Charismatic Mediumship and Traditional Priesthood: Possession in Himalayan Hinduism
In the Indian Himalayas, mediums who operate as channels through which deities can communicate with their devotees, function alongside priests who serve local deities. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, the lecture will focus on the question of what is the relation between these two religious roles? We will describe the diverse functions of the religious priests and mediums who serve the deity Mahāsū and see how they are linked to different sources of authority – traditional and charismatic. Since the position of priests is inherited, in order to be a priest one has to be born to a family of Brahmin priests. Mediums, on the other hand, do not need to be born to a family of mediums, because one becomes a medium and sustains his mediumship based on one’s own merit or charisma.
The priests and mediums also differ in their caste background. While the priests are Brahmins, almost all the mediums of Mahāsū are Rajput. Unlike many cases in Pahāṛī societies where the mediums are from low-status castes, the Rajput, together with the Brahmins, constitute the vast majority of high-status castes in Mahāsū’s region. As such, mediumship as practiced by the Rajput is not a case of possession by marginalized individuals or groups, as is sometimes claimed in connection with charisma and spirit-possession. Instead, we will present institutional possession of charismatic individuals, who sometimes perform individual mediumship, concerning individual problems, and sometimes perform public mediumship, concerning public problems. In the latter case this has the potential to counterbalance the role of the priests. Thus, in some cases the mediums can be a source of cultural-religious change, while in other cases they can help sustain the social order. Furthermore, mediums sometimes carry more political-social clout than religious priests.