Thoughts in the atmosphere

Things of the world, and out of it.

Interpreting a phenomenon

Posted by desicontrarian on October 8, 2009

Extracts from “Dancer of Kannur”  (NINE LIVES: IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED IN MODERN INDIA BY WILLIAM DALRYMPLE)

The second dancer is now gazing intently in a small hand mirror at the entrance of the hut, identifying himself with the goddess. As I watch, the dancer stamps his feet, ringing the bells and cowrie shells on his anklets. He stamps again, loudly and more abruptly. Then he jerks his body suddenly to one side, as if hit by a current of electricity, before stretching out his hands and sinking into a strange crouching position. His body is quivering, his hands shaking and his eyes are flicking from side to side. The figure who had been still and silently staring only seconds earlier is now transformed, twisting his head in a strangely eerie series of movements that is part tropical fish, part stinging insect, part reptile, part bird of paradise. Then he is gone, bounding out into the clearing, under the stars, closely followed by two attendants, both holding burning splints.

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“It’s only during the Theyyam season—from December to February. We give up our jobs and become Theyyam artists. For those months we become gods. Everything changes. We never eat meat or fish and are forbidden to sleep with our wives. We bring blessings to the village and the villagers, and exorcise evil spirits. We are the vehicle through which people can thank the gods for fulfilling their prayers and granting their wishes. Though we are all Dalits (untouchables) even the most bigoted and casteist Namboodiri Brahmins worship us, and queue up to touch our feet.”

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As late as the early years of the 20th century, lower-caste tenants were still regularly being murdered by their Nayar landlords for failing to present sweets as tokens of their submission. Today people are rarely murdered for violations of caste restrictions—except sometimes in the case of unauthorised cross-caste love affairs—but in the presence of persons of the upper castes, Dalits are still expected to bow their heads and stand at a respectful distance.

These inequalities are the fertile soil from which Theyyam grew, and the dance form has always been a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life: for it is not the pure and sanctified Brahmins into which the gods choose to incarnate, but the shunned and insulted Dalits. The entire system is free from Brahmin control. The Theyyams take place not in Brahminical temples, but small shrines in the holy places and sacred groves of the countryside, and the priests are not Brahmin but Dalit.

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Two priests, stripped to the waist, approached her, head bowed, with a bowl of toddy, which she drank in a single gulp. It was as she was drinking that the drums reached a new climax and suddenly a second deity appeared, leaping into the open space of the clearing with a crown of seven red cobra heads, to which were attached two huge round earrings. A silver applique chakra was stuck in the middle of his forehead, and round his waist was a wide grass busk, as if an Elizabethan couturier had somehow been marooned on some forgotten jungle island and been forced to reproduce the fashions of the Virgin Queen’s court from local materials. His wrists were encircled with bracelets of palm spines and Exora flowers. It was only after a minute that I realised it was Hari Das.

He was unrecognisable from before. His eyes were wide, charged and staring, and his whole personality seemed to have been transformed. The calm, slightly earnest and thoughtful man I knew from my different meetings was now changed into a frenzied divine athlete. He made a series of spectacular leaps in the air as he circled the kavu, twirling and dancing, spraying the crowd with showers of rice offerings.

After several rounds in this manner, the tempo of the drums slowly lowered. As Chamundi took her seat on a throne at one side of the main entrance to the shrine, still twitching uneasily, the Vishnumurti theyyam approached the ranks of devotees, in a choreographed walk, part strut, part dance. All of the devotees and pilgrims had now respectfully risen from their seats and from the ground, and were now standing with heads bowed before the deity.

In one hand the Vishnumurti now held a bow and a quiver of arrows; in the other a sword. These he used to bless the devotees, who bowed their heads as he approached. With the blade of the sword he touched the outstretched hands of some of the crowd: “All will be well!” he intoned in a deep voice in Malayalam. “All the darkness will go! The gods will look after you!” Between these encouraging phrases in the local dialect, he muttered a series of Sanskrit mantras and incantations. The personality of the deity was quite distinct from that of Chamundi—as benign and reassuring as the latter was disturbing and potentially dangerous, even psychotic.

The deity now returned to the shrine, and taking a throne, looked on as the various priests and attendants now prostrated themselves before him, each offering a drink of toddy. Like Chamundi, Vishnumurti drank the offering in a single gulp. This was the signal for the spiritual surgery to begin and the devotees to queue up, and to approach the deities for individual advice and blessing.

After an hour or so of this, the queues began to dwindle, and the drums struck up again. Such was the reassuring calm of the gods’ surgery that nothing prepared me for what followed. As the tempo rose, the attendants handed both deities coconuts which they took over to a sacrificial altar and threw down with such force that the coconut exploded.

Then the gods were handed huge cleavers. From one side a pair of squawking chickens were produced. Both were held by the feet and were flapping frantically. Another attendant appeared, holding an offering of rice on a palm-leaf plate. Seconds later, the cleaver descended and the chickens were both beheaded. The head of each was thrown away and blood gushed out in a great jet on to the rice. Then, as the drums climaxed, both deities lifted the flapping carcasses up to their faces, blood still haemorrhaging over the costumes and head-dresses. Together, Chamundi and Vishnumurti placed the severed neck of each chicken in their mouth, drinking deeply. Only then did they put the carcass down, on to its feet, so that the headless chicken ran off, scrabbling and flapping as if still alive. Only after another full minute had passed did the chickens pitch over and come to rest at the edge of the crowd.

How one interprets and describes phenomena depends on one’s belief system.

The modern human being has a belief system. It is called Reason. This system is based on the belief that all things experienced by the 5 senses really exist. And that things not perceived by the 5 senses and the mind do not exist.

Science basically operates on this paradigm. Thus the scientist

  1. Observes a phenomenon
  2. Gathers sense data about the phenomenon.
  3. Forms hypothesis, theory or a model of the phenomenon. (S)he may either describe it in these terms or form hypothesis about the causes.
  4. Tests the hypothesis with more sense data of the type observed and gathered, varying the controlling conditions in a measured manner.
  5. Proves that the hypothesis/theory holds for a set of data and conditions.
  6. Gets/allows other people to also repeat the tests and validate the hypothesis.

A diligent, admirable and overwhelmingly successful method no doubt. This is an iron-clad, closed-loop system. Does it have limitations?

Science forgets, disregards or minimizes the following fact. All data about phenomena are sensory inputs experienced by the perceiver. Any perceiver with X number of senses and the step-by-step, sequential reasoning mentality – will tend to experience and think about the phenomenon in question in broadly the same way. It is a highly left-brain oriented thinking style.

Imagine a remote planet where human-like beings exist.  The only thing lacking in them is the sense of sight. They are all blind. Thus shapes, colours, forms, changes of state of these properties etc cannot be perceived. They do not see clouds, the blue sky, the far-away stars, birds flying silently in the sky, distant blue seas, lush green forests and so on. Undoubtedly a greatly diminished life, compared to people like us.

Now, if one or two of them acquire eyes somehow, a whole new world opens up. They start experiencing and describing things that seem incredible to other people. Thye may be considered to have too much imagination, or even mad. They may eventually be persecuted or thrown out of the human community.

The history of science itself has plenty of these happenings. Until radio waves were discovered, Science did not know of its existence, though radio waves have existed for all time. This example extends to x-rays, gamma radiation and many other phenomena discovered at some point in time.

If due to some future catastrophes, suddenly the faculty of colour is lost, then Science will gradually start to deny the existence of colour. If people with long memories, or memories of their ancestors’ tales, talk about these things, they will be considered superstitious.

Another way of looking at it is as a dream. Everything that happens in a dream is unreal outside that dream, but real inside it! The community of scientists and reasoning members can also be considered to be in a collective dream, experimenting, verifying, validating and reinforcing each others’ experiences and belief systems!

Observing, describing and interpreting phenomena like the Theyyam dance, is also an activity dependent on an ideology described earlier, the ideology of Science and Reason. Things will seem bizarre, meaningless, dangerous and barbaric. One cannot begin to understand the ideology that gives rise to these rituals. It induces a remoteness, a separation, a disbelief, and a superiority complex in the modern observer.

Can there be an ideology that gave rise to these rituals? Do they have another kind of logic? If one has a philosophically open mind, one can allow for other ways of knowing and experiencing.

In a book called “Pleasure Cults of India”, Mr. P. Thomas surveys this area from the point of view of Hindu Cosmology. In this belief system the human being is not merely the body. Behind the body is a subtle body, consisting of thoughts, feelings and mental states. Behind it is a causal body, where these things are in a latent form.

External worlds are also many. Our 3-dimensional, physical world is one of many worlds that exist in the Universe. Other types of beings inhabit other worlds. There are worlds “below” and worlds “above” our world.  These may not be accessible to our 3-dimensional perception.

Hindu cosmology identifies 14 such worlds, 7 below and 6 above. These are called Hells and Heavens. Buddhism has a similar scheme, though the names are different. The 7 hells are Atala, Vitala, Rasatala, Talatala and Patala. The 6 heavens are Bhuvarloka, Swarloka, Mahaloka, Janaloka, Tapoloka and Satyaloka.

Beings may move from one world to another through trans-migration and reincarnation, driven there by desires and previous actions. Each world has beings having various shapes, faculties, powers and tendencies. There are Devas, Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Apsaras in the upper worlds. There are Asuras, Daithyas, Danavas, Rakshasas etc in the lower worlds.

There are Yakshas and Yakshis who may live in trees in Bhuloka (Earth). There is a special class of beings called Bhoothas, Prethas and Pischachas. These beings inhabit the earth, but without a physical body. This can happen if their “soul journey” after death was interrupted due to some reason, like strong attachment to earthly pleasures – eating, sex, drink etc. These beings are in a difficult state. They have strong, overwhelming desires, but no physical body to fulfill those desires. So they try to possess or enter the body of a human, in order to enjoy their desires.

For the unfortunate human owners of the physical body, this is a like a major mental disease. The possession has to be exorcised. This is the context in which exorcism was born and is practiced. It has its own rules which appear to outsiders as rituals. It has its doctors and sorcerers.  Traditions like the Theyyam dance have their origin, place and operation in this belief system.

Ghosts can inhabit the lonely places where recently they had died as human beings. They may have been murdered, died in accidents, committed suicide etc. They have some unlived life which they crave. So an exorcist tries to find out the character of these ghosts. What kind of people had such mishaps, what their unfulfilled desires and fears were, what attracts them, what repels them etc. Using such data, the exorcist will try to entice, cajole, threaten or drive out these possessions.

There is a popular belief in Kerala in a spirit called Kutti Chatthan. He holds a sword in his right hand and rides on a buffalo. He has a shrine in Avangode, where people afflicted by his activities visit. A sudden death, drowning of children, fire, dementia are attributed to him. Rattling of crockery in a room with no crockery, appearance of filth in kitchen edibles etc are common symptoms of his presence.

These belief-cum-knowledge systems may be true, partially true etc. The degree of truth of these cannot be properly judged by unsympathetic outsiders. As in any system, there may be exploiters, quacks, charlatans, opportunists and half-knowledge practitioners. The system may have been of high quality in the past, and ignorance may have crept in, decaying the knowledge. It can happen to modern medicine one day. These possibilities must be acknowledged. Then one can observe the system from a sympathetic point of view, and get insight into the minds that accept and practice the rituals.

Looking at it from the point of view of caste equations, standards of barbarity or primitivism, will usually produce the interpretation characteristic of Modern Reason. A primitive, ignorant, backward society that needs to be taken out of this state – nudged, pushed, thrust or forced into the Rational System of Belief. In some cases, it is like the power-wielding community of the blind humans pushing the seeing humans to denying their sight faculty. Contempt, antipathy, patronization etc create barriers to emotional understanding of the observed phenomena, its actors and society. It also perpetuates the invisible point of view and ideology of the observer. Broad-minded people need to acknowledge that this is possible.

“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy”.

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