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Making invisible powers present in the Himalayas – présencedesprits

Making Invisible powers present in the Himalayas

This program of primary anthropological research aims to contribute to the renewal of our understanding of possession in general (including shamanism) through 1) the study of the various ways in which invisible powers are made present, including their many material representations (artefacts, ritual language, natural events) and 2) the comparative study of these through their variations and transformations in Himalayan societies.

Models of analysis for shamanic phenomena and possession through the study of micro-regional transformations¬

Unlike research on other cultural areas, such as the anthropology of the Amazon, Himalayan Studies have so far had little visibility as such, as if the region had failed to forge an identity of its own between India and Tibet and to be a source of inspiration in anthropological debates. One goal of our project is to get around the fragmentation of our domain and to provide common collective thinking to overcome problems of hyper-specialization, while taking advantage of the competences it generates. Our project aims to establish models that are able to analyse shamanic phenomena and possession through the study of micro-regional transformations¬ — a search that can be undertaken only as a collective effort. <br /> <br />The first concern of early ethnographers in the region was to identify the ritual specialists whom they met in the field and to describe their practices. (J. Hitchcock and R.L. Jones, 1976). In a second phase, these practices were put in their sociological and historical contexts, with the attempt to comprehend religious phenomena within the political history and the power relations between groups (Lecomte-Tilouine 2009). However there was no question of studying possession and shamanic phenomena for themselves nor for what these institutions might reveal about how humans see themselves in the world. The recent philosophical questioning of the dichotomy between subject and object (Latour, B. 1999), as well as studies of the agency of objects (Gell, A. 1998), reflections on materiality (Miller, D. 2005) or on the various modes of presence of social actors during rituals (Piette, A. 1999) provide the theoretical and methodological works that enable us to renew our approach to the phenomena of possession. <br />

The comparative method aims to reveal the rules of correspondences and transformations in time and space that characterize possession and shamanic practices at the regional level, in order to understand their mutual relationship and thus deepen our appreciation of the ways in which humans understand the world of which they are a part. In order to lay the groundwork for a combined analysis of possession that is able to capture the spatial and temporal transformations that characterize this phenomenon, we have isolated a few of its elementary forms, and these we propose to study at the regional level with all the interethnic relationships this might involve:
A preliminary step will be to establish the semantic core of possession and shamanism through the constitution of a lexicon of the terms that are used and the analysis of their semantic field.
Ritual language.
Particular attention will be paid to the linguistic component of the ritual: its polysemy, that opens the limited nature of the lexicon to a wide range of possible interpretations; archaisms; the cosmopolitan character of language that borrows terms from other languages; the exclusive or non exclusive ritual use of language and so forth.
Making the divine present: the human body and the artefacts. Shamanism and possession are characterized by the incorporation of the divine, in other words by making the gods who speak through the medium the agents in the situation of communication. However, apart from these god-agents or god-subjects, there are also “god-objects” (Augé 1998) and object cults. The artefacts are not at the core of the ritual space but mark it with their fundamentally mysterious presence in a sense that needs to be defined.

The results of these first 6 months consist primarily in 1) a monthly research seminar, 2) the preparation of a website, and 3) the preparation of the missions that, apart from that of Anne de Sales that was in April 2014, will start in the fall of 2014.
Our research program officially started Feb. 15, 2014, but Marie Lecomte-Tilouine and Anne de Sales worked upstream, organizing a doctoral seminar on the program's research theme that began on 6 December 2013. This seminar had a comparative and theoretical perspective, and was not focused exclusively on the Himalayan cultural area. However, two recognized experts in the Himalayas, John Leavitt, Professor at the University of Montreal and Gregory Maskarinec, Professor at the University of Hawaii, were invited to give a lecture. Their presence in France has been the occasion of two very informative and friendly meetings over dinner with memebers of the programme. In addition, each of the seven public seminar sessions were extended by an internal meeting with the project members who were present in France at that time.
Wherever possible, the lectures were recorded and are registered on the website dedicated to the project. This website remains to be fed further. Anne de Sales made a first field work in Nepal (5/04 / 2014-16 / 05/2014) with the project to start mapping the great variety of ritual specialists in the Kathmandu valley. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine designed a questionnaire about encounters with invisible powers, targetting ritual specialists as well as ordinary people. While in Nepal, Anne de Sales organized three Nepalese assistants to conduct interviews, record and transcribe them in order to start building up a corpus. This project is a long-term one and will continue in the coming months.

The prospects are twofold: 1) field work to start a collection of data from the perspective of our argument on the presentification of invisible powers; 2) organization of several meetings entitled «Return from the field« with the project members in order to discuss the material; 3) invitation of guest speakers to continue our theoretical reflection and 4) organization of a first study day on the theme of the interface between humans and artefacts in rituals of possession and shamanic rituals.

Six field trips are planned for the 2014 fall: Marie Lecomte-Tilouine will go with the ethnomusicologist Frank Bernède to far-west Nepal where the bardic tradition is still exceptionally alive; David Andolfatto will explore archaeological sites very poorly studied so far and will look for clues about the presence of mediums in medieval architecture in west Nepal; Grégoire Schlemmer will visit in eastern Nepal a Rai community with whom he has been working for 20 years and that seems very keen to archive and film its own rituals; Anne de Sales will continue its comparative research on ritual specialists in the Kathmandu Valley but will also explore a tradition of possession in a region bordering Tibet that is characterized by the encounter between Buddhist people of Tibetan origin and Hindu populations; Finally Daniela Berti will
return to Himachal Pradesh in oder to explore the recent ban of bloody sacrifices in India, and the way this is understood locally.

No publication yet may be attached to the research program, but Marie Lecomte-Tilouine and Anne de Sales are about to finish editing a collective work on «Words of Truth in the Himalayas« which extends the reflection on the presence of invisible powers —one of the three focus of our 2013 programme (cf. Méthodes).

Making invisible powers present in the Himalayas

This program of basic anthropological research aims to contribute to the renewal of our understanding of possession in general (including shamanism) through 1) the study of the various ways in which invisible powers are made present, including their many material representations (artefacts, ritual language, natural events) and 2) the comparative study of these through their variations and transformations in Himalayan societies. Within the religious systems and ideologies inherited from India, Tibet, and even from the West, the people of the Himalayan regions have developed practices involving shamans and mediums. This form of religion, which causes invisible entities to speak through the bodies and mouths of human beings, seeks to change the course of things in the world. Far from being marginal cases, a kind of slippage away from dominant systems, we propose that these practices are best understood by interacting with them.
Illness, misfortune and disasters are dealt with through direct communication with invisible powers that are believed to preside over the contingent and the inexplicable. Events are thus made intelligible and inscribed in a chain of causal explanations from which humans are not absent, but rather placed in a position where they are able to change their lives and their environment. In short, humans are able to introduce a certain order into their lives by investing invisible entities with the power to preside over their destiny. We may consider this configuration as presenting embedded agencies, a symbolic mechanism from which humans derive their power of action over the world while actually attributing these transformations to invisible entities. This view allows us to re-examine the wide range of practices involving possession in Himalayan societies and beyond.
Anthropological works dealing with these practices have long been concerned with the definition of specific categories such as mediums and shamans. However, social actors for their part are more concerned with the efficacy of these practices, rather than their categorization. This is why our study will insist on the ‘emic’ dimension of the phenomena observed, an aspect that has hitherto been largely neglected. We will consider primarily the modes in which the invisible entities are experienced, conceptualised and materialised, including ordinary speech (stories of dreams, revelations, encounters with fantastic beings) as well as ritual speech, that is "reified" according to some studies; ritual techniques as well as artefacts; natural manifestations as well as artistic performances, some of which reach the divine through the perfection of their performance and, finally, interactions between social actors. Our discussion will focus on the tension between the immaterial nature of the invisible entities from which they derive their authority and their materialization that gives them their power. Some writers have suggested that the more deities are conceived as being beyond the reach of humans, the greater the efforts that are invested in their materialization. How does the study of possession stand up to this hypothesis? A detailed comparative study should help us to deepen our appreciation of the ways in which humans understand the world of which they are a part. Finally, these phenomena are part of sociohistorical situations that are constantly changing, and that contain the very conditions of their transformation. This is why we propose to take into consideration the emergence of new configurations, such as the new forms of female possession that have appeared recently in Nepal.

Project coordinator

Madame Anne DE SALES (Laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative - UMR 7186) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CNRS Laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative - UMR 7186

Help of the ANR 256,601 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2014 - 42 Months

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