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I.5.7 magico- religious functionaries- Shaman

The term shaman is either derived from the Tungus language of Central Siberia or Sanskrit. The concept covers many disparate things rather than a clear unified concept. From the northern-Arctic phenomenon to cover any ecstatic behaviour.

It is the term for a unique sort of spiritual-medical-political specialist found among the Siberians, Greenlanders, North American tribes, Chinese and other Asian societies.

A shaman is a kind of intermediary who has independent authority, and is not part of an organised religion and is in direct contact with the spirit world, usually through a trance state. There is a special relationship between a shaman and the society. A successful shaman can amass a significant degree of social authority. A shaman is essentially a religious entrepreneur who acts for human clients. She or he intervenes on behalf of a human client to influence supernatural beings to perform some acts such as curing an illness or discovering the cause of an unexpected suffering. One acquires Shamanic power individually, mostly in physical and/or mental solitude and isolation from other humans.

Shamans belonging to different communities would use different means to achieve their ends. Following are common-

  • a) usually the office is hereditary but occasionally a person’s personality can also make him the chosen one to the office,
  • (b) The shaman may possess a unusual mental state or even a physical shortcoming so that he may be considered neurotic or epileptic,
  • (c) he is the chosen one
  • (d) One takes up apprenticeship under an older shaman to learn and develop the skills,
  • (e) the shaman may go into a trance or enter into an excited condition to make her/his predictions, or to cure the illness or get rid of a spirit,
  • (f) hallucinogens, such as drugs or weeds or smoke, are used to go into trance.

One becomes shaman in various ways.

  1. In case of Siberian or Korean shamanism the spirit(s) choose the shaman;
  2. among the Tapirape one has to dream.
  3. Among the Zulu of South Africa the spirit troubles the person chosen to be a shaman with sickness and an experienced shaman finds it through divination and confirms the selection as shaman by the spirit.
  4. Among the Zinacanteco Indians one gets a call when one looks into the realms of gods and ancestors in dreams and visions.

Often shaman combines the functions of priest, prophet and magician, all in one. Shaman also performs rituals of sacrifice and appeases the gods or spirits once they have been forced to submit to the shaman’s needs.

The shaman acquires a charismatic personality and leadership similar to a prophet. In order to enhance the image of supernatural powers,

  • one wears unusual jewelry and clothing,
  • sport long and matted hair,
  • paint the body with colour or ash and
  • carry either musical instruments or bones etc.

The typical methods for inducing a trance or altered consciousness involve: fasting, the use of narcotic drugs, tobacco, dancing, singing or drumming to a hypnotic rhythm, etc.

Shamans or similar religious specialists are also found  Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity such as holy man or Baba or Ma/Matha, Pir. Shamans  have power to compel their God to cure people. They are intermediaries having independent authority, and use altered state of consciousness to directly contact the supernatural world for healing or solving problems of another individual. They are not associated with any formalised religious institutions. They may or may not engage themselves in or organise any ritual.

I. Siberian Shamanism

The shaman is a master or mistress of spirits. She or he uses hand-held drums, performs dance and uses elaborate costumes and engages in rituals which are dramatic aided by the use of various theatrical techniques of shaman.

The ritual is meant to contact and establish a relationship with a supernatural entity, and the success of a shaman lies not in memorisation of prayer or performance of ritual but in the ability to successfully establish contact and exercise control over the supernatural. Spirits give powers or particular qualities to the shaman.

The world is divided into three realms:

  1. the upper realm is one of good spirits;
  2. the middle realm is the home of the people of the earth;
  3. the lower realm is one of darkness and evil spirits.

In the altered state of consciousness, the shaman journeys to one of the other realms with the help of spirits. The main function of the shaman is healing; the disease is believed to have been caused due to loss of soul that has been snatched away by a spirit. Shamans are frequently chosen by the spirits to become shaman.

II. Tapirape Shamanism

Tapirape Indians of Central Brazil consists of spirits known by generic term ancimga that consist ghosts – innwera, the disembodied souls of the dead and malevolent beings of many classes and descriptions. The former live in abandoned villages but they visit the inhabited villages in rainy season, and the ghosts also die and become changed into animals. The other class of spirits live deep in forests and these kill those who visit their habitations. The shaman of Tapirape derives power by dreaming and he travels to the world of the spirits; the soul, iimgci, frees itself from the body in sleep and move freely in time and space. The power of shaman depends upon the number of demonic familiars and their strength; he also seeks support of the spirits from the attacks of the spirits of other shamans. Treating sickness is the most common duty of the shaman. The curing is most frequently done by extraction of a malignant object by sucking which is aided by ‘eating the tobacco smoke’ and vomiting of the stomach. Duty of the shaman is protecting the members from the ghosts. The wild pigs are believed to be pets of the spirits and the shaman brings the pigs of the familiar spirit to the vicinity of the habitation. Shamans often are destructive by sending familiar spirits against another shaman or any member of the society out of jealousy or for revenge.

III. Korean Shamanism

The shamanism here is known as Muism or Sinism (religion of gods) and encompasses a variety of Korean indigenous religious beliefs and practices, and the shaman is called mudang, usually a woman who acts as intercessor between god(s) and people. The shaman is chosen by spirits, and experienced shaman performs initiation ritual for transforming the novice into a full-fledged shaman, who organises services independently. These are public performances organised for clients for curing illnesses by exorcising lost spirits that cling to people, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to reach heaven. For some shaman women it is a good source of income and the practice gives certain degree of influence over the community also.

IV. Neo-shamanism

Urban popoulation of United States of America and Europe started showing interest in shamanism due to Native American traditions,The drug culture of 1960, interest in non-Western religions, environmentalism, the New Age, self-help, self realisation movement, etc. Anthropologists Carlos Castaneda and Michael Hamer have promoted neo- shamanism with aim to achieve altered states of self consciousness using drugs or drums and have the experience of meeting spirits and power animals.

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