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Seduction, Sexuality and the Art of Sinhalese Exorcism

“Thread the frog as though you love him”
Isaac Walton The Compleat Angler

Bruce Kapferer
Centre For Advanced Studies
Hebrew University

The Devil seduces and through his seduction he subverts human balance, determination and the whole
divine order of things. He is the arch spoiler. The Devil as the lord of seduction is a creature born of
Jewish and especially elaborated in Christian traditions. But the tie between the Devil or the demonic
and seduction is not the imaginative construct of Jewish and Christian traditions alone. Other religious
traditions achieve something similar if often more ambiguous, both engaging the demonic and the
seductions with which the demonic is so often associated to tempt or test human beings and driving out
the passions and subversions of the demonic from worlds of human involvement. The Devil or the
demonic is often an instrument of the Divine, Authority and Truth. Thus the role of the Devil or the
demonic in the Book of Job, in the Temptations of Christ, or the attempts of the demonic hordes of
Mara, the Harbinger of Death, to turn the Buddha away from his Path to Enlightenment.

Myths about demons told among Sinhala Buddhists frequently end with the demons promising to help
the Buddha in sustaining his authority. In Buddhist Sri Lanka what may be generally recognized as
seductive forces permeate the multiple realities of existence. They are both destructive and generative
forces. While seductive potencies are associated with the demonic, seduction is integral in bringing
about their fall and establishing the cosmic scheme of things conditional of human well being. The
gods of course for Buddhist Sinhalese - and widely in Asian societies - are beings of seduction and
themselves open to being seduced. Overall, the cosmology of existence, especially as played through in
myth and ritual, composes a sensual and sensuous totality, indeed seductive forces are constitutively
unifying and harmonizing, if extremely fragile.

This is thoroughly evident in Sinhalese demon exorcisms or yaktovil. Their practice defines the
dimensions of the dynamics of seduction that I address here. Broadly, and with reference to the context
of Sinhalese exorcisms, I understand seduction as a thoroughgoing dynamic of attraction and
distraction that is destabilizing and subversive. Seduction breaks up structures of determination and
those energies that otherwise appear essential and foundational in human being, intervening within
their processes and, in exorcism, permitting the release of those caught in the cycle of their closure.

Human existence is of course grounded in the body that is further rooted in its sexual and reproductive
being. The problematic of Sinhala exorcism (and a critical focus in Buddhist practice) is to break the
determinations, destructions and suffering connected with such realization. In accordance with this
aim, exorcism rites are concerned to open out those confined to the determinations of their own bodily
closure and to extend them regeneratively to the worlds of their existence. In other words, exorcisms
break a cycle of negation in which the processes of the body are engaged to its own destruction -
effectively feeds on itself - and, furthermore, enable a transcendence of the needs and limitations of
embodied existence.

The capacity of exorcism to have such consequence and, especially, the critical potency of its seductive
dynamics, is most evident in rites that explicitly address the problematics of sexuality and reproduction.
In such contexts we are not dealing with disembodied metaphors and symbols but with the
fundamental carnality of existence and with the determinant processes of reproduction, that are also the
source of the negation as well as re-creation of the body. Here the potency of seduction is demonstrated
as a force that can intervene within the reductive determinations of the body. This receives heightened
expression in rites explicitly directed to the sexual and reproductive body where, through the powers of
seduction, human beings become no more mere prisoners of the body: that is, given to inescapable
biological processes in relation to which the psychological and social being of human being are mere
secondary phenomena. Rather, human beings are able, momentarily at least, to become integral to a
weave that is freed, through the harmonies of seduction, of any necessary determinations or apparent
incontrovertible contradictions and negations. In seduction human beings become the masters of
realities which are their own creation and turn the tables, for a while, on the inexorabilities of existence.

I open the discussion through a consideration of some of the myths and events of a ritual, known as
the ratayakkuma. The ratayakkuma is but one among many rites that centre on women and their bodily
processes. Most Sinhala girls pass through special rites of first menstruation (kilimangale). There are
rites of childbirth, and others for the illnesses of nursing children (kiriamma, see Gombrich 1976,
Obeyesekere 1984). Many features of these rites are condensed within the ratayakkuma, an elaborate
nightlong exorcism that in my view involves, of all such rites, the most extensive and intensive attention
to the existential problematics of the female body as a body of sexuality, of reproductive regeneration,
and of nurturance. The rite is performed to overcome menstrual disorders, barrenness, the fears and
dangers of childbirth and the illness of still nursing children or children still highly dependent on their
mothers (Wirz 1954, Kapferer 1983). In the conceptions of Sinhala exorcists nursing or still dependent
children remain tied to their mother’s bodies - in effect, are still in the process of gestation - and thus,
their illnesses must be addressed through the mother’s body with whom their illness is thoroughly
integrated. In other words, a child’s illness is part of the encompassing disorder of the mother.

The ratayakkuma is held under the primacy of a demon known as Kalu Kumara or the Black Prince.
The myths surrounding this demon, and other manifestations of him, are relevant to the import of the
rite, although it is crucial to my perspective that the meaning or significance of the stories is emergent
through such rites as the ratayakkuma and is not so easily divined independently of their ritual context.

Myths of Sexuality and Seduction

There is a complex of myths recounting events in the life of Kalu Kumara or different manifestations of
him and, too, of his main female consorts, the seven barren queens (known collectively under the name
of the dominant form, Riddi Bisava or the Cloth Queen). Many of the key events of the ratayakkuma
centre on the story of the Cloth Queen and the focal ritual edifice is that of the `palace’ of Riddi Bisava
and her ‘daughters’. I will come to Riddi Bisava later. Let me start with Kalu Kumara and other
critical aspects or manifestations of him.

The most common myth of Kalu Kumara has him born to a woman from the washer caste in the king’s
court at Anuradhapura. The king’s Queen is barren and the washerwoman becomes the king’s
mistress, her son being adopted by the king. The boy is adopted following an amazing feat whereby he
is able to wield the king’s staff of authority (danda) which, because it was so heavy, could not be carried
by anyone but the king. Indeed, the boy is so strong that he sets it upside down, indicative, of course,
of what the boy forebodes - his ability to invert or subvert the powerful scheme of things. Eventually,
he becomes the commander of the king’s army and with the staff of the king’s power folds back the
waters that separate Lanka from India. Thus, he is able to lead his army across dry land into India.
His aim is to carry out the compassionate aim of the king which is to free 20 thousand Sinhala captives
of the Pandyan king in India. The prince achieves his mission but while in India he hears of a city of
women (Istripura). Seduced by the news, the prince enters the city and there women immediately
surround him. Each wanted the young man for herself and in their eagerness, tear him limb from limb.
At once he is reborn as Kalu Yaka (Black Demon) and in revenge for his death relentlessly pursues
women, lusting after them and devouring their young children.

Another myth of Kalu Yaka (alias Kalu Kumara) tells that he is the son of King Vijaya, the founding
Sinhala king, and of Queen Kuveni, the sorcery princess of Lanka’s original inhabitants who assists
Vijaya in the conquest of the island. Their son, Jivahatta, is a terrible seducer and sexually obsessed.
He pursues young women sleeping with them at cemeteries. Vijaya exiles him to India and there
Jivahatta discovers the city of women. Here, he is forced to sleep with the women until he dies from
sexual exhaustion whereupon he is reborn as Kalu Yaka.

Overall, Kalu Yaka is the reduced and thoroughly sexually obsessed and determined form of Kalu
Kumara. Kalu Kumara, described as a manifestation of Vishnu, is the encompassing and erotic and
sensual form of Kalu Yaka. Kalu Kumara is the erotic and seductive body - in one sense, the very
eroticism of power or the seductive energy of the erotic - which gives rise to the destructive force of
rampant sexuality in the form of Kalu Yaka. With Kalu Yaka all seduction is lost and regenerative
potency exhausted. Kalu Kumara emerging as Kalu Yaka is like the famous seducers of European
traditions: Casanova or Don Juan without the smooth talk. A direction of the ratayakkuma is to restore
Kalu Kumara to his erotic whole form, to recompose him out of his destructive annihilating and
annihilated Kalu Yaka reduction.

The myths I have recounted are open to manifold interpretations. They express a Buddhist morality,
the ultimate annihilating destructiveness of obsessive Desire and Lust. Some scholars may see them as
the construction of male fantasies concerning the all-consuming capacity of the female sexual appetite. It
is certainly possible to understand the stories as demonstrating the power of female sexuality to
overcome male potency: Kalu Yaka as the revenge of a male sexual energy that has been exhausted and
extinguished by the female. The story resonates with a male fear apparent, for example, in the stories of
Kali and the devouring vagina dentata - well-known in Sinhala Buddhist traditions. Kalu Yaka
manifests a sense of masculine hatred of the female discovered by psychoanalysis in the adventures of
Casanova and Don Juan with whom Kalu Yaka (Kalu Kumara), at some imaginative stretch, might be
compared. These interpretations and many more are potentials of the myths.

However, the great fan of potentiality achieves sharper focus in the context of Sinhalese interpretations -
exorcists and laity - and in the rituals directed to Kalu Kumara (Kalu Yaka). It is important that all
women, regardless of their illness are conceived of by exorcists to be in some way or another caught in
the gaze of Kalu Kumara and he will be given offerings to remove his affect. Kalu Kumara, therefore,
is an enduring potential of their situation as women. Popular understandings, often male but shared
by women, recognize this in the tautological and self-evident ways of common-sense knowledge. Thus,
exorcists and laity say that Kalu Kumara attacks women, and only women, because they are women,
frequently adding that this is given to them in the sexual and reproductive circumstance of their
bodies. Some say it is because they are of the earth (babalat) and lower in the human scheme of things.
All this has implicit notions that women are highly determined in their being and ‘naturally’ subject to
suffering as women. Thus, the common view that woman wish to be reborn as men so that they can
reduce their suffering in the next life and advance further along the Path to Buddhist Enlightenment.

The opinion that women are naturally given to specific suffering is to be found world-wide, although
there are numerous cultural variations on the theme. This observation gave support to a structuralist
thesis in anthropology concerning the generally recorded culturally constructed phenomenon of the
social and political superiority of men over women: thus, Male: Culture::Female:Nature (see Ortner,
1974; Ortner and Whitehead, 1981). Such a theory has been discredited largely because of its western
and apparent masculinist bias. Major difficulties with its perpetration include its over-contrastive,
oppositional logic and its implicit reductionism, despite the structuralist effort to escape such
reductionism. The approach over situates the forces conditioning women in the bodies and life
circumstance of women per se and under-emphasises, for example, the no less determining and body-
given male forces that are integral to the suffering of women. In Sinhala cosmology, as elsewhere, the
nastiest demons are male and, in the Kalu Kumara myths, it is the sexual power of the male that is vital
in female suffering. Indeed, within such a cosmology both men and women are fundamentally
determined in their ‘nature’ and both are oriented to overcome such determination.

Ritual Discourses: Sexual and Reproductive Annihilation

The principal foci of the Kalu Kumara myths, his ritual practices and the attitudes and interpretations
regarding his female victims, are the relation between sexuality and reproduction both in the restricted
biological sense and in their larger import for social generation generation. The overarching disorder
that Kalu Kumara’s attack indicates is the realization of the potentiality of the destructive relation of
sexuality and reproduction. This is the encompassing problematic highlighted by Kalu Kumara. It is
the dominant sign of his most elaborate rite, the ratayakkuma: a clay model of Kalu Kumara is placed
beside the victim throughout the rite. This shows the demon with two women at his side cradling
headless children, the heads gripped in the demon’s teeth that have bitten them off.

Sexuality against reproduction, each in mutual contradiction, in violent negation, is implicated in every
particular instance of the attack of Kalu Kumara-becoming-Kalu Yaka. This is so both in the reduced
biological, physically embodied sense, and in the larger social, ultimately cosmological, relational
scheme of things. The negation at the root of existence becomes the destructive force of the social and
cosmic totality.

The force of sexuality against reproduction (and vice versa) is finally annihilating of the body itself.
The body, as reproductive and regenerative is consumed in its own sexual energy turned against itself
and in the division or fragmentation of the body in birth and in the associated risks of gestation.
Similarly, reproduction attacks the sexual body displacing or disrupting that sexuality that may
endanger gestation and reproduction.

The bodily annihilating and potentially socially and cosmically destroying potencies unleashed in the
contradiction of sexuality and reproduction is wonderfully presented in a closing dramatic event of the
ratayakkuma, where Death (Maruva) is born. An exorcist in the guise of Death bursts through a small
doorway (explicitly referred to as a vagina) into the performance arena. Death (Maruva) leaps from a
“box”, built in the shape of a funerary palanquin - mala darahawa. Exorcists explicitly associate this
with the box into which fell the foetus from the rent womb of Queen Sankapala. She is the Queen of
the Licchavi kingdom of Visalamahanuwara who was executed for the crime of adultery that she did
not commit. Activated by the Sun’s rays the foetus transmutes into the vengeful Disease-spreading
demon, Maha Kola Sanniya, whose vital form is Maru Sanniya or Maruva - Death. In the myth, this
demon wreaks a dreadful vengeance on his mother’s city reducing all life in Visalamahanuwara into a
putrid ruin whose destruction is only halted by the intervention of the Buddha (see Obeyesekere 1969,
Kapferer 1983).

The dreadful consequences of the contradiction of sexuality and reproduction that are projected in the
major rite for Kalu Kumara indicate the dangers of simplistic reductions, whether they be of a
biological, psychological, and sociological kind, when interpreting attacks that are recognized under the
sign of Kalu Kumara. Any particular instance of his attack projects the greater potential which,
depending on the victim and the circumstances surrounding the victim, subtends a collection of
difficulties many, of which elude explicit verbalization. Thus, the power of ritual which reaches beyond
the limits of language.

Sinhalese, men especially, of course, understand Kalu Kumara’s attack on young post-pubescent girls
or older unmarried women or widows or deserted or separated wives as indicating a condition of
intensified sexual need and, moreover, a blocked and psychologically and sociologically inhibited
sexuality. Repression, in other words (see Obeyesekere 1981: 164). Exorcists explore the dreams of
victims for evidence of the intense sexual-longing that they may experience. Images suggestive of the
eroticism of Kalu Kumara - particularly in his Cupid-like aspect of Madana Yaka - are symptoms of
the seduction of female victims. The dangers are much greater than mere repression. Under the sign of
Kalu Kumara such experience indicates that the sexual and reproductive body has been transgressed
(quite literally, in fact, for some villagers understand the women involved to have actually engaged in
sexual intercourse). The victim is in a condition beyond the bounds of moral control and her sexuality
has become a force antagonistic to the circumstances of biological and social reproduction.
Furthermore, the sexual body turns self-destructively against itself and victims are considered to be
intensely and life-threateningly ill: love-sickness absolutely. It might be wondered if the term repression
is entirely appropriate.

In the instances of barren, pregnant, or nursing women repression is hardly the central issue.
Barrenness is conceived, in the context of Kalu Kumara, as explicitly sexuality in destructive alignment
against reproductive possibility: the womb as a death space particularly in the circumstance of
threatened or persistent miscarriages. The instrument of this sexuality is as much male as female -
which the figure of Kalu Kumara again signs. Especially late in pregnancy, sexual relations are usually
suspended - reproduction against sexuality. The theme is apparent in post-partum contexts. This is a
liminal situation in which women are sometimes loath to resume sexual intimacy, especially in the
immediate circumstances of the physical memory of the pain of childbirth. Sinhala cultural conceptions
recognize a danger of early resumption of sexual relations for nursing children and it is a female fear
that not resuming sexual relations may risk the stability of the marriage and a male fury - perfectly
consistent with the image of Kalu Kumara-becoming-Kalu Yaka.

The destructive conjunction of sexuality and reproduction takes a radically alienating form: the
transmutation of an erotic unity, albeit highly ambiguous - Kalu Kumara - into a raw intrusive force,
disruptive in the very womb of being - Kalu Yaka.

The popular meaning of the ratayakkuma is the exorcism for the foreign country demon. This is
appropriate to the mythic understanding of Kalu Kumara’s Indian transmutation into Kalu Yaka. But
the popular interpretation - both by exorcists and laity - is that this refers to the sexual intrusion into
the female body and its impregnation. Most often stressed is that it refers to the foetus in the womb.
Kalu Yaka’s attack, or potential attack, marks the alienating quality of this, a sense of conception and
gestation as a disturbance of the integrity of the female body. This is commented upon by Sinhala
women and is an experience they share with women elsewhere.

The film Rosemary’s Baby, describes pregnancy in a similar manner making, too, the explicit reference
to alien demonic potentiality. Contemporary reports in the USA of alien visits that often seem to involve
gynaecological, reproductive invasions have resonance with Sinhalese experience.

A major sequence of mimed comic acts in the ratayakkuma, performed in the early morning, draw out
further ritually recognized implications in the attack of Kalu Kumara/Kalu Yaka. These relate to
Riddi Bisava, the Cloth Queen, and her seven daughters or princesses. They are the female associates
of Kalu Kumara and it is their ritual building (vidiya) to which the victim is oriented throughout the
night and from out of which flows much of the ritual action. The main myth I heard tells of Riddi
Bisava’s extraordinarily lust-inflaming powers, her barrenness, and her attempt to win a boon from
Dipankara Buddha (the first Buddha), the capacity to bear a child. She weaves a new cloth as a gift
for Buddha. She is granted her desire, on condition that she and her daughters (of which she is the
collective representation) stop afflicting women with barrenness and other female complaints in return
for the gifts they receive.

The comedy is preceded by dances where exorcists dressed as Riddi or the Seven Princesses present the
heat of their lust-inflaming passions. They brush their bodies with the fire of the torches, a key act
being the lifting of their ‘bodices’ and rubbing the burning torches against their ‘breasts’. An extended
comic mime follows. Riddi Bisava sits on a mat before a person who represents Dipamkara Buddha
(usually someone drawn from the audience and made into a buffoon, a butt of much of the fun). Here
Riddi ‘plants’, ‘grows’, and ‘spins’ the cotton and then weaves it into a cloth. Throughout the process
Riddi obscenely taunts ‘Dipamkara’, for example, comparing the cotton ‘spindle’ to a tiny penis, the
cotton ball to shrivelled testicles. There is great mirth when Riddi presents the gift of the cloth to
Dipamkara, it is filthy and has an enormous hole in the centre. Quite explicitly these events elaborate
the excessive seductive sexuality of
Riddi: her antagonism to virtuous chastity and her contradiction, subversion, of the values that she
presents on the surface. There is comic play on her spinning virgin (pure) threads (kanya nul), central
in exorcism and other purificatory ritual). The cloth, of course, is not simply impure. It is not a whole
cloth. In other words, it is a broken virginity, and, too, the dangerous and polluting force of the very
childbirth that Riddi so urgently desires.

The comedy addresses what Buddhism recognizes as the aporia of existence but indicates playfully that
even a Buddhist transcendence of existence cannot escape life’s contradictions (for paradoxically
Buddhist transcendence must involve a removal from life) and, indeed, has deathly associations sharing
an identity with the demonic. Sinhala villagers consider it an ill foreboding to encounter a Buddhist
monk first thing in the morning. Much Sinhala humour, similar to that in Western Christian
traditions, pokes fun at the sexuality of monks, elaborating suspicions of their homosexuality and their
liaisons with women despite their high ascetic ideals. Riddi treats Dipamkara as a dried up sexuality, a
barren figure like Riddi, with the difference that his is born of sexual incapacity rather than sexual

The final events are the bathing and washing of Riddi’s baby. She evokes gusts of laughter from the
audience at her mimed acts of cleaning all her baby’s crevices, turning up her nose at the ‘stink’,
quickly ‘powdering’ it away. Riddi nurses her child but grimaces in agony as her baby bites her
nipple. Pleasure becomes pain (and vice versa) - themes highlighted through mime (and integral within
the dynamic of the whole rite) and creative of its fun. The events close with Riddi presenting her baby
to the patient and agreeing to remove the afflictions she has caused.

The ratayakkuma works within a field of male and female stereotypes and their anxieties. The
performance of Riddi Bisava’s seductive sexuality, of course, plays with male characterizations of
women - their obsession with appearance, tantrums and other emotional displays. Much of the fun is in
the disruption of Riddi Bisava’s erotic appearance, constructed in the events of her toilette. Her
cosmetic is destroyed as she cares for and feeds her baby. All this evokes the greatest delight from the
women present.

It would be easy to see performances such as these as affirming male attitudes and male dominance but
most of the point would be missed. The comedy is thoroughly committed to the construction of
stereotypes. This is perhaps, the force of mime for deprived of speech it elaborates the power of gesture -
a language of signs par excellence, communication by and through stereotypical production. The play
of stereotypes is all the more in the case of men acting women, as in the events of Riddi Bisava. The
comedy creates stereotypes in order to explode them. Not, I must add, on the basis of any contemporary
or nascent interests in gender and sexual equality but rather to highlight contradictions that can come
to lie at the heart of women’s existential suffering and of those, both men and women, who surround
them. Further, the aim of the comedy is to subvert dangerous oppositions and, moreover, to bring them
into a harmonic and generative unity.

The comedy, as a vital element of all major exorcism performances, is critical to the objective of
exorcisms, the ratayakkuma included, as engaged in a re-equilibrating of the body humours (blood/bile,
wind, phlegm). Thrown out of balance by demonic attack, their oppositional dynamics (they are
conceived as having become antagonistic to each other) is manifest in the disruptions of mind and
body. The major episodes of exorcism comedy usually follow after the major demonic intrusions have
been withdrawn and are directed to soothing the mental confusions, fears etc. that may remain.
Systematic with these aims is the dominant energy and theme of all major exorcisms, powerful
throughout their performances, of the interplay and integrative unity of male and female forces. This is
expressed in the dress of exorcists - which combines male and female ornament and articles of clothing
and in the masculine and feminine gesture of performance. To be described as neither transvestism nor
transexuality nor androgyny, the modality and style of exorcist performance composes an erotic,
dynamic and generative unity. This eroticism is not reducible to a combination of female and male
elements. In a sense, it is a formation that is a ritual re-approaching of that original unity, recounted
in the Sinhala myths of cosmic origination, an erotic and seductive unity, from out of which male and
female difference emerged. The eroticism of performance might be said to refuse the separation of the
male and the female while recognizing the immanence of their emergent opposition and the consequent
tensions. Such eroticism achieves intense import in the ratayakkuma because of the problematics it

The attack of Kalu Kumara is a failure of erotic unity through the very dynamics of eroticism and
seduction. I note that victims and demon are mutually erotic and seductive. But rather than achieving
an integrative unity, a mimetic union, they are mutually disintegrative and transmuting. In effect they
give rise to what is immanent within them which breaks their particular erotic unity. Thus Kalu
Kumara becomes Kalu Yaka who manifests the inner and outer destructiveness of sexuality, its
realization of opposing and fragmenting forces and their determining energy. The ratayakkuma is an
engagement and reassertion of the dynamics of erotic coherence in an effort to overcome the negativity of
forces that are immanent within the erotic and that are potentially and finally the determining condition
of embodied existence. But the erotic and the seductive are not merely implicitly sexual in character -
even though the sexual body is the source of their major metaphors and symbols. In important ways the
erotic and the seductive extend beyond the sexual body and may even, paradoxically deny or
subordinate it. Indeed, it is the refusal of the explicitly sexual that is the very play and tension of the
erotic and of the seductive.

The Ritual Dynamics of Seduction
I shall now concentrate more on the erotic and seductive dynamics of exorcism ritual, both to expand an
understanding of their general role in Sinhala exorcism and their significance for the analysis of ritual
in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, especially the aesthetic structures of ritual performance. All exorcisms
describe erotic domains of seduction. They are thoroughgoing exercises in seductive arts, a technology of
erotic display and seduction. Working within the existential planes of illusion (maya), within the
formational appearances of phenomenal reality, the erotics and seduction of exorcism aesthetics traverses
emergent lines of contradiction and opposition, subverting all that which may impede the emergence of
encompassing harmonies and unities.

Demons are highly vulnerable to seduction and this defines their stupidity and their ultimate location
at the base of the cosmic hierarchy. They are trapped by their own desires and are extinguished or
overcome in their submission to them. As Kierkegaard (and Baudrillard [1990] who follows him) writes,
the seducer wins his control over his victims by presenting them with what they want and then, through
such artifice, deflecting their attention enabling the seducer to strike. The process of the seducer’s
artifice involves winning the complicity of his victim, making the victim party to the seduction,
ultimately ‘demanding’ to be seduced. Thus the technique of the Western exemplars of the art of sexual
seduction - Casanova, Don Juan, Cyrano De Bergerac. The great Indian manual of sexual seduction,
the Kamasutra, explores most thoroughly the deployment of similar tactics.

In exorcism, demons are presented with everything that they desire and which draws them into what is
the seductive trap of the rite. They are not hard to seduce, for demons are already party to their own
seduction. Their overweening desire for things human makes them vulnerable. The aduras (exorcists)
heap praise upon them, offer them a feast of the kinds of foods they crave - even the delights of human
flesh (which the Buddha has denied them), lure their gaze with valuables, and delight them with
poetry, music and dance. But exorcisms do not merely work on mere natural desire.

The poetry, music and dance have alluring force in themselves, a power that works virtually
independently of the determinations or necessity of desire. While the demons want material and
tangible things - food, sex, and wealth -, that are instrumental to their seduction, they are not seduced
by such things alone. Much of the force of an exorcism is in the sheer artifice of seduction itself.
Demons do not merely succumb to their natural desire, they have desire created in them through the
exorcist’s art.

The seduction of the demons might be compared with the hunt, the hunter is an arch seducer who does
not depend on the given wants of the prey but creates desire in the prey. The fly fisher succeeds through
a dancing of feather and colour, a virtual bait, a simulacrum, on the water’s surface. Natural desire
succumbs to illusion or else the fly fisher’s sport is a thorough enlivening of a desire that has no
necessity. The salmon on its way to spawn has no desire for food, it is not determined by hungry need,
and yet the mystery is that it rises to the fisherman’s seductive lure.
Ethnography is full of examples of the hunter’s magic as a necessary integral and seductive part of the
hunter’s technical skill. The magic makes the victim want the ‘bait’. Exorcists are quite explicit about
the relation of their art to hunting. Towards the end of most night-long exorcisms, at the time when
demons are about to be finally driven away, the `hunter demon’ (vadi sanniya) makes his appearance.
Vadi sanniya strikes his ‘prey’ with an arrow, an object symbolically parallel with the exorcist’s arrow
or igaha, the magical wand by which exorcists effectively strike demons and withdraw their illnesses
from their victims.

Exorcists are seductive hunters of the demonic who deflect demons from their destructive course towards
their victims. They also may be seen to deflect victims of demonic attack from their own determination of
self-destruction. Aduras recognize an identity between demons and victims, something that is
dramatically expressed in exorcisms in events of exorcist possession and occasionally by the
entrancement of their patients. Demon and victim are in closing mimetic relation so that the possession
is the thoroughgoing fusion of identities that allows for no difference. Exorcism intervenes in this
dynamic, deflecting demons and their victims from their collision course. Aduras by means of the
simulacra of their art divert the mutual attraction of demons and their victims. Exorcists direct demons
towards other objects that will become the agents of their destruction. Simultaneously for victims, other
possibilities of existence are created through which they can reobjectify themselves and their realities
and, thereby, regain their life.
My emphasis on exorcism as a dynamic of seduction draws (deflects?) attention to critical features of the
rites that other forms of analysis might obscure.

I (Kapferer 1983 [1991]) have previously approached Sinhala exorcism in terms of an argument that
turns on the logic of hierarchy and a structure of progressive transformation along a vertical plane.
This requires some outlining in order to grasp the significance here of my discussion of demon rites as
practices of seduction.

Logics of Contradiction

My initial approach to Sinhala exorcism was in many ways a structuralist modification of Victor
Turner’s processual approach to rite developed from Van Gennep’s discussion of Life Crisis rituals,
those of birth, initiation, marriage and death. Adapting Terence Turner’s (1974) reformulation of these
analyses, I treated the sequence of events in exorcism as describing a hierarchical logic. That is, the
apparent horizontal or linear progress of transition and transformation in the rites followed a vertical
logic in which lower orders of structure gave away progressively to higher and more encompassing and
ordering levels of structure. This seemed appropriate to what I see as the hierarchical structure of the
relevant Sinhala Buddhist cosmology. In this cosmology, the demonic relates to destructive forces
within the very ground of being and existence. This is systematically transcended in the formation of
gods and in the highest protective and ordering gods (the Guardian Deities of Sinhala Buddhists). The
whole hierarchy, its order and its process, is conditioned in the ultimate authority of the Buddha and
his Path and Teaching. The perspective I developed, especially to this cosmology, was influenced
further by the insights contained in Louis Dumont’s (1980) holistic approach to Hindu religious
ideology. However, in my position his principle of complementary opposition has no role and neither
does his overarching contrast between the pure and the impure. I viewed Dumont’s position, at least in
the Sri Lanka context, as static and I pursued a more dynamic perspective on hierarchy although I did
not wish to detract from what I still regard as Dumont’s major contribution.

I stress that my notion of the Sinhala cosmos (and in agreement with most characterizations of Hindu
and Buddhist conceptions) is of one in continual process. That is, one of constant formation,
deformation and reformation. This is so because of the hierarchical principle whereby lower forms are
restructured into higher forms - the demonic is reformed into the divine. However, this dynamic is not
stable and deities can and do break down into demonic possibilities. Deities do not completely
transcend the demonic, rather they include or incorporate different organizations of similar elements.
Thus deities can decompose or fragment into lower aspects of themselves as they can be reconstituted
into more encompassing and ordering forms. Such a dynamic is involved in the structuring of relations
within different categories of beings (deities and gods) and between the categories. Thus within the
category of demon, Kalu Yaka is a more destructive even less ordered organization of being than Kalu
Kumara who is his transform. Similarly, the high ordering deities incorporate lower demonic
possibilities of themselves and can thus break down into furious and destructive forms - all of which is
a dimension of their respective overall potency. Many deities, in Sinhala conception, manifest as
demons, although demons and deities are generally understood as separate categories of existence.
Exorcists, for instance, argue that Kalu Kumara and Madana Yaka - beings clearly in the demon or
yakka category - are forms of Vishnu.

Ritual in Sri Lanka whether major religious festivals (such as the annual festival in Kandy or that at
the pilgrimage site of God Kataragama in the Eastern Province) or village or domestic rites address the
hierarchical cosmic processes I have outlined. In many ways these rites can be viewed as human
interventions within hierarchical cosmic processes both drawing on their potencies and oriented to
securing their overall ordering and beneficial outcome. For example, exorcisms engage a hierarchical
logic whereby demons are progressively replaced in their subordinated position and, furthermore,
removed from the victim’s body and located at the margins of human social space. Basically, exorcisms
reverse the inversion of hierarchical processes that have occurred. In instances of demonic attack, not
only do individual human bodies threaten to be incorporated within the demonic (one sense of the
cannibalistic, human-devouring character of demons that is expressed in myth and rite) but also the
various created and higher orders of existence - including the social orders of human beings and of
deities - risk a danger of being sucked down into the destructive, self-annihilating realities of the
demonic. Exorcisms address the communities of the victim whose attack by demons signs a personal
collapsing and self-consuming process of the victim, but, too, indicates a threat to the fragile fabric of
the surrounding social world and also of fragmenting forces within it that may have produced the
victim’s demonic condition.

Now this dynamic can be appropriated within a Hegelian kind of dialectic of oppositions and
contradictions (subject and object, self and other, demon and deity) reaching through various syntheses
culminating in an ultimate unity. Exorcism explored through the hierarchical cosmological process I
have outlined is built around contradictory forces and their synthetic overcoming. Demons, by
attacking humans, challenge the hierarchical order and, in fact, the ultimate synthetic or cohering and
ordering force of the Buddha. Most of the demon myths in the Sinhala traditions place demons in
opposition to the Buddha who finally brings them into order. Effectively, the appearance of the
demonic in the situations of victims activates, through the demonic challenge, the energies of hierarchy
and the progressive reformation of the cosmic whole within which demons and human victims are
reconstituted and find their place. Overall, this may be taken as a demonstration of a Hegelian
argument in which the Whole (the ultimate unity effected through the Buddha ideal) determines the
direction of the formation or reformation of the Parts encompassed by the Whole.

Dumont acknowledges the importance of this Hegelian orientation in his own work on hierarchy. It is
clearly influential on Victor Turner and in a different way upon Terence Turner’s reformulation, which
is a more orthodox Hegelian position. Whether self-confessed or not, a Hegelian, or implicit
Hegelianism, is powerful in many of the most significant and frequently conflicting philosophical and
analytical perspectives (Marxism vis-a-vis phenomenology) in the Western social and psychological
sciences. This is because Hegel’s orientation is already implicated in the historical discourses
formational within the development of Western and largely Christian and Jewish traditions. Hegel was
anticipated in prior historical formations, achieving his particular realization through the historical
forces of the time as these centred on his context. What Hegel produced is not reducible to the past in a
historicist sense and his formulation is, nonetheless, original. Dumont makes such an observation,
indicating that Hegel’s orientation was a holism at the cusp of the emergence of Western Europe into
modernity: Hegel’s holism, in Dumont’s argument, incorporating some aspects of the emerging
individualism of the Enlightenment and the gathering secularism with its stress on the dominance of
political and economic forces. Regardless or not of the accuracy of Dumont’s thesis, it is powerful in his
view that Hegel has relevance for the understanding of ‘traditional’ societies beyond Northern Europe
and especially in India. In other words, Hegel’s holism and identification of the nature of its
hierarchical transformational process is, with important reservations, expandable to other contexts.

I must make one critical insistence in this brief presentation of Dumont’s perspective, in particular.
Dumont is not interested in applying Hegel - for he sees in Hegel and other European philosophers a
distorting Eurocentricism which limits the value of their anthropology- although Dumont recognizes
insights in Hegel of potentially wider application. Moreover, in his understanding of Hegel and other
major Western thinkers Dumont is concerned to treat them relativistically, as examples of Western
historical transitions into modernity whose application outside a Western context must be done with
considerable care and can never be total. His is a critical archaeology of Western hegemonic theorizing,
not too distant from the early Foucault, which does not oppose East to West in the orientalist fashion of
which Dumont is often accused (for he sees overlaps), emphasising the differences (as well as similarities)
emerging under diverse historical circumstances.

While, in exorcism, there is a structural logic of movement through the progressive synthesis of
contradictions motivated at every stage by its direction to the Whole (the Buddha) there is no implicit
governing or realizable ultimate unity in a Hegelian sense. Buddhist ideology, at least in the context of
Sinhala exorcism, is paradoxical even ironic on this score. There is no ultimate synthesis. The only
solution is to escape existence, the source of all suffering, through the extinction of self, of being and

Exorcism (and most ritual among Sinhala Buddhists) is directed to the problematics of existence in
which suffering (duka) is inescapable. Exorcism does not hold out the hope of a lasting `cure’ or
solution to problems. It is never a final solution and the normal expectation is that although the
immediate problems at hand may be alleviated they or something like them will reappear. Exorcism is
more alleviative than curing. It is concerned with reopening patients to the generative possibilities of
life, as in the ratayakkuma, turning them back towards the horizons of life (and its ultimate release, the
Buddha’s Path) and away from death (the demonic) and the intense agonies of suffering.

The hierarchical (almost Hegelian but not Hegelian) dynamics and transformational logic of exorcism is
crucial to overcoming destructive demonic forces. However, these can never be eradicated. They are there
at the birth of existence itself (expressed in the birth of death episode of the ratayakkuma and in the
very attraction of the demonic to pregnant women). The restructuration of hierarchical order in
exorcism practice is a procedure for controlling demons and taming them of their ruinous potencies.
But this process is fraught with irresolute difficulty, for contradictions of existence cannot be overcome.
The means defeats the ends in the sense that the means engages the very logic (of contradiction) whose
object it is to overcome. The creation of a hierarchical order necessitates the inclusion of forces that will
topple it: thus, exorcism as seduction.

Seduction is a ritual tactic that avoids contradictions and oppositions. The seducer plays to create non-
threatening and non-oppositional reality in which the seducer and the seduced appear to be mutually
committed. Any hint of confrontation or deception loses the quarry. The seducer must disguise ‘true’
intent and, perhaps, best of all have no intent other than the seduction in itself - like Cyrano de
Bergerac who delights in the play of his seductive art (and, whose tragedy is that he denies his own love
in his seduction of Roxane for another).

Harmony, the enjoyment and happiness of mutuality, unity - all these, I suggest, are at the forefront of
the seducer’s art and promised from the very start. As long as seduction is in play there is harmony or a
constant movement towards its attainment through a discourse of harmony. In seduction, the means is
the end. The breaking of its harmony occurs when the seductive activity finishes through a breaking
off of its play or the emergence of another intent or reality in the course of the seduction.

Let there be no doubt about it that Sinhala exorcism (and much ritual in Sri Lanka) is par excellence a
practice of seduction. This is completely in keeping with the ideals of generative union, which are
explicit in exorcism. Tantric traditions have been highly influential upon Buddhism in Sri Lanka
and especially in exorcism. Tantric processes are critical in the mythology and performance of the great
rite of anti-sorcery, the Suniyama (see Kapferer 1997), which exorcists regard as their master rite, the
ritual at the root of all their practice. The Suniyama has many features of ancient rites of royal
consecration and the symbolism of kingship and state is heavy within it. The key myths of the rite are
of the origin of the state, its collapse, and its re-origination. The original state is expressed as a
harmonic unity of king and queen and they delight in mutually seductive erotic sport. Their harmony,
their love play is interrupted, by the king’s direction to expand his power and the queen falls victim to
the great sorcerer or World Poisoner whose lust is aroused by the queen’s beauty. He in fact seduces her
for he assumes the beautiful form of the king. His ruse (mayama) is broken but, alas, too late, for in an
ejaculatory burst he enters her womb (indeed, rapes her) and the state is destroyed from within. The
harmony of the state is restored only by the reunification of king and queen through the dynamic of
what might be described as a great ritual seduction. The queen, the victim, is quite literally seduced
back within the royal bedchamber of state - the lustful relation of sorcerer and queen is broken - and
king and queen once more indulge in their love play, the harmony of the state. Aduras (exorcists) say,
and this accords with tantra, that the king does not climax (unlike the sorcerer) but with his queen
maintains their love game of mutual seductive interpenetration and thereby the harmonic unity of the
state is sustained. Although, other exorcisms do not have such an explicit state theme, the harmonic
play of male and female union, of the masculine and the feminine is paramount throughout ritual

As my reference to the Suniyama anti-sorcery rite suggests the discourse of seduction in exorcism may be
interpreted as a counter-discourse to that of a logic of hierarchy and synthetic unity achieved through
progressive contradiction. Western postmodernists and deconstructionists might be tempted to pursue
such a course. This is the direction of Baudrillard’s (1990) discussion of seduction whose wonderful
insights gave me much to ponder for this analysis but which, in the context of Sinhala exorcism, would
miss their complementarity.

Exorcism ritual is a play both of surfaces and depths. The “deep structure”, of the hierarchical cosmic
order conditional of lived harmonies - realities freed, at least momentarily, from demonic disruption - is
achieved via the seduction of exorcism. This is a reversionary dynamic which deflects or diverts the
determination of the demonic which, attracted to human realities, even seduced by them, has broken
free from hierarchical restraint - the power of the cosmic order - and has subverted the fragile scheme of
things and its delicate balance. The seductive play of surfaces works against demons distracting them
and their victims from their own closure and determinations. Moreover the seductions of the ritual
creates space for the recreation of the cosmic order of things avoiding the paradoxes integral to its own
synthesizing progress. Demons are seduced into the realm of a cosmic ordering that unbeknown to them
is being rebuilt and within which they will be controlled, subordinated and once more excluded from
the life space of human beings.

It might be noted here that a double seduction is being undertaken in exorcism, a counter-erotic erotic
play. When I state that a cosmic reordering is being rebuilt unbeknown to demons I refer to the
simultaneous process in exorcism rites of drawing the gods - who control and subordinate the demonic
- into the ritual context. They too are seduced, enticed by the ritual practices and by means of the
offering of foods and other gifts, which includes the magnificence of the ritual spectacle, are made
present in the rite. The exorcists take great care to keep the gifts that are given to the gods separate from
those given to the demons. Their logic is that should the demons take gifts meant for the gods then the
gods, insulted, will not lend their powers to demonic control and the cure of the victim. But an
additional observation may be made. In accordance with the play and tactics of the seductive practice of
the rite, contradictions are avoided and prevented from being made apparent. The demons are blithely
unaware, as it were, of the destructive energies that are made co-present with them until the moments
when the traps can be sprung.

Ritual, Erotic Synthesis, and the Human Determination of Determination

Through ritual, human beings attempt to break the hold of forces that appear to be conditional and
determinant of human existence. They attempt to command the direction and terms of their own life
chances and even against forces that are impossibly but vitally integral to their human being. In the
myths and rites I have discussed there is both a powerful recognition, on the one hand, of what may be
regarded as the natural forces governing the continuities and discontinuities of human existence and,
on the other hand, a knowledge of their production and exacerbation through the particular ways
human beings are positioned in their psychological and sociological realities. In the work of exorcism
there is a strong realization of natural and humanly constructed forces that assume a non-necessary
destructive contradiction and negation of human potencies or potential. The demonic in the Sinhala
context might be described as the emergence of natural and constructed energies into a determining
shape that has no immediate necessity. The demonic is itself determined and limited and exorcism
practice intervenes to overcome the non-necessary determination of destructive demonic contradictions
and negations by drawing demons within an encompassing hierarchy. This not only subjects the
demons to determination but also prevents the oppositions they express from coming into play. The
whole process could be seen as repressive but the intention of exorcism is, rather, the reverse: to re-
extend, to reopen human beings to the horizons of existence and to release them from the self-confined
closure of a demonic grip.

Exorcism acts against determinations of all kinds. It is a liberating practice. In numerous ways it is
non-normative. Paradoxically, however, it must engage forces of contradiction and negation that are
located in the divine hierarchy to such a purpose. Although the gods, of course, in their motion and
play are, unlike demons, relatively free and can break the chains of limitation. Here should be noted
the highly erotic dimensions of the gods themselves, which in my argument expresses their striving
towards a non-determinant harmonic and transcendent unity, one ultimately freed from contradiction.
It is such erotic potency that is engaged to exorcism. This ritual practice exemplifies the erotic and the
seductive as anti deterministic, as overcoming of apparently incontrovertible forces. Exorcism amplifies
such potencies. Exorcism is par excellence a technology of the erotic and of the seductive that manifests
its potency not through contradiction or confrontation (a paradox of power) but through the arts of
creative deflection distraction and deception. This in my view expands an understanding of the
immense importance of aesthetic form not just in exorcism but perhaps in ritual practice more generally.

My concentration on ritual and myths of sexuality and reproduction highlights the intimate connection
between the erotic and the inexorable circumstances of existence - with generative and productive
ground, as it were. But this also defines the character of the erotic and the seductive to defy, defer or
delay such apparently essential forces of the body and, moreover, to convert them into processes over
which human beings can demonstrate their mastery. If the erotic and the seductive is about sex it is
also and absolutely not about it - the dimension of the erotic that, of course, conditions its tension.

One last point. A theme that runs through my discussion is the refusal of myth and rite of reductive
argument of whatever source. Their capacity to engage all manners of human possibility and to open
out to an understanding of human processes that can transcend their particular historical or cultural
context. What I stress is the power of ritual practices to constantly open out to a comprehension of the
humanly conditioned and created forces to which human beings submit themselves. I argue for an
approach to myth and to ritual which attempts to remain internal to the structures of their practice and
which - in the quest for the human understanding of human being - is prepared to learn from the
problematics they recognize and the practical resolutions they attempt.