In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Possession

  • Introduction
  • Early Theories
  • Practice Theory and Related Methodological Perspectives
  • Gender
  • Shamanism
  • Vocabulary and Meaning
  • Literary Evidence
  • Buddhism
  • Islam

Hinduism Possession
Frederick M. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0101


Possession is a phenomenon that occurs in a majority of the world’s cultures. It most often denotes that one or more personalities are perceived to be present in a single physical body. The reasons for this can be many, but possession in South Asia, as elsewhere, can be roughly divided into “positive” possession, in which a spirit or deity enters the body of an individual, resulting in sudden personality changes that are culturally evaluated to be positive, including oracular experience, and “negative,” in which a spirit, often of a deceased family or community member, enters the individual, causing dysfunction or illness. Exceptions to this may be found in South India, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, where possession by deceased ancestors may be regarded as positive. In all countries and regions of South Asia, possession is found in virtually every religious, linguistic, and ethnic group. Interpretations of possession are varied, from thorough denial of its ontological reality to ready acceptance of it. Because many of the works on possession in South Asia cited in this bibliography cannot be easily fitted into a single discursive category, they must be discussed in several places, with reminders about where to locate the primary reference in the parts of this bibliography. I must emphasize that the literature on possession in South Asia, especially ethnographic, is vast and that it was often necessary to make difficult choices here regarding what to include and what to leave out.

Introductory Works

From the period of the British ascendancy in South Asia until the early 21st century, the study of possession in South Asia was almost entirely conducted by anthropologists and other ethnographers who understood possession as a locally enculturated phenomenon. The three places to begin a general study of possession are Boddy 1994, a major bibliographic study; Lewis 1989, whose sociological concepts are necessary for every researcher on possession to address; and Bourguignon 1976, which notes that, out of 488 societies examined, 360 (74 percent) showed evidence of possession belief and 251 (52 percent) evinced possession trance (p. 31). None of these are particularly astute to configurations of possession in South Asia, yet their work has established the tone for academic discourse on possession.

  • Boddy, Janice. “Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality.” Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994): 407–434.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This global review of secondary literature on possession up to the early 1990s cites 221 anthropological and ethnographic studies of possession, all in English.

  • Bourguignon, Erika. Possession. San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp, 1976.

    One of the classic studies of possession. It distinguishes simple trance and possession trance. In the latter the individual’s identity is completely replaced by another. Provides a great deal of comparative (if unverifiable) cultural data.

  • Lewis, I. M. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 1989.

    The first edition was published in 1971. This revised edition is among the most important books in the field. Lewis examines possession in many cultures and finds that in general (exceptions are surely found) male-dominated possession reinforces prevailing social structures while female possession protests these structures. “Ecstatic” possession, as he describes it, is “positive” and must be distinguished from negative, disease-producing possession.

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