Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2017

Degree Name

MA (Master of Arts)

Degree In

Religious Studies

First Advisor

Frederick M. Smith


The study of possession phenomena in South Asia presents a unique set of challenges for scholars. Because of its occurrence within diverse contexts, from healing temples and ritual performances to festival celebrations and devotional practices, attempts on the part of scholars to hone in on a concise vocabulary and conceptual framework with which to articulate the critical nature and function of possession has resulted in an extensive body of literature with wide-ranging methodological and theoretical dispositions. Each of these approaches, in its own way, contributes to an increasingly complicated web of intersecting disciplinary approaches.

As this body of literature continues to grow, and with it, the resources for generating a more productive academic discourse surrounding possession, so too grows a set of distinct challenges. How is one to sort through the maze of interpretive strategies and the conclusions they produce? Is it possible to assemble them in such a way as to develop a cooperative and mutually beneficial approach? Is there hope for arriving at a commonly shared vocabulary of possession capable of functioning across disciplinary boundaries? And if so, would such a vocabulary avoid forcing localized experiences and practices to conform to ill-fitting, non-native criteria of analysis?

Through critical evaluation of ethnographic contributions to the study of possession, this paper sets out to arrive at a set of conclusions about what works best for furthering the depth of appreciation and understanding for how diverse, complex, and pervasive possession practices are within a South Asian context. My criteria for this evaluation focuses on the degree to which specific approaches are established in, and guided by, an ethos of inclusivity, one that develops a healthy and vibrant dialectic between indigenous models of experience, practice, and interpretation, and those of the scholar. Along the way, I investigate key issues raised in the study of possession, such as ritual efficacy, embodiment, agency, and the nature of human relations with various nonhuman beings.


ethnography, india, religion, ritual, south asia, spirit possession


v, 76 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 72-76).


Copyright © 2017 Jack Price Goblirsch

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Religion Commons