Was blind, but now I see.

5 : 7 July 2006




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Copyright for the journal © 2005
M. S. Thirumalai


M. S. Thirumalai

What Is Spirit Possession?

Spirit possession is understood as a state of consciousness induced in a person by an alien spirit, demon, or deity. Another personality takes control of that person. The person is often not fully conscious when such a take-over takes place. In spirit possession, the person possessed shows a dramatic change in physiognomy, voice, and manner. Often a spirit-possessed person remembers nothing of the possession. A spirit-possessed person's behavior varies according to the kind and number of spirits which took possession of him or her.

Spirit possession is a widely common phenomenon throughout the world, but it is more widely found in the Pacific cultures and least found among the North and South American native Indian cultures. Spirit possession occurs more frequently in agricultural societies than in hunting and gathering societies. Women are more often possessed than men in these cultures.

How Do Cultures View Spirit Possession?

Societies have viewed spirit possession in different ways. Some cultures may look at spirit possession as benign and some others look at it as malign. A distinction is also made between central and peripheral spirit possession. The central possession is perceived to be supportive of the social order and is thus desirable, and the peripheral possession is perceived to be not supportive of the existing order and hence is evil. Some others look at possession that is voluntary, and possession that is spontaneous and thus involuntary.

Spirit Possession, Medium, and Shamanism

Raymond Firth, a well-known British social anthropologist, looked at spirit possession, spirit mediumship, and shamanism as distinct processes. Spirit possession is the phenomenon of "abnormal behavior which are interpreted by other members of the society as evidence that a spirit is controlling the person's actions and probably inhabiting his body." Spirit mediumship is the "use of such behavior by members of the society as a means of communication with what they understand to be the entity in the spirit world." Shamanism is the "phenomenon where a person, either a spirit medium or not, is regarded as controlling spirits, exercising his mastery over them in socially recognized ways."

Manner and Stages of Spirit Possession

The initial spirit possession is usually involuntary. A change in consciousness takes place and the person undergoing such changes is in no position to control or regulate this initial possession. Subsequent possessions may be induced in several ways: through the inhalation of incense or fumes, ingestion of drugs, partaking in animal sacrifice and drinking the blood of the victim, or through bombardment of noise such as drumming, dancing, incantation of repetitive chants, chest beating, etc. So, the initial possession is involuntary and subsequent ones are voluntary.

Spirit mediums and shamans control and manipulate the spirits to do harm and good. One and the same person may perform all three acts. And this transfer from one state to the other is accomplished over several exercises.

Initial possession is often accompanied by some dramatic illness for which no reason or cure could be found within the existing arrangements in the culture. It will soon be recognized as caused by the visitation or possession of the individual by a spirit. It is an unconscious affair. However, the patient of spirit possession gets an opportunity to ventilate his grievances through the process of spirit possession. He is seen to have some disturbances in concentration, attention, judgment, and memory. He has perceptual distortions of space, time, and body. He appears to be doped all the time. He is in a trance, which is defined as "a condition of dissociation, characterized by the lack of voluntary movement and frequently by automatisms in act and thought, illustrated by hypnotic and mediumistic conditions."

Through bombardment and sensory deprivation, the trance is induced. Bombardment includes "singing, chanting, drumming, clapping, monotonous dancing, inhaling incense and other fumes, and experiencing the repetitive play of light and darkness. Techniques of deprivation include ideational and perceptual restrictions, blind-folding, and isolation. Fasting and other dietary restrictions, and hyperventilation (during incantations, for example), and ingestion of drugs (tobacco, cannabis, and various psychedelic substances) may also be used."

Generally speaking, the stages in the spirit possession are the initial illness, accommodation with the spirit, and incorporation into the cult. There is a tripartite ritual structure of spirit possession according to the anthropologists: "removal of the possessed from his every day world, entry into the liminal world of trance, dissociation, etc., and return to his ordinary world." When a person is possessed, he may lose consciousness altogether, or move in and out of the trance condition, and even may have moments of total normality. He may have difficulty, however, in recalling all that has happened in his possessed condition. He may have a confused memory.

Terms Used to Describe Spirit Possession

Three terms are often used to describe the spirit possession: entrance, intrusion, and incorporation. These terms clearly indicate that the spirit is an outside alien force, which enters the individual. The entrance is against the will of the individual, which is intrusion, but as the individual has no other way to escape, incorporation of the alien outside force is incorporated, resulting in a new identity and power to the individual. Entrance is often described as mounting (the animal, a horse, etc.) to subjugate it to the will of the spirit entering the person.

Another term used is descending. When the spirit leaves the individual it is said to ascend to its original abode. Other words used to describe the process of possession are as follows: "take possession of, have a proprietary interest in, to haunt, to inhabit, to besiege, to be a guest of, to strike or slap, to seduce, to marry, or to have sexual relations with the host." The dramatic illness that comes in the wake of initial possession may take the form of "paralysis, mutism, sudden blindness, or profound dissociation-contrary behavior, such as wild and seemingly destructive flight into the bush or, for women, nursing the feet of a newborn infant" (Mircea Eliade, p. 16).


Exorcism may result in permanent deliverance or the patient may be transformed into a host of the spirit and become a shaman or similar person with recognized powers. The spirits may have their own history. In some cultures the spirits may not have any history of their own. The spirits may be associated with some lineage and social groups. "Often they are conceived of as ancestral shades or lineage or household spirits. Diagnosis of the spirit possessed involves discovering the spirit's identity, the cause of his displeasure that led to the possession, and the nature of his demands. Therapy involves the regulation of the relationship between the possessed and the spirit. In societies with looser social organizations, for example in many urban centers, the spirits are not so closely related to specific social groups. They are "open" to a larger variety of social relations, but they are not devoid of symbolic social attachment" (Mircea Eliade, p. 15).

In many parts of the world, the possessed perform uncanny feats, such as walking over burning coals (in the Greek Anastenaria), piercing themselves with skewers and pins (the followers of Murukan in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Fiji), slashing their heads with knives and halberds (the Hamadsha of Morocco), playing with poisonous snakes (the rattlesnake cults of Appalachia), or stabbing themselves with swords and spears without harm (in Java, Bali, and among the Cape Malay in South Africa)" (Mircea Eliade, p.17).

"Exorcisms may comprise little more than simple prayers or incantations sung over the possessed, as happens in Christian and Islamic contexts. Sometimes exorcisms involve torturing the possessed (pulling his ear, flagellating, or burning him) until the possessing spirit has revealed its identity and demands or has released the patient. In many societies that support possession cults, the exorcisms are semipublic or public occasions. Such ceremonies tend to be highly dramatic. There is music, most frequently drumming, but also music of woodwind, reed, and string instruments, and dancing, which may be simple or quite complex. In Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, comic or other dramatic interludes often play a role. The exorcist, the possessed, and other performers may don masks, wear special costumes, and take on the part of well-known mythic and legendary figures. The ceremonies are often accompanied by sacrifices and communal meals, and last through the night" (Mircea Eliade, p. 17).

Possession in some Buddhist Cults

Nichiren Buddhist priests recognize four kinds of possession. In the first kind the person possessed has mysterious pains which is attributed to an angry spirit. In the second kind, the person possessed has hallucinations. In the third kind the person possessed has an altered personality which is believed to have been caused by an animal. The fourth kind of possession results in different voices and different personalities.

The Nichinren priest undergoes severe training spending one hundred coldest days in mountain tops during winter, eating only thin rice gruel, sleeping only for a few hours, chanting Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Buddhist priests use mediums to talk to the spirit which possessed the individual. The priest read the petitions listing the problems of the patient. The medium gives the answers believed to be coming from the deity of the temple. The deity diagnoses the problem, tells whether the problem is caused by ordinary tiredness or by a spirit. If the cause is a spirit, the spirit is forced to reveal its name and leave the body of the patient. The spirit is asked to speak through the medium, if it chooses to reveal its grouse against the patient. The priest recites the verses from the Lotus Sutra, with the accompaniment of sharp clicks on the musical instrument. The spirit asks for forgiveness of the priest. The spirit then is deemed to have left the body of the patient.

Exorcism in China

DeGroot describes the exorcism procedures in some parts of China as follows: "After reciting spells, burning papers of incantations, and offering incense, the shaman begins his or her communication with the medium. The medium shivers and yawns, but as incantations become louder to the accompaniment of drums and as eye-opening papers are burnt in quick succession, he or she begins to jump about. Assistants force the medium to a seat, his limbs shaking, his head and shoulders jerking from side to side, and his eyes staring as if into the invisible world. The consultant (the sufferer or the shaman) put questions to the medium, who replies with incoherent sounds which are interpreted as a divine language and are written down on paper. When the spirit announces its intention to depart, drums are beaten, water and ashes are spurted over the medium, and gold paper money is burned for the spirit. The medium swoons, and when he revives he declares that he had no recollection of the event" (Parrinder, in Mircea Eliade, p. 227). In most of these cases, exorcism is performed mostly on behalf of the sick than for any other purpose.

Exorcism among the Hindus

For thousands of years, the Hindus have resorted to exorcism. One of the four ancient sacred texts of the Hindus (Atharvaveda) "gives spells for exorcising, 'speaking away,' warding off or averting pests and their leaders, as well as rites against demons." Agni, the god of fire, is called upon to burn against demons, and Rudra is asked to crush the ribs of sorcerers. "Charms were recommended for the expulsion of adversaries, rivals, wizards, and assorted demons." Ayurveda, the science of longevity, the ancient medical system of the Hindus, speaks of the knowledge of evil beings for the treatment of diseases caused by evil beings. "After describing how spirits are sent by sorcerers to plague individuals, Ayurveda recommends employing an exorcist who by means of spells and propitiatory formulas can send the malady back to its author or transfer it to a tree, animal, or human being." In the villages of South Asia, "the activities of professional exorcisers ranged from warding off hailstorms to expelling evil spirits from those possessed by them.

L. S. O'Malley (1935) describes an exorcism during an epidemic in the sub-Himalayan districts of Uttar Pradesh. The exorcist was simply carried outside the village tied upside down on a bedstead. Driving a wooden peg into the ground, he assured the villagers that the evil spirit had been tied up. Spirits that possessed men or women might be induced by the exorcist to leave by offerings of sweetmeats or sacrifices of goats. If this persuasion failed, harsher methods were used: beating the sufferer, applying red pepper to his nose, or undertaking the fire-walking ceremony. Only those possessed by an evil spirit are affected by the fire, and, if their skin is burnt, it is a sign of deliverance from demonical possession" (Exorcism, p. 230).

Exorcism in Sri Lanka among the Buddhists

"When a person is ill in Sri Lanka, he sends first for the general medical practitioner, but if the practitioner's remedies do not help the invalid, a soothsayer is called in to determine the cause of the sickness. The soothsayer may suggest an astrologer, who is cheaper, or an exorcist. The exorcist makes his diagnosis by asking where the patient has stayed, whether he has come into contact with harmful spirits, eaten food that attracted them, or lived in a haunted house. He ties a charm on the patient to prevent the sickness from getting worse and to show the demons that a fuller ritual offering will be made." The exorcism exercise is elaborate and is conducted through the night until the dawn. Some Hindu temples in Sri Lanka attract thousands of Buddhists for exorcism. The Buddhist exorcists use the sacred words from the standard sacred texts to frighten the spirits and drive them away. The exorcist treats the diseases of women, and the monks keep away from women. The exorcist recite the verses from the sacred texts, invokes the power of the Buddha and other benevolent spirits and ask them to come and fight the evil spirit inhabiting the individual. "He goes into a trance, trembling, waving his arms, shaking his body, gabbling magical spells, rushing to confront the patient. To make the spirit reveal itself, the exorcist may attack the patient, beating her with a whip or a fern, even scratching her with a tiger's tooth."

Exorcism in Islam

"The Islamic world tolerates the belief in witchcraft and possession. Sihr, glamour, magic, is based upon belief in a world of spirits. Magicians claim that they can control the spirits by obeying Allah and using his name in exorcisms. Illicit magicians are believed to enslave spirits for evil purposes and do so by performing deeds displeasing to God.

"A crucial verse in the Qur'an states that unbelievers "follow what the devils used to recite in the reign of Solomon. Solomon did not disbelieve, but the devils disbelieved, teaching the people magic . . . and they learn what injures them and does not profit" (2:96-102). Later Islam traced all good magic back to Solomon, and the devils listened at the walls of heaven and added lies to what they heard. In the traditions it is said that Muhammad permitted the use of spells to counteract the effects of the evil eye or to remove the yellowness which came from a malignant eye.

"Exorcism was da'wah, a call or invocation, interpreted by the orthodox as permissible only through the invocation of God himself. A further tradition said, "there is nothing wrong in using spells as long as you do not associate anything with God." Exorcists and licit magicians claim that they control the spirits by supplicating God and bringing adjurations to bear on the spirits. Illicit magicians are said to enslave spirits by making evil offerings and by performing deeds displeasing to God. Incantations used by exorcists consist of the recital of the names and attributes of God, either "amiable attributes" or "terrible attributes." The name and initials of the person to be influenced are also considered by many popular exorcists to be connected with the twelve signs of the zodiac, the seven planets, and the four elements. Books on exorcism correlate these signs with types of incense and with the names of presiding spirits which make other souls obedient to the will of the exorcist.

"The jinn, or genies are fiery spirits, some of whom are believers and will enter paradise, while others will go to the fire of hell. They appear in many popular stories . . . Mental and physical illnesses are often ascribed to jinn, and prayers for protection against them are uttered on entering a house or taking a bath. Jinn are frightened away by strong smells or sounds, by salt or water or smoke, but only with the help of the invocation of God. . . ."

Exorcism in the Old Testament and Apocrypha

Exorcisms depicted in the Old Testament use powerful words in the name of God. These focus only on the power of God, and not on the use magic rituals. Nor do they seek mediums to control the possessing spirits and to drive them out. However, over the centuries, we see a greater dependence on man-made materials in the life of the Jews for exorcism.

The Word of God, and Spirit Possession and Exorcism

How do we respond to spirit possession? How do we deal with exorcism? The Word of God tells us that God is Spirit (John 4:24). He has left with us His Holy Spirit. The Word of God recognizes that there are real spiritual beings and that there is a continuing struggle between the angelic forces and evil spirits in the spiritual realm. Satan is a tempter of people (Genesis 3:1-5; Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 3:5), he is the adversary of God and a slanderer of God. He is a distinct malevolent spiritual being who from the beginning works against God's plans.

1 John 3:8 says that the devil has been sinning from the beginning. In Revelation 12:9 we read that the ancient serpent called the devil or Satan leads the whole world astray. He rules the minds of all unbelievers, and is called the god of this age: "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4). He is also called "the ruler of kingdom of the air" (Ephesians 2:2). He tries to ensnare the new convert to make him his (Satan's) captive: "He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap (1 Timothy 3:6-7). "Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:25-26).

Satan and his servants masquerade as angels of light and servants of righteousness: " .... Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness...." (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). He prowls "like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).

The good news is that Jesus came to this world to overcome the archenemy of God. ".... The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work" (1 John 3:8). Jesus came to claim victory over death for all of us- "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil-held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).

In Colossians (1:13-14) we read: "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." In Colossians 2:15 we are told: "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." Thus victory is already ours. We need to appropriate it by faith in Jesus Christ. Ephesians 6:10-18 invites us to put on the full armor of God so that we can take our stand against the devil's schemes.

While the victory is ours in Jesus' name, we must recognize that exorcism is not an end in itself: "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first ...." (Matthew 12:43-45).

Note that the house was kept clean and put in order and yet the evil spirits were emboldened to return in strength. The cleanliness in the natural, without the armor of God's Word in the heart, is a sure place for the spirits to return. So, it is important for us to give the gospel to those for whom we have prayed and whom the Spirit of God delivered from evil spirits.

I have seen scores of women, girls, and boys who were momentarily rid of their possessed condition by the animist exorcists go back into the demonic hold and looked and behaved just as before-in a state of possession. I have not seen any individual who goes back to his normal life after he underwent exorcism by the animist practitioners. If only they had the armor of God around them, they would have got out of the hold of the devil and led a normal life.

Power of God Is Given to Us

Power is given to all of us, the disciples and children of God, to drive out demons in Jesus' name (Mark 16:17). When Jesus sent out the twelve, "they went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them." However, this authority is not given for our personal glory. Jesus said, "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:19-20).

Faith Is Necessary

Jesus asked us to have faith when we embark on healing people possessed by demons. A boy was possessed by a demon and he had seizures and was suffering greatly. He often fell into the fire or into the water. The disciples of Jesus could not heal him. Jesus healed the boy. "Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, 'Why couldn't we drive it our?' He replied, 'Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, "Move from here to here" and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you' " (Matthew 17:19-20).

Fasting and Prayer

Also it is important that we need to fast and pray to drive out the demons. "So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy's father, 'How long has he been like this?' 'From childhood,' he answered. 'It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.' 'If you can?' said Jesus. 'Everything is possible for him who believes.' .... The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, 'He's dead.' But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, 'Why couldn't we drive it out? He replied, 'This kind can come out only by prayer' " (Mark 9:20-29).

Possession by Multiple Spirits

A person may be possessed by a number of spirits. In exorcism exercises which I have seen, the possessed often lists the names of spirits tormenting him or her. Sometimes they may not know the names of the spirits and say that they are possessed by a horde of spirits. We see this in one of the incidents presented in the gospels. "When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, 'What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you don't torture me!' For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. Jesus asked him, 'What is your name? 'Legion,' he replied, because many demons had gone into him...." (Luke 8:27-30). Note that the demons do recognize the Son of God and his authority over every one, including themselves.

Characteristics of Animist Exorcism

The animist exorcism is no exorcism at all. It does not lead to a permanent cure. It is only an attempt to replace one set of evil spirits by another set of evil spirits. On the other hand, driving out demons in the name of Jesus is annihilation of the authority of the demons over the person or persons they possessed. The animist uses one evil spirit against another evil spirit. Jesus was accused of doing the same by some. "They said that by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons. Jesus answered: 'Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you' " (Luke 11:17-21).

God's healing power is available to us all the time and on all days. The synagogue ruler was furious that Jesus healed a woman who was crippled by a spirit for eighteen years on the Sabbath: " 'There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.' The Lord answered him, 'You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?' " (Luke 13:14-16).

Exorcism, Not A Trade

We have seen that exorcism operates as a trade in many religions. Excorcists use many man-made techniques to drive out the evil spirits. They seek the help of other spirits to drive away the spirit inhabiting the individuals. Hardly any attempt is made to fill the vacuum created by the removal of the evil spirits. The spirits are engaged and enticed to leave the individual's body through offerings or bribes. Some times physical violence is resorted to in this process. While we do not deny the existence and the influence of spiritual beings, we must also caution that such steps do not lead to a total cure of the body and soul of the individual. Prayer in Jesus's name is the most effective answer for spirit possession. Let not the pastors and other servants of God in Asia, Africa and Latin America borrow the methods of exorcism adopted in animistic religions. Fasting, prayer and the reading and listening to the Word of God should fill the life of those who care for the spirit-possessed individuals. Let the possessed be encouraged to hold on to the Word of God and to read and listen to it on a regular basis. A counseling based on the Word of God will help change the lives of the spirit-possessed. For all these to succeed, however, faith is necessary.


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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
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