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Tantra & Possession – I

This post is the first in a series based on my May 2017 lecture at Treadwells Bookshop of London entitled “Tantra & Trance Possession” together with some additional material which had to excluded for lack of time.

Chamunda by Maria StrutzWhy Tantra & Trance Possession? Possession as a magical or religious practice is not something that is commonly associated with Tantra – I’ve tended to find that occultists are surprised to hear that tantra practice has a place for possession workings – it’s something that we are far more used to hearing about in relation to traditions such as Santeria, Candomble, etc. It’s possible we don’t think of possession in relation to India due to the overwhelming trope of the “mystic east” and the related idea that Indian religions – and Indian esoteric religions in particular, are world-denying and “peaceful”. In fact, possession is very common across South Asia – there’s a great deal of ethnographic material on contemporary possession-oriented practice in India. For this lecture, however, I’ll be focusing on historical material – of which there is a great deal, so what you’ll be getting is selected highlights.

In India, possession is a natural occurrence as the human body is understood to be an “open system” and to a degree, permeable – powers both demonic and divine can easily flow through it. 1 This is sometimes referred to in the scholarly literature as indicative of a “dividual” personhood (see posts tagged dividual for some related discussion of this concept). Furthermore, Indian thought does not always draw a sharp dividing line between human beings and deities – gods can become human and humans can become gods.

When we approach Possession in India we need to distinguish between various kinds of possession – possession is both voluntary and involuntary, positive and negative. Possession can be positive – as in cases where a deity enters a person to give oracular statements, or to give darśan to a community; or it can be negative – in the case of illnesses which are said to be caused by possessing agencies.

What is common in all kinds of possession is that there should be visible signs that it has or is occurring – such as the acquisition of certain supernatural powers (seeing the past and the future, for instance) and well-known external signs: trembling, rolling on the ground, eyes rolling, etc.

The key word here is the Sanskrit āveśa – usually translated as “possession” – indicating any kind of entering, infiltration; an experience of being overpowered or overwhelmed by a quality, and also a deity or spirit, a desire, etc. One is exposed to the agency or activity of another being. Possession is frequently understood in Indian thought as a modification or transformation of consciousness rather than a psychological aberration.

I’m going to start off by taking a brief look at how Afflictive Possession is discussed in both Ayurvedic and Tantric Texts, then move onto an example of total identification between devotee and deity from the 6th century. I will then turn to look at the kinds of possession we find in the mantramarg or “tantric” literature, and in particular, that associated with Yoginīs, and end with a brief look at the underlying theology of this kind of practice.

Possession as Affliction
Involuntary possession can occur, for example, when someone is possessed by a spirit or demon, and needs to be cured. There is a vast range of literature dealing with this subject, but for now, I’m going to examine what’s referred to in both Ayurvedic and Tantric texts as Bhūtavidyā. This is quite early material – some of the foundational Avuyvedic texts been speculatively dated to between 200 BC and 100 AD.

In Ayurvedic texts we find possession being discussed within the pathological category of unmāda – “madness”. Here, possession is characterised as an affliction which enters a person from outside – and is frequently considered to be of divine origin. Related to this is the science of Bhūtavidyā, where the term Bhūta is a generic term for a wide range of beings – both visible and invisible – it can refer to any kind of existent being, bodied or unbodied, and in particular, to ghosts.

A related term is graha – “seizer” or “grasper”.

Suśruta, in his Susruta Samhita defines a graha:

“A graha is well-known as an unstable quarrelsome entity that engages in nonhuman activity and has knowledge of what is hidden or lies in the future. They afflict the unclean, [and] fracture [social] boundaries in whole or in part, even if the purpose of such affliction is [not explicitly malevolent, but] merely frivolous or to satisfy a religious obligation.” 2

This in itself is interesting – here is a clear statement that the afflictive entities have their own agency, and that the among the reasons that they possess people includes their own “religious obligations” – and that invasive spirits are not always malevolent.

Graha in Sanskrit also means ‘planet’ – we find this term in the Artha Veda and a typical explanation for this in the astrological literature is that planets are called grahas because they grip or hold people in their power.

gandharvasBhūtavidyā gradually evolved to include a taxonomy of spirits, and the diagnosis & treatment of the afflictions they caused. So in the Ayurvedic literature we find lists of different kinds of entities such as semi-divine protectors (yakṣhas), gods, seers, celestial musicians (gandharvas), flesh-eating demons (piśācas, dangerous demons (rakshas), and deceased ancestors each of which is responsible for bringing about “externally induced madness”. There is extensive coverage of the behaviour of those afflicted, the observation of which determines the kind of invasive entity, for example:

“One whose eyes are red, who is angry, whose gaze is fixed, whose gait is crooked, and is unstable, whose breathing is incessantly short, whose tongue dangles and shakes, licking the corners of his mouth, who likes milk, jaggery, bathing, and who sleeps face down is regarded as inhabited by serpent demons, being fearful of sunlight as well.” 3

What brings about such possession? According to the various Ayurvedic sources, it is transgressions of proper behaviour pertaining to one’s life-stage or religious obligations. These transgressions include: undertaking a transgressive act, the ripening of an undesirable action, residing alone in an empty house, or spending the nights in burning grounds and other similar places; public nudity, maligning one’s guru, indulgence in forbidden pleasures, worship of an impure deity, contact with a woman who has just given birth, as well as a composite neglect of prescribed conduct in the form of daily routine and so on.

There are similar taxonomies found in Tantric texts.

The Netra Tantra
The Netra Tantra – “the Tantra of the Eye” is a work from Kashmir, thought to have been written in the 9th century AD. There is an extensive commentary on this text from Kṣemarāja, a disciple of Abhinavagupta.

At the beginning of the second chapter of Netra, the Devi asks Śiva to give remedies for the problems of the Kali Yuga, paying particular attention to the cruel beings who cause disease and disorder. Again there is a large list of entities. Śiva stresses the importance of knowing how to recognise these entities for kings who, together with members of the royal family, seem to be especially vulnerable. In the 19th chapter, Śiva explains that all these entities – matrs (mothers) Bhūtas (spirits) and grahas (seizers) – were originally created by him to defeat the Daityas who had opposed the gods. On completing their task, Śiva granted them the boon of invincibility – but then these entities began to afflict all other beings – including the gods, so that Śiva had to create millions of mantras and vidyas to overcome them. These Bhūtas and other beings enter or cast a black glance on children, who then die, and bring disease to adults. Again, these entities seem to be provoked by misbehaviour or impurity. According to Netra, these entities are able to work through the shadow of one who is already possessed by them – that should an evil or impure person cast their shadow on a child, a king, a queen or an ascetic, then the Bhūtas are enabled to cast their gaze upon the victims.

This idea of malignant beings being able to work through the shadow of those possessed by them indicates the permeability of selfhood mentioned earlier. Also however, it reflects the numerous injunctions found in the Dharmaśāstras concerning bodily integrity and purity – particularly the belief that the shadow of a low-caste person, a menstruating woman (or those practicing religions deemed to be outside of Vedic orthopraxy 4) was held to be polluting. 5

Again, these entities have agency ascribed to them – they are classified according to their desires: for example, balikāmas desire meat offerings, hantukāmas desire to harm and kill, and bhuktokāmas desire sexual pleasure. Each group of entities forms a clan or family (kula) of a higher deity, and by appeasing that deity, one thereby appeases the entities of that deity’s clan. For example, there is a class of beings known as Vināyakas who are appeased by worshipping their lord Ganesha by offering him sweetmeats and alcohol. There are also beings who impede the practice of sadhakas if they are not propitiated.

Moreover, all of these invasive spirits are emanations of Śiva as Bhūtanātha – ‘Lord of Spirits’ and so are participants in his playful creation and the oscillation between bondage and liberation. According to Netra, they cause suffering in humans in order to impel them towards liberation. Śiva is both Mahākāla – ‘Lord of Death’ to who all beasts (i.e. paśus ‘the bound’) are sacrifices offered by the innumerable spirits, and also, Mṛtyuñjaya – ‘Victor over Death’.

“These [Yoginīs] are free from passion and aversion, greed and delusion. They kill the beasts for the sake of sacrifice to the supreme Lord. [It is] not that [they kill] with greed or for the sake of killing, or with violent desire. They only maintain the order of the supreme Bhairava. Beasts are created for his sake by the self-manifest [Brahmā] himself. Beasts are useful for sacrifice to the Lord or otherwise are of no use. Oh [goddess] with [such a] lovely face! [They perform this act] just for the grace to these beasts, and they destroy the collection of sins and liberate [the beasts] from [their] sins. 6

The 12th century Īśanaśivagurudevapaddhati (ISP) contains 4 patalas (chapters) dealing with subjects such as childsnatchers (balagrahas), behaviour of the possessed (grahacesta), and exorcism (bhūtabadha). The ISP lists 18 classes of graha, and says that they reside in “lonely places” such as rivers, lakes, cremation grounds, in trees, and in deserted temples.

“They afflict [pīdayanti] people who are angry, excited, laughing, afraid, alone at night; are either in a state of impurity, ostentatiously attired, or gain or lose money at night; those who are separated [from their loved ones] or about to die; women who are naked, pregnant, ill-behaved, in the course of having their menstrual period, have bathed immediately after the cessation of their period [thus preparing for sexual intercourse], have just given birth, are afflicted by lust, are drinkers of liquor or eaters of parched grain, who stand at a crossroads at sunrise or sunset, who have not before experienced [sexual] enjoyment, have just been oiled [as in massage], or are disrespected.” 7


“Grahas take hold [of their victim] because of personal indebtedness, the ripening of karma, or previous enmity resulting from their denunciation of deities, brahmans, or great people, but not otherwise.” 8

Again, examining this literature, it seems to be women who are thought to be particularly susceptible to possession by invasive beings.

There are also entities which are classed according to the caste of persons that they seem to prefer, such as brahmaraksharas, who possess Brahmins. The ISP does not however, make much of a distinction between the possessing being and the possessed person. It gives a wide range of practices for dispelling a possessing entity. These practices include writing on the possessed person with ash, throwing water on his face, using mantras; making substitute body and invoking the possessing spirit into it, and destroying it with a knife; and – perhaps if all else fails – visualising oneself as Rudra and holding down and “beating” the possessed person. 9

There was a genre of medical Tantras – the Bhūta, Bala & Gāruḍa Tantras – the Bhūta Tantras being primarily concerned with malign possession, and the Bala Tantras – childhood possession. The Gāruḍa Tantras were primarily concerned with snakebites. Michael Slouber has recently published a study of this material in Early Tantric Medicine: Snakebite, Mantras, and Healing in the Garuda Tantras (Oxford University Press, 2016).

To be continued…

Marcy Alison Braverman, Possession, Immersion and the Intoxicated Madnesses of Devotion in Hindu Traditions (Ph.D Thesis, University of California Santa Barbara, 2003)
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (I.B. Tauris, 2006)
Christopher Fowler, The Archaeology of Personhood: An Anthropological Approach (Routledge, 2004)
Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (Routledge, 1999)
Frederick M. Smith The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilisation (Columbia University Press, 2006)
Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to A.D. 1300 (University of California Press, 2004)
Sthaneshwar Timalsina, Body, Self and Healing in Tantric Ritual Paradigm (Journal of Hindu Studies 2012;5:30-52)
David Gordon White Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press, 2009)


  1. Timalsina, 2012
  2. Smith,2006, p482
  3. Aṣṭāṅgahṛidyasaṃhitā quoted from Smith, 2006, p495.
  4. see Alexis Sanderson’s 2016 essay Tolerance, Exclusivity, Inclusivity, and Persecution in Indian Religion During the Early Medieval Period – Part Two for further discussion
  5. “Untouchability” was abolished in Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, but despite several Acts (1955, 1976, 1989, 2014) these injunctions still affect millions of Indians, for example: The Dalits | Still untouchable and Dalit girl beaten up as her shadow falls on high caste muscleman
  6. Timalsina, 2012, p46
  7. Smith, 2006, p511
  8. Smith, 2006, p511
  9. See Flood, 2006, pp90-94.