In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section South Asian Rituals of Self-torture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • In Sufi Muslim Religious Contexts

Hinduism South Asian Rituals of Self-torture
Francesco Brighenti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0246


The expression “South Asian rituals of self-torture,” chosen as the all-encompassing title of this bibliographic article, indicates a complex of inherently painful, injurious, hazardous, or, in any event, trying religious practices falling either within the domain of the mystic-ecstatic experience or within that of possession in both theistic (i.e., Hindu) and shamanistic (i.e., tribal) cult traditions of South Asia. Such practices, generally not observed within Brahmanical contexts, are also commonly termed “religious ordeals.” The English-language term ordeal is a modern reflex of Proto-Germanic *uz-dailjam, lit. “that which is dealt out (by the gods),” namely, “God’s judgment,” and it etymologically denotes an ancient mode of trial by divine judgment consisting of an arduous physical test a person charged with guilt could be occasionally forced to undergo; the result of the test was believed to determine that person’s guilt or innocence by immediate judgment of the deity. By introducing a shift in meaning that excludes from the definition of ordeal such judicial concepts as “guilt,” “trial,” “test,” and “judgment,” a number of historians of religion have used this term to designate self-torture rituals as a whole within diverse religious traditions. In the South Asian context, Hindu votive (or devotional) ordeals aim at purifying or healing the bodies and souls of devotees keeping a religious vow who have resolved to practice self-torture in order to enter into a spiritual communion with their own elected deity (by whom they are often considered to be possessed during their performance of the ordeal) so as to be temporarily identified with him/her. Whereas in theistic Hindu cults religious ordeals are performed in fulfilment of a vow and out of devotion to acquire the favor and power of a personal deity and, in certain cases, to become his/her oracles, in shamanistic tribal cults they are undertaken as rites of passage performed to authenticate a change of state in both the body and the soul of a sacred specialist (who can be variously a shamanistic figure, a medium, a diviner, or a traditional healer); the goal of the ordeal is, in this case also, the transcending of the profane human condition. In either case undergoing an extreme physical experience is equated with being initiated into a new and closer relationship with the divine, which is reflected in a person’s manifest ability to bear the physical discomfort caused by acts of self-torture while in a self-transcending or in a possession/trance state that is interpreted by both the actors and the audience as a radically transforming experience. Thus, the aim of both votive/devotional and shamanistic ordeals is achieved only when the vow-keeper’s or the shamanistic specialist’s indifference to self-torture is exhibited before an audience of devotees, and this substantial fact marks the difference between them and the individualistic, private penances involving self-torture carried out by Hindu ascetics. In this article, sections dealing with the diverse South Asian rituals of self-torture are organized in terms of both phenomenal typology and geographical area (the most parsimonious method for classifying them).

General Overviews

Works providing a general overview of South Asian rituals of self-torture (Hindu, tribal, and Muslim) are still a desideratum for students of this religio-anthropological subject. Indeed, an integrated treatment of the wide range of bodily self-mortification practices devised by people in South Asia through the centuries to gain religious merit (which, as a whole, constitute an available traditional repertoire of popular, non-scriptural rituals a performer can draw from according to his/her convictions and faith) is still not in sight. There are some exceptions, however. For instance, Thurston 1906 discusses, respectively, so-called hook-swinging and firewalking in British India in two dense chapters that represent a summary of the ethnographic knowledge of those South Asian devotional ordeals as available at that time. Eliade 1960 reflects the painstaking research done by this historian of religions in the field of initiatory and shamanic ordeals, and the author offers some important insights into the development of this class of rituals in South Asia. Tarabout 2005 consists of a discussion of Hindu devotional ordeals vis-à-vis legendary asceticism. This paper argues that Hindu ritual self-torture does not obviously have the epic dimension of legendary asceticism (tapas), which is presented as a continuous progression in self-testing until the achievement of the sought-for superhuman powers; however, Hindu devotional ordeals as a whole appear to be a kind of “mass asceticism,” though they do not, by themselves, allow their votaries to acquire some permanent superhuman skills (except, as is believed by many Hindus, when they are practiced over several years). Finally, Brighenti 2012 is a religio-anthropological essay that attempts to classify, for the first time ever, all types of Hindu and tribal religious ordeals in South Asia.

  • Brighenti, Francesco. “Hindu Devotional Ordeals and Their Shamanic Parallels.” Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 19 (2012): 103–175.

    A first attempt at classifying Hindu devotional ordeals, tracing their shamanistic parallels in India (e.g., the thorn-seat swing used for divination by certain tribal sacred specialists in the Odisha-Bastar region), and identifying their diverse mythic archetypes (mostly demons subdued by some personal god, plus epic heroes and heroines such as Bhīṣma and Draupadī). Includes a section on the Vedic ceremony called yūpārohaṇa (“ascent of the sacrificial post”), a possible precursor of later ritual practices of pole-climbing with and without suspension on hooks.

  • Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. Translated by P. Mairet. London: Harvill, 1960.

    In this collection of essays Eliade treats such themes as the “mastery of fire” and “magical heat” and links them to firewalking, fire-eating, and fire-carrying ceremonies observed around the world in imitation, according to his views, of ecstatic techniques of fire mastery of shamanistic origin. Eliade also claims religious self-torture in general would have originated as an elaboration of the archaic concept of “initiatory death,” to which he ascribes a shamanistic origin, too.

  • Tarabout, Gilles. “Sans douleur: Épreuves rituelles, absence de souffrance et acquisition de pouvoirs en Inde.” Systèmes de Pensée en Afrique Noire 17 (2005): 143–169.

    DOI: 10.4000/span.719

    A French-language study comparing Hindu devotional ordeals and folk conceptions about legendary, “superhuman” asceticism, which cognitively share in common an emphasis on the excess of violence in physical endurance practices, negation of pain (regarded as a sign of ritual competence), self-discipline, and detachment from the exterior world. The author argues that votive ordeals are not a matter of asceticism in the strict sense but rather a display of divine power.

  • Thurston, Edgar. Ethnographic Notes in Southern India. Madras, India: Government Press, 1906.

    Contains two important chapters dedicated to, respectively, firewalking and hook-swinging in South India based on most of the reports then available on these subjects written by both British and Indian colonial authors.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.