by Kalpana Ram
University of Hawaii Press, 2013, 336 pages
Spirit possession is a familiar anthropological interest. But efforts to understand it through scholarly, secular thought often require some suspension of disbelief. Or, more disconcertingly, they simply avoid engaging with the phenomena on its own terms, looking to locate its source in social, cultural, political or psychological conditions — “anywhere but the body” (210). With this ethnography of spirit possession in a South Indian fishing village, Kalpana Ram makes tracks into a more empirically satisfying analysis. Ram grounds herself close to those women who have been possessed. She takes their experience as a straightforward fact, and in doing so, rattles the foundations of the thought systems that deny the logic of such an experience.
What makes this approach so effective is that possession is not the book’s sole subject (though the stories of women given over to bitter or benign spirits animate its most poignant chapters); its subject is also the modern epistemologies that beleaguer attempts to make sense of spiritual phenomena. Ram dissects the key sources of this discontent, amongst them: the Cartesian privileging of minds over bodies; the scientific modelling of bodies as biological objects; and the Christian theological assumptions that are generalised into understandings of consciousness, will and agency. She also highlights ideological biases particular to an Indian context, like the obfuscation of Hinduism’s diversity to favour those branches seen to be on par with Western rationalist thought. Amidst these deconstructions, Ram forges productive, convincing theoretical directions, drawing most notably on phenomenological philosophy, post-colonial thought and feminist scholarship.
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