By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Notwithstanding some earlier controversy, the child medium/Kumari cult in Nepal is alive and well. Simply stated most of the lay population believes that one or another of the Kumaris can bestow "blessings" and receiving tika (the red paste mark on the forehead of a devotee) from one of them is  important to many.In that context she is seen as the personification of several of the valley goddess including Taleju, Vajrayogini Guhyeshvari and others. All three cities in Nepal, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have Kumari institutions dating from the Malla period and possibly before.

There are other Kumaries as well, depending on who is counting somewhere between thirteen and fifteen all of them from the Shakya families of the Newar Buddhist communities. The Kathmandu Kumari furthermore, has been giving tika to the kings of the valley as a mark of her (i.e., the goddesses' acceptance of the monarch) as a sign of legitimacy for centuries.

It is generally accepted that the ceremonies in their present form were inaugurated in mid-eighteenth century by Jaya Prakash Malla, the last of the 'Newar' kings.

Child possession or Svasthavesa (literally "possession of one who is in a good state of [mental and physical] health) is considered “positive" versus opportunistic possession of one who is ill, the ayurvedic category of agantuka  considered a pathology induced from without by demonic grahas ‘seizers’.

The Himalayan Saiva and Buddhist Tantras that mention svasthavesa are primarily dedicated to descriptions of the worship of Siva and various goddesses.  The Saiva texts fall within a class called Siddhanta, rather than under the better-known but highly suspect designation "Kashmir Saivism." Thus, the texts are not the commonly cited ones , but for example Ja'adratha'amala National Archives, Kathmandu (NAK) 5-4650; Nifvasaguh'a, NAK 1-277; Tantrasadbhava, NAK 5-1985, and the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project (N GMPP) AI 88/22; Brhatkalottara, NAK 1-273, plus the Buddhist Cakrasamvavarapindartha and the Sekoddefa from  eastern India.

What is striking about svasthavesa, is the remarkable continuity of these texts with certain early Chinese Buddhist tantric texts cited by Edward L. Davis in his volume Society and the Supernatural in Song China (2001), and Michel Strickmann in Chinese Magical Medicine both published (2002).

In fact the phenomenon of child possession receives much more attention in Chinese religious texts than in South Asian or Tibetan ones. Some compilations of Tang dynasty stories tell of children possessed by the spirits (shen) of learned men. Glen Dudbridge explicates several such accounts from a genre called zhiguai (tales of the marvelous), of at least the eight century if not before.

In the first story, a girl named Wang Fazhi from the town of Tonglu serves the spirit of a young man called Teng Quanyin, with whom she had an affinity in a previous birth; she begins to experience regular possession of his spirit before the age of five. In frequent meetings with the county magistrate, writers and poets, and Buddhist monks, Quanyin, speaking through Fazhi, demonstrates his literary, scholarly, and religious erudition, composing poetry extemporaneously.

If the story is to gain any credibility, it must be assumed that the girl was subjected to ritually induced possession. Even if the story is to be treated as a member of another genre-for example, didactic tales, fiction, folklore, or an intermediate genre-we must still ask how, even in the imagination, a five-year-old girl is able to "serve the spirit of a young man." My sense is that this "service" must have been ritual, and ritually induced, under the supervision of a learned master in this art. Even if the story is regarded as pure fiction, this element of cultural background must be assumed. This inference is based on the presence of frequent descriptions (and tales) of oracular possession weighted toward either their narrative or ritual components, when, in fact, in any "real" or "imagined" event, both are assumed to be equally present. In the case at hand, the description of the ritual must have been suppressed in favor of the narrative. As in the Mantramahodadhi, this story does not state or imply that the erudition revealed during possession was maintained by the girl outside the mediumistic act. This too argues for ritually induced possession. Oracular possession is rarely reported as a spontaneous experience; it nearly always adheres to known, effective, and ritually adumbrated models, as mentioned several times earlier. It is, as noted elsewhere, publicly performed, even if that public is very small. In general, it requires an expectant and knowing audience.

Sporadic examples of such oracular or divinatory possession are quite ancient, as for example, tales from the Brhadarayaka Upanishad that exhibit important resonances with the material discussed here. It appears however, that the Chinese ritual texts address therapeutic or exorcistic practice to a greater degree, and with more subtle distinctions and nuances, than does the Indic material. The Indic texts domesticate and Sanskritize practices that appear to be derived from village spirit-mediums, women, or others of lower social rank. The problem with the Indian material, is that the textuality, in Sanskrit, reflects the interests of the literate brahmanical and ruling classes, whereas in China , at least during the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the textuality was more likely to include direct accounts and interests of a greater range of social classes.

Since there is no evidence that the Chinese practice early on, at present they appear to be wholly independent developments. Although answers to certain questions might be sought by anyone in a crystal ball as it were, for example, in water, or a mirror (called catoptromancy in Greece), a person in an inferior social and intellectual position was preferred because he or she could articulate divinatory or oracular answers under the watchful and practiced eye of the mantrin, who would, according to the conventions of hierarchy, retain the right to censor or reinterpret the words of the oracle if they were to appear immature, wild, or irresponsible.

During our field research an elderly Tibetan woman (Oct.2006) was seen using an "oracular mirror." Central to her practice is a shiny brass surface with an abstract pattern lightly etched on it into which she stares, which serves as the backdrop of her puja altar. The client sits on a chair in front of her and off to her right as she sits cross-legged on an elevated cushion before her altar. After she hears and acknowledges the question, she makes a few offerings with rice, water, and other items, stares into the brass plating, and answers the questions. Her answers describes images/visions she perceives, and of course does not in imply possession, something that can be a matter of interpretation or/and belief.

See also the images in our earlier case study about 'Shamanism':

During earlier observations Hildegard Diemberger describes how Tibetan oracles undergo an initiation or empowerment in which certain "energy-channels" (rtsa) are opened. “The popular perception is that impurities in the energy-channel are responsible for aberrant behavior. Once these are ritually purified, possession is considered to be under control and confers upon the oracle an extraordinary competence in helping the other living beings. ”(Diemberger, "Female Oracles in Modern Tibet." In Women in Tibet. Ed. Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik, 2005, pp. II3-168).

With the deity or spirit in control, the oracle then resorts to mirror divination, which "allows the gods to express themselves.” Some diaspora Tibetan monks have seen performing similar divinations.

In India there is even a Mughal-era painting a late sixteenth-century projection of the use of an oracular mirror by Alexander the Great. The painting, dating to the year 1597 and ascribed to a Hindu artist named Dharmadasa in the court of Akbar, was a visual interpretation of part of a long Persian poem by AmIr Khusraw of Delhi, called ".A'Inah-i Sikandarl" (Mirror of Alexander), composed in the year 1299. (See John Seyller, Pearls of the Parrot of India, 2001, p.19-20). The painting reproduced in John Seyller’s book, by a Hindu at the late sixteenth-century Muslim court, portrays the use of an oracular mirror by a Greek conqueror of fifteen centuries earlier.

Another variant of the practice of childhood possession, is the divinatory process employed to discover a tulku or reincarnation of certain recently deceased lamas. Hereination again is, the art used to forest place where the Dalai Lamas would be born.

See Case Study P.1:

In Taiwan, child mediums who are required to be illiterate, may still be found. They are called. (divination lad), a term that implies that they are both male and y' However, some jitong are older, and others are girls. A practice that af to have evolved from this is still observed. Certain adult mediums in T wear bibs designed for children in their oracular practice. This appears commemorial, a relic from earlier times when children acted as medium.

It appears to have originated in northern India among tantrikas affiliated with Buddhist, Hindu, or even Jain lineages, who textualized this practice that predated them. And this way it spread into Tibet and China at the beginning of the seventh century. What first surfaced in north India in the fifth to centuries was a variety of prafna that became prasenti farther east, and an assortment of prayogas in South India. The description of the ritual, is a use of children in oracular posture.

This broad conformity sparks several questions. Were specific possession cults transnational? Was Asian, especially Indian, religion organized along more microscopic definitions of lineage than I had hitherto believed? And if so, what sorts of identifiable historical forces could account for this organization?

It is likely, that a fair amount of material on possession, and probably svasthavefa, remains buried in collections of unexamined tantric manuscripts housed in personal and institutional libraries in south India.

For example in Tamilnadu, Karnataka, and much of southern and coastal Andhra Pradesh the Sailkaracaryas authorized the domestication and transformation of "left-handed" practices involving Tripura and other goddesses, assigning them an advaitic and, therefore, "right-handed" trajectory. In fact also the above cited Kumari tradition in Nepal, kumArI-pUjA or virgin-worship is already mentioned in the Tamil work Cilappatik Aram w.r.t. the cult of goddess Aiyai.

Yet possession ritual is documented in China from the mid-first millennium B.C.E. onward, and scholars point to artistic and epigraphical evidence that might push that date back another millennium. Most of this speculation revolves around the issue of shamanism, which, because of cultural variation and lack of perspicacious definitions, falls prey to the same sort of amorphous characterization (and caricature) as befalls Tantra.

But Strickmann and Davis also cite several texts that contain material strongly reminiscent of Indic and Tibetan avesa and svasthavesa. Indeed, the Chinese employ the word aweishe, a direct transcription of avesa, "to designate possession rites in which a spirit was invoked into the living body of a medium. The term might also apply to procedures in which the spirit of a living person was co-opted, so to speak, into the pantheon." (Strickmann 2002, p.208).

According to Strickmann, the Amoghapafasutra, which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese around the end of the seventh century, was the first Chinese Buddhist text to give instructions for inducing deity possession. It was at this point, says Strickmann, that a "new Tantric synthesis was about to become known in China " (Strickmann 2002, p.204).

The purpose of this aweishe ritual, which invokes Guanyin (= Avalokitesvara), was therapeutic, to heal an individual suffering from spirit-induced illness.


Some of the cited texts cite children ‘o gaze into a mirror.’

Davis excerpts part of a Buddhist tantra that records the possession of a boy by (daozhe) the monk who wrote the text he stared at. The boy is said to have jumped and flung about, grabbed a sword, run out of the temple gate until he reach of cow dung, struck the pile three times with his sword, leads Davis to conclude that in this episode: we are far from the highly controlled, rarefied, atmosphere of the Buddhist avesa rites, in which two or more  purified children stood passively before the master amidst  incense and strewn flowers; in which the descent of the divinity a onset of trance were distinguishable only by the most subtle of signs like cessation of breathing, unblinking eyes, and a slight reddish tint the pupils; and in which the children had in essence become living as luminescent, but also as confined, as the pearl or crystal for which were substitutes. (Davis  2001, p. 128).

The "basic structure of the Tang rituals of avesa," says Davis, is "the controlled possession of a boy by a cultic divinity and his subsequent clairvoyance." (Davis 2001, p. 140)

However this is a feature not only of Himalayan Saiva ta practice, but of subcontinental Indian devotionalism (bhakti), as evident in both mid-first-millennium Tamil devotional poetry and contemporaneous Sanskrit counterparts. It is replicated in the devotional fervor characteristic of Esoteric Buddhism. The devotional impulse ( bhiiva) expressed most decisively in the Vaisnava literature of the subcontinent (example the Bhagavata Purana) is heavily implicated in the development of Esoteric Buddhism.

The procedures for employing children for divinatory purposes in India thus were not limited to a shadowy presence in a few obscure, regionally specific texts. This is similar to the situation in China, where it was relatively widespread, as Davis 's extensive documentation shows. However, even if the practice was not as widespread in India as in China, corroborative evidence from other Tantras shows that it spread beyond the confines of a few local cults. At any rate, knowledge of it appears to have entered into more mainstream, prescribing three tantric rituals to be performed on children.

The first states that after cutting the umbilical cord, the sadhaka (the father?, a hired tantrika?) should inscribe a mantra for Vacaspati, the Lord of Speech, on the tongue of the newborn child with a sharp blade of diirva grass that had been dipped in gorocana, an extrusion from the biliary tract of a cow (either a large gallstone or a bezoar), which is used for tantric and alchemical purposes in India. Upon reaching the age of eight, the child will then become proficient in all sastras (sarvasastrajfiata). Purpose of these offerings, certainly, was to attract spirits or minor deity enter the child, either permanently or temporarily.
But children may have been used because they were regarded as pure, as em bodiments of moral neutrality, and because youtl1 itself was regarded as a natural restorative. The single scrap of supporting evidence for this is found in Kalkin  Pundarika's Vimalaprabha on me Laghukalacakratantra, which specifies that a virgin's (kumarika) success in this ritual, which enables her to predict events of the past, present, and future based on visions seen in an oracular mirror (pratisenadarse), is due only in part to the grace of the guru or presiding acarya. Equally important is the fact that she has not yet experienced sexual union. Pundarika rejects the view that it is the acarya's grace (acaryaprasadah) alone that causes the virgin to be empowered by the deity of the mantra. He suggests, instead, that if the acarya has the ability to empower the girl, he ought to be able to empower himself as well, thus gaining the ability to answer questions as an oracle. But this does not occur, notes Pundarlka: The acarya is not able to generate the visions that produce in himself oracular skill.

However since the democratization in Nepal also more and more adult women, started to establish themselves as mediums. This has become a new and viable wage-earning opportunity for women in certain oppressively patriarchal rural areas of Nepal-not a trivial factor in the general empowerment offered by possession. Nevertheless, in spite of similar dynamics of cultural legitimization, the personal empowerment experienced by New Age trance channelers displays a considerably different texture from that experienced by women and others of lower social rank in developing societies whose possession is a temporary expression of social or political dominance in a general climate of oppression.

Further comparison can be made between New Age trance channeling and spirit mediumship in developing countries. A strong difference however in the case of Nepal for example, lie in the imperatives of need, the synchronicities of oppression, or long-term religious or spiritual commitment, while the former, New Age channeling workshops and even correspondence courses, are a "product" arising from media-based culture (the ready availability of books and videotapes by trance channelers) and widespread prosperity.

This is rapidly changing however, in Taiwan, Oceania, and probably South Asia as well the attendance at oracular and festival possession events today (Dec.2006) are much more a matter of choice than of local tradition. Thus the fact that possession and its incumbent empowerment are the rather "natural" property of the oppressed can now be said to already be disproved, not only in the West that is.

Searching for Ancient Spirits in Asia: Research Report P.2.


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