the antecedent literature, in most cases indicating that this knowledge served purposes other than health. Principally, the purpose was to describe animals fit for sacrifice. This vision is modified in the Yoga, Saiva, and other, later sub genres Upanishads, when interest in the vedic sacrifices had begun to wane, to one in which the body is seen to encase ‘channels’ that circulate within the body and cakras.
Thus, the tantric visions, the body was viewed as transmutable. And though this is most evident in the later Upanishads, the early ones foreshadow them in this regard. In the waking state, the "self" (Atman) is said to abide in the heart, but in deep sleep and dream it wanders in the ‘nadis’ (BA C 2.1.17). Sometimes it exits the body entirely, leaving the ‘pranas’ in charge At death, according to the later Upanishads, it leaves the body via the central upwardly flowing channel (Yogasikha Upanishad 6.5, etc.
The chief function of the body, then, is to house the life force (jiva) and according to some Upanishads, the atman. Brahma, the Upanishads state, dwells in the the space in ill heart. The Kapha (4.6 says that the firstborn of Brahma and Aditya enter and abide there, while many later Upanishads list a number of possible deities who assume residence in this secret place. Thus, the Indic body was ripe for possession.
Here, the subjectivity of emotion, both
as experienced and evaluated states, merges with the (presumed) objectivity of
spirit deities, or entities and notions with an even greater degree of
abstraction. tates in South Asia calls into question
the very notion of personal identity. Thus, although the Weltanschauung
officially registered by brahmanical and other South
Asian orthodoxies idealizes an asceticism that in its public presentation takes
a dim view of corporality.
Where in yoga physical exercises are not ascetic mortifications but are conceived of as 'perfections' (siddhi), what is sought after is 'altered states,' but not 'of consciousness' (as in contemporary Western adaptations), but of the body. (See F. D. Goodman, Where Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences: Indiana University Press, 1990, who makes a strong case for a positive correlation between physical posture, spirit or deity possession, and states of altered consciousness).
This can also be said of possession, which is necessarily an altered bodily state, regardless of whether the possession is deemed positive or negative. What possession states reveal is an embodiment dominated by intentionality, emotion, desire, aversion, physical need, subtle essences, a tendency to action, and cyclical or ritual modes of functioning. This paradigm is different from the description in Bhagavad Gita 13. 1-6, in which the self as body is said to be composed of the five mahabhutas or great elements ( earth, water, fire, air, space), ego, reason, the unmanifest (avyakta), the ten senses and the mind, the five sensory fields, desire, aversion, happiness and suffering, the embodied whole, intelligence, and steadfastness. The former reveals a body constructed of abstractions closer to the early and middle vedic model than to the model presented in Sarpkhya and most of the Upanishads.
What, then, is the body possessed? The body possessed is not symbolic of something else, nor is it, in itself, a message to be communicated to a culturally conditioned public, a reinforcement of a set of beliefs. And the anthropological theory that communication is the very essence of being, action, and ritual, is nullified. For personality was never far removed from visions of the body. In classical India personality was described in different terms from those familiar to the modern world, with very different abstractions and psychological influences. Whereas modern societies express personality as the sum of one's experiences, thoughts, emotions, inhibitions, moments of freedom, and so on, in India of old the complexity was expressed differently.
One of the vehicle for understanding personality in classical India was the grid of physicality presented in the Samkhya philosophy, with the senses and sense organs evolving in a linear fashion from primordial materiality (prakrti), an abstraction absent in Western thought. In this way, the structure of the body and its perceptual equipment reached deeply and directly into the nature of reality itself. Thus, fundamental changes in the surface levels of individuality resonated deeply into the shared level of primordiality, creating a channel by which penetration of external forces could be felt through the entire system. This is coeval with the remnants of an earlier more vedic system (known in ancient Greece also), in which personality included cosmological trace elements that entered the individual from outside. The individual was, conceived of as porous, allowing trace mater from Brahma, the Adityas, and other beings from devas to raksasas to enter. Thus, categories of invasive bhutas or grahas co-responded to categories of sattvas that served as the foundations of personality.
Possession, regardless of the term used for it, was often understood. Sanskrit (and other Indic) texts as a modification of personality, rather than as a psychological aberration for which the individual must necessarily held accountable. "Positive" possession was esteemed, if somewhat feared and those subject to it were most often productive members of their communities. By contrast, "negative" possession befell individuals regarded unstable; indeed, their possession was the mark of their instability. In most cases, however, negative possession was usually regarded as treatable. The practice of mental health care in India beginning in the ancient period has regarded the possessed individual as a victim, rather than a perpetrator, as is the case with exorcism in Christianity.
Even if the treatments were sometimes heavy-handed, ayurvedic texts were invariably designed to exorcise the bhuta or graha as well as rebalance the individual's humors or doshas. As such, it has not and cannot have been completely censored by the agents of brahmanical prudery; it is available in the interstices and thus has been addressed less graphically by the classical philosophers, poets, and mystics, to whom organization, boundaries, and control have been paramount, than by poets, indigenous medical authors, and etl1nographers, to whom physical symptoms and gestures were often more accessible.
Possession, then, whether positive or negative, is a state of tension, of lived irony, in which dilemmas are resolved (for better or worse) because the volition of the dominant, socially hegemonic voice is reduced to the point of disappearance as another authority is expressed through the body. In possession, the self-interest inherent in individual agency is overcome, replaced with a force that is, improbably, more believable and trustworthy than that usually expressed by the individual. Thus, possession expresses what Durkheim regarded as the heterogeneity of the sacred and the profane: the divine authority of the body and the bodily authority of the divine.
This, arguably, is what Krishna did when he presented to Arjuna an alternative to his narrative of himself. Arjuna had locked in a notion of himself through a selective narrative that refused to recognize his multivocality. In the end, though Arjuna capitulated, he shied away from the vision of finality, the visvarupa-darsana, that Krishna presented to him in the eleventh chapter of the Gita.
The individual was rarely considered the definitive human unit, at least in Hindu India, generally relinquishing that role to the family or caste. Because the social boundaries of individual were intrinsically permeable, the notion of possession, of not subsisting or acting alone, was easily realized. It is echoed in China as well as seen on Daoist meditation practices.
Those whose livelihood depends on individual achievement and self-sufficiency, find it difficult to comprehend this shadowy frontiers of individual in Asia and its cultural acknowledgement of deity and spirit possession. The profusion of gods and scriptures is marked by a polycentric religious life, social structure, and family structure. Thus, by adhering to culturally and academically bounded assumptions of the singularity and inviolability of the individual, the phenomenon of possession has been analyzed as psychological illness, as sociological role-playing or status seeking, as expressions of cosmological beliefs, willful manifestation of good or evil, or as an aspect of cultural performance: as anything, in fact, except a phenomena that defy both the solid boundaries of the individual assumed by the academic trade. And a religious experience such as possession which cannot be rationally understood, gets reduced to 'symbols,' 'projections' or illusions.
Most scholarship has limited possession to intrusive and disintegrative states, or else to oracular possession expressed in festival or other ritual contexts. However, possession has more dimensions in India, for example, the Buddhist concept of titmabhava-parigraha, a person "completely gripped by the experience of the self," or devotional possession, or, a person "possessed by the cycle of rebirth." It would be a mistake to disregard these examples for they were intended literally. For Asvatthaman to be possessed by rage for example, meant that he was possessed by Siva, not just by the power of Siva. Also Marukkavacakar's possession, his god-intoxication, has no reference to third parties. It is solely a manifestation of his communion with Siva, which is an end in itself. In India thus possession was a state of mind characterized by intensity, emotional excitement, and desire, and that the perceived distinction between these states and those more easily labeled possession by ethnographers and others is a matter of degree rather than kind.
One can also distinguish between ‘gradualist’ school that is sastraic, analytical, and process-oriented, while the ‘sudden’ school creates release through intense emotional engagement. The former bears the ritualist into a state of ontological hybridity through a series of identifications, while the latter accomplishes the same through a wholesale submersion into an idealized form of a deity (such as Kan or Hanuman), a mood (love, ferocity, quiescence, etc., or an environment. Brahmanical hybridity may be thought of as a tapestry, a planned and executed complex pattern woven on a single uniform backing. In this particular tapestry each essence, deity, spirit, or other entity occupies a discrete space on or within the body, empowering and transfiguring it. This usually requires the complementary observance of brahmanical rites of purification. Compared to ‘sudden’ school strategies, it inculcates control by keeping the consciousness and intentionality of the ritualist intact and dominant. It is neither festival nor oracular and may be very private. Yet it is a metamorphosis, but it cannot be called shape-shifting. In the sudden school, the hybridity is more deeply rooted, as two beings or essences coexist, with one supplanting another in an internal and idiosyncratic scale of identity markers. Unlike in gradualist possession, the intentionality and decision making capabilities of the agent are ambiguous and often absent. In brahmanical possession, the process of metamorphosis transforms categories of bodily integrity by breaking them down and rebuilding them analytically. The result is a hybrid being seamlessly constituted out of a collocation of compatible entities or notions. This is in contrast to non-brahmanical possession, in which contradictory or incompatible beings, entities, notions, or categories may exist.
The orthodox impulse, which does not have the marks of a conspiracy has been to control this phenomenon through benign neglect, by ignoring or avoiding it in formal discourse, by tacitly declaring it irrelevant, though possession is acknowledged or discussed in more than 170 Sanskrit texts. This is not a large number, however, considering the vast number of texts in Sanskrit.
Nyasa, the brahmanical practice of possession, has a restricted domain because of its locus within rarefied Sanskritic culture. But in the larger cultural domain, it is closely juxtaposed with small seances or festivals in which oracular possession might occur. The evidence for this is both textual and ethnographic.
The ideologies, and to a lesser extent the processes, of gradual and sudden possession are dialogical: less privileged non elite nonprofessionals poach on the discourse of privileged elite professionals by adopting their symbols and images, thus demarcating a realm of social and political safety for their experience, while the elites, the priesthoods, extend their domain by creating discourse mechanisms through which they domesticate popular practice. As shown in culture after culture, elite participation in popular practice contributes to this negotiation between professionals and nonprofessionals, highly educated elites and less educated subalterns. As to what extent we can equate possession as discourse with possession as event, the link is so proximate that it is nearly indistinguishable The discourse of possession in India is not just verbal or linguistic but performative as well. The issue of discourse is closely tied in with the nature of individuality and the individual in South Asia and whether possession can contribute to a greater understanding or unveiling of that nature.
Thus possession has always had an intriguing subversiveness that seeks to turn the mysteries of asymmetry and randomness to one's advantage. Possession is both self-affirming and transformative. As part of a socially sanctioned religious system, it affirms the social self while eclipsing the spiritually isolated self. The South Asian experience indicates that the disjunctions, isolations, or alienations that typify our lives emanate from collusions of moral and natural order, act and actor, person and collectivity. In this disjunctive and disjointed world, possession concentrates essences, entities, actors, and agents while bringing the above-mentioned polarities together experientially. The mutual impact of discourse and event forces us to acknowledge that we become more ourselves when we recognize that we are, in fact, less ourselves. This is the paradox of both oracular possession and the Indic concept of selfhood, stripped of its institutional veneer of brahman-atman ideology.
Both classical texts and modern ethnographies suggest that possession was common as a way of thinking in Indian culture and performance. It is perhaps no accident that possession, so noticeable in the Vedas and epics but sporadic in first-millennium canonical literature, surfaced widely in the realm of actual human experience, as the ethnographic literature attests. The local traditions, often derided by the educated elite in both India and the West for their non vedic practices, are very possibly the most "vedic" of all Indian traditions. This may be said as well for the North Indian bhakti traditions, which are often local traditions repositioned in brahmanical settings. This reflects a process that might be called "vernacularization," in which elite traditions reach into local practice to keep themselves afloat. This would constitute the obverse of the oft-discussed "Sanskritization." Just as Sanskritization conferred prestige and legitimacy on local practices and traditions, vernacularization legitimated the Sanskritic enterprise by localizing it, which is to say by injecting elements of local culture into it.
people would probably be more at home with anyone of a number of devotional and
ecstatic sects that arose in India than with the philosophically rigorous and
repressive orthodoxies that were established in their name. These devotional
and ecstatic sects find common ground with the Vedas in their appeal to the viability,
safety, and sanctity of individual experience; what they subvert is the
institutional authority of the Vedas. But as suggested, possession in South
Asia is not just one thing. Amid this shifting ground, as an introduction we
can assert the following.
Whatever may have been the origins of possession in India-it would be fruitless and incorrect to posit its origin in a single event, locality, or religious complex-it has become perhaps the region's most widespread form of spiritual expression, with a vibrant presence in semipublic divinatory practice and public festival.
Possession is sharply divided between positive oracular possession and negative disease-producing possession. The two have occasionally converged, as literary and ethnographic evidence over several millennia amply testifies.
Both positive and negative possession are commonly believed to have a moral source. In the case of negative possession, the "mistake" might occur unwittingly. Negative possession is attributed to pollution, contact with evil or degraded people, or being unprotected while in terrifying environments (such as burning grounds or deep jungle). More generally, it is believed that women and children, who are regarded as weaker than men, are more susceptible to possession. Positive possession, by contrast, may be attributed to virtuous action (including action from past births), successful devotional practice, properly performed ritual, or divine grace.
Possession cannot be reduced to a single descriptive prototype, but is a complex phenomenon characterized by terms that convey broad semantic possibilities. These can be distinguished through close linguistic study. Possession is always to some extent disruptive and almost always in some sense violent. The disruptiveness occurs in every form of possession, from ecstatic initiatory possession to oracular possession to disease-producing possession. The violence is often expressed as rage (raudra). On occasion, however, possession can be peaceful (Santa).
Acceptance of spirits and deities has always been widespread in South Asia , as it has been in most societies in which the dominant scientific paradigm(s) differ from the one developed and accepted in the West since the Renaissance hence, the stance of Western scholarship toward the subject. Thus, the South Asian literary and psychological universe has always been inhabited by innumerable spirits and deities. In spite of occasional orthodox efforts to excise possession from mainstream discourse, it is inevitable that a belief so widespread would find its way into Sanskrit texts.
Possession has a strong horizontal and vertical presence in Indian society. Although it has a vigorous presence in women's religion, it is by no means limited to women or to members of any particular class or caste, linguistic grouping, or economic stratum.