The Self-Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization

By Hiltebeitel, Alf | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Self-Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization


Hiltebeitel, Alf, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Self-Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. BY FREDERICK M. SMITH. NEW YORK: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2006. Pp. xxvii + 701. $60.

An important and path-breaking book, begun in 1992, seen and heard in various pre-manifestations and thus long and eagerly awaited, Frederick Smith's The Self-Possessed charts a hitherto divided and, by his reckoning, doubly obscured field: that of possession in South Asia. As the title suggests. Smith speaks primarily from one side of a divide as a Sanskritist and textualist to other Indologists (Sanskritists, historians of religions), among whom possession has been little noticed, infrequently studied, and never theorized across the breadth of Sanskrit literature. On the other side, Smith takes up the rich documentation of varieties of possession in South Asia ethnographies and attempts to speak to ethnographers as well. He attributes the double obscuration of possession in Sanskrit and other early Indo-Aryan literatures to "Academic and Brahmanical Orthodoxies" (the title of chap. 1) that have erased it from consideration in the name of normative and essentialized Hinduisms (with some parallels in Buddhism and Jainism). Although other Sanskritists--among those discussed, Madeleine Biardeau, David Knipe, Andre Padoux, Alexis Sanderson, David Shulman, and David White--have acknowledged this divide and bridged it to varying degrees with reference to specific types of possession, Smith is the first to map varieties of possession on both its sides, to propose that the divide can be negotiated with benefit to those on either side as well as those attempting to straddle it, and to consider the range of theoretical options open to interpreting South Asian possession in both its textual and ethnographic manifestations. In providing a cognitive map of possessions on this prodigious scale, the book is a landmark work of inspired sleuthing and impressive erudition that will long merit appreciative consideration.

Toward the end Smith mentions that he has discussed possession in "more than 170 Sanskrit texts" (p. 592), ranging from Veda through epic; the Yogasutras, Brahmasutras, Samkhya and related texts; Sanskrit fiction, drama, and aesthetic theory; puranas and bhakti commentary; Ayurveda and tantra. In addition, there is rich discussion of comparable practices described in Chinese and Tibetan texts. Scholars in each area will have to assess how successfully Smith navigates his way and charts the depths. As to the Sanskrit epics, on which I can offer my best assessment, Smith's discussion is provocative and reasonably thorough in its citations, although I would suggest that his discussion of the Mahabharata might have been organized differently. Smith recognizes this epic as "the single text in South Asian literary history with the greatest concentration of possession" (p. 250), but tends to see it as a palimpsest with no discernible form in which there would be no need to differentiate possessions that carry along the main story from possessions told of in substories to its heroes and heroines. Of the first type. Smith discusses the possessions (avesa) of Karna, Drona, Bhisma, etc. (pp. 267-68); that of As'vatthaman as an apocalyptic grahana (p. 271); and that of Yudhisthira (pra-vis) by Vidura (p. 259), all profitably; but he does not mention that after the death of Iravat (Arjuna's son with the serpent woman Ulupi) on the eighth day of battle, the warriors on both sides fought on with heightened intensity, "possessed (avistah) by Raksasas and Bhutas" (Mbh 6.86.85). Of the second type, found in subtales, he discusses several fantastic cases: the cannibalistic possession of King Kalmasapada (pp. 265-67); a yogic possession mentioned below; the story of Skanda's link with eighteen grahas, mainly child-"seizers," which Smith handles superbly for its connections with Ayurvedic treatments of the same (pp. 272-75); and most notably the story of Nala and Damayanti (pp. …

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