Mining the mosaic of mystic medicine

Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas
August 1, 2003

Nepal has among the most complex, diverse and rich variety of healing practices in the world. Within this diversity, shamanism and Tantric practices have occupied an ambiguous space. For many of the urban, educated elite in Nepal, shamanism and Tantric healing practices act as a barrier to modern health services and to progress for the nation. For many public health organisations, these healers frequently act as community leaders, a force for change and a means by which health education and scientific ideas can be introduced to the populace. Among anthropologists, they have been subjected to multiple interpretations - symbolic, structuralist, psychoanalytic and textual. They have been compared with practitioners of other religions, linked to theories of embodiment and had their chants translated. Shamans have simultaneously been misunderstood and misinterpreted, suggest the authors of Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas.

Perhaps, but never have the practices of these healers been presented in a publication as beautifully produced as this, with its hundreds of photographs and 135 striking thangka paintings. This book, translated from the German publication of 2000, will have a broad appeal - part coffee table book, part scholarly account - to anthropologists, those interested in the globalisation of shamanism, as well as a broader readership interested in Nepal and the Himalayas.

It is written by two anthropologists, Claudia Müller-Ebeling, who is also an art historian, and Christian Ratsch, also an ethno-pharmacologist, and the thangka painter Surendra Bahadur Shahi. Mohan Kumar Rai, the founder and director of the Shamanistic Research Centre and a group of shamanic practitioners referred to by the authors as "our" shamans, assists them in this task. It is for this reason that the book refers much more to shamanic practice, with less on Tantra, and then mainly to illustrate its connections with shamanism. As the shamans are representatives of a number of ethnic groups and it is the core of their practice that interests the authors, the frequent anthropological tendency to reify ethnic divisions is also refreshingly underplayed.

The authors emphasise that shamanism is not about belief, nor is it a religion, but a spiritual and material technology, one based in a rigorous empiricism, a store of knowledge accumulated by its practitioners. The book's major strength is that its structure allows it to be mined for a great deal of information and detail on these practices. The pantheon of gods in relation to the shamanic (and Buddhist and Hindu), sketches of folklore and ritual, the place of trance and the materials necessary for this, anecdotes of healing rituals are all conveyed in a style best described as mosaic-like. The eclectic interests of all involved are well represented. Snippets of the shamans' statements (often given in the margins as aphorisms) are interspersed with the authors' own thoughts and interpretations. The authors provide graphic descriptions of their own involvement with mortuary rituals, sacrifice and altered states of consciousness. Their influences, more based in techno-culture and New Age interests than any anthropological canons, are clearly articulated and add to the overall tenor of the work.

As the authors state, the interpretation of shamanic practice in Nepal has tended to neglect material dimensions. They elucidate in great detail the altar objects, stones, tools and instruments that are used in practice, and the meanings attributed to these by the practitioners. The best sections are those that detail many previously unrecorded psycho-active plants, mushrooms and animal products used by the shamans for their healing practices. The photographic plates included as part of this documentation are magnificent, and act as the core of this visually oriented text. The incorporation of the superb thangka paintings by Shahi enliven the book.

What makes these particularly interesting (and for many Tibetologists, no doubt provocative) is the interpretation that the shamans themselves bring to these artworks. For example, they are able to point out which aspects of these paintings refer to shamanic practice and which have been later assimilated into Tantric Buddhism.

Throughout the text there is a tangible longing for a pre-modern simplicity, which the shamans represent. For example, after a trip with shamans to Mount Kalinchot, their most sacred of mountains, which is evocatively reproduced for us, the authors' sense of loss is most acutely felt. In their view, it is because we have lost this knowledge and its way of relating to nature that we "produce fatal situations such as air pollution, water pollution and massive animal feedlots". Unfortunately, this romanticism leads them to speculate that they would not be surprised to encounter "saurians and elves" on misty forest trails, rather than the more likely angry Maoist militias. The consequent neglect of current material conditions for many rural Nepalis' existence is regrettable.

"The future of shamanism", the final and all-too-brief chapter of the book, is, in a sense, wrapped up in these material conditions. It is in this section that we learn that one of the shamans, Indra Gurung, works at the university teaching hospital in Kathmandu. Yet, we are told no more of this fascinating interaction between medicine and mysticism. How are the shamans' practices transformed in these contemporary situations of practice? In what ways are a biomedical epistemology and certainty challenged by this? What sense do the users of these diverse services make of this? In the attempt to excavate and present a pre-modern form of practice, these more contemporary questions remain unasked.

Ian Harper is lecturer in anthropology and sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. A qualified medical practitioner, he has worked in public health programmes and researched in Nepal.

Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas

Author - Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Ratsch and Surendra Bahadur Shahi
ISBN - 0 500 51108 X
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 309

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