A Nepalese Shamanism and the Classic Inner Asian Tradition Author(s): John T.

Hitchcock Source: History of Religions, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Nov., 1967), pp. 149-158 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1061768 Accessed: 26/05/2009 14:31
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John T. Hitchcock



Although shamanism is a widespread phenomenon, the locus classicus is Central and North Asia, a result both of its dramatic nature, reported in detail by Russian ethnographers, and of its religious centrality in such an immense area.1 For non-Russian scholars, the opportunity to study the shamanism of Central and North Asia disappeared, or was severely curtailed, following World War I and, in subsequent years, the religion has been much affected by policies of the Soviet state.2 In Tibet, there have been no studies of shamanism comparable to those made further to the north and, even if Tibet soon were to be opened to international scholarly research, it is doubtful that shamanism would be found to have survived there in its earlier form. The result of contemporary political developments, in sum, has been to remove Inner Asian shamanism as a subject for field investigation, except for a few scholars with proper national credentials, and to change it markedly or in some places perhaps even to eliminate it. If a version of this religion were viable and socially important today in a region
This paper is based on fieldwork carried out in Nepal in 1960-62 and supported by the National Science Foundation. I am grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc., for providing support during the time the paper was written. 1 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1963), p. 4. 2 Henry N. Michael (ed.), Studies in Siberian Shamanism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press). 149

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accessible to international scholarship, it would be a fact of significance. With this possibility in mind, it is worth raising the question of whether or not a type of shamanism found in Nepal resembles the type that existed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Central and North Asia. Inner Asian shamanism is a complex religious phenomenon, and during the long course of its history it has picked up many elements and dropped others. In his analysis of the religion, Eliade describes various patterns he refers to as "classic shamanism,"3 with "great shamans"4 or "masters"5 as its practitioners. The various local manifestations of Inner Asian shamanism, those that appear in the ethnographic descriptions, always were to some degree decadent either in the sense that various elements of the classic pattern were absent or in the sense that extraneous elements were present. Classic shamanism thus is a construct, though one also held by various Inner Asian peoples who believed it existed in the past and was exemplified by practitioners they sometimes referred to as "old shamans."6 Whether the religion in this pure form actually ever was realized is a question that need not concern us. Its utility as an analytical tool remains unaffected. The classic practitioner performed within a tradition of belief in the migratory soul and, having induced a trance by means of magico-religious music, he released his soul to journey up to the sky or down to the underworld. While his soul traveled in the other world, he would enact its adventures, miming dramatically its encounters with good and evil spirits. Such flights enabled him to divine the future, either because he traveled in a world where the future was open to his soul's eye or because the soul could use clairvoyant spirits as informants. In his trance, he also conducted souls of the dead to the afterworld or souls of sacrificed animals to the spirit for whom they were intended. It was his technique of magic flight, moreover, that enabled the old shaman to perform one of his primary functions, that of healing. Since some illnesses were a result of the soul's straying away from the body or being stolen, it was the shaman who could effect a cure; for once having ascertained the whereabouts of the lost soul during his seance, he could brave the perils of the other world to bring it back. Psychopompism of this kind and soul journeys to the heavens and the underworld are amply documented throughout Inner Asia.7
3 Eliade, op. cit., p. 256. 4 Ibid., p. 227. 5 Ibid., p. 228. 6 Ibid., pp. 219, 237, 257. 7 Ibid., pp. 38, 76, 190-214, 220, 225, 232-33, 237, 247, 254.


Most shamans of Inner Asia called helper spirits to aid them in otherworldly journeys or to give information. But it was characteristic of the classic practitioner that he could "communicate with the dead, 'demons,' and 'nature spirits' without thereby becoming their instrument."8 Though he might actually embody a spirit so that it could speak through his mouth, he did not lose his own identity and selfawareness. Belief in the shaman's otherworldly journey explains many ritual elements of the Inner Asian tradition. Symbols of magical flight were common throughout the area. Among the Altaians of the south as well as among the Samoyed of the north, the shamans' caps were decorated with feathers, and even among the Manchus, who had been strongly influenced by Sino-Buddhist culture, the headgear was made of feathers and imitated a bird. Some peoples, including the Altaians, tried to make the costume as a whole resemble a bird: The costume of the Soyot might even be considered "a perfect ornithophany."9 Iron disks representing the sun and moon were sewn to the shamans' caftans, and these objects were painted on shamans' storage chests and drums.10 Because of its swiftness, the reindeer provided a characteristic means of making the shamanic journey, and the hide was used for making caftans and drumheads. The horse was similarly used and, among the Buryat, the shaman in his trance mounted a hobby horse decorated with numerous bells.11 When the Yenisei Ostyak shaman leapt during his dance, it was taken as a sign of his special powers: His soul had left the world and was ascending the heavens or going down into the underworld as seer or psychopomp.12 Some ascensional elements apparently had been borrowed from other cultures and religions. A model of a ladder appears frequently as a ritual motif, and the suggestion has been made that it came from the Mithraic mysteries which made use of a ladder having seven rungs.13 The number "seven" in this context stands for the seven celestial regions, a conception deriving ultimately from Mesopotamia.14 Ladders with nine rungs also appear, and in the ascensional context the number "nine" also refers to the heavenly spheres, a conception, whatever its ultimate origin, that
8 Ibid., p. 6. 9 Ibid., pp. 155-57. 10 Ibid., pp. 149, 151, 172. 11 Ibid., pp. 147, 149-50, 156, 171. 12 Ibid., p. 223. 13 Ibid., p. 121. 14 Ibid., p. 15. 151

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is part of classical Indian astronomy.15 In Tibet, both ladders and ropes are common ascensional elements.16 In shamanic initiations, the neophyte climbs to the top of a tree under the guidance of an already initiated and proficient shaman.17 Among the Buryat, neophyte shamans make clairvoyant pronouncements from the tops of nine trees, climbing each in turn and making nine notches at their summits, each symbolizing one of the nine heavens.8l In the Altaic tradition, the magic flight-indicated ritually by the shaman's climbing a tree or post notched with seven or nine steps -is conceived of as a journey during which the shaman overcomes seven or nine obstacles, encountering one at each threshold of the seven or nine heavens he must enter.19 With this very condensed conception of classic Inner Asian shamanism in mind, a conception whose core is the soul's magic flight, let us turn to a Nepalese shamanism and see that similarities and differences appear. The Nepalese complex is found in the Bhuji (birch tree) river valley. Located in west central Nepal south of the Dhaulagiri massif, the Bhuji river, plus the adjacent Nishi river, form the major northwestern tributaries of the Bari, itself a tributary of the Kali Gandaki. The valley is about a week's trek due west of the bazaar town of Pokhara, which can be reached from Kathmandu by air. Via the trading center of Butwal, it is about a week's trek from the Indian border and about the same distance from Tibet via the Kali Gandaki and Mustang. The Bhuji valley is settled mostly by members of the Magar and Metalworker castes, each accounting for about a third of the total number of households (740). The basis for subsistence is mixed agriculture, and people living in the upper portion of the valley migrate some distance during the summer so that they can graze their livestock and grow potatoes in alpine pastures and fields. Shamans (jhdkri) are the most important local religious experts; in the valley as a whole, there are twenty of them, fourteen of whom are Metalworkers. Four belong to the Magar caste, and the remaining two belong, respectively, to the castes of Newar and Matwala Chetri. I attended seances of both Magar and Metalworker shamans and recorded portions of a number of the seances on tape as well as on
15 A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1954), p. 491. 16 Eliade, op. cit., p. 410. 17 Ibid., pp. 111-15. 18 Ibid., pp. 119-20. 19 Ibid., pp. 200, 275. 152

motion-picture film. The recently deceased father of the Magar family with whom I was living had been a shaman, and a boy from his lineage who lived nearby had inherited his gift and was learning the technique. This boy and the members of the deceased shaman's family gave me much information, and, although shamanism was not a focus of the research, I was able to interview at some length two Metalworker shamans who were neighbors. On the basis of data from these two castes, it is clear that their shamans work within the same tradition. Many features of the Bhuji shaman's costume parallel those found in Inner Asia. Using the costume of a Metalworker shaman as an example, there was an impressive headdress made of Monal pheasant tail feathers, and fastened to the back of the jacket were whole skins of both Monal and Kaleej pheasants-both of which are birds of the high Himalaya. Another obvious ascensional symbol on the back of the jacket was two flying squirrels' pelts. Though not made of reindeer hide, the jacket was fashioned from the skin of an equally swift animal, the Himalayan mountain goat (ghoral). Two horns of this animal hung from the back of the jacket, and the circular drumhead as well as the thongs securing it also were made of mountain goat hide. These thongs were laced using a horn of the goat as a punch, and the pattern the lacings formed was said to represent both the horn itself and the feet of a bird. Forming a fringe around the bottom of the jacket were circular and lenticular iron plates, representing the sun and moon. Although the horse did not figure in this shamanic tradition, the animal seems to have been suggested, for bells were an important part of the costume, being interspersed among the iron plates as well as sewn around the jacket's neck. Riding or pack horses in the region always wore bells, and the sound was associated with their movement. To achieve the trance state during which he acted as diviner and healer, a Nepalese shaman drummed and sang and frequently, at the outset, got up and danced. During the all-night course of a seance, he performed a variety of rituals, depending on the needs of his clients. Some of them were long and involved the singing of songs that told of the First Shaman and happenings in the Golden Age. One such ritual was done for a client who had to be lifted up into the heavens so that he could remove an obstruction (gaunda) that was adversely affecting his life. (This is a different problem than an adverse state [dashd] of one's stars [graha]). While the shaman drummed and sang a long narrative song about the

Nepalese Shamanism and Classic Inner Asian Tradition
First Shaman-a song he interrupted periodically with a shout of Ho!-the patient's foot at each shout was moved from notch to notch along a small piece of wood called a "climbing pole" (lisnu). These poles are used for crossing a wall or for getting from one level of a house or barn to another. The model used in this ritual had nine notches cut into one side and seven cut into the opposite side.20 During the shaman's song, he shouted sixteen times, and the client's foot was moved up one side of the lisnu and down the other. When this part of the ritual was complete, the shaman entered a trance state. The client got onto a winnowing tray and helpers, who were members of his family, lifted him up while the shaman danced underneath, tossing the tray up and down on his back. The ritual took place on the porch of a house, so that a rope and an image could be suspended from the ceiling. The image was a carved wooden model representing the sun and the moon. Suspended a little beneath it, there was a lanceolate leaf of the Sonchampa tree (Michelia champaca). While being bounced up and down, the patient grasped the rope to steady himself and bit into the leaf which hung near his head. When he had bitten it in two, the shaman stepped out from beneath him, and he was lowered to the ground. The shaman then questioned him: Did you see the sun and moon? Yes, I saw. Did you see the stars in the sky? I saw. Did you climb the nine steps? I climbed. Did you climb over the obstruction? I climbed. As a part of his initiation, the Nepalese shaman climbs a tree under the guidance of his teacher or guru. I was unable to observe the ceremony, but obtained a Metalworker's account of his own initiation. His guru was a Magar from an area two days' walk to the northwest, an area regarded by the people of the Bhuji valley as the home of the Original Shaman, and the guru was assisted by his two sons, both of whom were shamans. The ceremony took place on the full-moon day. When the guru had induced a trance by singing and drumming, he was able to see a particular pine tree growing in the forest, and
20 "The Mangar, a Nepalese tribe, use a symbolic stairway by making nine notches or steps in a stick, which they plant in the grave; by it the dead man's soul goes up to heaven." Ibid., p. 487, noted in H. H. Risley, The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, II (Calcutta, 1891-92), p. 75. 154

he sent his two sons to go and get it. After they had made ritual offerings at the foot of the tree and had seen its top shake as they did so, they chopped it down, stripped it of all branches except for a tuft at the top, and took it back to the center of the village. Here, they planted it upright in a hole. The guru blindfolded his pupil, and his two sons dressed him in his shaman's regalia and handed him his drum and drumstick. By drumming and singing, the guru again entered a trance and transmitted his condition to his pupil. After calling on the Snake of Hell and the Sun and the Moon to be witnesses of what was about to happen, the guru, who was shaking as the local shamans always do when they are in a trance state, got up and leaned against the pine tree. His pupil followed him, grasped the trunk and shinnied to the top, still holding his drum and drumstick. The guru next asked him questions he could answer only by divining the future. Among the questions was how many years of life remained to the neophyte's mother. When the pupil had shown that he had acquired powers of divination, the guru and his sons danced and sang for a time at the foot of the tree, and then the guru brought the neophyte down gradually by shouting Ho! nine times. At each shout, the pupil slid part-way down, until at the last he touched the ground. During his return to earth, the guru prayed: "Make my pupil as bright as the sun and as beautiful as the moon. Let this be my fame." Following the rest of the ceremony, which involved the sacrifice of a ram and goat, the tree was ceremonially returned to the forest. A branch was given to the pupil, and he saved it so that at the time of his burial-on the mountainside rather than by the river like other people, and sitting up in a tumulus rather than lying down below ground-it could be set upright between the stones at the peak of his burial mound. In classic Inner Asian shamanism, the practitioner controls spirits and is not controlled by them. On superficial acquaintance, it might seem that this is not true of the Nepalese shaman, for during a trance he enacts the characteristics of whatever spirit is inside his body. If it is an arthritic spirit, for example, his hands and fingers become stiff and crooked. And sometimes the incarnate spirit temporarily overpowers him completely, so that he falls groaning and twitching to the ground or sits tense and quivering. But eventually he does regain control, sometimes with the help of water sprinkled over him by some member of the audience, and it is then he sings and chants, with drum accompaniment, whatever message the spirit has to deliver. We can be

Nepalese Shamanism and Classic Inner Asian Tradition
sure that his own soul, his own consciousness and personality, have not been completely obliterated during the trance, no matter how overpowering the experience may have seemed, because at the conclusion of it he can answer questions from the audience about what the spirit has said. He does not have to be told. Further confirmation appears in a shaman's description of what happens during his trance: The spirits come like birds, wind, an airplane. They enter my heart and call as from a distance, the way Krishna (a villager) was calling yesterday: "Have you seen my sickle?" At first, the spirit sits on my shoulder, and the shoulder hurts for a bit. Then the spirit enters and the pain leaves. They may also sit on my knees or over my heart. Most spirits enter through my nose, some through my ears, eyes, knees, shoulders. I can see them coming. I can tell whether they fell from a cliff and died, or whether they died from eating inedible food. They first come to my basket (the one in which shamanizing gear is carried), then hop over onto me and then go inside. They wear what they were wearing when they died. They are different sizes ... When they enter my nose I get a little smell like excrement, or bad meat, and it feels as if small insects were coming into my nose. When I call them, they speak into my ear, and I listen. I say what they say. They sing, and I sing. I repeat exactly. The spirit gets the attention of the people by saying, "Listen, you five people sitting there!" The spirit will say, "You will say I have cheated and deceived you." He means, you think I'm a liar, but you listen; I'm really telling the truth. He calls the people donkeys because why should he honor them if they don't know anything? If they knew anything, why call the spirit? The spirits speak by turns. The spirit sometimes says, "I'm such and such a spirit; tell him (the client) such and such." When I act like the Simpleton Spirit, it means it's that spirit's turn to talk. The others wait. I don't decide what spirit will speak. They decide among themselves. I don't call on any particular spirit to speak. I want different spirits for different kinds of tasks. (The shaman explained that the spirits decide among themselves which of their number has the needed knowledge and power.) When the spirits leave me, I feel as if I had been beaten by someone all day long. I feel as if my soul had been lost. When they are inside, I feel lively. It is when we consider the journeying of the soul and psychopompism that we discover a crucial difference between the Nepalese shaman and the classic Inner Asian type. For despite all the elements of gear and ritual that suggest magic flight, he is earthbound. When discussing his pole climb, the Bhuji valley shaman did not claim that his soul had ascended to celestial

realms. Even though blindfolded, he could "see" because his guru helped him call knowledgeable spirits.21 Such "sight," however, could have been obtained on the ground, and he climbed the pole only because this is what the First Shaman did. Of all rituals performed by the Nepalese shaman, the one in which he lifts the patient up to the moon and stars most strongly suggests celestial journeying. It looks as if the shaman, at once psychopomp and steed, were galloping into the empyrean with his client on his back. When questioned, though, the shaman says it is the client alone who makes the journey into the sky. Shamanic power makes it possible for the client to do this, but in space parlance the shaman is the ground controller and not the astronaut. This is the significance of his questions at the conclusion of the ritual: he is asking in effect, "Was I or was I not able to send you up into the heavens and to bring you safely back?" Only the slightest hints of ecstatic ascent and descent appear in my materials. One such hint was a shaman's saying that when his helping spirits entered his body, it was "as if a wind had come and blown him into the air." But this was not classic shamanic flight; it was a space journey without destination. The Bhuji valley shaman is a psychopomp, though in a much narrower sense than the "great shamans" of Inner Asia. In Nepal, soul-loss is recognized as one of the causes of illness. Sometimes, in sleep, the soul leaves the body of its own accord and wanders away, into the forest perhaps; or it may leave the body due to common cause of illness among children. More frefright-a the soul is enticed or stolen away by the souls of dead quently, people, or it may fall under the sway of an evil spirit, especially the Graveyard Spirit (masan dokh). But in order to recover the lost soul, the shaman does not make a celestial or infernal journey. After entering a trance to find out whether, in fact, soul-loss is the cause of his client's illness, there are a number of techniques of recovery he may follow, including dispatch of a helping spirit to locate and return the lost soul. But his closest approach to the classic otherworldly journey is a real terrestrial journey to the burial ground, where he lies on the stones of the grave and calls to the soul as if it were a child, luring it from the clutches of its captor or enticer. It is true that the shaman lying on the grave encounters the spirit world, but it is an encounter at the threshold; it is not a journeying into and through it. Even the helper spirits
21 Among the Tadibei Samoyed, the shaman is blindfolded to indicate that he enters the spirit world by his own inner light. Eliade, op. cit., p. 148.


Nepalese Shamanism and Classic Inner Asian Tradition
of the Nepalese shamans are somewhat earthbound. They are conceived of as grazing in various localities. When the shaman calls, they journey across the local countryside, journeys that sometimes are specified in elaborate detail. Similar detail regarding the other world, whether celestial or infernal, is notably lacking. Returning now to the question raised at the outset: whether there is a Nepalese shamanism closely resembling the shamanism of Central and North Asia, one may answer in the affirmative, subject to two qualifications. The first is that the comparison is being made using elements of the classic type, a construct not to be confused with any particular manifestation of Inner Asian shamanism in all its empirical fullness. The second is that the Nepalese example has decadent aspects, the most notable being its loss of belief in magic and dangerous flight, with associated loss of dramatic enactment.22 On the other hand, this shamanism has retained many symbols of ascension, even though explaining them by reference to what the First Shaman wore rather than to his powers of flight. The Nepalese shaman, moreover, controls spirits rather than being controlled by them; and he attains trance through music rather than through mushrooms or tobacco, the decadent methods used by some of the shamans in Central and North Asia.23 In conclusion, we may note that the shamanism of the Bhuji valley probably represents one of the most southerly examples of a shamanism that embodies so many elements of the classic Inner Asian tradition. For as one goes south and west toward Pokhara, shamanism continues to be earthbound, with flights being made by spirit helpers rather than by shamans themselves, and begins to lose, in addition, other classic elements. The shamanic drum gives way to a brass plate and finally, in the region south of Pokhara, there is no drum, not even a brass plate. Here, the shamans no longer wear a leather jacket, feathers, or other symbols of flight. Nor do they retain self-awareness and control of the spirits embodied during a trance. It would seem that the only element left which strongly suggests the classic ascensional theme of Inner Asia is the way these shamans use the cut boughs of a tree. On going into a trance and throughout their seance, they hold the boughs upright like a bouquet and shake them violently. Here, possibly, though in a different context, is the Inner Asian initiating tree.
22 Ibid., pp. 237, 250, 252-54, 256. 23 Ibid., pp. 221, 228, 254. 158

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