This Ph.D. thesis focusses on possession rituals among the Gaddi of Himachal Pradesh (Northern India), a semi-nomadic agropastoral people usually classified as a Scheduled Tribe by Indian social scientists. For this purpose, I attended a number of possession rituals some of which are of a mediumnic, mystical type, others implying exorcism or healing. I paid special attention to personal experience of possession of religious specialists or healers and those whose have been victims of malevolent spirits possession or a spell.
In order to gain a better understanding of the subjective experience of possession, I interviewed about twenty religious specialists, mediums or exorcists who shared their narratives, a part of their life history and their personal ideas regarding cosmology and Hindu ideology. The Gaddi people believe that divinities, demons and spirits malevolent or beneficent- are closely bound to their daily life. These entities intervene directly in the human sphere, provoking drought, death, personal and familial curses or suffering; yet on the other hand they may bring wealth, abundance, healing and happiness. In a word, the gods as the Gaddi conceive of them are vectors of stability and instability, order and disorder. Through certain social institutions they can even intervene in someone’s spiritual growth and transcendence, leading to a state of ecstasy and mystical exaltation and to the reconstruction of one's self and one's social role. This is locally regarded as a state of samādhi, an intense concentration, ritually corresponding with the embodiment of a divinity in the devotee’s body and soul. In any case, Gaddi men and women feel as they are dependant upon the will of the divinities and spirits that inhabit the Land of Siva as their land, situated in the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh (Northern India).
I observed among the Gaddis two kinds of institutions involving possession: mediumnic and exorcistic possession. I was able to observe, as many authors have before me, that possession rituals are a space where the discourse is highly charged emotionally. The possessed person is far from being a simple passive actor, playing an age-old and long-established ritual. On the contrary, he or she plays an active role and his or her distinctive style and charisma are acknowledged by the other devotees who also intensely engaged in the ritual. By channeling an important part of the emotions that have been accumulated in individuals, the personal experience of possession embrace a social dimension, binding it to the objective structure of the ritual. I would say that the acute sensibility of the possessed person and his or her own historical and social embeddedness favor the role of the possessed as the ultimate representative and mouthpiece of a group, caste, or gender.
I conceive of possession phenomena as a mode of expression that operates when personal or social tensions have come to a critical level, a level at which a situation may result in serious breakdown and disruption. Possession may preserve a vulnerable and uncertain social order from chaos and may contain uncertainty and insecurity through a symbolic and ritualistic mode of expression by means of sharing a common semantic and interpretive model. Such a model, reflecting the categories of the culture, may be articulated to personal experience so that every possession phenomenon operates as a re-creation of meaning instead of being strictly regarded as repetitive, mimetic, static and presented as a remnant of ancient and archaic religionswhich it may be in some aspects, but going much farther than this would represent. Possession creates a reflexive space that brings persons to reconstruct a sense of self as it allows village collectivities to strengthen fragile identities or to reinforce broken or disrupted social links. As suggested in the title Spirit possession among the Gaddi of Dhaulãdhãr (Himachal Pradesh, India): Spirituality, healing, society, there are also three important aspects of possession which arose from my analysis of the narrative material and which I describe and discuss in this thesis.
Keywords: anthropology, spirit possession, healing rituals, mystical experience, narratives.