By James Reich and Drew Thomases
Vijah is just the nicest guy. That’s worth mentioning only because he looks like such a badass, sporting a shaved head and heavy metal goatee à la Anthrax’s Scott Ian. He was born in Trinidad, but his distant ancestors are believed to have been three Jewish brothers from North India who came to the Caribbean like many other indentured servants over the 19th and early 20th centuries. Within a few generations, the descendants of these three Jewish brothers became Hindu, and in 1996, one branch of this amazing family tree headed for a new home in New York. Vijah was 15 at the time. Now, as an assistant priest at the Shri Maha Kali Devi Mandir–a Hindu temple in Brooklyn catering to the Indo-Caribbean community of New York– Vijah has committed himself to the preservation of his people’s traditions. He is at the temple every Sunday, and every Sunday he is possessed by the Mother Goddess.
There are many such spirit mediums in Brooklyn these days, in the Indo-Caribbean tradition and elsewhere, who offer up their bodies for a deity’s divine work, and Vijah is just one of the priests through whom the Mother Goddess speaks to his community. Vijah stood out to us, however, because on Monday mornings he goes back to his day job as a research coordinator for a psychiatric institute at Columbia University Medical Center. Vijah himself would admit that, at first glance, this seems a surprising combination of jobs. But in practice, his life and words highlight the ways in which the seemingly antagonistic worlds of science and spirituality can reside comfortably enough in just one person.
We should be clear that “possession” is not quite the right word for what happens to Vijah. Possession, for this community, is when some negative force—say, a malevolent ghost or spirit—forcefully takes hold of a person. But when the Mother Goddess decides to inhabit your body and consciousness for a period of time, it is considered a “manifestation,” and it’s most definitely a good thing. Indeed, manifestation serves as a central feature of the Madrassi tradition, a strand of Hinduism in Guyana and Trinidad descended from the folk practices primarily brought over by Tamil and Telugu-speaking indentured servants from South India. Madrassi Hinduism centers around the worship of the Mother Goddess–variously called “Kali” or “Durga” or “Mariamman”–alongside a related cohort of other deities.
In Brooklyn, where we first met Vijah and later encountered the Goddess’s manifestation within him, the Sunday service fully engaged the senses: rapid drumming, multiple kinds of incense, a profusion of colored lights, singing, a variety of fruits and drinks, and intermittent bouts of trance among a group of women who dance wildly in the back of the room when a deity enters them and then collapse on the floor when it leaves. According to Vijah, this is all intended to be aesthetically overwhelming, and thus disorienting and disarming. But the central event of the service is always a manifestation of the Goddess through a spirit medium to whom devotees can appeal for advice, blessings, and healing.
Like the iconography of the fierce Mother Goddess herself, the outward appearance of a manifestation is quite striking, and again, purposely so. Mediums, surrounded by a crowd of singing and drumming attendants, run continually in place, dump endless jars of water over their own heads as they speak, wield cutlasses, strike themselves with branches from a neem tree–and subsequently eat leaves, giraffe-like, off of those branches–and finally, by way of confirming the authenticity of the manifestation, mediums will pop flaming cubes of camphor into their mouths. During special events, some mediums even request—and receive—lashes on their arms from a rough ceremonial whip that, due to the protection of the Goddess’s presence, does no harm. But the content of the Goddess’s message is always soothing, loving. She addresses concerns both elevated and mundane—a new job, relationship troubles, illness—and grants reassurance, blessings, and worldly wisdom through the mouths of the men (always men) whose bodies she temporarily commandeers each Sunday.
And Vijah is one of these men. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Vijah grew up in a family committed to the more mainstream strand of Caribbean Hinduism, Sanatan Dharma. If Madrassis aim to represent the religious traditions of South India, then followers of Sanatan Dharma–called Sanatanists–seek to replicate the beliefs and practices of North India. This entails a whole host of significances, but here it suffices to say that a large number of Sanatanists do not like, and are often fearful of, Madrassi practices. Like so many in Trinidad, Vijah’s parents would say that to worship the Mother Goddess in the Madrassi style, accompanied by animal sacrifices and possessions, was “black magic.” “If the drums are playing,” they would warn him, “watch your side.”
So it was with more than a little trepidation that Vijah first came to the Madrassi world. In 2003, after he and his wife had tried for years to have children, nothing was working. Doctors had even told them to stop trying. But there was another option. After consulting a friend who had gone to the Shri Maha Kali Devi Mandir–and who told him of the Goddess’s powers–Vijah decided to give it a try: “From the very first day I went to the temple and I saw the mother–the manifestation–she told me ‘well I was waiting for you a long time.’” The feeling turned out to be mutual, and thus began a relationship that eventually became so close that it only required one body: some time later the goddess chose him as a medium through the mouth of another manifestation, and he happily and humbly accepted, surrendering his body with complete trust each Sunday to the goddess’s healing mission. He and his wife now have three children.
Regarding the Goddess’s gift of children, Vijah is careful: “Is it mind over matter? I don’t know. I don’t know. Who am I to question? But choose something and believe in it. If it works for you, great… If it works for you, it happens.” The care he takes in this answer is sincere, and the stance he adopts is important. This is because, as mentioned above, Vijah works as a research coordinator at Columbia University Medical Center. He directs an initiative that studies mental health among Puerto Rican youth in the Bronx, and another that looks at anxiety and trauma among the children of 9/11 first responders. Indeed, his interest in psychiatry has existed alongside his interest in religion as long as he can remember–certainly since he double majored in the two subjects at Hunter College.
Many people are familiar with the kinds of questions this raises. What are we supposed to believe, and what do we want to believe, and what do we believe anyway? When is it irrational to believe, and when does it become irrational to resist belief? And how do we reconcile all the different roles we play with their different requirements? One might think that Vijah’s positions as a psychiatric researcher and spirit medium–one rooted in skepticism and demands for evidence, the other rooted in faith and surrender–make these questions more poignant and more difficult for him. Actually, he will tell you, his dual positions simplify the questions and make reconciliation easy. This is because they are united by his deep and practical interest in therapy, in helping people. Therapeutic success makes it unnecessary for Vijah to answer all of the possible psychological questions about how and why therapy works. And likewise, he does not ask of the goddess that she reveal herself to him entirely, divulging all her secrets and laying herself bare; he asks only that she heal. And this she does, and with this Vijah is satisfied, just as he is satisfied with psychiatry and its obvious uses without being able to explain everything about the human mind or all the exact, final, and unambiguous mechanisms of psychiatric intervention. The practical goal of improving people’s lives obviates any conflict, or at least makes it irrelevant for him. Each method is underwritten by very different assumptions about life and the universe but, since in both cases, the help is obvious enough to Vijah, he has assented to belief with humility. As he told us: “[Manifestation] is just therapy. Pure therapy. It’s therapy across the line.”
At the end of the movie On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando, a former mafia soldier who has a change of conscience and becomes a police informant, is confronted by his former boss, who calls him traitor and a rat. “From where you stand, maybe,” Brando responds, “But I’m standing over here now.” Brando’s character is pointing out a line on either side of which the demands and the frameworks are different enough as to be incommensurable. We understood Vijah to be referring to just such a line, to be saying that he has a foot in two incommensurable worlds, and that although there is some sort of goal or project–therapy–that can recognizably be pursued in each, the two worlds meet at a line on either side of which the horizon is entirely different. Unlike Brando’s character, however, Vijah does not choose between the worlds. He works on both sides of the line.
Of course, working “across the line” is neither unique to Vijah or Hinduism. Take Richard Gallagher, for example, a professor of psychiatry who sometimes teams up with the Catholic Church as well as clergy from other Christian denominations in order to determine whether alleged cases of demonic possession are really real. In an article for the Washington Post, Gallagher writes that in most cases, he is able to determine that the “possession” in question is actually just schizophrenia or dissociative identity syndrome–or something similar. In these cases, he recommends medical treatment. In others, however, he is forced to conclude from testing the patient that there is no recognizable psychiatric illness at play. In those situations, Gallagher tells the clergy the simple truth that whatever is going on with the patient is not a psychiatric problem, and they take over from there. But he personally believes these very few, select instances to be “the real thing.” He has encountered, for example, people speaking languages they have never studied and a woman telling him obscure personal details about his mother’s death; things which he cannot reduce simply to the absence of mental illness. He recognizes full well that his views are controversial among his colleagues, and his corner of the psychiatric world is a lonely one, but he stands his ground. In fact, he altogether refuses to see a conflict at play: “Questions about how a scientifically trained physician can believe ‘such outdated and unscientific nonsense,’ as I’ve been asked, have a simple answer. I honestly weigh the evidence.” In Gallagher’s opinion, the blanket dismissal of all claims of spirit possession emerges from a worldview as driven by dogma as their unquestioned acceptance. Careful appraisal of the evidence leads him to humbly accept certain conclusions, regardless of what he wants them to be or expects. And ultimately, like Vijah, Gallagher’s willingness to take that trip “across the line” and into the “spiritual realm” is propelled not by declarations of capital-T “Truth,” but by a commitment–simple and strong–to helping people in need.
Our position as scholars of religion is different. Unlike Vijah, the Goddess does not manifest within us. And unlike Gallagher, our powers do not combine to form some kind of dynamic duo of psychological and spiritual diagnosis. Unlike them both, we don’t really help people–at least in not in the same direct, professional sense. We are just scholars trying to understand what is going on. Moreover, our interpretive possibilities are many. As a start, we can echo Gallagher in saying that there is more to possession than an individual’s mental health. We can go even further and say that there is more to possession than the mere individual. In countless places across the globe, possession happens in public and for the public. For Vijah in particular, who claims to lose all memory and consciousness when the Goddess manifests within him, the witnesses are all that matter. Possession, therefore, is what Emile Durkheim, the 19th century sociologist and cornerstone of the religious studies canon, would call an “eminently social thing.” Thus, as scholars interested in “eminently social things,” we are inclined to ask questions like: What does possession do for the community? Does it lift morale? Does it make the meaningless meaningful? Does it cushion blows and provide succor to the weary? Does it bind individuals to a set of practices and identities? Probably all of those things, and more.
And yet, it is not always so simple to remain on one side of the line. It is all well and good to treat possession as an “eminently social thing.” But researchers’ ethnographic involvement can sometimes threaten to chase them to the other side of the line. On our first visit to the temple, for example, we were ushered in front of two men in the middle of manifestation. One was Vijah, the other a middle-aged Guyanese man with an avuncular haircut, neither of whom we had ever met before. The Guyanese man spoke to us in a voice meant to convey a certain femininity, and our conversation began with distanced friendliness and respect. He welcomed us and told us he was happy we had come while we smiled and nodded. Next, though, he proceeded to describe to each of us some extremely sensitive, personal emotional and professional issues we were each, respectively, dealing with, giving details about which, in at least one case, we had barely even dared to speak to close friends. Here, vertigo. Maybe the man wasn’t speaking at all; maybe it was the Goddess, speaking through the man, now soaked and jogging in place. She offered to help us with these issues, but also reminded us that ultimately, we were in charge of our own lives and had to make our own decisions and take our own risks.
No amount of professional or personal skepticism could mitigate the feeling of astonishment and even elation that this conversation provoked, and the clash between these two stances, of skepticism and skepticism about that skepticism, stances which both seemed obvious to us, prompted us to wonder later, looking back on the event, not so much whether we believed it, but why in the world we still, somehow, didn’t believe it? That’s what truly felt puzzling to us. To witness a parlor trick, or even a sophisticated personality analysis, in which one’s secrets are divulged, is impressive. To feel transparent and vulnerable, even readable like an open book, and yet also to feel accepted and loved, added an emotional element to the interaction which was as difficult to ignore as it was to embrace. We had encountered the line. And though the line may be where professional anthropology ends, we feel compelled, both because of Vijah’s story and out of a sense of intellectual honesty, not to stop there.
And we are not the first. In a remarkable article on Ihamba possession in Zambia, Edith Turner offers a vision of what an anthropology of religion across the line would look like. While participating as an “objective” observer in a ceremony in which a tooth spirit (ihamba) is extracted from an afflicted person’s back, Turner claims to have actually seen the spirit: “I saw with my own eyes a giant thing emerging out of the flesh of her back. It was a large gray blob about six inches across, opaque and something between solid and smoke… I still laugh with glee at the realization of having seen it, the ihamba, and so big!” From this, Turner leaves behind the too-scholarly question of what possession does for a community, and instead presents a simpler and more elusive question that scholars never ask: “What is actually going on here?” Turner’s answer: Well, first off, spirits are real; but just as important to her is the idea that we in the academy need to begin to “recognize the ability to experience different levels of reality as one of the normal human abilities and place it where it belongs, central to the study of ritual.” Whoa!
There is a problem with Turner’s article, however, and it emerges from the fact that her story is so compelling. Or rather, the very compellingness of the article is predicated upon the idea that here is Edith Turner–wife of famed anthropologist, Victor Turner, and an amazing scholar in her own right–who actually, really, totally sees a spirit. That is, her story retains a degree of authority not because of what she says, but because of who she is. What happens when some other person–that’s to say, a “native,” someone inside the tradition–sees the same thing? Well, we empathize, and we “take seriously,” but we probably “stay secular” and don’t believe.
We are not arguing that scholars should blindly accept the idea that all spirits are real all of the time. Turner leaves room for the idea of multiple realities, and thus we too might consider the possibility that such phenomena can in fact be really real, but real in a reality we don’t currently share or to which we rarely have access; real on the other side of the line. Pushing anthropology of religion across the line means going past “taking seriously.” It means being willing to see things we don’t believe in. To practice it, we would have to ask ourselves: What do we do when we cross over? And what do we bring back with us? Answering those questions might change the way we regard realities which we are told “compete” with our own.
Or maybe, by way of conclusion, we can simply echo the original line crosser, Vijah, and his thoughts on the matter: “I don’t know. I don’t know. Who am I to question? But choose something and believe in it. If it works for you, great… If it works for you, it happens.”
 Edith Turner. “Visible Spirit Form in Zambia,” Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Eds. David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994.
James Reich is a Faculty Fellow in the Religious Studies Program at New York University. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Harvard University, and his research focuses on literature and philosophy of aesthetics from South Asia. More recently, he has become interested in urban and diaspora religion, and particularly in the Indo-Caribbean community in New York and its relationships with its own past, its new environment, and with its Indian immigrant neighbors.
Drew Thomases is assistant professor of religion at San Diego State University. His work focuses on the anthropology of religion in North India—more specifically, Hindu pilgrimage and practice—though he is broadly interested in tourism, globalization, environmentalism, and theoretical approaches to the study of religion. His current book project, Guest is God: Pilgrimage, Tourism, and Making Paradise in India, analyzes the dynamics of religion and tourism in the pilgrimage site of Pushkar, Rajasthan.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.