Questioning the Gods: the Practices of Provoked Oracular Possession in the Vidyāpīṭha Tantras

Olga Serbaeva

The texts of the śaiva and śākta tantric traditions of the period roughly 5th to 12th century A.D. describe a unique constellation of practices, all aiming at some form of control of the divine intervention into human life. These practices take a variety of shapes – from black magic, used to kill or drive mad someone, to the meeting and discussions with various non-human beings sharing with human practitioners their superhuman insight. Represented as a divine revelation, coming step-by-step from non-human (devas, siddhas, etc) to human beings, these practices deal with powerful psycho-techniques able to modify normal, everyday state of consciousness. A person in a variety of the states for which there is no corresponding words in the European languages except “trance” and “possession”, can see those same non-human beings, talk to them, speak tongues, write poetry, have shamanic-like flights, see the past, the future and the hidden objects.

What is unique to this śaiva-śākta set of traditions, is the fact that the texts represent such states as visible to the external observer, i.e. the guru often can attest the state of the disciple, judging from the physical signs the latter manifest, etc. These states can be induced upon the other or the practitioner himself/herself, and they are represented as extremely efficient.

Historically, such practices were used by the tāntrikas close to the kings in order to secure the magical protection of the kingdom, etc.

One of these practices is a variety of provoked possession and it will be the main subject of the presentation. It is called svasthāveśa, literary, "possession" (āveśa) of the sane (svastha). The term itself like as if distinguishes this particular practice from those instances of possession that are associated with insanity.

It is an induction of a particular state of consciousness upon a very young child (between about four and seven), represent as a “descent” of or a “possession” by god or goddess. The child must have a set of particular body signs. In a “possessed” state the child sees the answers in a variety of reflecting or bright objects (sun, moon, flame, sword, water, etc), which this boy or girl are able to communicate to the practitioner as the answers to his questions. The child, while possessed, has the status of a deity. Once the questions have been answered, the deity is dismissed.

The changes in the practice and the sub-varieties of it shall be discussed on the basis of a series of manuscript passages. Although such cases appear to have all qualities to be called “divine intervention,” and according to the answers received someone’s life and death questions were and are often set, it is precisely the term “divine” that appears to be problematic: the tantric tradition deals with roughly 50 species of non-human beings, some of which are called in order to provoke such an oracular possession. The problem with “divine” here that most of such beings, according to their tantric and purāṇic descriptions, look and behave like demons.

To these add countless śākta goddesses, who, although ultimately one and single power at a philosophical or doctrinal level, have very different modes of invocations and different signs of presence in the body. Are these equally “divine” with the first group?

The fact that the practitioner requires a “medium” raises the question if such states require the “divine” at all: two or more human “consciousness(es)” interconnected in a particular manner as described in those very same texts can do miracles, of which seeing the future and telepathy are down the ladder of siddhis.

Finally, even the plurality of actors, human or not, in such traditions makes a doctrinal problem: a good half of the śākta-traditions are heavily coloured with non-dualism, i.e. there exists only one single cosmic consciousness, of which the consciousness(es) of human and non-human beings are inseparable and indistinguishable parts. The realisation (sudden or gradual) of one’s own ultimate identity with that cosmic consciousness is what is represented as liberation, i.e. “all is divine.”