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The Self Possessed


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For centuries if not millennia, the elephant in the room of South Asian religions has been the phenomenon of possession. In this paradigm-shifting work, Frederick M. Smith not only situates 'permeable embodiment' at the core of a wide array of Vedic, devotional, Tantric, medical, literary, and vernacular traditions, but also tells us the reasons for its incongruous erasure from the normative discourse of Indian analytical thought. This work of breathtaking sweep and stunning erudition will force scholars to rethink the fundamental categories of self, person, body, and mind in South Asia. -- David White, professor of religious studies, University of California, Santa Barbara The notion of possession, avesa, lies at the heart of all classical South Asian discussions of the internal economy of the mind. It remains a central theme today in ritual praxis and narrative throughout the subcontinent. Yet this powerful and basic set of ideas has never been comprehensively and systematically studied-until Frederick M. Smith's magisterial new book. Beginning with the Maussian distinction between 'person' and 'self,' Smith traces both empirical and theoretical descriptions of altered states of consciousness, self-alienation, and pragmatic programs for achieving ecstasy and self-transcendence through 3,000 years of literary sources as well as modern ethnographies. This book opens up a whole new world. -- David Shulman, professor of Indian studies and comparative religion, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Preface Acknowledgments Introduction Part I: Orthodoxies, Madness, and Method 1. Academic and Brahmanical Orthodoxies Part II: Ethnography, Modernity, and the Languages of Possession 2. New and Inherited Paradigms: Methodologies for the Study of Possession 3. Possession, Trance Channeling, and Modernity 4. Notes on Regional Languages and Models of Possession Part III. Classical Literature 5. The Vedas and Upanisads 6. Friendly Acquisitions, Hostile Takeovers, The Panorama of Possession in the Sanskrit Epics 7. Enlightenment and the Classical Culture of Possession 8. Vampires, Prostitutes, and Poets: Narrativity and the Aesthetics of Possession 9. Devotion as Possession 10. Possession in Tantra: Constructed Bodies and Empowerment 11. Tantra and the Diaspora of Childhood Possession 12. The Medicalization of Possession in Ayurveda and Tantra 13. Conclusions: Identity Among the Possessed and Dispossessed Bibliography Index

About the Author

Frederick M. Smith studied Sanskrit for more than a decade in Pune, Madras, and elsewhere in India, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is known for his work on Vedic ritual and the early sixteenth-century philosopher Vallabhacarya, whose work he has been translating. With his work on deity and spirit possession, his interest in Indian religious and spiritual experience has assumed a unique form. He teaches at the University of Iowa.


"This comprehensive work should appear on the shelf of every serious scholar of South Asian religion... Essential." -- CHOICE

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