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Magic, Witch Doctors and Shamanic Rituals Around Asia

Destination Spiritual Wellness – Shamanism for Power and Healing

Shamanism has been practiced in societies and cultures all over the world in myriad forms for thousands of years. At its core, Shamanism is about seeking wisdom and knowledge, and interpreting the voices of the natural world for the benefit and general good of the community. Often it involves achieving altered states of consciousness to perceive and connect with alternate realities and to enable interaction with the energies and spirits that exist in different planes from the physical world we live our everyday lives within. Shamans typically believe that everything has a spirit or soul, perception, and intelligence; this belief is central to their practice and is the source of higher knowledge that guides their work in interpreting the signs and symbols shared with us from the heavens above and the natural world, to the dreams of our sleep.

In this edition, let us take you into the mystical world of the supernatural, the world of the shaman in Asia. An important and integral part of many cultures still today, the shamanism detailed below is alive and well and practiced in Asia. Bring an open mind and explore the world of shamanism with us…but best finish your breakfast before reading!

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LAOS
Hmong’s Txiv Neeb

Shamanism is still widely practiced in all tribes of the Hmong. Closely connected to animist beliefs, the ritual practices of the village Shaman are conducted for the purposes of healing, divination, and control over natural events. The Hmong believe in a variety of spirits (neeb) that they live alongside, with these spirits associated with the home, the village, the land, some with nature, and some with ancestors.

Shamanism for the Hmong isn’t a skill one can practice to become a shaman, or a skill to be handed down. All Hmong shaman are chosen by the spirit world. A Hmong Shaman, known as Txiv Neeb, is chosen by healing spirits called ‘Dab Neeb’, with the individual becoming aware that he has been chosen to be a shaman through the effects of the ‘Dab Neeb’ which manifest as sudden intolerances of certain foods, or inexplicable fatigue and weakness. Each shaman has a different level of healing power, with different shamans renowned for their healing skills with particular ailments and illnesses, just like our modern medical world’s specialists and consultants.

Illness is frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners are called to carry out curing rites. The shaman will diagnose and will refer people to other sources if they are unable to cure the patient’s malady or illness directly themselves. To travel from the physical world to the spirit world, Hmong shaman require a variety of equipment including: the gong ‘nruas’, the rattle ‘txiab neeb’, the buffalo horn ‘kuam’, the rattle rings ‘tswb neeb’, the sword ‘riam neeb’, a bowl of holy (shaman) water, a bowl of uncooked rice as a base for the incense, a few dozen incense sticks, and a bowl of uncooked rice with eggs.

Every house has a small altar on one wall. This altar is the center for any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New Year renew the general protection of the household and the family’s ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is important to the well-being of everyone in the household and is the object of another annual ritual and ceremony and sacrifice. The human world and the spirit world need to live in harmony, when this harmony is disrupted the spirits need appeasement, or help from the spirit world is sought to bring the two worlds back into balance from the effects of mischievous spirits. The Hmong shaman work between the physical world and the spirit world providing their community with support in all of life’s key moments from the cradle to the grave.

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JAPAN
Miko

On a visit to any of the major Shinto shrines in Japan, you will be sure to see a least one young woman wearing red hakama (long divided trousers) or a red skirt, along with a white blouse or jacket and with her hair tied back with a decorative clasp of some kind. This is ‘Miko’. The Miko, or shrine maiden, is a type of female shaman-priest, at a Japanese Shinto shrine.

If you arrive at the shrine early in the morning you may find Miko cleaning the shrine grounds. The most common place to see them is in the shrine ‘shop’ selling omamori, or good luck charms, or omikuji paper fortunes. You may see them assisting priests during ceremonies such as o-harae (purification), and if you are lucky, you may see them performing a ritual dance called Miko Mai.

For centuries, Miko have performed kagura (sacred dances for entertaining and satisfying the Shinto deities), conducted exorcisms, practiced divinations, and acted as oracles sharing wisdom from the spirit world with the living. Long believed to possess magical powers, they have also worked as spirit mediums, channeling spirits to enable communication between the human world and the world of spirit.

In the past Miko were one of the most powerful religious figures in Japan, and as a result often wielded political influence too. The first written records of Japan, Chinese chronicles from the 3rd Century, write of ‘Himiko’ who was claimed to be a shamaness queen of Japan, but historians continue to argue about exactly who she was. And in the Japanese chronicles of the 7th century, an Empress Jingū is written about as a shamaness and military ruler, though most historians consider her to be a mythical character. Later, more historical accounts mention a priestess of the Usa Shrine, in Kyushu, who lead an army to fight and subdue tribes in the south. These shamanesses of ancient Japan, held both religious and political power in ancient Japan, based upon their ability to receive instructions and messages from the spirit world and the gods.

Miko are not strictly Priests, even though in Shinto women are allowed to become priests. They are perhaps more similar to the oracles of ancient Greece, or to shamans, as in ancient times they were gifted with the ability to talk with the Kami, the Shinto deities. By entering a state of trance they could intercede with the gods and then communicate their will to the humans. These divinatory gifts and their ability to communicate with the world of the spirits were recognized as divine will. However it seems that the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism led to females spiritual power being superseded by males, and over time their shamanic functions came to be controlled by male priests and male shamans, and today for the most part Miko are more symbolic of their ancient roles and act as assistants to the mostly male priests.

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NEPAL
Jhākri

The Jhākri are Nepali shaman. Found in many of Nepal’s ethnic groups and within many ethnic groups living in the regions of Sikkim and West Bengal that border Nepal, Jhākri conduct rituals at weddings and funerals to ensure spiritual help and blessings for the families concerned, and also at key points in the agricultural calendar to seek spiritual help with the crops and the harvest. Belief in the spirit world is strong in these regions and so Jhākri are both in demand and very much respected members of the communities in which they live and work.

As with most shaman, the Jhākri are also spiritual healers and they both diagnose and treat disease. Their ability to bridge the world of the living and the dead also allows them to communicate and channel the dead. Recently bereaved families may seek out a Jhākri to communicate with their lost loved one. The Jhākri will allow the spirit of the deceased person to briefly possess them so the family can talk with their family member who has now passed to the spirit world. This practice of spirit channeling is known as ‘Chinta. As with the world of the living, the spirit world has both good and evil spirits, and Jhākri also act as defenders of the living and will counter the effects of evil and mischievous spirits, and the witches that are considered able to control these troublesome spirits. 

The Jhākri have been defined by some as magico-religious specialists, part herbalists, part healers and part priests whose technique is very much spiritual and whose business is to determine the nature of the spirit, and then either to placate it or drive it away so it can cause no further harm.

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VIETNAM
Lên đồng

Shamanism was widely practiced across Vietnam, from the Delta to the mountainous north, with shamans providing spiritual security to the community through various rituals until the government attempted outlaw and stop shamanistic practices with its ‘anti-superstition’ campaigns between the 1960s to 1980s. Labeled as charlatans whose sole aim was to fleece the people of their hard-earned dollar, the government made a concerted effort to stop and discredit all forms of shamanism. But spiritual belief runs deep in Asia.

Re-branded as folk practices, shamanism is alive and well in one form or another in Vietnam still today. From the burning of symbolic offerings to provide family members in the afterlife with the comforts they enjoyed in life, to divination, to spirit possession and channeling, all these are shamanistic in origin. Even down to buying a new car, or undertaking a big journey, a village elder will be consulted to pick an auspicious day in order to ensure safety and success.

Of the old religions, ancestor worship is still very important to Vietnamese families. They will commemorate the anniversaries of the deaths of ancestors, making offerings in their honor on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month. Still seeing these long dead relatives as very much a part of the living family, they will seek advice and support from ancestors by making special offerings when praying to ancestors for help.

Another ritual still widely revered and practiced is the Lên đồng ritual of the ancient Mother Goddess religion. Musical invocations are used to encourage spirits to possess people acting as shamanistic spirit mediums or soul callers. Bridging the world of spirit with the world of the living, help is sought from the spirits perhaps for healing, or for advice or divination. Shamanism by any other name.

As there is no formal organization of the religion, there is much freedom in its expression among practitioners. For example, the styles, designs, and intricacy of the costumes worn by the spirit mediums or shaman may vary, or perhaps the size of the accompanying ritual orchestra to play the musical invocations. Yet there remains one very important element of spirit possession ritual: loc or lucky gifts from the spirits of the mother goddess pantheon. Even the spirit world appreciates the power of commerce.

Practitioners of Lên đồng have claimed to experience improved mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health, in addition to attracting more financial opportunities.

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INDIA
Aghori

The Aghori are a small group of ascetic Shaiva Sadhus. They are one of the oldest sects in the Hindu Culture tracing their origins back for more than 1,000 years. There are numerous theories proposed for the Aghori’s origins with the most well-known proposing that they originated from the Kāpālika tradition a now extinct school of Shaivism. Another theory is that the Aghori arose from a merging between Buddhism and Hinduism. However, it is the practices of the Aghori that excites the greatest debate and wonder.

The Aghori are known for their extraordinary practices performed in their worship of Lord Shiva. Blurring the lines between the world of the dead and that of the living, the Aghori live amongst the dead in charnel grounds where they smear the ashes from cremations on their bodies and craft cups from human skulls and jewelry from human bones where they worship and hold rituals for their god Shiva, the god of destruction that dwells in the cremation grounds.

They are infamously known for their rituals involving the dead, such as ‘shava sadhana’, a tantric form of ritual worship where a devotee meditates in a lonely place while sat on a corpse to invoke the mother goddess in her form as Smashan Tara, Goddess of the Cremation Grounds. In Hindu iconography, Tara, like Kali, is one of the ten Mahavidyas (wisdom goddesses) who once invoked can bless the living with supernatural powers.

The gurus and disciples of Aghor believe their state to be primordial and universal. They believe that all human beings are natural-born Aghori. Hari Baba has said on several occasions that human babies of all societies are without discrimination, that they will play as much in their own filth as with the toys around them. But children become more discriminating as they develop and grow through learning the culturally specific mores and aversions of their parents, and at the same time becoming more aware of and fear of their own mortality. In this sense, the Aghora sādhanā is a process of unlearning deeply internalized cultural models. When this sādhanā takes the form of charnel ground, the Aghori faces death while simultaneously meditating on the totality of life at its two extremes.

Their practices are sometimes considered contradictory to orthodox Hinduism. Yet many Aghori gurus command great reverence from rural populations, as they are considered to possess great healing powers gained through their intensely eremitic rites and practices of austerity. The Aghori are said to be masters of many spiritual powers and are respected healers, believed to be able to cure people from spiritual and physical illnesses.

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INDONESIA
Balian

Not just for beautiful beaches and stunning scenery of iconic volcanoes and verdantly glorious rice terraces cascading down steep hillsides. Bali is also famous for its long history of traditional healing therapies, known as Bali Usada. Balinese traditional healing practices use natural herbs and spices, holistic therapies, and ancient wisdom to heal emotional, physical and spiritual illnesses. Traditional healing modalities are prominent in Balinese culture today, which include natural herbal remedies, massages, and energy work.

The Bali Usada practitioners, Bali healers, were brought to the world’s attention when they were popularized in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel and film “Eat, Pray, Love”. Bali Healers are locally referred to as a Balian or shaman and are very much traditional healers who work with divine energy to treat physical and mental illnesses, remove spells and to channel energy from the ancestors.

Some Balian have learned their art from studying the ancient Kawa scriptures called lontar, and apprenticing with a master. Others have received wahyu or divine inspiration and heal from the heart. Both have an esteemed place in Balinese society. Often the problem lies with demanding and annoyed ancestors who can cause mischief or indeed real harm if not treated regularly to their favorite treats made through offerings. The Balians go into a trance state to discover the root cause of the problem and either give the afflicted person herbal medicine, a special massage, or a list of offerings to be made to the ancestors.

Real Balinese healers are very much a part of the community and as such they use the ancient knowledge of their ancestors to treat people without expecting anything in return. Balians are viewed with the same status and respect as a western doctor and have different specialties to heal specific problems of the body. When visiting a Balian one must dress respectfully in a traditional sarong and temple scarf, one must never touch their face or head, or point the bottom of one’s feet at the Balian during your healing.

One of our members in Bali, Sanak Retreat, offers a wonderfully rare experience where guests can meet and receive a blessing from one of these traditional shaman healers. The Melukat Water Blessing Ritual is performed by the Balinese Healer, Pak Nyoman, at a secluded holy spring 45 minutes’ walk from the retreat where he is the spiritual caretaker of the ‘Kali Batu’ (Holy Spring). The water blessing lasts for about 45 minutes, but its effects might well last for a lifetime.

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So next time your ‘computer says no’, maybe an offering to the spirit world (no, that doesn’t involve opening the drink’s cabinet…although it’s a good start) is a better course of action than offering a stream of expletives at the Silicon Gods. There’s many the time when I have wanted to ritually burn my computer…go on, try another unscheduled update Windows, I dare you!

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