November 25, 2003

The Devil's Catalog, 2

Just out of curiosity, I plugged the word "tantric" into the online catalog I mentioned immediately below, and came up with one discontinued item, an instruction tape for -- ahem -- enhancing one's pleasure in the bedroom (and no, I'm not talking about finding a more comfortable position for reading). I was curious, because of this Washington Post story, which ran today:

DEHRI, India -- Madan and Murti Simaru were desperate for a son. So when nature failed to provide them one, the impoverished field hand and his wife did what many Indians do in times of need: They went to see a tantrik, practitioner of an ancient spiritual art -- tantrism -- that aims to harness supernatural powers for the resolution of worldly ills.

The outcome could hardly have been more shocking.

Acting on the instructions of the tantrik, the couple arranged for the kidnapping last month of a 6-year-old neighbor and then -- as the tantrik led them in chanting mantras -- mutilated and killed the child, Monu Kumar, on the bank of an irrigation canal, according to a police report. Murti Simaru allegedly completed the fertility ritual by washing herself in the child's blood.

After noting that an Indian English language newspaper, the Hindustan Times, had counted 25 human sacrifices in one area of India, western Uttar Pradesh, in the last six months, the article continues,

The killings and the stern official response have focused renewed attention on tantrism, an amalgam of mystical practices that grew out of Hinduism. But tantrism also has adherents among Buddhists and Muslims and, increasingly, in the West, where it is usually associated with techniques for prolonging sex. Often likened by its critics to witchcraft, tantrism has millions of followers across India, where it is thought to have originated between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D.

"This is a problem you can identify somehow with the Indian psyche," said Police Superintendent Sunil Kumar Gupta, who launched the crackdown in the state's Saharanpur district. "Let's hope that now we will have a national focus on this and let's hope in due course this will go out of society."

For all its association with black magic, tantrism has many benign forms and is practiced across a broad spectrum of Indian society. Billboards in the capital carry advertisements for tantriks, who often charge handsome fees for their services. Some tantriks enjoy near-celebrity status in India, hosting seminars at five-star hotels and hobnobbing with politicians and film stars.

There have been various explanations offered for the causes of the witch hysteria in Salem -- that the accusers were suffering from ergot poisoning, that they were liars, that the superstitious, closed-minded Puritans were uniquely susceptible to seeing vast, dark forces arrayed against them. In 1969, a historian by the name of Chadwick Hansen wrote a book arguing that the explanation was much simpler, that there were in fact some people (though not nearly the number eventually accused) who practiced witchcraft:

"The more I studied the documents of what actually took place in the community," Hansen writes, "the more I found myself in opposition to the traditional interpretations. It seemed to me that a serious consideration was in order." He argues, for instance, that witchcraft was actually practiced in seventeenth-century New England, as it was in Europe at the time. Moreover, the behavior of the afflicted persons was not fraudulent, as some have claimed, but pathological; these people were hysterics in the clinical rather than the popular sense of the term. Further still, the clergy did not inspire or take advantage of the witch hunts as has been charged; on the contrary, they were among the chief opponents of "mass hysteria."

I've put Hansen's book among those I mean to get around to sooner or later, but this piece offers a brief summation:

In his 1969 book "Witchcraft at Salem," Chadwick Hansen made an astonishing claim -- that a few of the accused were guilty, that witches did practice in Salem, and that they did cause real harm to others.

"There was witchcraft in Salem, and it worked," wrote Hansen, a former English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There was every reason to regard it as a criminal offense."

Belief in witchcraft was far from unique to Salem, Hansen argued; it was endemic to Europe at the time and a constant in the English culture that New England reflected. Reputable citizens invoked "white magic" as a defense against witches, using charms such as a horseshoe above the door.

In Salem, the aunt of one of the afflicted girls invoked sorcery to attempt a cure, asking that a "witch cake" including the girl's urine be fed to a dog. Fortunetelling and white magic were frowned upon by the church but usually tolerated, Hansen wrote.

Against that backdrop, Hansen argued that witchcraft had real power -- not based on any trafficking in the supernatural, but in the power of the victims' beliefs. The girls who were central to the Salem trials were genuinely sick, he wrote, suffering from symptoms that were psychosomatic but nonetheless real.

"It worked then as it works now in witchcraft societies like those of the West Indies, through psychogenic rather than occult means," Hansen wrote. "They [the afflicted girls] were hysterics, and in the clinical rather than the popular sense of that term. These people were not merely overexcited; they were mentally ill."

There is yet another possibility, a slight variation on the theory Hansen proposes: As the example in the Post story suggests, witchcraft need not operate by either supernatural or psychomatic means to cause harm. For the parents of the child, brutally killed, the damage of the magic will last a lifetime (I cannot quite express how sick this aspect of it made me). And as for the murderers -- the tantrik, the husband and his infertile wife bathing herself in the victim's blood, putting themselves beyond the bounds of human decency or self-restraint, I think the line from the King James version is perhaps most appropriate: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Posted by Ideofact at November 25, 2003 11:20 PM

In a blog entry about European anti-Americanism a few days ago, Nelson Ascher recommended Norman Cohn's book Europe's Inner Demons about the Great Witch Hunt.

Posted by: tm at November 26, 2003 11:14 AM

Thanks for pointing that out. I've read Europe's Inner Demons -- I think the thing about it that stood out most in my mind is that Cohn's research showed that the impetus to witch burning came not from peasants, but from the intellectuals of the day, and secondly, that its roots were planted firmly in the Renaissance (and later in the Reformation and to some extent the Enlightenment) but not in the Middle Ages. Ascher does a good job though of summarizing Cohn's argument.

Posted by: Bill at November 29, 2003 11:03 PM

Some of the descriptions of the injuries European witches were supposed to have caused are consistent with poisoning. (Miscarriage, cows
ceasing to give milk, impotence, etc.) (FWIW, in West Africa poisoning someone is considered one form of witchcraft.*)

I'd suspect that the power of witchcraft didn't lie entirely "in the power of the victim's beliefs."

(*)Harley wrote that learning the basics of poisoning and antidotes was part of the Sande Society training, so perhaps their hatred of witches is more a function of the witch's goals than their means.

Posted by: James at December 1, 2003 04:00 PM