Jacket Image: Collette Caillat and Ravi Kumar, Jain Cosmology, Harmony Books, 1981.
Frederick M. Smith
Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Until the 1970’s it was acceptable literary practice to employ terms such as “person,” “self,” and “experience,” unquestioningly in academic discourse.
Since then, however, these and other related terms have come under close critical scrutiny. The word “consciousness,” for example, is used in contemporary Anglophone culture in ways never imagined, for instance, in classical India -
indeed, I have identified more than thirty different words and terms in one Sanskrit text alone, the Bhagavata Purana, that have been variously translated with this juggernaut significator of contemporary culture.
These words and terms have distinct meanings with distinct, if partially overlapping, semantic fields. This confers specificity to each word and term that is not conveyed through the blanket translation “consciousness.” Thus, because of the abuse, confusion, and ambiguity of this word revealed in contemporary discursive practice, I have avoided it whenever possible.
For those of us who have little choice but to read the bulk of our practice texts as translations from Sanskrit, the care taken by individuals of the highest integrity to fit us with adequate tools to parse our studies is precious, a resource far too often in short supply. Where the generosity of this education does not exist, the conversation is perhaps comfortably hermetic for the participants, while it is inescapably shaded by manipulation and credulity for those who stand outside it hoping to know more.
Frederick Smith’s The Self Possessed is a scholarly work, and I am not a scholar. That hasn’t kept me from littering the seven hundred pages of his study of Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization with my little bits of flags and pencilled notes. That’s due in no small part to his patience and fluid erudition.
It’s also because in an area of inexhaustible mystery, Smith’s study is, as he says, a “perilously intimate one;” I was in constant good company as I read.
The writing of this volume took me by surprise. I never envisaged it as part of my “research program” until it began to form a life of its own [and] began to exact unreasonable demands on my resources, including time, place, and modes of thought.
On the whole I would have preferred to be in India translating Sanskrit and examining manuscripts, rather than working on a project like this that imposed on me a new and very different set of intellectual, psychic, and even physical demands.
Beyond upper case “S”, lower case “s”
What is a self? How is it related to a body and how vulnerable is it to influence, theft or destruction? More than an existential dilemma, as a practitioner of yoga these are questions that interest me deeply, and I strongly resist surrendering them to oversimplification or theoretical abstractions.
There are arts and sciences that bear upon the topic of self – sometimes usefully and other times in a manner that obscures the personal and irrevocable experience of the questions. Neuroscience, psychology, even biography and political science churn out wisdom and remedies of the self that offer potential diversion and compelling detail. Reading in these areas sparks my imagination with an always temporary optimism about our intelligence of the self.
In the literature of spirituality, the questions are dodged by regulated deployment of lower case and capitalized nouns and/or Sanskrit where a persistent question might reveal the inconsistencies of conflated and collapsed contemporary versions of “tradition.”
Hence Smith’s extraordinary and thorough examination of possession in South Asia, from devotional to medical texts, and in beliefs, practices, and discourse on the subject of possession offers an interrogation of self that is a gift, and a nourishment. The Self Possessed is at last a serious engagement of cultural attitudes toward embodiment and its relationship to a non embodied reality, benevolent or malign, ultimate or merely not human.
As such, The Self Possessed is a cautionary tale against the easy formulations of import yoga, and a vivid theatre of the interactions of gods and men.
What the evidence here reveals, moreover, is that the embodied self in possession states “on the ground” in Sanskrit texts only vaguely resembles the normative self of Indian analytical thought as presented in Samkhya, Vedanta, Buddhism, and Ayurveda. More generally, the ubiquitousness of possession states in South Asia calls into question the very notion of personal identity.
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 corporeality, Frits Staal points out that, on the contrary, embodiment is highly valued, at least to practitioners of yoga, where “physical exercises are not ascetic mortifications [but] are conceived of as ‘perfections’ (siddhi).”
Indeed, what is sought after through development of the body “is ‘altered states’ but not ‘of consciousness’ (as in contemporary Western adaptations), but of the body.” 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 very different from the description in [the] Bhagavad Gita…
A tour of possession
The Self Possessed’s table of contents conveys the sweep of material Smith has incorporated.
Part I Orthodoxies, Madness and Methods offers an account of “Academic and Brahmanical Orthodoxies,” that prepares a context of complexity before proceeding to a review of the paradigms commonly invoked in discussions of possession, including a section on shamanism.
There follows nearly 200 pages of a review of states of possession in Classical literature, from the Vedas and Upanisads to Sanskrit fiction (including “Vampires, Prostitutes and Poets” and “Devotion as Possession”). A concluding section on Possession as a Healing Modality opens with an absorbing chapter on “Possession in Tantra: Constructed Bodies and Empowerment.”
No matter how often the reader moves ahead to a tempting chapter in the capacious volume of The Self Possessed, Smith’s anchoring of uncountable detail lures one back to proceeding sequentially through the book. Its scope pushes other pursuits aside, and for awhile each time I picked it up I forgot I had other things to do. I found I didn’t want to miss anything.
Smith has written a book that educated me in how to read it, even if I lacked the formidable training that would have granted me access to the wealth of texts he cites. I was at all times encouraged by his personal curiosity, and his own faithfulness.
As the title of the book suggests, I find myself attempting to reconcile in this project the self, possessed, with a presentable veneer of self-possession. In this way, the final product has also become a meditation on embodiment and incarnation, gain and loss, transformation and transition, and tradition and imagination -
It was, upon reflection, inspired by the constant, elusive, and very personal conundrum of embodiment, by a sense of the very irreducible strangeness of life, by the shock of an eternally mutating present and presence… which is to say by the trauma and bewilderment of continuity when we seek resolution and termination.
If my selection of material appears planned but extravagant, the reason is that the planning came to life as a learning process, like perfecting a raga…
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.