Nepalese Shamanism: A Rich Tradition
  Nepal is home to over sixty distinct ethnic and linguistic tribal groups, more than half of which practice some form of shamanism. Not surprisingly, then, the shamanic practices of Nepal reflect a diverse array of influences, among them Tibetan "Bon" religion (probably an early form of Tibetan shamanism), Tibetan Buddhism, early Hinduism and an apparently unbroken line of traditon and history dating all the way back to their Stone Age origins. It is likely that many of the healing practices of Buddhism and Hinduism share a common origin with Himalayan shamanism. However, Nepalese shamans belong to different religious groups and do not see themselves or their shamanic roles as "religious".

Here we focus mainly on the shamanic practices of the Newari, one of the more significant ethnic groups of Nepal, offering a few details about the Kirati as well.

The Path of the Shaman
  The Newari shamans (jhankri) say that "the way of the shaman is the way of love". They seek to bring love, harmony and peace to those who suffer from diseases of a spiritual nature since, like most shamans, they recognize that disease can be caused by other, more physical, mechanisms and leave such cases to medical doctors. As in other cultures, the shaman’s role is recognized by the community, not claimed by the individual: he is a jhankari only because others are healed by him, not because he says he can heal them.

The primary duties of a Kirati shaman (mangpa) are invoking spirits, remembering his own roots in nature, and putting his actions to the service of the good; this is mundum, the path of the shaman. Both groups believe that the Path of the Shaman was brought to the world by Shiva, and that people are called, rather than choose, to be shamans. The chosen person may try to avoid the call because he knows it will mean a difficult life; the jhankri have everyday occupations like everyone else, but must make themselves available for healing work at the "transition times" of the day: at daybreak, or just after sundown.

Three Calls to the Path
  The requisite skill for becoming a shaman is the gift of being able to fall into a trance, as this is how a shaman bridges the spirit and physical worlds. A child with this gift often feels she is "different" from other children, an outsider. There are three main ways in which a person can be "called" to the shaman’s path:

(1) "Abduction by Ban Jhankri", waking visions of and/or interactions with Ban Jhankri, the primordial shaman and mentor to all shamans
(2) visionary dreams, usually of nature, which expand the person’s sense of connection to nature, natural places and natural objects
(3) family tradition, visions and dreams in which ancestral shamans (recent and distant) call the person to the path.

When the call is finally recognized for what it is, the child or young person is initiated as a shaman, but then must find a teacher (guru/guruama) with whom she can apprentice to learn all she must know to be a spiritual healer.

Three Causes of Spiritual Disease
  The jhankari seeks to right the spiritual, psychic and emotional imbalance which underlies many (though not all) physical ailments and has three primary causes.

(1) Bhutas are the spirits of humans who died under violent circumstances and wander between the two worlds. These spirits often help the jhankari, but when they have been insulted or neglected they can cause chronic illness or minor physical problems, and so must be appeased.
(2) Grahas are negative influences from the planets, demons or even everyday circumstances which bring on acute diseases, accidents and so on.
(3) Disease may also be caused by bad karma, consequences of one’s own misdeeds in the current lifetime (not in past lives, as many Westerners mistakenly think). In such cases the jhankari cannot cure the patient, but can only help the patient understand how to take responsibility for his actions and thereby restore himself to "good karma".


The Three Worlds of Spirit
  The superficial appearance of the everyday world (maya) conceals a hidden Reality which guides us -– whether we realize it or not -– and in their trances, jhankri see behind this veil of maya to the three worlds of the spiritual realm: dharti, the Middle world; patal, the Lower world, imagined as a sparkling, crystalline-blue ocean spreading beneath the Middle world; and akash, the Upper world, the realm of the gods.

In a healing ritual (chinta), the jhankari most often travels to the Middle world to receive information about the people, animals and plants which are relevant to the patient’s condition, while the Lower world is accessed to ascertain the origins of the disease, or in cases where bits of the patient’s soul have been stolen. The Upper world is accessed only in the most dire cases, such a deathly illness, and here the jhankari negotiates with the gods directly to restore the patient to health.

Preparing to Heal: Jokhana and Shakti
  Before accessing the spirit world in her trance, the jhankrini sometimes consults the jokhana (ginger oracle): small bits of fresh ginger root which are thrown and interpreted according to how they fall. The oracle may reveal which of the three primary causes applies, it may give glimpses of the past or future relevant to the healing, and it may give insight into the intentions of the patient. The jokhana is especially important in Kirati healings.

Shakti, the healing energy which a shaman taps is not infinite or limitless. Periodically the jhankrini must replenish her own shakti. This is accomplished in various ways: a gupha or pilgrimage to a sacred site; a retreat where Nature can be confronted/experienced; or a visit to a cemetery.

Trance
  Trance is an altered state of consciousness (called the "journey", "soul flight", etc. in other traditions) by which the shaman connects with the spirit world. The jhankrini enters trance through the recitation or singing of mantras, burning the appropriate kind of incense, special breathing techniques and drumming. Once in trance she bridges the spiritual and physical worlds, and can choose, as needed, to communicate with both worlds without breaking the trance. With the aid of animal spirits, helping spirits and the gods, the jhankrini moves among the three worlds seeking healing for her patient, and uses her knowledge of demons and death spirits to influence them to disappear or to reveal what they know about the patient’s condition.

Phurba: The Shaman's Ritual Tool
  The phurba, a ceremonial dagger, is a central ritual tool for all shamanic rituals -– so central, in fact, that its use is rarely specified but simply presumed. It may be made from clay, wood, iron or more expensive metals. While other objects of similar shape can be considered phurba, it is usually a knife with three distinct segments, one of which is a characteristic three-sided blade or point. The segments and the triple blade represent the three spirit worlds, while the phurba as a whole symbolizes the "world axis" binding all three worlds together. But it is more than a ritual object; during a healing it is the jhankari himself. During his trance, the jhankari transforms his spiritual body into a phurba and takes flight through the spirit worlds in this form.

Other Sacred Objects, Tools & Images
  Incense is an important part of every shamanic ritual, and there are many kinds in Nepal, each appropriate for a different purpose or healing. Jhankri also use a wide variety of medicinal plants, such as wormwood, mugwort, cannabis, various datura species, ganoderma and other mushrooms. Interestingly, in the course of their work, they also consume alcoholic beverages (rakshi) without suffering the usual deleterious effects. Instead, the shamans neutralize the alcohol and transform it into amrita, the elixir of life, from which they receive their shakti (healing energy).

Besides the all-important phurba, many other objects find their way into shamanic rituals such as: denguru (shaman’s drum); dhunga (stones & crystals); mala-bead necklaces (made from seeds, stones or bones); a chindo or calabash, a vessel made from a gourd; bones; feathers; and so on.

Thangka are beautiful, elaborate and sometimes frightening drawings or paintings depicting the gods, demons and spirits in the Other Realities. They are thought to have been inspired originally by shamans and their visions of the spirit worlds. Today the creation of thangkas is a highly sophisticated Nepalese artform – not Tibetan, as is commonly thought.





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