Timothy Lubin LubinT at WLU.EDU
Thu Jan 16 17:06:29 UTC 2003

The penances that Arlo mentions differ from those usually associated with "professional ascetics."  What is more at issue here are votive performances by bhaktas during festivals (Thaipusam, wearing of kavadi).  Ascetic restrictions on sexual activity, eating, and sleeping arrangements come into play in preparation for the performance, but performers are usually lay men and women who expect to enter into trancelike states in which they become receptacles for the divinity.  So this really comes under the heading of "charismatic" or "ecstatic" ritual, on which there is a large literature, most anthropological.  Consequently, it barely appears in the standard literature on asceticism.  To my mind, it is essential to keep in mind the basic distinction between ascetic and ecstatic practices, despite the fact that they can coincide in some cases.

Most relevant here:

Elizabeth Fuller Collins, _Pierced by Murugan's Lance: Ritual Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus_ (Dekalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1997).  -- discusses political implications and contemporary trends, as well as offering an interpretation in ritual terms.  Many references to earlier literature.

Geoffrey A. Oddie, _Popular Religion, Elites and Reform: Hook-Swinging and Its Prohibition in Colonial India, 1880-1894_ (Delhi: Manohar, 1995), pp. 1-41. 

On dancing with a nail-studded board during the Bengali gaajan festival, see:A

Ákos Östör, _The Play of the Gods: Locality, Ideology, Structure and Time in the Festivals of a Bengali Town_ (U. Chicago Press, 1980).

"Sons of Shiva": from the film project Pleasing God (a film by Robert Gardner and Ákos Östör for The Film Study Center, Harvard University.  [Boulder, Colo.] : Centre Communications ; Oak Park, Ill. : Distributed by American Multimedia Enterprises, 1985).  (Film of the gaajan festival.)

There is also the lurid:
"Hindu ascetics" (a film by Eberhard Thiem, Helga Lippert, Arno Peik; produced by Gottfried Kirchner.  Princeton, NJ : Films for the Humanities & Sciences, c1994).
[WARNING: This is the most embarrassingly garbled and misinformed video one could imagine; unless you are looking for humor, I suggest turning off the sound.  (For example: While dwelling on the fruits of Hindu religous culture there is a long shot of the Taj Mahal, which is then explained as a tomb built by Akbar for his wife; while explaining the four stages of life -- you know them, studenthood, marriage, asceticism, and rebirth (sic!) -- the discussion of the duties of the celibate student is illustrated with a shot of a sculpture showing a young male fondling the breasts of an apsaras; Shiva's trident is repeatedly called a "tripod"; and on and on.)  BUT, there is some rare and remarkable footage of hook-swinging, and piercing of the tongue, cheeks, and jaw by charismatics in devotion to Shiva, et al.]

Also relevant here is fire-walking:

Alf Hiltebeitel, "Timiti, the Firewalk," ch. 14 in _The Cult of Draupadi, vol. 2: On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess_ (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 439-475. 

Hiltebeitel also made a film:
"Lady of Gingee: South Indian Draupadi Festivals" (producer, director Alf Hiltebeitel ; a production of GW television . Madison, Wisc. : University of Wisconsin-Madison, c1988).  This has a scene of fire-walking (tiimiti).

Hiltebeitel discusses the earlier literature on this subject, mentioning also: 

Gananath Obeyesekere, "The Firewalkers of Kataragama: The Rise of Bhakti Religiosity in Buddhist Sri Lanka," Journal of Asian Studies 36: 457-476.  (on fire-walking festivals for the Sri Lanka persona of Murugan)

and, for comparative purposes:

Loring M. Danforth, _Firewalking and Religious Healing_  (Princeton U. P., 1989). (one firewalking for Saints Constantine and Helen in Greece.)

For a good collection of recent studies on possession in South Asia:

Jackie Assayag et Gilles Tarabout, eds., _La possession en Asie du Sud: parole, corps, territoire_ (Editions de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Editions de l'EHESS; Purusartha, 1999).

As to Lars' question about whether anyone can perform such feats, I shall be interested to hear the results of any experiments he might have in mind.


Timothy Lubin
Assistant Professor (Religions of South Asia)
23 Newcomb Hall
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450  USA

office: 540.458.8146; fax: 540.458.8498
lubint at   |

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