Spirit Possession:
The Challenge to the Western Worldview

By Bowie Snodgrass

Kathleen M. Erndl, a Hindu scholar, proposes that "divine possession is the most dramatic way to encounter the Goddess experientially, and it also presents the greatest challenge to the Western worldview."1 After reading this statement, I started thinking about why this was. I also began to think about other instances of possession I have witnessed, live or on video. What are my own assumptions about the nature of 'divine possession'? Why does it pose such a threat to the 'Western worldview.' And why did Erndl chose to say Western worldview, rather than Western mind?

The next question I asked myself was, do I believe in possession? Yes, of course I do. But, then again, I don't really believe that I, myself, could be possessed. And I think this is because I am too much in control. I state that with negative connotations because I think it would be really "neat" to be possessed. But in saying that, I am simply proving that divine possession is a phenomenon I do not really understand. The whole point of being possessed by a divinity is that you are not in control of yourself, a god/goddess is.

In the West we have a saying that "Knowledge is Power," and I think we all understand that 'power' means control. When we do not know or understand something, we fear it; because if we can not have control over it, it may find a way to gain control over us.

In the West we often think of religion in terms of 'control.' "Religion is a means of controlling the masses." "I do not want some religion to have so much control over my life." But then again, don't we think of most aspects of life in terms of 'control'? Who has the control in a relationship? Or at work? Which country has the most international control? What is controlling the economy? What is controlling my emotions? Even in a class I took on the Hindu Goddess tradition, we often spoke of the control that the gods have, not just cosmically, but in shaping the roles Hindu men and women play.

What if religion is a place where people understand that they arenot in control? That may sound like an obvious statement. Religion, after all, has always been the way humans comprehend this world that we clearly do NOT have control over.

I think we usually think of things that we do not have control over as scary. I said once that when I feel angry I feel "out of control." But from the Hindu doctrinal standpoint, 'control' is an illusion of ego.2 Perhaps, Hindus do not believe this lack of control is a negative thing -- perhaps the Hindu mind would not even think to divide life and nature into categories that are within, or out of, their control. It seems to me now that my instant visual image of the streets of Calcutta (taken from Western descriptions and depictions) are of thousands of people in a city that is not in control -- yet it is. And isn't that the mystery of India for us? Indians seem to roll with the punches and get along somehow without, seemingly, a large emphasis on being in control? Or are there many different, yet non-contradictory, Indian ideas of 'control'?

Could this have to do with a different worldview in India? Erndl says she agrees with the philosophy of the anthropologist Manuel Moreno, that "to understand the phenomenon of Goddess possession, one must treat the Goddess herself as an agent who interacts with both the person possessed and the devotees who worship her."3 This thesis suggests that to study divine possession, one also needs to look at the situation in which it occurs. In Hinduism, divine possession is expected and acceptable. Worshiping the gods and goddesses implies acknowledging their ultimate control over our lives. Erndl discusses at length the fact that "Hinduism does not draw a clear dividing line between divine and human; gods can become humans and humans can become god4." When a woman or man is possessed the goddess or god is taking over control of a human body, and that body is allowing itself to be possessed. This is acceptable in the Hindu worldview.

I will close with another quote from Erndl's article. "The Goddess is not just a transcendent ideal but also an immanent presence in the lives of her devotees."5 The major Western traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all emphasize how to control your actions to find favor with God. God is omnipresent, but we will not see him till our judgment day. It is difficult to reconcile the notion of "encounter[ing] the Goddess experientially" with most institutionalized monotheistic devotion. Encounters with god happen to mystics, and crazies, and the religious authorities are quick to distinguish one from the other.6For the rest of us who were raised with a 'Western worldview,' a god or goddess acting in this world through divine possession is a challenging concept to get our heads around. Perhaps we are missing out.

1 Kathleen M Erndl, "The Mother Who Possesses," in Devi, Goddesses of India, ed. John StrattonJawley and Donna Marie Wulff (Berkeley, 1996), p 173.
2 Professor E.H. Jarow, our Web Guru. 3 Erndl, The Mother, p 175.
4 Erndl, The Mother, p 183.
5 Erndl, The Mother, p 176.
6The Christian Pentecostal tradition includes "possession" by the Holy Spirit, but this is due to the African contribution of American slaves, rather than European devotion.

Background from Andy's Art Attack, www.andyart.com.