Reluctant Shamans: On the Limits of Human Agency and the Power of the Partible Souls among the Kham Magars in Nepal

This paper will explore the phenomenon of ‘reluctant shamans’ in mid-Western Nepal. It is based on a series of encounters with the Kham Magar novice shamans, men and women, young and old, whose narratives indicated a considerable degree of resistance towards the career of a shaman and suffering in the process of becoming one. While it is often stressed that a shaman is distinguished from other practitioners by his ability to call deities and spirits at will, the situation is starkly different during the initiation process over which the soon-to-be shamans have no control whatsoever. The shamans I talked to stressed that becoming a shaman was not their calling in the sense of being an expression of their volition, but rather a predicament and a fate one could not escape when one was called by the spirit of the deceased ancestor shaman. To them, the power of the invisible world and ancestral spirits was incommensurately higher than that of humans, for when afflicted by the spirit of deceased shaman even a long-term Christian and even a long-term deutini had to ‘convert’ to shamanism in order to ‘survive’; similarly, young men intent on going abroad had no other choice but go through the initiation ceremony in order to be able to get on with their life-projects which had very little to do with shamanism.

In explaining the situation of becoming a shaman against one’s will, I turn to the Kham Magar concept of the soul. For the Kham Magars, the soul, 22 hamsa and 22 purusha, is not singular, but rather multiple and partible, with the parts of the soul having the capacity to detach from an individual, travel during sleep, or enter other human beings, so that a human can entail the purusha of other people, even those of the deceased. After death, it is believed, that parts of purusha go for reincarnation, parts are turned into ancestral spirits, but shaman's purusha does neither – it has to find a home in a new body, often through tormenting its descendants into succumbing to becoming a shaman.  As the paper illustrates, the concept of the partible soul, 22 hamsa and 22 purusha, helps to elucidate not only the phenomenon of ‘reluctant shamans' and ‘reluctant witches’ who the shamans are fighting against, but also the supremacy of the invisible world in structuring the world that is visible, and the idea that the distinction between animate and inanimate objects is more of degree rather than quality. Indeed, if the human body is just a vessel animated by purusha (which can thrive without the human body and not vice versa), then other objects - such as the magic stick of the shaman, moving on its own and guiding the shaman to secret places, and the shaman’s drum, beating of its own accord when left without use – might be more alive and animate than the ‘modern Westernized’ view of the world would allow for.

Departmental Seminar Series Trinity 2023

3.15pm, Fridays of Weeks 1-3 and 5-6. On Teams only in Week 2.

Teams link and in person at 64 Banbury Road.

Convened by Akanksha Awal.

The Seminar is replaced in Week 4 by the lecture 'Anthropology, Philosophy and Symmetrisation', given by Philippe Descola in Maison Française d'Oxford at 3pm.