New Age Channelling

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New Age Channelling


and Hindu Spirit Possession: A Comparison

Mathijs van de Mast

Suddenly, your neighbour is your neighbour no longer. A non-human entity speaks and acts through her body. It is all you can do to try understanding the message this entity is trying to get across. A wise man from your community manages to stabilise the situation, and in the end your neighbour's soul is back in her own body, remembering not the slightest thing of the whole ordeal.

Stories like these – where altered states of consciousness and possession or mediumship for other entities play a role - can be found in various places and cultures worldwide. To quote key author Michael Brown: “The quest for altered states of consciousness is so widely found in human societies that it may reflect a deep-seated biological need still only dimly understood by science.”i,ii Not only in various non-western indigenous cultures is possession a part of the local religious traditions, but also in America has the New Age movement long since seen the rise of a

phenomenon called “Channelling”. Similarities between channelling and other world-wide forms of possession have of course been noted by many, but a full analysis of the differences and agreements between most unrelated forms of possession remains to be seen. This article will concentrate on the Western practice of channelling and on cases of spirit possession in a particularly interesting

cultural domain: the Hindu cultures. A full attempt at bridging the conceptual gap between the two will not be made, rather a first glance at the diversity, psychological and philosophical character, and gender considerations of the two from a broader perspective will be worked out.

In contrast to similarities between different cultural emergences of possession, a comparison with psychological conditionsiii,iv like hysteriaiv,v,vi, multiple personality disorderi and schizophrenia has been a much studied topic. This article will, in a rather classical anthropological approach, largely ignore these considerations. However, some ethnographic material from these publications will be used.

Hindu cultures, their first characteristics may be the hierarchy in both divine and human realms, and secondly the continuity of these two realmsvii. A third characteristic may be proposed to be a great variety in religious and cultural beliefs and practices. Not only across different castes but certainly also between different geographical regions can significant differences be found. A study of “the Hindu phenomenon of spirit possession” would therefore be an either oversimplified or

1 The term “new age channelling” is – or should be - a pleonasm, as von Stuckrad and Hanegraaff defend that “the term 'channelling' should be restricted for phenomena emerging in new age discourse”xi. This article will, however, be using this pleonasm occasionally, so as to clearly distinguish it from the Hindu phenomenon of spirit possession.


differences in (1) behaviour during attack2, (2) the mechanism for the victim to control other people and (3) the readiness with which people attribute a wide variety of illnesses and misfortunes to spirit possessioniv. Generally, they have found that possession cases in Uttar Pradesh and Calcutta involve more violence, precipitating events involve more non-relatives, spirit possession is diagnosed more easily, and accusations of witchcraft are made more frequently, compared to Shanti Nagar in the New Dheli region. Furthermore, in his study of spirit possession and spirit mediumship in southern India, Claus states: “It is apparent that there are significant differences in the regional subcultures of South Asia with regard to the occurrence, cause and cure of spirit possession.”iii

Other than regional differences, Claus, Freed & Freed and Oplerviii have indicated a large variety within single subcultures, pertaining to the natures3, histories and motives4 of the possessing entities, the natures5, histories and motives6 of the possessed humans, the duration and regularity7 of possessions, and the public opinions8 on different cases of possession. Freemanix argues a rather fundamental difference to be that between what he describes “formalised possession” and all ordinary forms of possession. Formalised possession is “highly structured and codified at the conceptual level[.]”, and Freeman follows Dumont and Pocockx in the consideration of “possession and priesthood as complementary systems of worship.”.

2 Several authorsiv,viii have shown the general case of spirit possession to be preceded by an episode of interpersonal tension between the victim and the social environment – typically family. Also a variety of diseases and misfortunes may be a precursor or symptom of spirit possession. During spirit possession, the victim is no longer responsible for their own behaviour, which provides the (unprecedented) opportunity to influence other people and thus resolve these prior tensions. According to Opler, particularly recently-married women are prone to these forms of tension.

3 These are mostly human ghosts, gods or godlings.

4 Entities may possess humans if they are displeased with the behaviour of certain humans. Ghosts of humans who had met an untimely and violent death, and gods or godlings who experience a lack of ritual attention are typical cases.

5 Possession happens to both men and women, and there is a large spread in age categories of victims. Claus has found certain castes – “those associated with the boundaries and margins of society” - to be thought fit for the role of mediumiii. Freed and Freed have found possession to be more likely in a situation in which the victim's expectations of aid and support from other people are lowiv.

6 Humans typically experience interpersonal tension or disease and misfortune prior to possession, but also bad living conditions may be the precipitating situation. Possession may be used as an opportunity to dissolve these tensions or bad conditions through manipulation of the victim's social environment. Ghosts and possession can be convenient explanations for extreme or violent behaviour, or for rationalisation of the victim's illicit and socially unacceptable desires. Furthermore, spirit possession may be used deliberately as a tool for appeasing gods, particularly those who control diseases and calamitiesviii. On an entirely different plane, spirit possession may be used ritually as a part of the great tradition of worshipping godsix.

7 Series of possessions may last as short as days or as long as years. More than one entity may possess the victim within one series. Possessions may occur at a certain frequency (e.g. once every 3 years).

8 For instance, if possession is used as a tool to communicate with a displeased god, the human community has interest in receiving the god's message in order to appease the god and perhaps prevent or end an epidemic. In contrast, Opler also says: “When a woman is both childless and quarrelsome, if her barren state is attributed to unfriendly ghosts, she is likely to be greatly feared. The possibility that a possessed person may persuade a ghost to enter another "vehicle" is always present[.]” Authors on Hindu spirit possession tend to agree that possession is only rarely considered a positive occurrence.


In modern practices of channelling in the Western new age movements, we hardly find any of this Indian diversity back. Western channelling, rather, is divided mostly along a continuum between two extreme forms: “trance channelling” on one hand, and “conscious channelling” on the otheri. The former refers to a form of channelling in which the medium is completely unconscious and remains oblivious of the possessing entity's actions afterwards. The latter denotes a form of channelling in which the medium is conscious and free to act on her own will, even during the process of possession. According to Brown, there is a sizeable debate between advocates of either end of this spectrum, the main issue here being whether the presence of the medium's ego should be beneficial or inhibiting, regarding the object of channelling. The described phenomena of Hindu spirit possession uniformly lack any heterogeneous presence on this continuum of consciousness.

They all come closest to the extreme of trance channelling. From this point of view, the new age movement can be said to have literally brought a whole new dimension to the general concept of possession9. One moral and philosophical assumption that is, as Brown has found, largely shared by all new age mediums is that “all persons have divinity within themselves, the implication being that they are immortal, inherently good, and able to create their own reality.”i,ii

It may thus be noted that the person who is being possessed – be it invariably human – is by default referred to as “victim” in studies on Hindu spirit possession, but is by contrast assigned the title “medium”, “channel” or “channeller” in the new age channelling discourse. Although it should also be noted that there is not the absolute distinction between possession and mediumship in the Dravidian languages which we have built up in the anthropological literatureiii,10. With the clear exception of the formalised possession – where there is, in accordance, talk of mediumship rather than victims – the general case of Hindu spirit possession is “almost inevitably interpreted as an unhappy incursion into the human body in order to cause sickness or misfortune.”viii or, as Freeman put it, “often, though not always, viewed as a harmful seizure”ix. The common view on new age channelling, though, is that it aims “to link up, to make an emotionally satisfying connection to higher powers and own divine essence”i,11.

This somewhat optimistic view that is shared between the general new age channelling public, as well as the common assumption of divinity in all humans, also becomes apparent at

9 Although the presence of this continuum of consciousness in other world-wide conceptions of possession is not investigated – nor denied - in this article.

10 Part of this remark is literally quoted from Claus´ article.

11 In another sharp contrast to any case of Hindu spirit possession, these new age “higher powers” may be not only gods and ghosts, but entities from other planets, dimensions or historical epochsi, or the collective unconscious, according to Rev. Willian Stanton Moses, M.A.


can participate in the 'true reality' of transcendental planes and draw knowledge from them.”xi. Meanwhile, in the debate around the Indian villager's philosophy regarding sickness and death, Opler finds that the material on the topic of possession “strongly challenges the notion that the Indian villager meets sickness and death with fatalism, resignation, and composure”viii. He argues that possession is determinedly used as a tool for anticipating, forestalling, managing and

understanding occurrences of disease. On one hand, this appears to be a general application of the broader concept which is familiar in the channelling movement, namely that “channelling is a way to acquire information which should benefit in the development of the individual personality as well as humankind“xi. On the other hand, the Indian who, inspired and supported by the phenomenon of possession, acquires a more determined and manipulative stance in his general life – despite the amount of suffering and bad experience that is associated with possession - seems to mirror the channel who participates in the deeper reality of transcendental planes.

Paradoxically, Brown tells us that the channeller's philosophy does not embrace the idea that human experience is of a social nature. Channellers consider health, safety and financial situation to be impervious to social forces. Furthermore, epistemological and moral relativism is important for the channeller, it is considered necessary for a “worldview of acceptance and unconditional love”ii. All the same, whether consciously or not, those involved in Hindu spirit possession do acknowledge social forces to affect their state of life – which, in the varna system, is closely determined by social forces - and possession plays a key role in this, making control over social forces possible where it otherwise would be impossible or unacceptable.

Despite these conceptual differences between Hindu spirit possession and new age channelling, a somewhat pragmatic similarity becomes apparent when the gender considerations relating to both are studied. In his study of possession in southern India, Claus mentions that for women the “threat”

of her condition is “almost invariably brought about by the lack of male protection which the cultural ideology requires in order that women may be secure against the ravaging intrusion of supernatural and human enemies.”iii He goes further to say that a woman may preventively surrender her body to a certain known and virtuous spirit, so to prevent danger from “less well- defined and malicious spirits”.

In the new age channelling movements, Brown finds that most practitioners are female and channel male spirits. In patriarchal societies as we find in India, women may be expected to be


more frequently involved in possession than men, as they are not only culturally considered to be weaker and thus more susceptible to possession, but would also personally benefit more from it12,xii. Brown sees western occurrences of channelling not as a form of resistance to men, but instead decides that “the androgynous nature of channeling is a positive quest for the 'expanded self' that so many articulate as their goal”ii,13.

Rather than comparisons with psychological conditions, considerations of differences and

similarities between the phenomena of new age channelling and Hindu spirit possession were made on the planes of diversity of character, the role in more general philosophical frameworks, and gender. Striking differences in the measure and – more interestingly – the nature of diversity across different occurrences within either cultural system are notable. An ideological and philosophical displacement in conceptions on the position of the human within a broader reality and the character of the role that the phenomenon of possession plays in this position can also be found between these cultural systems. Lastly, a directly apparent similarity is visible pertaining to the role of different genders in both spirit possession and channelling, however the philosophical mechanisms behind these allegedly similar appearances do not agree. Based on these considerable conceptual rifts between the described cultural domains, neither a common ancestry nor a solid, culturally forming dialogue between them may be concluded.

12 For example, a combination of what we might call “beneficial possession” and female possession emerges in the

“Siri cult” of mass possession which Claus has studied. In an annual ritual, “thousands of people, mostly women, gather to propitiate the bhzuta, Siri, to sing her legend, and to become possessed. […] Most of the congregation in any year are newcomers, [...] and tend to be people who have suffered chronic affliction believed to be of a supernatural sort.”

13 As Brown defends, the channelling movement is strongly influenced by the 19th century American spiritualism, the late 20th century individualism and feminism, and it connects well with the post-modern concepts of “protean self”

or, indeed, “expanded self”.


iii Peter J. Claus – Spirit Possession and Spirit Mediumship from the Perspective of Tulu Oral Traditions - Culture medicine and psychiatry (1994) Volume: 18, Issue: 2, Pages: 141-162.

iv Stanley A. Freed & Ruth S. Freed – Spirit Possession as Illness in a North Indian Village - Ethnology, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr., 1964), pages: 152-171.

v Richard J. Castillo – Spirit Possession in South Asia, Dissociation or Hysteria? Part 1: Theoretical background - Culture Medicine and Psychiatry (1994) Volume: 18, Issue: 1, Pages: 1-21.

vi Richard J. Castillo – Spirit Possession in South Asia, Dissociation or Hysteria? Part 2: Case Histories - Culture medicine and psychiatry (1994) Volume: 18, Issue: 2, Pages: 141-162.

vii Christopher J. Fuller – The Camphor Flame – Princeton University Press 2004.

viii Morris E. Opler – Spirit Possession in a Rural Area of Northern India – Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (Willian A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt), Harper & Row (1979)

ix J.R. Freeman – Formalised Possession Among the Tantris and Teyyams of Malabar – South Asia Research, volume 18 no. 1 pages 73-98 (1998)

x L. Dumont and D. Pocock - “Possession and Priesthood” - Contributions to Indian Sociology, volume 3, pages 55- 74, (1959)

xi Kocku von Stuckrad – Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge – Equinox Publishing (2005) xii Claus, Peter J. - The Siri Myth and Ritual: A Mass Possession Cult of South India - Ethnology, Volume. 14, No. 1

(1975), pages 47-58.




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