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Healing in Nepal

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A Traditional, Pan-ethnic Perspective On Illness And Healing In Nepal

Since time immemorial, people cultivated very good relations with Mother Nature and all that is created. Annual worship and offerings, seasonal propitiations, ancestral reverence, honoring the Earth-Mother, as well as all the plant and animal kingdoms, were part of being and living a harmonious life.

As time passed greed, envy and nervousness started planting roots in the human psyche. When the humans started shaping their lives on reason instead of instinct, they started turning away from Mother Nature and her creations. Harmony began to rupture and beings began to fragment. This was the beginning of disease and wars as slowly humans deviated away from their connection to the “source”.

In the animist perspective, the universe of the spirits cannot be separated from the mundane world. Gods, nature spirits, elementals spirits, planetary influences, unquiet human spirits and ancestors influence the energies of people and the earth. Any of these spirits may cause illness if their territory is encroached upon, any insults are made, their shrines are disturbed or if one fails to perform timely homage.

Although the Gods may strike out or cause illnesses to remind and awaken the humans to maintain harmony, it is not correct to place deities in the same category as lagu, or disease causing spirits. If properly honored these beings may protect individuals or even grant favors or boons. Lagu are disease causing forces that are totally evil. They come in different varieties and forms.

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Though Nepal is a garden of different ethnic groups, different traditions, customs and cultures aligned to different organized religions, the focus on unseen forces and making regular expression of gratitude to the spirits is hardly forgotten. Despite having many dialects and practices, the shamanic foundations are almost the same in all the ethnic groups and so the ways of placating the spirits is also quite similar. Although many different items may be used for offerings the myths and rituals are much the same.

Some of the primary lagu spirits who create diseases or misfortune include: Bayu, Bhut, Pichas, Masaan, Nag and Moch although there are many others.

Masaan: These are the spirits of the dead who have not yet crossed-over to a peaceful rest. They appear in this realm as a skeleton. These lagu may cause seizures, fits and fevers.

Nag/serpent: Widely believed to take the form of a serpent. Ill-intentioned witches and sorcerers can use these beings as disease causing agents. Nag spirits cause eye problems.

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Moch: May only attack children and pregnant mothers. These spirits arise from the spirits of the mothers who died during pregnancy or during childbirth. These spirits may disturb a pregnant mother and also young children. Often this spirit causes the condition known as runche, a state where the child is whiny, uncooperative and sickly or malnourished with no apparent cause.

Bayu: Is understood as a noxious wind or bad air, which is caused by a disturbed spirit of the dead. Bayu causes headaches and body aches. The uncrossed-over spirit may disturb the house, family members, animals and may make noise at house by moving utensils and knocking at the doors.

Spirit-caused illnesses can be divided into four categories:

Attacks–Lagnu or Hannu:
These terms are used to describe the onslaught of the lagu spirits. They are believed to attack because they are hungry for food or from lack of support for their continuance. They are appeased and sent away through food offerings and through spiritual transference or sacrifices.

Bewitchment–Bokshi lagnu:
In spirit caused illnesses, witches or bokshi can gain control over both benevolent deities and lagu by promising them food and or offerings. However, these sorcerers or witches do not always use wrathful deities to directly cause illness. Instead they are believed to have techniques of sympathetic magic. Witches may collect things belonging to their victims such as pieces of fingernails, hair, or clothing. They then draw an effigy on the ground, or in a dried out tree and work harm on these objects to cause similar misfortune to befall their designated victim. These kinds of notorious harmful acts are either done for personal benefits or as directed by those who hire the bokshi to harm.

Fright and soul loss–Saato jannu:
When frightened, a person’s soul is thought to depart from the body. When the soul parts leave the body or get disturbed for other reasons, they may end up in the hands of malignant spirits if their immediate retrieval cannot be done. When this happens the person’s soul can be stolen by a lagu spirit or even by a deity. A person suffering from soul loss becomes lethargic forgetful, angry, or fearful. They may lose their inner fire, suffer a lack of vision, an absence of enthusiasm, exhibit weakness, experience a sudden lose or gain in weight, and in some cases appear to become insane. The person eventually dies if the shaman does not retrieve soul.

Spirit Possession–Lagu-bhagu:
Spirit-caused illness is due to the influence of alien spirits. While possessed, a person trembles through out the body and, in extreme cases, may even lie writhing on the ground. The person may flee their house to the forest and keep away from all the human habitations. Convulsive shaking is a key sign of possession. It usually builds up to a crescendo and once this is reached, the epileptic-like paroxysm stops. The seizures may end either violently or smoothly. In most of the cases the possessed does not remember anything as it is thought to be a completely involuntary phenomenon.

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Along side spirit-caused illnesses there are natural illnesses and often a precise boundary does not exist between them. The one who is trained to see spiritual cause can make diagnostic. In most cases shamans intuitively knows what can be treated and what may not be. If the case is out of the shaman’s realm of expertise, a referral is made to the nearest health center or to a fellow-shaman who has specialized skills.

In most cases, patients visit the shamans for a diagnosis of their illness. After diagnosis and basic rounds of healing, the shaman may suggest different methods of healing ranging from conventional western-style treatments, to the local herbalist, to temple healers or religious healers. The choice of how to proceed remains in the hands of the person in need.

While inspired by his helping spirits, a shaman may diagnosis the patient through the process of divination, called jokhana. Jokhana is not to discover the future of the patient, rather it reveals the nature of the patient’s current problems which may include interpersonal conflicts in both ordinary and non-ordinary realities.

Feeling the pulse is also a prerequisite step for the shaman in making a correct diagnosis as is doing phukne, invoking healing deities and jhar-phuk, blowing healing energy or a healing mantra into the body of the person who is spiritually ill. These diagnostic methods contribute to a the patient experiencing more psychological ease, as a diagnosed problem is one that is already on the way to being solved.

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Extensive Healing Ceremonies.
Other than the therapeutic naming or recognition of the disease that is accomplished during diagnosis, there are salient psychotherapeutic aspects in shamanic healing that parallel modern psychological methods. There are
four elements that are widely used in Nepalese-Himalayan shamanic healing systems. These are Faith, Suggestion, Group support and Catharsis.

Faith:
If we have no faith or belief in a shaman or even an allopathic doctor, it is very hard to get results. It is not enough to get a recommendation to visit a well-known healer or a medical doctor. A sense of safety is necessary for the patient. Like any other kind of healing process, a shamanic healing is a collaboration between the shaman and the patient.

Suggestion:
During a period of a patient’s extreme susceptibility to suggestion such as during the inhibitory collapse stage following possession or when a patient is completely exhausted after an emotional outburst, the shaman may manipulate certain key cultural symbols. The use of objects and gestures is necessary during the healing session. Physical manifestations such as the use of the shaman’s tools, or the use of healing gestures have profound therapeutic effects on the subconscious of the patient. Since a patient’s religious or cultural background can impact the reception of such physical methods these parameters are considered during healing sessions.

Group or community support:
Support by the patient’s family, clan or community is the beginning of every shamanic healing process. In Nepalese traditions the healing is done in the presence of known and unknown people. There is no secrecy. Everyone present participates and shares in the ceremony. A Nepali shaman’s practice space is like a group healing circle or a healing temple where there are no limiting barriers.

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Catharsis:
In many of the shamanic healing rituals, the cathartic el ement, the discharge of distressful emotions that have been stored in the body takes place. The shaman’s work with the spirits and the support by the community and family create a safe space in which the patient may have strong reactions.

  • An experience of outburst of emotions (anger/fear) by weeping at the end of the ritual.
  • The patient may become possessed by a spirit and shake convulsively.
  • The patient may experience both a possession with emotional outburst that has similarities to experiences, which may happen in psychotherapeutic session. In some cases of religious conversions, when a new person is converted or accepted into the new religious institution, he or she may experience an abreaction or catharsis as they release their old life and accept the new one.
  • A shaman’s ability to excite the person to such a high degree may create an inhibitory collapse or dramatic loss of psychological boundaries. At this stage, the mind is extremely susceptible to suggestions. The healings or visions received while in this state are taken in very deeply and are believed with great amount of conviction. After this emotional crisis, the patient’s personality resets becoming much more centered and grounded.
  • Intense emotional experiences have a profound psychological function in themselves.
  • An emotional catharsis allows the patient to release aggression and frustration that affects a sense of renewal and an improved capacity for dealing with reality.

Possession and catharsis are crisis experiences. They appear from a state of confusion, anxiety and emotional distress. During the crisis, feelings are expressed through the spirit and through culturally relevant means.

The symbols and symbolic gestures of the shaman may then penetrate directly into the patient’s deepest psyche where spoken words cannot usually be effective.

The use of vases full of water (Kalasa), sacred ash prepared from burning medicinal plants (bibhuti/kharani); tying the multi-colored thread in the hand pulse(pancha rangi doro); sprinkling water in the body(chokhaunu); calling in or summoning the soul and blowing through the ears and from the top of the head(saato bolaune/hangsa bolaunu); preparing protective amulets and talismans(jantar-buti), offering a soul-flower (Totala-ko-phul) are some of the nonverbal gestures that are used in shamanic healing practices.

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The totala ko phul flower is regarded to be the most pure and sacred among different flowers of the nature. This flower represents the cultural values like goodness, sacredness, growth, fidelity, purity, health, truth and life. It is also called “soul flower” as it symbolizes the healthy soul and giving it as a tika or blessing to the patient by placing it on the forehead, symbolically represents the returning of the patient’s lost soul. Towards the end of healing rituals, the shaman manipulates this flower in his hands, passing it over the patient numerous times while reciting mantra or
chanting blessing hymns. Such a symbolic gesture is an unspoken language; through it the shaman holds a kind of dialogue with the patient, not through the spoken word but with concrete actions that carry the shaman’s message directly to the deepest core of the patient.

By identifying with these symbols, the individual can use them as vehicles to transform himself or his health. The underlying effect of shamanic healing is to transmute the patient’s symptoms and beliefs into socially useful channels. The symbol serves as a guide or vehicle for the reorganization of the emotions released during the traumatic cathartic experiences or during life-challenging diseases.

From the Nepalese perspective, there are no hard and fast rules in healing. Any person who is being blessed by the deities, ancestors and teachers can perform as a healer offering healing rituals and ceremonies irrespective of any class, caste, color, religion or ethnic group. The spirits do not look at the outward appearance of the healer or the patient. It is the intention and purity of heart of the presiding shaman and equal reciprocation from the patient that creates the opportunity for healing.

Published courtesy of Bhola Nath Banstola.

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