Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Of Emily Rose, Exorcism and my Beliefs

Yesterday I saw “Exorcism of Emily Rose”. Movie was alright (enjoyable, an amalgam between a court drama and a horror flick), but what really struck hard me was the fact that the story was based on a true incident that happened somewhere in Europe.

Divine/Demonic intervention into ones life that people call possession (divine or otherwise) is a wondrous phenomenon. Such beliefs exists across civilizations and so does the myths and rituals that follow

In India there are several incidents of divine possessions. A small girl of 5 wakes up one fine day to talk like an old lady who made prophesies was a subject of great interest somewhere in late 90’s. In Kerala (a state in southern India where I hail from), there are actually possession rituals that ready a person for the divine sprit to enter and use his/her body for conversing with their devotees. The most famous of them being the Theyyam and ThumbTullal.

Theyyam is a ritualistic dance with its rare and grotesque make-up and costume, lively foot work, gymnastic fervor and ritualistic vitality. Theyyam represents a glorious period of folk life in Kerala and the souls of the dead heroes of the land and the gods and goddesses are supposed to come in our midst through the medium of the possessed dancers and converse with us on matters of even contemporary significance. It is the worship of spirits by invoking them to the mortal body of the dancer who impersonates them and gives blessing to the believers. Theyyam evolves from Kaliyattam practiced by aboriginal tribes of northern regions of the state.

Thumbitullal is a ritual often used by rural pre-teen and teen-aged girls to entertain themselves. A few of them would gather round one seated in the middle with an arecanut or coconut efflorescence ion her hand, and sing meaningless ditties, while the girl at the centre would get into a trance and tremble rhythmically until she became ecstatic. But this ritual is also used in some temples where the trance is a way of inviting the devi (or mother goddess) to posses you with her mystic chants egging the girl on.

All this about the divine possession of mortals. What about demons. Are they to be left behind? No way…

Kerala is as famous for its magic (Manthravadam) rituals and exorcism as it is for the divine possessions. 'Manthravadam' or performing rites for propitiating supernatural forces (a type of native 'voodoo') is popular in Kerala. This comprises general 'poojas' performed for house warming, before embarking on any new venture, tiding over evil astrological influences, or for overcoming diseases. The rites involve chanting mantras (magical prayers), preparation of a diagram usually using colored powder, offering flowers, throwing offerings into the sacred fire and so on.

Exorcism is also practiced as a healing technique. Even Ayurveda (the oldest form of medicinal approach) accepts the possibility of a human being possessed by evil spirits. At an exorcism ceremony, the person usually starts shivering and dancing ('Tullal'). The evil sprit is drawn out of the person by different techniques like prayer and caning. The exorcism process is quite similar to the christan way (I can’t be sure, I’m not an expert :) but with more jazz and color surrounding the ceremony.

All this brings us back to Emily Rose. And what do I think?

As I said earlier, I believe that forces do exist but not as GOD/Satan but as a stream of unending energy that flows through each of us. A kind of Ying-Yang that keeps people sane (neither too divine nor demonic). But due to certain reasons, often psychological (as in case of demonic possessions) or self-induced (for divine), we kind of tip the scales towards one and end up in what is defined as a possessed state…

And exorcism? I believe that in certain cases it can be helpful as it is just but a way of creating a shock (equivalent to one during treatment of a mental illness) that can bring the person to his/her senses. It is an alternate version of therapy one which leverages the patients faith to pull him/her out of the trauma that hey are in. But the exorcist should be able to determine when this kind of therapy fails and should be learned enough to recommend a doctor’s opinion as and when required. It’s a thin line to tread for exorcists and one small mistake can cost a life like Emily’s!

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