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Divins remèdes

Ines G. Županov
Caterina Guenzi

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“I Have No One!”. Ritual Healing and Family Relationships in Garhwal

« Je n’ai personne. » Rituel de guérison et rapports familiaux au Garwhal

William Sax


Cet article concerne un culte rituel de guérison dans le district de Chamoli dans l’État d’Uttarakhand en Inde du Nord. Le culte possède deux sortes de spécialistes rituels: des pūchvādī ou oracles, qui diagnostiquent les causes de la maladie et d’autres infortunes pendant qu’ils sont en transe, et des gurus, ou guérisseurs rituels. Le dieu central du culte est Bahairav, dont l’iconographie évoque la tradition Nath des Kanphata Yogis. Le culte est fortement associé aux castes les plus basses, et Bhairav est dépeint comme un protecteur des faibles et un dieu de justice. Souvent, les maladies et d’autres sortes de malheur dont souffrent les gens sont ressentis comme étant infligés par Bhairav qui les fait disparaître quand un culte lui est rendu. Dans bien des cas, il s’en prend à des gens à cause d’un conflit familial interne et le culte encourage clairement les acteurs du conflit à régler leurs différends, particulièrement en engageant une activité rituelle commune envers Bhairav. Dans les chants, les mythes, et les rituels du culte, l’un des vers particulièrement importants est « Je n’ai personne ». Quand le protagoniste prononce cette phrase dans les chants et les récits à Bhairav, le dieu apparaît pour le sauver. Quand le guru chante cette parole pendant sa performance, beaucoup de gens entrent en transe. Pourquoi la phrase est-elle si importante ?
Dans cette étude, je montre que le plus souvent, la guérison d’une personne correspond simultanément au rétablissement des relations sociales. L’énonciation « Je n’ai personne » suggère un dispositif de relations sociales anomique: l’apparence du dieu dans le mythe montre que la personne souffrante a (vraiment) un allié divin, tandis que l’apparence du dieu dans le rituel (à l’intérieur du corps de la personne possédée) présuppose le rétablissement de la salubrité dans les relations sociales.

Texte intégral

The Cult and its Ritual Specialists

  • 1 As told by the guru Satyendra Himalaya ( “Sacchu”).

There once were seven Sauryal brothers from Sauryal Kot. They were from a Dalit caste. The eldest was named Agmall, the second was named Bagmall, and so on to the youngest, who was named Puriya. He was very proud and haughty: he never helped anyone, never namaskaared them, and he didn’t respect his superiors. One day Ravana heard about this, and sent his army of demons, who seized Puriya and brought him to Ravana’s court. Ravana said, “Puriya Sauryal, you are very proud and arrogant, you never help anyone, you never namaskaar anyone, and you don’t respect your superiors!” And Puriya answered, “I’ll never do that for anyone!” So Ravana said, “Bind his wrists with the handcuffs and his feet with the stocks, and lock him in the dharmaśilā! ( “the rock of the law,” a pit covered with a stone and fastened shut). They did so, and for the first time in his life, Puriya began to weep, saying, “Today I have no brother, no family, no god.” He wept so much that Bhairava and his fifty-two Baihyals came, broke the seal of the dharmaśilā, tore open Puriya’s restraints, and freed him.1

1In the late 1990s, I began conducting research on ritual healing in the high-altitude districts of the former Hindu kingdom of Garhwal, now part of the state of Uttarakhand in the Central Himalayas of North India. I soon found out that when people in this region suffer from physical or mental illness, they often seek healing through the intervention of the god Bhairav. Sometimes Bhairav is worshiped in order to give thanks for general good fortune or for a special blessing; but here too, his special favors and blessings often relate to the curing of disease or the elimination of misfortune. I should note at the outset that my definition of “healing” is not narrowly medical but instead rather broad, in keeping with local people’s ideas about the nature of affliction, its causes and cures. Thus by “healing” I mean not only the restoration of physical and mental health but also of prosperity, success, and appropriate family relations.

  • 2 In the North Indian plains, this gesture is sometimes called nachāvar (check spelling) and is used (...)
  • 3 Astrologers in Banaras also perform soil divination. In general, the tendency there is to perform s (...)

2If affliction persists and cannot be cured by normal methods (e.g. medical treatment), then the afflicted person may visit an oracle to determine the cause of his or her problem. The local term for oracle is pūchwārī, which is a kind of pun, because it rhymes with the word pūjārī, or priest. A pūchwārī is however not a priest, but rather a person who is possessed by a god or goddess, and who diagnoses the causes of illness while in trance. In Hindi, the word pūchnā means “to ask”, and a pūch is a question, so a pūchwārī is the one who answers your questions; in short, an oracle. The procedure for consulting an oracle is simple. You take one-and-a-quarter rupees and a handful of rice from your home and circle them over the heads of everyone in your family, including the livestock, so that the rice absorbs their “energy”.2 Then you tie the rice in a handkerchief or a small bag, and take it to the oracle, who “reads” the condition of the family in the grains. You can also bring along a handful of soil from your land, especially if the problem has to do with a property dispute.3 Pūchwārīs are normally visited on a Tuesday or a Saturday, days that are believed to be appropriate for such activities. When your turn comes, you empty the rice and the Rs. 1.25 into the oracle’s thālī or metal platter, and then he or she begins to “play the rice”. This is usually done by tossing it up and down in the thālī as if it were a winnowing pan, or by picking up handfuls of rice and flinging them on to the platter in rapid succession. The rapid, rhythmic movement helps the oracle to fall into trance, which is indicated by changes in voice, posture, and so forth. Then the actual consultation begins: a conversation between the client and a deity, who temporarily inhabits the oracle’s body and speaks with the oracle’s voice, diagnosing the cause of the affliction and proposing a cure, normally a ritual of some kind. An oracle is “chosen” by the god who possesses her, and often experiences a period illness or affliction so long as she resists the god’s call. But eventually she submits to the god’s power, and begins to function as his vehicle. Some oracles achieve considerable renown and earn a respectable income from their activities for a time, but in my experience, the period when an oracle is truly “hot” and attracts large crowds is limited, and their reputations rise and fall dramatically. Oracles’ pronouncements and diagnoses are sometimes vague or even self-contradictory, and one can not always be sure about the authenticity of the trance; therefore afflicted persons normally consult two or three oracles in order to “triangulate” their diagnoses and satisfy themselves that the cause of the problem has been correctly diagnosed.

  • 4 For more on oracles and gurus, see Sax in press, chapter 4.

3The healing ritual is not performed by the oracle, but rather by another ritual specialist, the so-called “guru”. The term “guru” does not mean “spiritual master”, but rather “a master of the spirits”, someone who knows how to control local gods (devtā), demons, and other sources of affliction. The oracle normally suggests to the client which guru he should employ, and this is done according to a “spatial” logic. If the identity of the afflicting deity is known, then the guru responsible for the deity’s shrine must be summoned. Often the client’s family deity is responsible for the affliction, and so the guru of that deity’s shrine is called. If the precise identity of the deity is not known, the oracle will indicate during the seance what sort of guru (high caste or low caste) should be summoned, and leave the choice up to the client. In this case the decision depends on the place where the ritual is to be performed, since particular gurus have the right to perform certain rituals within particular areas. Although an oracle can be a man or a woman, a guru is always male. Both gurus and oracles can be of any caste, although the lower castes predominate. Some gurus inherit their knowledge (and their clients) from their fathers, while others are attracted by the magic and mystery of the profession, and by the opportunity it affords for travel, excitement, and income. Such men become gurus through study, apprenticeship, and initiation. The healing rituals can last up to five days and nights, and they normally include jāgar, long musical sessions in which the gurus sing the gods’ praises to the accompaniment of drums (the huḍakī drum is played by low-caste gurus, while upper-caste gurus drum on an inverted metal pot). During these jāgar, which often last until the early morning hours, afflicted persons as well as hosts and members of the audience are possessed by the gods, who are said to “dance” in their bodies; indeed, the most common colloquial expression for such a ritual is “making the gods dance” (devtā nacānā). Active gurus have a large repertoire of songs and rituals, consisting primarily of exorcisms and the summoning and propitiating of a range of supernatural beings.4

Gods and Demons

  • 5 For more on the Nath tradition, see Vaudeville 1976, Lapoint 1978, Chalier-VIsuvalingam 1996, BRIGG (...)

4The beings responsible for affliction include the chal and chāyā: unnamed, mostly female beings inhabiting the forests, glens, and mountain-tops of the Himalayas, who are especially likely to afflict women while they work in these lonely and dangerous places. The chal and chāyā include Masan, the lord of the burning ground, as well as the Muslim demon Sayyid, riding on a horse and dressed in white, with turban and knife and gleaming white teeth, who begs tobacco from men who are traveling, and must be propitiated within twenty-four hours or else the victim will die. Other prominent local gods include fierce Samin, who appears like a column of fire in the middle of the night and whose gaze means certain death unless the correct rituals are performed; Goril, a deified king from neighboring Kumaon; and many other colorful beings as well. But in Chamoli district the most prominent of such afflicting gods is Bhairav, who has two major forms. In one of these, he appears as Kachya Bhairav, who is strongly associated with the lowest castes and whose description is reminiscent of an Aghori Sadhu (see Sax, in press). In this article, I focus on Bhairav as he appears in the form of a yogi of the Nath Panth. This order of yogis was very influential in North India during the medieval period. It was allegedly founded by the medieval Hindu ascetic Gorakhnath, who is also associated with the Siddha tradition.5 In Chamoli District, some of Bhairav’s mantras explicitly mention Gorakhnath, other mantras and stories make explicit reference to his guru Matsyendranath, and still others mention the names of unknown Nath Yogis who presumably were involved in the founding of the cult. When oracles are possessed by Bhairav, or when they call upon him in trance, they often call out “alak” and “ādeś”, terms that are also associated with the Nath Panth. The adjective alak (from Sanskrit alakṣaṇa, “without characteristics”) is used by Nath Yogis and theologians to designate the formless absolute, while the noun ādeś ( “permission”) is conventionally used by Nath Yogis when requesting permission to join or leave a group of fellow Naths. The oracles’ frequent use of these terms, along with other aspects of the cult, suggests that the Nath order was active at some time in the past in the Central Himalayas (see Chatak 1990: 311), as indeed it was throughout North India. Other items listed in the songs as part of Bhairav’s iconography are usually also found in his shrines as well, and are associated with renunciation, the worship of Shiva generally, and the Nath order of Yogis in particular. Here is one example, recorded live in performance, in which the following items are listed: a staff of Timaru wood (tejmal kā soṭhā); the fire-tongs from “Dhuni Pass” (dhunidhār kā cimṭā); a saffron-colored cloth bag (geruā kī jholī); a trident surmounting an iron pole (daṇḍā triśul); a strip of saffron-colored cloth (pāṭh kā mekhalā); a loincloth of iron (lohā āraband); a lañgoṭī (the cloth that renouncers use to bind their genitals) of stone (śilā kī lañgoṭī); and a stone phāvaḍi (patthar to phāvaḍī). A phāvaḍi is fashioned from iron or tin, in the shape of palm with bent fingers. During rituals, it is heated until it is red-hot and then licked, in order to demonstrate the authenticity of the trance.

  • 6 kūro dilo nād; also called krodhī nād or “furious music”.
  • 7 1. jai gurū jai gurū jai avināsī swāmī
    2. bahumaṇḍal meṃ gurū avināsī ne kyā khyāl rañcāyo?
    3. hor gu (...)

1. Victory to the guru, victory to the guru, victory to the deathless swami
2. What game did the deathless swami play in this world?
3. Other gurus play other music, swami, (but) yours is the music of the Hudaki-drum.
4. Which guru split your ears, which guru shaved your head?
5. Which guru told you the way/told you of the sect?
6. Who will go with you, who will speak with you, my deathless Siddha?
7. The [Timaru] staff will go with you, the fire-tongs will speak.
8. My Siddha Swami, you wear a
mekhalā cloth
9. A
mekhalā cloth, (and you carry) the fire tongs from Dhuni Pass
10 My deathless swami, the
phāvaḍī of stone
11. Swami, you (wear) a
lañgoṭī of stone.

(tune change)

12. Guru-ji plays the cruel-hearted music that makes you weep !6
13. The sound of my drum and the words of my mouth reach your ears
14. Welcome, Baba ! To the great world you created!
15. Welcome, Baba ! To all your continents!
16. Of all the continents, Jambudvipa is the first
17. Welcome, Baba ! To your land of Uttarakhand!
18. Welcome, Baba ! To the Kailas of your mother’s brother (Śiva) !
19. Of whom you are the path-finding disciple!

(tune change)

20. Welcome, Baba ! To the Kob of your Bhairav !
21. In the village of Kob lived Udotu and Sudotu

(tune change)

22. The coppersmiths Udotu and Sudotu lived in the village of Kob
23. Oh God! Their daughter was called “Cheta”
24. And her beautiful daughters were named Umeda and Sumeda…

God of Justice

5Throughout the region, Bhairav is known as a god of justice. He helps the poor and the oppressed when they are abused and exploited by the rich and powerful. His devotees tell of how he saved them from false lawsuits, cruel mothers-in law, and exploitative landlords. His songs describe him as the “mother and father of the orphans”, the “support of the poor”, and a “tree in which little birds can rest”. Above all, he is the “protector of the dhyānī”, the girl who marries and leaves the safety of her paternal home for her husband’s home, where she is the weakest and most vulnerable member of the family. He follows her to her new home and protects her there from abuse and exploitation. These themes are all evident in a song that explains how Bhairav came to Garhwal from Tibet:

  • 8 A dramatization of Mahābhārata. See Sax 2002.

Once upon a time, the high-caste Myurs of Panthi Bagwan were building a temple. Big rocks had to be cut for this temple, and the Myurs said to the low-caste Coppersmiths, “Fetch the rocks, you bastards!” So the Coppersmiths lifted the lighter rocks and brought them, but they left the large rocks behind – they weren’t able to lift them. So the Myurs seized them and beat them, and they kidnapped their beautiful daughters Umeda and Sumeda, and sold them in slavery to the Gurkhas. So the girls’ fathers Udotu and Sudotu went to Tibet to visit their spiritual teacher, a Tibetan lama. They said to him, “Hey mother’s brother, the Myurs have done us a great injustice; they have sold our sisters into slavery, flayed the skin from our backs. We have no one!”
Their story brought tears to the Lama’s eyes, and made a pot, a round red pot. And he filled its belly with forty-two heroes (vīr), fifty-two ghouls (bahiyāl), eighty-four Kalis, sixty-four witches (joginī), and ninety man-lions (narasiṃha). He put all of them in the pot’s belly, and told them to “play their game”. Then he covered the pot and closed its mouth by tying it with a cloth, and said “Lift it, sister’s son: lift this pot.” Udotu tried to lift it but it was very heavy. He couldn’t lift it, and he said, “Guru, I won’t be able to place this pot on my head.” So the guru himself lifted it and put it on the coppersmith’s head. And he said “Go, sister’s son, and take this red pot to the land of Uttarakhand! Take it to the land of your enemies!”
So the coppersmiths went to Tilkhani Bar. They lay down to sleep, but Sudotu heard a buzzing sound inside the pot. He was curious about what was inside, so he lifted the cover a little bit, and out came Bhairav. Now at that time, they were performing a Pandav Lila8 in Dobari Village, and Bhairav took the form of a yogi and reached the village where they were dancing. He said to the villagers, “Give me a nice spot that I can call my own”, but they replied, “Where have you come from, you lazy son of a bitch?” and they beat him and drove him away. He joined his hands in supplication and said, “Give me a bit of land where I can raise buffaloes, goats, a few cows and some oxen.” They said, “Go! Get out! Where the hell have you come from?” So Bhairav took the form of a leopard, and he destroyed all their cows, oxen, sheep, goats and buffaloes. He cursed them (doṣ lagaya), and since that day, the Pandavas have never again danced in Dobari. From there, Bhairav went to Kob Bar where the Myurs lived, and he exterminated them. He took the form of cholera and killed them all. Two corpses were carried to the cremation ground every day, until the Myurs were totally destroyed.

6In many other myths and legends as well, Bhairav’s justice is bloody and violent, and indeed the cult is pervaded by themes of cursing and revenge, black magic and bloody sacrifice. When afflicted persons and their healers speak of their own experiences, their tales often involve great suffering: suicides, orphaned children, and terrible diseases. And when one compares dozens of such stories, it becomes clear that the majority of problems emerge within the family.

Conflict within the Family

7In the following transcript of an oracular consultation, the client was a young Rajput man, about thirty years old. The oracle’s father was also present, and helped to perform the initial rituals invoking the devtā. The oracle immediately established that the problem had to do with the family and not with any particular individual. The client’s family was not prospering, and everyone in it was “restless” and “uncertain”. This was because the family members were afflicted by the family goddess, Kalinka. She, in turn, was upset because, immediately after a collective ritual by the family, someone had worshiped her separately. The session began when the oracle lit incense, offered it to the four directions, went outside and offered it outside at the god’s shrine, then came back in and offered it to the internal shrine. He sat down and began to “play” the rice in his thālī, uttering a mantra that was quite long, but inaudible. He quickly went into a rather violent trance and shouted out,

Oracle : Ades ! Ades ! Be victorious ! Be victorious ! Be victorious ! Be victorious ! (rājī ro, rājī ro, rājī ro, rājī ro!) Oho, look at these rice grains, you’ve brought them from your own place. But these grains haven’t to do with theft; they haven’t to do with valuables; they haven’t to do with land. If what I say is true, then fine – if not, then stop my thālī!

Client: It’s fine! As long as you speak the truth, I will not stop your thālī, but when you don’t tell the facts, then I will.

Father: He doesn’t lie! He doesn’t lie at all!

Oracle: Look, these grains haven’t to do with valuables, they haven’t to do with land. I’m telling you the truth: they are from a particular place, they have to do with a relative! Here I can see it’s about a person: if this is not true, the tell me! You are worried about a person: it has to do with a person

Father: you’re worried about someone.

Client: yes, I am!

Oracle: Look, it’s about a family, about the whole family, but no one is lying on his cot [i.e. no one is terribly ill]. It concerns your family, and that’s why you’ve come to my shrine.

Father: yes! That’s why you’ve come to my shrine!

Oracle: you work hard but you do not prosper. And you are disturbed (cal-bical) – if this isn’t true, then stop my thālī ! I can see here that they are the grains of a family. I don’t lie! you are disturbed, it’s a woman’s matter. You’re disturbed about a woman! you’ve brought these rice grains because you’re disturbed about the whole family! Understand? Look, you’re the eldest in the family, and you’re wondering why your whole family is disturbed. Understand? Ask properly, don’t just say “yes.”

Client: you’re absolutely correct – why should I stop your thālī?

Oracle: you have a doubt, that’s why you’ve come to my shrine. Understand? But it’s not a serious affliction. No one is lying on his cot, no one is suffering from illness (dukh-bimārī). But everyone’s mind is restless (tittra-bittra). And you wonder why. Mother and father are separate, and the whole family is restless. That’s why you’ve brought these grains to my shrine, to do this inquiry (jāñc). But I’m telling you that it’s not the spirit of envy (haṃkār), and it’s no one’s dying curse (jaikār). Have no doubts! Look, you have a shrine! The shrine of your chosen deity, your ancestral chosen deity (pitrakārī iṣṭh). She is the one who leads the way! The goddess Kalinka lives at your shrine (maḍhi)!

Father: you are the one who shows the path!

Oracle: And she has not just afflicted you, she’s afflicted the whole family! She’s there, and you are striving, but you do not prosper. Everyone is suffering, no one is happy. Answer properly: don’t just say, “yes!” Sometimes she seizes the men, sometimes the women. She’s giving problems to someone’s animals. The real troublemaker (tagātā) here is Kalinka. She’s giving you one affliction after another (silsilā rāg). Look! Sometimes she manifests in dreams. Look! She’s in different families. Didn’t you sacrifice the eight animals (aṣṭhabali) to her? Everyone had a different attitude (man) during that sacrifice. Answer properly: don’t just say, “yes”!

Client: Everything is correct. I’ll keep quiet unless you say something wrong.

Father: God is speaking the truth; why should you interrupt?

Oracle: These rice grains show Kalinka’s affliction. If it’s someone else’s affliction, then you needn’t take my name. Answer properly: don’t just say, “yes”! It’s Kalinka’s affliction, but you suspect it’s someone else’s. If I’m wrong, then stop me.

Client: No, no, it’s absolutely true.

Oracle: Oho, look! you have another doubt! you suspect someone else. If it’s not so, then stop me! And look! Kalinka dances first: no one can dance before she does! Understand? “She is the protector whose land it is (tai gī bhūmī vai gī rakṣā).” No one else has the power of Kalinka. You don’t understand: those from outside cannot enter this shrine. But your whole family is disturbed! And it’s Kalinka’s affliction, not just on you, but on everyone! They all have a different opinion, but everyone is afflicted! Sometimes the people, sometimes the animals. But the people have suffered no loss (hānī).

Client: That’s right. The people have suffered no loss.

Oracle: If I’m wrong then stop me. Don’t just say, “yes!” She hasn’t really harmed the people. Look, you’re worshiping separately at this Kalinka’s shrine. And you’re all upset. But I can do better than this, by telling you the correct path. Make the family be of one mind! Make them be like one fist! Make them one, unify them, and then do Kalinka’s ritual!

Father: you do it, yourself!

Client: What?

Father: you worship this Kalinka, separately!

Client: yes, I promised to do pūjā. That’s why I came.

Oracle: yes, the goddess was happy because you were going to worship. But in the meanwhile, in the meanwhile there was some trouble (belām).

Client: Why was there trouble?

Oracle: Kalinka did it, don’t you understand? Because of your family disagreements (man-miṭhāv), someone in the family did a separate pūjā there (secretly). Don’t you understand?

Client: yes, that’s right!

Father: Oho, when someone has given pūjā there, then you should say so!

Client: Someone sacrificed eight animals separately.

Father: That’s what the god is saying!

Oracle: you were absent at that sacrifice! Don’t you understand? Were you present? If so, then stop my thālī!

Father: Speak! What were you saying? Is the god telling the truth, or isn’t he? If you don’t understand, then what can we do?

Oracle: you weren’t at that sacrifice. There’s a woman and a man, and the goddess afflicted the man. She gave him some trouble (ariṣth) in the middle of the night! Did she throw him down from the second floor, or not? The man was there at the sacrifice, but his wife was not.

Father (chuckling): Well done (dhanya ho)!

Client: I’m an ignorant man: tell me the true path!

Oracle: The trouble that came in the middle is from Kalinka! Kalinka! Kalinka! Worship her together, with clear minds, and your problems will be solved! Now go! What do you understand?

Client: I’ll worship Kalinka, but how should I worship her?

Father (chuckling): Right!

Oracle: you have already summoned Kalinka in your mind.

Client: What kind of ritual?

Oracle: Not just a small ritual: you have to do a really big one!

Father: yesss!

Oracle: Did you promise to do a pūjā?

Client: yes. I had no afflictions, no problems, but I offered her a buffalo out of sheer happiness. What happened to this sacrifice?

Oracle: you were single-minded, but your family was not! you are the one who worships her and sings her hymns, and your whole family supports you. She has given you everything, but the others are doing something or other behind your back; they are not obeying you! If that’s not true, then say so! you didn’t have any troubles, no difficulties, no dying curse, no missing valuables – you only wanted to worship her in the correct way. you shouldn’t have done such a small pūjā, you should do a complete eight-animal sacrifice (aṣṭhabali)!

Client: I promised to do pūjā within five years. And next year, the five years will be complete. And I will do her pūjā then. But if my family comes together immediately, I’ll do it right away.

  • 9 See Sax (in press).

8The oracle was insisting that the family harmony had been disturbed by someone doing a private pūjā, perhaps one involving magical aggression. There is a hint here of punishment for this act: the one who performed this pūjā was “thrown from the roof” because he had worshipped the goddess separately from his extended family. I could adduce many more examples from oracular sessions that I have recorded, in which family disunity is found to be at the root of the client’s affliction. Quarrels over land or women result in a conflictual atmosphere within the family; harsh words are spoken, and eventually a moral taboo is breached when someone curses a family member. Family unity is a central value in the local culture :9 to utter a curse against a member of one’s own family is thus a reprehensible act, and one with fearsome consequences. The notion of family unity manifests in the cult as both a ritual principle and a therapeutic principle. As a therapeutic principle, family unity is taken to be the result of a successful healing ritual and a sign of health, while disunity and conflict are often regarded as the symptoms of supernatural affliction. As a ritual principle, family unity is a necessary condition for performing healing rituals, and moreover it is embodied and performed at several points during the rituals.

9In order to see how this works, let us assume that one is performing a healing ritual on the instructions of an oracle. One suspects that one is the victim of a curse, perhaps even that one has been cursed by a family member. How are curses actually uttered? In the paradigmatic form, a person who feels that he or she has been the victim of injustice goes to the shrine of Bhairav, kneels at the pit where bloody sacrifices are performed, and takes a handful of earth, saying “Oh god, if I am in the wrong, then strike me dead, here and now! But if so-and-so is the aggressor, then see to him! Bring him to my shelter!” The idea is that the god should afflict the enemy with disease or misfortune until he or she comes to the victim and begs for forgiveness. The two of them should then perform a joint ritual to appease the god and relieve the suffering of the one who has been cursed. Such is the paradigmatic form, but more often the curse comes in the form of veiled threats during a heated argument: a young bride warns that the god of her natal village is very powerful; a man says that his god will “take care of” the person with whom he is fighting. One of the most experienced gurus I know told me that in most cases, affliction is simply a matter of chance, of bad luck, but when it happens a person remembers a time when a curse was hinted at, or in fact uttered, and begins to suspect that this is the cause of his suffering. This suspicion eats away at him until he consults an oracle, thus setting in motion the process that leads eventually to the performance of a ritual.

Rituals of Healing

  • 10 For more details see Sax (in press).

10The main cult ritual is the establishment or periodic renewal of a shrine for the god, and when this happens, family members are called from near and far. A given family members who have lived elsewhere for years or even decades return home to participate. Funds must be collected, the guru summoned, sacrificial animals purchased, ritual supplies such as lamps and oil and colored powder purchased, rare and more difficult-to-find ritual items collected from the forest or the river, the house cleaned, food and drink prepared, along with a hundred other tasks, large and small. Everyone contributes in a way that is appropriate to his or her gender, age, and position within the family. Family unity is emphasized, strengthened, and created anew in the preparation for, as well as in the performance of, the various sub-rituals involved in the establishment of a shrine. One of the most important of these is the kas pūjā, which is a kind of saṃkalpa or vow performed collectively by the family. In this ritual, family unity is concretely represented when all family members, from the oldest member to the youngest nursing infant, are literally bound together with a rope, after which they participate in a kind of fire sacrifice invoking the god.10 After that, adult male family members go to the boundary of the family land, where an animal sacrifice is performed to appease the god. At the preliminary saṃkalpa as well as during the animal sacrifice at the boundary, the presence of the five witnesses (pañc) is required. They are witness to the fact that the entire family is present and unified, and that it is performing the ritual collectively and cooperatively, thereby demonstrating the unity that is the goal of the ritual in the first place.

11Before, between, and after these formal rituals are jāgar sessions where the gods are invited to possess their human vehicles, dance, and prophesy. The guru plays his huḍakī drum (or he plays an inverted pot if he is of high-caste), accompanied by a thakalyor who drums with two sticks on an inverted metal thālī, and also by a third man (or several men) who echo the final note of each line. By means of music and percussion, the guru builds up an atmosphere of tense expectancy, and if the ritual has been successful then the gods begin to possess their devotees. Here, too, in the ecstatic ritual dancing sessions that are such a colorful part of these rituals, family unity is demonstrated by the order of possession. The first people to be possessed must be the head of the sponsoring family and his wife, followed by their sons (and sometimes their wives). The god is pleased by the sight of the family worshiping together, and he removes the affliction he had caused. The unity that is brought about by the ritual serves to relieve the affliction. An example should help to illustrate how this worked out in a concrete case. It was related to me by the guru Surendra from Gair Sain, and represents something of a paradigm case of how disturbed family relations can lead to cursing and affliction, which continue to reverberate down through the generations until a joint ritual is finally performed.

12This is a story about Village X, which is part of our own sub-district:

There was an old widow there named Bina Devi. She had one son whom she had married with great pomp, and he had a son named Shyam Singh. But one year after Shyam Singh was born, his father died, and so the old woman raised him alone. Her husband had once quarreled with his two brothers over jewelry and land, and they moved out, leaving him with the ancestral land. The old lady had an evil tongue. She didn’t get along with the rest of the family, and that is also part of the reason why they moved out.
But as soon as the two brothers moved out and set up their new home, the old woman’s husband died. And because of the earlier dispute, the two brothers went to Bhairav’s thān (shrine) at Kothyar and laid a curse: “If we have a right to this land, then make him an orphan just like us!” They uttered this curse at Kothyar Bar, and within a year the old woman’s son and his wife died, so that Shyam Singh was indeed left an orphan, and she had to care for him alone. She had a bit of jewelry: a nose ring, a nose stud, a silver necklace weighing nearly 800 grams, silver bangles, etc. All of these were actually the collective property of the brothers.
Shyam Singh grew up, and the old woman started thinking about making arrangements for his wedding. She wanted to get him married before she died. She managed to do so, and the little family of three was functioning well, but six months later, the old woman died. On the day she died, everyone in the village came, except for her husband’s brothers. During the funeral rituals, someone went inside and stole all of her jewelry. A week after they had burned her at the cremation ground they went to her house and searched for it, but they couldn’t find it. She had moved it a month before and put it in a box for safekeeping. They searched everywhere because everyone had an equal claim to it, but they couldn’t find it.
Meanwhile two years had gone by since Shyam Singh had married, but he lived his life like an orphan. The extended family was split up, and his uncles didn’t help him at all. He was in trouble, and he and his wife didn’t have any children, either. People told him he should take his wife to the doctor and he did so, but the doctor said there was no female disease there. It looked as though his line might be finished, and he went to an oracle, who told him about the quarrel and the curse that had destroyed his family. At the same time the matter of the jewelry came to light, and the oracle said that this was in fact the reason why the brothers had gone to Kashi Lal Bhairav’s thān in the first place, and laid a curse that had lasted for three generations. They had said, “This matter will not rest until they have been destroyed down to the last grain!”
Shyam Singh visited several oracles, and the same diagnosis always emerged. He thought, “I’m happy to return their share of the land, but what can I do about the jewelry? It’s been stolen!” But the devtā told them that they would suffer until the three brothers or their descendants had gone to the temple and distributed the property fairly. “Go!” he said. “Take my rice, and you will receive relief within three months! If you do not get relief, then my name isn’t Kashi Lal Bhairav!” So Shyam Singh went home and called his uncles, and together they summoned the devtā and took a vow, and by god’s mercy, his wife became pregnant. Then Shyam Singh called the elders of the village, the ones who knew the whole story, and he pledged his own part of the land in security to purchase jewelry for the others, because the god had said, “you will have to give your jewelry, otherwise how can you satisfy the curse that was laid at my thān?
So they decided to do pūjā together. I was the guru, and there was a big crowd of villagers. First of all we went to their boundary stone and worshiped the curse. They took handfuls of earth to represent the jewelry and land that was kept from the brothers who left home. They pacified Bhairav by joining their hands and paying a fine. Then they went home and arranged for the devtā to dance, and both sides worshiped him with happy hearts, and he said, “Now I am peaceful! All of these matters are from three generations ago, and if you had understood this on that day, then you wouldn’t have had to suffer so much. Now you have no more affliction from me!” He gave them rice grains, and he drank water from both sides, and now, by the grace of god, everything is all right.

13But in those cases where disputes cannot be resolved, or family members are unable or unwilling to worship together, the results are much more dire. This is the realm of black magic and witchcraft, of cursing and counter-cursing, where the god is sent back and forth between both parties, causing illness and affliction on all sides, taking his terrible harvest of human suffering until the parties finally agree to worship together, or are destroyed. These themes are illustrated in another oracular consultation that I recorded, in which the client sent the god to afflict his own brother because of a land dispute. At first he is unwilling to admit to the oracle that he did this, but in the courses of the session it emerges that in fact, he was consulting the oracle to find out why his own ritual aggression had not been successful. On the contrary he himself was afflicted, and his brother had not yet returned the disputed land. The oracle urged him to worship together with his family, until finally he admitted that they couldn’t unite, because they were fighting amongst themselves, and it was in fact he who had cursed his brother! This angered the oracle, who scolded him for cursing within the family, but nevertheless continued to advise him according to his wishes.

  • 11 This is a very important term, referring to the embodied, ghost-like aggression cause by anger, jea (...)
  • 12 Perhaps the client was referring to the fact that he had initiated the ritual agression—or perhaps (...)

Oracle: There are problems in the family
Problems between an elder line and a younger line
There is quarrelling, there is dissatisfaction

ou have moved from an old house to a new one
But still you have no peace.
The same old problems return.

[tosses rice, looks at the grains lying on her hand]

Here is an ahaṃkār,11 and someone has also called on Bhairav
The ahaṃkār is that of a female
A male summoned Bhairav

Client’s wife: Which female?

[Oracle looks at grains and says, ]

Oldest lineage, two women
One alive, one dead
The dead one has ahaṃkār
Now there’s trouble in the whole family
From the dead to the living

Now you’ll have to do pūjā of both
you’ll have to worship the ahaṃkār
And you’ll have to worship the god who was summoned
Can you join together to do pūjā?

Client: yes – but why has the god afflicted us?

Oracle: I already told you:
From animals to people, everyone is affected

Client: But my relationship is different12

Oracle: That may be so, but when you summon the
god, it has effects for nine generations

Client: The one who cursed still lives; why are we suffering?


Oracle: Are you united?
Look, from your name to your wealth
From your tongue to your mouth
From your land to your fields
Animals, land, women, men –
All are affected!
Are you united?
What do you want?

(tosses rice)

Oracle: The elder one who did the ahaṃkār is dead
But the young one is alive
And those with envy are alive
And the one who summoned the god is also alive
“God on the lips, but a knife on the hips”
On the outside all is well
But inside is jealousy

So you must take cow dung in your hands
Bind a rope and go to the shrine
Do the ahaṃkār pūjā secretly
Do the kas and the thān pūjās jointly
It is only a [human] soul that is bothering you, not the god

Client: But why didn’t they give us the field?

Oracle: I’ve already told you that, Wayfarer
From your land to your fields, from your women to your men…
I’ve already told you it’s a fight over land
There’s a fight over an old house
The others built a house and took three hands’ land
And five hands’ land is a cowshed
And one field has caused this envy

Who knows? God knows
I am just a path-teller, so let me tell the path
your problems will be settled in the village council
They didn’t give up the field after the last pūjā, did they?
No – so they’ll hardly give it up willingly
But I’m going to tell you the way
I won’t graze in that field; the other god will
I only tell the way

There are three brothers in the family, and all are afflicted
Are you ready to do ahaṃkār pūjā, separately?
you shouldn’t do it with the person who summoned the god

Client: Actually, we summoned the god!
The one with the ahaṃkār dead

Oracle: Will you cooperate?
No, of course not! Why should they cooperate
when you’re the ones who cursed them?
Would you cooperate with someone who had cursed you?

[My assistant asks, “Who cursed whom?”
The oracle is irritated by his question, and shouts out, ]

He cursed them!
They stole his field, and he cursed them
But they sent the god back
And he’s been troubling them for one-and-a-half years
How will you unite?
(Will you say) “I cursed you, now worship with me”?
The other side sent the god back, they did it very well!

Client: We don’t want to unite, either

Oracle: you’re all equal before the god
No rich or poor, no big or small
you and your enemy are the same to me
And to your god as well
And now you are afflicted by your own ahaṃkār
And by your “summoning” (of the god), too
Trouble for one-and-a-half years
Do you want to send the god back, or unite?

Client: We want to send the god back
How can we unite, when they’re eating our field?

Oracle: The god says from your land to your fields…
Through the guru’s hands you must offer these things: [she recites extremely quickly: ] One rooster seven grains flatbread driftwood sand from a ravine water from seven streams a hearth made from the mud of a place where cows have drunk sixty-four thorns pumpkin giñjar-root red powder yellow powder red cloth chicken. Understand?

Then the god will afflict them for a while
And they will give up the field
And come to you for shelter
Bind up their ahaṃkār in a swampy place
Summon your own ahaṃkār and your god
you have to bind their ahaṃkār
Because they have committed a crime against the land

Do it quickly, it takes one goat and one chicken
An animal sacrifice for Bhairav
And a chicken for the ahaṃkār
The guru will take care of this himself
Hair and nail clippings in the seven grains
Circle them over both people and livestock
Call upon the ahaṃkār
Give five rupees and 25 paise to summon Bhairava

Client: Should we work together?

Oracle (angrily): How can you cooperate?
Why should they cooperate with you
When you are the one who sent the god?
The god belongs to all three households
you call him and he will settle the dispute himself.

“I Have No One!”

14It is clear that the sentence “I have no one” is central to the cult of Bhairav. When Puriya is captured by the forces of Ravana in the story with which I began, he weeps and says, “Today I have no brother, no family, no god”—and this makes the god appear. In the story of Umeda and Sumeda, when the girls’ uncle says, “We have no one,” then the Lama sends Bhairav back with them to wreak a terrible revenge on their oppressors—a cholera epidemic. In the stories that people tell of their own experiences of suffering and injustice, there often comes a moment when they are in their weakest and most helpless state, and this finds expression when they say, “I have no one.” It is at precisely this moment that Bhairav appears to save them. When the Gurus sing Bhairav’s songs during his jāgar, and utter this line, it is a kind of catalyst for the appearance of the god, so that many people become possessed. Men and women rock back and forth in trance, or they leap up from their places and begin to dance wildly in front of the gurus, the women whipping their hair wildly back and forth, some people dancing on their knees in the painfully contorted poses, others dancing the energetic dance of Sayyid or the graceful dance of the goddess. This appearance of the god in the body of a possessed person is the goal of the ritual, its most crucial part, for it signifies that he has accepted his devotees’ offerings and is prepared to remove their afflictions.

15Why is the sentence “I have no one” so important? Why does it lead, in myth and biography as well as in ritual, to the appearance of the god? The preceding sketch of the cult has amply demonstrated that it is usually not an individual patient who is the object of therapy, but the family, whose internal relations have been disturbed. It can plausibly be argued that many of the illnesses for which ritual healing is an effective remedy are caused by stressful relationships within the family, village, or workplace. In such cases, the healing ritual “works” by re-organizing and re-defining these relationships: the object of therapy is not an individual but a larger group (Worsley 1982 : 336) ; not a particular disease or illness episode, but rather the general condition of the social unit (Kendall 1996). Similar observations have been made of shamanic healing (Balzer 1983), of “healing temples” in India (Bhattacharyya 1986 ; Chakrabarti 1984 ; Halliburton 2003 ; Kakar 1982 : 82-85, Skultans 1991), by Dow in his influential theory of “symbolic healing” (1986); by Turner (1967, 1968); and several of my publications (Sax 2004a, 2004b, 2006, 2007, in press).

  • 13 I am thankful to the German Research Council for funding this research.

16The particular salience of the family in the Indian context should come as no surprise, since there seems to be a consensus among students of Indian civilization that the “individual” is of considerably less importance there, both ideologically and empirically, than in the West, tending rather to be submerged in and subordinated to his or her family and caste (Dumont [1966] 1970, Kakar 1978, Marriott 1990). And this is, of course, utterly consistent with the central principle of family unity that I have adduced above. The afflicted person who says, “I have no one” has lost all social support, and this is particularly distressing in a society and culture that lays so much stress on family and caste relationships. It is at this point, at the absolute nadir of personal experience, that the god makes his appearance, showing that the suffering person is no longer alone. Bhairav appears in the myth, suggesting that the afflicted person does indeed have a divine ally who will save him. He appears in the autobiographical accounts of persons who have experienced affliction, lending credence and plausibility to the mythical accounts. Most importantly, he appears in the ritual, before the eyes of its participants, thereby showing that the ritual has been effective. The family is united, the afflicted person is no longer alone, the god has been appeased, and the healing is now complete13.



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Banerjea, A. K. (n.d.), Philosophy of Gorakhnath. Gorakhnath, Uttar Pradesh, Gorakhnath Temple.

Bhattacharyya, D. (1986), Pagalami: Ethnopsychiatric Knowledge in Bengal. Syracuse, NY, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Briggs, G. W. ( [1938] 1973), Guru Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis. Varanasi, Motilal Banarsidass.

Chakrabarti, P. (1984), Social Profile of Tarakeswar: Study of a Pilgrim Town in West Bengal. Calcutta, Klm.

Chalier-Visuvalingam, E. (1996), “Bhairava and the Goddess. Tradition, gender and transgression”, in A. Michaels, C. Vogelsanger & A. Wilke, eds., Wild Godessess in India and Nepal. Bern, Peter Lang, pp. 253-301.

Chatak, Dr. G. (1990), Bharatiya Lok Sanskriti ka Sandarbha: Madhya Himalaya. New Delhi, Taksila Prakasan.

Dow, J. (1986), “Universal aspects of symbolic healing: a theoretical synthesis”, American Anthropologist, 88 (1), pp. 56-69.

Dowman, K. (1985), Masters of Mahamudra : Songs and Histories of the Eighty-Four Buddhist Siddhas. Albany, State University of New York Press.

Dumont, l. ( [1966] 1970), Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. London, Weidenfels & Nicolson (orig. ed. 1966, Paris, Gallimard).

Guenzi, C. & Singh s. (forthcoming) “The smell of soil. Geomantic practices among Banaras astrologers”, in D. Berti & G. Tarabout, eds., Land, Territory and Society in India. Delhi, manohar.

Halliburton, M. (2003), “The importance of a pleasant process of treatment: lessons in healing from South India”, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 27, pp. 161-186.

Kakar, S. (1978), The Inner World: a Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Kakar, S. (1982), Shamans, Mystics and Doctors. Delhi, OUP.

Kendall, L. (1996), “Korean shamans and the spirits of capitalism”, American Anthropologist, 98 (3), pp. 512-527.

Lapoint, E. C. (1978), “The epic of Guga: a North Indian oral tradition”, in S. VATUK, ed., American Studies in the Anthropology of India. New Delhi, Manohar, pp. 281-301.

Marriott, McKim, ed. (1990), India Through Hindu Categories. New Delhi, Sage.

Raheja, G. G. (1988), The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Sax, W. (2004a), “Healing rituals: a critical performative approach”, Anthropology and Medicine, 11 (3), pp. 293-306.

Sax, W. (2004b), “Heilrituale der Dalits im indischen Zentral-Himalaya”, in D. Harth & G. J. Schenk, eds., Ritualdynamik : Kulturübergreifende Studien zur Theorie und Geschichte rituellen Handelns. Heidelberg, Synchron, pp. 363-380.

Sax, W. (2006), “At the borders of morality: rituals of aggression”, in H. Jungaberle, R.Verres & F. DuBois, eds., Rituale erneuern: Ritualdynamik und Grenzerfahrung aus interdisziplinärer Perspektive. Gießen, Psychosozial Verlag, pp. 297-14.

Sax, W. (2007), “Heilen Rituale?”, in A. Michaels, ed., Die neue Kraft der Rituale. Heidelberg, Universitätsverlag Winter, pp. 213-236.

Sax, W. (in press), “God of Justice: Ritual Healing and Social Justice in the Central Himalayas”. New York, OUP.

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Turner, V.W. (1968), The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

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1 As told by the guru Satyendra Himalaya ( “Sacchu”).

2 In the North Indian plains, this gesture is sometimes called nachāvar (check spelling) and is used to collect inauspiciousness or “negatives” and then toss them away (see Raheja 1988). In Banaras, this procedure is called ghumānā (to cause to revolve) or utārnā (to cause to descend).

3 Astrologers in Banaras also perform soil divination. In general, the tendency there is to perform soil divination for poorer people, and astrology for wealthier ones (GUENZI & Singh, forthcoming).

4 For more on oracles and gurus, see Sax in press, chapter 4.

5 For more on the Nath tradition, see Vaudeville 1976, Lapoint 1978, Chalier-VIsuvalingam 1996, BRIGGs 1973 [1938], Banerjea n.d. For the “eighty-four siddhas”, see Dowman 1985. For the relationship between Nath and Siddha traditions, see White 1996, chap. 4, esp. pp. 80-85 and 107-109.

6 kūro dilo nād; also called krodhī nād or “furious music”.

7 1. jai gurū jai gurū jai avināsī swāmī
2. bahumaṇḍal meṃ gurū avināsī ne kyā khyāl rañcāyo?
3. hor gurū kā hor nād bājā tumārā bājā svāmā har sing kā nād
4. kaun gurā ne kān phaḍāyā, kaun gurā ne muṇḍ de muṇḍāyā?
5. kaun gurū ne tumunī panth jo batāyā?
6. kaun saṅgh calegā, kaun bāt bolegā, merā avināsī siddho?
7. lāṭhī saṅgh calegī, cimaṭa bāt bolegā
8. tumārī svāmī siddho pāṭh kī mekhalā
9. pāṭh kī mekhalā, dhunī dhār kī cimaṭā
10. merā avināsī svāmī, ye patthar to dī phāvaḍī svāmī
11. tumunī svāmī o sailā lañgoṭī

(tune changes)

12. guru jī lā bājaili tero kūro dilo nāda
13. ye siddho tumāre kānūṃ māṃ pauḍegī jab nād bed sor
14. ye ādhe saṅghe bolanu bābā, tero kheru khaṇḍ mahāpaṅth
15. ye ādhe saṅghe bolanu bābā, tero meṃ dīpū māṃ dekho dīpū
16. dīpoṃ mā deī ko dīp holo jambudīpe māṃ dīpe
17. ādhe saṅghe bolanu bābā, terā uttarākhaṇd kī bhūmī
18. ye ādhe saṅghe bolanu bābā terā māmū kā kailās
19. jai māmū kā holā tum āgyākārī gaṇ

(tune changes)

20. ādhe… terā bhairoṃ kob bār māg
21. kob bār māg holo jab udotū – sudotū

(tune changes)

22. udotū – sudotū ṭamoṭā raṇ chāyā kob bār māg
23. tanārī holī bhagavān jab cetā made dhyān
24. umedā sumedā holī tanālī lāḍulī dhyān…

8 A dramatization of Mahābhārata. See Sax 2002.

9 See Sax (in press).

10 For more details see Sax (in press).

11 This is a very important term, referring to the embodied, ghost-like aggression cause by anger, jealousy, and the like. Interestingly, the literal meaning of the term is "egoism".

12 Perhaps the client was referring to the fact that he had initiated the ritual agression—or perhaps to the fact that he had separated from his family and no longer lived with them.

13 I am thankful to the German Research Council for funding this research.


Anthropologist, Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology at the South Asian Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany, his research focuses on affliction amongst the lowest castes in the Central Himalayan region of North India. This involves research into various forms of black magic, exorcism, and sorcery, as well as medical anthropology, notions of selfhood, the body, gender, and caste.

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