Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
The Anthropology of Buddhism & Hinduism: Weberian Themes
by David N. Gellner, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001, IC Rs. 645, 397 pages.
Reviewed by Shannon B. Pettit

Spirit possession, witches, mediums, and healers in the local culture are subjects about which many cross-cultural workers have a shadowy, incomplete understanding. It may be an area of cultural and linguistic weakness for many who are otherwise competent in communicating cross-culturally. David N. Gellner, an anthropologist who did fieldwork in Patan, includes in this book three of his papers on these subjects.

This review will first briefly describe chapters nine and ten, "Portrait of a Tantric Healer," and, "Lay Perspectives on Health and Misfortune in the Kathmandu Valley." Most of the review is dedicated to chapter eight, "Priests, Healers, Mediums, and Witches: The Context of Possession in the Kathmandu Valley." This is the most complex of the topics and perhaps the most relevant to this issue of VOB, although all three chapters are important reading for anyone seriously attempting to understand this aspect of Nepaliís lives.

Chapter 9, "Portrait of a Tantric Healer," is an entertaining paper about a Kirtipur healer, Jitananda Joshi. Joshi is specifically jharphuke vaidya. It describes the South Indian training Joshi underwent to become a healer. It also contains a lively narrative description of the daily life observed in his office. Facts are laid out in a chart, giving statistics of the castes who visited Joshi, the complaints brought, and the remedy given.

It is a good example of Gellnerís approach to anthropology: To do meticulous research, to organize the information thoroughly, but to resist the western propensity for ramming the results into an easy albeit inaccurate theory. In fact, in this paper, as the title suggests, Gellner does not offer a conclusion but merely paints a picture. I was especially amused by his "disclaimer" at the beginning of the interpretation of the data, that because of ". . . the pace at which things occur in the consulting room, the banter and noise which accompany them, and the fact that two languages, Nepali and Newari, are used side by side . . . means that no foreigner, however well they may feel they have learnt the local languages, is capable of following every nuance, of grasping what is happening in every detail." (p. 228). Gellner, an established authority on Newars, makes an eloquent statement describing the lack of fluency keenly felt by almost anyone who earnestly attempts to decipher another culture.

Chapter 10, "Lay Perspectives on Health and Misfortune in the Kathmandu Valley" is not only readable but also relevant to those who seek to understand the eclectic approach to healthcare found in South Asia. Gellner describes all the different types of healthcare available in Kathmandu, from biomedicine to herbal remedies, from ritual to healing cults and possession. He gives specific examples from lives of informants. He then gives a good, understandable description of the attitudes of Nepalis towards the array of healthcare options, including spiritual aspects, once again without oversimplifying the situation.

Chapter 8, "Priests, Healers, Mediums, and Witches: The Context of Possession in the Kathmandu Valley," is primarily about the process by which "possessed" individuals in the valley seek to establish themselves either as healers or mediums. Because of the predominance of women among witches and mediums, Gellner deals with womenís issues in this chapter. He also theorizes that the increase in the numbers of mediums in the valley is one aspect of the democratization of Nepali culture.

In his introduction, Gellner explains the spectrum of possession as described by a respected sociological specialist in spirit possession, I.M. Lewis. The spectrum ranges from peripheral to central possession. Peripheral possession is opposed to established religion, involves possession by amoral spirits (witches and demons), and rarely happens to high-status men. At the other extreme, central possession is reserved for people of high status and is part of the organized religion.

Then Gellner gives a basic description of the local context, in which he points out that Nepali shamans, or jhankri, are to be distinguished as a different phenomenon than mediums, dyah waimha, in Newar culture. Jhankri are believed to go to the possessing spirit, but the god is believed to come to the dyah waimha, which means "one to whom god comes" (p. 200). Among Newars, Gellner says jhankri are not of great importance as they are to the Tamang community. Rather, he goes on to describe the "specialists in misfortune," among Newars, which include healers and mediums. Mediums, he says, are mainly possessed by Hariti, the goddess of smallpox, and they often deal with the same kinds of problems as healers but they cannot mae use of astrology or Ayurvedic medicine. Witches are believed to harm, attack or possess people, causing problems. Anyone who causes harm to others by magical means is considered a bwaksi (fem.) or bwaksa (masc.) (p. 206). Gellner includes specific examples by his informants describing the way witchcraft is used and interpreted by Newars. He says that, "While educated Nepalese often deny any validity to mediums, they are usually firmly convinced of the existence of witches" (p. 205). However, unlike in Africa, "Öno one ever confesses to being a witch" (p. 207).

The next section, about the central/peripheral spectrum, describes the perceptions of Newars of priests, healers, mediums, and witches. There is a narrative description and a spatial representation, on a graph, of how someone moves from being attacked or possessed by a witch to being willingly possessed by a dyah, god, in a more socially acceptable, profitable way as a medium, dyah waimha. Issues of public and private possession are discussed. Finally, he describes how mediums may even start a cult of followers, and thereby move significantly towards the central possession end of the spectrum. At this point Gellner also goes into some of the relevant issues concerning womenís social status and beliefs about women among Newars.

Gellner theorizes that the spread of mediums, reported by Nepalis, coincides with the coming of democracy in the 1950ís. Gellner explains that Nepalis think of democracy, prajatantra, as having come in the 1950ís, not in 1990. He argues that since that time, mediums, particularly women, have gained a way of establishing their religious legitimacy with possession. Before the fifties, he says, this legitimatising of religious authority through possession was limited to traditionally mandated possessions such as male priests in secret rites or certain castesí rights to be possessed during festivals. In conclusion, Gellner says the medium role has emerged in a situation where men were priests and women were witches, as a way of women moving towards a more central and acceptable spiritual role, enabled by cultural and political changes that have occurred since 1951. However, he believes that stereotypes of gender and social lowness are actually being confirmed in spite of the changes because the changes do not call into question the hierarchy of caste or gender.

This conclusion, that mediums are the beneficiaries of democracy, seems a valid one. On the other hand, Gellner does not give statistics on the number of mediums before and after democracy. Rather, his conclusions are based on the impressions of Nepali informants, and as such could be questioned as not well documented. One might ask if Gellner is uncharacteristically building a theory on unverified data because it fits into his preferred Weberian framework of history, conflict, ideology, domination, and change. However, it is not likely he would have included this section if he did not have some certainty about the increase of mediums since democracy. It was surprising to learn that there is an impression among Nepalis that mediums have not traditionally been an important aspect of Newar society, but have become much more prevalent since democracy.

These three chapters are priority reading for anyone who needs to improve their understanding of Nepalis, whether socially, economically, or spiritually. Gellnerís work is occasionally too dry or theoretical for anyone but a social scientist to wade through, but these chapters are not difficult reading; they are compelling and relevant. Some readers may wonder what the work of a secular sociologist, describing the beliefs of non-Christians or "pagans," has to teach them. These three papers in Gellnerís book feed cross-cultural workers raw data, painstakingly prepared theories, and food for thought about reality as it is perceived by Nepalis. By digesting Gellnerís work, our own cohesive belief system, Christianity, can be fortified and energized for our labors.

Shannon B. Pettit earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in cultural anthropology and religion of non-western cultures from Furman University. She has lived and worked in South Asia for 4 years.


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