INTRODUCTION TO THE NEPALESE AND HIMALAYAN SHAMANISM


"Nepalese shamanism is based on an animistic conviction that honors Mother Earth and respects the spirit that resides in all living beings. "

 

The small country of Nepal lies between India and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. Prithivinarayan Shah, the first king of united Nepal, once declared that the country was a "garden for all kinds of people" because it is home to more than sixty different ethnic groups. The geography of Nepal is equally varied: it passes from the jungles of Terai in the south to the imposing Himalayas in the north. It was not until the 1950s, when Nepal's borders were opened to the West, that foreign scholars became aware of the extraordinary diversity and mystery of this land.

Hinduism, animism and Buddhism are the main religions practiced in Nepal. Regardless of their religion, however, most people turn to the Dhami/Jhankri (shaman) for help. People seek the help of a shaman for physical and emotional healing and rely on them to protect their animals and crops from natural disasters. The concept of Nepalese health is quite different from that found in other parts of the world. A health problem is not only something that has gone wrong with an individual, but can also include difficulties in his relationships with their families, community and universe.

Nepalese shamanism is based on an animistic conviction that honors Mother Earth and respects the spirit that resides in all living beings. This universal worldview is the key to preserving the ecology of the earth, bringing harmony and creating healthy alliances with all things visible and invisible. The role of Dhami / Jhankri is to restore this harmony. Shamans are the central figures in their communities because they are not only healers but also storytellers, dancers, singers, artists and musicians. They acquire these talents, their spiritual power and their wisdom through their personal helper spirits, ancestral deities, elemental spirits, and guides. They carry out their work by voluntarily changing their state of consciousness in order to perceive which aspects of the person, family or community require a rebalancing.

In 1962, Prof. A.W. Macdonald attempted to define the Dhami / Jhankri by stating that the shaman is "... a being that goes into a trance and at that moment the voices speak through his body, which allows him to diagnose diseases and sometimes to cure them, to give advice about the future and to calm the facts present in light of the evidence that has taken place in the past. It is therefore, at the same time, a privileged intermediary between spirits (who give and cure diseases) and men; between past, present and future; between life and death and, in another perspective, between the individual and a certain social mythology. It seems that it may belong to any jat (caste) and can take as a pupil, in order to convey to him his knowledge and his techniques, a person of any jat (caste) "1.

In 1966, Macdonald designated the Dhami/Jhankri as the healer who, after suffering the possession of a spirit outside his daily world, manages to control and regulate it. In his book People of Nepal, Kathmandu (1967), the Nepalese anthropologist Prof. D.B. Bista defined "Jhankrism" as "Shamanism / Animism". In 1976 Spirit Possession was published in the Himalayas, in which testimonies from renowned anthropologists provided evidence that the Dhami/Jhankri played a similar role to shamans of other cultures.

The sources of power in Nepalese shamanism come from honoring Mother Earth and the spirits of the place where the shaman performs his ceremonies. Shamans must invite the guardian spirits and deities that inspire him; the keepers of the earth, of snow-capped mountains, trees, rivers, lakes and medicinal plants. The sacred hidden language of the earth is felt in the form of rhythms, vibrations and warm and cold sensations in the physical body. By understanding this language, the shaman must honor the spirits of the place and ask their permission. If the place is spiritually dead or some evil spirits have taken over, the shaman must first restore balance or fill the void of what is missing by calling the spirits of the place.

Among most Nepalis it is believed that the "soul" never dies, but transmigrates from one body to another through numerous cycles of death and rebirth. It is believed that while the physical is a gift of our blood relationships, the soul we have is inherited directly from our past life experiences. Because we are an integral part of all our ancestors, ancestral deities are a strong source of power and protection for the Nepalese shaman. The ancestors of the bloodline of the father's lineage and the ancestors of the milk line on the mother's side are equally important. Without the blessings and help of ancestors, shamanic healing is not only difficult, but losses of balance and imbalances in everyday life are likely to occur.

While the term Dhami or Jhankri are used throughout Nepal, some ethnic groups have unique terms for shaman. Examples include:

  • Tamang People: Bonpo
  • Gurung people: Khyapri
  • People of Kham Magar: Ramba / Rama
  • Rai people: Bijuwa
  • People of Limbu: Phedangba
  • Tharu people: Ojha

Research conducted by the university in the late 1970s found that for each shaman there were 70 people the shaman cared for, while each doctor was responsible for about 27 people. This meant that more people received personalized care from a shaman than could be seen by a person with medical training. Today, thanks to the aggressive introduction of conventional assistance and religious conversion, far fewer people seek shaman services than in the past.

For example, because of the influences of other traditions, people in Nepal now have more choices when seeking spiritual help. Together with shamans, people can consult a Brahman Hindu pandit, a Buddhist llama, a Christian minister or priest, an Islamic spiritual healer (pir) or other spiritual advisers.

This "modern" transition is tragic, for human beings are no longer trying to be in harmony. For most of our collective history of humanity, people have cultivated excellent relationships with nature and all that has been created. Our ancestors made offerings, worshipped their ancestors, honored Mother Earth, and realized that caring for plants and animals was part of being and living a harmonious life. The result is that many human beings feel broken, fragmented, and disconnected from the Source.

The role that shamanism can play in the healing of our collective "Fall from Grace" is to help people regain harmony, to repair tears in the fabric of the interrelationships that make us and keep us vital, to reintroduce individuals into their preciousness, and to help people remember the deep sacredness of nature. In other words, it is our oldest spiritual connection that contains the greatest hope for a bright future!

1 Essays on the ethnology of Nepal and South Asia, Kathmandu 1983, A.W. Macdonald.

 


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